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Why BYU at Navy Will Be Most Viewed BYU Game Since the Cougars Went Independent

While the circumstances surrounding college football change each day, the stage is being set for BYU's game at Navy on Labor Day.

BYU fans were cautiously optimistic when the Cougars announced a Labor Day game against Navy on ESPN. The news followed various cancellations of long-anticipated games against teams like Utah, Arizona State, Minnesota and Michigan State. When BYU announced the replacement game against Navy, college football was on the brink of being canceled altogether. Now, Labor Day is less than two weeks away and BYU is still set to travel to Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. 

BYU at Navy will fill ESPN's annual Labor Day primetime game. Historically, the primetime Labor Day spot is one of the most-viewed regular season games of the college football season. I looked at tv ratings dating back to 2012 for both BYU games and ESPN's Labor Day games. After reviewing those ratings, I expect more viewers for BYU's game against Navy than any game since BYU went independent in 2011.

Credit: BYU Athletics

Credit: BYU Athletics

BYU has played big names on big platforms since going independent. BYU's list of former foes includes Notre Dame, LSU, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, Cal, Nebraska, UCLA, and Washington among many others. As an independent school, BYU has an agreement with ESPN that allows them to play on national television multiple times per season. The graphic below illustrates BYU's most viewed game each year, dating back to 2012:

Note: The y-axis represents viewers (in millions) and the x-axis represents the season. BYU's opponent is represented by the logo above each bar.

Data Source: Sports Media Watch

Data Source: Sports Media Watch

BYU's most viewed game since 2012 was the Fight Hunger bowl against Washington in 2013. If you prefer lists over graphics, below is a list of BYU's most viewed game each year:

(Year, Opponent, Viewers)

  • 2012: Notre Dame - 3.70m
  • 2013: Washington - 3.75m
  • 2014: Virginia - 1.64m
  • 2015: Utah - 3.68m
  • 2016: Michigan State - 3.25m
  • 2017: Wisconsin - 2.27m
  • 2018: Wisconsin - 2.91m
  • 2019: USC - 2.67m

I couldn't find TV ratings data on the 2011 college football season—the first year BYU went independent. It's unlikely, however, that any game in 2011 would have exceeded the 3.75m viewers that watched BYU against Washington in 2013. BYU's game against Ole Miss on ESPN was probably the most viewed game that season. However, that game kicked off in the middle of the day when many games were on TV. For the purpose of this article, let's assume the game against Washington in 2013 is the most viewed game in the independence era.

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Now, let's turn out attention to ESPN's Labor Day games. This is the only weekend where college football can play on Monday night without interfering with the NFL and Monday Night Football. Since 2012, that game has featured at least one team from the ACC. Below is a graphic that represents the viewers for ESPN's Labor Day game dating back to 2012: 

Data Source: Sports Media Watch

Data Source: Sports Media Watch

Ohio State and Virginia Tech drew the largest audience in 2015 with more than 10 million viewers. Miami vs Louisville drew the smallest audience in 2014 with 3.61 million viewers. It's worth noting, however, that 2014 TV numbers might be understated. You may recall BYU's 2014 numbers were down substantially compared to other seasons. This theme is consistent across college football in 2014—TV numbers appear understated. That is important to note. If 2014 is excluded, the smallest Labor Day audience (Georgia Tech vs Virginia Tech—4.3 million) would exceed BYU's largest audience (3.75m) since 2012.

The Labor Day game has averaged 5.48 million viewers over the last three years. With that in mind, BYU at Navy could draw 5.2 million viewers or more. 5.2 million viewers on Labor Day would be the lowest number ESPN has seen since 2014, but it would exceed BYU's prior viewership record by 39%:

Data Source: Sports Media Watch

Data Source: Sports Media Watch

While 5.2 million viewers is only a projection, the circumstances surrounding college football could draw an even larger audience when the Cougars kick off against the Midshipmen.  

As it currently stands, BYU at Navy is one of the first college football games of the season to air on ESPN. Kirk Herbstreit Rece Davis will call the game—even College Gameday could be on hand. Herbstreit appeared on 1045 the Zone in Nashville on Monday and said, "It’s the first game on and the only game on that weekend—at least for teams that you’ve heard of. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited for a BYU-Navy game than I am for this game. Labor Day night, and it will be a lot of fun to just to see football."

Today, ESPN College Football's Twitter account put out a promo video for the upcoming college football season. BYU vs Navy was one of three games advertised:

In addition, BYU is the last team standing out West. While it's risky to be the only team west of Texas playing football during a pandemic, there are obvious opportunities for national exposure. Exposure was one of the main reasons BYU left the Mountain West conference for independence in 2011.

There won't be fans in the stands. Labor Day weekend won't feel like a normal college football weekend. Lots of college football fans won't see their favorite teams this fall, but all eyes will be on BYU and Navy on Labor Day night.