Mountain West on TV: Game On or Black Out?

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CORONADO, Calif. - From the moment the Mountain West Conference abandoned broadcasting giant ESPN for a more lucrative long-term contract with upstart College Sports TV, it immediately confronted a vast uncertainty:

Would fans actually see its games anymore?

The answer to that question remains far from resolved, though commissioner Craig Thompson sought to assuage skeptics at the league's annual college football media day Tuesday by announcing - sort of - that he has reached an agreement with a cable distribution company that will guarantee the availability of CSTV and its sister station, the upcoming "mtn." network, to more than half the markets in the league.

"We're just thrilled," he said.

The agreement is believed to be with Comcast cable - a spokesman said the company did not have anything to announce, however - which would mean most fans in Utah would have access to the networks that will be the only ones to broadcast 55 of the league's 63 football games this season. No longer will league games be broadcast on local over-the-air stations like KSL or KJZZ, and only a few nonconference games will find their way onto other outlets like ESPN or Fox Sports.

However, Thompson still could not say whether those fans will be able to see the networks as part of basic programming packages, or whether they will have to pay extra to subscribe to a premium package. In fact, he said almost nothing else about the deal - citing "regulatory T-crossing" that must be completed before he can discuss more details.

"I'm legally obligated, basically, to stop at this point," he said.

Nevertheless, Thompson said he wanted to provide an update and offer the "bold prediction" that every market in the league will have access - one way or the other - to the networks that the Mountain West has heralded as the next generation in sports broadcasting.

"It's going to turn out to be big-time," New Mexico coach Rocky Long said.

While partnering with CSTV has allowed the league to move away from the unpopular mid-week dates and late-night times into which ESPN had so notoriously wedged its football and basketball games, it also led to the creation of the "mtn." - a regional network that is scheduled to debut Sept. 1 and focus entirely on the Mountain West Conference.

"That's never been done before," Brigham Young coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "That's the amazing thing."

Already, the Big Ten Conference has announced plans to create a similar network for itself, and Mountain West officials expect other leagues to copy their innovative model, too.

But settling in with a network that has barely a sliver of the broadcasting reach of ESPN has not been an easy endeavor - especially for a league whose teams generally do not have exceptionally large, rabid or affluent fan constituencies. That has made it difficult to convince cable and satellite companies there is much of a demand for the programming the league is trying to sell, and seemingly limits the potential core audience.

Thompson still believes the potential rewards "way offset" the risks, however.

Not only does the league get to enjoy more standardized start times for its marquee football and basketball games, but the "mtn." network also will cover all of the league's other sports, from golf and tennis to swimming, volleyball and track and field.

Plus, the seven-year contract worth $82 million that the league signed with CSTV is nearly twice as lucrative as what ESPN was offering to renew its old agreement - and the league would be in "on the ground floor" if its new network partners succeed the way ESPN has over the last quarter century.

"I don't want to make this a bash-ESPN thing," Thompson said. "But we were getting pushed to the fringe."

Now, with less than two months until the start of football season, the league just has to make sure its groundbreaking efforts not only reach an audience, but inspire it to watch.

Coaches uniformly have supported the new partnership, often agreeing with Utah's Kyle Whittingham that increased exposure is one of its prime benefits. Yet the league sometimes averaged fewer than a million viewers for its broadcasts on ESPN - no doubt, the frequently late hours played a role - and doesn't usually sell out its mostly modest-sized stadiums.

That raises the question of whether there simply is enough interest to support a network devoted to the Mountain West, even if it is available to fans in every city in the league.

Thompson believes there is, of course, and said he's not worried about having to build a larger audience outside the league's "footprint" to sustain the networks' programming.

"I think there's a devout following" in the seven states with teams in the league, Thompson said. "We command a great presence. . . . Let's go to Salt Lake City. It's BYU, Utah and the Jazz. I don't know what else we can do to drum up more interest in those two universities."

Game On or Black Out?

* The Mountain West Conference still has not reached agreements that will ensure that fans in every league market will be able to access its sporting events on College Sports TV and the new "mtn." network. But commissioner Craig Thompson said he has finalized the first of what he expects to be several deals that soon will accomplish that goal.

* It's not yet known whether viewers will

have to subscribe to higher-priced premium cable or satellite programming packages to get the networks.

* No longer will league games be broadcast on local over-the-air stations like KSL or KJZZ, and only a few nonconference games will find their way onto other outlets like ESPN or Fox Sports.

In an effort to pioneer the next generation in broadcasting, the MWC is trying to ensure that all its fans will be able to see its football games.

The CSTV deal guarantees the league consistent game days and start times. What it hasn't been able to guarantee is MWC fans' access to the network.

Progress is being made, but questions remain about how widely available the MWC's TV networks will be, and how much fans must shell out for them.