Texas Chainsaw Massacre—When will the ESPN Longhorns go Independent?

In the second part of Quentin Tarantino’s revenge opus, we see a flashback of the pregnant Bride (Uma Thurman) rehearsing for her wedding.  Her former boss Bill (David Carradine) — who trained the Bride to be one of his killers in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — drops in to speak with the Bride, his former lover, before she gets hitched. They have a tense and terse conversation on the porch of the Texas church before she introduces him to her new lover.  The scene turns into a bloodbath in which the Bride and her wedding guests are left for dead.

This shotgun wedding was nothing compared to the mess that awaits college football as that famous four letter network climbs into bed with the number one grossing athletic department in the country, the real life merging of Boardwalk and Park Place in the multi-billion dollar enterprise that is college football.  For some time now the line between journalism and capitalistic enterprise has been seriously distorted by the World Wide Leader in sports related revenue.  Now, as ESPN becomes the major stakeholder in the Texas Longhorns Network (TLN hereafter), the once blurred line has been completely obliterated.  If the rest of the conference ‘s fans already thought the Big Twelve was all about Texas, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

As Stuart Mandell, of CNNSI put it: 

And that’s the part that should really be troubling not just to Big 12 fans, but to college football fans everywhere. From the moment this 20-year, $300 million deal was announced, it’s been astounding just how deeply the company is getting into bed with one of the schools it covers journalistically. Granted, conflicts of interest are unavoidable in sports media these days. This website is owned by a company (Time Warner) that holds the rights to NBA, PGA and NASCAR programming. But ESPN isn’t just testing the separation between church and state with Texas; there isn’t one. Case in point: The ever-popular GameDay crew (Chris Fowler and Co.) will be appearing live from Austin for the channel’s Aug. 26 debut. ESPN and Texas are now one and the same, and you can’t tell me it won’t affect the way GameDay, SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, et. al., cover Mack Brown’s program. In a sport where many fans already live in a constant state of paranoia that the media is propping up someone else at their expense … well, ESPN is flat-out doing it. It should make for some interesting signs the first time GameDay goes to Norman.

And he didn’t know the half of it, as only now, details of this merger are beginning to come to light.  As SB Nation put it, discussing details of the TLN-ESPN contract:

If Texas ever becomes an Independent in any sport, this would allow ESPN an exclusive 60-day window to negotiate for the entirety of Texas sports broadcast rights. Similarly, Texas is contractually obligated to stay away from participation in other sports networks, which may also mean that they would be unable to be affiliated with a Big 12 Network, if that ever came to fruition.  Additionally, employees of the Longhorn Network are expected to maintain a “quality and reputation desired by UT,” to reflect the best interests of the network and the school. If the university does not like what is said on air, OTC points out, they can approach ESPN and have that person removed from the network.  Another controversial part of the contract is that ESPN is supposed to make every effort to obtain the Texas State Championship Game, a potential scenario that could give an unfair recruiting advantage to Texas. With a one-year wait on broadcasting any high school games, this condition still has a long time to percolate.

While this journalistic integrity problem had existed to some degree already, with other contracts that ESPN has in other sports, college football is different.  College football is the only major sport that determines its championship in part through the use of polls, meaning that a subjective element is part of the equation.  Look at the language above—if Texas feels that ESPN’s announcers aren’t pro-Texas enough, then the Longhorns can pull the old Something About Mary line out—“step into my office, your f’n fired.”  Not that this is likely to be a problem mind you, as what’s good for Texas on the field is good for ESPN on the balance sheet.   So what’s the problem with this cozy little arrangement you ask?  

Dan Beebe, Big 12 Commissioner, A.K.A. “Dead Man Walking,” survived the Pac-16 scare.  Can he survive the Longhorn’s selfishness?

