Saturday, October 24, 2009
More on the radar this morning:
*NBA refs are back! Yes, it makes a difference. Now, if only we could do something about the MLB umps...
*ALCS Game 6: There WILL be panic if the Yankees don't close it out tonight.
*NFL in London? The London franchise is already ahead of Tennessee, St. Louis and Tampa in next week's Power Rankings.
*Why would the Redskins commit to Jim Zorn? I guess they can always fire him, even if they say he's safe -- "misdirection" (ie, lying) has been a staple of the NFL for years.
*Want to know why the Magic (unbeaten in the preseason) will go back to the NBA Finals? Savvy personnel moves like -- no, not trading for Vince Carter... but yes: Brandon Bass, super-sub.
This week's CFB picks (yes, less fun without the spread element attached)
1 Alabama over Tennessee
2 Florida over @Mississippi St
3 Texas over @Missouri
4 Boise St over @Hawaii
5 Cincinnati over Louisville
Michigan St over 6 Iowa -- UPSET SPECIAL
7 USC over Oregon St
8 TCU over @ 16 BYU -- GAME OF THE WEEK
9 LSU over Auburn
10 Miami over Clemson
11 Oregon over @ Washington
12 Georgia Tech over @ Virginia
13 Penn St over @ Michigan
15 Oklahoma St over @ Baylor
17 Houston over SMU
18 Utah over Air Force
19 Ohio State over Minnesota
South Florida over @ 20 Pitt
22 Arizona over UCLA
23 West Virginia over UConn
24 South Carolina over Vanderbilt
25 Kansas over Oklahoma -- Hmm...
Other Games of Note:
Central Michigan over @ Bowling Green
Arkansas over @ Ole Miss
Notre Dame over Boston College
Texas Tech over Texas A&M
Northwestern over Indiana
Friday, October 23, 2009
I was a bit inspired by Greg Wyshynski's post recapping Blogs With Balls 2.0, which happened last week in Las Vegas. I'm going to borrow the form to do my own recap:
*This was my first time in Las Vegas. Ever. (This is the last time I can really say that. I appreciate your patience as I beat that meme into oblivion.)
*I brought my wife. Contrary to popular belief, this made the entire trip much better. It is also important to understand that she is both far better-liked by the sports-blog group (ask any of them) AND far more fun than me, which is a lot of the reason she is far better-liked.
*Wow: Prime (in the Bellaggio) was one of the best steaks I have ever had.
*The Wynn was a good choice of where to stay. It's relatively small and relatively tame, both of which were qualities I liked. When I wanted "big" and "rowdy," I walked 10 minutes over to the Venetian or further down the Strip.
*I erroneously thought that Las Vegas was Mountain time, not Pacific time. Thus: My 7:30 a.m. Sporting News deadline was now 4:30 a.m., not 5:30 a.m. I cannot begin to explain how much more than a single hour that really is, when you're talking about that hour of the day. (Sorry: NIGHT.) It did, however, allow me the opportunity to cruise the casino at 3:30 when I would get up and get some coffee (casino cafe coffee: $4; ordering small coffee pot via room service: $25). No one told me that 3:30 is apparently prime time for the hookers who troll the casino looking for dates. They were not looking for the guy who just got up, undoubtedly.
*I did not realize how far apart everything was. As a New Yorker, my natural inclination is to walk everywhere if I think I can. I combine that with a terrible natural sense of direction. Thus, my walk from my hotel (The Wynn) to the LV Convention Center took 45 minutes.
*Standing in line to get my conference pass, I was approached by Jim, a rep for BwB sponsor Diageo Liquors, who told me that there was a bottle of Crown Royal waiting for me in the conference room. I briefly weighed the idea of having a nip before my panel. It was 10 a.m. (Pacific! Which means it was afternoon according to my East Coast body clock.)
*I ducked in and out of the first panel, because I was so nervous about moderating my own panel, which came next. I spent the hour beforehand pacing, checking to see if the panelists had arrived and reviewing my "notes," which was really an obsessively written out list of every possible combination of questions and issues possible, for each of the five panelists. My prep-time ratio was probably 4 to 1.
*I begin to see folks I know -- and folks I'm excited to meet. Ufford, Shoals, Blackistone, Amy K. Nelson (all on my panel). Ed Bunnell from FoxSports.com (also on my panel). Josh Zerkle. Dan Levy. Matt Sebek from JoeSportsFan. Ron Wechsler from ESPN (who I only knew through Twitter). Jon Denunzio from the Washington Post. A bunch more would roll in through the course of the day: Daulerio, Skeets, The Brothers Mottram, Rob King, Spencer Hall, Jim Bankoff, Lang Whitaker, Sam Amick, Holly Anderson, Paul Melvin. Longtime email and Twitter correspondents like The Starter Wife. A ton more that I'm surely forgetting -- and I apologize for not name-checking every one of you, because seeing and meeting folks in person was my favorite part of the conference, by far. What a great group of people.
