In one form or another, almost everything that's been written about the Longhorn Network since ESPN and the University of Texas announced the project in January has come from a position of respect. On one hand, it's a one-of-a-kind venture that promised staggering revenues and furthered Texas' position as a uniquely innovative behemoth in college sports. On the other, it's a self-interested power grab by a bully that further tilts the playing field in the Big 12 and may yet help tear the conference apart. But no one seemed to question the network as a symbol of Texas' might.
The Longhorn Network launches today, but, barring last-minute deals with cable or satellite providers, it's possible University of Texas fans nationwide won't be able to tune in.
As of late Thursday, only Verizon FiOS had signed up to carry the cable channel, a joint venture between UT and ESPN. That contract doesn't take effect until Sept. 1.
Network executives say they're confident additional deals will be announced soon — perhaps even before today's 6 p.m. debut broadcast.
"I would just tell people to be patient," said Stephanie Druley, one of the network's vice presidents. "This is what happens. I know people are probably tired of hearing that, but it's the truth."
When it does take effect, the Verizon FiOS deal will put the network in front of about 3.7 million people, but small potatoes compared to the likes of Time Warner Cable, the dominant cable provider in Central Texas and the second-largest in the nation. (I suppose I should disclose that I happen to be a Time Warner subscriber in Central Texas, but I wouldn't advertise for their inconsistent services if they paid me.*) The major cable carriers are reportedly balking at the network's proposal to charge 40 cents per subscriber in Texas and adjoining states (Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico), the same type of battle that strung out negotiations over the fledgling Big Ten Network a few years back and that's kept the NFL Network off of many carriers' lineups — including Time Warner's — to this day.
There might be slightly less urgency to get a major deal done, like, yesterday if it wasn't for Texas' impending season opener against Rice on Sept. 3, which happens to be airing exclusively on … any guesses? That's right, the Longhorn Network. At some point this season (most likely on Oct. 29 against Kansas or Nov. 19 against Kansas State), it also plans to air a Big 12 home game, which will also go largely unseen unless there's an agreement in the meantime. Which there probably will be: ESPN didn't sign up for $300 million over 20 years to broadcast to an audience smaller than the metropolitan population of Dallas-Forth Worth. Until then, the Longhorn Network is talking to itself.