SAN DIEGO — It's been said many times, by many observers, that BYU has a national fan base.
Now, that theory is being documented with statistics.
While not scientific, an online survey, the Commoncensus Sports Map Project, reveals that the Cougar Nation is indeed large — and growing. According to the 28,419 votes on www.commoncensus.org, BYU is, not surprisingly, the No. 1 most popular college team in Utah.
But the Cougars are also the No. 2 most popular team in Tempe, Ariz., No. 3 in Tucson, Ariz., No. 3 in the Pacific Northwest, No. 4 in Los Angeles, No. 5 in Dallas-Fort Worth, No. 5 in San Diego, No. 6 in the Bay Area, No. 9 in Houston and No. 10 in Lexington, Ky.
The Cougars are also found in the top 20 in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New England.
No wonder ESPN signed an eight-year broadcasting deal with BYU when the Cougars became an independent in football.
Joe Schad, who is ESPN's national college football reporter, isn't surprised by those numbers.
"Those statistics are interesting. I think BYU is certainly a national brand, in the same ilk as Notre Dame," said Schad, who provided color commentary on ESPN radio during the Cougars' recent appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl. "They have a national recruiting base and a national following. Obviously, I'm not a TV executive, but from what I have been told, ESPN is pleased with its relationship with BYU and the scheduling opportunities that it has presented for the network. BYU is a very attractive brand from a television perspective. My company desired BYU as a broadcast partner. BYU is attractive to our television audience and to our executives."
BYU officials have said that exposure is among the most important reasons to go independent, and ESPN certainly provides that.
Of course one explanation for the Cougars’ popularity is that most BYU fans are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU.
"I do think the religious affiliation and the widespread distribution (of BYU football) are huge reasons for the popularity," Schad said. "I've heard BYU will strongly maintain its independent status even though the school would be attractive to several conferences because spreading the mission of the Mormon Church on a national basis is as important, if not more important, than the potential money that can be earned through conference affiliation."
Can BYU remain independent for the long term?
"A lot of people have long wondered if Notre Dame would be forced into a conference," Schad said. "Notre Dame is going to have a scheduling and bowl tie-in with the Atlantic Coast Conference. I'm sure BYU's leadership will continue to monitor the ever-changing landscape and also take into consideration the university's tradition of finishing in the top 25. BYU has the opportunity to set up a nationally recognized schedule with the partnership of ESPN."
As an independent, BYU can compete at the highest levels of college football, Schad said.
"As far as independent status, there were questions as to whether Notre Dame would be able to re-attain national championship-quality status. I don't think it's impossible to win a national championship at BYU. Notre Dame has shown that."
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has enjoyed the benefits of independence, which includes playing games in a variety of locations around the country, where pockets of Cougar fans live.
This season, BYU traveled to Boise State, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, San Jose State and New Mexico State. Wherever BYU plays, Cougar fans show up in droves.
"I've really enjoyed playing at different facilities in different states, and seeing how excited BYU supporters are in that are to have BYU come," Mendenhall said. "That's been really interesting to see how passionate they've been to come to the firesides, come to the games and support the team. It's really refreshing to see the sincerity of support. I really enjoy that."
Next season, BYU is scheduled to play at Virginia, at Houston, at Wisconsin, at Notre Dame and at Hawaii. Future games are scheduled at Texas, at Middle Tennessee, at Nebraska, at Michigan, at Southern Miss, at Cincinnati, at Boise State, at Central Florida, at East Carolina and against West Virginia in Landover, Md.
"Most (opposing) coaches marvel at our support. I think what it really shows is there's so much more to BYU than just football," Mendenhall said after the Cougars' 50-14 victory over New Mexico State on Nov. 24. "I love our fans at home, there's a phenomenal commitment though from the ones that travel and show up when we play on the road. They're so excited to see us. That's been a great thing about independence. There are some unique places we're playing. For those fans that don't usually get to see us in person, you talk to them and they're appreciative. That's a pretty cool thing."
Mendenhall enjoys the exposure his team is receiving thanks to ESPN, too.
"Last year, there are only five teams that were seen by national audiences than us," he said. "That's a fantastic thing for our program and for the message our institution has and for BYU football."
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