*My panel -- "The Future of Sports Media" -- was as unwieldly as expected. I focused on some key issues: Local, "Quality" -- the goal was to keep things moving and to give everyone a roughly equal level of "air time." Great diverse perspectives: Nelson from ESPN, Ufford from With Leather and KSK, Shoals from Free Darko and Sporting News, Ed Bunnell as our resident "exec," Blackistone from AOL and repping the "ex-newspaper" group. Beyond hearing from everyone, I really wanted a certain level of candid engagement, and everyone seemed very open to talking frankly about where things are... and where things are going. Truth be told, I'm going to have to leave it to someone else to recap the highlights of the panel, because I was so focused on managing a smooth experience, I didn't really write down a ton of notes. I know that I took advantage of the air-time, myself; that Shoals had at least one high-quality rant-ish moment (in a good way); that everyone was totally sensible (in a good, non-boring way); and that, at some point, I was credited for giving Shoals a smackdown when credit is due to Ufford. Again, it was less a smackdown than a fair disagreement -- what more do you want from your panels?
*The panel in the afternoon was about access between teams/leagues and bloggers. I asked a question about the evolution of "access" when teams and leagues are becoming their own content creators, at the same time traditional media outlets are under tremendous pressures to cut back on coverage -- if not pressure of extinction outright. I used an extreme example: The Sacramento Bee going out of business. The panelist was the Kings' PR guy; the Bee's Kings beat guy was in the audience. It was a light-hearted moment. Then he didn't really answer my question. The teams need local coverage -- I'm just not sure it needs to be from local newspapers. Maybe it's from ESPN Local. Maybe it's from hyper-local start-ups. Maybe it's from blogs. Maybe it's from the team itself, if they can create coverage that is credible enough.
*ESPN was very gracious to throw a party for the group on Thursday night. It was at ESPN Zone. We got to see a preview of the USFL "30 for 30" documentary (the judge my wife clerked for had a cameo, as the guy who presided over the NFL-USFL trial, which was fun for her to see). They gave us cards good for 2 hours of playing in the ESPN Zone game room. I played 3 straight games of Pop-a-Shot, then was too tired to do much more than sedentary driving-style games. Oh, and get my ass beat by my wife in air hockey. I'm telling you: She is infinitely cooler than I am. (Do I feel like attending the party compromises my ability to analyze ESPN's role in sports media? No, and I never get the sense that's what their aim is. In fact, one of the points I made to kick off my panel was that it's not that 2009 represented the moment when ESPN embraced all sorts of new-media innovations -- it's the year they decided to take a leadership position in those innovations. For a big company, that's a big deal -- and I can only presume that Rob King and Co. found the panels as interesting as the rest of us.)
*I made my first-ever sports-book bet on Thursday night: Cincy over South Florida. I was enabled by the presence of BwB attendee Zach Rosenfield from Accuscore (the only Jewish alum of the University of Oklahoma I have - or will - ever meet), who educated me more in 10 minutes on what I was trying to do than I had learned in the previous 36 years. Going into the weekend, it felt like the safest bet I would make all weekend -- it was. I bet $50. I won. (Shoulda bet $500.) I felt good about myself. Very good. The tiny pangs of gambleholicness were stirred, and I'm not saying that to mock people with gambling problems. I'm saying that because anyone making their first-ever bet who doesn't recognize those pangs is doomed to succumb to them, eventually.
*Friday morning, I was up again at 3:45 to file my Sporting News column. Yikes.
*The first morning session on Friday was an ESPN case study about how they are integrating social media. It was pretty interesting, particularly their "Section 140" initiative, which is about connecting interactivity to every live event. My follow-up tweet -- I didn't get to actually ask the question -- was about how it's not enough to bring 20,000 fans into a room to talk. That's a cacaphony. You've got to give me the filters to make sense of it. I don't want to hear a random perspective -- I want to hear the perspectives of my friends and others in my network. I want to be able to opt-in to the best perspectives, in the same way I choose to follow people on Twitter who I think have interesting things to say. I'm pretty sure that's where Section 140 will go -- if only because that's where it HAS to go. Regardless: More industry-leading innovation from ESPN.
*The next panel -- my last for the conference -- was a "State of the Union," featuring Spencer Hall, Daulerio, Jamie Mottram and JE Skeets. I got in a friendly quasi-argument with Ufford when I asked the panel to comment on the value of their massive distribution platforms as an essential element of their success: That you can't bootstrap your way to mass audience (and thus viability) without distribution, no matter how good your work might be. I lamentably made the statement "Ball Don't Lie wouldn't exist," which Ufford appropriately jumped on. I was sloppy and deserved the smack. What I meant to say was that while Skeets might be able to very easily create a very high-quality NBA blog, without Yahoo's distribution power, he wouldn't have the position of authority and influence he has now. That might seem self-evident, but I was trying to get the panel to help out the bloggers who don't have a big distribution channel with some advice. I'm not sure there IS any advice, beyond marketing yourself intelligently until you get a distribution deal of some kind with a high-traffic network. It's getting a link on Deadspin, but sustainable.
