Thursday, February 26, 2015

Realignment Has Killed the Soul of College Basketball

On Feb. 16, Kansas visited West Virginia for a Top 25 matchup that came down to the final seconds. It was played before thousands of empty seats.

On Feb. 23, Kansas visited 13-15 Kansas State in a game that did not come down to the final seconds. The sold-out crowd stormed the court so viciously that the cops turned to Twitter to hunt down students.

The former game is a symptom of the sport’s problem. The latter was a reminder of the sport’s greatness. As the Kansas/Kansas State game tipped off, announcer Brent Musberger told those watching at home to appreciate the atmosphere and soak it in.

college basketball crossroadsCollege basketball is at a crossroads. Interest wanes more than ever during conference season. A sport already overshadowed by its postseason has become overwhelmed and defined by it. The 2014-15 season has been dominated by Kentucky’s quest for perfection and a lack of other storylines.

There are plenty of theories being thrown around. However, the solutions to these periphery issues do not address why the sport is missing something.

Yes, scoring is way down and the 35-second shot clock is too long. But addressing those issues won’t make Tulane/UConn any more interesting to the common fan.

Yes, the talent pool has been diluted by one-and-done freshmen or high school stars jumping straight to pro leagues overseas. But addressing those issues will not make anyone in Washington, D.C. give a crap when Xavier comes to the Verizon Center.

Yes, adding four more teams to the NCAA Tournament was a bad idea and expanded the bubble to include more undeserving teams. But reducing the field back to 64 teams is not going to make a Syracuse fan get pumped up by a mid-February trip to Clemson.

It’s time for college basketball to address those issues. It’s also time for the sport to realize the underlying problem – the conference rivalries have been destroyed.

College basketball, far more than college football, relied on those rivalries to get fans excited during these harsh winter months. College football rivalries are great but there are so easily replaced – when your team plays 12 games a year, the opponent rarely matters. Sure, Texas A&M should play Texas but playing LSU on Thanksgiving night is a reasonable facsimile.

In college basketball, things are simply different. Syracuse and Georgetown didn’t play once a year. Neither did Kansas and Missouri, or Duke and Maryland. Instead, they played twice a year and sometimes three times. Heck, in 2001, Duke and Maryland played four of the best college basketball games I have ever seen in my life in the span of three months.

Without these rivalries, the sport suffers to a point that the casual fan simply tunes out until March. Even for schools who didn’t switch conferences, their rivals visit less frequently. It was not even 10 years ago that nearly ever basketball school played its main rivals twice a year – with the 16-team Big East being an outlier. Today, every conference is an outlier.

College basketball can barely support 12-team leagues – it cannot and does not support 14-, 15- or 16-team leagues. The only reason the Big East thrived was due to the overwhelming superiority of those teams. You have a league with 11 tournament teams and good things happen. That is the exception, not the rule.

kevin ollie frustrated
Now, the good teams are spread out among a dozen conferences. Gonzaga and Wichita State and the like are mid-majors expected to run through lesser opponents. This year, thanks to imbalanced schedules, we see Power Five teams like Kentucky, Arizona and Wisconsin go weeks at a time without playing a ranked opponent. It makes the big games bigger but – again, due to March Madness – they mean so little in the grand scheme of things. It also makes the non-descript games all the more non-descript.

It hurts because there is an outrageous amount of college basketball on every single night. Cable networks like NBCSN, Fox Sports, conference networks and myriad ESPN channels scrape for live content. There may be 10 games on a time and you would trade eight of them for one good one.

For the hardcore college basketball fan, the preceding 700 words mean little. And I applaud them.

But I’m not a hardcore college basketball fan. I love UConn. I love my alma mater George Washington. And I love watching big games. There are fewer of those and that means there is less time I’m watching the sport. If you’ve read this blog, you should get an idea about how much I love sports. If you can’t engage me, you’ve lost the general public.

Ironically, the most exciting part of the regular season is now November and December and it’s only going to get worse as old rivals play in the non-conference. UConn played Boston College last November in MSG and it had more atmosphere than most conference games. Do you remember when Villanova played Syracuse in a packed arena? Does Villanova get that atmosphere this year when Creighton showed up?

