ESPN Still Working to Distribute Longhorn Network
ESPN’s Longhorn Network turned 1 this week. But it’s a lonely birthday for the sports channel that’s still not widely available. Here in Central Texas, home of the Longhorns, only about 35,000 cable customers can see it.
Those who can see the network have given the 24-hour, all-Longhorn sports and information channel rave reviews. Matt Murphy, head of Grande Communications — the only provider in the Austin area — said he’s happy with the programming. And he says the channel has a year-round audience, despite the obvious draw — football.
“We’ve definitely seen that the exclusive games are really the marquee events for the programming, so far,” Murphy said, “but there’s huge interest really in all of the programming around football season. UT fans are really excited to see anything about the football team.
UT-Austin gets its $300 million in royalty payments whether anyone sees the Longhorn Network or not. But for ESPN, the stakes are much higher. According to its contract with UT, ESPN estimates it will spend an additional $600 million on programming the network over 20 years. It plans to offset those huge costs with advertising sales. Ad sales depend on a big audience, one that ESPN so far has failed to deliver — no deals with big operators like Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T U-verse, Direct TV, or Dish Network.
David Preschlack, ESPN’s head of affiliate relations is in charge of making those deals. He says ESPN wants the big operators to take the same deal that the smaller operators have signed. Industry analysts believe the sticking point is how much ESPN will get paid per subscriber, and whether the channel is added to the basic cable lineup or put on a sports tier that subscribers pay extra for each month.
“We’re doing everything that we can to get full distribution of the network,” Preschlack said. “There’s nothing more important that I’m working on personally. And to me this is not an if, it’s a when, and we’re hopeful that we get there just as quickly as possible.
Verizon’s Fios tv system is the only nationwide distributor that has picked up the network so far. That allows coverage in cities like Dallas, Philadelphia and New York. UT-Austin Athletic Director Chris Plonsky says exposure there has already helped the university in recruiting. She knows fans are frustrated, but says it will all work out.
“It’ll be well worth the pain that we’re going through now,” Plonsky said. “It is painful, the process to clear. It’s very slow, and diligent, and we know that’s not good news for our fans. But we hope our fans don’t get weak-kneed, we hope they hang in there with us because again, ESPN will get this done.
Two games are scheduled this year for the Longhorn Network—Saturday’s home opener against Wyoming, and the Sept. 8 game against New Mexico.