And I think most folks who would check in here know that November means National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I've been anxious to write part two of a (somewhat) planned trilogy since last November, so I won't be around this blog much for the next month or so. Just fair warning.
"But what about the last week and a half?" you ask. Well, that's a good point. I don't know if it's a good answer, but here is the answer all the same. I've put quite a bit of pressure on myself. Other than a few exceptions, I have felt especially good and proud of what I've been cranking out lately. I want to keep improving and keep up on this level, which is tough. Allie Brosh talked about this sort of thing over at Hyperbole and a Half.* It's the same idea here, I've just dealt with it a little differently. Rather than get roaringly drunk posting something to lower expectations, I've tried to get more ambitious to the point where I've probably bitten off more than I can chew. Miss Brosh's approach is likely both more fun and realistic, but what are you going to do?
*She's just released her much anticipated book, by the way. I haven't gotten my copy yet, but you should certainly order yours.
My idea was to write this big long take on the mess at Grambling State. If done to my satisfaction, it would likely have much more in common with the five page papers we wrote practically weekly for history than a usual blog post, both in structure and length. I might still get that thing written, but timing was bad, with all this happening at the end of October. The idea was to really get into the deeper story here and why the university as a whole seems to be failing, speculating (and hopefully shining some light) on how a well-known university becomes so woefully underfunded, why are alumni donations almost non-existent, and what exactly is the role of "Historically Black Colleges and Universities" in today's society anyway? The topic still really interests me, but I'm not a student any more. Not that I can't do the research or synthesize the information any more, but my time and motivations have much different demands than they once did. If I were a professional journalist, I'd probably already have this thing written and published. As it is, research has barely gotten off the ground, and we're still quite a ways from even really thinking about putting words to the idea.
So, yeah, that's the hold up. There's an idea I want to pursue, but I don't know how best to do it at this point. I don't usually have to do much, if any, research writing here. I've got a good knowledge base to go off of at the top of my head. I've got no expertise about HBCUs, Louisiana university funding, or their GSU alumni relations. I don't know if anybody has ever put all of it together. But I'm not afraid to try. Just not when I'm also trying to write a novel.
I wasn’t going to write this column. All the ins and outs and drama of Peyton Manning returning to the house he built as a rival have been well documented in a million different places. Why did I need to throw my opinion on the heaps and heaps of other angles on this? Well, I can’t really answer that question, actually. But the need is still there, so here it is.
Indianapolis (and Indiana as a whole, for that matter) really owes an awful lot to Peyton Manning. As has been written on this blog and something I would very much like to write a book about one of these days, Indianapolis long ago hitched it’s economic wagon to entertainment, sports in particular.* It is no accident that downtown Indy has evolved the way it has, to be compact, walkable, and dotted with nicer hotels and restaurants. It is no accident that the big facilities, Lucas Oil Stadium and Bankers Life Fieldhouse,** are not situated in a sea of concrete parking lots, instead being well-integrated into downtown. Say all you want about Bob Irsay, by most accounts he seemed like a pretty unlikeable person. But Indianapolis had a pretty solid plan by building the Hoosier Dome and openly inviting any NFL team to come a'calling. Oh, and don’t miss that the dome opened just a decade after the Pacers moved into their own downtown arena. It was also no accident that the NCAA offices ended up in Indianapolis after moving out of Kansas City and the ensuing deal that brings the Final Four to town every five years. Or that Indianapolis further cemented itself by hosting the Pan Am Games in 1987. All very calculated, and wildly successful, decisions.
*Indianapolis also has a pretty vibrant convention scene. Gen Con in particular stands out. I would still certainly classify that as entertainment, though.
**Even Victory Field, though it doesn’t have the capacity of a Major League Stadium.
While Indianapolis was paving their way to “Major American City” status through sport, though, the city wasn’t really considered much of a destination. There’s a reason Indianapolis was often referred to as “In No Place,” especially when referring to the Star. And, well, there were some reasons for that. Some was geographic,* was socioeconomic. And, well, some of it was those very same sports that Indianapolis was trying to use. There was some economic problem there, as professional sports in the ‘70’s and even ‘80’s, while profitable, were nothing like the multi-billion dollar entities they have turned into today. And, well, the professional teams just weren’t winning.
*Being so close to a city like Chicago understandably takes some attention away.
If you remember the Pacers Week I did a while back, or just know a bit of sports history, you certainly remember that the Pacers were an awfully dominant ABA team. Which was a great first step, especially in a state that’s kind of a big deal in basketball. But, well, the ABA was always going to be the little brother to the NBA.* When that merger did happen, the draconian terms set the Pacers back quite a ways, and they really wouldn’t catch up until those great Reggie Miller teams of the 90’s. When the Colts got here, folks here were thankful, sure, but the team just wasn’t very good.** There were a couple surprise years with Jim Harbaugh, but in the pre-Manning years, there just wasn’t any reason for that national media to pay attention to the Colts.
*This was by design. The ABA wanted to be a respected league, but the end game was always to force a merger with the NBA.
**They weren’t that good for the last several years in Baltimore, either. The Colts only made it to the playoffs once in the ‘80’s, which was in 1987, after the move to Indy.