Last year, I wrote about ways to make the college basketball season mean more. Even if those changes were all instituted – along with a shortened shot clock, less timeouts and players staying for 2+ years – it wouldn’t fix the root of the problem.

I wish I had a positive note to end this piece. I don’t. But it’s okay – March arrives on Sunday.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Incompetent DC Media Coverage of Incompetent DC Metro Must End

Update 2/23, 3:40 p.m.: In response to fires going up 21 percent in 2014 & five fires this weekend, the WMATA response to NBC Washington was "harsher winter," as if that explains the whole year. Notwithstanding, last year's winter featured a Polar Vortex in DC while this year has not. Did NBC Washington interview anyone else? Of course not. That sort of non-reporting is why I wrote this blog post. Please share. We need appropriate coverage of WMATA, and we need it now.

A woman took the DC Metro home from work and died.

The woman did not die because of an accident, or a fire, or an Act of God. She died because the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was incompetent. The conductor did not begin a basic evacuation plan, causing passengers to inhale smoke for 30 minutes. The fans in the tunnel – only two of which were working – were blowing smoke into the cars. When fire personnel arrived, their radios did not work underground and they were uninformed about how to proceed.

wmata delay
Let me repeat: a woman died because WMATA is incompetent. 

This week, in response to an ongoing Congressional hearing into their incompetence, The Washington Post’s editorial board had the nerve to call for WMATA to receive more funding. As a matter of reference, WMATA receives more money than the Chicago Transit Agency for a smaller transit system. No one is dying on subway cars in Chicago. (photo source) 

Think about this – The Washington Post reported that Metro knew about the issues that led to a woman’s death, yet the next day argued for WMATA to receive more money. It’s asinine and it’s dangerous.

This weekend, there were at least five reported instances of fire and/or smoke on WMATA.

The Washington Post, again, did little reporting of these possible life-threatening instances, except to pass along WMATA statements. An Associated Press story featured this headline: “Light smoke reported at DC Metro station.” Who said it was “light smoke?” A WMATA representative. It is always a WMATA representative. The Post did not feel that this incident, which was the third of five for the weekend, warranted a story.

Dr. Gridlock, the Post’s transportation blog, posted a grand total of zero items about five fires.

WAMU, a local radio station, reported on the weekend’s incidents. They did so incorrectly. They cite three smoke issues, when there were five.

Apparently, passing along WMATA statements after five fires in two days passes for sufficient media coverage.

Guess what? It is not sufficient.

The coverage of WMATA from the local media has been as disgraceful as the organization itself. As a daily rider of the system, I know all too well how terrible the service has become and how it has become dramatically worse over the past six months.

There are constant delays without explanation. There are always escalators and elevators out of service. There are incompetent station managers without answers. There is never any accountability.

While Twitter features a daily barrage of #wmata horror stories, it never rises above or beyond because the mainstream media fails to cover them properly. It only reaches that level if a death or accident occurs. The daily disasters are ignored.

I fully understand that news organizations may look at WMATA issues as “a dog bites man” story but that is exactly the point – it happens so often that it doesn’t feel newsworthy.

Yet, it’s dangerous. By not covering WMATA properly, it gives them a pass. They are able to paint incidents as “isolated” when they are not. They are able to feed statements without answering questions. They are able to insert the word “residual” in front of delay and lessen its impact. When a train is late by 20 minutes, it is a delay. It is not a residual delay. It is just a delay.

Think about the outrage in Boston when the T failed to keep full operations during a historic stretch of snow. As an outsider, one would think they would get a pass but the local media has not obliged – there has been action forced upon the T to ensure it works and failure, quite simply, is not an option.
Meanwhile, a woman dies on the Yellow Line and there are no consequences, beyond an impending settlement and the Washington Post begging for more money.

It’s a problem in the fundamental way the agency is covered. Every morning at 7:25 a.m., I tune into NBC Washington to get the weather. They also do the traffic report and every single traffic jam is shared. The Metro is never addressed. Well imagine if every morning, they presented every single WMATA delay. Don’t you think that would change non-riders opinion, if they were confronted with it on a daily basis?

