Inside ESPN’s Landmark Texas Longhorns Network

ESPN and the University of Texas wrote a new chapter in the history of college sports media this week, officially announcing a joint venture with IMG College to launch a 24-hour Longhorns network. The school-specific linear network will be the first of its kind and is part of a landmark 20-year, $300 million agreement that also covers plans for a UT online broadband network and a Texas high school sports broadband component.

“This is obviously historic,” says ESPN SVP of College Sports Programming Burke Magnus. “Conference networks have been done before, but this is very different. It will be a UT-branded network that revolves entirely around the school. It is not going to be ESPN Texas or anything like that. Our brand is going to be secondary. While you will know that the network is being executed in association with ESPN, it’s going to be a Texas-facing brand.”

A Treasure Chest of Live, Archival Programming
Set to launch in September, the yet-to-be-named ESPN-operated network will feature more than 200 exclusive live UT sporting events annually, including at least one football game and eight basketball games each season. All women’s basketball games and Olympic sports will be available on the network or on broadband along with encore presentations of every single event, including all football games.

In addition to live game coverage, the network will offer pre- and post-game programming, studio programming, coaches shows, season previews and reviews, documentaries, original series, historical programming, and academic/cultural programming.

“The Sept. 1-ish launch timeframe dovetails nicely with the start of the school year,” says Magnus. “All the fall sports will be there for us to produce live. From a tape perspective, between our archives and what Texas has in their archives, there is a real treasure chest of archival programming. So there will be both live programming and original content that we can create from Day One.”

Major UT athletics events, such as football on Saturdays and high-profile basketball games, will be treated as day-long affairs with extensive pre- and post-game coverage.

“The way I see it, a typical football Saturday will have a comprehensive Longhorn version of College GameDay in the stadium for four hours leading up to kickoff,” says Magnus. “Then, if the game ends at 4 p.m., we may be on until midnight with post-game analysis. We’re super-serving Texas fans with information that they have an endless appetite for.”

On-Campus Presence Includes Studio
To produce all this live and pre-produced material, ESPN will construct and operate a permanent on-campus studio for the network, along with various production facilities and sport-specific on-air setups around campus. In addition, ESPN will have administrative facilities on the UT campus.

“We don’t know exactly what form that will take yet, but we’ve been down there several times on surveys,” says Magnus. “We have a couple options that we’re considering right now. There will be a central location that will be the main studio hub and then smaller presences throughout campus, depending on what season it is.”

Staffing and Students
The network’s staff will be considered ESPN employees. Freelancers and local hires will also be deployed for specific events. Magnus expects most of the on-air talent to be composed of new-hires rather than ESPN veterans.

Student involvement was an integral aspect of the deal for UT. Although the infrastructure of the program is still in its infancy, Magnus says ESPN will use students in “all facets of the operation at various levels of responsibility.”

Several college athletics networks, most notably the Big 10 Network, already use students to produce a sizable chunk of their programming, including live games, studio shows, and pre-produced programming. The UT network’s use of students in production will likely follow a similar path.

“Student involvement is very much in the plan,” says Magnus. “UT looks at this not just as a great recruiting tool for student athletes but also as a great recruiting tool for their communications school. We look at it as a great resource for the network, and the school looks at it as a great educational and recruiting tool for the academic side of the institution.”

IMG College To Handle Marketing, Sponsorship
IMG College will be in charge of advertising and sponsorship for the network and the school’s media rights. The company already controls much of the sales and marketing for UT media rights. As a result, it was brought into the deal and will serve as the network’s marketing vehicle.

“We’re taking over the media rights for the events, and IMG is going to stay a part of the venture by being the point person on sales and sponsorship,” says Magnus. “We’re going to wrap the whole thing into a single sales proposition, and they’re going to handle that.”

Carriage Not a Concern
Magnus says he is not concerned about landing carriage deals before the network’s launch. Although no cable or satellite providers have signed on yet, ESPN sees the Texas market as a goldmine given its sheer size and cable and satellite penetration.

Nearly every major operator has a foothold in Texas in some fashion. Time Warner Cable is the largest cable operator in the state and has a significant presence in Austin and on the UT campus. Comcast is Houston’s biggest cable operator, with about 700,000 of the market’s 1.2 million basic-video subscribers as of May 2010 (according to Sports Business Daily). In addition, both DirecTV and Dish Network have a substantial subscriber base in the state.

“We’re going to hit the ground running on the affiliate side,” says Magnus. “We let the distributors know about this in advance of the announcement. The state of Texas has most of the major distributors represented in one way or another, and we intend on talking with them very soon.”

The Broadband Network
ESPN will also create a UT broadband network in the vein of ESPN3.com. The authenticated broadband companion will offer extensive content, particularly events not featured on the linear TV network due to overlapping programming. Users will have to be authenticated as a subscriber of one of the UT network’s distributors to access the content.

In addition to live events, the broadband network will serve as a vault for on-demand replays and highlights — both long-form and short-form. A feed of the linear network will also be available. ESPN plans to have specific channels for each sport as well as a “live channel” that aggregates all live events into a single destination.

“We’re using our recent Time Warner Cable deal as a template here,” says Magnus. “We’re going to have an authenticated broadband companion to the linear network that’s going to be a place for simultaneous events. It will take the form of ESPN3.com in terms of its interface, and the linear network will also run through this as a TV Everywhere approach.”

Bringing Friday Night Lights Online
ESPN will also create and operate an authenticated broadband site that will aggregate content from high schools around the state. It will provide fans, students, and parents with access to extensive Texas high school sports, with an emphasis on the approximately 1,300 football programs in the state, through a centralized home. This does not necessarily include ESPN’s sending crews out to cover specific games.

“With our ESPN Rise and ESPNU businesses, we may be interested in producing high school games, but this will focus on creating a repository for Texas high school sports content using the ESPN3.com approach,” says Magnus. “If schools have a video board or coaches film or footage that the A/V club shot of the game, we think that this can be a hub for that content.”