So, yeah, Indianapolis, probably much more than most cities, needs the Pacers and Colts to succeed. That’s the way the local economy, for better or worse, is set up. With that in mind, remember what Peyton Manning did for the Colts. He basically created this franchise in the era of Big Football. You could very easily make the argument, and I’m sure people have, that the growth of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady both on the field and off has really created the modern NFL.* Peyton Manning and the offenses he led for the Colts are what made this team one of the premier teams in the league and a nightly fixture on ESPN, and just in time for football, and the NFL in particular, to become the King of Sports. Without Peyton Manning and those teams,** the city might have had a harder time putting in the money for Lucas Oil Stadium, especially when the Pacers were having a hard time getting anybody to go to the Fieldhouse at that time. Without Lucas Oil Stadium, well, the Colts probably aren’t here any more, and Indianapolis is likely going through a bit of turmoil trying to figure out a new economic model.
*Although, thanks to a better understanding of head trauma and the effects of football on the brain, you could also argue that we’re now in a post-Manning and Brady era with the different player safety rules that have been put in, even though both of those players are still active, if in the twilight of their careers.
**This brings me to what might end up being a rather lengthy aside, so bear with me here. Should Jim Irsay have said what he did? Probably not, but clearly Jim Irsay is only marginally better speaking with reporters (or anybody, really) than his dad. You might have heard about his Twitter feed. There’s a reason for that. But was he wrong? No. There was no reason those teams didn’t have the talent to win more than one Super Bowl. Look at the regular season wins they piled up. Was it a dig at Peyton? Well, I’m not an Irsay, so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think it was at all directed at Peyton. But, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pointed. The blame, I and most of the sports literate (I don’t really like that term I just coined there, but I’m failing to come up with a better one), felt, was laid at the feet of Bill Polian. Irsay said the teams put up Star Wars numbers on offense. Clearly he wasn’t disappointed in that. But it was no secret those teams were constructed entirely on offense and to just plain outscore people. You just hoped the defense would do enough. That worked once in the playoffs, and there’s a Lombardi Trophy for it. It was a dumb story made out of next to nothing, drummed up mostly by ESPN, where Bill Polian happens to work now. Maybe there’s a bit more tin foil there than I would like to admit, but that seems meaningful, doesn’t it?
Does that feel like hyperbole? Maybe, but it really isn’t. Hell, even with Peyton Manning, there were definitely the threats made to move the team to LA. It made sense, from Irsay’s point of view. The RCA Dome had become outdated by that point. He had a highly-touted, highly-potent team. LA is a pretty big media market, as you may be aware. And, well, the Irsays have a history, you know? With no stadium, no team, no firmly established fan base, there’s no way in hell the Super Bowl ever comes to town. And, well, that Super Bowl was just the culmination of all the gambles that Indianapolis had placed on sports business in this town. And, well, this is probably more religious than I probably get, but I do believe that God or karma or whatever you believe in smiled upon the city that week and blessed it with the absolute perfect weather,* leading to nothing but an amazing, and maybe surprising, for people not familiar with Indianapolis, experience for everybody involved. Google around. You will be hard pressed to find many negative articles about the Super Bowl here once it happened.** I’m sure it also helped that the teams involved were the Giants and Patriots. New York and Boston are pretty influential cities with very influential journalists. It elevated the city several notches in many minds that week. To the point where Indianapolis is a finalist for the 2018 Super Bowl, and nobody bats an eye. Why? Because this city took several decades worth of work and planning and absolutely nailed it. And in a lot of ways, Peyton Manning gets an awful lot of credit for making it possible.
*For real, that was the nicest February Indiana has probably ever had. It was everything that Dallas didn’t have the year before, and, well, Jerry Jones didn’t do himself any favors, either.
**It isn’t as hard to find skeptical articles when Indianapolis was awarded the game.
I was originally going to write this on Sunday morning, but life got in the way a little bit. And, boy, I’m glad I waited. I’ve heard local shows say it, and I couldn’t agree more. Colts fans just crushed it last night. The crowd gave the appropriate welcome to Peyton Manning, and for the most part, showed up in their old Colts-era Peyton Manning jerseys, which I felt was the perfect choice for this game. When the game started, though? He was the opposing quarterback. Andrew Luck is our guy now, and did he ever deliver. The crowd responded appropriately, and there really didn’t seem to be any of the feared overwhelming Bronco support. It was a Colts crowd through-and-through. I’m sure the flow of the game helped that. But, hey, give yourself another pat on the back anyway, Indy. You deserve it. Peyton Manning laid the groundwork and took this city to yet another level, but it’s clear that the team, and the engine of this city, didn’t die when he left.
Today, I’m ranking the professional playoffs in order of “satisfaction.” By that, I mean the playoff that produces the truest, least random result most consistently. Each has their charms, and satisfaction does not necessarily mean more fun. But there certainly is some satisfaction of thinking you have crowned a true champion and not just the flavor of the hour.
