The heretofore-unnamed Longhorn sports network announced last week was not a surprise. Journalists and other commentators knew it was coming since the conference realignment shuffle that occurred over the summer.
However, the deal with ESPN is a number of things, not the least of which is lucrative. It is unprecedented, as no single school has ever packaged such a large amount of multi-sport content with a provider like ESPN. With the recent news that Time Warner might buy an ownership stake in the channel, it could reach as many as 2 million basic cable subscribers across the state.
It’s also a warning to the other Big 12 schools: Texas does not need you as much as you need Texas. With the means to secure this type of money, the UT Athletics Department might try negotiating its own package for all football games, independent of the conference, when the league’s agreements with ABC and the Fox Sports Network expire. The ESPN deal signals that the Texas brand is strong enough to do just that.
But it is not, as Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg said, all about the money.
The University stands to make up to $247.5 million over the 20-year contract, or just more than $12.37 million annually (with the rest going to IMG College, which owns the school’s multimedia rights) on top of its already substantial licensing agreements. That’s a serious amount of cash.
I believe the real reason is even simpler. Welcome to the larger-than-life embodiment of the saying “Everything is bigger in Texas.”
The ESPN deal lends a tremendous amount of status to even the smallest NCAA sports on campus. The appearance of rowing regattas and collegiate tennis matches on basic cable in Texas — with an August 2011 debut promised — represents a huge jump in exposure for UT’s non-revenue generating teams. No other school can boast such extensive coverage.
And for the bigger sports like football, which already has almost all of its games on television, a channel dedicated to around-the-clock programming adds icing to an already sweet cake.
And then there’s ESPN, the glitz-and-glamour 24/7 sports network that brought us such spectacles as LeBron’s “Decision” and the Tebow Saga. There is no doubt that it is the premier sports news and entertainment channel in America, both because of its coverage and production values. Put that sort of brand behind the moneymaking machine that is Texas Athletics and you have a media partnership forged in tycoon heaven.
ESPN is even rumored to be considering a permanent studio at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The company currently has 15 offices nationwide and this would be the first attached to a college. Think about that: a constant presence for the network on campus, generating Longhorn-centric content for television and the web. No other school’s multimedia footprint would even come close.
The venture may not even be profitable for ESPN in the first couple of years, but if this network gains momentum the potential advertising profits for the cable magnate and IMG are enormous. The existence of a UT-only channel reinforces the popularity of the already iconic Longhorn emblem, and the growth of said network will only fuel that attractiveness in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
All of this showboating breeds contempt, of course. Texas A&M is listening more and more to the siren calls of the Southeastern Conference. Oklahoma, with its own national following, could strive to establish a network now that the precedent is set. Universities like Notre Dame and Michigan may seek to renegotiate their own television deals for more content. All the while the smaller schools, especially in the Big 12, see a proportionately smaller return on their multimedia and television rights.
The money is important, perhaps even critical. But the most important thing about the Athletic Department to take away from this gross capitalization of brand recognition is this: They’re Texas, and they do what they want.
The rest of us are just observers or soon-to-be subscribers.