Monday, September 26, 2011

The FedEx Cup Finally Delivers, By Accident

If you were a sad, angry New York Jets fan (Hi!) or despondent over your fantasy team’s weak week 3 performance (Hi, it’s me again), you were undoubtedly looking for something else to watch on Sunday afternoon. And you found it – the PGA Tour gave you one of the most interesting, exciting and suspenseful tournaments you could imagine.

Hunter Mahan and Bill Haas played three gut-wrenching playoff holes to determine the winner of the Tour Championship. And by a stroke of luck, the two men were also playing for the FedEx Cup – the PGA Tour’s made-up trophy to answer NASCAR and keep folks interested in golf once the pigskin starts flying. After five years of mostly shrugs from the mainstream sports world, the PGA Tour seemed to hit on something Sunday afternoon in the fading glow of the early autumn Atlanta sun.

There was just one itsy, bitsy problem – Bill Haas didn’t know what was going on.

Yes, the man who won the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup and a check for about $11.4 million, had no idea the stakes were that high during the playoff. You can’t blame him – the PGA Tour has a convoluted, confusing and asinine points system to determine the winner of said FedEx Cup. Prior to the two-man playoff, Webb Simpson could’ve nailed down the FedEx Cup. If Aaron Baddeley had won the tournament, of course, since Simpson finished T-22 and about two miles from the winner’s circle.

Huh?

Exactly. Whereas NASCAR fans have been conditioned for the sport’s entire history that a champion doesn’t have to win the final race, golf fans have been conditioned to think the exact opposite way. Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods because he won. Jack Nicklaus is Jack Nicklaus because he won. And…so on and so forth until you get the idea.

But somehow, the PGA Tour has spit in the face of hundreds upon hundreds of years of golf to give out a trophy and a $10 million check, possibly, to someone who finished tied for 22nd.

Yet in the face of this stupidity, the PGA Tour stumbled into what fans want – two guys, sudden death, a whole truckload of cash on the line. It didn’t take a computer or NBC to crunch the numbers and spit out projected FedEx Cup standings. The viewer knew the stakes – even if the players didn’t – and it made for riveting television.

When Hunter Mahan needed to drop knee-knocking par putts on the 18th hole – once in regulation, twice in the playoff – those were $10 million putts. When Bill Haas found his ball in the water – the WATER! – he needed to get up and down to give himself a chance at $10 million. The crowd, feeding off the moment, drove itself into a frenzy. The announcers, sensing the moment, appropriately captured the atmosphere. And that’s what it was in its purest form – a moment.

But it almost wasn’t. And that’s the problem. The FedEx Cup has been around for several years now and this was the first time it felt special. The first time it felt like a major sporting event. The first time, frankly, it lucked out.

The solution is simple. The PGA Tour can keep its four-tournament playoff system. They can whittle the field down to 30 by the Tour Championship. But it ends there. The point system gets thrown out when the Tour Championship starts. The winner of the Tour Championship is the tour champion. I know, quite the stretch, right?

Mahan/Haas won’t resonate through the years like Nicklaus/Watson or Woods/Mickelson. But it finally unlocked the potential of the tour’s mostly-mocked FedEx Cup. It can work. It could work. It should work.

The PGA Tour needs to give us a showdown like Mahan/Haas every year at the Tour Championship – not every five years.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The 12-20 Big East Survival Plan

The Big East Conference is on the brink of extinction in the most bizarre way possible – two of its worst football programs are leaving. Imagine if Ole Miss and Kentucky left the SEC, or if Illinois and Purdue left the Big Ten, would those conferences die out? Of course not. But due to a confluence of horrific decisions by Big East leaders, losing Syracuse and Pitt presents that problem. The perceived instability has the remaining seven football members (including TCU) checking out their options.

The problem? It doesn’t have to be like this. The Big East is sitting on a potential goldmine. It still has football teams in large metro areas – NYC, Hartford/New Haven, Cincinnati, Tampa, Dallas and Louisville. Its basketball reach includes Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Providence and Washington, DC. Look at all these markets! Why can’t the Big East make this work?

It can…and here’s how.

Step 1: Invite Temple, UMass, UCF, Memphis and Houston to join.

The Big East needs to get to 12 football members yesterday. These are the teams they need. People are getting too caught up in how good teams are RIGHT NOW as opposed to what they could bring. Did anyone think Cincinnati was going to amount to anything? They’ve played in two BCS games. What was USF in 2005? Now it’s a perennial bowl team that has beaten Notre Dame, Miami and Florida State. These five make perfect sense:

Temple - Big city, pro stadium, great basketball team
UMass - USF potential, pro stadium, decent basketball, would eclipse BC in five years
UCF - USF potential, big city, recruiting advantage
Memphis - crappy football but big city and top notch, Big East level basketball
Houston - big city, very good football, decent basketball

Step 2: Split football in two divisions

The additions make splitting the Big East as easy endeavor. From here, you can copy almost everything the SEC has done (8 conference games, 5 intra-division, 3 inter-division) to strengthen football by keeping two regions together geographically.

