For those of you who are still unaware, the Longhorn Network (LHN) was launched on August 26, 2011. It is a partnership between The University of Texas at Austin, ESPN, and IMG College, and is operated by ESPN. In summary, the LHN is essentially a regional sports network focusing exclusively on sports-related programming for Texas.
Concerns have been raised by some fans, bloggers, and journalists that ESPN's financial stake in the Longhorn Network creates a potential conflict of interest. Some fear that ESPN's involvement in the network will inhibit journalistic integrity as ESPN has a financial interest in the success of the athletic programs at the University of Texas. Of course that would entail ESPN actually having any sort of journalistic integrity, which they showed with the Craig James / Mike Leach debacle and their pathetic coverage of the Penn State scandal to be completely nonexistent. Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch wrote:
The network's existence... creates an impossible situation for ESPN's college football producers and reporters (plenty of whom care about reporting). For every story ESPN does on Texas and its opponents, they'll be skeptics wondering what the motivation was for the story.
You think? Unbelievably, there is also a clause in the network's founding agreement that gives Texas the right to dismiss LHN announcers that don't "reflect the quality and reputation of UT." An ESPN spokesperson addressed the situation by stating: "This is not common in ESPN agreements because this UT network is so unique/new for us ...The provision does not allow for random replacement of commentators or reaction to critical comments... it's more about potential situations where a commentator makes completely inappropriate comments or gets involved in inappropriate actions."
In case you hadn’t noticed, ESPN is quite keen on bowing to pressure from the programs that it pimps out. And who gets to decide what comments are "completely" inappropriate or just a little inappropriate?
But there are a myriad of other issues with this deal that could really throw a wrench into Collegiate Athletics.
A recent Bloomberg article delves into the details and effects of the Longhorn Network.
The contract guarantees Texas an average $15 million per year for 20 years. It may be a Walt Disney contract but this is no Mickey Mouse operation, and the Texas AD DeLoss Dodds is no dummy.
Dodds knew there was keen interest in the concept, because News Corp.’s Fox and two investor groups had bid against ESPN.
Not long after this announcement, Texas A&M, the Longhorns’ long-time rival, decided to leave the Big-12 conference and join the SEC. Meanwhile, Oklahoma is now trying to launch its own channel as well! Now I can understand Texas a bit, with good programs in football, basketball, baseball and a bunch of other sports…but Oklahoma? This is getting ridiculous. BYU even has its own network, but intentions are a little more sly there as it is apparently supposed to be a vehicle to spread the Mormon word.
So the first issue is really that this will put an even greater gap between the big dogs and the smaller programs, and to me it begins to tear away at the fabric of College sports. As Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne wrote in one of his weekly "blog" postings (you should read a bunch of them just to see how much more substance they have than Guerrero’s emails):
We anticipate that ESPN will continue to push the envelope with the Longhorn Network, regardless of Texas A&M’s conference affiliation.
ESPN pushing the envelope in college sports is essentially a death knell as far as I’m concerned. Now think about this: if the NCAA somehow moves towards a compensation system for athletes based on revenue, this could be a disaster waiting to happen. The big dogs will get bigger and the whole charm of college football and other sports will be gone. It’s already happening, and this would accelerate it on hyperdrive!
Now there could be some benefits that go beyond athletics, as stated in the Bloomberg article (emphasis mine):
No matter how many people end up watching the network, the contract signed on Christmas Eve guarantees Texas will receive the $300 million. The school will use some of the money to endow positions in subjects including math, physics and philosophy.
I would be fully in support of this. Of course that would entail our brilliant bureaucrats at the Morgan Center to actually clean the wax out of their ears and take off the blindfolds.
Still, a deal like this, with just one program instead of the whole conference, is highly detrimental to college sports. I understand the power and necessity to promote a brand and take advantage of a school's natural advantages, but it shouldn't be at the detriment of your conference brethren and tradition. Deals like the Big 10 Network and the upcoming Pac-12 Network are far more understanding of this and I believe will work out better in the long run. The LHN has alienated the rest of the Big 12 and nearly destroyed the conference. Not to mention that it basically derailed Larry Scott's Pac-16 plan.
Is greed good? This isn't Wall Street. It's college athletics, with amateurs. Greed corrupts, and absolute greed corrupts absolutely. As William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and co-chairman of the nonprofit Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, put it in a 2010 report:
[The race for revenue] could lead to permanent and untenable competition between academics and athletics.
Some programs may not care about that but I know UCLA would, even though the two budgets are separate. As the Bloomberg article states:
It's happening at schools like Rutgers University in New Jersey, which spent more money on sports than any public university in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2010, the most recent for which data are available, while its history department professors had their desk phones disconnected to save money.
Sorry Texas, you may be mavericks and you may be leading the parade, but I think your parade is headed for a cliff...