*There was an afternoon panel about cross-platform integration, featuring Rob King, Jim Bankoff, Jalen Rose and Lang Whitaker from SLAM (who I had never met before the conference but had always wanted to meet). I'm sorry I missed it -- at some point, I had to spend some quality daytime with my wife. Apparently, Rob name-checked my TimTeblog.com experiment -- I would have liked to have talked about that a little more. In fact, if I had really thought this through, I would have asked the BwB organizers from HHR Media if I could have had a breakout session where we talk through the ups and downs of that site so far.
*Friday night dinner: Bouchon. Highly recommended, both for food and atmosphere.
*Saturday, I spent the day in the sport book at the Wynn -- I put too much money on Texas at -3, hated the slog the game was, then walked away unsatisfied with my push (and my money back). I made a HORRIBLE bet on Ohio State to cover a 14-point spread at Purdue. I don't know what I was thinking. I bet on USC to cover (-10) at Notre Dame, which you can't fault me for. You CAN fault me for setting up parlays on Texas-Ohio State and Texas-USC. I did get Georgia Tech right, a "gut" pick that I compare my confidence about Cincinnati from Thursday night -- I should have bet more on that. Ironically, my best pick of the day was picking Northwestern to cover, which I was going to do no matter what, just out of alumni loyalty.
*My wife and I stuck around for the start of the Gators game. We stayed through halftime and wanted to bash our heads against the wall. It was also too noisy and too smokey and too hard to get drinks in the book -- although we were treated with amazing hospitality by the staff. (The head of the book -- an incredibly nice guy -- took the time to give me a tour on Friday morning, and it's a really neat operation to see behind the scenes.) Instead, we went over to the Venetian, where we could watch the rest of the Florida game in a suite with Spencer Hall and a crew of college football loyalists (including Holly Anderson and Janie Campbell, both of whom I was meeting for the first time and loved hanging out with). Sarah (aka The Starter Wife) put it best in a tweet when she said it was more fun watching me and my wife and Spencer watch the Gators than it was watching the Gators. Maybe that's because I was alternately feeling like I was going to throw up and throw myself out the window. It was a rare treat to get a chance to watch the game with that group.
*With a 9 pm cab to head to the airport, the rest of the afternoon was a blur. We gambled a bit -- aside from the sports book net loss of $20 or so, I lost a few more bucks wasting it on roulette. (I did, at one point, win twice in a row with two spins -- in a row, mind you -- on "15," where OBVIOUSLY I put down some money.) I missed out on the rest of the festivities with the BwB crew, unfortunately. Lamentably, I did not make it out for the whole "clown" thing.
*All in all, my first trip to Las Vegas was a rousing success. Great hotel. Ridiculous (if ridiculously expensive) food. Amazing weather. And terrific people there -- which made it much more fun than just going with only me and my wife, or even with a small group. This was a BIG group, with plenty to do. I wish I learned how to play craps, because that looks fun. I wish I had more guts to bet big on Cincy and Georgia Tech, leaving the "big" game (Texas-Okla) for everyone else.
*I hope we'll get a chance to continue all of these conversations about where sports media is going. There are a lot of good and important opinions -- not just from the "name" folks on the panels. If anything, we need a better way to keep track of all of these developments -- best practices, etc. Alana from Yardbarker started down this road -- I think she correctly ID'ed that it's a pretty chummy group, even if we're all competing for page views or mainstream writing gigs. We should be confident enough in our own individual projects to be willing to talk about what works best, what doesn't work and what the next iterations of sports media will be.
Special thanks to the BwB sponsors: FoxSports.com, Yardbarker.com, ESPN.com, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, Diageo Liquors and Carbon Poker. I appreciate their commitment to supporting emerging sports media and the folks who make it their job and/or passion. (Now, all of you: Got any consulting work for me?)
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Part of me can't shake the temptation of being the underdog again -- like, launching my own sports site, hiring some talented writers and designers and trying to compete with the big guns. Like what Frank Deford did with the National. All right, the National lost $100 million. Bad example.
But I could see doing something crazy like that. I like taking chances, I am not afraid to fail, and beyond that, I am not afraid to fail violently and miserably. So anything is possible. A really good prediction would be, "Simmons is going to fail violently and miserably with a super-ambitious idea within the next five years." Lock it down.
...They could be nervous that Bill might leave. I'm not sure about that -- for all the griping about creative control, I suspect he likes the comfy cash position and brand association. Otherwise, he would have left at his last contract renewal, when he had lots of other ways to go.
