Thursday, February 27, 2014

College Basketball Officially Has an Officiating Epidemic

The officials are going to ruin March Madness this year. You can feel it. You can see it coming.

Before the 2013-14 college basketball season even started, the officials were already the story of the year. Due to a wave of new "freedom of movement" rules, officials were on the spot for how they would call the game.

ted valentine
Everything transpired as they always year after year in the college game. The refs called the games tight and close – as the new rules instructed them to do – for the first two months of the season. It led to some longer games as players adjusted to the rules, but the ticky-tack fouls had given way to defenders moving their feet and, frankly, better basketball. 

Then, conference play arrived, and everything went to hell.

Basketball is probably the hardest sport to officiate and the one where the officials play the biggest role. This is not absolving refs in other sports, but when there is a total screw up in the NFL or NHL, it feels more like the exception than the rule. In every other sport, you trust that there will be a certain level of competence on display – unless you're watching Pac-12 football.

The NBA has its own referee problems but there is a sad understanding of what will take place. LeBron will get a call that Kemba Walker wouldn't get, and Kemba will get a call that Steve Blake wouldn't. The star system is not the best way to officiate a professional sporting contest, but at least there is consistency.    

At the college level? A competently officiated game is the exception. It's frightening that it has somehow gotten worse. While thinking about this topic – and without any research – I came up with the following examples in a heartbeat.

1) When Louisville played UConn on ESPN's College Gameday matchup on a Saturday night, UConn's Niles Giffey was clearly fouled on a three-point attempt. The ref missed the call and gave the ball to Louisville. Rightly upset, Kevin Ollie ran down the sideline to complain. Within seconds, Ollie had been given two technical fouls and ejected. It essentially ended the game. Instead of three UConn foul shots, Louisville had four – a seven-shot swing due to referee error.

2) When Cincinnati played UConn during a classic AAC game on a Thursday night, the refs called the first 30 minutes of game action like it was the 1993 edition of the Big East. They called absolutely nothing. Then, for the last 10 minutes, they called the game like it was November 2013, calling all of the touch fouls that were necessitated by the freedom of movement rules. The game ground to a halt, became a free throw contest and Cincinnati won. Now, Cincy may have won anyway but the game was completely and totally ruined.

The highlight came when a referee called continuation to give Cincy an And-1 – momentarily forgetting that continuation does not exist in the college game. While that was rectified, the fact it was called at all remains sobering.

3) When Boston College upset Syracuse, the Orange's Tyler Ennis threw the ball out of bounds. The ref underneath the basket – who was not even looking at the play!! – gave the ball to Syracuse. After a lengthy review, in which we saw over and over again that Ennis threw the ball out of bounds, Syracuse still got the ball. Thankfully, ball don't lie and Syracuse lost.

4) This past Saturday, Cincinnati and Louisville sat through a 10-minute review for an out of bounds call. On the floor, the refs gave the ball to Louisville. After looking at the monitors for approximately four minutes, they gave the ball to Cincinnati. Then after looking at the monitors AGAIN for another four minutes, they gave the ball back to Louisville. Seriously – how does instant replay make it harder for officials?

5) Literally any time there might be an elbow thrown. The refs gather around the monitor and try to determine intent when someone gets hit by an elbow. 99.9 percent of the time, this occurs during the play of game and 90 percent of the time, the refs didn't even call a foul in the first place.

In an Alabama/Florida game I caught a few minutes of while on the treadmill, an Alabama player, with the ball, struck a Florida player in the face with an elbow trying to avoid a trap. At least 15 seconds later, after nothing had been called, the refs went to the monitor and called a flagrant foul on the Alabama player. It was an exercise in the absurd. Or as they call it in college basketball – a Saturday afternoon.

6) The end of Arizona State's win over Arizona. The Pac-12 – surprise, surprise – had to admit failure for that fiasco, first by not calling a technical on an ASU player showboating on the winning dunk or doing anything when 2,000 students rushed the court with time left on the clock. It was a complete and total disaster in every sense of the word.

7) Just last night, TV Ted Valentine threw a fan out of a game who was loudly disagreeing with the terrible calls Ted was making.

I could go on and on but, frankly, recounting this is making me angry.

College basketball is in real trouble and no one is really paying attention to it, in part because this regular season, despite being as meaningless as others, has felt different. There is more talent than there has been in years. There are multiple great teams. There are a lot of good teams. You argue for 15-20 teams to having a chance to win it all. The second round – ugh, third round – on the first weekend of the tournament could be one for the ages.

That, though, is why the recent officiating nightmares have me concerned. I don't want to see my alma mater, GW, knocked out due to incompetence or my home state team, UConn, not making a deep run because of a bad call.

Yet, that is the fear every time the ball is put in play.

What is college basketball doing to address this? Nothing, of course. 

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fixing The Match Play and FedEx Cup at the Same Time

Golf's annual World Match Play Championship should be an event circled on the calendar by golf fans and casual fans alike.

It’s not. Even a remarkable performance by Golden Hands could do little to raise the interest of the sports world on Sunday afternoon.

golden hands
In theory, it should be a showcase tournament with 64 players involved in a March Madness-like bracket in a unique format. It is the only match play tournament on the PGA Tour calendar. It should elicit the same sort of enthusiasm and excitement that team events like the Ryder Cup does.

Instead, no one gives a shit. 

Okay, there are some people that give a shit -- just not that many. This year, the event hit a new low. Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson didn't even bother to show up. Going up against the Olympics, NBC punted on coverage to CBS. Going up against the Olympics, the Daytona 500, college basketball and the NFL scouting combine, the tournament got barely a casual mention on SportsCenter or Twitter.

If you play a big golf tournament and no one watches – does it make a sound?

There are myriad reasons why the Match Play, somehow around since 1999, is floundering. The format is blamed by some, as it inevitably forces big-name players to vacate the premises by Wednesday night.

Other reasons include a terrible course in the desert of Arizona that doesn’t appeal to players, fans or viewers. Probably the biggest knock against it is timing – the event ends the PGA Tour's West Coast swing but many players would much rather be in Florida preparing for the next swing, with the next World Golf event in just two weeks in Doral.

Likewise, there are several tournaments on the West Coast swing that players love – think Pebble Beach, Riviera and Torrey Pines – that far overshadow the Match Play, which still feels like a silly season, made for TV event.

And speaking of made for TV events – there's another tournament that no one gives a shit about and that is the Tour Championship, nominally the most important on the PGA Tour calendar. As with the Match Play, the Tour Championship has been hampered by timing and format.

The tournament takes place opposite college and pro football, a spot that no sport besides baseball can occupy and not get destroyed. IndyCar, following my suggestion, has vacated the fall. NASCAR has gimmicked its Chase for the Cup yet again in a desperate bid for relevancy. The WNBA tries to wrap up in September. MLS has struggled with miniscule ratings while insisting its season ends in December.

