ESPN loves the BYU-Utah game.
The relationship between the Worldwide Leader in Sports and the Utes-Cougars matchup is older than a lot of the players who will be on the field Saturday (8:15 p.m., ESPN2). Only once since 1995 has the game been available to ESPN/ABC and it ended up airing somewhere else.
“Traditional rivalries like the BYU-Utah game are always something we look to put in as high a profile spot in the schedule as possible,” said Kurt Dargis, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions. “Those two schools have a long tradition of delivering compelling games.
“It’s a no-brainer to have something like that on one of our networks.”
It wasn’t on ESPN a year ago. The game was in Salt Lake City, so it fell under the Pac-12′s TV deal with Fox and ESPN. And Fox got to pick before ESPN under the terms of that deal.
Other than that, ESPN has, in one form or another, carried the BYU-Utah game every time it could since it stopped being telecast by local television stations tied to either the Cougars or the Utes.
ESPN didn’t have access to the game from 2006 to 2010 because Utah and BYU were both members of the Mountain West Conference, and MWC games were on The Mtn. Versus, CSTV and CBSC. (But let’s try to forget those dark days, OK?)
The last time there was a truly local telecast of the BYU-Utah game was 1994, when it aired on KUTV-Ch. 2 from Salt Lake City. It aired on KSL-Ch. 5 from Provo in 1993.
The rivalry game was seen on KJZZ-Ch. 14 in Utah in 1999, 2002, 2003, and 2005, but it was produced and syndicated to local stations by the now-defunct ESPN-plus.
This year’s game will mark the seventh time the game has been on ESPN2 (1998, 2001, ’04, ’11, ’12, ‘13 and ’17).
It also has aired on ESPN twice (1996, 2000); and on ABC regional twice (1995, ’97).
The 2015 Utes vs. Cougars match aired nationally on ABC, but that was in the Las Vegas Bowl and the network had the rights to that game long before it knew what the matchup would be. But clearly if the executives at ESPN/ABC had been opposed to Utah vs. BYU, the Utes and/or the Cougars would not have been invited to play in that bowl, which ESPN not only airs on sister network ABC but also owns.
Better treatment than expected
If you were surprised that ESPN aired BYU’s season opener against FCS opponent Portland State, you weren’t alone. After all, all six of BYU’s games against FCS teams since it went independent in 2011 have aired on BYUtv.
Almost more surprisingly, the Portland State game aired in the afternoon, which has not been the norm. (Although the Sept. 16 game against Wisconsin will be at 1:30 p.m. on either ABC or ESPN.)
“We’ll put [BYU] in the afternoon without hesitation if the opportunity is there,” Dargis said.
You have to look at the scheduling in context. There were only a handful of college football games Aug. 26, and ESPN is contractually obligated to telecast at least four BYU homes games each season.
ESPN will fulfill its 2017 contract with BYU vs. Portland State, Utah, Wisconsin and Boise State. It could add the Oct. 28 San Jose State game, but it’s not obligated to do so.
Both the Spartans and the Cougars are 1-1, but it’s entirely possible that neither will be sporting stellar records by the end of October.
That’s an attempt to tactfully point out that one or both could be below .500, in which case ESPN might be glad it won’t be obligated to telecast the game.
And BYUtv will get a second game this season, along with the UMass matchup Nov. 18.