That said, the state of the world has changed dramatically in even the year or two since then. Rather than looking for a multi-million dollar deal from a Fanhouse or a Yahoo or a CBS or a Fox, there are plenty of opportunities for Bill to strike out on his own.
If he did -- like, tomorrow -- I'm pretty sure he could create millions of dollars of revenue for himself (not to mention autonomy), virtually overnight. I would hope he sees that, but only chooses to ignore it -- in favor of other competing drivers that keep him happy where he is. (And there are plenty of them, both intrinsic and explicit.)
All that said, ESPN execs would be wise to remember the lesson of the Washington Post and Politico. Politico's founders came to the Washington Post FIRST, explaining their great idea. The Post passed; the guys found outside investment and launched their own company, which has nimbly beaten the Post at its own game, in its own backyard.
I'm not saying SimmonsCo would beat ESPN -- then again, it doesn't have to. Bill's departure wouldn't hurt ESPN's revenues; Bill's new independent company would create new value -- the best kind. Still: ESPN would miss not only Bill's popularity but his creative energy on projects he engages on -- see his key involvement in "30 for 30."
And so here's my free consulting advice to ESPN:
Approach Bill with an offer of funding and equity to create his own company -- NOT an ESPN subsidiary, but a stand-alone company that simply creates a financial stake in SimmonsCo for ESPN. Maybe that would satisfy Bill's entrepreneurial jones -- while still allowing ESPN to enjoy the upside.
Or maybe Bill really does say "Eff it," walks away from ESPN with nothing more than his talent and his personal brand and tries to make it as a sports-media entrepreneur. There is plenty of investment money out there that would probably pay big -- even overpay -- to fund Bill's dream. (Bill should just amble down his nearest L.A. freeway to would-be content mogul Jay Penske's office, as Penske tries to figure out what he'll do with the uber-URL fan.com.)
As we talked about last week at the blogs conference in Las Vegas, it's not just about quality -- it's about distribution. Now, between the consumer interest in Simmons (going directly through the front door) and the high potential interest of distribution partners (who can put his content in front of a lot of people -- like ESPN did when he came over from AOL), he will be on to something... potentially something very big.
Want a great example of a personal brand combined with some very savvy content strategy? Huffington Post. I actually think that Simmons could pull off something similar -- if not at HuffPo's magnitude -- provided Bill had the right folks working on the strategy and technology sides.
I'd be curious to see how far that can go for him. My guess is far enough, at least to make him happy. Bill says he's not afraid to fail -- it would be a shame to see him waste that fearlessness by not taking the chance.
And I laughed. At him.
I laughed because this expert appears to be functionally illiterate as it relates to quantitative analysis in the NBA -- or basketball more generally.
I'm not suggesting that stats supersede other forms of enjoying the game -- Free Darko's "stylistic" formulations or Simmons' homespun sense or Slam's earnest boosterism.
What I am suggesting is this: A little bit of deeper understanding of some of the (relatively) new quantitative methodologies for examining basketball will infinitely increase your pleasure and understanding of the game, no matter what angle you approach your NBA fandom.
Such as: Points per game is pretty useless. If you are looking for some form of "per" comparison, ____ per possession is a great place to start.
I learned that by being an avid fan of Pro Basketball Prospectus, run by Kevin Pelton and Brad Doolittle (a sibling to College Basketball Prospectus, run by John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy).
Pelton and Doolittle have just published their first "Pro Basketball Prospectus" annual for the 2009-2010 season, and I highly recommend it. It offers an overview of their statistical worldview -- introduced by Rockets GM Daryl Morey, naturally -- then team-by-team and player-by-player breakdowns, based on this worldview.
And, again, it's not going to -- or meant to -- replace all the other things you want to be reading to prep for the season. But it will enhance it.
My favorite part of the book is the way they present statistical comparables for every player, no matter how obscure. (Take, for example, my Wizards: Antawn Jamison as... Tom Chambers! Mike Miller as... Rick Fox! Andray Blatche as... Jon Koncak! Seriously: I think I read through every one for every player in the league. Where else can I get my Derrick Chievous fix?)
Remember that quote from earlier this week from Malcolm Gladwell about how he wouldn't go to journalism grad school, but instead study stats, then apply that to his interests?
Pro Basketball Prospectus allows you to do that, with a very limited investment of your time and money -- I reviewed the available PDF version of the book and found it to be as easy to read as a hard copy. (Click on that link to check out some sample chapters.)
You don't have to be an expert -- but you should WANT to be even a little more literate about the quantitative revolution going on in the NBA... in this case, applied in a way to make the 2009-2010 season that much more interesting to follow.
The season starts next week -- here's a chance to be ready for it, in a new and fascinating way. (And if you're already inclined to follow or appreciate new methodologies of basketball analysis, this book should already be on your radar -- or, at least, something you'd want to have.)