The PGA, to its credit, has tried to change things. The Tour Championship used to take place in November and stars like Phil and Tiger skipped it at times. The FedEx Cup starts in August, trying to gain some eyeballs before football rules the world.

It hasn't worked in large part due to the format. A player can win the FedEx Cup without winning the Tour Championship. While that may fly in NASCAR, it doesn’t work in golf. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods didn't ascend to greatness by finishing 10th in big tournaments.

So why not make the best of a bad situation and fix both the Match Play and the FedEx Cup at the same time.

Yes, I am proposing the Tour Championship become the PGA Tour's only Match Play event.

Let's face it – the Match Play tournament is dead. Whether they move it somewhere else or placed somewhere new on the calendar, the brand is done for. There’s no going back. You can't make it work. You tried for 15+ years and it failed. You wipe your hands clean and move on.

fedex cup logo
The Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, on the other hand, is not dead but it needs help. And in 2011, the PGA Tour lucked into what the tournament should be.

That year, Bill Haas and Hunter Mahan went to a playoff in the Tour Championship with the tournament and the FedEx Cup on the line. It was sudden death for all the marbles. It was riveting television. The FedEx Cup finally delivered when Haas dug a ball out of the water to a few feet and won.

That is what the FedEx Cup should be. It didn't matter that Haas and Mahan weren't Tiger and Phil – it was high drama and I turned away from football for a few hours. That is exactly what the PGA Tour needs to recreate year after year.

The Tour Championship can still be 30 players, but it must be in a match play format. It even gives a nice added bonus because with 30, you can give a bye to the top 2 in the standings – ratcheting up the intensity for the first FedEx Cup events.

No longer can someone win the FedEx Cup by finishing 10th. You have to win the Tour Championship. And year after year, the PGA will end its season with two guys going mano a mano for $10+ million. Don't you think you'd watch that? I'd watch it if it was Haas and Mahan – and I'd clear out my schedule and call my friends if it was Rory and Tiger, or Phil and Adam.

The setup is perfect for a four-day event and you instantly remove the problem of big names going home by Wednesday night. Will there be upsets and no-names involved? Sure, but it will feel more like the NCAA Tournament than a made-for-TV event as every player involved will have earned their way and want to be there.

On Thursday, you play 14 first-round matches, as the top 2 seeds enjoying a bye.

On Friday, you play the Round of 16 with 8 matches.

On Saturday afternoon, you play the quarterfinals – it could even be a nice lead-in to a Notre Dame night game on NBC.

Then on Sunday morning, before football arrives, you can play the semifinals as they are played now. Wouldn't that be a nice change from the endless pregame shows? Wouldn't that instantly become the highest-rated program on Golf Channel each and every year? And you can entice some football viewers to pay attention to the final on Sunday afternoon.

The final is played on Sunday afternoon, with an easy-to-sell story of two of the best golfers in the world going toe-to-toe for 18 holes and more money that most can even dream of having.

Who wouldn't watch that?

More importantly, wouldn't you rather watch that than the 2014 version of the Match Play or Tour Championship?

It's time for the PGA Tour to think outside the box and reinvigorate its struggling playoff system. And then they can spend the rest of their time praying for a Tiger/Phil final.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How Will NBC Cover the 2018 Winter Olympics?

The 2014 Winter Olympics may be viewed as the moment in time that NBC finally figured out that the world has changed.   

In 2012, the Summer Olympics were covered so poorly that it spawned a Twitter movement, #NBCFail, and revealed once and for all that then-producer Dick Ebserol was still living in 1986. The tape delayed coverage of nearly everything ruined what should have been one of the more exciting Games in recent memory.

sochi ice dancing
Instead, NBC focused all its efforts on primetime, forcing people to watch streams of everything – despite those online streams never seeming to work. The nadir came when Usain Bolt won the 100m in the event's showcase event on a Sunday night in London, which was approximately 4:50 p.m. in New York City. Did NBC show this live on television?

#NBCFail, so of course not.

With the dinosaur Ebserol now banished back to the 1980's, NBC finally entered the future in 2014. No, they didn't air everything live and I really wish they had done so for the skiing. But they did for the marquee event as every single figure skating was shown live on NBCSN. This had never happened before and NBC deserves credit for thinking of the viewer.

Still the time difference between Sochi and the United States made it impossible to air anything live in primetime and ratings were good, yet obviously down from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. 

Overall, NBC covered the games well, the ratings were more than decent and I'd have to consider them a win for the network. Heck, they even got Jimmy Fallon off to a good start.

Yet people are already looking ahead to a potential disaster for NBC as the next Winter Olympics in 2018 are in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, which means that 8 pm at the Games will be 6 am in New York City. And 3 pm will be 1 am.

Many are already predicting doom, but could the time difference be a good thing? Remember, NBC crushed the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing because they got the swimming events to start at 10 am. local time, which was right in primetime on the East Coast – meaning every Michael Phelps Gold Medal-winning swim was shown live. They sacrificed the track and field, Usain Bolt's 100m win was shown on NBC some 16 hours after it happened, but the record ratings were worth it.

With all that in mind – how will NBC cover the 2018 Winter Olympics?

Does Primetime Look Back or Ahead?
The 14-hour difference could be a really, really good thing or a really, really bad thing. Simple math shows that 8 pm on the East Coast is 10 am where the Games will take place. So does NBC's primetime show look ahead to the day of events, focusing on events that could take place in the morning or early afternoon, especially the alpine, snowboard and sledding events?

Can NBC, as they did in Beijing, make special arrangements for events that will have American stars. As an example looking at this year's event, the snowboard events were heavy on American superstars –could NBC pull strings to make sure those events take place during U.S.-friendly times?

Now for some events, like figure skating, that will be impossible and they will be shown on an extreme tape delay. But if NBC airs those events live on NBCSN in the wee hours of the morning – the figure skating would take place between 4-8 am – would it be that big of a deal?

What I think will happen is that NBC uses the first two hours or so of primetime catching up on the previous day's events (the look back) and then closes primetime with live coverage (the look ahead) of specific sports that Americans have favorites in, like snowboard, certain alpine events and sledding events. You might even be able to add speed skating to that list if the U.S. redemption story gets legs four years from now.

terry tara and johnny weir
Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski & Terry Gannon
I have made my feelings about Johnny Weir and his potential known. But the entire announcing crew for the NBCSN figure skating coverage was top-notch, and between 100 to 5,000 times better than the primetime NBC coverage. They have to be the primetime figure skating announcing crew in 2018. There's no excuse to do otherwise.

If it were up to me, I'd still do the live coverage on NBCSN and then replay only the top performances in primetime as the trio announced it live. I know NBC will want to do the puff pieces -- so use Scott Hamilton as a studio commentator/host that can pitch to and from the puff pieces while letting Terrance, Johnny and Tara do their thing.

