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BYU, ESPN agree to 8-year broadcast partnership

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PROVO — The day after making the historic announcement that it's dropping conference affiliation in football, BYU officials outlined how the Cougars plan to navigate these largely unchartered waters of independence starting in 2011.

Certainly, BYU isn't doing this alone.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe announced during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at LaVell Edwards Stadium that the Cougars have signed an eight-year contract with ESPN to broadcast home games on the network behemoth's family of networks.

"This is the pathway we chose to go for," Holmoe said.

The decision to go independent "comes down to two pillars — access and exposure," Holmoe explained. "Every home football game and men's basketball game will now be carried nationally."

Said President Cecil O. Samuelson: "A driving force in our deliberations has been to secure broad, nationwide access to our games for our large, national following."

Holmoe also announced BYU and Notre Dame have agreed to a six-game football contract that will run through 2020.

"Our vision is to play football games across the country against many of the storied football programs in their legendary stadiums and to those same highly regarded program return to Provo to play in LaVell Edwards Stadium," Holmoe said.

"This is just a tremendous day for ESPN to be back in business with BYU in a formal basis," Dave Brown, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisition, told reporters. "It's a tremendous addition to our college football schedule."

BYU previously announced a three-game series with Texas, beginning next fall, a deal that ESPN helped negotiate.

"One of the challenges of being an independent in football is that of scheduling games," Holmoe said. "With the success of our football and basketball programs, it hasn't been easy to get teams to come to LaVell Edwards Stadium and the Marriott Center. There's another area where our new partnership with ESPN will benefit us. The top matchmaker in college sports."

While ESPN works to line up attractive matchups for BYU, the Cougars will face a steady diet of Western Athletic Conference opponents in 2011 and 2012. The WAC agreed Wednesday to play nine games in those seasons against BYU. In 2011, WAC schools will host two games against BYU and three of the league's teams will visit Provo. In 2012, BYU will play two games in WAC venues and host a pair of WAC foes. Those opponents are Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State and San Jose State. BYU is already scheduled to play WAC member Utah State in 2011-12.

Conspicuously absent are Fresno State and Nevada, two schools that decided to bolt from the WAC to the MWC two weeks ago, foiling BYU's original plans to form a partnership with the WAC for its sports other than football. Instead, BYU is partnering with the West Coast Conference, which will be the new home for 12 Cougar sports teams.

Holmoe said there will be "a transition period of a couple of years before we achieve the full vision of what football independence can become. To that point we are grateful to a group of schools in the WAC who have agreed to play us in 2011 and 2012 to help us get started in this endeavor."

Every year, a minimum of three BYU football games will be carried on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. Other games could be broadcast on ESPNU. At least one game each season will be televised live on BYUTV.

In addition to the live broadcasts of games, BYU Broadcasting will also have the ability to do same-day rebroadcasts of every home game and every game to which ESPN has the rights.

BYUtv is available on Dish and DirecTV as well as 500 cable systems in 55 million homes across the country, Holmoe said. BYUtv has the capacity to broadcast games internationally "to millions and millions more."

Legendary former BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who attended the news conference, said the relationship with ESPN began three decades ago. "We had a lot of exciting games. We started throwing the football before anybody else did, and so that right away created a lot of excitement. ESPN was a new company and we were kind of the new kids on the block. We just kind of grew up together that way."

"We're anxious to rekindle that partnership and be able to come back to BYU with every game here over the next eight years," said ESPN's Brown. "That's something we're really looking forward to. We have had a great relationship with BYU over the years thanks in part to LaVell Edwards, who gave us so many signature games in the past that really put ESPN on the map in terms of being a college football destination network."

Brown noted that BYU's upset of Oklahoma last season was ESPN's ninth highest-rated game of the 2009 regular season.

Because ESPN broadcasts college football games on nearly every day of the week during the season, BYU can expect to play some non-Saturday contests, such as the Friday before LDS general conference and selected Thursday night games, Holmoe said.

Asked about BYU's situation in relation to the BCS, Holmoe said, "The BCS is not the reason for this move. I've spoken to (executive director) Bill Hancock of the BCS, and we know that we'll have the opportunity, if we're ranked 14 or higher, that we'll have the ability to be an at-large team."

Holmoe said the decision to go independent was years in the making. "We have studied this long and hard. We felt a responsibility to do the right thing."

He described the past two weeks in this process of going independent as everything from "terrible" to "exhilarating." Added Holmoe, "We knew we could not let this window of opportunity pass us by."

"We're convinced we're taking major positive steps forward," Samuelson said.

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com