And so welcome to the Phillies Dynasty -- at least in the National League. It remains to be seen whether they can win back-to-back World Series titles -- that would be a REAL dynasty.
But between their power at the plate and their power pitching (Cliff Lee and a couple days of rain, plus Brad Lidge with his head screwed on right), they are as well-positioned to beat the Yankees as anyone. Oh, and they are the defending champs, after all.
And you know how much I overvalue defending champs.
The Phillies, of course, lead today's SN column. But there's a lot more:
*Sam Bradford is kind of a moron.
*UTEP has kind of nicked Boise's 2nd-biggest "quality win."
*The SEC has kind of solved its ref problems.
*The Wizards are kind of a contender.
*Steve Phillips is kind of pathetic.
Lots more where that came from. More coming later today -- going to try to finally get my Blogs With Balls recap up later.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
But it was his turn on "PTI" on Friday night that really accelerated the topic to another level. They were talking about the new (and ongoing) connections between playing football and brain injury, and Gladwell said this:
"What self-respecting parent is going to let their kid play high school football knowing that the sport has this kind of impact on the brain?"
Like a lot of Gladwell's insights, it sounds simple in hindsight -- but it is very important.
First of all, on its face, he's absolutely right. There's a long-standing (and mildly self-hating) line that Jewish people use as a throwaway joke: "Jews don't play football."
It's not about the NFL, obviously -- it's about Jewish parents not letting their kids play football at younger levels. And, on the one hand, there's an easy joke about Jewish kids' lack of athleticism and the chance for real physical harm when they meekly get bludgeoned by their Gentile teammates and opponents.
But unpack that idea: What could be more "real physical harm" than destroying your brain? Jewish or not, you ain't going to the NFL -- so why risk very real injury to your future prospects by risking injury to your brain? (Try the school newspaper, they said....)
Anyway, let's get back to the larger point: What self-respecting parent would let their kid play football, knowing how bad it could be for their kids' brains?
(Now compare that to the professionalization of high school football over the past decade -- accelerated even more over the past few years.)
What that means is that there will always be athletes that are so good that they fill the college and pro development pipelines -- there's just too much money in it for them not to do it.
But I agree with Gladwell: The real impact is on the downstream talent pipeline. Increasingly, parents won't let their kids play pee-wee football... then junior high... then high school.
The talent pipeline erodes. Even the best players need a couple dozen kids around them in order to practice and play the games.
And so, to Gladwell's point, football -- the mightiest and most powerful of sports -- will have to change, in order to make itself more safe. Not for the pros, necessarily -- but for the kids who eventually become pros. For the kids who play around the kids who eventually become pros.
In 50 years, will the NFL be a flag-football league? Hardly. Might it be marginalized like boxing? (Try to go back 50 years and tell people that in the year 2010, boxing is a joke.)
More likely, if the sport itself won't change, derivative versions of the sport will emerge -- like MMA for boxing (that's not precisely analogous, but you get my point).
And that change better come from the top -- the NFL.
Meanwhile, even if changes ARE made, can you ever insure that the violence that is so key to the sport can be mitigated to the point that the type of injuries that Gladwell's research highlights no longer exist?
You're still left with the essential question:
Knowing what we know -- and what we WILL know -- what self-respecting parent would let their kid play football?
Look: Like anyone else, I have fantasies of my two kids being a star QB and RB -- maybe just a kicker, if I wanted them to avoid contact as much as possible.
But those fantasies eventually meet reality. It's one thing to pretend to tackle them on the rug in their bedroom or gently throw the ball around.
It's another to willingly expose your kid to present and future injury risk by letting them get on the field -- particularly at the lower levels, where the coaching and medical attention is iffy.
So: Knowing what we know -- or what we will continue to find out over the next 5-10 years and beyond -- would you let your kid play football?
I wouldn't... even if Jewish kids don't play football anyway.
UPDATE: Great quote from Gladwell in a Q&A he did on Time:
Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.As someone who contributes at a journalism grad school, I don't agree with this entirely -- but I absolutely think that learning more about statistics and accounting is critical. Why engage it at the grad level? Why not at the undergrad level, at least to give yourself basic literacy? Undergrad journalism programs should make "quantitative literacy" a required two-semester course.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Today, Henry announced that TrueHoop is expanding to include all of ESPN.com's NBA reporters -- Stein, Ford, Sherdian, Adande, Hollinger -- as contributors.
It's a smart move for everyone: TrueHoop expands its quality inventory; the contributors get a new platform that gives them entree into the NBA's link economy.
The fact is: There remain two key times for online sports media -- preparing post-game analysis to be consumed when folks get to work in the morning... and 9-to-5, when fans consume throughout the day. The contributors had the former locked down, but were missing out on the latter.
In the end, fans win, because there's that much more quality NBA content in a place where we've come to expect it -- and always want more. And ESPN wins by turning its TrueHoop franchise into an even more robust hub of content -- THE hub of NBA content on ESPN.com, frankly.