Simply put, NBC cannot have its figure skating A-team only calling the live action on NBCSN.

The Olympic Primetime Host will be Bob Costas
The passion of Bob Costas' redeye had many people thinking about the future and what NBC would do if he wasn't hosting. As much as Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira excel on morning shows, they are not in the same league as Costas when it comes to hosting duties. You either have that talent in spades or you don't. Lauer and Vieira were good, Costas is great.

So Costas will be in that chair for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio and the 2018 games in Korea. In fact, NBC seems to only have one up-and-coming hosting star in Liam McHugh, who anchors the NHL and Notre Dame coverage, and did a really good job in Sochi. But it would take an enormous leap for him to jump up to the big-time host chair.

The only other possibility, if Costas somehow leaves the network entirely, would be Dan Patrick, who did a lot of the weekend and NBCSN coverage. Or NBC could hire someone from another network – but who would be better than Costas?

NHL Players Will Play In The Olympics
The injury to John Tavares has again opened up the debate of why NHL players take part in the Olympics for no money. There will be back and forth for the next four years but the NHL will back, if maybe Tavares won't be.

There are two significant reasons why. First, the players want to play. While NBA players have at times looked at the Olympics as an obligation, many NHL players have grown up looking at the tournament as the highest level to achieve in the sport with a Gold Medal rivaling, if not quite surpassing, the Stanley Cup. You think LeBron sees his Gold Medal like that? It also helps that the sport of hockey has so many strong countries – and strong World Championship tournaments in non-Olympic years – that it truly means something.

Secondly, and most importantly, NBC will still have the NHL rights. While there has been no correlation from Olympic ratings to NHL ratings, it certainly can't hurt to raise the level of notoriety for players. The hockey tournament is one of the highest-rated portions of the Olympics and has really boosted NBCSN's numbers and awareness. NBC will make sure that happens in 2018, though I would safely assume the NHL and its players will finally make something off of the deal.

Late Night Hockey?
The Olympic hockey games usually start around noon local time – which is 10 p.m. on the East Coast. That would eat into the NBC primetime, but what if the schedule was adjusted so, say, the U.S. hockey team game had a puck drop of 2 pm local time, or midnight in New York?

The Olympics do a good job of scheduling to a home country's time zone, as neither Canada or the U.S. hockey teams played at noon local time in 2014, which would have been 3 am on the East Coast.

But a midnight ET, 9pm PT puck drop on NBCSN would figure to do bang-up ratings, right? Especially considering that Olympic hockey has no commercials and end in about two hours, that is all primetime for the West Coast and would mean staying up to 2 am on the East Coast – that's reasonable, right?

And if the gold medal game is at noon local, as it was for the 2010 Vancouver games, that would mean a live 10 p.m. start on NBC proper. You get the U.S. in the game and watch the ratings soar.

What Happens to Figure Skating?
As I mentioned above, the money event of every Winter Olympics is going to have a very, very tough sell in 2018. As with the 2008 track and field events in Beijing, NBC will likely have to sit on the figure skating for 12-14 hours before airing them in primetime. While the live action on NBCSN had very little impact on ratings in 2014, it could be a huge problem in 2018 since that will happen right at the same time, approximately, as the Today Show.

What would you rather watch, if you're interested in the Olympics, before going to work? Live figure skating performances or Al Roker trying to luge?

More Curling or Live Curling or Both?
I don't get the love for curling but, like in Vancouver, the sport did excellent ratings for CNBC as it drew multiple millions for coverage after the final bell, despite being tape delayed by hours.

curling 2018 olympicsWhat does NBC do with this seemingly emerging sport? They aired very little live curling, instead opting to air it on CNBC at 5 p.m. While that worked out well in Sochi, for 2018, that would mean airing curling well after it occurred.

In my opinion, I think the time difference allows NBC to air more sports live in the overnight – who is watching CNBC at 3am on a Wednesday anyway? I think we will see a lot more curling and a lot more live curling as NBC fills the overnight hours with endless curling matches, or whatever they're called.

There appears to be an audience for curling once every four years -- let them watch it all night for hours if they want.

More Cross-Country and Biathlon, Please
If it weren't for snow days, I may not have been able to watch any cross-country skiing or fascinating biathlon – there is just something riveting about skiing for miles, stopping to shoot at a target, and then skiing for a few more miles.

But more than that, the sport can be really, really exciting. Most people hear cross-country skiing and instinctively yawn or groan. But a close race is edge of your seat stuff, which gets buried every Olympics because the U.S. is never any good at it.

If I'm running the NBC operation for the next Olympics, I go all in on biathlon and cross-country. Air that stuff live!

Innovation: What Can't We Think of Yet?
Here is what I think NBC should do because of the time difference – they need to air every important event live as it happens. For many of the events, this will mean airing at 2-5 am on the East Coast. Do it. What do you have to lose? Only a fraction of your primetime audience will watch it and you'll shut up all the people on social media that complain about the tape delay.

It is a relative no-lose for NBC since they will have next to no worries about live coverage eating into primetime coverage due to the time difference. And since you could potentially have some live events in primetime, that should offset any losses from airing, say, the bobsled at 3 am and then again at 8 pm.

When it comes to technology, I think the next step for live streaming is for it to be available through your cable box. NBC does this now with the Premier League, where every game is aired live on the NBC Sports Live Extra app as well as through my on-demand menu, though it's hard to find.

In 2018, I expect every event will be available to you live through your cable box. I would imagine events that are not aired live on NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC or USA will be available like those Premier League games through your on-demand menu or dedicated channels, similar to the  1992 Triplecast (way, way ahead of its time, eh?) or the special soccer/basketball channels NBC set up for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

I guess it shouldn't be an innovation to show everything on your television live, but this is the network of #NBCFail and Dick Ebersol -- they have quite a hole to dig out of. But in 2014, they started to. By 2018, they'll finally join the 21st century after about two decades.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Johnny Weir: Breakout Star of the 2014 Winter Olympics

Before the 2014 Winter Olympics even started, Johnny Weir was the face of the games.

As we look back at the now concluded event, Johnny Weir was the face of the games.

During the lead up to this year's version of the Winter Olympics, little attention was paid to the athletes or the events. How could it? The attention was focused on construction delays in Sochi, on #SochiProblems, on the ridiculous $50 billion price tag and, of course, on Vladimir Putin. In particular, Putin's anti-gay agenda came under significant fire in the weeks preceding the games, particularly when he made it clear gays were allowed as long they kept the gay away from children.

Who better to represent the gay culture than Johnny Weir?

johnny weir and tara
Weir made it clear he would not be making any political statements during the fortnight but that would have been unnecessary anyway. There have been flamboyant athletes. There have been gay athletes. There has not been a flamboyantly gay athlete like Johnny Weir.

