The Mtn.'s strategy: U. vs. BYU will sell network

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Executives at the Mountain West Conference and its all-sports television network realize the overwhelming interest in the college football rivalry game between Utah and Brigham Young on Saturday. They're aware of the staggering consequences, and understand the historic significance.

Which is exactly why they're not moving it from The Mtn.

While some fans have complained that the league plans to broadcast the game only on The Mtn. - and not also on either of its partner networks Versus or the CBS College Sports Network, as in years past - the league maintains that doing so helps increase the value of its flagship network by creating an exclusive product that potentially will help land deals with cable and satellite distributors that don't already carry The Mtn.

"It forces people's hands," league commissioner Craig Thompson said. "Those that aren't picking it up are getting unbelievable pressure this week from their subscribers and those who pay the bills. . . . 'How come I don't have this game? I want this game, I want The Mtn.' "

"I'm not saying we're getting any deals done by Friday," he added, "but it was a calculated step to push the distribution."

That's a different approach than the league has taken the past two years, when it "simulcast" the big game on its entire family of networks to create a much larger potential audience - particularly because The Mtn. reached fewer than 2 million homes at the time, all on cable broadcast systems.

But now, The Mtn. is available to nearly 18 million households around the country that have DirecTV satellite service - network spokesman Hayne Ellis estimated that 5 million to 8 million of those households actually receive The Mtn., though precise numbers are not yet available - in addition to its 2.2 million regional cable subscribers.

That's still far short of the combined reach of sister networks Versus and the CBS College Sports Network, which are in 73 million homes and 29 million homes, respectively (though many households have both).

Yet it's enough for the league to feel as if most of its fans will have access to the historic game, even while it hopes that increased demand for it will help persuade other cable and satellite providers to pick up The Mtn. The game also will be televised in high-definition on many systems, including DirecTV and Comcast cable in Salt Lake City.

"The goal is to continue to grow distribution," associate commissioner Javan Hedlund said. "And if you don't have anything that's exclusive, then it's hard to do that."

Thompson again noted the continuing trend away from free televised sporting events, citing ESPN's agreement to broadcast the Bowl Championship Series games on cable for the first time after the 2010 season, and said that after a certain point - passed now by The Mtn., he believes - it's unwise for a growing business to give away its best product.

"You've got to drive with what you have to sell," he said.

And if the league had never created The Mtn. and stuck with a much less lucrative broadcast partnership with ESPN? Hedlund said there's a chance that network would have dictated that the Utes and Cougars play their big rivalry game on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night instead.