A little over a year ago, the University of Texas and ESPN debuted the name and logo of the Longhorn Network, the $300 million cash cow designed to provide Longhorn fans with unprecedented access to all things Texas athletics. The network was going to take college sports by storm with coverage of all 20 Longhorns sports teams, Texas high school games, Big 12 conference games, the whole shebang. With their beloved football team coming off its worst season in over a decade, the Longhorn faithful could not help but see the Longhorn Network as a sign that things were going to be just fine in Austin.
But that was a year ago.
Today, the Longhorn Network barely seems to exist in central Texas, with none of the major television providers having picked up the network and only one Austin-area provider under contract. However, that has not done anything to slow the massive backlash courtesy of Longhorn competitors and rivals.
Just this past weekend, Texas IF Jordan Etier put the final nails in the coffin of the once-storied Texas-Texas A&M rivalry with a walk-off RBI single against the Aggies in the last matchup between the schools for the foreseeable future. While things have calmed down on the realignment front, much of the Big 12 chaos from this past season can be directly attributed to the Longhorn Network, as the entire conference was in disarray with the Aggies' well-publicized desire to leave the conference and other schools toying with the idea of following suit.
With the Big 12 hanging by a thread, even Texas explored every possibility from joining a "superconference" to becoming an independent. Enough was done to keep the conference in tact through the additions of Texas Christian University and West Virginia, but now that the dust has settled, it is reasonable to ask all parties involved: Was it all worth it?
It's not hard to see why the Aggies wanted out and the rest of the conference was leery of this megadeal/alliance Texas was able to ink with the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Texas, despite the comparable success of its now main rival Oklahoma, has been the face of the Big 12 throughout the Mack Brown era.
Other members have had their time in the spotlight, but Texas has been the class of the conference with 115 conference titles won by its 18 member sports, which is more than double the amount of runner-up Texas A&M (54). And now they are getting $15 million per year from ESPN to broadcast all the games its championship teams are playing, as well as high school games. Definitely screams recruiting advantage, even with the removal of high school games from the agenda per the NCAA.
Has it made a difference, though?
According to ESPN's Football Recruiting Rankings, Texas, after its first full offseason with the Longhorn Network, currently boasts the third-ranked recruiting class highlighted by the Gatorade National Player of the Year Johnathan Gray. Sure seems like TLN is already paying dividends, but not if you compare 2012 to Texas' draft classes since 2006 where, also according to ESPN's Football Recruiting Rankings, Texas does not have a class ranked outside of the top 10 and has been in the top three five times.
In other words, the effect is negligible.
What about the other 17 sports that stand to benefit from extra TV time on the Longhorn Network, though? How does this affect their ability to recruit relative to the competition?
The answer: It does not matter.
Football is the money-maker and, in the case of Texas, all but pays for the rest of Texas sports, including itself, and football is the reason the Longhorn Network is worth as much money as it is. Make no mistake, ESPN did not sign this contract so Texas' powerhouse swimming and diving program could finally get the recognition it deserves. The fact these other sports, other than basketball and baseball, even get air time on this network is a combination of formality and the need to fill air time.
The fight over the Longhorn Network has been well-publicized and highly scrutinized ever since the terms of the deal came out, with recruiting at the center of the debate. It has only been a year, but so far the effect thus far is negligible.
Is this due to the reluctance of television providers to go all-in with TLN? Partially.
However, it is also too soon to tell. Just like with contracts between teams and players, when a commitment involves vast amounts of time and money, especially when that commitment is the first of its kind, there are going to be growing pains and struggles, i.e. Albert Pujols and the Angels. One season is not a significant body of work to evaluate the effect this network will have on the field, and only time will tell.
If one thing is for sure, the Longhorn Network will never live up to any of the hype if nobody can watch it, and that is the problem the network faces today. Once it gets picked up across the major networks, especially in Texas, the true value and impact of the Longhorn Network will start to emerge.
Until then, just like the Longhorns themselves, the Longhorn Network is still a work in progress.