He had his own reality show. He was a guest judge on RuPaul's Drag Race – I still believe there's 75 percent chance he and Carmen Carrera met up after the show. The daily unveiling of his outfits was a Twitter highlight. Johnny Weir, simply by being Johnny Weir, was making a bigger statement than any words he could've said. The Olympic Games of 2014 were built up as the "gay games" and while that may not have materialized completely, Weir's presence exemplified how our world has changed.

Weir's presence also exemplified how our world has changed in a far different and less socially important way. Motivated to make the #NBCFail hashtag a relic of the past, NBC took significant steps to improve his Olympic coverage. It may not have been perfect but few can argue that it was a massive improvement over the London 2012 disaster. At the forefront of the Peacock's changes were the airing of every figure skating performance live on its cable sports channel, NBCSN.

To say this was a radical departure than the television habits under dinosaur Dick Ebersol is a polite understatement. This was game-changing. Not only for the Olympics, but for the fledgling cable network that delivered record ratings and for the sport of figure skating.

Did you see that word in front of figure skating? Sport? For my entire life, figure skating has not been covered like a sport during the Olympics. Maybe in 1988, when the Battle of the Brians captivated the world, but I was a mere six-year old. My memories begin, like many my age, with the Tonya/Nancy soap opera and every Olympic figure skating competition since then has been a passion play, more pro wrestling than pro football.

This is where Johnny Weir became the star of the 2014 Winter Olympics – he treated his sport like a sport and the viewer was better for it. This is not to diminish his co-hosts, as Terry Gannon proved again why he is one of the sports world's most underrated announcers and Tara Lipinski, like Weir, focused on the sport of figure skating.

I had the unique experience of actually watching way too much figure skating coverage thanks to a snowstorm and a President's Day holiday, that gave me five days in my apartment. That's a long time to be home during the winter, especially when a snowstorm in DC means you ain't going anywhere.

So with few options, figure skating got the television as I worked from home those two days. To my complete and total shock – I was engrossed by the coverage.

Watching figure skating like that ratcheted up the intensity ten-fold, from the overproduced soap opera crap NBC delivered in primetime, with only Scott Hamilton proving to be an adequate announcer. If we never hear Tom Hammond announce figure skating, we'll all be better for it.

But during the live coverage on NBCSN, there was no time for that. It was just skater after skater after skater. The trio in the booth told the story as it was happening – they didn't have 10 hours to create and craft a narrative.

This came into play during the car wreck that was the men's figure skating competition. I am not being facetious when I say every single male figure skater fell. The only one in the Top 10 after the short program that did not fall went from ninth place to the bronze medal. It was like a highlight reel of crashes. It was stunning. It was fascinating. It was must-watch television.

Yet part of that was due to Weir explaining what the hell I was watching. The scoring system in figure skating changed – to me recently, but in reality, it happened a long time ago – so Weir was there to point out the intricacies of the scoring system, as he actually performed for it in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He explained what levels meant – that judges now grade each jump and component how well they are done individually, instead of just one score for the whole thing at the end. He explained why falls are no longer the death knell they were 20 years ago, as the levels you achieve on jumps you do complete are far more important.

When Patrick Chan took the ice for the men's long program, I felt like a figure skating insider – I knew exactly what he had to do. The door was open for Canada to win its first gold medal in men's figure skating. The tension was ratcheted up appropriately by Gannon and Weir; the live aspect meant that anything was possible. So when Chan started off hitting quad jumps, the excitement level increased. And when Chan started to crumble, you could feel the crowd groaning. And when he finally collapsed and his program fell apart, you had Weir to succinctly sum up what you had just witnessed.

There was no need for false drama – it was all there. What if figure skating had always been televised like this? Maybe sports fans like myself wouldn't be so turned off by it. Maybe more people would watch. Maybe more people will take it seriously. Maybe it doesn't matter.

Weir's performance as an analyst showcased why he is more than just a pretty face in ridiculous outfits. As Erin Andrews proved, there must be substance to back up the style. Today's viewer is too critical to settle for anything but the best. That is why Erin Andrews has returned to sideline reporting and why Johnny Weir will almost certainly – one can hope – get the call up to NBC's primetime coverage in 2018. We can only hope the pre-produced nonsense can stay in 2014, or 1994, but that is asking too much.

Of course, to say Weir was simply presenting the facts would be a gross misrepresentation of why he stole the show. NBCSN made a point of showing all the performances, which meant there were about 20 performances each day that didn't – and shouldn't have – made the primetime program.

The shade of it all – from Weir mocking one figure skater's "excessive suspender play" to playfully calling his partner Terrance as Gannon retorted, "only my Grandmother calls me that" – Weir was the gift that kept giving. I watched an hour of subpar figure skating performances because Weir made me laugh.

Funny, entertaining and knowledgable – isn't that exactly what you want from an analyst? If Weir wants to start calling college football games in the fall, I'm all up for it.

If you watched the live coverage on NBCSN the past two weeks, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you didn't, well, you missed out on the best show in Sochi. How would I best describe it?



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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dale Earnhardt’s Death Made NASCAR Too Mainstream

NASCAR sold its soul.

NASCAR succeeded in the periphery of the mainstream. Its first live race on broadcast television ended with three men – two of them brothers – brawling like rednecks next to mangled cars in Daytona, Florida.

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For the next two decades, NASCAR built itself up organically and through sheer force of will. At the forefront of this Southern revolution was Dale Earnhardt, with his famous moustache and Man in Black routine that instantly resonated with a whole lot of folks.

Always a popular sport, NASCAR rode Earnhardt to the forefront of the sporting culture. Everything revolved around him.

The brilliance of Dale was his unique ability to sell out like crazy while not selling out at all. When a band lends its song to a commercial, the fans whine. When Dale lent his voice to a product, the fans bought.

Dale Earnhardt was a marketing tour de force, up there with the greatest in terms of athlete pitchmen, alongside Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Dale Earnhardt moved product.

It felt different when the 2001 Daytona 500 came around, as many tributes to Dale this week have mentioned. Dodge was returning to the sport. Fox was televising its first NASCAR race as part of a new multi-billion dollar deal. The era of TNN races – that would be The Nashville Network – and courtesy coverage from the sports departments at major newspapers were over.

But even as the green flag dropped that day, no one knew how big NASCAR had become. More specifically, no one on Madison Avenue fully grasped the sport’s influence.

I watched every lap of that Daytona 500 with my college roommate as we nursed massive hangovers. When the race concluded, I watched one replay of the fatal last-lap crash, turned the television off and took a much-needed nap. I had no idea what I had just seen.

