There have been rumblings for years that the Brigham Young Cougars should/could declare independent status for football. When the Pac-10 passed over BYU for rival Utah in June, those rumblings got louder, and they have been joined by rumors that going independent is imminent. With the Big XII's reluctance to grow back to 12 teams, the statement by BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe, and the comments by Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall, these rumors just might have some substance. BYU has to declare its intentions by September 1, 2010, to start independent play at the same time the other conference realignments happen in 2011.
Independent status has many risks and rewards, just as any major change to the status quo. While work is going on behind the scenes, portions of the fan base have gravitated to one side or the other of the issue. There is no right or wrong on this issue, but anyone advocating independence needs to reconcile four major risks that can't be avoided by making such a bold move: finding a home for BYU's other sports, scheduling twelve games every year, losing access to bowl games, and identifying a new television partner. Overcoming these four risks is a daunting task, and the initial reaction is that independence cannot work. However, by thinking outside the box, legitimate solutions can be identified that make succeeding as an independent very feasible.
Finding A Home For BYU's Other Sports
Athletic conferences have existed for decades. Each conference has its own set of rules for member schools. BYU belongs to the Mountain West Conference (MWC), and the MWC requires member institutions to participate in league play in every sport. That means, if BYU doesn't want to belong to the MWC for football, then BYU is not welcome to participate in any sport. Geography limits BYU's options to the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and the West Coast Conference (WCC). However, the best option is to get the MWC to change this rule. BYU is to the MWC what Texas is to the Big XII, and the other MWC members know it. The MWC would have never gotten off the ground in 1999 without BYU. While the other schools won't like it, and they might even harshly criticize BYU in the press, they will hold their nose and swallow this bitter pill. They cannot afford to have all BYU sports leave.
Scheduling Twelve Games Every Year
One advantage of playing in a conference is that eight games are automatically scheduled every year leaving each school with the responsibility of finding only four other teams to play. As an independent, BYU would have to schedule all twelve games every year. For many of those games, a team will have to break from its regular conference schedule. While that might sound hard, it should be easier than one might think. I used to think that scheduling would be a monumental task. Then I when I was thinking how BYU could schedule teams so that the level of competition would be respected while avoiding undue travel burdens, I realized that working around conference play might not be so difficult. To help me explain better, here is the basic pattern that BYU could follow each year when scheduling:
3 Pac-12 teams
3 MWC teams
3 Big XII teams
3 Eastern teams (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, SEC, or independents)
Three scheduling items to keep in mind are 1) The first five weeks of the year are already open for non-conference games, so competing with conference schedules won't be an issue, 2) The independent status for BYU will open up one week for the eight other MWC members during the last 8 weeks of the season; therefore, scheduling the three MWC games during October and November should not be complicated, and 3) The conference schedules are made by the conferences. With only four weeks left to fill on the schedule, the most that one conference would have to break from conference play would be twice. In each case it would be for a different team. That is not asking too much.
BYU has had trouble scheduling quality non-conference opponents in the past for fear that a loss to BYU would look bad and/or jeopardize their chances at a national title. That should not be a problem as an independent. Not only will BYU have shed the non-AQ MWC label, elite programs have returned to scheduling tough non-conference games. Ohio State has or will play Miami (FL), USC, and Texas in recent years. Alabama has or will play Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Penn State. Virginia Tech has played Alabama, Nebraska, and LSU. Last year BYU played Oklahoma and in 2011 BYU will play Texas. There is no reason to doubt that BYU can't have two or three big names on the schedule each year and several moderate level teams for the schedule to be considered legitimate and worthy of a BCS invite.
Losing Access to Bowl Games
After scheduling an opponent, you need a way to get to the game. One of the many revenue streams in college football is bowl revenues. BYU probably won't have any problem winning enough games to be bowl eligible. The problem is that the bowls partner with the aforementioned athletic conferences, thus binding the bowl to select a team from that conference, even if a team outside that conference has a better record or would bring more fans to the game. The solution to this hurdle is for BYU to form its own partnership with one or two bowls. Not possible? Not so fast.
