The early years of my college football fandom coincided with the end of the Independent Golden Age. Powerhouses Miami, Penn State and Notre Dame were all independents, as well as some good Boston College, Pitt, and South Carolina squads. The formula created some outstanding matchups that aren’t as prevalent in today’s landscape. Take Miami’s final independent schedule in 1990, which featured BYU, Iowa, Notre Dame, and Florida State as well as three regular season trips west of the Mississippi.
But as television’s hold on the sport began to tighten as cable’s popularity erupted and conferences began expanding, independence dwindle. The possibilities cable laid forth made for an economic frontier, and programs lived the mantra “strength in numbers.” Conferences were a necessity in negotiating television rights, a sort of football union. Big East football was born in 1991 exclusively of former independents: Miami, Rutgers, Pitt, Boston College, Syracuse, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Temple. The SEC lured Arkansas away from the Southwest Conference in 1991, but needed an eastern counterpart to maintain balance. The invitation ensured Steve Tanneyhill’s luxurious mullet would be part of SEC, and not independent lore. Penn State taking on full Big Ten membership in 1993 was the epilogue on that chapter of what had been a golden age.
Notre Dame had and still has the blueprint for surviving without the union, but an exclusive NBC contract is a trump card no other program could boast. But with cable was the Oklahoma in television’s Manifest Destiny, satellite and web broadcasting are the Pacific coast. There’s nowhere else to go, but there’s prime real estate to be cultivated. BYU is the first on this expedition. The Cougars’ choice to break from the Mountain West was bold, but one that should pay dividends. The Cougars play a challenging schedule with numerous opportunities for national exposure. Out of the gate, BYU travels to SEC territory and Ole Miss. Week 2 features a jaunt to Texas. The season concludes with Hawaii, which is important to the program for more than just a late autumn break from the Provo winter. BYU recruits heavily in the Pacific, and an every-other-year trip to Honolulu will only strengthen that pipeline.
The Texas and Hawaii trips are of particular interest. I can assure you I’m not wearing a tinfoil pirate hat while typing this, but since the announcement of the Longhorn Network I have adamantly believed UT was bound for independence. If the Big 12 is a union, UT was Jimmy Hoffa. Texas strongarmed its way into an uneven share of the conference’s revenue pie. Its own network with ESPN’s backing is a more enticing prospect for the future than the modest FOX deal that was brokered last spring. And that’s zero percent of a pie UT must pass around a table. As for fellow Big 12 members, Oklahoma has its own Sooner channel in the works, and Oklahoma State is backed by billionaire T. Boone Pickens.
Hawaii is joining the Mountain West in 2012, but UH is another program that would make sense as an independent. Travel conditions will never be ideal for UH, but tailoring its schedule so that mainland trips are more lucrative would be the best course of action. Replace trips to Vegas, Fort Collins and Albuquerque with Austin, Eugene, and Los Angeles and the bottom line via television and stadium gate splits jumps exponentially.
Independence may be a great thing for certain individual programs, but there are vital issues to consider in making that leap. Having the fanbase and television attraction to generate the necessary revenue without conference backing is of the utmost importance. Notre Dame has survived because it is a draw worthy of an NBC television contract becuase it guarantees ratings. UT has enough national prominence and fan support to be a draw on its own network. It’s worth asking if a BYU or Hawaii has that clout. BYU had to go indepedent, as it hit a glass ceiling. The program had outgrown its place in the Mountain West with TCU and Utah leaving, but unlike those programs its religious guidelines (i.e., no Sunday games) eliminated joining a more profitable conference.
The ESPN games BYU brokered is a step in the right direction, but are fans clamoring for an entire BYU network? Will cable companies be inundated for phone calls to pick up a largely religious based channel? And separate of BYU and its situation, if other teams follow the model of supplementing a larger TV package with its own coverage, the market is in danger of over-saturation. The conference model is best for the vast majority, but that model is getting tested.
BYU’s situation is completely unique and shouldn’t be the blueprint. That said, if the Cougars are successful, they could go down as the forerunner in ushering in a new Independent Golden Age.