Obviously, the NFL is greatly popular and Super Bowl Monday really ought to be considered a national holiday. Seriously, take a look at Google. The idea has legs. But as far as crowning the best team? Sorry, I think the NFL does a horrible job of that. First of all, there’s the one-and-done format. I don’t think the nature of football allows anything different, so this isn’t necessarily a complaint. And we see by the popularity of March Madness that one-and-done and the randomness it brings certainly has an appeal. But many times, you end up finding yourself surprised when the consensus best (or second best) team actually ends up winning the whole thing in the end. It seems far too often that a quarterback gets red hot at the right time (see Joe Flacco) or a defense suddenly finds itself (see the 2006 Colts). It also feels like Wild Card teams have been wildly successful as of late, which seems to bear out after looking at the Football Hall of Fame website. It at least seems to confirm that if a Wild Card team is hot, don’t bet against them. Of all those teams that reached the Super Bowl, only four have lost. The last one was in 1999 (Titans coming up just short against the Greatest Show on Turf), which has been a little while now. It’s a lot of fun, but I don’t think anybody really believes the Giants were a better team than the Patriots either Super Bowl, or that the Falcons should have beaten anybody in the playoffs last year (except the Colts).
The NHL does play best of seven series the whole way through, which you would think would be good. And, well, it is, but somehow it just doesn’t quite translate. Many times, similar to NFL quarterbacks, picking the team that will hoist the Stanley Cup means picking what random goalie will get super hot. It was Jonathan Quick a couple years ago. Jaroslav Halak took an exceptionally good playoff showing with the Canadiens* into becoming the savior for the Blues (which hasn’t quite panned out).** Maybe surprisingly, both times the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup lately, their goalies were not particularly hot. Good, yes. Corey Crawford especially showed some real flashes of brilliance last year. But nothing as to what we’ve come to expect from Stanley Cup winning goalies. Related to this, hockey has a reputation of big upsets in the playoffs. The current format has been going for 19 seasons now. An eight seed has won in 11 of those seasons, with the Islanders damn near making it 12 last year. Somewhat related to that, the Presidents’ Trophy winner has only captured the Stanley Cup eight times since it was introduced for the 1985-86 season. In terms of competition, I still stand behind the NHL playoffs as the best in terms of “ratcheting up,” but there’s no denying it’s a bit of a crapshoot.
*While filling in for an injured Carey Price, the Canadiens pulled off a pair of stunning upsets of the Capitals and Penguins, both Cup favorites to start, before falling to the Flyers in the conference finals.
**Not that Halak has been bad, but he’s never shown quite what he did for that month or so in Montreal again. He and Brian Elliott are a true 1 and 1A situation in St. Louis, which was wonderful last season, but crapped out spectacularly in the playoffs.
I was going to put baseball first, and I could very easily be swayed to change this order, but for right now, I’m putting it second. It is by a sliver, though. Playoff baseball is a joy to watch, and pretty much the reason October was allowed to exist. A strong reason to put baseball at number one is how exclusive it is. From 1902 to 1969, only two teams got into the postseason. Directly to the World Series. If we were still under that system, there would be absolutely no doubt about baseball being the purest playoff. In 1969, things were necessarily diluted a bit with the introduction of the League Championship Series. It had to be done, there were just too many teams to go without it at that point. Even at that, though, only four teams would still be enough to put MLB at number one. I’ve written here before I think MLB ought to go back to this system. Go back to two divisions, get rid of interleague play so you can properly determine your division champions, and then we’ll start at the LCS in October. If you couldn’t be the best out of seven or eight teams over the course of 162 games, well, too bad. You had your shot. I understand that’s not happening, though. Seven or eight team divisions is pretty heavy for professional sports, I understand. So the wild card was introduced for 1994, but would have to wait until 1995 to debut, because, well, you know. I do appreciate that this first round is an abbreviated five game series, resisting the call of other leagues going to full seven game series for all rounds. It might be a bit of a strike against the “satisfaction” we’re going for here, but as said earlier, that’s not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is introducing a second wild card and how that has been integrated. When you completely change the entire philosophy of how you determine your best teams at a point in time where it absolutely matters most, that’s just not a good system. The last strike putting baseball in this spot is how a hot pitcher or hitter can be ridden to a championship. It’s not nearly to the same level as football or hockey, though, which is why the gap between baseball and basketball (spoiler alert?) is much, much smaller than the gap between baseball and hockey.
I mean, at this point, you can probably piece together why I put the NBA here. Sure, you can ride hot players, but due to the nature of the sport, your hot players are more than likely your star players. Furthermore, because the NBA plays entirely seven-gamers for the playoffs, it would be harder for a “lesser” player to catch fire and steal a whole series. If the NBA still played a best of five first round, I would probably have MLB and NBA swapped. That isn’t an endorsement, however. NBA (and NHL) playoffs take for-freaking-ever between the long series and just how many teams get in. The inclusiveness of the NBA playoffs was almost enough for me to knock it back to number two. The only reason the NBA is here is because we judge players on how many rings they get. This happens in other sports, but not nearly to the level that it happens to basketball. It’s not good enough to win once, like it (typically) is in football or hockey. Baseball puts more emphasis on individual achievements (like 3000 hits or 500 home runs) for historical arguments than it does team achievements like pennants. But basketball? Sure, LeBron has a couple rings now. But Jordan had six. Kobe has five with the (remote) possibility of more. Bill Russell has eleven sitting around. When your historical worth as a player is so directly tied to championships, that’s a pretty good indication that your playoffs carry an awful lot of merit as to crowning the actual best. And it bears out. As much as I didn’t like them, Jordan’s Bulls were the best, and they won a ton. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers were the best. They kept winning. The Heat have been the best team as of late, and, well, here they are. It’s not a perfect system, but even upset winners (like the Mavericks a couple years ago) usually can point to their stars that would be expected to have rings.
