- Associated Press - Thursday, August 25, 2011

AUSTIN, TEXAS (AP) - The Longhorn Network, the much-hyped and controversial partnership between ESPN and the University of Texas, launches Friday with a significant question: Will anyone be watching?

As of Thursday, ESPN and Texas officials had yet to announce a major cable or satellite provider to carry the Longhorn Network and its 24-hours, seven-days-a-week focus on Texas sports.

The biggest carrier so far is Verizon, which announced Thursday it would carry the network on its FiOS TV sports package with a potential reach of about 4 million subscribers in about a dozen states, including Texas.

“We have confidence someone will see us on Friday,” said Stephanie Druley, vice president of programming for the Longhorn Network. “We’re moving ahead, business as usual. It’s inevitable we’re going to be on TV.”

Cable television analyst Adam Swanson of SNL Kagan said while not having a major carrier already announced is “not ideal” for the Longhorn Network, it also isn’t unusual given the history of tough network negotiations with providers. He noted the long and expensive fights waged between cable providers and the NFL over the NFL Network.

“It’s not unprecedented,” Swanson said. “In a week, if they still don’t have distribution, that’s a problem.”

The Longhorn Network debuts Friday night with a two-hour special featuring live interviews with football coach Mack Brown, other Texas coaches and some former Longhorns athletes. The first live game coverage will be Friday’s night’s Texas volleyball match against Pepperdine.

The network’s big target date for a distribution deal is Saturday, Sept. 3, when it will broadcast the Longhorn’s season-opening football game against Rice.

“Having this launch national would be nice, but we understand the business and we’re going to launch small. It’s going to grow as we go,” Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said.

Swanson said ESPN has the leverage of having the top brand in television sports programming when negotiating a distribution deal.

“They have established a brand that is really second to none,” Swanson said. “ESPN is the big dog.”

It’s the marriage of two big dogs like ESPN and Texas that has unsettled the rest of the Big 12, most notably rival Texas A&M.

The ability to create its own network was a major reason Texas spurned offers to join the Pac-10 and Big Ten in 2010. But the 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN, the Disney-owned giant based in Bristol, Conn., staggered the Longhorns’ Big 12 rivals and created worries within the league that one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful programs just got richer and stronger.

Texas A&M apparently has had enough of Texas and the Aggies are making a push to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. On Thursday, the Aggies formally told the Big 12 they are considering a departure.

Incoming Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp insists such a move would not be done because of the network, but A&M officials have been the most vocal in concerns over the impact of the network on the Big 12.

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