Unlike others, I did not believe Earnhardt to be indestructible. The crash simply did not look that bad. It seemed standard operating procedure for Dale. As I am averse to instant post-game coverage, I planned to catch up on the post-race antics that night on SportsCenter. I distinctly remembering laughing to myself before fall asleep – imagining a smirking Dale shrugging his shoulders and doing his “aw, shucks” routine about wrecking the field so his son and car could win.

Then I woke up. Then I found out Dale Earnhardt had died. Then I called my Dad, and we shared mutual feelings of stunned sadness. Then I realized NASCAR was about to change forever.

The outpouring of affection for Dale in the week after his crash alerted the country to what was going on with NASCAR. To me, that is Dale’s overwhelming legacy – it provided the proof to all the anecdotes about the growing influence of NASCAR.

His death led the national news – NASCAR had skipped from the back of the sports section to the front of the newspaper itself.

For the next several years, Dale’s death appeared to be the catalyst for a NASCAR boom – with NASCAR moms being courted by politicians and every major corporation lining up to get its logo on the hood of a winning car.

Alas, all the attention was too much for NASCAR and the sport in the past few years has crumbled under the enormous weight.

NASCAR is not the NFL or the NBA, nor was it ever constructed as such. It thrived because people like Dale Earnhardt would spin out Terry Labonte and bask in the boos of 100,000 people on a steamy Saturday night in Bristol, Tennessee with a smirk on his face.

It thrived because the drivers kept their dirt-track mentality and focused on winning races, not collecting points. It thrived because fans could relate. It thrived because sponsors were necessary and those sponsors were seen as doing the drivers a favor. It thrived because trips to Darlington and Talladega and Richmond were shared traditions, handed down from father to son.

In the past decade, NASCAR has peeled away all that was good about the sport.

They race in Chicago and California. They do not race in North Wilkesboro. The Southern 500 no longer anchors Labor Day Weekend. The season ends in Miami. The drivers do tours of New York City to drum up interest.

Would Dale Earnhardt even recognize the sport of today? Would he want to?

There is now so much money involved that super teams have emerged, with armies of talented engineers that dial up cars maxed to their precisionist potential.

nascar empty
The cars, alas, are too good. The old mantras have been eliminated from the sport. The doorhandle to doorhandle, the bump and run’s, the rubbin’ is racin’ – all pushed to the side in lieu of single-file racing and courtesy passes.

The Chase for the Cup, another shameless money grab, has rendered the sport a joke – instituting a playoff system for a sport that did not need a playoff system. They have further bastardized that for this season, painfully manufacturing it so the final race will mean something. To who? I have no idea, since fans have almost universally rejected the Chase since its arrival and the sport slides further and further into irrelevance every fall. At least IndyCar finally wised up and will end its season before football, like I had suggested last summer.

I wrote about the fact that NASCAR is dying before but the sight on Saturday night at Daytona was almost too much for this, admittedly former, fan to stomach.

The former Busch Clash, now the Sprint Unlimited, unfolded on the new Fox Sports 1. The seats at Daytona were empty.

It fostered a truly bizarre telecast where the announcers were treating the event like a big deal while the sparsely-filled bleachers made it seem more like an ARCA race.

February in the NASCAR world has turned into its own Groundhog’s Day. The sport’s leaders promise better racing. They promise more passing, more wrecks and more excitement. They unveil a new overhaul, either to the cars or the points system or both, and guarantee that this is the year NASCAR will re-capture your imagination.

It didn’t happen last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. It won’t happen this year either.

Sadly, it can all be traced to the years following Dale’s death, when the sport became too big, too popular and too mainstream for its own good. Eventually, those fans of Dale found something else to do as they were pushed away by the nauseating commercialism, overwhelming greed and clean-cut drivers who were all too willing to toe the company line.

Once you sell your soul, you never get it back. 

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

College Realignment: The AAC's Next Move

Everyone blames Tulane, but Tulsa was the problem.

When the yet-unnamed American Athletic Conference announced that Tulane was joining the conference, the response was not good. It was widely considered the straw that broke the back of the old Big East, causing the Catholic 7 to split. This, of course, kindly ignores the fact that without Fox Sports 1 overpaying for a mid-major basketball conference, that split never happens.

tulane football 2014
Regardless, Tulane wasn't the problem. Even before the Tulane football team's renaissance in 2013, the school offered advantages. Not only was it located in a major American city, the talent surrounding said city, particularly in football, is second-to-none. No, the AAC teams won't beat SEC teams for Louisiana talent but even the second-string talent in that state is superior to the first-string talent in, say, Connecticut.

And if Tulane ever gets it going – especially with a new on-campus football stadium coming in 2014 -- there is the potentially of capturing the attention of New Orleans.

What does Tulsa bring?                                                                                            

Tulas was added because of its past success, which is the exact wrong reason for adding a team. Nothing about realignment should be based on on-field success because on-field success is uncontrollable. Teams need to be added because they bring viewers, they bring eyeballs or they open up valuable recruiting territory.

Despite Texas A&M's football success, the SEC didn't invite them to play Alabama tough – they were invited because a lot of people live in Texas. Other than Tulsa, only two other schools made major conference moves due to past success.

The Big Ten added Nebraska. The Big East added Butler. Thanks to multiple national titles spanning decades upon decades, Nebraska is a nationally-recognized brand name that people care about. It made sense. Thanks to two NCAA final appearances with Brad Stevens, Butler appeared to be a budding brand name. But once Stevens left – similar to what will happen to Boise State's brand appeal now – the school's program returned to its mid-major status and the Big East was left with another DePaul.

As we move into 2014, the AAC will have 11 schools that will all play football and basketball. It is not a workable number, as the Big Ten struggled with 11 for close to 20 years before adding Nebraska. That conference has added two major markets, sort of, with perennial also-rans Maryland and Rutgers, but that's a story for a different day.

In 2015, Navy will join for football-only, and the AAC will have 12 teams for football and 11 teams for basketball. Will that work?

In my opinion, no. The 12 will work for football but the 11 seems unwieldy for basketball because it leaves one team without a conference game twice a week – once for the weekday games, once for the weeknight games. I don't see that working.

So what does the AAC do? And you thought college realignment was over.

The conference needs to at least one basketball program. How they do that opens up myriad possibilities. Do they add just one basketball-only school to balance out Navy? Do they add multiple basketball-only schools? Do they add a school for both sports? Do they add a mix of both?

Without further ado, let's look at some possible expansion candidates in no particular order. At the end, I'll share what I would do – followed by what I think the AAC will do. The pickings are slim...

byu football 2014
BYU
Let's just call BYU Mike Aresco's white whale. As the realignment wheel has slowed down for now, there is only one brand-name school not in the AAC or a major conference. No, it's not Boise State. It's BYU. It has an established, national brand. It has a history of very, very good football teams. It has its own deal with ESPN. And it's having trouble playing top teams later in the year and that may become even more difficult as the Big Ten moves to 9 games, Notre Dame plays 5 ACC teams a year and the SEC debates its own move to 9 games.