Look, I'll be blunt. This isn't my best effort. I really felt like I had been on quite a roll lately and just pretty darned proud of myself, and this is the best I could muster today. If you skip or quickly scan today, that's fine. I won't be offended. This is a bit of a train wreck of an article that I seriously considered not bothering posting. Oh, geez, I can feel another "writers on writing" type post coming on.
Another week, another win for Wabash. This week they beat up on OWU, winning 38-13.* This (and a Pacific Lutheran loss) let Wabash slide up another spot to 16th in the poll. Even while Wabash has been utterly dominant on the field, it’s been a frustrating season thanks to little movement in the polls.
*The game was closer than the score showed, but I wouldn’t say the outcome was ever in doubt.
Teams just aren’t losing this year in Division III. Usually by this time in the season, there have been a good number of upsets letting a handful of undefeated teams rise to the top. This year, these upsets just haven’t happened, making the Top 25 look more like traffic jam than a representation of a football season. A big part of the issue here is size. According to this article,* there are 120 FBS schools. Compare that to 239 Division III schools. Double the teams, less games, and spread into more conferences. It just doesn’t lend itself to as much movement. Add in that the NCAC is pretty down for football, and, well, it becomes hard to prioritize Wabash or Wittenberg in the Top 25 no matter how big they keep winning.
*I’m not entirely sure where these numbers were pulled from, but they jive pretty well with the numbers I’ve seen in the past, so I’m using it as my reference.
Heck, you can break those numbers above down even further if you’d like. Those 120 schools are broken into ten conferences with a few independents. Out of those conferences, only five or six* can get serious traction for the national championship, something I don’t really see changing under the new rules next year. Throw in the two independents that would seriously be considered,** and you come to 74 teams by my count that are truly playing for the title.*** If you take it further and discount teams that are clearly rebuilding or consistently just no good, like Purdue this year or Kentucky/Iowa State practically every year, and you seriously chop down the number of teams actually gunning for a spot in the polls every year. Realistically, there are probably only about 30 or 35 teams that are seriously considered for the poll. And that’s allowing for your random mid-majors that jump up, like Northern Illinois or Fresno St.
*Depending on your feelings about the American Athletic Conference (nee Big East). I’m inclined to discount them. There’s a reason Louisville is jumping ship to the ACC.
**You may very well argue that I’m being generous by including BYU, and I would certainly listen to you. If they didn’t have 1984 to point to, I wouldn’t include them.
***That includes the AAC. If you take them out, that would be 64 teams. 63 if you only include Notre Dame for independents.
With Division III, you can also cut down numbers in that fashion. You have to, given the number of teams you’re working with. But given how teams (and talent) are spread out, you’re probably still looking at double the teams for the poll. And, also given the numbers game at play here, there is far less potential for top 25 matchups. This has obviously been an issue this year, given that only seven teams have a loss in the D3 poll. Compare that with 12 in the AP Poll this week. There is only one team in the D3 poll with two losses,* compared to four in the AP. With that kind of logjam, it’s not hard to imagine an undefeated D3 team remaining unranked at this point in the season if your schedule has been particularly easy. In FBS, it seems impossible you could be undefeated and still not have some numbers by your name.
*Franklin, sitting at 14. They’ve drawn considerable criticism for staying that high with two losses, but there is good reason for them to be there. Their two losses were a tough one to Mount Union, who is currently (and usually) number one and to Butler, who plays FCS (though you’d be forgiven if you thought the only sport they sponsored was men’s basketball).
The nice thing to make up for this, though, is the postseason structure. Even with the FBS moving to playoff next year, it’s still awfully exclusive. Four teams is better than two, but it still won’t solve too many arguments. The only thing it will really do is include all the undefeated teams most years. Division III, though, does much better with giving teams a shot to win, even if they’ve been overlooked or underrated with 32 teams in the playoffs. This would include most of the conference champions, a shared bid for independents and non-AQ conferences, and then seven at-large bids. I don’t think anybody is arguing more teams should be in the playoffs there. If you didn’t perform well enough in the regular season to secure a spot with those rules, you don’t deserve a spot.
As much as people like to make noise about the Division I basketball tournament, there’s really no reason they couldn’t go to a 32 team tournament under the same logic. And yet, we have people pushing for 96 teams. That’s just absurd, and likely just a way to save some coaches’ jobs. It’s just silly it’s grown beyond 64 teams. There’s no real (competitive) reason not to take away a few at large bids if you need another spot for a conference champion. If you’re that much of a bubble team, you can’t complain when you’re left out of the bracket. You should have taken home a few more of those close games if you wanted in the dance.
I think this is about enough rambling for today. This turned out much more rambling, twisting, and incoherent than I had envisioned. Good thing I’m not getting paid for this sort of thing, right? And yet, blatant plagiarism artists are. It’s a sad journalistic world we live in.
What’s a blog for if not to spout off about things about which one has no particular expertise? I sure can’t figure it out. But I got around to reading yesterday’s TMQ this morning, and it got me to thinking about the peculiar place and nature sports business holds.