I hope the new contributors take to the form and experiment with it -- and don't just see it as a place to file typical columns, only at shorter wordcounts. (Tip: Use Henry's expertise, guys. And it's riskless to experiment with new formats and styles.)
I was 12 at the height of the USFL -- we covered the 30/30 fascination with a specific window of mid-80s storylines -- and I have some of the same nostalgia for it that many over 35 might.
But beyond that, regular readers know that I find alternative and/or start-up sports leagues to be fascinating -- the USFL is a great case study.
*Costs, costs, costs
The spring season was key -- play where they ain't. The USFL correctly anticipated that NFL fans suffered withdrawal in the spring, waiting for the next season.
Since then, of course, the NFL has turned itself into a 12-month-a-year sport; the Super Bowl in February merely kicks off a busy "offseason" between February and mid-July: Combine, Draft, Mini-camp, Fantasy prep, Training Camp.
I got a chance to talk with "Small Potatoes" director Mike Tollin -- who was the Steve Sabol of the USFL during the league's existence. He noted that the league's failures were foretold as soon as they moved away from the spring and tried to compete head-to-head in the fall with the NFL.
I asked Tollin what -- if any -- lessons that start-up leagues could apply from the USFL. He had three:
(1) Cost containment.
(3) Staying true to the vision.
It's a pretty good blueprint. Consider how expensive it was for the USFL to import Herschel Walker -- also, consider that the USFL managed to convince what was then the greatest player in college football history to forego the NFL for this start-up league. Imagine if LeBron skipped the NBA for a start-up U.S. pro-hoops league.
Ultimately, start-up sports leagues are like any start-up: You can't afford to compete with cash.
Consensus is interesting -- it speaks to the need for some level of league-mandated control. Oh, sure, you need the rich businessmen to buy teams for their own vanity -- but you need to convince them to let the league manage things. (Or, in the case of the UFL, the league owns the teams.)
Staying true to the vision seems most important: The USFL was founded as a spring league, a complement to the NFL; Donald Trump wanted to turn it into the next NFL, a competitor to the NFL. The XFL felt like the same thing -- cynical from the start.
Alternatively, look at the success of Arena League, which lasted for 20+ seasons as a complete complement to the NFL -- including rules that were different enough that they maintained that complementary position in the market. They didn't move outdoors because they wanted to get bigger -- they moved into tiny, minor-league markets... ironically, the "arena2" franchises were more successful than the Arena League franchises.
There is a current model for the start-up sports league: The NBA 's D-League. Yes, it helps that it was created by the NBA itself, but consider how it applies Tollin's key principles:
The D-League is run on a lean budget. It has extremely capable centralized control (even though it has local ownership), particularly league president Dan Reed. And it has stuck to its very clear vision: Be the "R&D lab" of the NBA -- whether that is players, coaches, strategies or game experience for fans. The league is a complete success.
(Where does the D-League fall short? Precisely in the place where they artificially constrain that vision: The D-League should be encouraging prep players to come straight to the D-League, rather than spending a year in college... or abroad. The best place to get trained for the NBA should be the NBA's own development system. At least in theory. I understand the many reasons why the league doesn't want to mess with its established NCAA development pipeline -- I'm just saying that the D-League would be even more successful if it developed the great preps, not just the nearly-ready college players.)
And so when the start-up United Football League (UFL) talks about wanting to be the development league for pro football (read: the NFL) -- which is a terrific competitive position, mind you -- everything about that vision should be on the table.
Most notably: The UFL should be willing to accept the players that the NFL won't allow to enter its draft -- college players with one or two years of experience.
Let those players sit in the UFL for a year or two before entering the NFL Draft. Give them pro coaching, get them ready for pro systems and expectations. Pay them to do it -- but also give them access to endorsement money unavailable to them in college.
In short: Prepare them for a career in the NFL explicitly, rather than relying on the implicit NFL training of college football.
It would make the NFL better. It would make the UFL a LOT better. And it would even improve college football, because the players who remain would be committed to playing college football, not playing to get ready for the NFL. There's room for both.
But the UFL is apparently either too dumb or too scared to take this obvious strategy. And because of that they will fail, despite favorable cost controls and centralized leadership.
Because the UFL is missing the key ingredient that the USFL had -- which you'll see in the film tonight: Talent. Really good talent. NFL talent, and not just marginal NFL talent -- which the UFL is apparently banking on.
Talent might not be a sufficient factor on its own -- but it is entirely necessary. The disruptive change isn't when you play or where you play -- it's who is doing the playing.
And, right now, there is a gaping opportunity between college football and the NFL's unwillingness to let qualified NFL-level talent play in its league.
The USFL wasn't just a rollicking (and important) moment in sports history -- it is simultaneously a template and cautionary tale for how start-up sports leagues might succeed... or fail.
