A Longhorn sat across from an Aggie with, depending on whom you asked, the purest of intentions. At least that’s how the Longhorn saw it, but you can’t blame the Aggie for cocking an eyebrow. This was back when Texas and Texas A&M remained Big 12 rivals, when Longhorn football was a perennial powerhouse, and when the Aggies hadn’t fielded a contender since before Vince Young had arrived in Austin. The two schools had played each other every year since 1915 and competed for just about everything else: not only wins and recruits, but top high school students, faculty members, and state funding too. But on this particular day, the Longhorn didn’t want to work against his counterpart—not on this project. The Longhorn was there to cut a deal.
Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds had been in the job since 1981, and in that time, he had seen waves of seismic change rattle college athletics again and again. In the early 2010s, he sensed another wave forming. That’s what led him to call A&M’s athletic director, Bill Byrne. College football, Dodds understood, had grown to become nothing less than a television product disguised as a sport; the attention games garnered could be sold for media-rights deals that had exploded in value. The Big Ten Conference had just created their very own cable network, and the Big 12 discussed making one too. What if, Dodds asked Byrne, Texas and A&M cut out the rest of the Big 12? What if the two of them—together—were big enough to create a channel on their own?
Texas, Dodds revealed to Byrne, had been exploring the idea of launching its own network. All Longhorns, all the time, beamed into every home in the country. He believed a Longhorn Network could succeed on its own, but it would be stronger with the Aggies on board. “Maybe we’re thinking in the wrong direction,” Dodds had said to other UT administrators ahead of his meeting with Byrne. “Maybe we ought to talk to A&M about this.” So, Dodds made his pitch. What if they went in as partners? They could call it the Lone Star Sports Network, or something like that.
Byrne said he’d think about it. But when Byrne called back, he told Dodds that the Aggies were out. The network would never make money.
No matter. Dodds was too far down the road to stop now. Texas would build their network one way or another. Maybe some day, it would be seen as another Texas win at A&M’s expense. As Dodds had once famously declared, “We don’t keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses.”
These days, Dodds winces when reminded of that line: “That was not a smart thing to say.
“But it’s the truth.”
It’s easy to forget just how radical the Longhorn Network seemed when it was announced in 2011. Opposing coaches lined up to complain that the channel would solidify the Longhorns as a juggernaut, that it would permanently upset the balance and purity of the sport. Should the NCAA intervene? Would every major school eventually get its own network? Would this change everything?
You could look at the network now, nearly finished with its final football season before it goes off air next July, and answer those questions with an emphatic “No!” At times over the past decade LHN viewership was so poor the network didn’t even bother to measure its ratings. The channel became a frequent punching bag for the diehards who frequent message boards like Orangebloods or TexAgs, groaning that LHN was showing Vince Young scamper into the end zone against USC for the hundredth (thousandth?) time.
Perhaps LHN simply came and went. “Longhorn Network has been—I mean, it’s tough for me to even say,” Jon Lewis, founder of the website Sports Media Watch, said. “It’s been out of sight, out of mind.” The channel didn’t lead to a golden age of Texas football; other colleges didn’t imitate it; and it failed to generate many headlines after its launch.
But look closer, and you’ll find that we’re still sorting through the role LHN played in shaping college sports’ new world order. Within a year of the Longhorn Network’s 2011 launch, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas A&M had all left the Big 12, and the long fuse, which would eventually lead Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, had been lit. Jane Slater, the NFL Network reporter who cut her teeth at LHN, described the channel as “the first foundational crack in what was the Big 12.”
The Big 12’s radical makeover—next season, its sixteen teams will stretch from Tucson to Orlando to Morgantown—is no solitary fate. With the explosion of billion-dollar media-rights deals—and the All-American predilection of major conferences and their member schools to put money above all else—NCAA athletics have been reorganized into sprawling super conferences where college football’s haves and have-nots are largely determined by Fox and ESPN.
Meanwhile, the historical rivalries and geographical logic of college football have been turned upside down. In the last year alone, the century-old Pac-12 has been decimated. Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, and Southern Methodist will now play in the Atlantic Coast Conference—and they’ll pay for the right to do so. Oregon and Washington will join Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten. “It’s Jenga,” said Skip Prince, a longtime sports media consultant who helped UT craft the initial LHN deal. “And at some point, it collapses and starts all over again.”
