Launching with uncertainty

Shabab Siddiqui

The Longhorn Network launched Friday afternoon to cheering crowds on the South Mall and Gregory Gym, but their echoes were barely audible beyond the 40 Acres.

A lack of major television carriers ensured that the opening commercial featuring Matthew McConaughey nodding and flashing the Hook ’em sign at various angles was left primarily for YouTube fans. Verizon — so far the largest carrier — will not begin coverage until Sept. 1. And while a slew of smaller cable companies have also joined on, the big names such as Time Warner, Dish Network and DirecTV have yet to commit.

The network has brought about much controversy since its January announcement. With Texas’ fertile football recruiting grounds, Big 12 Conference counterparts raised legitimate concerns of the network showing high school games for the fear of biasing future recruits. The University Interscholastic League, which coordinates extracurricular competitions from football to calculator to choir for 2.2 million Texas high school students a year, is run through UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. There was also an uproar when ESPN announced that in addition to broadcasting UT’s matchup against Rice, they plan to show a Big 12 game.

While some of the matters have been temporarily resolved, the objective concerns compounded with less objective concerns surrounding burnt-orange greed and arrogance have left our friends in College Station pining to bolt the Big 12 for the SEC.

The Longhorn Network, first and foremost, is a financial agreement. ESPN’s belief in UT’s football success and a fan base of about 450,000 alumni and many more equally-important T-shirt wearers is what prompted them to sign into a deftly-negotiated, 20-year contract that guarantees the University $300 million.

This means while ESPN will likely have to deal with the fiscal red that comes with launching a new network, UT will rake in about $10 million for the first five years, half of which is reportedly set aside for academics. Geoff Leavenworth, special assistant to the president, confirmed that UT is seeking the UT System’s approval for five $1-million endowed chairs in Latin American art history and criticism, philosophy, physics, mathematics and African and African Diaspora studies. Money for endowed chairs is invested, and the interest is typically used to attract faculty members with higher pay. The allocation of money has been made by the president with the consultation of the provost.

Athletics is still the focal point of the new network, which can provide UT football with a distinct recruiting advantage. Increased television access into practices, scrimmages, drills and workouts can push a fringe player into a potential draft pick. That promise is likely enough to turn an aspiring NFL player into a Longhorn after high school. Non-football athletes will also be major beneficiaries, whose relative lack of exposure is simply because their sports do not cater to 100,000-seat stadiums and a $2.5-billion industry. Network subscribers can be exposed to compelling, under-the-radar athletes such as Rachael Adams, Bobby Hudson, Blaire Luna and Jackson Wilcox.

Yet the hoopla that surrounds the increased exposure and cash flow for the University overshadows a hidden reality, which is that few athletics departments in the country are more responsible for spearheading the athletics arms race than UT. Last year, only 22 athletic departments in the country were self-sufficient. If you count those that pay their own administrative fees, such as accounting, security and parking, that number becomes only a handful. Keeping up athletically with the likes of UT can have its costs, and in many places, that falls on students and parents.

Increased revenue is often complemented with increased spending. A little more than 24 hours before the launch of the network, the Board of Regents approved an increase in the total cost of a renovation of the athletics offices of the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, and the $18-million renovation jumped to a $34-million one. One of the reasons for the expansion includes “network infrastructure extensions [to] provide better coverage for UT athletic events,” according to the regents’ meeting agenda book.

The network, which can be an excellent asset for the University, still faces many uncertainties. If the Big 12 falls apart over the network, it may have fiscal implications that UT is not prepared for. The University is in a position like that of a talented individual in a band going solo. It can end up like Beyonce or Justin Timberlake, whose diversified solo careers outshadow outstanding group ones. It can end up like Nicole Scherzinger, who despite being the only vocal talent in The Pussycat Dolls, failed when it came to a solo career. Or it can end up like Fergie, who has complemented No. 1 hits with The Black Eyed Peas with some of her own.

Currently UT is hoping to become a Fergie.

— Shabab Siddiqui for the editorial board.