By Joe Dana
It would be too many seconds wasted on Cosmo the Cougar. BYU”s lovable smile with long legs was supposed to be introduced before the team”s starting five. Before? The man crouched in a van outside of the Marriott Center said that would be unacceptable.
“I don”t want the mascot to be introduced first. We need the team to come first with the music,” said ESPN producer Jeff Kibler, dressed in black and a headset. Kibler sat in front of more than twenty televisions with his crew, shuttled from San Francisco over the weekend. They were covering Big Monday, which featured the basketball rivalry between BYU and the University of Utah.
They are part of The Entertainment Sports Network, holder of a seven-year contract with BYU and the Mountain West Conference, and they dictate many details of the BYU football and men”s basketball games, including game schedules, play times, and the staging strategies.
“We need the starters nearest to the half court in the order they are introduced,” Kibler said, the clock reading 22 minutes until game time. Or show time, depending on who you ask.
For the past twenty years, some believe collegiate sports has in many ways become more tailored for the television screen than the faithful fan.
“College sports is largely driven by television now,” said Mikel Minor, Executive Producer for Sports West, a division of KSL broadcasting.
For the second time in two weeks, students and families cheered for BYU well into the midnight hour. While many fans left their kids for the babysitter and others stayed home, most didn”t seem to mind the late game. Big Monday is ESPN”s college basketball version of Monday Night Football. It also seems to represent the growing influence of television in college sports. The schools once made all the decisions about when and where their games would be played without the pressure of television contracts.
“Television really got its thrust in college athletics with the anti-trust lawsuit in the 1970”s. Since then it has gained more and more influence,” said Bob Burda, assistant commissioner of the Mountain West Conference. Broadcast negotiating rights have since been distributed to the individual conferences of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Last year, The Mountain West Conference signed a contract with ESPN that gives the network the ability to broadcast any game with a 12-day notice, said Minor. During the football season, ESPN announced the time of three home games just eight days before game day.
“They can target and pick games that have impact in the conference and also key games that have value,” said Minor.
Officials of The Mountain West Conference believe in the long run it is a worthwhile trade-off.
“ESPN”s power is simple. It”s the ability to put the Mountain West Conference in living rooms across the country,” Burda said. “You try to convey that to the fans and hope they understand.”
Burda said the contract is worth upwards of 50 million dollars for the conference. That money trickles down to BYU.
“There is money involved. Of course,” said Brett Pyne, Director of Sports Information.
It is also a national popularity contest between colleges to win over recruits and more fans.
“BYU has determined they want to be one of the preliminary programs in the country and they were willing to make some sacrifices,” Minor said.
But some believe the control of television is disrupting the college sports community”s original intentions. Fifty-five year old Salt Lake City resident Jay Benson, who usually attends the game with his daughter Brenda, came to Monday”s game alone.
“She”s got school tomorrow,” Benson said. “It”s about money, I know that. But I don”t know who stays up late enough to watch it on TV anyway. I would rather be here with my family.”
Pyne admits there are drawbacks to television”s clout.
“The students probably benefit more than the families of the community,” Pyne said.
But the interest in gaining from BYU”s Nielsen potential is not all bad, Minor said. It is also a sign of improvement for the program.
“BYU is one of the jewels of the conference as far as ESPN is concerned,” Minor said.