SPOKANE — Dylan Cook’s ears perked up during the Big Sky Football Kickoff on Monday when he heard Montana was going to be playing Eastern Washington on national television this season.
The Montana senior offensive lineman was already excited to play on Eastern Washington’s red turf for the first time in his career this year. He was even more thrilled when he found out it was going to be a night game. But the game being on ESPNU put things over the top for him.
“That’s so very cool,” he said. “It’s going to make it even better than I imagined.”
Montana and Eastern Washington will be the first Big Sky Conference teams to play a game on ESPNU this season when they meet on Oct. 2 in Cheney, Washington. Montana State will play at Weber State on Oct. 15 in another league game on ESPNU.
Those games are part of the Big Sky’s four-year contract with ESPN, which started last month. The contract allows for two regular-season games to be televised on ESPNU each season, increasing the exposure for the league and its teams.
The news of Montana State getting to play on ESPNU added to the excitement of the season’s start for Cats senior defensive lineman Amandre Williams. He didn’t get to play any football last year because of the pandemic and MSU opting out of the Big Sky’s spring season.
“It’s exciting to play meaningful football again, and so, when it was announced that we'd be on an ESPN network, man, it just adds that much more to the football game,” he said.
Weber State senior Rashid Shaheed, known for his explosive special teams touchdowns, was thrilled when he heard the news of getting to play on an ESPN channel.
“Being able to play on ESPN is always a great opportunity to be able to get that exposure for the Big Sky against a great opponent like Montana State,” he said. “It’s going to be a good game. It’s a Friday night, kind of like high school, Friday night lights. It should be a fun game.”
Eastern Washington senior linebacker Jack Sendelbach was already looking forward to the game because of the recent rivalry with Montana, but he’s more excited now.
“It’s awesome. We actually don’t really play that many night games at the ‘Inferno,’” he said, referencing the red turf. “So the fact that it’s on ESPNU too is pretty sweet.”
In selecting games, ESPN picked the two games it wanted and then had to come to a mutual agreement with the conference, Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said.
Weber State also needed to agree to move its game against MSU from Saturday to Friday. Montana’s game at Eastern Washington remained on Saturday.
“You’re looking for good rivalries with good teams and then you want a home location that can provide a good atmosphere, and both those games will have great attendance,” Wistrcill said. “That’s what you’re looking for because you want to put your conference in the best light possible.”
All four teams are expected to be competing for the conference title. Weber State, Montana, Eastern Washington and Montana State were Nos. 1-4 in that order in both the coaches and media preseason conference polls.
First-year Montana State coach Brent Vigen is looking forward to the matchup against Weber State, which has won at least a share of the Big Sky title each of the past four seasons, including the abbreviated spring 2021 season.
“I knew there were only going to be two games, so for us to get one of those opportunities and to have it be that game against Weber, who has been a team that has certainly been the target the last several years, I think it's a great opportunity for our guys,” he said.
The four teams combined for 18 of 30 preseason all-conference player selections. Having so much talent on the field for a nationally-televised game is appealing to Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best
“It’s cool,” he said. “I think it’s good for the conference, it’s good for our school, it’s good for Montana and it’s two good opponents that I think are going to be pretty good this year that have a lot of talent returning, so I think it’ll be fun and great exposure for the conference as well.”
The Montana game against Eastern Washington also features a rivalry aspect because they’ve been playing going back to the 1980s. That wasn’t lost on Sendelbach, a seventh-year senior.
“The fact that it’s against the Griz, you know how fun that is for everyone,” he said. “So, that’s going to be a fun one for everyone.”
The two-game limit of ESPNU games is only for regular-season contests. Big Sky teams could potentially play a televised game on ESPN during the postseason.
That’s the case Montana coach Bobby Hauck has found himself in before while leading Montana to three national championship games from 2003-09. The fact that this game will be on national television won’t change his approach.
“Over the years, it’s not like we haven’t played some national games, so that’s not anything new,” he said. “I think it’s a good deal for the conference to get that exposure nationally. I’m not big on night games, but TV sets the time on that, so that’s when we’re playing.”
The Big Sky is currently the only conference that competes in the FCS playoffs to have live regular-season games on the ESPN linear networks this year, Wistrcill said.
“That’s a really big thing for us as a league,” he said. “That separates us from the other FCS conferences out there.”
The national exposure of playing on an ESPN television network is one of the benefits of the deal. Other football games will be streamed on ESPN+, a streaming subscription service.
UM and MSU will also play televised games on Root Sports. One of those games will be the 120th Brawl of the Wild on Nov. 20, while MSU will host Cal Poly on Oct. 9 and UM will host Southern Utah on Oct. 30 on Root Sports. The fourth game on Root Sports will be Idaho at Eastern Washington on Oct. 16.
Vigen learned from his time coaching at Wyoming that having games on national television, in addition to streaming, can help in spreading a team’s brand nationally.
“I think our program deserves it and our players, to get on this stage, it's like this unique opportunity at the FCS level,” he said.
Before this deal, Big Sky teams had some games streamed on Pluto TV. Sendelbach will no longer have the issue of explaining to family and friends what Pluto TV is and where it could be found.
The games might now run on TV while FBS games are going on, giving casual football fans an easier way to tune in. That normally happens deep in the playoffs when a team is playing in the FCS championship game. Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere led the Eagles to the title game in the 2018 season, getting to play for the crown on ESPN2.
“The exposure for the program and the FCS, it’ll be really big because you get a primetime game,” he said. “That’s when you really get the Pac-12 games on, too, so you’re going to have Pac-12 but also our game on, so I think that’ll get us a lot of eyes and attention.”
Montana State senior offensive lineman Lewis Kidd believes nationally televised games could add some more respect to the FCS and its players instead of being seen as a massive drop-off from the FBS level.
“There are a lot of teams and a lot of guys around the league and around the FCS that compete and can compete at the next level and higher levels, and it's awesome to see us kind of getting our foot in the door, so to speak,” he said. “And, you know, hopefully in the years to come, every team has a game on ESPN, whatever it is. Kind of a stepping stone, for sure, but really excited.”