It’s more than just the announcers saying things like Colt McCoy’s pass fell incomplete with one second on the clock, just enough time for the field goal unit to kick Texas into the National Championship game.  The danger with ESPN is that they seemingly have a monopoly on college football pregame and post game shows, because, well, they have a monopoly on the games themselves, and this is where the fans, and more importantly, the voters, get their information.  ESPN already has a two billion dollar contract with the SEC, the conference that has won the national championship the last fifteen straight years (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight).    What about the Big Ten Network you say?  While they might get to show Purdue against Indiana, the marquee games are already being shown by ABC (and in sports media algebra, ABC = ESPN), a fact that doesn’t keep Mark May from spewing his anti-Ohio State nonsense in an effort to protect ESPN’s most valuable asset (sorry that OSU punked your alma mater 72-0 Mark, but it’s time for you to shut your yap).  In recent years, ESPN has shamelessly promoted the SEC because, well, increasingly, ESPN-ABC has been showing more of the bowl games, and having your marquee programs in the biggest and best bowls equals more dollars in the ESPN coffers.

The concept of journalistic integrity is not a new one, it’s just sort of new as it pertains to college athletics.  As an aspiring political science student in the early nineties, I read a lot of Noam Chomsky.  Noam noticed that companies like the National Broadcasting Company never seemed to say anything about the dangers of nuclear energy, probably because the TV Network was owned by General Electric, a company that, as it turned out, was profiting at the time quite handsomely from the production of nuclear energy.  So, I suppose it was only inevitable that once sports became a multi-billion dollar enterprise, the model of using networks to advertise on behalf of your most profitable business commodities under the guise of journalism was inevitable.

The problem for the consumer in college football is that many believe that ESPN is really in the journalism business.  They are not.  They are in the entertainment revenue business, as advertised in the four letter acronym whose meaning has long since been forgotten (the “E” stands for entertainment, and the “N” stands for “none of your business”).  It’s why ESPN showed the ridiculous King James infomercial with Jim Gray lobbing softball questions to a solipsistic ego maniac completely detached from reality (you probably know it as the cleverly dubbed “Decision,” the single largest grossing hour in ESPN’s “glorious” history.  While the King was taking his talents to South Beach, ESPN was taking theirs to the nearest bank).  It’s also why one can barely find a hockey highlight on ESPN, even during one of professional sports best postseason tournaments—it makes no cents for the Four Letter Network to advertise for someone else’s product.   

For ESPN, it’s all about lining up sponsors who will pay top dollar for air time, and it’s never been about anything else.  The one universal truth in sports is that a winning program is more profitable than one that doesn’t win, which is why the New York Yankees are currently worth more than a billion dollars, and why the Los Angeles Clippers can be had for the sports equivalent of loose change found in the sofa.  So, if Texas and Oklahoma are both in the championship game hunt, and let’s say we have a three way tie like the one that happened a few years back with Texas Tech, which program do you think the talking heads at ESPN will trumpet in their pre and post game “analysis,” if an appearance in this bowl game over that bowl game means a few extra million dollars for ESPN?  And while you might be tempted to say, well, who cares who ESPN promotes, keep in mind that ESPN, without a true rival in this business, is the source that coaches turn to before they make up their polls, and where other networks get clips for the SEC, the ACC, the Big East, the Pac-12, the marquee matchups in the Big Ten, any important Thursday night matchups featuring  the “Little Sister’s of the Poor” and now, Texas Longhorn games.  In other words, ESPN is everyone’s source for information on all things college football.

And, of course, what position do we expect ESPN to take with regards to whether the TLN can televise high school football in Texas, a not so thinly veiled strategy to procure recruiting advantages for the already undisputed king of the Big 12?  How long before Texas and ESPN decide that it’s simply too much of a hassle to fight with its step-sisters or that it is simply more profitable for Texas to go Independent (and oh, hey, look at the terms above, ESPN will handle those pesky little negotiations for the Longhorns should they go Independent for a small piece of the Little 12’s flesh).   Is there a zebra carcass anywhere in the four corners of this world that hasn’t been ravaged by some executive at ESPN just for sport?