The particular section that got me thinking about this was when he talked about the NFL’s antitrust exemption. He noted that MLB’s antitrust exemption was gained from the Supreme Court, so it would work differently to get it repealed or altered.* The NFL’s exemption, which is much narrower, was gained directly from Congressional action in 1966 during the NFL-AFL merger. Easterbrook’s point is that Congress essentially gave away that exemption for nothing when it could be used as a very nice bargaining chip. His idea was to see the exemption auctioned off. If the NFL wanted to control it itself, they would have to put up the money to do it. Otherwise the highest bidder would control it and have the option to lease it back to the NFL. Do this auction every five years or so, and instant money to pay down the debt or whatever. Cha ching!
*Although I’m not all that convinced this is right. Gregg Easterbrook is a very smart man, but he is still just a man. This ESPN story from 2001 (when contraction was still a thing) would seem to indicate that the Courts put it back on Congress to change and manage this exemption. Easterbrook does say Congress can change the law but not directly overturn it. And maybe he’s right, but the ESPN story would seem to suggest that Congress was on the verge of repealing the exemption in 2001.
Or, well, something like that. I have a hard time really believing that scenario is even halfway plausible on a number of levels. But it did get me thinking. As a society, we have decided that monopolies are horrible things that led to the Gilded Age and may be leading us there again. But when it comes to entertainment, and sports in particular, we not only tolerate it, but actively encourage it. Why is that?
It comes down to competition, I think. Like those older Lending Tree commercials used to say, when banks compete, you win. That generally holds true for businesses as a whole competing for business. Sports, while still a business, are a different animal. Sport, at its base, is selling competition. For this to work and draw interest, you have to know that you are seeing the top of the line, the cream of the crop, the best in the world. To ensure that, it really doesn’t work if your top leagues (MLB, NFL, etc.) don’t have a monopoly on the top talent. Now, the reserve clause was always wrong, there’s no reason free agency couldn’t have existed forever, but as far as launching true rival leagues? It won’t work, and it shouldn’t work. You can have as many minor leagues as you want, but there needs to be one true pinnacle league.
Baseball provides a pretty great example of this, actually. It started with the National League, and eventually the American League came to town. After much bickering and bitterness and false starts, these leagues did finally agree to a World Series. While they may have maintained separate offices and legal identities until 2000, in a competitive sense, they were forever joined as one true league in 1905 in the sense all their teams were playing for the same championship. There were other major leagues over the years. The Federal League gets the most attention, and the Pacific Coast League threatened to become one before settling into AAA status. But they were never invited to the World Series, so they were never looked at in the same light.
Same goes for football and basketball. The AFL and ABA were launched as competitor leagues, but they, too, were eventually brought into the main fold once they were good enough.* The NHL had a messy history of competitor leagues and teams in their beginning before coalescing. And after that, there was the WHA situation which mirrors football and basketball’s histories. It’s the nature of sport. We as fans, and the competitors themselves, really want to know who is the best of the best. If there weren’t monopolies at the top, it would be chaos. You would think, on a philosophical level, that chaos would be more interesting than order. Turns out it’s the order that makes it worthwhile.
*One a little more successfully than the other, as I’ve written here before.
There are some exceptions in sport, though. And those exceptions are minor leagues and colleges. Those levels have different appeals. Both college and minor leagues’ biggest appeal is the chance to see up and comers. You can claim a little bit of ownership in a player or team when you get a chance to see what’s coming down the pipeline before anybody else. I’m a great example of that. I probably would be pulling for the Pirates right now no matter where I lived (except St. Louis). But because I’m in Indiana and spent a lot of time watching the Indians (especially at the time this current core of Pirates were coming through AAA), I feel extremely invested in them. It’s not just a preference, it’s out and out rooting. Same deal with colleges. Is there any reason there would be so many Saints jerseys in Tippecanoe County if not for Drew Brees?
Colleges also have the added bonus of true personal connection. To use the above example, not everybody can take the floor at Mackey or the field at Ross-Ade. But an awful lot of people can be Boilermakers.* When you invest that much time and effort into a school (and they put that much time and effort into you), you’re going to be connected, whether that be from student days or staff. Now, clearly, bigger schools are going to draw more interest, both from having bigger networks to pull from and from having a much bigger pipeline to the pros. You get a few more people going to Purdue games than Wabash games. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rabid Little Giant fans. There just aren’t as many.
*Not trying to say just anybody can get into Purdue. I’m just saying there are nowhere near 40,000 NCAA athletes on campus.
That’s not even getting into the whole business of broadcasting sports and the negotiations there. Did you know that the NFL is prohibited by law from playing on Fridays and Saturdays to protect high school and college football? They sure are! And that is how we get stuck with awful-for-everybody* Thursday night games. And, boy, how quickly the politics of sports TV has changed, especially for the NFL.
*Except the NFL Network, I guess.
It seems you can’t turn around without hearing about how much better off you are watching an NFL game from home than at the stadium. Sports Illustrated just posted a story about it yesterday. The traffic is lousy, the fans are a mess,* and you just miss so many things at the stadium that you take for granted at home.** And that’s not even getting into the cost. DirecTV makes a big deal about how NFL Sunday Ticket (and all their sport packages, really) are pretty much as cheap as they’ve ever been. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good HDTV any more. Related to this, we’ve been hearing for years now that DirecTV is not going to be the sole provider for these types of packages in the very near future. All of this leads to massively, unimaginable-a-decade-ago huge TV deals for leagues. You might remember during the last NFL lock out it was pointed out that owners would still do just fine not even playing games thanks to the TV contracts that paid them whether there were games to actually show or not.