Bowls partnering with conferences is the practice, not a policy of the NCAA. Therefore, if a bowl feels BYU is a better catch than the teams in a certain conference, then I would expect them to ink a deal with BYU guaranteeing BYU a spot in that bowl if BYU is bowl eligible. Considering the dynamics of bowl partnerships and how BYU going independent and the other conference realignments will impact those dynamics, a bowl contract becomes very possible for BYU.
First, the MWC has a contract with five different bowls. Without BYU, the MWC will have a very hard time filling all five bowl slots, especially if the MWC champion is playing in a BCS bowl. How many of these bowls would jump at the chance to lock up BYU every year or every other year? Granted, the MWC bowls are not very desirable, but it would be a start. At least BYU would not have to split the pay out with eight other schools.
Second, the Big XII will lose two teams in 2011, and it looks like that conference will adopt a round robin format for conference play. With only 10 teams, will the Big XII fill its eight bowl spots? Maybe one of these bowls would like to have BYU. BYU has a lot of history with the Holiday Bowl, has played many regular season games at the Sun Bowl (UTEP), and has a pretty good following in Texas (Cotton, Alamo, Texas, and Dallas Football Classic bowls) and Arizona (Insight Bowl).
As far as finding a bowl, the question is not a matter of if but when. When do the contracts expire for the bowl(s) that are interested in BYU?
Identifying a New Television Partner
The final risk is the biggest of all. TV. Broadcasting games is essential for more than just money. The exposure through television impacts the national perception and recruiting of a school. Currently, the MWC has a contract with the mtn. that pays BYU $1 to 1.5 million annually for all sports. To justify the move to independence, BYU should have a way to significantly increase television revenues, not just match the $1.5 million. ESPN might be interested in making a deal with BYU for $2 million a year. Even twenty years ago when playing on ESPN meant something, BYU appeared fairly regularly. CBS or Fox may also be interested in broadcasting BYU games regionally. Those would be the traditional options that are inside the box.
Outside the box there is an option that has the potential to be very lucrative. In December, BYU will complete the BYU Broadcasting Building. It has the capability and capacity to dedicate a separate channel to broadcast BYU sporting events in high definition. With this sports channel, BYU could pocket all revenues from both advertising and pay for view. The pay for view is what would make this option so lucrative. If BYU charges $10 per event, it would only take 100,000 viewers to reach $1 million. Multiply that by six and BYU has made $6 million just on the home football games. With hundreds of thousand BYU alumni spread across the country, it is conceivable that far more than 100,000 households will pay for each game. Any advertising dollars would be the cherry on top. This type of revenue potential would justify the move to independent status. So what's the catch?
BYU is a non-profit institution that enjoys special tax benefits. BYUTV is carried on cable and satellite as a public service. Surely BYU would lose the tax breaks and BYUTV would be dropped by cable and satellite providers if BYU entered into advertising agreements and started charging viewers to see programming. Call me crazy, but isn’t BYU doing this already? LaVell Edwards Stadium, Miller Park, and the Marriott Center are littered with corporate advertising, and everyone who attends events at these facilities pays to view those events. Maybe I am wrong about this, but I thought that BYU could generate an infinite amount of revenue, and if BYU took all those monies and reinvested them in the University or the Athletics Department, then BYU still qualified for non-profit status. You can’t tell me that BYU is not profiting already off of ticket and apparel sales and generous donations. I am very confident that through some subtle nuances in the law BYU will be able to maintain tax exempt status while dramatically increasing TV revenues. As for the public service status for BYUTV, there is probably a way to maintain that as well. If not, BYU will have to devise another way to use the BYU Broadcast Building to create revenues by showing BYU football games.
Personally, I consider myself a fence sitter on the independence issue. I am optimistic about the future of the MWC and its quest for BCS automatic qualifying status (if not at the end of the current four year evaluation period, then at the end of the next). I am optimistic about the Big XII inviting BYU to join the conference some day. I am optimistic, as well, that BYU athletics can continue to thrive if BYU is independent in football. The key to thriving as an independent would be the timing. Unless BYU has a suitable home for the other sports, has the scheduling issues worked out, has an agreement with a bowl in place, and has profitable television broadcasting available, then declaring independence by September 1, 2010, will be premature. If BYU has all this set up, and the decision makers there elect to go independent, I can fully support that choice.
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