| Houston Chronicle Jan. 19--AUSTIN -- ESPN and the University of Texas announced plans Wednesday to launch a seven-day, 24-hour television network in September that guarantees the school and its marketing partner at least $300 million over 20 years.
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More significantly for the university's image, the network sets the Texas Longhorns brand alongside the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Fox and ESPN itself as a staple of televised and digital entertainment.
The network will be offered for distribution to cable and satellite carriers nationwide and will air about 200 live sports events per year, including at least one football game and eight men's basketball games, along with sports news and information programs and university-generated music, cultural and academic programs.
It has yet to receive an official name, but the Longhorns brand and the mania for UT sports in Texas were clear drivers for a one of-a-kind deal at a time when universities in general and Texas schools specifically are struggling for financial support from any corner.
"At UT-Austin, we want to define what it means to be the public university in the 21st century", said university president William Powers. "One of the challenges we face is to create new sources of revenue to support our mission. The UT network is an example of this effort."
Powers said the network will be owned by ESPN and represents a partnership between ESPN, the university and IMG College, Texas' multimedia rights holder and marketing partner. IMG will receive 17.5 percent of the $300 million guaranteed from ESPN, or about $52.5 million, with the rest going to the university.
In addition to football and basketball games, the network will offer home games from every sport in which the Longhorns participate plus daily studio shows, coaches shows, documentaries, re-airs of live broadcasts and re-airs of classic games from the past.
"We looked at the Big Ten network and said, 'What if it were just one institution?'" said Chris Plonsky, the university's director of women's athletics. "People who really love their school would watch anything involving their school all the time.
"Football will drive the network. Make no bones about it. The football coverage will be heavy. But there is so much other content that is compelling, and it's ours to exploit. We haven't had a place to put it. Now, we do."
For the first five years, proceeds will total about $50 million, with half going to the athletic department and half being used for academic programs, Powers said. Included in that total, he said, will be new endowed teaching positions at $1 million each in the departments of physics and philosophy.
The $5 million annual payment for athletics during the first five years represents only a fraction of the school's $137 million athletics budget, the largest in the nation. Powers said the support for faculty and classroom programs could represent a significant model at a time when a current draft state budget estimates that spending for public education will be cut by $771.6 million over the next two years.
"These kinds of public-private enterprises all across the campus will be a model for what it will mean to restructure and reinvent higher education", Powers said.
Wednesday's announcement clears the way for ESPN to begin talks on distribution via cable operators, including Comcast in Houston and Time Warner in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Waco, telephone providers such as AT&T's U-verse and satellite distributors such as DirectTV and Dish Network. Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior vice president, said the company is confident it can reach agreements in time for the September launch.
"Within Texas we will seek the broadest possible distribution, and we think the profile of the university and the content on the network will take care of that for us", he said.
A spokesman for Comcast, Houston's largest cable provider, declined comment on the announcement. At Time Warner Cable, which is the largest provider in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Waco, spokeswoman Maureen Huff said, "We have a long relationship with the University of Texas and a solid relationship with ESPN, and we look forward to exploring opportunities with both of them."
Texas has been exploring plans for the network for at least 3 ½ years and negotiated with several bidders, including Fox, which reportedly bid about $3 million a year with additional money to be provided through revenue-sharing arrangements.
ESPN, clearly, topped that with its bid, which averages $15 million over 20 years.
"It's very attractive financially to be in partnership with ESPN", Powers said. "... It's a tremendous fit with a tremendous partner."
Magnus said the network will be broadcast in HDTV. ESPN will build an HD studio in Austin and air games in high-definition as production trucks are available. And, in keeping with the love that Texas and Texans have for football, he promised saturation coverage of Texas football.
"You can rest assured that every single home football game, the network will be wall-to-wall football, 24 hours a day leading in, 24 hours a day leading out", Magnus said. "We're going to cover the football program like it's never been covered before."
Men's athletics director DeLoss Dodds said distribution models nationwide "can run from one to 30 million (households). We will have to go out and go to work and get those subscribers."
Dodds acknowledged that the freedom to form its own network was among the reasons that Texas elected last summer to stay with the Big 12 rather than join a league like the Pac-12 that plans to start a conference-wide channel.
"It wasn't the main reason we stayed with the Big 12. It was a reason", he said.
Dodds also acknowledged the importance of the channel when it comes to recruiting student-athletes.
"We live in a competitive world, and we are going to be competitive", he said. "This is one thing that helps us."
Magnus said ESPN, which was involved in talks to help preserve the Big 12, "will look proactively at ways to work with all the Big 12 schools to have this network benefit all of them as well."
All parties, however, emphasized that Texas is one of the few schools -- if not the only one -- with the brand power, alumni power and TV reach to make a standalone network work.
"I don't think it could be replicated at other schools very easily", Magnus said. "I think it's a unique opportunity."
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