AUSTIN, Texas – When ESPN and the University of Texas announced their 20-year, $300 million partnership for the Longhorn Network a year ago, they created the wedge that nearly split apart the Big 12.
The Big 12 is still going, with Texas A&M and Missouri on their way out the door and TCU and West Virginia coming aboard. But ESPN is still struggling to find wide distribution for a sports channel that is all Texas, all the time.
Texas officials are pleading with Longhorns fans to be patient.
Since launching the network in August 2011, "delays in distribution have overshadowed the network's many positive aspects and impact," Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and women's athletic director Chris Plonsky said in a joint statement last week.
"We ask our fans for patience and understanding," they said. "Distribution will happen, but the business negotiations process is painfully slow." "
So slow that football season came and went without a major cable or satellite distributor. The same thing will likely happen with basketball, although both the men's and women's teams are struggling to build NCAA tournament-worthy resumes.
That's an awkward start for a network that was supposed to be an unbeatable attraction for recruits. Texas A&M and Missouri felt the balance of power had tipped so far toward Texas that they left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference and were willing to give up 100-year traditional rivalries with Texas and Kansas, respectively, in doing so.
So far, the LHN is anything but the behemoth it was predicted to be when ESPN officials joined Texas President Bill Powers, Dodds and Plonsky and others at Royal-Memorial Stadium to unveil the deal.
The largest carrier to date is Verizon, which includes the LHN on its FiOS TV sports package with a potential reach of about 4 million subscribers in about a dozen states. The handful of other carriers are smaller providers that reach parts of the Austin, San Antonio and Houston markets, and smaller towns such as Bay City, Longview and Edna.
The nation's biggest distributors, such as Time Warner Cable Inc., Comcast Corp. and DirecTV Inc. have stayed away.
"We continue to have active discussion with distributors to secure as wide a distribution as possible," ESPN said this week in a statement. "Our discussions are ongoing and productive."
Time Warner spokeswoman Maureen Huff said "negotiations are ongoing but there is no agreement at this time."
A big challenge for the LHN is that it serves a niche market, said Adam Swanson, a cable television industry analyst with SNL Kagan. While Texas is a big name with a famous logo and tens of thousands of alumni from coast to coast, it's still just one school.
Major cable and satellite providers can look at regional or national networks such as the Big Ten Network, now called BTN, or the soon-to-launch Pac-12 Network and see more programming punch, Swanson said. Time Warner, Comcast, Cox and Bright House all have deals to carry the Pac-12 Network. Those carriers are in about 40 million homes, although the Pac-12 Network will only be on a sports tier outside the Pac-12 area.
"Having just one school to get content from ... they are not going to see the value across the country to carry a channel like that," Swanson said.
LHN lost valuable content when the NCAA banned school-affiliated networks from broadcasting high school games and the Big 12 banned even showing high school highlights, Swanson said.
The struggling economy also could be working against ESPN and LHN. ESPN has reportedly sought to have LHN included in basic cable packages and not as a premium add-on at a time when many customers are scrutinizing their monthly bills as a way to save money.
"Customers are more price sensitive today," Swanson said.
The ability to create its own network was a major reason Texas balked at the idea of joining the Pac-12 or the Big Ten. ESPN promised that LHN would offer Texas fans unparalleled reporting on the program with behind-the-scenes coverage of one of the wealthiest, most prominent and successful athletic programs in the country.
The Longhorn Network broadcast two Texas football games, and by seasons' end will have broadcast 26 men's and women's basketball games. More than 60 baseball and softball games will be on the LHN this spring.
It would be far too early to call the LHN a failure: Startup networks have to prove their value and the LHN is barely off the ground. For proof of tough negotiations can be, the NFL Network still isn't on Time Warner cable systems eight years after it launched.
ESPN and Texas have invested a lot in the LHN. The network hired a staff of about 50 and built a studio close to the Texas campus.
Dodds has never wavered in his belief the LHN will thrive.
"Our coaches and student-athletes are ecstatic with LHN and they tell us it is helping in recruiting and will do so now in the future," Dodds and Plonsky said.