How BYU Can Succeed as an Independent

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.

My Position
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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  1. Things are not all ROSES for Utah either. They are joing the PAC 11 & 1/2. That is correct, it is not the PAC 12 for three years, because of Chris-what-the-Hill have you done. So Utah does not get full PAC 10 (12) shares for three years. That is why I call it the PAC eleven and one half.
    Utah is better that many of the PAC teams, they should not accept partial shares. This is an insult.

  2. The unequal pay for Utah in the Pac-12 could add another twist to the rivalry if BYU ends up with a much improved TV contract immediately.

  3. Your scheduling scenario doesn't work. According to the article posted in the SL Tribune, BYU has to schedule 4 WAC teams per year. That right there is crippling, considering there is no one worth scheduling in the WAC. 4 WAC opponents makes even a decent schedule look weak.

  4. Allen, thanks for the comment. This was posted before the details about the 4 WAC games came out.

    I am very disappointed about that. You are right about the schedule strength. Even though 4 games is only 1/3 of the schedule, the "margin of error" the rest of the way is slim.

    Let's hope that BYU doesn't start feeling sorry for the MWC and make an agreement for a guaranteed number of games.

  5. But then again, those 4 WAC games could be the "sure-wins" that BYU needs every season. Win those 4 plus 3 more and BINGO, you've at least got a bowl game.

  6. All pie in sky gentlemen. I think we'd better rethink this whole thing. Very bad vibes here.

  7. BYU independent and MWC all others. That would let them schedule 4 MWC teams in football instead of 4 WAC teams. Much better options available especially after fresno, nevada, and boise come over.

  8. Dr. Ellis, there is absolutely no way the MWC agrees to that. The whole reason they brought in Fresno & Nevada was to keep BYU from leaving. By taking away the WAC as an option, they've left BYU with nowhere to go for all other sports (be honest, the WCC is a terrible option -- BYU would have to cut at least 6 programs because the WCC doesn't compete in as many sports as BYU.) There is no chance the MWC will say, "Yeah, go ahead and screw us over by going independent in football. No hard feelings, you're welcome to stay here for all other sports." No chance. IMO, BYU stays in the MWC. And IMO, they're better off there.

  9. Allen, money makes the world go round. That's all that kept Texas in the Big 12. If BYU is independent in football they A)Get to keep ALL revenue generated from advertising done on their networks. Which would be plenty once BYU games begin being broadcast on kbyu and byu tv. Thanks the heavens above if I don't have to jump from versus to the mountain and back every other week! B)Would get to keep ALL the revenue they generate from any bowl game they go to. BYU is a draw and bowls know it. Bowls will invite BYU if they are good enough. They would even break affiliations with other conferences if they knew BYU would be a possibility come bowl time. Why would a bowl lock in the #3 MWC team if they knew they could snag BYU? C)With total control of tv BYU would be free to accept offers from ESPN. A BYU v Notre Dame would be a huge national draw and BYU would get a handsome offer for that one. Thus BYU going independent would HUGE as far as the money goes. They would more then likely triple their revenue. No brainer. As for the other stuff...... who cares? Join the mid-american, conf usa, sunbelt, horizon, macc, wcc, wac (after they add another team). The b-ball team is good enough to outright win any of those conferences and get an auto bid anyway. And there is nothing wrong with turning some sports into club sports. Other universities in the state do quite well with some of their club sports.

  10. Allen and Jim,
    I don't know how this will end now. It appears that BYU is pretty set on the independent route (see Holmoe quote saying BYU has been working on this for 3 years). Don't forget the BYU Athletics Cable Television deal that was made this week.

    The MWC won't give in to BYU easily, but I won't be surprised if they do agree to let BYU go independent in football, or at least financial independence. The revenue potential with independence is to big to pass up. However, ...

    One revenue stream that is being overlooked, even by myself originally, is the BCS payout. Bowl reveneus for conferences include the bowls they play in as well as a small piece of the BCS pie. The MWC gets BCS money every year, that is why BYU wants a Notre Dame like agreement with the BCS. Whether Notre Dame plays in a BCS bowl or not, the BCS cuts them a check every year, just like the BCS cuts the Non-AQ conferences a check.

    BYU could easily find a bowl to play in, but would keeping all the money to themselves be enough to compensate for the loss of the BCS money?


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