*Thankfully fans have been nothing but great at every professional event I’ve been to, including the Colts. But I do understand that experience is far from universal.
**I got to see that one demonstrated first hand at last week’s Colts-Seahawks game. At a pivotal point in the game, Reggie Wayne scampered for what looked to be a first down from where I was sitting, but the officials did not give him the spot. The challenge flag was eventually thrown, leading to a somewhat lengthy review. A family friend, Kelly, immediately started texting her son to ask if Reggie made the first based on TV replays, which include the first down marker. He immediately and emphatically says yes, he got it by a yard or more, and the TV broadcasters agreed. Eventually the refs came around, too. At home? You look at a replay or two, make your decision, and then go get something out of the fridge or go pee or something. At the stadium? Everybody sits awkwardly and tries to make it out on the Jumbotron, because you’re pretty much at the refs mercy.
Which also leads to some outdated laws (as some would say the antitrust exemptions are). Blackout rules. Once upon a time, those were there specifically to protect the team and drive attendance up, because owners made money off the butts in the seats. Now, while that money certainly isn’t bad, the fans at the stadium are almost living props to give the broadcast good atmosphere. The real money is made off TV deals and sponsorships that come along with that. The Marlins are pretty good proof that you can be insanely profitable without the benefit of more than a thousand or two fans at your games. Now teams scramble and do everything possible to avoid blackouts. I mean, Jacksonville was offering to get you drunk on their dollar to make sure they were on TV.* Discounts on tickets, or even just giving away tickets, so that teams can hit their mark and stay on TV are not uncommon. I would expect that the blackout is going to become a thing of the past as soon as it comes up for negotiation again.
*Even if TV stations were awfully sorry to have to show you the Jaguars.
Sports is a business, don’t get me wrong. But what makes it work, both for the teams and for consumers, is so far outside the normal realm of business and economics, it doesn’t make sense for them to operate on that same level. Do these leagues have a monopoly? Sure. But you wouldn’t have it any other way.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had these thoughts, but it seems more apparent than ever that, at least in football, the NCAC is hurting Wabash’s cause.
Wabash manhandled another opponent this week, this time a previously-undefeated-in-conference-play Wooster squad. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, their quarterback decided to up the ante a little bit by running his mouth on Twitter and putting Wabash on “#UpsetAlert.” As it turned out, the game was pretty well over at halftime and ended up 48-14. Through four weeks,* this makes the total combined score Wabash 232, Opponents 27. And yet, Wabash stays put at 17th in the polls. Thing is, I can’t necessarily disagree with that.
*Remember, Division III only plays ten regular season games, so this is very nearly half the season.
This isn’t a case of Wabash scheduling a bunch of cupcakes, especially going forward. Wabash has only one out-of-conference for the foreseeable future, as the NCAC has gone to a true round robin format. With ten teams, that means nine games are eaten up by conference games. Their one conference game this year was Hanover, which admittedly is not exactly a powerhouse. But three out of four of these games are conference games. They’re not going anywhere and Wabash had no real say in the matter. I would say it would be like complaining that Oregon has to play Colorado or something. Sure, it’s a mismatch, but it’s a conference game. What are you going to do?
I would love to say it’s going to get better going forward, but it really doesn’t appear that way. Ohio Wesleyan is up next. You might remember from my NCAC guide that OWU got a share of the conference title last year. Not to sound too haughty, but that was a damned fluke thanks to Wabash losing two inexplicable games, allowing OWU and Wittenberg to back-door their way into the conference title.* This week’s game should be closer, but I have a hard time believing that the Bishops will be able to win this one (especially in Crawfordsville) after losing to Denison 47-41. I saw Denison up close. They managed 13 against Wabash, all in garbage time.** I suppose I could be surprised, but the only real challenge on the schedule appears to be Wittenberg, and I’ve written extensively here about how Wabash has been unquestionably the superior team for the last decade. That will be a tough game, but one I fully expect Wabash to win.
*No, for real. Wabash beat both of those teams, and did so pretty handily. They beat OWU 28-0. Wittenberg was 27-24, which admittedly is much closer than I remember. After looking at the box score, I remember why now. Wittenberg scored twice on short fields to tighten up the game, once off a blocked punt and once off a fumble. I don’t know if you want to call them fluky plays, but somewhat unusual plays.
**Wabash had rung up 44 points before Denison’s first score right before the end of the third quarter. I think it seems fair to say that Wabash had mostly stopped trying at that point.
So, yeah, it’s awfully hard to really get a handle on just how good Wabash is. They are doing what you are supposed to do against weaker teams, so you can’t fault them for it. But it’s also hard to really reward them for it by moving them up the ranks above other teams who also haven’t lost. And who knows what it means for a presumptive playoff date. Wabash has acquitted itself well lately in the playoffs, but the team clearly has a bit of a learning curve every time they come up against a stronger team. I just don’t think they’re used to teams being on their level and they don’t really know how to handle it when they run into such teams. That’s not to say they don’t adjust, but it has led to holes they can’t dig out of, like losing 20-8 to Mount Union a couple years ago.
