Saying farewell to an incredibly busy offseason
Much of the debate so far about the Longhorn Network created by Texas an ESPN has centered around whether or not it's a problem for the Big XIIish Conference and its members institutions. Which is understandable. The Big XIIish stands on the verge of collapse, and the Longhorn Network has become one of Texas A&M's main exhibits in the court of public opinion as it argues why it needs to flee the increasingly Austin-centric conference.
But the Longhorn Network is not just an issue for the Big XIIish. (Assuming it takes care of minor details like getting a cable distributor and making money.) It is an issue for college football. And it will have profoundly negative effects on the sport we all love, particularly if the idea takes hold and moves beyond the Longhorns.
And those issues will present themselves whether the Aggies bolt for the SEC or remain in the Big XIIish for decades. In short, a university-specific network isn't just unsustainable for any single conference, it is unsustainable for college football as we know it. And that's why it has to be stopped.
To get an idea about the fundamental reordering of the college football business that the Longhorn Network could bring about, think of conferences as a kind of faucet that controls the flow of money into college football. No matter how much water is coming and no matter how quickly -- and money has been flowing into college football at a fast and furious rate over the last several years -- a faucet directs the flow of water in an orderly way. Now, ever seen what happens when you knock a faucet off of a sink or bathtub? Water goes everywhere, which is kind of fun to watch, until you realize that it's making a huge mess that someone is going to have to clean up. The Longhorn Network threatens to knock off all of the faucets controlling the flow of money into college football.
There are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 teams in America that can support a 24-hour network (assuming that Texas proves it can), with the best bets being Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Southern Cal. Take those nine and the possibility that programs like Georgia, Florida State, LSU, Tennessee and maybe a basketball powerhouse like North Carolina could make ends meet, and you might be able to get to 15. (I have my doubts about almost anyone beyond my original nine for a variety of reasons, but we'll go with the higher estimate for now.)
You might as well take the other 105 programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision and split them into another college football subdivision. Because for at least several years and probably for the foreseeable future, they will have no chance of catching up.
Think about it. The Longhorn Network -- and successors like the Crimson Tide Channel and the Irish Network -- means an extra $15 million for each of those 15 schools a year, $15 million annually that can be poured into facilities, recruiting and coaching contracts. Not only that, but recruits can be sold on the idea of absolute certainty that every one of their games will be nationally televised and there is a channel devoted to their every move. That's an intoxicating brew for an 18-year-old who already has legendary coaches lined up around the block to tell the player how important he is to a nationally recognized university's football team.
That's different than something like the Big Ten Network. Whatever you want to say about the B1G's television partnership, it divides the money evenly. And while some of the rights that form the basis for the B1G Network and would form the basis for individual team networks are retained by individual schools in some conferences, like the SEC, no one has ever seriously considered the kind of gargantuan deal that Texas got in the LHN or placing the marketing muscle of ESPN behind it.
And when ESPN gets involved, there are all kinds of questions about conflicts of interest at play. I'm generally not a media conspiracy theorist, in part because I know from personal experience that it's almost impossible for media types to organize anything more complicated than lunch, but I put hardly any stock into any report coming out of Bristol about the Texas A&M expansion story. Why would you? The conflicts of interests are almost hard to catalog. ESPN has an economic interest in making sure that Texas isn't negatively portrayed in relation to the story, it has a contract with the Big XIIish that would likely lose value if the Aggies bolted and it has a contract with the SEC that will have to be renegotiated at a far costlier rate if ESPN doesn't want to watch one of its more valuable assets sign with Fox or NBC or anyone trying to get more involved in the college football ratings sweepstakes.
Now, imagine a world where ESPN has a stable of teams with individual contracts, and even more incentives to choose winners and losers. If it sounds a little Orwellian, that's probably because it is.
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Some will counter that I'm arguing against something that is, to an extent, already in place. College football already has rich programs and poor programs. But this would be further stratifying the upper class, essentially creating a class of ultrawealthy programs that would consist of a little more than 10 percent of the current FBS and an even smaller share of NCAA football programs. That's capitalism run amok, the kind of free-market zealotry that we've discussed before in relation to the amateurism debate.
Eventually, some programs would be able to attempt to catch up. Middle-class programs like Arkansas and South Carolina in the SEC or specialty programs like Louisville in the Big East would be able to create online "networks" that could provide a smaller revenue stream for fan bases that probably number in the low hundreds of thousands. But these would be a pittance compared to what the bigger-dollar schools would be raking in with their networks. And already-strapped programs like Iowa State or even Boise State would have few fans willing to pay even a nominal monthly fee to subscribe to those networks. Many of them would be wiped out or forced to realign themselves into a different subdivision.
And even if Texas is the only program that ever sets up its own network -- isn't that worse, in a way? Isn't that now saying that there is one special program in the country that gets the benefits of having a megadeal with ESPN, and the rest of us just have to live with it?
It's not that Texas is evil for cutting its deal with ESPN -- I don't know of a university that would turn down $15 million a year and its own channel, regardless of what you might hear from presidents of institutions who just haven't thought of it yet. And it's certainly not that we need a "commissioner" of college football, because the arbitrary decision-making of pro commissioners has made it clear that a commissioner model has its own problems. (Besides, what the heck is Mark Emmert doing if not looking out for the interests of the game?)
It's simply that the NCAA needs to do what it is supposed to do in the first place -- lead, and look out for the interests of all of its members institutions. Cutting off access to high-school games as part of an effort to decrease the competitive problems the LHN might represent is a step in the right direction, but it's not going to fix the problem. For once, the NCAA might have to show a little spine, and rally the majority of its member institutions that might be ill-served by the LHN and its successors to find some way to bury the idea once and for all. Yeah, I know. I'm not holding my breath, either.
So, the only hope that the fans of the 105-110 programs who wouldn't be able to set up their own network can do is wait and hope that the Longhorn Network fails. Or dread the prospect of becoming second-class citizens in DeLoss Dodds' brave new world.