Hook ’em Horns: Longhorn Network Rustles Up First Carriage Deal

Startup eyes Time Warner Cable, Comcast

With mere hours to go before it goes live, ESPN’s Longhorn Network at long last is beginning to make some headway with distributors, cutting a deal with Verizon’s FiOS TV. Trouble is, the biggest players in the Lone Star State have yet to make a commitment to the startup.

Longhorn Network will join the FiOS TV lineup on Sept. 1, just in time for the Rice-Texas opener that will air exclusively on the new channel Sept. 3. The network begins broadcasting on Friday (Aug. 26).

The FiOS pact marks the first distribution win for Longhorn Network. At present, the service is only available in northern Texas, a footprint that includes Dallas and Fort Worth.

“The Longhorns have a huge presence in Texas, with a passionate fan base that extends across the country,” said David Preschlack, evp, Disney and ESPN Media Networks. “Verizon’s early commitment to this network speaks to the university’s popularity and the consumer demand for this content.”

Until LHN lands a carriage deal with a major cable operator, Central Texans are out of luck. The university’s Austin campus and the surrounding areas are serviced by Time Warner Cable, which is nowhere near to coming to terms with LHN.

That said, talks with Time Warner continue, and ESPN’s affiliate sales team is also working to close the loop with Comcast and satellite distributor DirecTV.

Texas is pigskin country, and the University of Texas football program functions as a secular religion. Still, ESPN is asking a rather steep carriage fee for the network, as MSO sources say LHN could cost between 35 cents and 40 cents per sub per month.

Inflated sub fees are now the norm at conference nets; according to SNL Kagan data, the Big Ten Network charges 36 cents per sub per month. The five-year-old MTN, aka MountainWest Sports Network, has negotiated a fee of 20 cents a pop.

Of course, a network dedicated to an athletic conference services fans of every member school, whereas TLN is devoted to the very singular ‘Horns base.

TLN will cover as many as 200 live sporting events, but football rights are limited by pre-existing media deals. Fox Sports this spring hashed out a 13-year deal with the Big 12, giving it the cable rights to 40 football games per season. In addition, the conference also has a deal in place with ABC Sports-ESPN that runs through the 2015-16 academic year.

LHN will air two Longhorns games per season, including at least one against a Big 12 foe (provided that school agrees to appear on the network). Early this month, Texas Tech turned down overtures from LHN to co-star in its first Big 12 production; ESPN is now believed to be pursuing Oklahoma State to fill the role.