You are always looking to add a marquee match-up to your schedule, and the Longhorns have a rich football tradition.
That's a quote from former Ole Miss AD Pete Boone in August 2007, when the two-game Ole Miss-Texas series was officially announced, four years before the Longhorn Network would launch.
Texas won the first game, 66-31, at Ole Miss in 2012. ESPN aired the broadcast on its flagship network, available in more than 98 million households nationwide, with a Texas-centric feed simultaneously available on LHN. Even for a program coming off a 2-10 campaign with a brand new coach and a thin roster, Ole Miss got all it could ask from a 35-point loss in primetime: national exposure and a shot in the arm of enthusiasm from fans who sold out their stadium. A few months and a 7-6 season later, the Rebels would storm the ranks of elite programs on National Signing Day and no one cared much about a blowout loss from September.
As announced Tuesday, the second and final game between the Rebels and Longhorns in Austin has been optioned by LHN, relegating the game to a paltry TV audience of an estimated 10 million subscribers nationwide and virtually blacking out the visiting team's TV footprint (for now). If it's aired only on the LHN, almost no one in SEC country will see the game, nor will any future college football players in almost every state the Rebels regularly recruit.
The University of Mississippi will get paid for the game, no doubt, but as a member of the opulent SEC, that's a footnote. The point of the game was and is national exposure, and the Rebels just got a taste of what sent Texas A&M into the neighborhood.
Ole Miss will be the first BCS-level non-conference opponent to appear on the Longhorn Network, and thanks to a contract written long before LHN was conceived, it has absolutely no say in the matter. The actual contract between the teams was obtained and broken down by SB Nation's Good Bull Hunting. Per its language, crafted in 2007, the agreement allows host-team Texas to move the broadcast of the game "via any other means of transmission not listed herein which may exist or be developed." In 2007, that throwaway clause meant nothing and everything.
Since its launch in 2011, LHN has carried only three Texas football games exclusively — Rice in 2011, and Wyoming and New Mexico in 2012. Inside the Big 12, ESPN and Texas can't move a Longhorn home conference game to LHN without the agreement of both schools. UT learned that can be a bit messy, because the hubris of starting your own network seems to annoy the neighbors. The 'Horns failed to get Texas Tech or Oklahoma State to agree to a move in '11, and Tech went so far as to threaten canceling a game. Kansas finally agreed so long as local networks within Kansas could carry a feed of the game, with the same concession made for Texas' 2012 home game vs. Iowa State.
With only the season kickoff against New Mexico State slated for LHN in 2013 and Texas AD DeLoss Dodds claiming that up to three games would air on LHN this season, ESPN and Texas needed a game. With no more home-game options other than conference opponents, Texas pulled the trigger on the Rebels.
When reached for comment via email, current Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork responded diplomatically:
"We are at the mercy of the home team agreements within their conference or local packages," Bjork said. "ESPN owns the rights in the Big 12 and decided to put our game on the LHN. We have no say-so, but they did give us the heads up that it was coming, and they are working on a secondary distribution plan for our fans. We don’t know the details of that just yet."
Shortly after, Ole Miss issued a press release thanking ESPN and LHN, at least for notifying them in advance. They'll now plan to create what will likely be a Mississippi-only broadcast of the game, possibly on pay-per-view.
After more than two years of failed negotiations with outlets like DirecTV and Time Warner Cable, the Longhorn Network is available on one major provider -- AT&T U-verse -- shutting out the vast majority of viewers in its own state. One 2012 report claimed that less than 13 percent of Austin TV viewers had access to LHN. Contrast that with the model for niche college channels, the Big Ten Network. BTN currently boasts 80 million households and 300 service providers, including all 10 of the largest service providers in the United States.
In Mississippi, U-verse and Charter Communications are the only LHN-affiliated providers offered. U-verse especially is a sparsely used service with limited availability, especially in rural areas. When reached for comment, an AT&T spokesperson declined to comment on specific saturation in Mississippi.
Keeping exposure in mind, look at how worthless the game becomes for Ole Miss in comparison to the rest of its league. Including Rebels-Horns, SEC teams will play 18 non-conference games against schools from BCS-affiliated conferences this season. Of that 18, three are neutral-site contests on opening weekend (airing on ABC and ESPN/ESPN2), eight are home contests (falling under the SEC's megawatt TV rights agreement) and seven are road games. Of those seven road games, the Rebels and Longhorns have the smallest national viewing audience by virtue of the Longhorn Network's anemic distribution. The other six:
- Aug. 31, Georgia at Clemson (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
- Sept. 7, Florida at Miami (noon, ESPN)
- Sept. 14, Tennessee at Oregon (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2)
- Sept. 21, Arkansas at Rutgers (TBA*)
- Sept. 21, Missouri at Indiana (8 p.m., BTN)
- Sept. 28, South Carolina at UCF (TBA*)
* Both hosted by American Athletic Conference schools, which means that the game rights fall first to ABC/ESPN. All times are Eastern.
Five of the above games will fall into the ABC/ESPN family, and one will go to BTN. All will boast about 10 times the number of potential viewers, based on available households. If non-rivalry series like these are scheduled to boost ratings, recruiting exposure, and brand awareness, Ole Miss will get absolutely nothing out of this game. The Rebels are still a year removed from a 2-10 season and finished 7-6 in 2012. In the SEC West, it's ludicrous to schedule more Top 25 opposition.
As Boone's six-year-old quote implies, non-conference scheduling is about creating an attractive, "marquee match-up." But had the former AD known at the time the top of the marquee was the worst place for a program like Ole Miss to go, had the Rebels plugged in an opponent from the much-maligned AAC, they might be playing a road game at Memphis or ECU. But they would've been seen by millions upon millions more viewers, fans and recruits.