The Longhorn Network -- The $300 Million Mystery
"We want to define what it means to be 'the' public university. The challenge is to create new sources of revenue to support our mission." -- University of Texas President Bill Powers
Done and done.
Earlier today, the University of Texas and ESPN announced a 20-year, $300 million partnership creating a Longhorn Television Network that will be owned, distributed and run by ESPN with the University of Texas essentially providing the content in the form of Longhorn athletic events, coaches' shows and ancillary programming.
I'm no accountant, but in terms of the mission President Powers is looking to support, I'm guessing $300 million can do a lot of supportin'.
In the summer of 2010, Texas was seriously evaluating a move to join the Pac-10, and ultimately decided against it in large part because the Big 12 decided to let the Longhorns pursue their own television network (a stipulation the Pac-10 would not agree to). Originally forecast to generate between $3 million and $5 million per year for the school, a bidding war between Fox and ESPN drove the annual rights fees up to the $15 million announced today.
As for content, ESPN.com outlined what viewers can expect to see on the network when it launches in September:
Included in the coverage will be at least one exclusive football game, eight men's basketball games, women's basketball coverage of games not televised elsewhere, and Olympic sports coverage. There will also be pregame and postgame shows for football and basketball games, coaches' shows for every sport Texas sponsors and other daily programming.
In addition, there will be university news, coverage of lectures and visiting speakers along with commencement ceremonies, and even high school coverage on an authenticated online/broadband site.
Earlier today, I interviewed Sports Business Journal's John Ourand on my radio show and he provided some really good insight on how Texas arrived at this potentially landscape-changing deal today. He was very clear that this deal is an unequivocal home run on every level for the University of Texas. For ESPN, none of us really know; a true channel solely devoted to a university is uncharted territory for a network.
This could be the start of a very lucrative trend or a $300 million albatross. We'll see.
To me, the biggest questions that need to be answered are as follows:
1. Does this partnership further erode ESPN's journalistic credibility? As much as ESPN tries to position itself as some sort of entertainment/journalism hybrid, the fact of the matter is that ultimately their bills get paid based on providing content. We saw last summer with the coverage of LeBron James -- the marquee product within the NBA brand, and the NBA being one of ESPN's three biggest partners along with the NFL and Major League Baseball -- that ESPN either had trouble providing balanced coverage and criticism of LeBron, or at the very least was perceived by the viewing public to have had trouble.
Either way, you have to wonder if this partnership with the Longhorn brand will mean that Texas's athletics program, specifically their football team, will be covered and evaluated in a fair and even manner. Let's face it, the higher the Horns are ranked, the better it is for Longhorn Network (and, in turn, ESPN's) business. Will ESPN's talking heads offer criticism that could erode the value of their partner's brand at all?
2. How long will all of the UT Olympic sports continue to get their promised level of coverage? Ultimately, the Longhorn Network is a business and in order for a network to make money, they need advertisers -- enough advertisers to cover a $15 million annual nut. Let's face it, replays of virtually any Longhorn football game, or constant replays of the Mack Brown Show, or pretty much anything related to Longhorn football will crush women's basketball or men's swimming in television ratings. What if the network is losing money a couple years in? Do you scale back the Olympic sports coverage to make it the Longhorn Football Network (featuring minimal Olympic Sports interruptions)?
3. There's high school sports coverage as part of this also? Uh oh. Yes, as part of the deal, on an authenticated online/broadband channel, the Longhorn Network will carry some high school sports. As unsavory a game as recruiting already is, did the Longhorns just stumble into a loophole recruiting chip? Is there anything stopping this Longhorn broadband channel from carrying the high school games of target recruits?
4. Is this pushing Texas one step closer toward football independence? Probably not, but there's no longer any financial argument that can be made whereby Texas needs the rest of the Big 12. Some will say that, in a worst-case scenario, Texas would have to go find a whole new set of opponents, to which I say, "Yeah?....And?" As great as Texas's rivalries with Oklahoma and A&M are, if you think the intrinsic value in those rivalries compared to comparable schedule replacements (from a quality of opponent standpoint) is even close to $300 million over 20 years, then you're just wrong. Would it be a sad day for traditionalists if Texas had to completely redo a Soonerless and Aggieless schedule? Yes. But would it still make money? Under the terms of this television deal, yes. Hand over fist. (By the way, who's to say that OU and A&M wouldn't still play an independent Texas each year? I'm just gauging worst-case scenarios.)
Whatever the case, if nothing else, today we just got one step closer to finally seeing Are You Smarter Than Vince Young? become a television reality. From that standpoint, today was a good day.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.