Archive for June, 2012

Playoff Payoff: College Football Playoff System Still Predicated on Cash, Not Competition

College football fans, your long national nightmare is over. At last, there will be a playoff to decide the national champion.

More college football teams will have a chance to claim the championship trophy, and that means more money for the sport’s powers.

On Tuesday evening, a committee of university presidents approved a plan for a four-team playoff that will begin during the 2014-15 football season. The plan will bring an end to the controversial Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which relied on confusing computer polls and voters to decide who would play in the championship game. The BCS was never very popular among college football fans.

Despite the outcry, college football’s power brokers were reluctant to tweak the system because they were making so much money. With four major BCS bowls (Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl) and a BCS Championship Game driving the revenue train,  schools from power conferences like the SEC and Big-10 were splitting as much as $28.5 million by participating. A school like Indiana, which went 1-11 in 2011, split as much money as Alabama, which went 12-1 and won the national championship. University presidents were understandably hesitant to change.

The only thing that could prompt reform was the promise of more money. The new four-team playoff could be worth roughly $5 billion in TV revenue over a 10-year period, with the power conferences receiving between $360 and $400 million annually.

Of course the logical question for fans is why have only a four-team playoff? Why not push to eight or 16? The answer, again, is money. By having only four teams, it keeps the likelihood that the representatives will come from the power conferences rather than perennial non power conference contenders, such as Boise State and TCU. Why have the little guys get a slice of the pie from the big guys?

For all parties involved, it seems like a win-win. Fans get to see a champion crowned on the field rather than through computer logarithms, more teams now have a chance to play for the title, and universities make more revenue from the playoff. But this change is not without more improvements needed. To be true to the spirit of competition, there needs to be an eight or 16-team playoff.

In the end, however, this was never about improving college football, it was about making more money.

Photo (cc) by Charles Atkeison and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Think Outside the Diamond: Move Off Campus Benefits University of Arizona Baseball

The Arizona Wildcats are one game away from winning the College World Series. On Monday night, the club faces South Carolina in Game 2 of the best-of-three series in Omaha, Neb. One more win gives the Wildcats their first national championship since 1986.

The University of Arizona saw an opportunity to generate interest in downtown Tucson. The move has been a home run for Wildcats baseball.

It has been a great year for Arizona baseball, both on the field and in the bank. Alicia Jessop of Business of College Sports profiles how the team has seen an increase in revenue thanks to a move to an off-campus stadium.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem to make any sense. If anything, schools typically look to move into facilities that are closer to campus. Why would Arizona move farther away? It turns out Athletic Director Greg Byrne saw an opportunity for his team to connect with the downtown Tucson community. From Jessop’s story:

“We felt that if we could re-engage Tucson with our baseball program, it would have a tremendous impact for us this year and many years to come,” Byrne said.

The team moved off-campus from Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sancet Stadium to Hi Corbett Field, which previously served as the spring training homes of the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies. The school invested $350,000 to update the stadium and brand it in university colors.

The move was a huge success. The Wildcats earned $350,000 in ticket revenue, more than five times what they brought in during the 2011 season. The club also had the second-highest attendance in the Pac-12, averaging 2,628 per home game. With the team’s success, Arizona was also able to host the NCAA Regional and Super Regionals, which brought in more money to the program. All told, the Wildcats fared nearly $175,000 better than they did in 2011.

The lesson other schools can learn from Arizona is not to be afraid to leave home. Though having a stadium on campus typically means better student attendance rates, Byrne and Arizona recognized they would be able to capitalize on the local community’s interest by moving closer to downtown. Several other schools could undoubtedly benefit from a move off campus by generating interest in their community. The key is to think outside the box, or diamond.

Photo (cc) by Ken Lund and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Ticket Turmoil: Baseball Ticket Sales Show Customer Isn’t Always Right

I came cross a fascinating article by Forbes contributor Lee Igel on how dynamic ticket pricing is hurting attendance in Major League Baseball. The article points to how even a successful franchise like the New York Yankees has experienced difficulty in selling tickets. Of course the downturn in the economy and poor play on the field can contribute to a team’s struggles at the box office, but Igel points to another factor: the secondary ticket market.