(Oh, I have a little personal investment in the story, too: My wife clerked for the Federal judge who presided over the USFL-NFL case, which famously awarded the USFL $1, trebled to slightly more than $3 -- perhaps the most famous result in sports-law history.)
Don't discount a couple other factors:
*The sports editors and reporters in traditional media (newspapers, especially) seem (or are) particularly unsophisticated about new-media realities, certainly relative to their peers who work in the national/politics/business section (with much tighter oversight from EiC's).
*In sports, the scoop -- of either rumor or reality -- is absolutely the most overrated thing you can "win."
I'm not saying that original reporting isn't important -- and someone's gotta be first. But 90 percent of the time, that "first" will be inevitably discovered. Plus: It is commodified as quickly as it is published.
An even more extreme example than MLBTradeRumors is HoopsHype.com's rumor section, which seems to simply cut-and-paste directly from NBA stories their entire nut graf or key reported quote. Again, most NBA reporters seem to swear by it, rather than swear at it.
Are they devaluing their (or their employer's) work? Or are they willing participants in the link economy? I guess it would help to know what kind of click-through rates the aggregated content gets. My suspicion is that the answer is "Not as much as you would think -- or like."
Of course, if reporters care more about their brand than their newspaper getting traffic for their work, they won't be working at that newspaper for long. But with enough focus on their personal brand, those reporters will have long decamped for more stable "national" sports-media companies.
What is most interesting is that this aggregation should be subject to the same commodifying competitive forces as the reporting and rumor-mongering it accumulates:
Given its success, why aren't there 10 sites just like MLBTradeRumors, both "indie" and done by the big mainstream sites?
Anyway, it's not like the Yankees were going to go 11-0 en route to their supposedly inevitable World Series title, right? (I'm actually liking Scott Kazmir tonight -- although even in a best-case scenario, he only holds off the Yankees offense for 6-8 innings. Can't account for bullpen.)
Speaking of inevitable: The Phillies advancing to the World Series.
For the rest of us, if the series aren't going to be competitive, at least the games' endings will be -- can't beat the walk-off... unless you're talking about TWO walk-offs.
More you'll find in today's column:
*Do the Broncos win without those two Royal return TDs? Who cares? That was their best win yet.
*Pete Carroll needs to STFU about the BCS computers. When your one loss is to Washington, you lose your right to gripe. Compare that to Oregon or LSU or Miami -- not even close.
*The most interesting quote I have seen all month, from Malcolm Gladwell on PTI last night. I might even do a standalone post about it later. It's today's "Last Word" in the column.
There's a ton more -- Alabama treating Tennessee like Florida should treat Tennessee, why the Rockets will continue to surprise people with success, Dayton Mania.
Check it out here. More later. I have two bonus posts coming today -- one at 11-ish and one at 1:30/2-ish. Drop by!
Monday, October 19, 2009
For every college basketball game of the night, my co-writer and I would write 75-150 words on what happened -- using the box score, the AP game recap and any highlights on ESPN.
It was the 1996 equivalent of Ronald Reagan calling a baseball game from the news ticker, pretending it's live.
Of course, we wanted to make it different than a typical newspaper game story. We also were writing for displaced fans using AOL to follow their teams -- or other college hoops games.
They were quick-hit and clever, by necessity: The most germane stat or play. Putting the win into context of how the rest of the season is going. Just having fun with it. (We also entered all the game stats into a home-made database... by hand. Yikes.)
It was an amazing training for doing the Quickie or blogging or simply writing with some level of optimal efficiency.
It also foreshadowed a future where game-recap information was entirely commoditized, that it was all about adding value to what most fans already knew about the score or game itself.
Here's a fascinating post by David Carr examining the product of Northwestern's project to get a computer database to write a competent game story.
The upshot: The computers' story is pretty good. By far the most impressive thing is the way the computer cites OPS as a relevant statistic (in the 4th graf of the story, no less).
Less good, as Carr points out, is that it neglected to put the pieces together and talk about how the game represented the series-clinching win.
But that's what an editor is there for.
What I'm trying to figure out is the practical applications: Local papers are always going to want to add value to readers by having their beat reporter interpret the game result.
(Sports game recaps had already gone away from dry play-by-play -- which most fans either got from watching the game themselves or checking the AP recap online -- and moving to more analysis.)
And non-local papers (or national Web sites) already have a perfectly low-cost (and human-created) game-recap system, as provided by the AP or other syndicator.
(Alternatively, you could pay a kid $18,000 a year -- like I was paid back in 1996 -- to gleefully write original homemade recap after recap, night after night.)
So where's the market? It probably doesn't exist.
But as an intellectual exercise of wondering whether a computer could write a passable game story, the answer is: Yes.
(Oh, and a reminder that beat reporters who don't have a minimal facility with the latest conventional wisdom in quantitative sport analysis are doing their readers a disservice.)