Maybe college football would still look like college football if things had gone differently at that meeting between the Aggies and the Longhorns. Maybe. This summer, I asked Dodds what he makes of the network as it approaches its final days.
He smiled. “It served its purpose.”
Money runs college sports, and when Dodds took over as the Texas athletic director in 1981, money came from two places: ticket sales and deep-pocketed boosters. Television didn’t drive revenue; for most Division I athletic departments, TV was just a marketing vessel.
Until 1983, navigating television disputes wasn’t even part of an athletic director’s job description. Back then, the NCAA controlled all college football TV rights and mandated that no individual team could appear on national broadcasts more than six times every two years—otherwise, the NCAA feared, too much exposure might hurt ticket sales, the real moneymaker. In 1982, ABC Sports paid $29.5 million for these rights, and that sum was divided among 139 schools across the country based on their number of TV appearances. A top program might generate a few million a year.
Some universities started to question why they had to package their rights with the NCAA. Shouldn’t they control their own destinies? In total, 62 schools broke away to form the renegade College Football Association, or CFA, which aimed to negotiate their own TV deals. When the NCAA threatened to ban CFA members from all NCAA sports, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas sued. A judge blocked Texas’s case, but Oklahoma’s suit (with Georgia as a co-plaintiff) reached the Supreme Court in 1984, and the court ruled in favor of the schools. The NCAA’s control of TV rights, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion, was imposing “a restriction on one source of revenue that is more important to some colleges than to others.”
Overnight, schools’ television revenue—and more importantly at first, broadcast exposure—increased. Oklahoma appeared on TV nine times in 1984; the Sooners had averaged about two TV games per year from 1952 to 1983. While many schools joined the CFA in 1984, a few holdout conferences, including the Big Ten, negotiated their own contracts and drove up prices. “Everybody,” Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder quipped to reporters in August 1990, “is looking for TV sets.” In 1990, Notre Dame broke away entirely to ink a deal with NBC. It was every school—and every conference—for itself. Who could get the best deal? What team commanded the largest share? How can your school make sure it wouldn’t get left behind?
Those deals, though, didn’t control all the TV inventory an athletic department could sell. Conferences ranked games in three tiers, based on the predicted value of the matchups, and sold the rights to tier-one and -two contests to the networks. But the tier-three rights, which included each team’s two least desirable football games of the year and the home games for most every other sport, like baseball and women’s basketball, were often left for schools to sell on their own. These were small deals; even as late as 2008, some Longhorn football games were only available on pay-per-view; for $29.95, you could watch the Horns take on Florida Atlantic.
As college football rights became more valuable, conferences felt pressure to cater to schools that drew the largest TV audiences. By the late aughts, the Big 12 adopted a system where its premier schools—Nebraska and Texas at the time—received larger shares of television revenue than other members. The agreement created resentment at A&M, but Dodds believed the Texas brand was worth even more still. What about those other sports? Could they make money too?
Dodds, a former track coach, had a soft spot for the teams that didn’t receive much attention. If football made so much money, he thought, then surely baseball, softball, women’s basketball, and more could generate something.“The conversation was always, ‘We need to get more exposure for our sports that don’t get on TV.’ ” Dodds said. “We just need somehow to promote them.”
He found inspiration not from other colleges but from the pros. In the mid-2000s, Dodds met with Mack Rankin, a UT alum and minority owner in the Texas Rangers, who told Dodds about the Rangers’ attempts to establish a regional sports network, or RSN (the industry term for a specialty cable channel that airs the majority of a particular team’s games). The duo floated the idea of creating a co-branded network, but it never passed the daydreaming phase. Long after the discussion, though, Dodds couldn’t get the idea out of his head.
While Dodds showed early interest in a single-school network, the Big Ten Network first brought a similar model to college sports in 2007, when the conference bundled all its teams’ third-tier rights into a flagship channel. The venture was operated by Fox, and in its first year, it paid each school a $4 million signing bonus. The Big 12 met to discuss the viability of its own channel, but the members voted against it, preferring instead to pursue individual deals with their leftover inventory.
Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas hired outside consultants to explore the feasibility of a network built around those three programs—cutting out the rest of the Big 12. The researchers examined the number of cable subscribers in each team’s region and reported that Texas, with large markets like Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, could support a network. Nebraska and Oklahoma would have a tougher path. Oklahoma administrators raised another issue: they could never be such close business partners with a rival like Texas.