Stubhub brings power to the fan, but is that a good thing?

Secondary ticket sites such as Stubhub have opened new windows for sports fans looking to attend games that have already been sold out or fans who have tickets but cannot attend certain games. But because the tickets are sold based on popularity and demand, they do not have to be sold based on face value. This means tickets can be sold for much higher or lower prices than they are listed by the team.

For example, if you want a ticket to see the San Diego Padres play against the Houston Astros on June 26, you can go to the Astros’ box office and pay $13 for a seat in Section 427. A quick search on Stubhub shows you can get that same ticket for as little as $5. Why such a change in pricing? Well the Padres and Astros are currently a combined 31 games under .500, and the game is on a Tuesday night. There isn’t much demand for the ticket, so the price has been lowered on the secondary market to sell.

That same night, the Oklahoma City Thunder could (if they can stave off elimination) be hosting the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Tickets in Section 328 are face valued at $200, but on Stubhub they are up to $936. Clearly these tickets are in demand.

This brings us back to the Yankees, who say they may drop their partnership with Stubhub at the end of the season because of difficulty in selling tickets and a drag in attendance. Such a claim has been ridiculed, but Igel points out that sites like Stubhub create two problems: 1) too many choices, and 2) shifting burdens.

Igel’s argument makes sense. If you were given a list of three TV channels to watch, you’d likely make your mind up pretty fast. If you were given 300, you would be more likely to sift through your options before making a selection. In other words, adding choices makes you more hesitant to purchase for fear of passing up a better deal.

His argument of shifting burden is spot on as well. If the team sets the price on a ticket, you know what it is and decide whether or not to pay it. But now that it is other fans setting the price — some much higher than face value — the fan now has difficulty determining what a fair price is.

Perhaps Stubhub and other sites are getting too much criticism for poor attendance. But a decade after the website launched, teams are finding out that giving fans more power isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Photo (cc) by teamstickergiant and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent?: Roger Goodell and the Saints’ Bounty Scandal

Monday was expected to be the appeal day for suspended NFL players Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith. The four were in New York to appeal their respective suspensions, handed down in early May for the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.

Fujita, Hargrove and Smith chose not to attend the appeal session and instead released a joint statement criticizing Goodell for his handling of the situation, and especially his withholding of evidence against the players. Vilma meanwhile showed up to the appeal with is attorney, but left after only an hour at the league offices, telling the media outside that the process was “a sham.”

CBS Sports managed to obtain a copy of the league’s evidence against the players, which includes a $5,000 knockout pool for injuring a quarterback, but nothing else. If there is more evidence against the players, the NFL isn’t releasing it.

The most striking quote from today’s events comes from Vilma, who questioned the players’ ability to get a fair trial through due process.

“I don’t know how you get a fair process when you get [Roger Goodell as] judge, jury and executioner,” Vilma said.

That begs the question: Is Roger Goodell too powerful? Certainly Goodell is not the only commissioner in major professional sports who has the power to suspend players. Bud Selig hands out punishment in Major League Baseball, and David Stern does the same in the NBA. But these sports, by their nature, don’t have the amount of incidents that would warrant suspension.

Hockey and football do, and in the NHL there is a separate executive in charge of suspensions. Brendan Shanahan, who played 21 years in the league and won three Stanley Cups, is the league’s Senior Vice President of Player Safety and hands out suspensions, each with a video explanation  he posts on his Twitter page. Shanahan’s decisions are not without outcry from players and teams, but at least it is handled by a former player who understands the game and not commissioner Gary Bettman.

In just over five years as commissioner, Goodell has already handed out more suspensions than any other boss in NFL history. He isn’t called “the most powerful man in sports” for nothing. But for all his power, it’s clear Goodell has made some enemies during his tenure, and that’s not good for the future of the league.

The players are understandably upset, but they agreed last summer to have Goodell continue overseeing discipline when they signed the new collective bargaining agreement. As CBS Sports’ Clark Judge pointed out, Vilma and others signed off on Goodell’s power, so they should direct their anger elsewhere.

