ESPN Obscures Its Own Role in the Conference Realignment Mess

The network's $300 million deal with Texas, at the heart of the news, goes almost unmentioned

If you cover college sports for ESPN, you’ve got a real problem right now.

The biggest story these days is the conference realignment that’s bringing tectonic shifts to the NCAA landscape, ending century-old rivalries, and setting longtime partners at each others’ throats.

Problem is, ESPN itself is at the heart of why this is happening. Its Longhorn Network deal with the University of Texas kicked off the mess, sending Texas A&M to the SEC because they’re so mad about the deal, which gives Texas $300 million over twenty years, puts a conference game on the network, and wants to show high school games and highlights (ever seen a ticked-off Aggie? It’s not pretty). The idea of a school-only network played a role last year in sending the Nebraska Cornhuskers to the Big Ten. That helped lead Colorado to leave for the Pac-12 and left the Big 12 near death, having lost a quarter of its members, including two premier ones. The instability in the Big 12 and movement toward superconferences surely played a part in the ACC’s recent raiding of the Big East’s Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

The near-destruction of the Big 12 sent Oklahoma scurrying to the Pac-12 in the hopes of finding stability in the west with Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech (don’t ask me why OU, my alma mater, still wants to be in a league with UT, but that’s another story). On Tuesday, the Pac-12 said no thanks, in no small part because it was “appalled” at Texas, which insisted on retaining its $300 million TV deal with ESPN.

How has ESPN covered its own role in the fiasco this week? Poorly.

Here’s Pat Forde’s top yesterday:

In an ideal world, Oklahoma and Texas would return to the Big 12 fold today with heightened humility. They would be freshly thankful for the company they keep. They would pledge to be good working partners with their peers.

Since this is the real world, not the ideal, I assume the chances of that happening are slim.

But the Sooners and Longhorns can at least be encouraged to show some dignity, class and respect to their conference brethren. After threatening to take their talents and problematic TV network to the Pac-12, the Atlantic Coast Conference and everywhere else but South Beach, they’ve really got nowhere else to go but back home.

You’ve embarrassed yourselves and your conference, and now must backpedal faster than Deion Sanders. Your egos and attitudes have helped create a chain-reaction panic from coast to coast. Your infighting needs to end.

Imagine if The Wall Street Journal reported that a hacking scandal had roiled Britain and failed to note News Corp.’s role in it. That’s analogous to what’s happening in this column. ESPN’s network is/was the core issue in the Big 12 turmoil.

That kind of coverage doesn’t deviate much from the ESPN corporate line, which goes like this:

The driving force on realignment lies with the conferences and universities. The Big 12 determined in 2010 to grant each of its schools the ability to create their own networks. As a result, the Big 12 stayed together and the University of Texas made the decision to launch its network. ESPN subsequently won a competitive bid to become its media partner. We have since seen Kansas State and Missouri create opportunities while Oklahoma is exploring its media options. The concept of LHN remains the same as it was 15 months ago.‬

At least Forde mentioned a “TV network,” though. Ivan Meisel Maisel doesn’t note that angle at all:

The arson inspectors will decide in due time what set off this conflagration. It may have been the arrogance of Texas, or the inability of Texas A&M to deal with that arrogance (you’d think if anyone knew how …). But once the Aggies threw up their hands and began talking to the SEC, they set off an emotional chain reaction that only now has begun to calm.

Ted Miller’s Pac-12 blog post doesn’t mention the Longhorn Network sticking point either, much less ESPN’s role in the mess.

Andy Katz mentions the Longhorn Network, but doesn’t note that his employer owns it.

Fortunately, a subsequent Katz piece does report ESPN’s role:

Revenue sharing will be a primary topic of conversation, something that according to a Pac-12 source was a deal-breaker in adding Texas because the university has the Longhorn Network, run by ESPN, and enjoys a different revenue-sharing plan in the Big 12. The Pac-12 wasn’t going to adjust the equal revenue-sharing plan with its current 12 members.

So for all you underfed ESPN readers, here’s some context on the network’s role in the current mess from the guy at the center of all of this: A&M athletic director Bill Byrne:

You all know the landscape of the Big 12 Conference was altered by the creation of the Longhorn Network,” Byrne wrote. “We rebuffed an attempt to televise high school games on the LHN, arguing that this type of activity was a clear violation of NCAA rules. The most recent attempt by ESPN is to take highlights of high school games as part of news segments. The NCAA is taking a wait and see attitude on the highlights. I disagree with their stance — as do many of my colleagues across the country. We anticipate that ESPN will continue to push the envelope with the Longhorn Network, regardless of Texas A&M’s conference affiliation.”

The bottom line is simple for its editorial staff: ESPN has major conflicts of interest on this story, and not mentiong them—every time—makes it look really bad.

UPDATE: Gracie Blackburn of ESPN PR writes to say “I was discouraged to see that your article did not emphasize the numerous times analysts have mentioned LHN (and the fact that it is owned by ESPN) on air over multiple networks and a variety of shows when covering realignment.”

Fair enough. I don’t know how often ESPN’s on-air people mentioned the Longhorn Network and its ownership. I should have noted that I was analyzing the coverage ESPN collected last week on its website’s college football front page.

Further Reading:

The Scandal Beat: Does the press’s obsession with rule-breaking get in the way of real reform of college sports?

Grantland Rises. An initial review of the new sports site from ESPN’s Bill Simmons.

A New Commitment to Transparency at ESPN. Network to codify its standards and practices

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,