BYU announced a landmark eight-year deal with ESPN in 2010, the year BYU left the Mountain West Conference for independence.
The struggles of not being able to watch BYU in certain parts of the country, or in high definition on the MountainWest Sports Network, were replaced by a nationwide, HD presence on the ESPN family of networks.
Now, just one year before the contract could expire, ESPN fired over 100 employees and sent shockwaves through the sports media world.
It was the company’s second major wave of layoffs in two years, raising questions about the stability of the company and the repercussions it would have on the sports landscape.
Despite the turmoil and uncertainty, BYU still finds itself in a strong position.
BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe addressed the issue in his semi-annual media Q&A in March.
“Every year in the relationship, new things occur,” Holmoe said. “It gets stronger; we have greater collaborations and new creativity. ESPN is changing as we watch. We’re changing, and together we feel good about each other. I really respect that company and the people that run it, the people that are the face and the talent, and then they feel really good about what we’re doing.”
Holmoe also acknowledged the time is now to see some fruition on extending the contract which is set to expire within two years.
BYUtv Senior Coordinating Producer and former ESPN producer Mikel Minor said independence makes BYU a commodity for ESPN in these shaky times.
“BYU is in a good position because it isn’t attached to a conference,” Minor said. “It’s kind of a paradox because BYU would benefit from being in a Power Five conference. But in this case, where they need a commercial broadcast partner, they’re probably in a good position.”
He added that the lack of competing interests that complicate conference negotiations is one reason BYU is so attractive to ESPN.
“(ESPN’s) probably more willing to come in and deal with one school rather than 12 schools or 14 schools because it’s an easier leverage situation than it is with a whole conference,” Minor said.
After last summer’s expansion facade from the Big 12, conference expansion seemed to be put on hold until 2024, when most conference grant-of-rights contracts expire.
It remains to be seen if that will affect renegotiations between BYU and ESPN.
“I, along with other insiders, believe that there’s a seismic shift that’s going to happen in the college football landscape that allows for more reasonable geographic alignment,” Minor said.
If that shift does happen, a shorter or more flexible agreement with ESPN would be ideal for BYU. It would allow the Cougars to jump into a Power Five conference without any delays or buyouts, which have become more common in negotiations to prevent teams from changing conferences.
“There needs to be caution on both sides that any renegotiation of BYU’s contract with ESPN needs to allow for realignment of the entire college sports landscape,” Minor said.
With the timing of the renegotiation, other media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Amazon have been thrown around as potential broadcasters in the future.
One major example of this is the NFL. The league broadcast its Thursday night games on Twitter last season and signed a deal with Amazon Prime for the 2017 season last month.
Until those avenues are more developed, Minor said sticking with ESPN is what gets BYU what it wants.
“They still provide the critical mass for national exposure that BYU is looking for,” Minor said.
Additionally, Minor said the traditional, linear television market still contains enough demand that moving to an exclusively digital platform would not be ideal.
“We’re on the cusp of all of this,” Minor said. “There’s still a huge generation demographic of people that would prefer to just turn on the TV and watch it and not go through the gymnastics of trying to figure out how to authorize themselves and this account through their carrier so they can watch ESPN.”
He added that the shift of digital sports consumption overtaking the linear portion isn’t going to take place anytime soon.
“The next ten years are going to be fascinating to watch to see how this all plays out,” Minor said. “But it’s not happening tomorrow.”
Looking beyond the current contract, it seems ESPN will still be the go-to destination for BYU athletics for the time being.
“We’re going to be with ESPN,” Holmoe said. “I don’t think there’s anything right now that’s on the plate or in the near future that you can say is going to turn that upside down. ESPN has been so good to us. We’re going to be with them. It’s just a matter of what happens in the future, and I think we grow together.”
That seems wise to Minor, even after the recent waves of layoffs in Bristol.
“I don’t think we’re seeing the demise of ESPN in any way here,” Minor said. “I think what we’re seeing is a reset.”