It seems like the best idea would be to join a different conference, but, unfortunately, it’s not that easy, even in this day and age. Part of this is where Wabash is. There aren’t too many conferences available to Wabash being in west central Indiana. The only real alternative seems to be the HCAC (Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference), but then Wabash would run into the same problem. Just instead of Wittenberg being the only real competition, it would be Franklin. And, frankly,* Franklin’s football history isn’t that good. They’ve been way up lately, but I don’t know that you can depend on that long term. The HCAC would be a step down if anything.
There’s also the issue of Wabash itself. It presents a unique logistical challenge in being all-male. I don’t think a lot of conferences would be falling over themselves to add that sort of institution to their ranks. Partially because of bringing no women’s sports (obviously), but I could imagine that there would be those questioning a single-sex school as a public relations move. And, of course, there’s the point that this is purely a football move. The NCAC is one of (if not the) top basketball conference in Division III, with Wittenberg and Wooster both consistently making very deep runs in the tournament. Wabash hasn’t been there in quite a while, but they do have good history, especially through the 80’s and 90’s. I think OWU has made some runs in the past, too. Basically, for every other sport, Wabash is a very good fit, both competitively, geographically, and academically.
So all we can do is shrug. All Wabash can really do is keep crushing the conference competition on the gridiron and hope for the best when the playoffs roll around. One of these years, it’ll work out, right?
Baseball playoffs are in full swing, and that has had most of my attention. But, I did have Colts tickets to yesterday’s game, and what a game it was. I feel like I pretty much have to talk about it. Most of it has to do with what’s coming with the Colts, though.
During the third quarter,* Kristine** asked me if I thought the Colts were a Super Bowl team. I pretty quickly and decisively answered “no.” I still believe that, but after some more thought, maybe I shouldn’t be quite so quick to dismiss the thought. Some of this is probably knee jerking from the big win yesterday, but I still think maybe it deserves some more thought.
*I think. It may have been earlier in the game.
**For those who don’t know, Kristine is a die-hard Packer fan, as is the rest of her family. She doesn’t necessarily mind the Colts, though I’m sure most of that is because of me. I’m sure she never would have gone to a Colts game if not for me.
First, I suppose, I should start off with why I said and still stand by “no.” Plainly put, I just don’t feel the Colts are that good. After spending a whole lot of years watching the Colts be dominant in the regular season just to flop in the playoffs, I have the (not wrong, but maybe inflated) idea that even getting to the Super Bowl is next to impossible. It takes an awfully special team* to make it, let alone win it. While this year’s Colts are admittedly better than I thought, I still don’t think they’re to that level just yet. Are the pieces there for it to happen? Yes, absolutely, especially if Reggie Wayne can squeeze out a couple more top-notch seasons. But this team still seems to be cutting too many games too close. Granted, the Colts were never going to blow out the Seahawks this year, so this comeback looks better than, say, the one against the Raiders. But, still, they don’t really seem to have the kind of dominating streak you would equate to being a real Super Bowl contender. Looking at how the Colts started that game would seem to point to the problems they will run into against better teams.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Seahawks have been a markedly different team on the road than they are in Seattle. I don’t know how much of that to attribute to their stadium and crowd and how much to the travel (which is London-esque, you might say), but I suppose it doesn’t much matter in the end. Seattle has been absolutely dominant in their two home games against Jacksonville and San Francisco. They’ve looked pretty shaky on the road. They struggled against Carolina and Houston had them dead-to-rights. The Seahawks were able to wiggle their way out in both of those games, but their luck finally ran out yesterday. While I do think some of that points to the Colts being a very good team, I’m sure there was a little bit of Seattle being a vulnerable road team, knocking down the quality of that win a notch or a half.
*Or inordinately lucky. See last year’s Ravens or either recent Giants championship.
Then again, there are reasons to consider that maybe they’re closer than I think. First off, I had them solidly pegged as a wild card team or even one of the first teams out of the playoffs. Now, I firmly believe they will win the division.* Part of this is because the Colts are better than I anticipated. Part of it is because the Texans look like they’ve taken a pretty serious step back. The Titans and Jaguars were never serious threats, even moreso now that the injury bug has bitten Tennessee.** But, geez, does Houston ever look lost right now. Winning a division should come with a much better draw in the playoffs, and possibly even a home date.*** Related to that, you look around the AFC and start playing the “If not us, then who?” game. And, well, it really starts to get you thinking about who else it would be.
*Kristine and I also talked about hanging banners for division championships and wild card berths, which the Colts do. We’re both against it, by the way.
**And Houston, for that matter. I’m sure the injuries around Matt Schaub haven’t helped his case lately.
**Though the Colts don’t really seem to be a much different team no matter where they play. I’m still trying to decide if that’s a positive or not.
Asking that question today would seem to give a pretty easy answer of Denver. But, I mean, if any fanbase knows any better, it would be Indianapolis. Peyton Manning always looks like the best quarterback ever by miles in the regular season. Things get dicey in the playoffs. And that was with him playing in a dome! Throw in that those secured home dates are now outside in Denver. That means freezing weather, very likely snowy weather, and that altitude. Granted, the Broncos should have been in the Super Bowl last year if their defense had just made one more (pretty easy) play. But Peyton wasn’t really the world beater he was in the regular in that game, either. In fact, John Fox had him take a knee instead of letting Peyton try to gun his way out of it. You might (should?) pin most of that blame on Fox making a mistake, but it sure isn’t the biggest vote of confidence.
