The Behind Side: Rivals Worry Longhorn Network Will Put UT Ahead

On Aug. 26, UT will launch its new 24-hour channel, the Longhorn Network, and that has the rest of the Big 12 conference antsy. At the center of the storm are concerns over whether UT will hold an unfair recruiting advantage by televising high school football games and the other members’ hesitance at possibly having one of their conference games broadcast on the LHN.

When the Longhorn Network was announced, two of its biggest draws were that there would be high school games aired, as well as one UT conference game that would be deferred from either ESPN, who is partnering with UT on the network, or the Big 12’s TV deal with Fox. Of course, it’s obvious why a team would have a problem with playing a game on their opponent’s network. I myself am loathe to watch any Rangers game in which I cannot hear the sweet poetry of Tom Grieve. But money can, and probably will, alleviate any discomfort of whichever team draws the short straw each year.

What’s trickier are the high school games. On Thursday, Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin told the Houston Chronicle that “high school games are very problematic…NCAA rules are extremely directed at recruiting functions. … If we have an unequal playing field for various schools, that we think is a problem. That creates uncertainty.”

The issue is just how much of an advantage it might give UT. Certainly the ability to target games featuring UT recruits (something ESPN execs have confirmed they plan on doing) would seem to boost UT in the process. But wouldn’t the games with the best players, and the ones UT is clearly going after, be the ones that people watching the Longhorn Network be interested in seeing in the first place? It’s a sort of circular logic which shows just how muddy this marriage between UT and ESPN might become.

What’s more, there is a dearth of NCAA legislation on the matter, which only compounds the issue for UT to remain compliant as well as figure out just how much weight is behind the complaints. Of course, there is also the argument of how much impact, if any, would constitute unfairness. After all, UT is already the big player in the region, and it seems difficult to improve on top five recruiting classes year in and year out.

All this came to a head this week when DeLoss Dodds and other UT officials spoke with Big 12 athletic directors and presidents to assure them that the 20-year, $300 million network deal with ESPN would not come at the expense of the rest of the conference. It’s a delicate time considering that only 12 months ago it looked like the Big 12 was going to break up in a whirlwind of supposed super-conferences where UT, OU, Oklahoma St., and A&M would head west to the Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) as Missouri joined Nebraska in the Big 10.

Of course, this didn’t happen and one of the reasons is that the Pac-12 wasn’t willing to give Texas the media power that the Longhorn Network would give them. But the Big 12 was OK with this, so the Big 12 stuck together sans Colorado and Nebraska.

What’s happening here is an aftershock to the near-divorce—when one side realizes just how much power the other one came away with from the couples therapy sessions. And Dodds has been on record as wanting to make sure that the rest of the conference sees the Longhorn Network as a stepping stone for other teams like OU and A&M to get their own networks. Personally, I think it’s a tad rose-colored glasses, but it’s also politics.

That said, it would be rash to expect a meltdown of the conference at this point. Too much was put at stake last year to dissolve it this year over the exact thing that saved the league. It does appear that certain parties, namely A&M and OU, underestimated just how powerful Texas would be with this network, and it seems that UT hasn’t quite figured out how to sell the network to the rest of the conference.

But cooler heads should prevail. If last summer was a threat for a couple to break up, then this is one half showing up with a Ferrari while the other is driving a Lexus. Both are nice cars, but even Lexus drivers would be jealous of a Ferrari. Now if younger, prettier things show up wanting to only ride the Ferrari, there might be issues, but let’s not deal in ifs just yet.


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