Detroit The historic launching of the University of Texas’ own 24-hour sports cable network is as much an affirmation of enormous ego as it is commerce. Texas wanted to be the first athletic conglomerate on the block with its own channel.
But it’s also another indication of the continuing devaluation of conference affiliation.
We knew The Longhorn Network was coming soon. It’s why Texas rejected a formal offer to join an expanded Pac-10 last year and wouldn’t seriously consider joining the Big Ten. Those conferences wouldn’t permit the richest athletic department in the land a grossly disproportionate slice of the vast and still expanding national television revenue pie.
Texas officially became an “independent” with this exclusive network deal. The Big 12 is nothing more than a convenient scheduling partner for the Longhorns now.
How long before the Big Ten gets caught in the ripple effects? How long before Ohio State, the second-biggest revenue producer in all college sports, envisions its own exclusive “Buckeye Network” and seeks a spinoff from the Big Ten Network?
The NCAA must look closely at an exclusive 24-hour channel tied to one institution. It’s basically a paid commercial for the school. Texas already enjoyed a tremendous recruiting advantage over its closest neighbors, especially in football and basketball. But does 24 hours of “Hook ’Em Horns” constitute an unfair recruiting advantage?
It further tips the competitive scales in the favor of those with the deepest pockets. But Texas’ attitude is “If you can’t beat us, tough. Try to join us.”
The Longhorns’ 20-year, $300-million deal with ESPN, which will nationally distribute the network, reportedly dwarfs Notre Dame’s exclusive contract with NBC by about $6 million annually.
It’ll be hard for the other big boys — or at least those who kid themselves into believing that they’re one of the big boys — to ignore.
For instance, ESPN’s agreement with the SEC allows for individual universities to develop their own exclusive channels. How does Gator TV sound in Florida or The SIGN (Saban Is God Network) in Alabama? Auburn’s network could create its own version of the game show “The Price Is Right” starring the fathers of prospective football recruits.
This mad gold rush first began with the clairvoyant Big Ten Network three and a half years ago.
Commissioner Jim Delany and the university presidents smartly foresaw the revenue potential in owning as much of its broadcast content as possible. It worked initially because the conference sold all parties large and small on the virtue of equal revenue sharing.
But Texas’ Longhorn Network just changed the rules for the next five years. Forget your conference partners. It’s now every big dog for itself.