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Longhorn Network has other schools scrambling

HOUSTON (AP) — Last month, officials with the University of Texas and ESPN Inc. trumpeted their 20-year, $300 million deal to create a 24-hour television network that will broadcast Longhorns sports.

“We’re going to cover (Texas) football like it’s never been covered before,” said Burke Magnus, senior vice president of college sports programming for ESPN.

George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports, called the network “a testament to the school’s remarkable, tradition-rich success and widespread, devoted fan base.”

The schools who compete with Texas see it a little different.

The prospect of Texas athletics potentially reaching the homes of young athletes across the country has competing schools scrambling for ways to keep pace. One rival suggested the network offers an unfair advantage that merits NCAA scrutiny.

The Texas deal also may include coverage of some high school events, and Texas A&M athletics director Bill Byrne says that should raise questions about the possibility of illegal recruiting practices.

“I can’t speak for the NCAA, but I would imagine the governing body will look into the use of a collegiate television network airing games of prospective student-athletes,” Byrne said in a statement. “I understand networks such as FSN and ESPN airing high school sports, but whether or not employees under contract with a university that may have additional contact would seem to be an issue.”

The NCAA referred questions about the TV deal to the university and ESPN.

The agreement calls for exclusive broadcasts of at least 200 Longhorns’ games per year, including all the school’s non-revenue sports. The still-unnamed network is scheduled to debut in September and school officials say it also will air academic and cultural programming.

Texas will control the content, so the network virtually amounts to a 24-hour advertisement that offers another enormous recruiting advantage for a school already among the richest and most powerful in the country.

High school athletics directors said the network will have a major impact on impressionable youngsters mulling college choices, especially those in other states.

“I think it is the wave of the future,” said Ben Pardo, the athletics director at Pearland High School, which won the Texas 5A football championship in December. “We’re in a visual society, and any kid who sees that and is exposed to that anywhere, that will certainly have an impact on how a kid perceives a university. That certainly is a great way for a university to expose what it has to offer to a younger and more widespread group.”

Ray Seals, the football coach and athletics coordinator at Houston’s Madison High School, where former Texas quarterback Vince Young played, said the network also gives Texas a valuable selling point to prospective athletes’ parents.

“The sports like field hockey and things like that, you never see it on TV,” Seals said. “Now, knowing that you can get that kind of exposure, that’d be hard to turn down for a youngster nowadays.

“And now, if my parents can’t come down to see me play, they can see me on TV,” Seals said. “Parents won’t have to take those long trips anymore, they can just turn on the TV and see their kids. Somebody did a good job of setting that up.”

Grasping the possibilities, Oklahoma plans to launch a similar network within the next year.

Like Texas, the Sooners’ football and basketball programs already garner plenty of national exposure. Oklahoma baseball coach Sunny Golloway said such a network will help the lower-tier sports stay on equal footing with their rivals across the Red River.

“I think it’s got a chance to be huge and I’m concerned that I don’t want Texas to jump out in front of us on that,” he said. “I don’t want to be on the road recruiting here in a couple months and some kid says, ’Hey, they’ve got the Texas Network.’ I’m going to come right back, ’We’ve got the Oklahoma Network,’ and I need the program right away to sell.”

Other Big 12 schools without the same resources or reach are hoping for ways to stay competitive on the recruiting trail. Missouri athletics director Mike Alden thinks the answer is developing methods of transmitting easy-to-access information to mobile devices.

“I think what it means for us, it means we have to continue to find ways to deliver our product,” Alden said. “Those are things I think all of us are working on and it’s something Texas is able to do and it’s good for them. I don’t know if it hurts us, but it will definitely help them with what they are trying to do.”

All the schools in the conference are eager to see how the TV deal affects the future of the league.

Texas turned down offers to join the Big Ten and the Pac-10 last summer in part so it could launch the network, but school officials say they’re committed to the league and do not intend to break off and become an independent.

Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe said the Longhorns’ deal can work in harmony with the league’s current TV contracts. The Big 12 has a $480 million deal with ABC-ESPN that runs through 2015-16, and a $78 million contract with Fox Sports Net through 2011-12.

“All of our members have acknowledged that no institutional distribution system will be allowed to diminish the value of the conference’s media agreements,” Beebe said in a statement. “And all indications are that the Big 12 is in a great position to enhance its future collective media arrangements, while allowing institutions to distribute content that is not used by our television partners.”

The Aggies’ Byrne is more skeptical.

Texas A&M also flirted with the idea of leaving the Big 12 — and the Longhorns’ formidable shadow — and joining the Southeastern Conference. He said the Texas deal remains a hot topic among school officials.

“There are many questions regarding this new contract that will be discussed at length here at Texas A&M and within the Big 12 Conference, as well as with our television partners,” Byrne said. “As we have stated on many occasions, it is our desire to work with our member institutions in the Big 12 Conference to do what is best for our league, and, of course, do what is best for Texas A&M.”

Meanwhile, Texas football coach Mack Brown said school officials in Austin will brainstorm ways to make the most of their new network.

“There’s nothing like it in sports, which is just unbelievable,” Brown said. “It will be great for our university, but it’s also great for every sport, and it’s something that we’re starting to realize now.

“It will, obviously, be great for recruiting,” Brown said. “But we think it’s also something to let people have more behind-the-scenes looks at what we do without giving up everything. So we’ve got to look at what that means and where we go with it.”

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AP Sports Writers Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City, R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis and Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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