Big East North: West Virginia, Cincinnati, Temple, UMass, UConn, Rutgers
Big East South: Houston, TCU, Louisville, Memphis, UCF, USF

The best part? The Big East could guarantee every league team at least one game in Texas and Florida. TEXAS AND FLORIDA! Hello recruiting advantage.

Step 3: Create rivalries on Thanksgiving weekend, title game first weekend in December in Yankee Stadium.

Talk about your no-brainers: a Big East Championship game from Yankee Stadium every December. Think that might draw some attention? Lock in rivalries on Thanksgiving weekend – harkening back to the good ol’ days – and let these rivalries grow.

Rivalries: West Virginia/Cincinnati, Temple/UMass, UConn/Rutgers, Houston/TCU, Louisville/Memphis, UCF/USF

Step 4: 20 team basketball league.

One of the complaints in the 16-team Big East was the unbalanced schedule – if you had to play UConn twice instead of DePaul twice, well, you weren’t happy. Eliminate that. 20 teams and everyone plays each other once. It’s not the old-school double round-robin but it’s still a true round-robin. Everyone plays everyone, no one complains and you get a true regular season champion.

Step 5: 20 team Big East tournament in MSG

The Big East tournament is one of the best things in college sports. Why not make it better? Let all 20 teams come to New York. The Big East ends its regular season mid-week before the start of ESPN’s Championship Week. The world won’t end. If anything, it will push some Big East conference games to December, driving up the value of that TV contract.

We move to a straight 16-team bracket – no stupid double byes. The tournament starts on Sunday with four play-in games to the bracket for the 13 seed vs. 20 seed, 14 vs. 19, 15 vs. 18 and 16 vs. 17. There’s a day off Monday. The tournament starts up again on Tuesday with seeds 1 through 4 playing their first round game. On Wednesday, seeds 5 through 8 play – if you’re a top 4 seed, the incentive is a day off and playing a team that already played a game on Sunday.

The schedule remains the same after that with quarterfinals Thursday, semifinals Friday and the final Saturday night. Tell me why this wouldn’t work.

Step 6: GET MONEY FROM COMCAST/NBC!!!

This is why the Big East turned down the billion dollars from ESPN. Comcast/NBC desperately wants college sports. They wanted the Pac-12 but failed. They need programming for its rebranded NBC Sports Network. They want to be a player. This is how they do that.

If the Big East gives them a 12-team football league with a Yankee Stadium title game, a 20-team basketball league and a week-long basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden…why wouldn’t they want this? You think NBC wouldn’t love to showcase these huge events a stone’s throw from 30 Rock? Not to mention the ratings of these big markets?

The Big East could give Comcast/NBC everything they want and more. The Big East tournament final would be the highest-rated show in Versus history. Or it could be a primetime showcase on NBC. The Big East title game for a BCS berth would get ratings – witness the insane rating that Cincinnati/Pittsburgh did in 2009 as a de facto Big East title game. There is potential here. Lots of it.

Don’t you think NBC would like to have a Big East football game to lead into Notre Dame? Wouldn’t they like to get their hands on a game like LSU at West Virginia?

Step 7: Get Notre Dame involved.

There are two indisputable facts right now about Notre Dame. 1) They are never going to join a conference for football. 2) They are a partner in the Big East.

For years, this has seemed to profit Notre Dame far more than the Big East. Well, if Notre Dame wants to house their Olympic sports in the Big East, the Big East needs to gain something. As of today, the Big East, frankly, has little to offer. But add an NBC contract, some NFL stadiums and voilĂ , we have something.

Notre Dame has been playing “neutral” site home games far away from home. Against Washington State in San Antonio, against Army in New York, against Maryland in Washington, DC. Well what if Notre Dame continued to plays these “neutral” site games…but as the “road” team? Look at the teams the Big East has added.

Notre Dame at Temple in Lincoln Financial Field
Notre Dame at UMass in Gillette Stadium.
Notre Dame at Houston in Reliant Stadium
Notre Dame at TCU in Cowboys Stadium
Notre Dame at Rutgers or UConn at the New Meadowlands
Notre Dame at UCF in the Citrus Bowl
Notre Dame at USF in Raymond James Stadium.

Each of these games puts Notre Dame in a big city and a great recruiting area. Each of these games would be NBC night games. Each of these games benefits Notre Dame while clearly benefitting the Big East teams, conferences and value.

Step 8: Profit

In closing, this is the only way the Big East can survive. Adding Navy, Army, Air Force or some combination as football-only members is not sustainable. Adding a no-market team like East Carolina makes no sense. Waiting for Villanova to bring up its FCS program is not a reasonable option – the Big East needs to be secure now.

The Big East can survive. But it needs to be proactive. It needs to think outside of the box. And it needs to do it quickly. But if the Big East can get its ducks in a row by the end of the year – hello tank-full of cash from Comcast.

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