When writing about the Longhorn Network, it's still tempting to refer to it as a "fledgling" network. Perhaps that's simply lazy writing, the type that comes about from writing well within a comfort zone, but it's also still largely true -- as the Texas-only production enters its third year on the air, the major carriers that move the needle for most fans in most of the country still haven't picked it up, leaving Longhorn fans across the country without access to multiple fall football games, as well as subjected to greatly reduced access to basketball and baseball telecasts.
To put it succinctly, if a fair characterization of the network falls short of calling it a failure, there seems to be little question that it ins't where Texas and ESPN thought it would be nearly three years in. And that's extremely disappointing, at the least.
To a large extent, the struggles fall on the Texas athletic department. Not because DeLoss Dodds and company really have any control over the negotiation process -- that's virtually all ESPN's doing -- but because the three major sports have struggled so much over the two seasons the Longhorn Network has been on the air. Now, baseball doesn't have much of an impact over whether Time Warner is willing to pay out the money the network wants, but baseball and basketball are the value-adds, the sports that are supposed to make the network even more appealing to providers. Suffice it to say that the two sports are currently adding no particular value with their current states.
The major culprit is Mack Brown and his football program. Maybe if the Texas head coach had made clear his feelings about how much he doesn't like to maintain the success of a program that he helped pull from the dark ages, but instead prefers building, ESPN would have known that 2010 wasn't just a one-year aberration. Within the Longhorn fan base, demand for football programming may not exactly be completely inelastic, but for all those fans around the country who watched because of Vince Young and Colt McCoy, the appeal is gone, right along with the success that defined the program for so long under Brown.
Besides the enjoyment of trolling a fan base spoiled by a long run of success, what's the fun in watching the Longhorns right now for the average fan?
It's difficult to say to what extent pressure from subscribers could force a behemoth like Time Warner to give ground in negotiations, but the hope right now, at ESPN and within the Texas fan base, has to be that the favorable projections for this season, for a return to former competitiveness, could help push demand for the network over the top -- or at least make it economically feasible from Time Warner's perspective.
But as much as the outlook once again looks less-than-favorable, Verizon and AT&T are the fourth- and fifth-largest providers nationally, so there has been some traction, it just doesn't feel significant almost two years in. It could be just a matter of time before the major domino of Time Warner falls and set the market for another major provider like Comcast, which is the largest in the country, which does also have a presence in Dallas and Houston.
Unfortunately, it appears that ESPN's contract with DirecTV comes up in 2015, so it may be until then before the two sides even start to seriously approach each other about getting the Longhorn Network bundled in with the rest of ESPN's properties, though the odds seem high for the Longhorn Network to reach consumers via satellite at that time. Or perhaps ESPN could try to bundle LHN with the SEC Network in that conference's territory. Maybe that would even work with Time Warner, since Texas is now SEC country (or so say the Aggies).
Another frustrating aspect of the process? Kansas just signed a deal to broadcast on Time Warner in Kansas City and the state of Kansas, while ESPN3, the online streaming portion of the ESPN catalog available through cable and internet subscriptions, will broadcast the games nationally. At least according to the Kansas athletic director, the school has already achieved its objectives with the deal.
Clearly, ESPN invested too much in the Longhorn Network to make similar concessions, at least at this time, and the Longhorn Network was also going to be something of a struggle as a pioneer in this field. Nearly two years later, and there still isn't a peer for the network, which makes negotiations all the more difficult -- what's the market for a network that is the sole inhabitant of that market? It's a question providers still haven't been able to answer, at least not in terms of what ESPN is asking.
With a big game looming on the Longhorn Network in September's contest against Ole Miss, the public relations hit against the network and ESPN is going to reach a crescendo if Longhorn fans can't watch it. But then again, they're still a captive audience and will scramble for access when available. ESPN knows that and in a business where the bottom line is money, the consumers take a back seat.
Too bad for Texas fans.