In his office overlooking Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, Dodds called for women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky, who had just returned from meeting with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany about their conference’s new network. Dodds asked her, “Would you watch Northwestern–Penn State in field hockey?”
“I don’t know,” Plonsky said. “Maybe?”
“But would you watch anything with our kids in it?” Dodds said.
“Yeah,” she said.
That was all Dodds need to hear. “Go to work,” Dodds told Plonsky, who had close relationships with executives across college sports and television. “I want a channel.”
Spreadsheets, projections, brainstorms—starting in 2007, Plonsky, together with Skip Prince, the sports broadcasting consultant, and Tom Stultz, a representative of the licensing company IMG College, set out to make the Longhorn Network a reality. “The real question,” Prince recalled, “was whether there was enough programming to sustain a twenty-four-seven network.”
The group looked beyond the Big Ten Network for inspiration. Even more so, they viewed BYU TV, in Utah, as a model. In addition to Brigham Young athletics, the network also aired original series and documentaries, along with religious devotionals. UT president Bill Powers, in particular, fancied the idea of a Longhorn Network that might air academic panel discussions alongside sports. “This will be high-level, entertaining, cultural, music, scientific, Discovery Channel, History Channel kind of stuff,” Powers said when developing LHN.
There was one problem: it didn’t seem like the network could make money. Overhead would be significant: the university would have to build a studio, hire dozens of employees, and buy its own production trucks. “Everyone thought it was going to be a . . . good way to showcase the Olympic sports,” said Joel Lulla, another consultant who worked on the project. “It was going to be good for recruiting. It was going to be good for branding. But there was not a lot of money in it.”
Unless UT could find a partner to offset costs, the projections suggested that creating a network would cost the athletic department money, not add to its coffers. Dodds was prepared to pay that price: “In our mind, at the time, our whole emphasis was on the kids,” he said. He wanted every sport on TV. He saw it as a way of looking out for his athletes’ best interests—but he also viewed the venture as an investment. More value for other sports meant more value for the entire athletic department. And more exposure could mean more success.
While Texas was busy studying what it would take to launch the Longhorn Network, college sports power brokers in the Midwest were plotting another way to boost exposure and TV revenue—a super conference. In December 2009, the Big Ten released a statement that seemed innocent enough, taken at face value: “The timing is right for the conference to once again conduct a thorough evaluation of options for conference structure and expansion.” Translation: Hey, rival conferences. We’re coming for your biggest brands and your marquee TV markets (and maybe your lunch money, too, if we feel like it.)
The Big 12 appeared ripe for poaching. Since revenue wasn’t distributed evenly, many schools resented Texas’s outsize power within the conference and were eager to find better deals for themselves. “The notion was, Texas is going to survive,” Prince added. “And we don’t know what else does.”
Nebraska and Texas A&M surveyed their options outside of the Big 12. Texas met with the ACC and was rumored to be exploring the possibility of going independent like Notre Dame, though Dodds denies considering the latter scenario. In June 2010, while Big 12 leaders sat in their annual meetings, the UT website Orangebloods.com reported that the Pac-10 intended to invite Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State to form a new-look Pac-16. Then all hell broke loose. Colorado left. Nebraska accepted an offer from the Big Ten. And the other five schools’ intentions remained anybody’s guess.
The next week brought conflicting reports every day. Would A&M go, or will the Aggies stay? What about Texas? In private meetings, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott told UT administrators the conference planned to create its own cable network, and as such, it wouldn’t allow UT to spin off its own channel. The viability of LHN, officials insist now, wasn’t a key factor in UT’s decision. But it was certainly there, perhaps in the background, as administrators weighed their options.
When the dust settled, Texas decided to stay and rebuild the Big 12. With no conference network, the school was free to pursue the Longhorn Network. In exchange, the Big 12’s national television revenue would be split evenly for the first time in conference history. The members’ TV money would only differ depending on how each school managed its third-tier rights.
“It was a blessing in disguise for the remainder of the Big 12 schools,” said current Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte, who held the same position at TCU back then. “The Longhorn Network kept the Big 12 together . . . that allowed Texas to stay in the league, and everyone to prosper.”
