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Steve Patterson's end game as Texas AD: oasis or mirage?

Daily Texan

Daily Texan

Texas athletics director Steve Patterson told a gathering of sports editors Sunday he still wants his Longhorns to play a football game in Mexico City. He's tossed the idea around since the early weeks of his now 18-month tenure, but this time he attached a date to his plan - 2020. "If we don't leverage it, someone else will," he said. "We shouldn't give up that natural advantage we have."

A perusal of Texas's upcoming non-conference schedule shows open dates in 2018, 2019 and 2020, though the 'Horns already have road dates in 2018 and '20. That leaves 2019, and Texas already has a home date with LSU on the books as its token major conference opponent.

Speaking of playing a major non-conference opponent from the SEC, Patterson also offered another quote he's repeated time and again since taking the job:

What is there to say? That statement is blatantly false. Texas is looking for an opponent for its in-the-works Mexico City game, as Patterson admitted one breath prior.

Anyway, here was Patterson to ESPN's Max Olson last April: "There's a lot of great tradition with Texas A&M. At some point in time, does it make some business sense, some branding sense to play again? I don't know," Patterson said. "It's not at the top of my list. I'm really more focused on how we grow the footprint of the department." To be clear, Patterson does not have the support of his head coach on this initiative. Charlie Strong has gone on record stating he'd like to play A&M; so, too, has his counterpart.

Patterson's vision of growing the department has been to send his burnt orange ambassadors seaside. The Longhorns' men's basketball team will open its 2015-16 season in Shanghai, and a Mack Brown-led emissary group recently returned from a trip to Dubai.

"We have a lot of folks in the oil and gas industry," Patterson said last year. "Houston is the center of the world in terms of the gas industry. A lot of those alums spend time in the Middle East, and Dubai is a place that wants to use sports to help put itself on the map. So we'll have some conversations, and we'll see where they lead."

Know where else a lot of those oil and gas alums live? Houston! Texas played in Houston on a near annual basis through the breakup of the Southwest Conference two decades ago and made a concerted effort to keep a consistent presence in the state's largest city in the years after, playing in Houston five times from 1997 through 2010. But the Longhorns' scheduling priority has changed. Outside of unscheduled bowl games like last December's Texas Bowl, Texas has not lined up a game in the city of Houston from 2011 through 2019 at the earliest. UT has non-conference games on the books through 2027; none of them will be played in Houston.

From 1908 through 2010, Texas never went more than three years without playing at least one game in Houston. After one three-year gap, the Longhorns are settled in for another three years (at least) without a visit to its most populous city for alums.

There is a cost to all this, of course. According to the most recent Nielsen Year in Sports Media, Texas A&M has surpassed Texas as Houston's most popular college program.

"Gig ‘Em" or "Hook ‘Em"?: Fueled by the Aggies' migration to the Southeastern Conference, Texas A&M's football fan following in the Houston market has increased by 26% over the past five years, while the Texas Longhorns has dropped 30%. Texas A&M fans now comprise 24% of Houston adults, surpassing the Longhorns at 18%. A similar situation has played out in Dallas-Fort Worth, where the Aggies' fan base has grown by 24% and the Longhorns' down by 31%.

As Nielsen points out, the reported tectonic shift in Houston has a lot more to do with scheduling. The Holy Trinity of modern Texas A&M football - SEC, Manziel, Sumlin - combined with the Longhorns' downturn accounts for that. But abdicating such a crucial battleground while your main rival captures hearts and minds - A&M's next game? Against Arizona State in Houston - certainly doesn't help.

Patterson has staked his claim that playing USC in Mexico City will do more for Texas's brand than playing Texas A&M in Austin or College Station, that Houston is merely a launching point to oil and gas donors in Dubai, not a destination unto itself. One has to wonder if the waters he sees on the desert horizon is truly the oasis he believes or just a mirage.