In the analogy above, the role of the wedding guests is played by the other schools in the Big 12.   The pregnant bride is ESPN (with the child being the TLN), and Dan Beebe, the Big 12 Commissioner, A.K.A., dead man walking, represents former boss Bill (who had the nerve to take on a woman that couldn’t even be buried alive), with the assassination at the wedding representing the Big 12’s attempt to save itself in its partnership with Fox Sports.  We all know how the movie turned out.  As for the four letter network, hell hath no fury like a conglomerate sports network scorned.

 Long live the new T.E.S.P.N.

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Categories: College Football

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4 replies

  1. Michael,
    I’m having my morning coffee before I get to work and have just finished your column. Thanks so much for getting my brain working. And even more thanks for a brilliant column pointing out how we sports lovers have just been bamboozled. Of course, it’s wrong to have the major sports network in bed with a marquee team, but we’ve just smiled and let it happen. I guess the only people who will be really delighted over this down the road are the congressmen and women who will get to investigate, thereby putting down the athletes who in high school put them down. In the meantime, we will watch ESPN pull the wool over our eyes where its powerhouse bedfellow is concerned. The eyes of Texas are upon ESPN as they cross their i’s dot their t’s in a gazillion dollar contract sure to put a stranglehold on integrity in sports broadcasting. Thanks again, you do this as well as anyone in the business.

  2. Michael,

    Its good to see you writing again. I’m not entirely concerned with the LHN, seeing as how its mere inception and subsequent mission creep (showing conference games and high school games) has caused its ideal situation (a weakened Big 12) to be torn asunder. Its unlikely that the Big 12 is long for the earth and the PAC, B1G and SEC will not allow the LHN in its current form (In the SEC, it can be modified to show 3rd tier right like Florida and Georgia do). While the football program is capable of independence, they wouldn’t have a cozy landing spot for their Olympics sports like ND currently does. While I find no fault with Texas attempting to monetize its appeal, one has to wonder if Deloss Dodds even entertained the idea of the LHN being negatively received.

    BTW, as a disciple of Rickover, Chomasky’s assertion that nuclear power was dangerous and that NBC was downplaying it was completely alarmist in nature. We all drive around with 3 sticks on dynamite in our cars and that doesn’t scare anyone. Similarly, France has operated nuclear plants safely for 40 years and the US Navy has been driving them around the ocean without incident for nearly 60 years.

  3. vandiver, the LHN itself doesn’t concern me, as the only carrier for it now is Verizon, and at least until someone says Texas can show H.S. games, it doesn’t appear to give them much of an advantage. The tone of my piece is the concern I have with ESPN getting involved with specific schools–for a Big 10 fan, it’s been all I can handle to watch them prop up one conference over another, but at least that was somewhat spread out over 12 programs. As a for instance, and this is all just speculation at this point, but many believe that ESPN has been working behind the scenes to break up the Big 12 and steer Texas to the Pac 12 (this makes some sense, as the Pac 12 deal is split between ESPN and FOX, and this would give ESPN a bit of a leg up in their battle with FOX). If interested, here is one good discussion on this topic (http://northwestern.rivals.com/showmsg.asp?SID=901&fid=57&style=2&tid=162506546&Page=3). I have no idea if this is true, but this is precisely what concerns me–ESPN should show the games and comment on them, not be involved directly with conference realignment, saving and destroying conferences, etc. I also don’t think Texas goes Independent utlitmately because of the other sports as you point out, but also because I think Texas likes being in a conference and playing the role of the bully (and ultimately, I just believe more revenue can be generated in a pact with 12 or 16 schools and taking a cut of that then forming a network where it is expected that only two games will be shown each year). If the Pac 12 garnered that much in their deals with Fox and ESPN, with just 1 1/2 national programs to trumpet (U.S.C. is the one, Oregon is a half IMHO), just wait and see what the B1G 10 gets when their contract is up (I think 2015) when they can sell Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State (plus what I think is a rising power in Wisconsin). As big as Texas is, there is only so much one program can generate on their own, especially when teams can expect some lean years–just ask Notre Dame.

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