It's really nice to see BYU play and rarely (only for a select few road games) have to even think about how you're going to watch the Cougars each week.
BYU's deal with ESPN is not the be-all-end-all of a college football program. Cougar fans who act like it is are as crazy as detractors who say it doesn't matter. But for the TV element of running a successful program -- which now even reaches into postseason selection matters because of a human committee -- it sure is great.
I can't say for 100% certainty that ESPN exposure helps BYU recruit on an individual basis, because I'm not in those meetings with coaches, recruits, and families. But it definitely can't hurt to be able to say to a recruit "you'll play anywhere from six to maybe 10 times on ESPN networks each year," and then leave the house by saying "We're on ESPN this week. Give us a look." No TV hunting required for that one.
As a fan, it sure beats carriage on The Mtn (duh), and also is quite a nice situation when compared to fans of Big 12 and Pac 12 schools, too. Top teams in those conferences will always be taken care of, but most everyone else gets cast out to Fox Sports 1 or the Pac 12 Network, which have low carriage numbers, aren't carried by every major cable/satellite provider, or both.
Just days before the season, Dish Network was set to drop coverage of college football on Fox Sports 1. There's no worrying about if you have the best provider and package to see your team play -- which can change each season -- when you're on ESPN so often. It also keeps cable costs low for us. Depending on your provider and geographical location, some fans of even Power 5 schools have to pay a pretty sum to ensure they get the channels they need.
I was curious to see how the numbers stand now that BYU is in year four of independence. I also wondered how it compared to days in the Mountain West and how current MW teams (Boise State specifically, as the only one having a football profile even similar to BYU's) are faring in exposure on the Worldwide Leader.
In this, I wanted to count games featured only on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2. ESPNU is nice, but its carriage is not different enough from FS1 or P12 Net, in my opinion, to prop up as anything too special. It is nice to have lower-level games land there, but it's not much of a needle-mover in my book. I also did not count NBC games against Notre Dame, which came in both the MWC and Independent eras.
(In that vein, it's also really nice to have one of those lower-level games slotted on BYUtv instead of CBS College Sports, because fans anywhere can access it via the Internet.)
Here's what I gathered of BYU's appearances. These numbers will not include bowl games, since a whole bunch are owned by ESPN and 95% are aired on the network. You get to a bowl, it's going to be on ESPN no matter what TV deal you or your conference has.
Numbers were gathered using BYUCougars.com, BroncoSports.com, and ESPN.com.
MOUNTAIN WEST ERA (1999-2010)
Before the creation of The Mtn and the MW's deal with CBS (CSTV-turned-CBS College Sports), BYU and friends were shown fairly often on ESPN networks. It's worth noting that I'm starting with MWC-era days, but BYU's success and drawing while in the WAC set the program up to be liked by ESPN.
Pre-The Mtn (1999-2005):
1999: 4. The Cougars played all 4 within the first 5 weeks of the season, including a week two showdown against Colorado State in the very first game of the MWC (between two ranked teams, no less). All four games were home games.
2000: 7. BYU's solid 1999 campaign led to the team appearing on ABC twice (noteworthy that both were road games against ACC teams).
2001: 7. The Cougars got humiliated on ESPN several times in 2000, so only two of the first six were on ABC/ESPN/2. But as the Cougs got rolling, ESPN started picking up more games. It helps to be undefeated when you want to get on national TV.
2002: 5. Because of the great 2001 campaign, four of the first six games were on the big stations. After BYU lost to Air Force 52-9 in week six's Fisher DeBerry grudge match, though, ESPN thought twice about picking up BYU any further.
2003: 5. They really didn't deserve so many games, but playing USC and Boise State helped.
2004: 5. At this point, TV execs were probably groaning about BYU, but playing Notre Dame along with USC, Boise State, and Utah (who were all undefeated at game time and finished the regular season undefeated) made them no-brainer pickups. Thanks, really hard schedule.
2005: 0. At some point, your good will runs out and you've lost enough games to not get on national TV anymore. The Crowton era officially killed BYU on ESPN for a season. (The Cougars did play on ESPN in the Vegas Bowl, which again, I am not counting bowl games.)
TOTAL: 33 (4.7 per season)
The Mtn Era (2006-2010):
2006: 1 (road game OT loss to Boston College)
2009: 2. These were a neutral site and a road game. The neutral site, of course, was a made-by-TV game by ESPN for the opening of the new Cowboys Stadium. BYU even agreed to a road game against Tulane just to get on ESPN.
2010: 1. That never-to-be-spoken-of loss on the road because of the WAC's one game per week ESPN deal. (The Cougars also played on ESPNU at Florida State, but again, I am not counting ESPNU games.)
TOTAL: 4 (less than 1 per season)
Woof. The MWC sure did pave the way for conference networks, but failing to secure even one game per week on a game-of-the-week kind of deal with the Worldwide Leader put every MWC school in a black hole nationally. I have become convinced that a further continuation of this agreement would have handicapped BYU's recruiting future and ability to run a viable program. The landscape shifted at the right time.