I ask this every time I post about that first job: Does ANYONE out there remember using Real Fans Sports Network on AOL, back in '96/'97? Anyone?
(If only for its novelty: Biggest halftime differential EVER? Brady setting an NFL record for TD passes in a half? The final score being the biggest beat-down since 1976 and 6th-most ever?)
Fire Jim Zorn? How cliche. I've got an idea: Fire Jeff Fisher. Not just because his team suffered an epic humiliation, but because at 0-6, they are arguably performing worse than the Rams.
(Here's how bad the Titans were: You know how when you look at a scoreboard page, they show you the player who leads each team in passing, rushing and receiving? The Titans had "Young, 0/2, 0 yards, 0 INTs, 0 TDs" -- because Kerry Collins WAS EVEN WORSE.)
Today's SN column leads with the Pats -- and all the other big talking points from Week 6 in the NFL.
Meanwhile, what can we make of the first BCS rankings? Nothing more than we already knew: Barring the unlikely upset -- and if it wasn't happening to Florida on Saturday, it ain't happening -- the BCS title game will be a clean set-up between the Florida-Bama winner and Texas.
I do, however, like the intrigue below that. I agree with the BCS formula: Iowa deserves to be ranked ahead of USC, which has fewer big wins -- plus that ungainly loss.
And I'm impressed with Boise State at No. 4 -- we'll see how long they can keep talking about that opening-week win at home over an unprepared Oregon before the reality of TCU's superior resume -- as early as next week when TCU beats BYU in Provo -- vaults them, not to mention teams from conferences where Boise State would never be able to consistently run the table.
(See the post immediately below for my BlogPoll Top 25 ballot for this week.)
You've gotta love the October weekends where MLB LCS results are the 3rd-biggest story on the board. I've got two words for you: Cliff. Lee. Yeah, maybe my "Lee for Cy!" campaign was quixotic, but you can't disagree that he has been ridiculous in the postseason for the Phillies.
Meanwhile, I don't know what's the bigger novelty: The Yankees on at a reasonable 4 p.m. ET or A-Rod continuing to play the postseason hero. Presuming the Yankees go on to win the World Series, A-Rod has ALREADY done enough to counterbalance his career playoff futility.
There's a ton more in the column today. Check it out here. More later.
|Last week's ballot|
As I said in my Sporting News column today: "Style points are dead," at least as a concept at the top of the rankings. Because Florida certainly didn't win with any. Neither did Texas. And neither did Alabama -- although the Tide wasn't nearly as ugly as UF and UT.
The real question is how to position the contenders beyond the Big 3: I still like Cincy, but I'm happy to take arguments for Boise State (decreasingly) and TCU (increasingly). If TCU beats BYU in Provo next weekend, I'll jump them over Boise.
I am more than happy to give Iowa credit -- mirroring the BCS computer polls. Winning at Penn State and at Wisconsin is better than any two wins at the top of USC's resume. (Not sure why I have Iowa below Oregon -- it's irrational and I'll likely change it.)
UPDATE: My Mumme Poll ballot -- the best 12 teams in the country, irrespective of rank -- this week is the Top 12 above. Here was the comment I submitted with the ballot:
I'm beginning to blur the lines between "resume" and "signature wins/losses" -- call it the "Boise Effect." At what point do we stop overweighting a single quality win against an otherwise weak schedule?
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Texas -3: Push.
Ohio State -14: Lose. (AARRRGGH. WHAT WAS I THINKING??!?!)
Northwestern -14: Win. (Ahh, the irony!)
Minnesota +17.5: Lose. (Not far off, actually.)
USC -10: Lose. (Foiled by Notre Dame, naturally.)
Georgia Tech -2.5: Win.
Texas/Ohio State parlay: Lose.
Texas/USC parlay: Lose.
In the end, I only lost $20 -- for better or worse, the Texas push took a big chunk of risk off the table.
I had a couple gut feelings -- my "coulda-shoulda-woulda's" that are, obviously, totally useless in hindsight: Houston covering over Tulane, South Carolina using that generous +18 at Alabama.
And, of course, I don't know what I was thinking picking Ohio State to cover. I was talked into it, but I take responsibility for not checking that with "But you think Ohio State sucks, Dan!" internal monologue. And I should have known Notre Dame would come back to eff me.
My one regret is the Texas push. If I had any experience in sports gambling before, say, 48 hours ago, I would have acknowledged that even if I think Texas is going to win by 10 -- let alone 3 -- I should have bought the half point to allow me to put Texas at -2.5, hedging against a FG differential. But whatever: I got my fairly sizable bet back, which is better than losing it.
And, let's be clear: I see all my losses as the karmic balance for Florida's ridiculous escape at home today against Arkansas. As you can imagine, I was flipping out for most of it.
More on that tomorrow, and more on the Vegas trip next week.