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The votes are in: Utah is now a football state

SHARE The votes are in: Utah is now a football state

For anyone who hates football, this week must be torture.


When Utah and TCU meet Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it will culminate weeks of anticipation. And you thought the buildup for the election was protracted. The game has already been drawn, quartered, probed and dissected — and that's before anything has happened.

Afterward, at least for the loser, it will be more like an autopsy.

This treatment is relatively new to Utah. Used to be this

was a solid college basketball state. Then two things happened: good football and the Jazz.

Now college hoops are a distant third.

Twenty years ago, it was big news when a local basketball team played a nationally renowned team. Now it's an amusing diversion. BYU played North Carolina, Michigan State, Louisville and Wake Forest in basketball last season. It wasn't a secret, but it wasn't on everyone's mind, either.

This year in hoops, Utah plays Oklahoma, Louisiana State, Cal and Oregon.

If only that were the football schedule.

As far as college sports go, Utah is a football state.

One question: What took us so long?

"We get a lot of interest in football — way more year-round than we did in the past," says BYU athletics director and former defensive back Tom Holmoe. "People ask me about football all the time."

This year's spring scrimmage at BYU drew 15,000 — as many as some regular-season games attracted in the 1970s.

Remember the days when local colleges quaintly avoided home games on the opening of the deer hunt?

Almost everywhere is a "football school" nowadays.

"When football goes down, everything else goes down — sponsorships, donations, all that," Holmoe says. "So when it's up, everything's up."

The transition of Utah and BYU into football schools is undeniable. As important as the Utes' 1998 Final Four trip was, it didn't match the interest in Utah's BCS-busting 2005 Fiesta Bowl appearance.

BYU was long a basketball school until LaVell Edwards won a national football title in 1984. Even then, basketball was first in the hearts of Cougar fans for a few more years.

The cause of this transition includes several factors:

Media. TV coverage on regular season football games far surpasses basketball in breadth and depth. Meanwhile, other media expend considerably more energy on single football games.

In the 1980s, it was typical for newspaper writers in Utah to attend just one or two practices a week; now it's every day. Back then, one story on the game often sufficed. Now there are regularly a half-dozen stories on home games, plus live blogs.

Similarly, sports talk radio sometimes focuses on a big football game for weeks or even months.

Marketing. It's far easier for universities to promote one game a week in football than two or three in basketball.

Every game is important in terms of bowl positioning; a single loss can knock a team out of contention. Not so in basketball.

Product. While college basketball can get ponderous, even low-scoring football is usually interesting. Low scoring basketball is like watching water boil.

Scheduling. Big-name opponents create interest, but It's often easier to get such schools to come for football. The Utes have hosted Texas A&M, UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon, while BYU has hosted Notre Dame, Penn State, Miami and USC.

In basketball, opposing coaches are reluctant to go on the road and play teams as good as BYU, Utah State and Utah. All the aforementioned big-name BYU basketball opponents last year were either road games or at a neutral site.

Money. Oh, right. That. BCS bowl teams earn $17.5 million, though some is shared with the conference. Basketball teams get $190,000 for appearing in the NCAA tourney, more if they move on.

On a typical year, football easily accounts for the largest share of athletics revenue at most schools. Football ticket sales cover approximately 20 percent of BYU's athletics income.

A published report on University of Utah athletics in 2004-05 — the year Utah went to the Fiesta Bowl — showed that football brought in almost 2 1/2 times the revenue of men's basketball and over 10 times that of any other sport.

As one college athletics director once said, all sports are nice, "but football drives the bus."

So if you love football, go ahead and get geeked up for Thursday night's game. It ought to be a fine one. If you prefer college hoops, good luck on that, too. The big Utah game against Oklahoma — picked to finish first in the Big 12 — is Dec. 13.

Unfortunately, it's at the start of bowl season, when a lot of people just won't notice.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com