Okay, so if you’re not scared of Denver in December and January, then who? New England has looked pretty shaky and finally got caught yesterday by Cincinnati. Cincinnati has looked better than expected, maybe, but is anybody really that scared of the Bengals? Houston’s problems have been referenced. The Chiefs are a threat, but again, would you say for certain they would be ahead of the Colts? I’m not sure you would find a majority taking that bet. The Dolphins look much improved, but again, there’s no reason to think that Colts can’t beat them after they just played a couple weeks ago.
So, yeah, maybe I would still bet on no, but you can now firmly count me in on the “anything is possible” bandwagon.
For baseball supposedly dead or dying, it sure seemed to do just fine last night. Per MLB Public Relations Twitter account:
And just a reminder, that’s Cincinnati and Pittsburgh up three percent nationally over the Cardinals and Braves. That would be the 34th and 23rd biggest media markets topping the 21st and 8th biggest media markets, respectively. That is to say nothing about each teams respective national fanbases and recent successes. You can figure out the recent success part for yourself, but I would refer you to one of my favorite maps of all time (Nike sponsorship notwithstanding) to compare the national footprint.
Now, I do understand that a big part of that was likely the story of Pittsburgh. The Pirates have had a rough couple of decades, but they finally broke through this year, and the nation (and national media) took notice fairly early on. I’m sure flirting with winning seasons the past couple years was a good tip off to start paying attention early instead of perception usually taking a couple seasons to catch up to reality. But I’ll be damned if the Pirates didn’t live up to that story. I do agree with Dan Dakich* on this one, though for different reasons. Calling Pittsburgh to win that game last night was one of the easier calls in recent memory. The only reason to give you any pause was that the Pirates just finished sweeping the Reds, it’s awfully hard to beat a team four times in a row. Not impossible (obviously), but enough that it might make you pause for a second.
*I have praised Dakich on this blog before, but I’ve largely turned him off at this point. Maybe I should listen to him again, but there for a good while he had just turned to tiresome, combative schtick. His show seemed to invariably open with whatever “media guy” he disagreed with that particular day and start spouting off stuff that would inevitably get callers rankled up, which led to combative and, frankly, unlistenable calls on both sides of the phone. And, yes, Dakich, whether you like to believe it or not, you are media guy now. I know you used to coach and all, but you have been a member of the media for some time now and it is your role now, whether you like it or not.
Now, most of Dakich’s reasoning for why the Pirates were going to win that game was because of momentum. He has been railing on and on for the bits of his show I’ve listened to against “academics” who say momentum doesn’t exist. He knows it exists because he’s “been there.” Now, for one, I think this is a pretty disingenuous statement. For one, I don’t think anybody questions that momentum is created and shifts during an individual game, or that team morale (or chemistry, if you prefer) means something. But as far as momentum carrying on between seasons or from game-to-game in a longer season, well, it’s hard to argue with the data. Dakich might have been right about this game, but it was for totally the wrong reasons. The same reason why Brandon Phillips really shouldn’t say the Reds choked last night.
Mostly, that game last night came down to the Pirates are just simply a better team than the Reds. The Pirates were well ahead of the Reds in the standings for virtually the entire season, and typically comfortably so. While the Central was certainly a three-team race, the Reds were pretty consistently third in that race. You can’t say you choked when you were never in a position to win. The Reds were never in that position during the game last night, nor were they ever truly in that position for the entire season. You can’t choke when you’re constantly playing catch up. In that case, you just lost. In a very related story, Clint Hurdle is a few orders of magnitude better at managing a major league game (and season) than Dusty Baker. I’ve been a Baker apologist for some time, certainly during his Cub days and probably even during his Giant tenure. But there is no doubt he badly mangled that game last night, as he has generally badly mangled these sorts of situations his entire career. I would spell it all out here, but Jonah Keri already broke it down over at Grantland. At this point, it’s pretty clear to me that Dusty Baker is the National League equivalent of Ron Washington. And, well, when the best thing you offer to a ballclub is “intangibles,” that usually means you’re really doing more harm than good. And looking at Baker’s postseason pattern, it seems pretty clear he’s generally succeeded because, with the talent he’s normally given, it’s impossible to screw up too badly over the course of 162 games. In a do or die situation? Not so great.*
*Ditto for Washington and the latter day Rangers.
Looking forward to tonight, it ought to be a hell of a game. Two very good teams with the two best managers in the American League.* It’s hard to see how this really goes wrong. The only real downside I see to this game tonight is the use of the DH, and, unfortunate as it may be, I don’t think that’s a winning argument anytime soon. I’m taking the Indians in this one, but I certainly would not be shocked if the Rays pull this one off. Still, given the extra rest to get their rotation and roster exactly set, and given what will likely be a lively crowd in Cleveland, I’m giving them the edge. Besides, Cleveland could really use this win.**
*It’s possible you could talk me out of this with Mike Scioscia or even Ron Gardenhire, but I doubt it.
**Can’t they always? There’s a reason “God Hates Cleveland” is a valid and unarguable point in practically every sports discussion. Maybe any discussion.