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BYU's Taysom Hill (4) is sacked by Houston's Efrem Oliphant during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 in Houston. BYU defeated Houston, 47-46. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Pierce: ESPN proves it’s still high on Brigham Young University
Sports on TV » Airing BYU-Wisconsin on Saturday backs up what network execs have always said.
First Published Nov 05 2013 10:59 am • Last Updated Nov 07 2013 09:48 am

It’s amazing what winning five games in a row — and doing it in entertaining fashion — can do for a football team.

For BYU, it took Saturday’s game at Wisconsin, which had long appeared destined for the Big Ten Network, and put it on ESPN. The mothership. And in the middle of a Saturday afternoon (1:30 p.m. MT).

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That doesn’t happen very often.

Hey, back in September when BYU was 1-2, I would have laid odds that the Cougars-Badgers game would be on BTN. That channel does a great job producing football broadcasts, but it’s also the default destination for unattractive Big Ten games.

(The combined record of the four teams playing on BTN this Saturday — Iowa-Purdue and Illinois-Indiana — is 12-21.)

When I inquired about the BYU-Wisconsin game, a source at ESPN indicated that a matchup between two popular teams, both sporting 6-2 records, is sort of a no-brainer for the channel. And, yes, the word "popular" was applied to BYU.

Three years into their agreement with BYU, ESPN executives continue to insist they’re happy with the arrangement. I’ve pressed them on that, including last year when the Cougars couldn’t produce much in the way of offense and struggled to a rather disappointing 8-5 record. And those ESPN execs never waivered.

I’m the skeptical sort, but the proof is in the schedule. This year, ESPN picked up every BYU game it could for one of its cable networks — one home games on ESPN: two each on ESPN and ESPNU.

It’s in the contract that BYUtv gets one live home game per season. And, realistically, ESPN wasn’t going to be much interested in BYU-Idaho State on Nov. 16.

On the road, the Cougars will play half their games on an ESPN network (once each on ESPN, ESPNU and ESPNews). There are also two games on CBSSN (because of the Mountain West’s contract) and one on NBC (because of Notre Dame’s conract).

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No matter where you live in the United States, there’s a good chance you have access to every BYU game — either on TV or on the Internet.

I’ve argued here before that perhaps the folks in Provo sometimes confuse exposure with relevance. It’s one thing to get your games on TV — what with all the ESPN channels and all its competitors, there’s a voracious appetite for programming and lots of irrelevant games are televised.

(Central Michigan at Bowling Green are on ESPN2 on Wedneday night — just sayin’.)

It’s another thing to have the games mean something. And, with those five wins in a row, BYU’s game at Wisconsin means something and is on ESPN. Not on ESPN3 on the Internet, like last year’s BYU-New Mexico State game.

The folks at ESPN made it clear that if the Cougars were 3-5 at this point in the season, their game against the Badgers wouldn’t be on the channel on Saturday.

That’s not surprising in the least. But the lesson here is that while television controls college sports and BYU fans so often have to adjust their schedules to ESPN’s scheduling whims, the Cougars have some ability to affect the schedulers.

Win and you get on a better channel. Win a lot and play a good team and maybe someday you could get a home game on a Saturday afternoon.

Don’t hold your breath. But maybe someday.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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