Instead, an outlet like NBC Washington is there for the opening of the Silver Line and absent for delays. If you only watched the local television news, the good for WMATA far outweighs the bad. It makes sense that the woman’s death would be an isolated incident, since you wouldn’t have heard about the non-stop string of delays and malfunctioning trains that led up to it.

On the Beltway, you expect traffic and you know there’s traffic. On the Metro, the local news gives the impression – by ignoring daily delays – that it’s running on time.

I have resisted driving to work but it’s now time to re-evaluate that position. It will be more expensive to drive and pay for parking. It’s reached the point where I will not mind the added hit to my wallet.

Here’s the worst part about The Washington Post and other outlets acting as the Metro’s megaphone – the people hurt the most by WMATA’s incompetence are those in lower income brackets. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I have a car and extra money every week will not hurt me.

The ridership for WMATA is declining because there are more people like me deciding that it’s not worth it anymore. They’re tired of being late. They’re tired of being stuck. They’re tired of the bullshit.

For those without a choice, they suffer. When WMATA threatens to raise fares and/or decrease service to make up for self-made budget shortages, they are the ones whose lives become harder. WMATA is now a regressive tax.

WMATA is a disgrace. The agency has crumbled further into decline with faulty equipment and outdated technology. The money-wasting is absurd. The staggering amount of incompetence from the top down is hard to fathom.

It’s time for a change. The media is the voice of the people. In DC, they need to start acting like it. If – when? – more people die, the local media’s incompetence will be as culpable as WMATA’s.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

I was a Young Republican but the GOP Pushed Me Away

The very first vote I cast in my life as an 18-year old was for George W. Bush. Four years later, I did it again.

For the past decade, the Republican Party has veered so far to the right that I have come to loathe their positions. This is not the party I grew up with. This is not the party I supported. This is not the party that is fit to lead this country.

As a political science major at The George Washington University at the turn of the millennium, I took great pride in being one of the few outspoken Republicans in my classes. Before and after 9/11, which took place during my junior year, I leaned conservative on matters of foreign policy and terrorism.

Despite the economy humming due to the boom, I still believed government was too big and taxes were too high. While I still firmly hold to both of those beliefs, I wrongly believed that conservative fiscal policies were aimed at addressing those issues.

The final three years of Bush’s presidency served as an unmasking, like Wizard of Oz’s revealing. We never found those WMDs in Iraq. The war dragged on for far too long, took too many lives and cost too much money. Our entire economic struggle crumbled in such a spectacular way that it has taken nearly a decade to recover.

Yet I still supported John McCain in 2008. Seven years later, I am so thankful John McCain lost.

Following Barack Obama’s election, the Republicans lost their way. The strategy to be anti-Obama in every possible way made the obstructionist party. It worked on a very local scale, so it now wields power in Congress and on the state level. It also worked to grind our government to a halt.

I wrote during the last government shutdown how the GOP desperately needed a new public relations strategy. Saying “no” to everything is an awful, terrible, infantile way to lead. This week, John Boehner has againthreatened a shutdown – this time for the Department of Homeland Security. It is the equivalent of a 12 year-old throwing a temper tantrum. It’s embarrassing and unbecoming.

Instead of extending their hands across the aisle, the party turned Fox News into its megaphone to shout out its propaganda and, at times, outright lie about the state of affairs.

On almost every front, the GOP has been out of step with the general public and my viewpoints. I am the stereotypical American voter – fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

The most frustrating aspect of the conservative’s social positions is the reliance on religion to motivate policy. I was raised Roman Catholic. I was taught that homosexuality was a sin and, to be honest, I believed it for a while. But eventually, I grew up, I became educated and I changed my positions.

When Connecticut passed a Civil Union law, I interviewed several gay couples in eastern Connecticut for a series on what it meant. It remains one of the more amazing moments of my journalistic career, with grown men and women crying as they thanked me for telling their story. It struck me as so profoundly sad – in particular, two women from Coventry who were raising a child and were subject to constant harassment. That struck me as wrong.