It’s a nice sentiment. If only everybody agreed.
The viability—and value—of a potential Longhorn Network wasn’t simply tied to the Texas name and burnt orange’s shine. At the time, the Longhorns were good—especially on the football field. Mack Brown’s program had just appeared in its second National Championship in four years, and with top recruiting classes waiting in the wings, the trend line only seemed to be pointing higher. In basketball, Kevin Durant had become the first freshman ever to win the Naismith College Player of the Year award just three seasons prior. Augie Garrido’s baseball team had finished as runners-up at the College World Series. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Longhorn athletes won ten gold medals—which would have ranked eighth among all countries. That kind of year-round success makes for good television. After all, nothing drives ratings like a winner.
At first, it seemed as if Fox would win the rights to the Longhorn Network. Not long after the realignment drama of 2010, Fox contacted Texas about partnering on LHN. They had regional networks across the country and planned to rebrand one for Texas, immediately putting the channel in millions of homes. Fox agreed to cover all production costs, plus pay the university an additional $3 million per year. “We were shocked they were interested,” Dodds said. They were also shocked by the windfall: UT would receive nearly the same fee that Big Ten schools earned as a bonus when launching their own network, only the Longhorns wouldn’t have to share airtime with eleven other schools.
Then ESPN entered the fray. A week after Texas had turned down the Pac-10, Plonsky sat on a plane, taxiing to the runway before a flight to California for golf’s U.S. Open. Her phone rang. It was ESPN’s then–senior VP of college sports programming, Burke Magnus. “Where have you been?” Plonsky said.
Magnus apologized. “We know you have Fox at the table,” he said. “Can you sit on it and talk to us before you decide?”
“I’ll call you right back,” Plonsky said.
Before takeoff, Plonsky dialed Dodds. “Coach,” she said, “I apologize it’s taken this long, but Burke called. They want to come talk to us.”
“What do you think?” Dodds asked.
“Well,” Plonsky said. “They’re ESPN.”
Even as he climbed the ESPN corporate ladder, John Skipper never lost his Carolina manners. He started in print journalism, working at Rolling Stone before joining ESPN The Magazine as general manager in 1997. He brought a literary flair to the sports behemoth, and by 2010, when he met with UT about the Longhorn Network, he was VP of content and on the cusp of being named president of the whole company.
Skipper was relentless in his pursuit of live sports rights, and he viewed them as ESPN’s key source of value. In his time at ESPN, he negotiated deals with the NFL, NBA, MLB, the Masters, all four tennis grand slam tournaments, and, of course, college football.
Growth, at ESPN, seemed like a guarantee back then. “In 2011,” Jon Lewis, the sports media analyst, said, “in terms of the TV universe, that was probably closer to 1997 than to today.” ESPN hit its peak in 2011, reaching 100.13 million households. At the time, the fees it brought in from cable distributors generated so much revenue that ESPN was more valuable to its parent company, Walt Disney, than the entertainment giant’s movie studio and theme parks combined.
In the summer of 2010, when Skipper and other ESPN brass arrived in Austin to pitch their vision for a Longhorn Network, he was determined to walk out of the room with a deal. Dodds, Plonsky, Powers, and UT general counsel Patti Ohlendorf listened while Skipper made his case. “It’s pretty clear to me that a whole lot of people were interested in the University of Texas,” he said in the meeting. “The Pac-10 wanted you. I’m guessing the SEC or the Big Ten might have thought, ‘Are they available?’ And I know the ACC probably took an audience with you. So, here’s what I’m going to do . . . ”
Skipper slid a packet of papers across the table.
“Should we become partners in this,” Skipper said, “if something happens in the near or far future—I got you.
“I have Texas,” he continued. “And there’s a price for that, and I know what it is, and I’m willing to pay it.”
In the packet was a contract. It stated that ESPN would operate the Longhorn Network for twenty years, paying a total of $300 million. “That number came from where we believed we would get a quick yes,” Skipper told Texas Monthly. The deal would pay out an average of $15 million a year. ESPN also agreed to foot the bill for a $26 million operating budget, $11 million in overhead, and $13 million to build a studio. “That’s pretty good change,” Dodds said this summer. Plonsky said, “We never dreamed that the deal would be what was put down there.”
