Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby doesn’t appear to have a problem acknowledging what anyone who’s been paying attention to the college athletics landscape already knows: The Longhorn Network poses a serious problem for the future of his conference.
However, Bowlsby’s comments about the LHN as a “boulder in the road” and the future of content delivery are somewhat vague, so allow me to offer my interpretation with a heavy dose of speculation.
The deal between Texas and ESPN did more than just create a school-sponsored cable network. It put the Longhorns under the Worldwide Leader’s thumb for 20 years, making UT a pawn in ESPN’s grand plan to dominate college sports media. As such, Texas won’t be doing anything anytime soon without ESPN’s blessing.
(To be fair, we don’t know what kind of termination clauses are available to either side of that agreement. Let's assume for now that the deal is pretty ironclad.)
Looking down the line, the incongruity between Texas’ relationship with ESPN and the league’s patchwork collection of media rights deals will significantly hinder the Big 12’s flexibility and bargaining power when the next round of media negotiations start up six or so years from now. So long as Texas remains a member of the conference, any deal for an all-in conference media enterprise at that point will require working through ESPN.
If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic about the Big 12’s future, Bowlsby does seem to have a good handle on the direction of content delivery and the velocity of change in technology. The reality is that even though the cable industry is holding steady for now, the assault on its business model through the growth of customized Web-based alternatives is starting expand the playing field beyond the traditional cable bundle.
A Big 12 conference network under the current cable distribution model has no shot at gaining widespread traction, which Bowlsby clearly gets. Thankfully, he's not playing at placating the masses with that kind of nonsense. (Frankly, I’m still skeptical we’ll ever see an ACC network along the lines of the SEC Network or Big Ten Network.)
A digital conference network in 10 years? That’s a different story. When Bowlsby suggests “morphing” the LHN into something else, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has something like that in mind.
Would Texas get on board with that? Hey, we've all got dreams.