The half-year birthday for the network that was supposed to change all networks came and went without the celebration many had anticipated back in August.
At that time, the biggest concern on the campus was whether Matthew McConaughey was comparing Longhorn culture to “pride and heat” or “dried meat” — both legitimate claims — in his iconic network-launching promo.
Instead, UT head athletic directors DeLoss Dodds and Chris Plonsky felt compelled to release a joint statement last month. In it, they said that the attention to the lack of distributors willing to pick up the network is “[overshadowing] the network’s many positive aspects and impact.”
They also tote ESPN’s track record of launching seven other networks, which — though meant to be assuring — at least chronologically leaves open the possibility for a failed Longhorn Network to be turned into ESPN 8, “The Ocho.”
Additionally, UT athletics released an updated fact sheet on Monday reminding curious wanderers about the six student internships and six endowed faculty chairs the network made possible and that all costs fall on the shoulders of ESPN. A link to the fact sheet is even featured on the UT System’s website.
Despite the groundbreaking and transformative aura attached to a network dedicated to a single school, The Longhorn Network’s early developmental struggles lie in a timeless reality: No matter the fans, stadiums or courts, you have to win in the big sports.
And for UT, a 7-5 football team and two basketball teams with outside shots at making their respective NCAA Tournaments simply do not make the cut. Even with the exposure of a surfeit of under-appreciated sports such as volleyball, baseball, softball and swimming, the real value drivers remain fixed.
Implementing a new network, like a new business or new university program, comes with its growing pains and challenges. After all, the UT-ESPN partnership is a two-decade experiment, and no stakeholder seems outwardly panicked or distraught.
But when the network launched six months ago, it was near the center of a heightening, nationwide conversation that called the educational and moral foundations of college athletics into question. The public began to criticize the men and women in high places who are reaping unparalleled sums off the backs of unpaid student-athletes.
The network itself may not be doing well, but the University, the coaches and the administrators are still reaping the financial benefits of the deal. Meanwhile, student-athletes are operating in an environment of higher stakes but are still not getting compensated for it.
Dodds and Plonsky are right: All the attention given to television distributors steering clear of Bevo is overshadowing the real impact of the network. But the impact is not something they want to be dealing with.