It was five times Fox’s offer—a hefty price that Skipper said he never second-guessed.“Were I able to go into a time machine,” he said, “there are many things I would do differently. This is not one.
“The mistake is to look at this deal as a standalone deal,” he explained. Skipper and ESPN would be vying for an even bigger prize a few weeks after the meeting in Austin, when the Big 12’s national rights would be up for renegotiation. “I thought if we did a Longhorn Network deal with Texas, we would have the inside track to also retain the best package of Big 12 rights,” Skipper said. “That’s why we did the deal.”
When time came to hammer out the new Big 12 package, ESPN split football rights with Fox but won all of the league’s basketball rights. Along with the conference commissioner, Dodds represented the Big 12 in closed-door negotiations. With the new overall deal, each remaining Big 12 school took home $22 million in 2012, a 16 percent increase from the previous deal. Only Texas got to pocket an extra $15 million from ESPN for the Longhorn Network.
When the news broke that the Longhorn Network would become reality, it unsettled the entire college sports establishment. “It was like, holy smokes,” said Del Conte, who was at TCU then. “It sent shockwaves around the country.”
Texas A&M took more offense than anybody else—though Byrne and other A&M officials declined an invitation to comment for this story. In private emails to A&M brass, athletic director Bill Byrne vented. “Why did ESPN overpay tu?” he wrote, using the “t.u.” moniker meant to disparage Texas. “We need a backup plan,” he said. “SEC? PAC-12? Bigger Ten?”
Byrne’s email dripped with disgust for “tu’s” arrogance: Texas had already played in two national championships that decade—why should the Horns be gifted yet another advantage? In those days, most of the college football world saw the Longhorns as one of the sport’s powerhouse programs—they were closer to ’Bama than Baylor. (That the network wound up coinciding perfectly with a lost decade on the gridiron speaks to Texas’s unique ability to squander the program’s natural advantages.)
Rival programs chafed at ESPN’s early plans to air Texas high school sports on LHN, including live Friday night football games. Televising top prospects’ games on a branded network, they howled, would give UT an unfair recruiting advantage. “We either all recruit by the same rules or we don’t,” said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. In an email, Byrne warned, “ESPN pushing hard to help tu recruit high school prospects.” Eventually, the NCAA forced the university to agree that high school events wouldn’t be included in the network’s programming. Still, the damage was done. “That was kind of the final straw for A&M,” said Lulla.
“We went from having a divided house to I’d say 95 percent of the Texas Aggies—current and former students—saying the same thing to me: ‘Let’s go to the SEC,’ ” former Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin told The Athletic.
That summer, a group of A&M regents flew on a private plane to New Orleans to meet with SEC commissioner Mike Slive. Slive greeted them at the airport, and as they walked away, the commissioner glanced back at the plane. “Where’s your pilot?” he asked.
One regent raised his hand.
“What about your copilot?”
“That would be me,” said the chair of the A&M Board of Regents.
Slive shook his head. “You Texans are unbelievable,” he said.
In September 2011, shortly after the Longhorn Network hit the airwaves, the Aggies announced they would leave the Big 12 for the SEC at the conclusion of the season. When asked about ending the tradition of annual rivalry games between Texas and A&M, Byrne blamed the Longhorns. “I assumed—and it was a rash assumption on my part—that our friends over in the state capital would want to continue playing us,” Byrne said. “It turns out they didn’t think we were as much of a rival as we thought of them.”
For all the controversy of the network’s announcement, when LHN finally debuted on August 26, 2011, hardly anybody watched. Hardly anybody could watch. Just two days before it went live, the network struck its first major distribution deal with Verizon FiOS, which only had 4 million subscribers. FiOS remained the only nationwide distributor in place before the football season opener against Rice. Cable subscribers with Time Warner, Comcast, and DirecTV couldn’t get the game. (If Matthew McConaughey narrates a promo video—“For one school, one star, one state . . . Welcome to Longhorn Network . . . ”—and nobody hears it, does it make a sound at all?)
Viewers or not, the show would go on. ESPN delivered on its promise to bring top-tier production value to Austin, hiring a staff of 85. At ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, the LHN assignment was “incredibly competitive,” according to former employees. “When LHN launched,” said Stacie McCollum, a programming executive, “the production team walked in with a combined 39 National Sports Emmys under their belts.” Texas Exes were of course interested in the gig, as well as the hundreds of ESPN-ers with family ties to the state. Others were just sick of Connecticut winters. Amanda Blong Schiff, who worked as a programming coordinator, said she could still remember the wings on her plane being defrosted as she flew from the Northeast to begin working for LHN. When she stepped off the plane in Austin, the weather was gorgeous. “I was very happy to be down here,” she said.
