New Longhorn Network a big deal, with lots of room to grow

2011-09-10T00:45:00Z 2013-11-06T21:45:06Z New Longhorn Network a big deal, with lots of room to growJason Franchuk - Daily Herald Daily Herald
September 10, 2011 12:45 am  • 

AUSTIN, Texas — Four kids with young faces, all taller than your typical students, are being escorted out of a high-tech room.

Yes, it's exactly what you think it is: Texas showing off, recruiting.

The Longhorn Network is brand new, and the Longhorns — under the golden umbrella of ESPN — hope to merge the two persuasive trademarks to open up a new wave of possibilities for both parties.

A UT official just happened to be escorting a group of basketball recruits Friday as a Daily Herald reporter took a brief tour, showing off the new studios which rest about a 3-minute walk northwest from an edge of the UT campus.

"We're here to serve Longhorn fans," said Stephanie Druley, a successful ESPN executive who spent 15 years at the Connecticut hub before deciding to return to her alma mater to head up a game-changing product.

Is it like BYU athletics' spruced-up connection to BYUtv?

That's a broad question, perhaps too much so — like trying to say if this continuously expanding city is indeed a college town at heart. There's a lot of yes and no in there.

The nod is that both new-age products, which Druley believes are going to be come more common for universities in upcoming years, are out to promote religion: The LDS faith and burnt-orange rabidness, respectively.

Here, there are UT highlight shows and pre-game shows and a broader ability to hit on topics and sports that wouldn't normally get covered by less concentrated television options. Coaches apparently love how close the slick, high-rise glass building (where LHN is a tenant) is so close to the athletic facilities. It's comparable in these instances to BYU's television studios perched next to the Marriott Center.

There are other similarities.

Texas, for example, three weeks in to launch, has profiles on a former Navy SEAL turned football walk-on and a football player who was also an internationally acclaimed track star.

There are also opportunities to hit on, as Druley calls it, the "Texas culture" on campus of everything from theater to the museums. What was once a concern — filling all of that air time — is not an issue for a staff about 70. 

It's good to find so much value in a product that fetched a crazy amount of coin.

In January, the university announced the creation of a 24-hour television network known as LHN. ESPN is ponying up $300 million over 20 years to the university and its multimedia-rights partner. 

It is a wild pasture of green (cash) that has altered the landscape of college sports.

Yet in some ways the opportunities would have to make at least BYU fans laugh.

For the young network, there are issues of getting the product into homes through various cable providers. Sound familiar? Yes, for anyone who watched BYU and its Mountain West Conference brethren have lingering visibility issues on the Mtn. UT has work to do, even in Texas.

"We knew it wouldn't be 100 percent on day one," Druley said. "But people that are seeing us...they love it. I think that's going to put a little more pressure on. People know it's a really good product. And for Texas fans, it's must-see TV. It'll get done. Nobody's running scared; it just takes time."

Druley is no stranger to conflict. She's managed to thrive in a man-dominated medium, even working as the boss on ESPN's ultra-popular NFL products, working ESPN's packaging and production on more than a dozen Super Bowls as well.

Among the highlights of her time in Houston, the Dallas Morning News reported last winter, was covering the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson divorce in March 1994 with the Dallas Cowboys. The day the split was announced, Michael Irvin threw a garbage can in the direction of an inquiring Druley. (She later became Irvin's boss at ESPN, the newspaper noted, and they've "laughed about the incident.")

The conflict now, one Druley believes to be unfair, is: How much is LHN affecting college sports negatively? 

The school seems to have produced more enemies than usual in the past 12 months, as Colorado, Nebraska and Texas A&M have all sought different leagues.

Did this project, among other dominoes falling, set peril to the once illustrious Big 12 Conference? 

BYU has a network, but is basically a not-for-profit setup based more on exposure. It won't have the commercialism of LHN. No one's accusing the Cougars of prompting college-athletics armageddon, even if former Mountain West colleagues weren't thrilled with the perceived advantage at hand.

Will UT have blood on its hands?

"I think that's the perception a lot of places," Druley acknowledges of LHN's impact. "I don't think it's fair at all. When the Big 12 (Conference) all re-committed last summer, that's what came out of this — Texas was going to start their own network. We never hid anything; we were way up front. All of a sudden, it became the cause for everything."

Even in Austin — which many residents feel is an oasis from the "typical" Lone Star State mentality — bigger is better. And everything here centers around UT, a universe that is expanding daily because of a technological marvel.

"You'll see us," Druley said, not just bragging about the future. "We'll have a very large set in the corner of the stadium on gameday."

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Jason Franchuk can be reached at jfranchuk@heraldextra.com

Be sure to follow him at his new Twitter account, @harkthefranchuk


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