Provo • If tradition holds, BYU will make some sort of a headline-grabbing announcement at its Football Media Day next week. Could it be new contracts with sports broadcasting giant ESPN?
The two separate contracts — one for bowl placement and the other for the broadcasting of up to five BYU football home games per year — both expire at the conclusion of the 2019 season.
The bowl contract ends when BYU plays in the ESPN-owned Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 (if it is bowl eligible and not selected to play in a New Year’s Six game or the College Football Playoffs).
ESPN or one of its affiliates will broadcast BYU’s home games this season against Utah (Aug. 29), USC (Sept. 14), Washington (Sept. 21), Boise State (Oct. 19) and Liberty (Nov. 9), while BYUtv will get the Nov. 16 game against Idaho State.
The Salt Lake Tribune has learned that discussions have intensified the past few weeks, perhaps so BYU can make a news splash on June 18 when it holds its media day — earlier than any program in the country, as usual — to kick off the 2019 football season.
This year’s theme will be “150 Years of College Football: BYU’s Impact on the Game,” and will play up the fact that ESPN’s first live regular-season broadcast was the BYU-at-Pittsburgh game on Sept. 1, 1984, the season that ended with BYU winning the national championship.
Contacted late last week, ESPN confirmed that it is extremely interested in continuing the partnership.
“ESPN has a great relationship with BYU and its athletics department,” said Kurt Dargis, ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions. “We expect that affiliation to continue beyond this [football] season and are engaged in those discussions.”
Responding to a Tribune request on how those negotiations are coming along, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said there are no foreseeable snags or complications that could derail the deal.
“We are having a good dialogue with ESPN about a new regular-season contract and a bowl game agreement,” Holmoe said via email. “Those contract discussions are currently ongoing. We are going to be with ESPN. It is just a matter of working through some details of the new deal.”
Sept. 1, 2010 — On the same day that BYU announces it is going independent in football and placing most of its other sports in the WCC, it announces an eight-year agreement with ESPN or one of its affiliates to broadcast up to five Cougar home football games a year.
April 27, 2011 — BYU announces that it will play in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in its inaugural football season as an independent (Dec. 30, 2011) as part of its contract to play in ESPN-owned bowl games.
June 23, 2017 — Despite a series of high-profile job cuts earlier in the year, ESPN exercises its option to keep its deal with BYU through the 2019 season and the partners announce it jointly at BYU’s Football Media Day.
December, 2018 — ESPN proves to be a valuable partner when it makes arrangements to get BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl after the bowl the Cougars were contracted to play in, the Poinsettia Bowl, had folded, and other 6-6 teams were left out of postseason play.
Fall, 2019 — BYU’s contract with ESPN for bowls and regular-season home games is set to expire after the Cougars play in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 if they are bowl-eligible.
Holmoe said that despite BYU’s recent downturn in football — the Cougars went 4-9 in 2017 and 7-6 in 2018 — ESPN has never wavered in the current partnership that began on Sept. 1, 2010 when the Cougars announced they were going independent in football in 2011 and the entities signed an eight-year agreement with a one-year option.
BYU announced at its Football Media Day in June of 2017 that ESPN was exercising that option for the 2019 season.
“We have enjoyed a great partnership with ESPN for many decades and that relationship continues to get stronger each year,” Holmoe said. “ESPN has been very good to BYU. I really respect the organization and the people that run it.”
When ESPN picked up the option for 2019, vice president Nick Dawson had this to say:
“BYU plays in important role in ESPN’s college football portfolio, with [ESPN] having aired its games for more than 32 years. Our long relationship has been successful for both parties. We are thrilled to add 2019 to our current deal and look forward to many more years showcasing BYU football across our networks and platforms.”
Former BYU player Trevor Matich, an ESPN analyst, said that day that his bosses “see BYU as a great draw in the college football world.”
As far as the bowl agreement goes, college football insider Brett McMurphy of the Stadium Network reported recently that starting in 2020 ESPN will place BYU in one of the 16 bowls it owns with the exception of the Fenway Park, Texas, Bahamas and Las Vegas bowls. Theoretically, BYU could be in a different bowl game for six years, along with fellow independent Army, McMurphy said.
The former ESPN analyst told The Tribune that “as long as BYU does not try to double the amount of money it got in the last deal … as long as it is not a huge number, then absolutely I think [ESPN] will re-sign BYU just for the inventory.”
He said some of those games could go on ESPN+ as well.
BYU officials have stressed that the amount of money they get from ESPN is far less important to them than the exposure that the network provides. The original deal with ESPN was a cornerstone of BYU’s move to independence, along with a six-game agreement with Notre Dame that fizzled after the Cougars played the Irish twice in South Bend.
For relevancy sake, BYU needs ESPN and school officials know it.
One of the drawbacks, however, is that ESPN gets to choose the kickoff times. For instance, BYU’s opener against Utah is scheduled to begin at 8:15 MDT.
“We are in this dilemma,” Holmoe said in January when he was asked about the late kickoffs and tipoffs for television. “You are going to play when they tell you. For BYU, we have a contract with ESPN. We want to play on ESPN. It is a double-edge sword, because it does affect our fans. I totally understand that. But it is like, you can’t have one or the other.
“And right now, the feeling of our coaches, our administration, and from around the country, is it is better for our teams, from the exposure standpoint, than it is — this is hard for me to say it — for the fans’ live experience,” Holmoe continued.