The opposition to gay marriage annoyed me to no end since I have been a firm believer of the separation of church and state. You know, like it says in the Constitution that conservatives like to tout while raising guns above their heads.

In the past several years, the GOP has been diametrically opposite to me on too many issues. After Newtown and countless other mass shooting, I believed we need to find a way to improve gun control in this country – the GOP opposed. I believe we need a better way to deal with immigration, so while President Obama comes forward with a plan, the GOP stomps its feet.

I am for legalizing marijuana, the GOP is not. In fact, I live in DC and our district’s vote seemed to matter little to Republicans who don’t even represent me.

I am for providing health care to all citizens, the GOP is not.

I am strongly opposed to the current status of military-style policing, while the GOP seems to think nothing is wrong.

But undoubtedly, the final straw is when the GOP takes a position against the truth.
Global warming – now commonly referred to as climate change – is not a theory. Just because Al Gore made so much hay with it does not change the fact it exists. Yet, every now and then, a GOP moron like Donald Trump will let us know one day of cold weather disproves it.  

Evolution is also not a theory. Yet a presumed Republican front-runner for the most powerful position in the free world “punted” when asked about it.

The most damning part for the GOP is that for all their bluster on the economy, it finally started to truly recover and may start to thrive. I don’t believe the government has that much power to improve the economy as there are quite literally a million variables in play. But I do believe a government’s policy can easily hurt the economy. President Bush left it in ruins. At the very least, you must admit Obama’s economic policy has not had a negative effect.

In the end, I am disappointed. The party that I supported so fiercely for my first quarter-century on this planet abandoned me. It got run over by the extreme, to answer to Tea Party activists and shine a light on “leaders” like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz who are unfit for national political office.

It blew my mind during the 2014 mid-term election season when the GOP ran so hard on an anti-Obama stance and the Democrats, apparently not familiar with branding, distanced themselves for Obama without a clear distinction of their direction. They lost badly, which seems insane now as the economy cranks up while the approval rating for Obama and Obamacare shoot past 50 percent.

The Republican Party, as it stands right now, has zero chance to win the Presidency in 2016. There is only one way back – to swallow their pride, to stop obstructing government and to start leading again.

Action is better than inaction. Since they haven’t figured that out in 6+ years, I doubt they will in the next 20 months.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Big Ten should add UConn and BC for East Coast Supremacy

There are two Top 30 television markets on the East Coast that the Big Ten does not have an entry point in – #7 Boston and #30 Hartford/New Haven.

Television markets are but one aspect of college realignment. It is too simple to say the Big Ten should add UConn and Boston College due to market size. If that were the only factor, the ACC would have chosen UConn over Louisville without debate.

bc uconn hockey
No, there are more reasons why the Big Ten should add the former rivals and complete the most ambitious East Coast invasion since Hank Scorpio.  

With its television contract soon up for bidding, the Big Ten is poised to become the dominant player in college sports. Despite the arrival of the Pac-12 and SEC Networks, the Big Ten was there first and paved the way. They have been printing money from its network longer and, with the recent additions of the NYC and Baltimore/DC markets, will print even more money.

This is where you ask – why would the Big Ten expand? Because you can never, ever have too much money. The league has clearly mapped out its eastward path, stemming from the fact it ignored overtures from a potentially lucrative member in Missouri for years. Commissioner Jim Delany has his eyes set toward the Atlantic Ocean and only New England remains to fall.

"What we're trying to do is live in the new region of our conference," Delany said. "We're not visiting."

Why it works for UConn

I put this first because it is so obvious: every single aspect of joining the Big Ten appeals to UConn. The answer would be, “Yes,” before Jim Delany finished asking the question. When the last realignment wheel stopped turning, UConn was clearly the biggest loser – a school with 13 basketball national titles and a Fiesta Bowl in the past 20 years was left in the mid-major American Athletic Conference.

The story here is not why it works for UConn. It’s why it makes so much sense for the other parties.

