BYU’s bold move: Independence?

Follow Dan Wetzel on Twitter at @DanWetzel

Just steps from LaVell Edwards Stadium on the Brigham Young campus sits a state-of-the-art television broadcast complex. It is home to BYU-TV, the network of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There from Provo, Utah, it beams high-definition programming around the globe in an effort to proselytize for the Mormon faith.

Now it may serve as the cornerstone of BYU bucking a sporting trend and declaring its football independence, perhaps as early as this week.

In doing so, BYU would leave the promising Mountain West Conference reeling, put a stop to the addition of another BCS automatic qualifying league and set off a feeding frenzy among less prominent leagues from coast to coast.

It would also be a bold, yet daring, move for a Cougars proud football program that has experienced a revival under coach Bronco Mendenhall.

BYU will become an independent in football and put its basketball and non-revenue sports in the Western Athletic Conference starting in 2011 according to the Salt Lake City Tribune. It’s similar to the arrangement Notre Dame has with the Big East.

The school’s athletic department denied comment on the stories.

By going independent, BYU would bail on the Mountain West’s slow and steady plan to earn BCS automatic qualifying status (a goal that, while a long shot in two years, was at least possible). The league was set to add powerhouse Boise State in 2011, which would offset the loss of Utah to the new Pac-12.

BYU serves a different purpose than other schools though. Reaching a BCS bowl game is one thing. The opportunity to spread the word about Mormonism trumps it.

“Automatic-qualifying status [helps], but the key is exposure,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told the Salt Lake Tribune in July. “We [have to] be able to get it out and do the things that we can do with the things that we have here.

“It doesn’t do any good to have BYU-TV in your pocket. It doesn’t do any good in your pocket.”

Holmoe claimed the BYU-TV facility is the best “west of the Mississippi.” With HD studios and even an HD remote production truck – the envy of any broadcast network – it can certainly stand on its own. BYU-TV is already reaching an estimated 80 million homes on multiple continents.

If you add BYU football, presumably not only would the distribution expand, but so too would new viewers. A BYU game would draw in non-Mormon football fans (at the very least fans of the other team). Some of them might get drawn into a televised devotional about the faith. (No, they don’t broadcast shows such as “CSI: Orem”).

From the perspective of the LDS Church, you can understand the plan.

For the future of BYU football, however, the course isn’t as clear.

Over the past three decades the trend in college athletics was for schools to huddle together in leagues, creating scheduling stability, pooling television revenue and creating broad-based brands. The Mountain West, it’s worth noting, has served BYU quite well the past 11 years.

Only Notre Dame and two of the three service academies (Army and Navy) have held out as independents. Even then, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick has reluctantly acknowledged Notre Dame could be forced into a league if market circumstances dictate it.

Notre Dame has done very well as an independent, but AD Jack Swarbrick knows the Irish could be forced into a league.
Matt Cashore/US Presswire

BYU, with its dispersed fan base, strong tradition and higher priorities might be the only other school capable of going it alone. The emphasis is on might, however.

In theory, the Cougars could create an even stronger, more national schedule once they’re free to play who they want, when they want. There would no longer be the constraints of the eight Mountain West league games, meaning you don’t have to shoehorn in clashes with Oklahoma or Florida State in September. The entire fall is available.

That said the trend in college football is for Big Six conference teams to schedule non-league cream puffs, not dangerous teams such as BYU. The goal is to create as many home games as possible while padding the record to either rig the BCS or assure a bowl bid of some kind, which gains coaches and athletic directors rich financial bonuses. It’s a reality that’s hurt the sport’s regular season.

Whether the Cougars can get enough name opponents to play them as this trend toward competitive cowardice continues is a major question mark. Getting return games to Provo will be extremely challenging. While generating revenue isn’t a desperate concern (the church has plenty if it needs to offset fewer home games) you need an attractive slate of games for the fans. And if the schedule isn’t eye-popping, will it impact recruiting (many top Mormon players already choose to play elsewhere).

If so, what exactly is BYU-TV able to beam out to the world? It sounds like a great idea if you could get, say, a USC-BYU game on there, drawing in casual fans to the LDS network. However, if a game like that could even be made, it would almost certainly appear on ESPN, where more money and viewers are available.

Notre Dame is able to get big names to concede to home-and-home contests because its football brand remains the biggest in the country. Recent success may be limited, but almost every Irish road game results in some of the highest ticket prices at the opposing stadium ever – Penn State, Ohio State, anyone.

Would Bronco Mendenhall's program really benefit from becoming an independent?
Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

Then games from South Bend are shown on NBC. That’s worth it for USC and Texas and Miami and Michigan and just about anyone else Notre Dame decides to call. BYU-TV may have a promising future, but it isn’t a major over-the-air network. BYU would struggle to get major opponents to play on an in-house religious network – market penetration among South American missionaries doesn’t do much for rival coaches seeking football recruits.

As a result BYU-TV might wind up like the Big Ten Network, getting the leftover games – in this case the half dozen lesser opponents BYU would be forced to schedule.

In that case, how many new viewers is the football team really delivering to the LDS Church?

One issue is BYU’s continued frustration with being one of the BCS’ non-automatic qualifying leagues. While the Mountain West was under a four-year “review,” projections show it would’ve fallen short of the set criteria even if it added Boise State to a strong group that included Utah, BYU and Texas Christian. Instead, it would’ve needed to apply for a “waiver” that would’ve faced long political odds of getting approved.

BYU knew this. Once Utah left, the Mountain West’s pipe dream chance at winning the waiver was gone. It now had no chance at becoming a BCS league. So why continue the fight? While BYU is unlikely to get the favored status with the BCS that Notre Dame enjoys, perhaps independence offers a clearer road to a bigger bowl game (the Cougars have been stuck in the Las Vegas Bowl five consecutive years).

The departure of BYU leaves the Mountain West scrambling to find new members to keep from falling apart. WAC member Fresno State has accepted membership in the Mountain West, according to the Fresno Bee, and Nevada is considering an official offer to join also.

The scramble among the WAC, Mountain West and, presumably, Conference USA, will be interesting, although it’ll have little effect on the teams and leagues most college fans follow.

What occurs in the wake of BYU’s decision appears to be of little concern for the school and the church. BYU appears on the verge of setting a fearless, if risky, course against the grain of college athletics. Faith is something Mormons have in abundance. They may need it to make this football mission work.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Aug 18, 2010