Essentially, the AAC has to wait BYU out and hope like heck they can make it happen. They could join as a football-only member, as they have a current agreement with the West Coast Conference and the AAC can offer them football games across the Eastern part of the United States in metro markets.

This may happen in the future if BYU continues to have trouble scheduling, but recent agreements with Cal and Arizona State appear to mitigate these concerns, even if the Notre Dame series appears to have been put out to pasture.

Air Force/Army
If BYU is MIke Aresco's white whale, than the Air Force and Army duo is his windmill. By all accounts, the old Big East has been trying to lure Army for several years and came aggressively after Air Force when it looked like Boise State and San Diego State would join. But just as the Mountain West bent over backwards for Boise State, it did so for Air Force by guaranteeing they would remain at 8 conference games – the same thing Aresco has said for Navy – to keep the service academy games going.

But what if all three were in the same conference? And could play those games as part of a conference schedule? Wouldn't that change things?

Ultimately, I don't see this happening simply because Air Force had their chance and ended up being very adamant in their commitment to the Mountain West, as well as a healthy disgust for college realignment. As for Army, they need to win football games so desperately that they are in a completely different situation than Navy.

Mike Aresco will keep dreaming.

Charlotte
Remember what I said about how on-field results don't matter? Charlotte has yet to play even one FBS game and they're on the list strictly because of their location. Charlotte is a Top 25 television market. It is in the heart of ACC country and wouldn't it be fun for the AAC to launch an assault on its southern aggressors?

The basketball team has history with 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, though the past decade has been relatively dry with only 3 NIT appearances since the last Big Dance appearance in 2005.

The football team, well, it's played a grand total of one season on the FCS level. I know you're thinking this is crazy and it might be. But the goal of the AAC for the length of the current television contract is to be in a place to get a much, much better next contract. Adding another huge television market with a program that has potential? Well, why not, right? You're the AAC – what do you have to lose?

UT-San Antonio
Why am I even listing them? Because San Antonio is a Top 40 television market. Because UTSA plays in the Alamodome. Because they routinely draw over 25,000, with crowds over 30,000 for a game against Houston last year and 40,000 for Oklahoma State. If Charlotte has potential, USTA is already delivering. With SMU and Houston already in the fold, the conference would have teams all three major metro Texas cities and the exposure would exponentially help recruiting in the state.

The basketball team, of course, is 8-16 as I write this in a terrible Conference USA. Doesn't the AAC have enough terrible basketball teams? Yes. But football is driving this bus.

Saint Louis
A top 10 team in a top 20 television market? This should be a no-brainer if the conference wanted to add one basketball-only school to balance out Navy. But Saint Louis is holding on to a faint hope that the new Big East will expand and they will be next in line. And if the new Big East does expand, they would be the first phone call. But the new Big East is not expanding. Hell, it might not survive past a few years when Fox inevitably acquires the Big Ten television package  – remember, they own half the Big Ten Network – and Fox Sports 1 ignores the conference in lieu of a real major conference.

Saint Louis should join the AAC if they call. But they won't.

Dayton
You can repeat everything I said about Saint Louis here, except for the part about a Top 10 team in a top 20 market. Dayton is a very good basketball school in a basketball-mad city that would go crazy for regular visits from Cincinnati, UConn and Memphis. Alas, Dayton would likely be third or fourth on the basketball-only wish list. This makes it all the more puzzling why they think the Big East would call -- and why the Big East apparently is interested in calling.

VCU/Richmond
Richmond, Virginia is not Charlotte but it is a bigger television market than Knoxville, Dayton, Green Bay, Omaha or, ugh, Tulsa. It is also one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country for both football and basketball. As we saw when Shaka Smart took VCU to the Final Four – the reach of Richmond echoes throughout the state.

The question, though, becomes which school to invite. At first glance, it would seem like a no-brainer to invite VCU. But what happens if/when Shaka Smart leaves? Like Brad Stevens, maybe Smart doesn't leave for another college but would have to be a fool to turn down the NBA. Richmond is a better program, over the long-term, than VCU but VCU has Shaka Smart and momentum.

Add a VCU team led by Shaka to the AAC, with Cincy, UConn and Memphis, and you would instantly add a handful of high quality conference games to the league's basketball schedule. They would need Shaka's word in blood that he wouldn't leave, lest the conference ends up with a Butler-like disaster dragging down on it.

umass dunk
UMass
As a basketball-only option, UMass would be a perfect choice. It would instantly give UConn a New England partner and, frankly, UMass basketball means more in Boston than Boston College basketball does because a grand total of zero people in Boston care about Boston College basketball. The basketball program has rebounded and will likely make a tournament appearance this year. As with a Shaka-led VCU team, it would be a strong contender in the conference and create some exciting new conference games.

But the football team. Oh, the football team. A move to the FBS has been disastrous, at best, with games played in a 95% empty Gillette Stadium, which is understandable for a team play MAC opponents. Would a move to the AAC give the football program enough life to be successful? Or would games against UCF and Memphis elicit the same apathetic shrug that Kent State and Eastern Michigan did?

There is the real possibility that the football team moves back to the FCS level where it belongs and the AAC could cleanly grab the other sports to at least give UConn a travel partner in non-revenue sports.

UMass is a wild card here because it sort of has what the AAC wants –  and a whole lot of what the AAC wants to stay far, far away from.

Wichita State
Butler and VCU had zero success before Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart. Wichita State made a Final Four in the 1960's, an Elite Eight in the 1980's and a Sweet 16 in the 2000's before Gregg Marshall showed up and they are currently undefeated through 27 games a year after a Final Four appearance. The TV market is #69, which isn't great but still seven spots higher than the "metro" hometown of Creighton.

The AAC could do worse, right? If they needed to add one basketball-only school, wouldn't Wichita State provide some interest and potential? The AAC needs to move the needle and who knows if Wichita State moves the needle after Gregg Marshall inevitably moves on. Let's just say the AAC would have to consider it.

What I Would Do:
In a perfect world, the AAC would figure out a way to add BYU. The reality is the league is more likely to get 4-6 football games a year against BYU as I think they will fight to maintain independence unless they are literally out of options, scheduling-wise.

In a realistic world, Navy a sole football-only playing member simply doesn't work. So I would remove Navy as a full conference member, which I bet Navy would want as well, in lieu of signing for 6 games every year – and add 6 games every year against Army.

That is the ideal scenario -- the conference teams play 8 conference games and a guaranteed nonconference game every year against Navy and Army. You could even steal a page from the ACC and bring both schools in the fold for bowl game agreements to sweeten the deal there.