Why it works for Boston College

After the Big East saved itself in 2005, it appeared Boston College joining the ACC may have been a mistake. When the initial excitement wore off, the school found itself isolated. Maryland was the closest conference rival. Virginia Tech and Miami, who joined BC in jumping off the Big East ship, found itself surrounded by closer opponents and natural rivals in Virginia and Florida State, respectively. BC was left alone.

For a full decade, BC operated as the ACC’s lone northeast property and it affected the athletic programs. The football team, post-Matt Ryan, fell off to irrelevancy. The basketball team, following its delightful introduction of Big East basketball to Tobacco Road, declined to one of the worst major basketball programs in the country.

For years, Boston College officials seemed to revel in isolation despite the erosion of its programs, excepting hockey. The recent additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh gave them back some traditional rivals but they still lacked the hated rival necessary that is the essence of college sports.

bc uconn basketball
It should come no surprise that the thawing of the UConn/Boston College relations – borne out of a lawsuit and Jim Calhoun being Jim Calhoun – has become a recurring theme in New England. In late 2013, the two schools played in basketball for the first time in ages, turning a routine November game in Madison Square Garden into a tribute to the Big East Tournament. It wasn’t your ordinary early-season basketball game.

It continued with UConn’s addition to Hockey East, which made the schools conference rivals again. The two games were played with such intensity – and did so well at the box office – that even the normally UConn-phobic BC fans were pining for the rivalry to be resumed.

In these pleas, the conclusion is UConn should join the ACC. In fact, the two schools joining up in a raid by the Big Ten has been rarely, if ever, mentioned.

If the Big Ten asked, how could Boston College say no? The ACC is in a good position now, but it makes far less money than the Big Ten. Without a network, the ACC is always vulnerable to attack – the rumors of North Carolina to the SEC or Florida State to the Big 12 may seem farfetched, but they are unending. There are no such rumors about anyone leaving the Big Ten.

Furthermore, the Big Ten’s logical football setup – geographic divisions as opposed to the ACC’s nonsensical splits – means annual visits from Ohio State and Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. Would BC fans rather see those four schools every other year or the mish-mosh of Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State and N.C. State? Rutgers and Maryland are both far closer for road trips and a Thanksgiving weekend game with UConn would finally give the school a traditional, neighboring year-end rival.

Why it works for the Big Ten

Where to start? As mentioned in the lede, it instantly adds 2 Top 30 TV markets. That would give the Big Ten penetration in 11 Top 30 markets, a ridiculous haul. The addition of UConn would solidify its foothold in New York City and, as evident by its future conference tournament in MSG, that’s important.

Furthermore, both schools play hockey – undoubtedly, adding Boston College hockey would be a huge boon to the league. You think Minnesota/BC games would do well? The Big Ten hockey league would jump to 8, providing better scheduling and far more interesting inventory for the network.

The addition of the UConn women’s team would be another huge get for the Network. Let’s be honest – the only women’s basketball games that attract eyeballs involve UConn.

By bringing in the schools together, the Big Ten can further its East/West alignment in football and solve quite literally its only scheduling quirk. Indiana and Purdue are currently split, which necessitates a single permanent cross-over. Indiana and Purdue can both be placed in the West division and, with 9 conference games, every school could rotate opponents to play every other school at least once every four years. Unlike the SEC or ACC, schools wouldn’t have to wait 6 to 8 years to play a conference opponent. The bizarre non-conference games scheduled between UNC and Wake Forest would never happen in the Big Ten.

To recap, UConn and Boston College would bring the Big Ten more money, more viewers and more scheduling options while upgrading men’s basketball, women’s basketball and hockey.

Will it happen?

The Big Ten has no impetus to expand. The conference is making money hand over fist. Ohio State just won the national championship in football. The next TV deal from Fox, NBC and/or ESPN could change college athletics forever.

But eventually, the Big Ten will get to 16 because money talks. Maybe the conference will continue to wait for Notre Dame’s sweetheart deal with the ACC to implode.  Maybe Duke and North Carolina decide to leave NC State and Wake Forest behind. Maybe Texas and Oklahoma get tired of dragging around 8 others schools. Maybe the lack of football talent forces the Big Ten south rather than east.