2011: 8. Even after going 7-6 the season before, BYU instantly appeared on ABC/ESPN/2 more times in the regular season than any season in the MW era.
2013: 4. Going 8-5 and then trending toward a similar season has it setbacks. As long as you aren't in the black hole of The Mtn, winning correlates strongly with national TV appearances. So with wins trending downward, more games were slotted on ESPNU than in the previous two seasons.
TOTAL: 20 (6.6 per season)
2014: 6 already picked up with a ceiling of 8. Three undetermined games are Nevada, UNLV, and at Cal. BYU's contract requires one ESPNU game, which has not happened nor been determined yet. The ESPNU game will very likely be UNLV.
The Nevada game is currently trending toward an ESPN2 night game. If BYU is 10-1 or 11-0 and if Cal is at least an okay team, which it appears to be so far, this may get picked up -- but being a road game, it depends on the rotation between Fox and ESPN. I see Fox as unlikely to pick up this game unless Cal is somehow a 9-win team, so this feels like another game ESPN might slot on The Deuce at night. I'd be surprised if ESPN passes and it ends up on the P12 Net.
Seven is a pretty safe bet this season, so given 27 appearances, BYU would be just shy of 7 per year at 6.75 in the independent era. BYU is now enjoying at an average what they sustained in only the best two years in the MW.
I mentioned comparing said numbers to Boise State. This isn't because I have anything to prove relative to Boise, but rather that the Broncos currently hold the most similar position in the MW as BYU did in its time there, so BSU provides the most relevant comparison to what good western group-of-five teams are experiencing.
BOISE STATE in BYU's independent era
2012: 3, one of which was against BYU
2013: 5, one of which was BYU. This was the first MW season in the post-The Mtn era after it went off the air. ESPN was excited to be able to pick up some Boise.
2014: 5, with a ceiling of 8 -- though those remaining three are against SDSU, Wyoming, and Utah State. One may get on to ESPN2; I'd expect the other two to be on ESPNU or ESPN3.
I'll give the Broncos six this season, for a total of 17 and an average of 4.25 per season. This number is very similar to what BYU enjoyed in the MW in the days before The Mtn. Over time, I would expect the first two seasons to become outliers for Boise State as we should see the Broncos on ABC/ESPN/2 4 or 5 times each year -- depending on how they win games. But so far, BYU has averaged 2.5 more games on ABC/ESPN/2 than Boise since going independent.
It is worth noting that if both teams were in the same conference, there might be less appearances for both as ESPN may have had to choose between the two every week, so I think this current arrangement works well for both programs.
It is also worth nothing that BYU and Utah leaving the MW created a situation where the conference *did* start selling games to ESPN, which is how Boise managed 3 per year with The Mtn contract still in effect. Otherwise, it would have been 1 or 0 in those years.
BYU's money in these games is better than games ESPN buys from Boise State because while the MW is paying Boise a higher share than its conference mates, it still does have to share with the rest of the runts.
In post-The Mtn life, it appears BYU will be getting one more game per season on ABC/ESPN/2 than Boise, with Boise representing the best-case scenario of ESPN carriage for any Mountain West team.
TCU in BYU's independent era
Thanks to a comment, I was spurred to examine what TCU has experienced in solid national TV appearances. I say "solid" because TCU's spot in the Big 12 is much different than Boise State's in the MW. It's ESPN or bust for Boise, but TCU can land on Fox or ESPN. Since the Big 12 is a desired landing spot for BYU, and since TCU comes from the same conference, I thought it would be worth a look.
For an apples-to-apples comparison, I've counted TCU's appearances on ABC/ESPN/2 and Fox since BYU went independent. Other games not picked up by the big boys fall to Fox Sports 1 or regional Fox Sports nets, which I won't be including.
2011: 2. This was TCU's final season in the MW. One of these games was a made-by-ESPN matchup against BYU. If you remember, BYU dropped Louisiana Tech so it could play TCU at Cowboys Stadium. (The other was that opening Friday night game that cemented Joe Tessitore's legend when RGIII outdueled Casey Pachall 50-48.)
2012: 6. The Frogs went 7-6 this season and enjoyed games on ABC, ESPN, and on Fox.
2013: 5. The Frogs were 4-8.
TOTAL of BIG 12 YEARS: 11 (5.5 per season)
2014: Through 4 games, 1 has been picked up -- against Oklahoma on Fox. I'd imagine the game at Baylor is a shoo-in to get picked up, and probably Kansas State as well. Things don't look as good because TCU didn't win games last season, but having solid ranked teams in your conference helps pick you up like we saw with BYU's schedule in 2004.
TCU's average in the Big 12 years comes in 1 game lower than BYU's average. So BYU still fares well against this measure -- although again, winning matters a ton. If TCU were to beat OU and get to 4-0, it's next three games would probably all get picked up.
* * *
To summarize: BYU is running away with ESPN coverage compared to its history previous to independence, is picked up slightly more often than its most similar G5 colleague, and winning matters.