Mac Engel

Best hope for Big 12 in expansion is death of Longhorn Network

The reason the Big 12 must ponder expansion is a network that wanders in a pasture like a lost, fat cow.

Had ESPN never handed the University of Texas a 20-year, $300 million contract to create the Longhorn Network, Texas A&M and Missouri might still be here, and the Big 12 would not be evaluating Memphis as a candidate in expansion.

(Here’s a hint — it’s not.)

The dreaded and randomly seen Longhorn Network resides in a cable TV universe where “cord cutting” is a real thing that damages conventional television daily, ESPN included.

Whatever we feared the Longhorn Network was going to become, it hasn’t. What it has become is another niche sports station in a land of nearly 100 of them.

It has had zero impact on recruiting and has not provided clear advantages for UT’s sports teams. UT looks no better or worse today than when the network launched. If the LHN has worked for ESPN, only its owner, Disney, knows for sure.

One source with ESPN told me, “If it could dump it tomorrow, it would.”

An ESPN spokesman flatly and repeatedly denied this. It’s worth noting ESPN is notoriously sensitive about negative news even as it has reduced expenses and laid off scores of longtime employees in recent months.

The Longhorn Network has succeeded in providing more money for cash-stuffed UT — and acted as a consistent thorn in the Big 12’s side. If the league wants to attract a viable member to its “team,” i.e., not Memphis or Houston, it needs to broker an agreement with UT and ESPN for a bona fide network.

If the Big 12 is unable to create a legit network that includes Texas, forget being able to somehow lure a real school back to this league like Nebraska or Missouri. The future Big 12 is going to look like a cross between the old Conference USA and the Mountain West.

Sources at Fox Sports and Fox Sports Southwest said the networks have approached the Big 12 about possibly joining forces, but the existence of the Longhorn Network continues to prevent a merger.

UT wants to be a part of the conference and keep most of the money, too. How fun.

The ideal outcome for the Big 12 would be that ESPN reaches a settlement with UT to stop the LHN, and the Big 12 network launches from the same studios in Austin. But that is not happening today or anytime soon.

ESPN is going to have to forecast heavy losses to simply flush the LHN investment.

Now that ESPN is set to announce a long-term agreement to form a network with the ACC, the Big 12 is the only major college conference without its own TV network.

The SEC Network is thriving.

For reasons unbeknownst to even the most adroit scholars, the Big Ten Network is providing millions of dollars to its conference members. That means there is a person who intentionally watches Indiana play Rutgers in a sporting event.

The Pac-12 has a deal with Fox.

With Big 12 expansion inevitable, yesterday would be an ideal time for this dysfunctional league to find/create a network. Yet you can’t have a Big 12 Network as long as the most prized member has an exclusive agreement with the biggest sports media entity on earth.

Much to the consternation of all things Aggie, ESPN plucked UT to be its best friend and treats the rest of the league with equal adoration or indifference, given the season.

Since its launch, per ESPN, the Longhorn Network has grown to include 20 million subscribers, and is now offered on nine of the 10 largest cable providers.

It recently announced a change to its studio shows, including dropping Longhorn Extra, as well as a handful of contract non-renewals for some employees. That is consistent with the layoffs and reduction in staff at ESPN.

“We, like all networks, regularly evaluate programming and make strategic decisions accordingly,” an ESPN spokesman said. “The total number of Longhorn Network positions remains the same.”

It did, however, secure former UT players Ricky Williams and Vince Young to remain as analysts ... whatever that means. Those guys would work for free and live under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin if it meant they can live in Austin and talk UT football.

Stories from LHN employees about its relationship with UT are not glowing. Despite LHN/ESPN giving UT millions every year, LHN employees often complain that the athletic department is not helpful with access and interviews.

This was always going to be a problem when a network needed to create 24/7 original programming for one athletic department. It needs content, but the content providers — such as coaches and players — don’t want the hassle.

And it does not help that, since the network launched, the football team has turned into a joke worthy of cancellation. The Longhorns are 36-28 during the existence of the Longhorn Network, often leading to speculation the station will simply air UT’s Rose Bowl win over USC rather than any current game.

The only real winner with the Longhorn Network, thus far, has been UT’s bank account, which historically has never suffered.

With a contract that does not end for another 15 years, there is no indication the LHN will end any time soon. Bevo will just get fatter as the Big 12 just gets more desperate.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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