There are a million maybes in college realignment and few certainties. One certainty is adding UConn and Boston College would be a home run for all three parties. In my opinion, the question is not “Will it happen?” but rather, “When will it happen?”

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Monday, February 2, 2015

2015 is Horse Racing’s Most Important Year Ever

The sport with the biggest one-and-done problem is not college basketball. It is horse racing.

Every spring, the Triple Crown instantly makes heroes out of equines, who then vanish. It’s why California Chrome’s return to the track this Saturday is the biggest story in sports.

chrome churchill downs
For the past quarter-century, horse racing has fought a losing battle with general public on many fronts. However, its greatest problem has been the consistent lack of a recognizable, mainstream media star.

The three Triple Crown races are among the most-watched sporting events of the year. If a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes, as with California Chrome, it becomes one of the biggest television events – sports or otherwise – of the year. How many events can get 20.6 million viewers in today’s age of fractured audiences?

It is a predicament college basketball knows all about – the NCAA Tournament creates stars, who take their talents to the NBA, and the sport scrambles to create another roster of stars, and it repeats annually.

Think about the list of Triple Crown stars that stole headlines and then disappeared. Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex never raced after the Belmont Stakes. I’ll Have Another never even made it to Belmont. Big Brown and Point Given didn’t make it to the Breeders Cup.

Even when a Triple Crown/Horse of the Year did return – Curlin in 2008 – he embarked on an ambitious, historic 4-year-old season in relative anonymity. His races were rarely, if ever, on basic cable as a four-year-old. Even though he set a new career earnings record, he was shown zero times on network television.

From the depths of 2008, the sport has shown life the past couple of years. Horse racing leaders, particular the formerly incompetent New York Racing Association, have figured out that event days are need in 2015 to bring out the masses. The packed 2014 Belmont Stakes card led to multiple records, with on-track handle of $19,105,877 and all-sources handle of $150,249,399. A new program on July 4th weekend led to 11,118 people in the stands, $2,825,797 wagered on track (56% increase) and $18,829,265 all-total handle (37% increase)

While the sport has turned the corner, it needs more. It needs a face. It needs a star.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic in November provided a glimpse into the potential of 2015. The three best three-year-olds – California Chrome, Shared Belief and Bayern – all made it to the starting gate. Viewers responded in November, as ratings went up 25 percent from 2013. It was the first time three-year-olds dominate the race since 2007 when the Triple Crown trio of Curlin, Street Sense and Hard Spun dominated that year’s Classic.

In 2008, only Curlin raced. In 2015, all three stars are expected to race full campaigns.

Even more exciting – and why this is sport’s most important year – is that the pieces are in place to take advantage.

In early 2013, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom tried turf against superstar Point of Entry. It was a race that a horse racing nut like myself was geeked about. It was incredible. It was not televised.

In early 2015, Kentucky Derby winner and reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome returns for a rematch against Shared Belief. It is one of the biggest February races in recent memory. The San Antonio Stakes has not been aired nationwide on basic cable in my lifetime. It will this weekend on Fox Sports 1.

The glut of sports on television – namely, the expansion of NBCSN and the creation of Fox Sports 1 – opened up an avenue for horse racing. In 2014, the number of stakes races widely available exploded exponentially. Sure, the ratings outside the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup have been forgettable or downright disgusting, but you have to start somewhere.

For the first year in ages, the sport does not have to deposit all its eggs into the Triple Crown basket and hope against hope that a horse shows up in New York in June in pursuit of history.

Please do not take this to mean that California Chrome will magically solve horse racing’s problems. Slots revenue can’t fix horse racing in every state. The number of thoroughbreds born continues to decline. Drug regulations are a joke in some jurisdictions.

California Chrome is a bright shining star in this mess. He brings people to the races. Unlike the sport’s previous savior, Zenyatta, he has the benefit of a Triple Crown campaign that made him – for both good and bad reasons – an actual household name.

When California Chrome leaves the starting gate to face Shared Belief, it would be overwrought and cliché to say he is carrying the sport in his saddle.

He will give the sport a chance to thrive. It hasn’t always had that in February. 

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