This may be true, but it’s not what’s best for the league going forward.

Ice Cold Interest: NHL, Stanley Cup Playoff Ratings Fail to Score

In mid-April I posted about how the Stanley Cup playoffs were primed to draw big TV viewer ratings based on the lack of activity among other sports and the bevy of talented players in big markets. It appears my prediction missed the net, at least in terms of the Cup Final.

Apparently the NHL didn’t account for Spongebob Squarepants when it scheduled its Cup Final games between the Kings and Devils. Deadspin found that on June 9 — Game 5 of the Final in which the Kings had an opportunity to win the Cup — more people watched an episode of Spongebob than the Stanley Cup. Ouch.

In addition, this year’s Cup Final had significantly less interest than last season’s Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks Final, down 29 percent in ratings. Overall, the Kings-Devils matchup was the least-watched Cup Final since 2007 when the Anaheim Ducks beat the Ottawa Senators.

That’s not to say the playoffs were a complete disaster, however. Games aired on NBC and NBC Sports were up 4 percent in ratings from last season, and the addition of CNBC to the lineup allowed every game to be seen in every market. But the Cup Final numbers undoubtedly cast a shadow on an otherwise entertaining postseason.

These numbers show why leagues internally hope for certain matchups. Last season the Bruins and Canucks was a good draw because it featured an Original Six team in a hockey market craving for its first Cup in 39 years (Bruins) against a Canadian team looking for its first Cup and featuring arguably the two best players in the sport (Canucks). Though this year’s Cup features two big markets in Los Angeles and New York/New Jersey, neither fan base is that big into hockey. L.A. is dominated by the NBA’s Lakers, and the Devils aren’t even the most popular team in their own market (that distinction goes to the Rangers).

Meanwhile, the NBA is thriving with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat in the Finals. Game One on Tuesday was the highest-rated Game One on ABC ever. With star players such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, it’s an enticing series for sports fans to watch, especially for the anti-Heat crowd.

You can be sure NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is crossing his fingers that big market teams (Chicago, Philadelphia, New York) and star players (Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos) find themselves playing for the Cup.

Eye of the Tiger: Tiger Woods’ Victory at Memorial Shows Golf Needs Number One Player

Ever since his groundbreaking victory in the 1997 Masters, Tiger Woods has captured the attention of golf fans around the world. Woods’ quest to overtake Jack Nicklaus for most major professional wins — and the title of best golfer ever — has made his 18 holes of play an attention grabber for sports fans.

Of course that all changed in 2009 with his infidelity scandal and rash of knee injuries, both of which kept him from chasing history. Without a signature win as he entered his mid 30s, many wondered if the era of elite Woods dominance was over.

On Sunday Woods roared back to the top of the sport, winning the Memorial Tournament to tie Nicklaus with 73 career PGA Tour wins. The victory alone was gratifying for Woods, but it was his shot on the 16th hole that had spectators reminiscing of the vintage Woods.

Having Woods in contention during the final round paid major dividends for the sport as the Memorial drew a 138 percent viewer increase compared to last year’s tournament. The 3.8 overnight rating was the highest rating for the event’s final round since 2004.

To give you an idea of how intriguing Woods can be: Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers admitted to being late to the TD Garden for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat because he got caught up watching Woods in the final round. Think about that, an NBA head coach showed up late to the arena for a playoff game because he was watching Woods. That’s Woods’ appeal.

Woods’ victory has a financial trickle-down effect for a number of business entities. Nike, NBC, CBS and ESPN are just some who benefit from the re-emergence of Woods. Television networks are undoubtedly hoping Woods can stay hot to keep viewers tuned in.

Even if Woods does not overtake Nicklaus in wins, his presence alone might already solidify him as the biggest name in golf history. Though it hinders their winnings, golfers on tour know that when Woods is competing it benefits the sport, creating an odd scenario in which they are internally hoping for their greatest competitor to succeed.

Everyone can agree, golf is better when Tiger is on the prowl.