“We were doing something that had never been done before,” said Ande Wall, a producer who joined LHN on day one. “How many opportunities do you get not only to create and launch an entirely new network, but also one where there is no blueprint for it? You’re just creating something absolutely original.”
LHN also helped ESPN develop young executives who had been blocked by Bristol’s corporate hierarchy. “It was almost like a triple-A [minor-league baseball team] for ESPN,” said Patricia Lowry, who oversaw live event production and eventually became the network’s vice president. There was a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attitude, where executives and staff both had room to grow. “We were in a bubble down here,” Wall said. “I remember when I worked at SportsCenter, I’d have six people over my shoulder asking, ‘Is that how you want to start the rundown?’ Here, we didn’t have that much interference. My bosses were game for anything.” Stephanie Druley, a UT alum, ran the network, and McCollum helped with programming. Both went on to become behind-the-scenes stars in sports media. (Druley now leads almost all of ESPN’s live productions, and McCollum is the VP of content at DraftKings.
“It was a rounding error for ESPN,” Skipper said, dismissing LHN’s costs relative to the parent company’s financial might. “And it served a bigger strategic need, which was not a rounding error.” Namely, LHN nurtured diversity and talent. “One thing LHN has always been is,” Wall said, “if not majority, then dead-even in terms of women in positions of leadership.”
Druley had a particular gift for spotting broadcast talent, and LHN became the place for young employees to prove their worth. Samantha Steele, who now goes by Sam Ponder, was the network’s first sideline reporter. She now hosts ESPN’s flagship NFL coverage. Her successors in Austin, Kaylee Hartung and Jane Slater, have risen to prominent on-air roles for Amazon Prime’s Thursday Night Football and the NFL Network, respectively. And then there are the former Longhorn athletes who now populate the airwaves. “Any opportunity we get to help these athletes advance their careers beyond sports, we absolutely take,” said Wall, who, along with anchor Lowell Galindo, organizes seminars for UT athletes interested in broadcasting. LHN launched the career of Emmanuel Acho, the former Longhorns linebacker who is now a New York Times best-selling author and a TV host for Fox Sports. Acho’s brother Sam, who played nine years in the NFL after his Longhorns career, also got his TV start with LHN and is now an analyst for ESPN.
LHN’s first season especially taught ESPN how to run a college-specific network and optimize its broadcasts for sports like volleyball, softball, and women’s soccer. Before LHN, Texas’s baseball and softball teams would schedule first pitches at the same time. The TV professionals wanted to broadcast both—particularly the women’s contests—so the athletic department found ways to stagger the schedule. Today, women’s college sports are among the fastest-growing properties across ESPN networks, and many of the production teams that staff those games got their starts at LHN. “The crew that we had doing our volleyball coverage in Austin ended up being the crew that ESPN uses to do the national championship,” said Lowry.
Yet distribution remained a headache, and even now, more than a decade later, the struggle to get LHN into viewers’ homes remains among the first things insiders recall about the experience. Throughout the first season, Time Warner, Comcast, and DirecTV, among others, wouldn’t carry the network, objecting to ESPN’s 40-cent carriage fee. A member of LHN’s programming team visited UT fraternity houses to convince students to switch to cable providers that carried LHN. (In at least one case, the effort paid off. I remember getting my aunt’s ex-husband’s AT&T U-verse log-in to access a stream of LHN. On game days, every Longhorn fan I knew would ask, “How did you get this?” as they squeezed onto the couch to watch Texas play New Mexico State.)
The problem with distribution was that LHN debuted “off cycle” for ESPN. Typically, Disney’s entire lineup—ESPN, Disney Channel, National Geographic, and ABC Family, among others—would be bundled in a single negotiation. It allowed ESPN to strong-arm cable companies. You don’t want to pay for ESPN Classic? Fine, you won’t get ESPN at all. But when LHN launched, those agreements were already in place, and ESPN lacked the leverage to coax cable providers to shell out extra for LHN.
