As Longhorn Network struggles, more universities look to launch own sports networks

editor's corner

Jim O'Neil

The Longhorn Network, devoted to University of Texas sports programming, debuted this weekend to mixed reviews, and to a very limited audience. Only Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) FiOS TV, among major carriers in Texas, has picked up the $300 million co-production of ESPN and UT, although a number of smaller cable carriers also have agreed to carry the channel.

That left a lot of unhappy Longhorn fans without access to the college football opener between Texas and the Rice Owls (which UT won 34-9).

As one fan on the Burnt Orange Nation message board wrote:

"Many a Longhorn fan is fit to be tied that as of this writing they are not able to tune to the most sought after channel on their HD service and find ESPNLHN."

The LHN on Friday, meanwhile, announced that it also had negotiated rights to the Oct. 29 game between the Longhorns and Kansas, an intra-conference tilt that, while not registering on the scale of a Texas-Texas A&M rivalry game, or a Texas-Oklahoma border war, nonetheless is a mid-season game that the Longhorn nation will be more than a little annoyed at missing if more carriage deals aren't in place with major operators like AT&T (NYSE: T), Comcast (Nasdaq: CMSA), Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV) and Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH).

But even with the KU game, carriers aren't scrambling to make deals for LHN programming. As a DirecTV spokesman told the San Antonio Express-News, "two UT football games do not constitute a network," at least not one that carriers are eager to pay 40 cents a subscriber for.

That's one of the things that makes Sunday's report that Missouri is planning to launch an Internet-based, free digital sports channel interesting.

The Mizzou Network will carry the same Olympic sports, football practices and other previously off-limits looks behind the scenes that are being offered by the Longhorn Network. The content will be available on the Internet, on smartphones and tablets.

And it will be free. The network is set to launch Dec. 1.

The Mizzou Network says its intent, is to "showcase what's going on at Missouri," is a significantly scaled down approach from the Longhorn Network; the network initially will offer only two or three videos daily. And, while Missouri also has the rights to broadcast one live football game each season, it isn't clear in what form the video might be offered.

The Mizzou Network also plans to offer non-sports content, like features on research or on the latest on-campus entertainment.

"We see it as something that will evolve and expand. The opportunities for content are pretty broad," associate athletic director Andrew Grinch, a former television journalist who oversees the project, told the Associated Press. "No matter what conference you're in, how are you differentiating yourself to your fans, alumni and constituents?"

The Tigers aren't alone in the Big 12 in launching niche-content programming. Oklahoma has plans to grow its SoonerVision HD online initiative into a TV network eventually, and Kansas State last month launched K-StateHD.TV, a high-definition digital network available by subscription only.

All three initiatives show that there's an increasing market for à la carte programming... if the price is right.

"People want to consume (college sports) in all different kinds of ways," Andrew Wheeler, a Learfield Sports vice president based in Dallas, told the AP. "There's definitely an audience. It's largely an instrument to expand their brand and to have a wider distribution to more and more people on more and more platforms."--Jim