While the realignment action at the BCS conference level has come to a standstill, BYU is aiming to be a next-tier combination of Notre Dame and Texas and possibly causing a massive upheaval at the non-AQ level with its reported proposal to become a football independent and become a member of the WAC for all other sports. (The Salt Lake Tribune is calling this a “done deal”.) If BYU pulls the trigger on going independent, I believe that it would be a brilliant move for the school and, interestingly enough, a great opportunity for the BCS conferences.
BYU has long been one of the most interesting potential players in the college conference realignment story. From a pure financial and fan base perspective, BYU should’ve been invited to a BCS conference many years ago. The Cougars sell out every home game, travel en masse to bowl games, and garner a national TV audience with LDS members. Political factors, though, have killed BYU’s chances of getting into the Pac-10 (as the California-based schools have a myriad of issues where it has clashed with LDS positions) and its no-playing-on-Sunday rule has been a nagging problem for other conferences. With its in-state rival of Utah heading down the yellow brick road to BCS AQ status in 2011 and the Big IIX unlikely to expand for several years, BYU has been at risk of getting left behind.
Count me in as someone that believes that BCS AQ status is far from a sure thing for the Mountain West Conference. If there is a way for the other BCS conferences to avoid inviting in the MWC, it will absolutely exploit it – they have ZERO desire to give up $18 million per year and an at-large BCS bowl slot. If BYU’s leadership has been evaluating everything realistically, they have realized that this is the case and came to the conclusion that if it wants any reasonable chance of becoming one of the insiders to the BCS, it would need to become independent.
Is BYU on the level of Notre Dame in terms of casual fan popularity? Of course not. However, BYU has an asset that no other school in the entire country has (and what Texas has banked its entire future upon creating): its own television network. This isn’t some type of fly-by-night operation. BYU-TV has a state-of-art studio, the most advanced HD live event production truck in the entire Western half of the United States, 60 million U.S. subscribers (including every single DirecTV household) and 40 million subscribers outside of the U.S. While I have never actually watched BYU-TV and presume that its programming lineup currently consists of telecasts of church services, stories of mission trips, a reality TV show featuring Jim McMahon visiting and reviewing every single bar in Chicago, and the Steve Young edition of “The Bachelor”, the key point is that BYU already has a ready-made and widely distributed cable TV platform to take its sports properties in-house. My understanding is that BYU makes approximately $1.5 million per year from the current MWC TV deals. That is a fairly low threshold to cross if the school turns BYU-TV into a revenue generator for sports events (currently, the network relies on donations and subscriptions similar to PBS) since it has 100 million international households already in the fold. This isn’t even counting the fact that ESPN or another network would likely be willing to pay a premium for BYU’s top games. If Army and Navy can strike deals on their own with national networks, there’s no reason that BYU wouldn’t be able to do it even better.
That’s all fluff compared to the big picture, though. Maybe it’s because I have spent my entire life (other than my college years in Champaign) living and/or working in Cook County, but when Slant reader loki_the_bubba posted the initial rumors about this BYU story last night, my immediate thought was this: “Political payoff.” As we all know, this is perfectly legal under Federal law.
There seems to be this growing assumption that an independent BYU won’t be able to receive the same type of preferential treatment from the BCS system as Notre Dame does today. However, I vehemently disagree with this notion, and it has little to do with college football games themselves and everything to do with Capitol Hill. Which politician has spent more time bashing the BCS system, calling for hearings on the issue and demanding regulation more than any other? Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). What school did Sen. Hatch attend? Brigham Young University. Let’s list out the potential scenarios:
SCENARIO A: BYU stays in the MWC. In 2 years, the MWC meets the BCS AQ numerical criteria and the BCS conferences decide to let the conference into the party. This means that the BCS conferences have to give up at least $18 million per year and an at-large bowl slot.
SCENARIO B: BYU stays in the MWC. In 2 years, the MWC meets the BCS AQ numerical criteria, but the BCS conferences decide to keep the MWC on the outside because it makes zero financial sense to invite them in. Sen. Hatch raises a political and legal shitstorm unlike anything seen before and puts the entire BCS system in jeopardy.
SCENARIO C: BYU becomes a football independent, but the BCS conferences don’t give the school a Notre Dame-type deal. Sen. Hatch raises a political and legal shitstorm unlike anything seen before and puts the entire BCS system in jeopardy.
SCENARIO D: BYU becomes a football independent and the BCS conferences extend the school a Notre Dame-type deal. With both Utah and BYU now within the BCS system, Sen. Hatch suddenly has a new-found love for the BCS bowls and Washington leaves college football alone entirely. Meanwhile, it cuts the legs out from under the MWC and any other viable non-AQ upgrade possibility.
I don’t know about you, but it looks like paying BYU a couple of million bucks per year as an independent under Scenario D in order to preserve a cartel of hundreds of millions of dollars, extinguish its most prominent opponent in Washington AND destroy the MWC’s chances of ever moving up to AQ status makes a whole lot of business and political sense if you’re running the BCS. Plus, it’s going to be fairly rare that BYU will garner a top 8 final BCS ranking (which is where Notre Dame needs to rank in order to receive an automatic BCS bid), so it virtually preserves an at-large BCS slot for the current AQ conferences. It’s a win-win-win for BYU, Sen. Hatch and the BCS system overall. Unfortunately, the MWC will find a new definition of pain and suffering, as it is slowly digested over a thousand years in the Sarlacc pit of the non-AQ world.
In summary, BYU has an international TV network, a widespread built-in following with the LDS, and political clout of the highest order that can be leveraged into BCS access on par with Notre Dame. From where I’m standing, it almost makes too much sense for BYU to declare its independence.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from Deseret News)