AUSTIN, Texas — The University of Texas and ESPN defended the $300 million Longhorn Network on Thursday amid uncertainty over whether Texas A&M will remain in the Big 12 after expressing concern over its archrival's exclusive television outlet.
The Longhorn Network launches next week. Although Texas is not the first school to have its own sports network, it's the first time ESPN will be behind one.
"The opportunities are just huge for each (Big 12) institution," Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said. "I think as time goes by we'll all learn how to better use those opportunities and get past somebody having a network."
Texas A&M may not be willing to wait. The Aggies are considering leaving the Big 12 and have reached out to the Southeastern Conference. A&M president R. Bowen Loftin said this week there is no timetable for a decision, but that whatever happens will boil down to "visibility for us and our athletes and our financial resources."
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A&M leaving the Big 12 would almost surely set off another round of conference realignment.
During an open house of the Longhorn Network studios, on the outskirts of the UT campus, Dodds sounded confident of the Big 12's survival. He called the league too unique to simply mirror the television deals struck by the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, and said he believed every Big 12 school could launch a network of its own.
Dodds singled out Kansas State, which this week announced that it will launch an online sports network.
"I think in 30 years the Big 12 will look smart for doing it this way," Dodds said.
Texas turned down offers to join the Big Ten and the Pac-10 last summer in part so it could launch the network. The 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN creates a 24-hour network that will broadcast Longhorns sports, including the football opener Sept. 3 against Rice.
Dodds and Burke Magnus, senior vice president of college sports programming for ESPN, said they don't worry about the network leading to any unraveling of the Big 12.
"I sleep well knowing that Texas has been very open and transparent about this effort from the get-go," Magnus said. "This did not sneak up on anybody... and the opportunity that Texas is taking advantage of with us is something that other institutions in the conference can take advantage of as well."
When it comes to recruiting, Texas coach Mack Brown said the network's biggest boost will be providing unprecedented access to the program.
"We fought for confidentiality for 14 years and now we have 70 visitors at practice every day," Brown said. "It's different, but it's good stuff. They're going to see coaches' personalities, they're going to see kids' personalities."
ESPN executives made it clear that Texas will be in charge. Injuries that take place during a football practice, for instance, will be vetted with coaches before being reported. The Longhorns have already rebuffed some efforts by ESPN to gain even deeper access, which executives said was part of the process of building trust with coaches.
The network also said the first-of-a-kind partnership with Texas won't translate into a pro-Longhorns bias across ESPN's networks.
"I'm not sure you can say ESPN has a rooting interest," said Stephanie Druley, who was formerly in charge of ESPN's NFL coverage. "Are people in Bristol (Connecticut, home of ESPN's headquarters) walking around wearing burnt orange? No."