When Longhorn Network launched nearly seven years ago, it was a noble experiment. If there was one school that could carry its own network, it was Texas, a traditional power in both football and basketball.
But LHN never really was able to make the impact that many expected. It’s struggled gaining carriage over the years. Live games on the network have routinely failed to live up to expectations. Controversy has surrounded the network due to its original plan to air high school football games, and because of the constant sparring regarding the Big 12 conference and a potential conflict of interest with ESPN.
With ACC Network launching in 2019, questions still remain about Longhorn Network, and there are legitimate questions about Longhorn Network’s viability through the final two-thirds of the 20-year contract between ESPN and Texas.
What do you think will happen with Longhorn Network? Will it still be on the air at the end of the 20-year deal? Will it be turned into something else? Will it actually get more live games worth watching?
Andrew Bucholtz: I think we’ll wind up with an over-the-top digital/streaming-only version of the Longhorn Network as we get closer to the end of this contract. There’s more and more room for niche streaming packages with a subscriber fee all the time, but less and less room for cable channels with a limited audience. Making this an extra-fee option within ESPN+ would make a whole lot of sense on a lot of levels, allowing Texas fans all over the country to buy it without regard for cable provider but without the challenges of carriage negotiations. And this might also lead to a scaled-down version of LHN, where they could just run the events people care about without the need to fill a whole day of programming.
Also, the divide between linear TV and streaming seems likely to keep shrinking, and streaming will be more and more accepted and accessible as this contract goes on. Of course, there are contract issues that would have to be addressed to shift into a streaming model, but I think it’s a solution that may wind up making sense in the end.
It’s also possible that an over-the-top streaming option could co-exist with LHN still existing as a linear TV product (especially within Texas), but I think the TV side of it is only going to get more and more challenging as time goes on. National sports networks and conference networks have issues, school-specific networks have even more issues, and LHN is an incredibly niche product given that they don’t even have a lot of top-tier Longhorns’ games. (If that changes, LHN looks better as a TV product, but I’m not sure it will.) That’s a hard sell for a whole lot of cable and satellite providers, and one that’s likely to get even tougher in the coming years.
Again, contracts mean there is a certain inertia to LHN’s current form, but I think a streaming-focused approach may make more sense for it as we get closer to the end of the deal. This is a niche product, and while there’s a better marketplace for niche streaming products than ever, the demand for them on linear TV is shrinking.
Matt Clapp: I don’t think the Longhorn Network will still be around at the end of the 20-year deal. I just recently found out — after several years of having the DirecTV sports package — that I even have the channel while surfing around on a slow TV night and noticing there was an NCAA Tournament baseball game on.
But unless you’re a Texas fan, you have to be a sports nut to tuning in for a random sporting event like that, and this certainly wouldn’t be a regular thing. Additionally, so many people are cutting cable that fewer and fewer Longhorns fans are likely to have the channel. And it’s not a channel that sports bars — outside of Texas, at least — are going to put on unless requested.
It also hurts that Texas football hasn’t been a 10-win team since 2009 (and last had at least 8 wins in 2013), and the basketball program has been pretty mediocre in recent seasons despite the hiring of Shaka Smart. There’s still a lot of intrigue (with Smart coaching the hoops team and Tom Herman coaching the football team), but these haven’t been elite programs in a long while.
Ben Koo: I’m confident ESPN wants nothing to do with the Longhorn Network after the current deal lapses and would look for an exit or soft landing anytime before the deal expires. My goodness, what a disaster of an idea, but ultimately there isn’t a good way to salvage this.
My best guess is if Disney does end up acquiring the Fox Sports regional channels, they somehow offload the property to that division and integrate it with the Fox Sports Southwest, which oddly doesn’t have much distribution in Austin. There is a chance Austin might get an MLS team, so perhaps ESPN can start the process of adding more regional content onto the Longhorn Network and rebranding it down the road when the deal expires.
Ultimately, I don’t think ESPN wants to be paying for the overhead of that network, nor the $15 million to Texas each year, and will look for the easiest way to wind down that arrangement without drawing attention to the fact it was a really dumb idea. Sure, some type of maneuvering could allow ESPN to use LHN as a way to launch a Big 12 Network, but I think the window for that idea is closing and would require way, way, way too many people to buy in to such an idea.
There really isn’t a good solution, so I think ultimately any solution between now and 2031 that presents itself is one ESPN would give a hard look at.