A few weeks ago on our Omaha.com blog, I called the Longhorn Network — this $300 million boondoggle of an agreement between Texas and ESPN — too big to fail.
It appears I’m right — in a sense — because the Pac-Pick-Your-Number looks willing to bail out UT and ESPN by transforming LHN into a satellite of its TV network. Oklahoma is setting the pace and trying to coax Texas brass out of its own quagmire. The Lone Star State is equal parts sensible and stubborn, so we’ll see which one wins out.
If I’m Texas, I run to the Pac-PYN. And if I’m ESPN, I give the Longhorns a swift kick in that direction.
It’d be manna from heaven for both parties, which hasn’t a clue how to sell its network without peddling the Friday night lights of Texas high school football. That’s the No. 1 pigskin love in the Lone Star State — I’d argue the Dallas Cowboys are No. 2 — and UT/ESPN can’t fully leverage high school football and reap the benefits of broadcasting it without the NCAA’s permission.
If the Pac-PYN engulfs LHN, however, Texas can keep a distinct burnt orange flavor to its channel and ESPN can breathe easier, pulling a big chunk of its money from the table, as if some benevolent football god saw the Mouse’s rotten hand and gently canceled this round of big-stake poker.
As the Austin-American Statesman’s Kirk Bohls writes this morning:
“I’m told that ESPN would welcome Texas’ inclusion in the Pac-12 because it would allow that network to renegotiate a more reasonable contract with the school for a regional Longhorn Network that would include Texas Tech.
I have never seen the Longhorn faithful as riled up as they are over the inability to see the LHN, because of ESPN’s inability to find widespread distributors. If the Lone Star Network, including Tech, were folded under the Pac-12 umbrella, its distributorship would be guaranteed by Pac-12 contracts: Everybody wins.”
And Bohls wrote this, too: “What’s ironic about these realignment developments is that the original idea behind a Pac-16 was conjured up by Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, after a round of golf with Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott during the Longhorns’ trip to the Rose Bowl about a year and a half ago. Scott, as dynamic a person as college sports have ever seen, took that vision and ran with it — and he’s still running.”
So why didn’t this happen last year?
Because the Pac-PYN hadn’t negotiated its first-tier TV rights yet, and ESPN was in danger of losing the whole enchilada to Fox Sports. ESPN kept Texas from going to the Pac-PYN by promising this crazy deal for LHN. That’s all that kept the Big 12 together, folks. That and Texas A&M not being able to politically pull the trigger for a SEC move. Not Dan Beebe, not this mythical coalition of the willing, not the Kansas City media beating its chest against Nebraska, none of it. Just ESPN and A&M’s trepidation.
The LHN deal compelled A&M to act in its own interest. The Aggies are doing that. UT, meanwhile, can’t move its own network in its own state. You know who showed up on ESPN’s Gameday show Saturday morning? Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. You know what everybody talked about Saturday night? LSU’s defense and Boise State’s mojo. Nobody gave two thoughts about Texas’ game vs. Rice.
Here’s why: Texas isn’t that good. And Texas isn’t that important. The Longhorns aren’t the Yankees. Heck, if any Big 12 team is, it’s the Sooners. You know, the No. 1 team in college football.
Meanwhile, UT spent its fall camp in lockdown mode, the normally-loquacious Mack Brown saving all his best lines for LHN insider peeks nobody gets to see. While the local media couldn’t talk to players for weeks, I sure did notice all the gum-flapping those players were doing in LHN promotionals. Talk about nonsense. You’re not going to talk to the Austin American-Statesman and Dallas Morning News, but you’re going to dish exclusively to some 27-year-old producer from Bristol, Conn?
Texas is a kept woman right now, a trophy for private TV viewing to a still-undefined audience. Meanwhile, ESPN expects UT to burn every bridge it has by co-opting Texas high school football as its own? Jeebus. It’s another $15 million per year, yes. But it’s not worth all that.
In one of my favorite movies, “Chinatown,” private investigator Jake Gittes asks the thoroughly rotten tycoon Noah Cross the following: “How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
Cross responds: “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!”
That’s Texas for the last year. UT is perhaps detestable like Cross was, but more pitiable. Look: the biggest event on the Longhorn Network all year — a game vs. Rice — just happened. Did you notice? Did anyone outside of furious Texas fans who didn’t get to see the game? No. It wasn’t even the biggest game in the state. That belonged to Oregon vs. LSU.
The LHN contract would restrict UT in ways it hasn’t even fathomed yet.
What if, when Brown retires, the next head coach isn’t a shill, but a secretive guy like Bo Pelini? What would ESPN do? Texas, right now, is almost forced to present hams as coaches. Brown, fortunately, can do this without seeming completely ridiculous. Other coaches — I’ll bet Will Muschamp, judging by his get-me-the-heck-out-of-here interview with Erin Andrews on Saturday, would be one of them — aren’t so comfy on a TV stage.
In a perfect world, Texas would burn up the ESPN contract, push for a Big 12 Network and take a slightly higher cut of profit than every other league team but Oklahoma.
But the world’s not perfect. So it’s Pac-PYN.