The “unholy alliance” that is ESPN and The Longhorn Network
In the late 1980s, it was hard to imagine a sports event altering its schedule or manner of play to accommodate media. But times are changing and the ripple effects are ripping the fabric of college athletics — an American institution for more than 100 years.
This change is largely led by ESPN as it seizes upon niches made possible by advanced broadcasting technology. In attempts to capitalize on sports such as football and basketball, the network has made a “power grab” in recent years through regional networks and more localized coverage. Part of such moves is the broadcasting of high school sports. This has produced odd scenes at high school events aired by ESPN, such as game times at odd hours, allowing only sponsor-affiliated gear [i.e. sports drinks] on sidelines, prompting schools to schedule coast-to-coast road trips and restrictions on how local media covers games.
The latest permutation of such efforts is The Longhorn Network. This $300 million partnership involving ESPN and the University of Texas pushes the envelope of such programming as it focuses on one university rather than conference-wide networks used by the Big 10 and Mountain West, and plans to do the same in the Pac 12. Other schools [i.e. Notre Dame, BYU] also have broadcast programming dedicated solely to their institution. Yet both are independent. Their football programs, easily their biggest revenue generator, do not belong to an athletic conference and have no worries when it comes to ruffling a rival’s feathers.
The Texas situation is different. It is part of the Big 12 Conference and events surrounding the ESPN/LHN deal threaten to destroy the conference as Texas A&M plans to bolt for the Southeastern Conference. A long-time UT rival, A&M – among other reasons – is chiefly concerned that LHN gives the Longhorns an advantage in recruiting players in a sport that arguably has become the most powerful tool to market a university. A strong football program – in many Americans’ minds – translates to a strong, vibrant, stable university that carries a certain amount of clout in the job market and post-graduation business relations.
Moreover, initial stipulations of LHN called for it to air high school games that featured UT recruits. While this has been tabled for now by the NCAA, LHN’s attempt to keep this “on the down-low” from other conference members reinforced the pre-existing mistrust A&M had for its sister university. After years of playing “second fiddle” to UT in political and athletic affairs, the Aggies have had enough – and plan a clean break once and for all. In response to this show of instability, other Big 12 members such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are also exploring a move to the Pac 12.
Should the Big 12 dissolve, not only will this likely end rivalry games that have existed for many decades. It threatens to reshape ALL college sports as other conferences react in kind by forming “superconferences” of 16 teams each. If this occurs, rivalries nationwide could suffer the same fate as geography plays second fiddle to potentially higher revenues and greater marketing visibility. This could hurt local economies, particularly in university towns non-adjacent to large urban areas. Fans who once contributed to local economies by traveling from regional towns to fill stadiums, restaurants and hotel rooms will find it difficult when they have to travel halfway across the U.S. to see their team. In time, this could affect long-term growth for both the university and its host city.
Those are merely the business implications. There are ethical implications involved with media outlets “being in bed” financially with business partners they also cover journalistically. In the past, sports journalism has gotten a “free ride” because of the entertainment aspect what is covered. But in a time when sports carries more economic importance than ever and lives well beyond locker rooms are affected – new questions should be raised on whether standards for covering sports should be raised to a more objective level.
Another aspect centers on legal ramifications. When networks such as ESPN become involved in localized broadcasting, the rights of local outlets to cover games – or local vendors to supply local teams — are often trampled upon. Then there are privacy issues concerning young athletes. In a realm where pro and college athletes often receive harsh, subjective criticism, one can only imagine what may happen if such scrutiny shifts to athletes who are not yet old enough to vote.
Here are a few links to varied opinions on TLN:
— Bill W. Hornaday
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