That leaves the AAC with 11 teams, and needed to add one school to get to 12 for both. If UMass had any sort of pulse for a football team, they would be my choice. But they do not. So I continue with the AAC's method of grabbing major metro markets and take a flyer on Charlotte. Why not, right?

What The AAC Will Do:
Nothing. And that sucks. They are going to play with 11 basketball teams in 2015 and keep Navy for football, which will prevent the league from ever playing 9 conference games and ruins Navy's schedule forever due to 8 conference games and 3 games against Army, Air Force and Notre Dame on the schedule every year. In the end, no one will be happy.

The best move for all parties involved is for Navy to move on – let's see if Mike Aresco has figured this out.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

CBS Sports Network: The Frugal Success Story?

I have watched the CBS Sports Network more in the past month than I have in the past decade. I don't think I'm alone.
cbs sports network 2014

While millions of words have been devoted to the rebranding efforts of the NBC Sports Network and last year's launch of Fox Sports 1, hardly any have been devoted to the CBS Sports Network. And why would they? The network has operated largely under the radar, while the other two networks made ill-fated attempts to compete with ESPN.

So there are four major broadcast networks. There are three major sports networks. It doesn’t seem to add up.

It is even more puzzling when thinking about the evolution of the channel, which began as CSTV -- College Sports Television -- more than 10 years ago. It was essentially the forerunner to what ESPNU has become, but without the crucial agreements with big-time sports like SEC football or ACC basketball.

My first real exposure to CSTV came in 2006 when Notre Dame, led by Brady Quinn and firmly in the Top 10 during the faux Charlie Weis revival, faced Air Force. The game attracted a lot of press but not for good reasons— it was the first time since 1992 that a Notre Dame game had not aired on NBC, CBS, ABC or ESPN. It spoke to the power of Notre Dame football and to the thorough lack of power of CSTV.

Purchased by CBS in 2005, it was rebranded as the CBS College Sports Network in March 2008 as it aired the two late, west coast afternoon NCAA Tournament games that tipped off around 5 p.m. in the east, but went unaired, except in select markets, as CBS signed off for local station commitments. And boy, doesn't that sound like that should have happened in 1978, with how the new Turner/CBS partnership has revolutionized coverage.

In 2011, the network's name was shortened to CBS Sports Network but the channel continued to languish. Like the Big Ten Network, the channel does not subscribe to Nielsen so there are never any ratings released. Like the Big Ten Network, it's a good indication very, very few people are watching.

Over the past few years, the price of sports has exploded exponentially. ESPN is paying nearly $2 billion every year for Monday Night Football. College conferences are paying its members more than $20+ million every year. Fox Sports overpaid by an order of magnitude to create the doomed Big East Conference to give itself programming during the winter months.

And that last nugget seemed like it would be the death knell for the CBS Sports Network. Instead, it has invigorated it.

When CBS won the rights for the NFL's new Thursday Night package, eyebrows were raised since CBS had the Big Bang Theory and didn't need it. More importantly, CBS has shown an unwillingness to overpay for sports rights. They have relied on a model of sharing, which is partly why the relatively cheap $250 million price tag for 8 NFL games makes sense.

CBS is the most-watched network and it is the most profitable thanks to shrewd business decisions. When the NCAA Tournament came up for bid several years ago, they balked on footing the entire bill – so they partnered with Turner and the ratings for the entire tournament have skyrocketed. In a move of pure brilliance – CBS still shows the same amount of games in the same timeslots for the first two weekends of the tournament. They still get their ratings, but pay far, far less. They will give up the Final Four this year and the title game next year, but it is a small price to pay.

For the college football and college basketball regular season, CBS cherry picks only the best games. It airs one SEC football game a week, spending wisely and letting ESPN, and now the conference, air all the others. They air weekend coverage of the PGA, but let the Golf Channel handle the weekdays and rain delayed coverage. They don't own sports – they pop in and out through the year. They focus on big events and once those events became too expensive, say the US Open in tennis, they gladly step aside.

This is a long way of explaining why the CBS Sports Network never made a move. They air small conferences. The Mountain West Conference, particularly in basketball, and Navy football have been their biggest draws. They've added “bumper” programming, as they call it in the industry, with shows focused on CBS properties, like the Masters or the NFL, with top personalities like Phil Simms. It is interesting but nothing Earth-shattering.

In the end, sports networks are defined by live sports. No one needs ESPN on their cable for the 3 p.m. SportsCenter, they need it for Michigan/Notre Dame in football and Duke/North Carolina in basketball. For years, CBS Sports Network rarely, if ever, had games that anyone other than fans of the two teams involved would care about.

But then came the new Big East. And then came the television negotiations with the newly-formed American Athletic Conference. To create the Big East, Fox Sports promised the Big East unmatched exposure. To keep the AAC and match a bid from NBC, ESPN had to guarantee national exposure for every single conference game.

It led to a problem. Fox Sports and ESPN simply didn't have enough timeslots on enough channels to make this happen. They needed a solution.

CBS Sports Network is available in 96 million homes, though it's likely far less actually have it. For most that do, like myself, it is part of a sports tier. I need the sports tier almost exclusively for the NFL RedZone, though it includes the Big Ten Network, ESPNU and it is worthy my extra $8 a month. So I've had the CBS Sports Network for a while and I never watched it.

Then came the 2013-14 basketball season. Suddenly, my UConn Huskies, the men and women, were playing on the channel. The channel was now regularly featuring ranked teams, whether it was Creighton or Villanova from the Big East or Memphis, Louisville and Cincinnati from the AAC. It felt, almost overnight, like a real sports network.

Thanks to the destruction of the old Big East and the new leagues raised in its place, CBS Sports Network has benefitted tremendously while spending a pittance. The network is sub-licensing games from ESPN and Fox Sports 1 and doing so from a position of tremendous power. Think of the AAC – ESPN needs to air all the conference games. There have no choice. And while they have started to use ESPNews as an outlet, they still don't have enough room with its other basketball commitments. So CBS has a sports network that has shown a reluctance to spend money, yet is now regularly showing Top 25 basketball games at a fraction of the cost that, say, Fox Sports 1 is.

It's a brilliant strategy that will likely pay off even further when AAC football joins the lineup for the 2014 season as the ESPN contract, like in basketball, states every conference game must be nationally televised. There are many barriers to success for the American Athletic Conference but exposure, as of right now, is not.

This is not to imply that CBS Sports Network will suddenly usurp NBCSN or Fox Sports 1 in the battle for #2 behind ESPN. But for the first time in its existence, it has a pulse. People are watching. Fans of UConn, or Cincinnati, or Georgetown, or Villanova, are being exposed to a channel they are almost certainly never watched before.

