Texas Eyes Longhorn TV Network
And now, after a whirlwind day that nearly overhauled the college sports landscape, Texas is poised to produce another phenomenon: The first sports TV network devoted to one university.
As part of its deal to remain in the Big 12, Texas won the ability to obtain an exclusive inventory of games -- in sports ranging from football to baseball to women's volleyball -- to broadcast on its own channel, according to three people familiar with negotiations between and among the school, the Big 12 and the conference's main TV partners: ESPN and Fox.
While Texas' decision to stay -- and decline an invitation to join an expanded Pac-10 -- was motivated by several factors, chief among them was the university's desire to launch its own cable channel and take ownership of media rights for the school's popular sports teams.
It's unclear when the planned Texas sports channel would debut, which games it will control, or what kind of distribution the proposed channel will get on cable and satellite systems. The network would be joining a crowded market that already includes college sport-specific channels owned by ESPN, CBS and Fox, as well as the Big Ten Network.
One veteran TV executive, who declined to be identified because he was involved in discussions to bring Texas to the Pac-10, said the school's sports network will have to survive on lower-profile sports and is unlikely to feature many significant basketball or football games. "The crumbs are going to trickle down to Texas' network," he said. "If they decide to launch this, it's going to be a tough putt, let's put it that way."
Earlier Monday, the university's athletic department issued a statement announcing that Texas would not be leaving the Big 12, but it did not address any specifics about future TV rights. Texas president Bill Powers and the school's two athletic directors are scheduled to speak to the media on Tuesday morning in Austin.
Texas has been exploring the creation of a sports network for at least two years, and has been advised on the process by IMG, the sports-marketing and talent agency that also owns Trans World International, a leading sports TV production company. A move to the Pac-10 would have scuttled Texas' network plans, since the Pac-10 -- which also has designs on starting its own network -- distributes media dollars evenly among its members and would not allow Texas to sell or broadcast a separate package of its games.
But the Big 12 -- with help from ESPN and Fox -- was willing to make a deal with the Longhorns, whose departure would likely have destroyed the league. As recently as last Friday, the Big 12's future looked bleak after Nebraska bolted to the Big Ten, Colorado accepted an invitation from the Pac-10, and rumors swirled about the imminent departure of five other schools -- notably Texas and Oklahoma -- to the Pac-10 as well.
The Big 12's existing TV deals pay its schools between $7 million and $10 million per year, far less than what competitors in the Big Ten and SEC make from their media contracts.
The Big Ten Network, which debuted in 2007 and is co-owned by the league's 11 members and Fox, now has between 35 and 40 million subscribers, and is a huge reason why the league's schools each receive more than $20 million per year in media fees. The SEC's 12 schools each get more than $17 million per year from national TV deals with ESPN and CBS, and SEC members also get millions more from local TV, radio and multimedia contracts.
Several outlets have reported that ESPN and Fox, whose Big 12 TV contracts expire in 2016 and 2012, respectively, agreed to significantly higher payments in order to keep Texas in the Big 12 and secure the conference's future. But a person familiar with the conference's negotiations said "reports of a new TV deal between Fox and the Big 12 are inaccurate."
According to several TV and college sports officials, however, neither ESPN nor Fox wanted to see the Big 12 go away, even if it meant increasing their payments to the conference or losing the rights to a few Texas games in the future. "It's all about shelf space on the network," said one executive involved with the Pac-10 and Big 12 expansion discussions. "It's beneficial to those two TV partners' businesses to have [the Big 12] inventory as opposed to having to strike new deals and worry about a host of new problems."
Fox had arguably more incentive to keep the Big 12 intact. Its cable deal with the conference was set to expire earlier than ESPN's, and its over-the-air network no longer owns the rights to the Bowl Championship Series games. (ESPN will televise the five BCS games beginning this season.)
Fox also may well end up partnering with the University of Texas on its cable network. Moreover, Fox's regional sports network in Houston is facing intense competition from Comcast, which recently launched a Houston channel and has moved aggressively to acquire rights to Houston Astros and Houston Rockets games, which are currently owned by Fox. By keeping the Big 12 intact in some form, Fox guarantees that its regional sports channels in Houston and Dallas will have plenty of local content from schools such as Texas Tech, Baylor and Texas A&M.
Of course, after a week of unprecedented speculation about the future and structure of major college sports, no one seems very sure about anything right now -- especially when it comes to the Big 12. "Forty-eight hours ago, I thought we were going to the Pac-10, now I think we're staying together," Oklahoma State University mega-booster T. Boone Pickens told FanHouse on Monday evening. "You think you got a deal and then it keeps changing."