Altered Reality: The Question of the NBA’s Legitimacy

Within a matter of four hours on Wednesday the NBA suffered a potential loss that won’t show up in any box score but could cost the league a lot of money. It’s loss: Integrity.

At 8 p.m., the league held its annual draft lottery to determine which team would get the first overall pick in the NBA Draft. To prevent teams from losing on purpose to secure the top selection, the league instituted a lottery in 1985 to make the choice random. Of the 14 teams that do not make the playoffs, their odds of winning are weighted according to record.

David Stern has come under fire recently with allegations the NBA is “fixed” or “rigged.”

This year the Charlotte Bobcats finished with the worst record in the league at 7-59, and therefore had a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. The Washington Wizards had the second-worst record at 20-46 and therefore had a 19.9 percent chance of winning. The order continues, with each improving record holding a statistically lower chance of winning. This year’s winner was the New Orleans Hornets, who had the fourth-best odds of winning at 13.7 percent.

A stroke of good luck for the Hornets, right? A little too lucky, many say. The Hornets filed for bankruptcy in late 2010, and until April of this year were owned collectively by the NBA until a new owner was found. Tom Benson, who also owns the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, agreed to buy the team for a reported price of $338 million. The sale has not been finalized, however, meaning the league still technically owns the franchise. Winning the No. 1 pick — expected to be Kentucky star Anthony Davis — makes the Hornets better and a more valuable franchise, and therefore easier to sell. How convenient for the NBA, huh?

Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a piece on a refrain that has been sung many times before: The NBA rigged the draft lottery to get the result it wanted. Wojnarowski quotes a number of unnamed league executives who believe the lottery was fixed so that the Hornets would win. Similar conspiracy theories relate to the 1985 lottery being fixed so that the New York Knicks would win (note the bent edge of the envelope that is picked) and the 2008 lottery being fixed so that the Chicago Bulls would win. New York and Chicago are No. 1 and No. 3 respectively in TV markets, so the better these teams are, the better the ratings for the league.

League executives aren’t alone on the conspiracy theory. Ten league players took to Twitter to voice their opinion on the lottery possibly being fixed. In addition, a poll from USA Today found that 83 percent of people think the lottery is fixed or could be fixed. Think about that number, 83 percent. There are perhaps more people who think wrestling is real than think the lottery is void of being rigged.

All of this happened prior to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, and this game only added fuel to the fire. In Game 1, the C’s were whistled for some very questionable technical fouls, including one that head coach Doc Rivers called the “worst I’ve ever had.” In Game 2 Rajon Rondo put on a show but was on the wrong end of some calls — a loose ball foul that went against him rather than LeBron James — and a no call that did not go his way. Overall through two games, the Celtics have not been beneficiaries of the officials whistles. Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch put together a fantastic Storify of reactions to the game, including the officiating.

First on the technical foul issue: Ira Winderman of Pro Basketball Talk points out how there was no fine for Rivers after he chastised the refs for his Game 1 technical. In the previous playoff round, both Frank Vogel and Erik Spoelstra were fined for comments about the officials. Perhaps Rivers wasn’t penalized because his comments were dead-on.

Next, on the calls going Miami’s way: There is speculation that the NBA would prefer the Heat in the NBA Finals so the attention is once again on James’ quest for a title, and the officiating hasn’t done much to quell this notion.

So there you have it. On one single night, the conspiracy theorists were given heavy artillery on their quest to prove that David Stern and the NBA are playing favorites rather than letting the games be played.

Personally, I’m not on this bandwagon — yet. Still, it’s hard not to look at shoddy officiating from past games (2001 Eastern Conference Finals, 2002 Western Conference Finals, 2006 NBA Finals, 2007 Western Conference Semifinals, 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals) and start to question what you’re seeing.

My point in all of this is that this is a dangerous time for the NBA. When fans begin to question the legitimacy of a sport, you have a major issue. If fans don’t think what they’re seeing is real, they’ll stop watching and tune into something different. The league’s integrity is suddenly a real concern.

So what do you think? Is the NBA in the business of “fixing” to get the results it wants? And how does this affect your level of interest in the league?

Photo (cc) by Cody Mulcahy and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.