Nationally, it became apparent that LHN wasn’t going to turn into the juggernaut some had feared. If anything, it felt like a minor embarrassment. Red McCombs, the powerful UT booster who had once owned the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Vikings, called Dodds to say, “It’ll never work.” Meanwhile, Longhorn fans were annoyed that distribution issues caused them to miss games, and LHN employees sometimes caught the brunt of it. Blong Schiff recalled shopping for groceries one day while wearing an LHN shirt. A man approached her to yell, “You took my football!”
But Dodds, Plonsky, and Powers stayed the course. Magnus, the ESPN executive, would frequently remind them to be patient; gaining carriage was a battle of wills, and the cable companies would eventually blink. “You’ll know you’re on when you’re on,” he would say.
The rest of the country may have been in the dark, but at the Texas athletic department’s offices, LHN played constantly. On the screens above their desks, Dodds and his staff saw a slick and well-produced broadcast. To them, it couldn’t have looked better.
The Longhorn Network often seemed caught between its broadcast partner and its parent university, and neither knew exactly what to do with it. The school loved the TV exposure, but administrators had limited control over programming, and Powers’s idea of airing lectures never came to fruition. UT’s contract with ESPN did, however, stipulate that 10 percent of programming had to be “educational in nature.” That led to the late-night airing of film-school theses and interstitial segments featuring prominent alumni. In Bristol, the LHN’s very existence had already achieved ESPN’s goal of cementing a long-term relationship with Texas.
Outsiders didn’t know where LHN fit, either. Before tip-off at one women’s basketball game, then–Baylor coach Kim Mulkey pulled Slater into her office and lambasted her. “She challenged whether I would be objective enough to cover both sides,” Slater said. “It was a tricky dynamic on so many levels. If anything, I was a little harder on Texas.”
In 2014, ESPN launched the SEC Network, which, along with a reworked TV deal, caused SEC schools’ annual payouts to jump by 50 percent. ESPN transferred many LHN staffers to the new channel, where the launch was significantly smoother. “It was essentially beta testing for what is now the SEC Network,” Slater said of LHN. ESPN took its best practices in everything from launch strategy to programming to production and applied them to the SEC Network, which is now considered a model of success.
While the SEC Network grew, LHN languished for ESPN’s attention—especially as Longhorn football floundered in the post–Mack Brown years. For the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” LHN appeared to be an afterthought. Today, the network’s latter years feel like a missed opportunity. Gone was the experimentation of the early years, replaced instead with a play-it-safe programming strategy that plodded along with the same sets, a shrinking pool of talent, and less creativity. On game days this season, LHN airs a well-done pre- and postgame show, but during the actual games, the network shows nothing but a static graphic of the score with a few basic stats.
The channel eventually gained true nationwide distribution, but LHN never turned a profit. It did put Longhorn athletes, such as volleyball star Logan Eggleston, on TV more than athletes from any other school in their respective sports. And while the network never brought Texas football close to a national championship, nearly every other UT sport has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success in the decade after LHN’s launch. “What Longhorn Network did was it elevated so many of the Olympic sports and women’s sports in general,” said Lowry. “It helped make them something that was more accessible to the fans.”
Plonsky recalled the recruiting advantage the network created for sports like volleyball and softball. “There was a note card in your pocket that would say, ‘Great league, great history, wonderful facilities, and great weather,’” Plonsky said. “ ‘And by the way, when you’re at home, your games are on.’ ”
“Number one, it was good for the kids,” Dodds said. “Secondly, it was good for the fans, because we got to see every baseball game. They saw it all. It was good for the university, and it got a lot of exposure outside of our fans. And then, you know, it made [UT] some money.”
Blong Schiff called the frustration fans felt toward the network misplaced. “We’re not changing college athletics,” she said. “It’s money changing colleges.”
Remember how Skip Prince, the sports TV consultant, described college football as an endless game of Jenga, where the tower gets knocked down and rebuilt over and over? In July 2021, nearly a decade after the launch of LHN, the Jenga blocks began to wobble again. The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas and Oklahoma would be leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC. A&M administrators, according to reports, didn’t know the move was happening until they read about it in the paper.
In the SEC’s announcement confirming the news, there was no update about LHN’s future. Staffers at the network were left in the dark—and many are still unsure what will happen to their jobs when the network goes off air. “People ask, ‘Oh, what are you going to do?’ ” Wall said. “We don’t know.”
