Loyal Cougars

Despite season’s slow start, BYU delivers solid ratings

Greg Welch has the TV ratings for 2013 BYU football, and their examination is positive for BYU.

With football’s regular season over, final numbers will be coming in regarding attendance, financials and, of course, television ratings.

BYU’s independent status lends itself to heightened scrutiny of these kinds or performance factors. People wondered if BYU could get a TV deal before ESPN signed with them and now they wonder if they will be able to extend that deal in the coming years.

A close look at the TV numbers shows that BYU performed well, even with disappointing early and late losses this season. As an unranked team, no one should expect BYU to be in the top-10 as a most viewed team this year. BYU is not going bring SEC numbers, but they shouldn’t be expected to as they’re also not making SEC money. Considering when they played and what they channel they played on, Loyal Cougars’ analysis of the numbers shows they did well.

Back in October, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Scott Pierce noticed that when BYU and Utah State both played football games on a Friday night early this year, Utah State outdrew BYU. He wrote:

USU-SJSU averaged 838,000 viewers and a 0.6 rating. BYU-Middle Tennessee averaged 313,000 viewers and a 0.2 rating. The Aggies were actually seen by 2.68 times more viewers than the Cougars. BYU apologists can point to the whole Middle Tennessee thing. And the fact that ESPNU is available in about 25 million fewer homes. But that’s grasping at straws.

I’m surprised that someone like Pierce, who has written about television for a living for a long time, would not understand that difference between ESPN and ESPNU is not just a matter of the number of homes to which they are distributed. There are many, many channels that have the kind of distribution ESPNU has. There are very few channels that consistently get the ratings that ESPN does.

Last year, Pierce pressed Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, asking if he and ESPN were still pleased with the contract they had signed with BYU. Ben-Hanas said, “Just looking at the numbers, the two Thursday games early in the season [vs. Washington State and vs. Boise State] both out-rated the Thursday average so far this year.”

The way ESPN’s executive answered this question is key to understand how ESPN views ratings and why Scott’s over-the-top reaction to what he calls BYU apologists is off-base. Television time slots are like real estate: some channels and time slots are just more valuable than others.

That 838,000 number Utah State and San Jose State drew looks great when compared to what was on ESPNU that night, but if ESPN cares about the average for each channel at each time, it’s not as strong. Friday night games on ESPN or ESPN2 this year averaged 1,491,000 viewers. Of the 13 Friday night games this season, USU-SJSU was the second-lowest rated, just ahead of Navy-SJSU.

As for BYU’s 313,000 on ESPNU, compared to other 13 weeknight games on ESPNU, it was the second-highest of the season. Only opening weekend’s FAU-Miami game was higher.

Interestingly, when the channels were switched the results were magnified. When it was BYU on ESPN on a Friday night (playing Boise State) it drew 1,970,000 viewers. Utah State didn’t play a weeknight game on ESPNU, but when they played at UNLV on ESPNU on a Saturday night, they drew 75,000 viewers.

Now, I don’t want to grasp at straws, but comparing ESPN to ESPN and ESPNU to ESPNU seems fair. And if that’s the case, the number of people watching BYU’s game was more than double those watching Utah State in either instance, which perhaps is the expected result.

BYU drew good ratings when compared to other games played in the same time slot and the same channel, the metric ESPN executive Ben-Hanas mentioned when evaluating the Cougars.

Of the 21 games on ESPNEWS this year in any time slot, BYU-Houston (205,000) was the 6th-highest rated. Texas A&M-Mississippi (550,000) and Clemson-South Carolina (349,000) did much better. Cincinnati-Rutgers (155,000), New Mexico-Boise State (141,000), and UCLA-Arizona (126,000) did worse. So while BYU isn’t delivering SEC-type numbers, they’re pretty good.

Of the nine games on 3:30 ET ESPN games this year, BYU-Wisconsin was the third-highest. BYU’s appearance at Notre Dame  wasn’t as successful. It was the highest-rated game of the year for BYU (2,290,000), but the lowest-rated NBC afternoon game for Notre Dame. Notre Dame and BYU both losing two weeks before likely didn’t help in that case.

For the ten late-night (9:00 Eastern or later) games on ESPN2, Utah-BYU (1,260,000) was the second highest, behind only USC-Arizona State (1,560,000) and ahead of a lot of Pac-12 games featuring teams like Cal, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington. That game was also Utah’s highest-rated game of the season and their only appearance on any ESPN network. In terms of total viewers on rated networks, more than three times as many people (10,165,000) saw BYU play in the regular season this year than watched Utah (3,310,000).

So, while people like Mr. Pierce may continue to ask how happy ESPN is with BYU, if the Cougars, even with an 8-4 year, continue to get the same kind of ratings ESPN can get from good or average power conference teams, while costing less money per team they pay to the SEC, Big 10, Big 12 or Pac-12, ESPN is probably going to be very happy.

Finally, this year Pierce also wrote, “I’ve argued here before that perhaps the folks in Provo sometimes confuse exposure with relevance.” He is, of course, correct that success in college football is not just a matter of being on TV in the right time and place. Since BYU has experienced the opposite effect, in years like 2006 and 2009 where they had a relevant team in terms of the polls, but were unable to get national television exposure, I would guess that BYU is well aware of the difference.

BYU’s independent contract is structured so it can get the exposure it deserves. If the Cougars are having a great year, they’ll be on ESPN. A lot. If they lose a couple of early games, they’ll play more games on ESPNU, like they did with Georgia Tech this year.

However, if BYU wins, it will earn more games in high-value time slots, like it did with the Wisconsin game this year after BYU won five straight games and Wisconsin was nationally ranked. That game was worth a lot to BYU. The ratings it got (1.3/2.18M) were better than both the Pac-12 (0.9/1.45M) and Mountain West (1.1/1.7M) championship games, although those games were late night kickoffs, so it’s not a complete apples-to-apples comparison.

ESPN isn’t running a charity. They’re going to put the right teams in the right places to get the results they’re looking for. BYU’s contract gives it a chance to succeed, which television-wise, they really didn’t have and weren’t going to have in the Mountain West.

Winning more sure wouldn’t hurt, but it appears for now, BYU is at least keeping up their its of the bargain with ESPN and will hopefully be well positioned moving forward.


  1. Wes

    December 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

    GREAT article. Thank you.

  2. Dave

    December 20, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Nice analysis. Well researched, and well-argued.

  3. Lee Jeppson

    December 21, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    How can one share this directly with Pierce?? It isn’t the first time the SLtrib has played with the data and drawn its own conclusions in an attempt to determine relevance. IMO the only one worse in this analysis is columnist GMonson