The network looks the part. The game announcers may not be up to par but are no worse than what Fox Sports 1 trots out past Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery. Using the CBS graphics you see on the broadcast channel, it feels like a major-league operation – and if you watched CSTV or the CBS College Sports Network in the past, you'll know what that difference means. The channel has also lined up an impressive roster of analysts and writers, from Doug Gottlieb and Jon Rothstein on the college basketball coverage to Bruce Feldman on the football side, which is simply far superior to the carousel of idiots that Fox Sports 1 has mostly delivered.

navy ohio state baltimore
The CBS Sports Network may potentially have a coming out party on Labor Day weekend – it controls the rights to Navy's home opener, in Baltimore versus a preseason title favorite and ratings behemoth Ohio State. Even more than Notre Dame/Air Force, it would prove to be the biggest game in the channel's history.

Fox, NBC and ESPN are forking over billions of dollars for the rights to air live sports. CBS has kept its cable network quiet, looking for scraps and leftovers. Could the frugality finally be paying off?

I'm writing about the network. I'm watching the network. I wasn't doing either last year.

Maybe we are slowly approaching the era of four broadcast networks – and four major sports networks.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is Horse Racing Actually Making a Comeback?

It was a really, really big weekend for horse racing. But you’re forgiven if you didn’t notice.

To say horse racing has lost its grip on the mainstream is akin to saying Howard Beale has lost his grip on reality – it’s true but a massive understatement.

donn handicap 2014
Horse racing barely, if ever, registers with the masses. There are three guaranteed days when the sport matters in this country – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Saturday of Breeders Cup weekend. There is potentially a fourth, but only when the Belmont Stakes features a Triple Crown contender.

I know all about the Belmont Stakes – I’ve been every year since 1999 and had so much fun last year winning money on Palace Malice I wrote about how much I love horse racing. There are few things as enjoyable as sitting outside, soaking up the sun, drinking a cold one and letting it ride on a horse because it shares a name with a character from The Godfather.

But the sport’s reach has been undermined greatly in the past 20 years, most of it self-inflicted harm. While Smarty Jones in 2004 and the accompanying hoopla marked the sport’s recent highpoint, 2006 marked the crippling end of that brief renaissance. That was the year Barbaro got hurt, the Triple Crown races were split between two networks and the Breeders Cup mindlessly decided to spread itself out over 2 days.

The past 8 years have been a brutal, steady, slow decline – culminating this past fall when one of the best days of horse racing in recent memory at Belmont Park went largely unnoticed up against college football and, well, literally anything else in the world.

So two events that occurred this past weekend are more important you could possibly imagine. There are the first steps in the industry’s brutal, steady, slow return to the mainstream. It may never happen – but at least there is now hope.

On Friday, the New York Racing Association made the stunning announcement that it was creating its own version of the Breeders Cup on Belmont Stakes day. NYRA will be moving historic races, such as the Grade I Met Mile, Ogden Phipps and Acorn Stakes. These races will be added to a Belmont Stakes day card that already included the Belmont, the Grade I Manhattan on the turf and 2 other sprint stakes for 3-year olds and older horses.

In total, there will be 10 graded stakes, 5 of them Grade I races, and a total purse of nearly $8 million, making it the second-richest day of racing in North America.

The news is massive. The horse racing calendar went from having three guaranteed days of mainstream attention to four – effectively eliminating the apathy that would accompany a Belmont Stakes with no Triple Crown at stake. And if there is a Triple Crown at stake with that lineup? I can’t even imagine.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this and not merely for the racing-related reasons. Yes, it will be nice to have a halfway-point championship day, even if it won’t carry the weight of a Breeders’ Cup for deciding Horse of the Year. It will still be an event. And it’s new. It’s different. It’s a change.

Horse racing has essentially been stuck in the past for 40 years. As Rick Pitino would say, Secretariat and Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones aren’t walking through that door. The sport has done almost nothing in the past decade to turn back a rising tide of irrelevance.

So when NYRA – and if you know anything about the corrupt, incompetent history of NYRA, this is saying something – made a bold move, it was mind-blowing.

Of course there were those who cover the sport, notably Steve Haskin on Twitter, who lambasted the move, claiming that the Met Mile – one of the sport’s crown jewels – deserved a day of its own. Last year, the Met Mile was run on Memorial Day in front of about 5,000 people at Belmont Park and a tiny TV crowd thanks to TVG.

In 2014, the Met Mile will be run in front of at least 50,000 – possibly double that depending on a Triple Crown and the weather – people in attendance and a large, national television audience on NBCSN or NBC proper.

In short, more was written about the Met Mile this past Friday than had been devoted to the race in the past decade combined.

It was a historic day for horse racing. The television landscape for sports is now marked by events – no one watches tennis, but everyone watched Wimbledon. College basketball is sort of there during the regular season, but we all tune in for March Madness. Just look at the mega-ratings for the Olympics.

It’s why baseball is a perfect sport but fails to rate – there are simply too many games. It’s why NASCAR used to be a ratings monster and is now a dying sport – because the big event feel has dissipated.

Horse racing needs fans, period. While the sport’s lifeblood is the Monday card at Aqueduct, it needs to appeal to more than horseplayers to sustain it. It needs fans under the age of 60. It needs mainstream coverage. It needs to market better. It needs to make events like the new Belmont Stakes day to attract new viewers.

The big weekend for horse racing concluded Sunday afternoon when Fox Sports 1 aired its first horse racing telecast, a double-bill from Gulfstream Park featuring the Donn Handicap.

The telecast marked a step forward and an acceptance of past mistakes. In 2013, that card featured one of the best horse races of the year, when turf superstar Point of Entry and 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom dueled down the stretch.

The card on Sunday wasn’t that great, though Will Take Charge featured a valiant second in the Donn and is an early contender for horse of the year. The results almost didn’t matter.

A new network – one desperately aiming for its own acceptance – televised horse racing nationwide. The coverage was good, though did feature a bit too much of the beginner’s view* that hampered soccer coverage on ESPN in the 2000’s. But it was the first of 10 Fox Sports 1 telecasts. It is important that it even happened. The television audience was likely miniscule, but still better than zero coverage it received last year.

*The low point was the only female on the crew making a show bet and explaining that it was easy for her, as if women are incapable of figuring out how to bet on a horse race.

No one knows how these grand experiments for horse racing will turn out. Maybe Fox will be one and done with the sport. Maybe the pseudo-Breeders Cup at Belmont won’t provide a boost.

But maybe success will breed more success. Maybe Fox will air more races in 2014. Maybe the new Belmont Stakes Day brings in record handle and more viewers. Maybe the sport’s revival would return ESPN to the fold.

We will find out soon enough. But 2014 is already a successful year for horse racing. Yes, it was a low bar to clear but the sport has done it.

With older horses like Wise Dan, Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man still in training and another crop of three-year-old stars preparing to descend on Churchill Downs, the sky is the limit.

And for the first time in ages, people are talking about horse racing in February.

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