It just so happened that the SEC news broke around the time of LHN’s ten-year anniversary. That week, LHN had been sending decorative succulents as gifts to their UT business partners, including athletic director Chris Del Conte. Each package came with a note that read, “Thanks for 10 years of partnership. Looking forward to the next 15!”
“I remember going, ‘Holy shit!’ ” Wall said. “ ‘We’ve got to pull that back. Kill the note!’ ”
It wasn’t until May 2023 that Del Conte officially acknowledged that the SEC, which controls all its member schools’ third-tier rights, would mean the end of the Longhorn Network. “Sometimes, you can only watch the ’69 championship so many times,” Del Conte joked at a donor event.
“I remember the first time we had meetings with Del Conte [after the SEC news],” Wall said. “It was kind of awkward. It’s like deciding to get a divorce, but ‘Oh, we’re going to live together for another couple of years.’ ”
Losing LHN with the SEC move didn’t seem to pain UT. “When we decided to change,” Del Conte said in an interview, “we looked at who we play, and who we were affiliated with. That was really what we’re looking at, not necessarily a platform of networks.”
“You make deals for the time you’re in,” Skipper said, reflecting on LHN from his new role as cofounder and CEO of Meadowlark Media. “A sign of a good company is a company that is willing to close down businesses that have outlived their usefulness.”
The college football world that birthed the Longhorn Network is not the same as the one that LHN helped create. “We were totally reliant on a series of assumptions that ended up having a shorter half-life than we probably realized,” Prince said. Said Lewis, “They created a cable channel right at the time that cable was beginning to decline.” In 2023, linear television is a dying business, and ESPN must adapt to a future of dwindling revenue. College football has stratified into a battle between the Big Ten and SEC, which is really a fight between their respective broadcast partners, Fox and ESPN. “The landscape of college athletics is always changing, and opportunities came around to do things differently,” Del Conte said of Texas’s move to the SEC. “We looked at what the landscape was going to be not only now but in the next ten, fifteen years. You must be willing to adapt. And that’s why we made the changes that we did.”
If anything is certain in college sports, it’s that things will change again. “The conferences that these guys have joined,” Prince said, “you can say is nothing more than the next move, as opposed to the last.” Prince outlined a future where the top ten or twelve schools in the country form their own breakaway league. Imagine Texas playing Michigan and USC playing Alabama from week to week. That type of package, Prince estimated, could fetch media-rights fees in the same ballpark as Major League Baseball’s annual $2 billion deal. Divide that by ten, and Texas’s $15 million payouts from the LHN look cute. “It’s nothing more than the next chapter of the whole College Football Association, right?” Prince said. Maybe that can be one of McConaughey’s final LHN promos: College football, like time, is a flat circle.
When you look back at this particular age of college sports history, it’s easy to discard LHN as a mostly harmless vanity project, an experiment that—as Skipper said—served its purpose and was eventually discarded. But the very idea of the Longhorn Network was transformational, if not destructive. Look around, and you’ll find college football lying in ruins; you’ll find a sport where conferences no longer make sense, where athletic departments act like NFL front offices, where the importance of longstanding rivalries pales in comparison to the promise of cash. You’ll see a structure that has crumbled, waiting to be rebuilt. But into what? And for whom?
The Longhorn Network was the first block to be pulled from the foundation. That move alone wouldn’t have destabilized much. But then Colorado and Nebraska pulled their blocks when they left the Big 12 back in 2011. A&M pulled theirs too, and the tower wobbled ever so slightly. Over the decade LHN existed, the tower tilted and swayed with each subsequent move: the College Football Playoff and its imminent expansion to twelve teams, Rutgers’s admission to the Big Ten because the conference sought access the New York City media market, the skyrocketing price of sports TV rights, ESPN’s struggles with cord-cutting.
A decade after they removed the first block, it was finally Texas’s turn to pull another in 2021. With their decision to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, the Jenga tower staggered, then crashed—spectacularly and quickly. Everyone combed through the wreckage to see how they might manage to survive. That, then, is the proper way to remember the Longhorn Network: as the first and last moves of an era that transformed college sports as we know them.
Its creation marked the beginning of the end; its destruction summoned it.