West Coast Represent: Pac-12 TV Talks and What it Means for Other Conferences

There were a couple of separate articles today regarding Pac-12 television rights that point to some implications for other conferences.  First, Jon Wilner from the San Jose Mercury-News had a fairly in-depth article today regarding the status Pac-12 television contract negotiations.  Second, Percy Allen from the Seattle Times had an interview with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott that focused on the conference’s basketball TV rights.  Here are the main points from those articles:

(1) Fox is the most likely long-term TV partner for the Pac-12 with a possibility of some over-the-air football games on the mothership network, while Comcast/NBC is the second option;

(2) ESPN is not willing to pay as much for the Pac-12 as it did for the ACC for a variety of reasons (including lack of time slots and the value of the ACC’s syndicated basketball package);

(3) Larry Scott wants the Pac-12 Network to happen, but Time Warner Cable will be a large obstacle in the Los Angeles market; and

(4) Going forward, all media rights for all Pac-12 members will be controlled by the conference (as opposed to a portion being controlled by the individual schools as it is today).

Let’s examine each of these points from the perspective of the Pac-12 and how they apply to the college sports world at large.

Point #1 about Fox’s involvement isn’t a surprise considering the current relationship that it has with the Pac-12 and the media giant’s increasing focus on obtaining college sports rights over the past several months (including paying $140 million over the next six years solely for the Big Ten Championship Game).  The overarching questions going forward are (a) how serious is Fox about expanding its overall college sports presence and (b) are they willing to use Fox over-the-air for games?  Fox bid on the ACC package last year with an offer that was heavily reliant on FX as the main national platform.  Indeed, David Hill, Chairman of Fox Sports Group, sees an increase in sports programming on FX as a key in making that network competitive with the likes of TNT.  While Fox didn’t win that deal, they did procure a smaller agreement with C-USA plus rights to the Big Ten and Pac-12 championship games.  A hungry Fox can certainly bid up the price of rights for other conferences… as long as ESPN is willing to play, too.  (More on that in a moment.)

As for Comcast/NBC, call me skeptical of them ever becoming a truly major player in college sports.  Comcast-owned Versus certainly is looking for more sports programming, but that’s a fairly unattractive national cable partner compared to ESPN or FX on its face and you’re more likely to see sports move away from NBC as opposed to any events being added.  Sports programs in general are loss leaders for over-the-air networks and the last thing that NBC needs is more losses.  In fact, NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke told Wall Street analysts covering Comcast specifically yesterday that NBC’s current “sports properties lose hundreds of millions of dollars per year.”  NBC lost $220 million on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and even its gold-plated NFL Sunday Night Football package loses around $100 million per year.  So, it doesn’t exactly sound like the new Comcast ownership is going to be spending very much money on more sports on NBC.  If anything, those quotes from the head of NBCU indicate that they’re preparing to cut back heavily.  Therefore, any conference hoping for Comcast/NBC to come through with some great offer is going to be severely disappointed.

From the Big Ten’s perspective, I see Fox only as a viable option in the conference’s next TV deal if there is essentially a replication of the SEC’s agreement with CBS: the top game of the week gets coast-to-coast over-the-air coverage.  I can’t realistically see the Big Ten considering a deal with Comcast at all.  While much has been made of the Big Ten’s partnership with Fox regarding the Big Ten Network, it must be emphasized that the conference still receives substantially more money from ESPN compared to the BTN.  There are also more Big Ten events on ESPN today than there were prior to the BTN being formed.  From the very beginning, the BTN has always been intended to be a supplement to ESPN coverage as opposed to a replacement.  The Big Ten is smart enough to know that the time slots that it has secured with ABC and ESPN provide incredible exposure and the conference doesn’t want to kill the proverbial long-term golden goose for short-term financial gains.  Any new deal going forward has to provide even more exposure than today’s deal.  Thus, I could see the Big Ten pushing to a movement of the games that are regionalized on ABC right now to national over-the-air Fox coverage.  However, I highly doubt that the Big Ten would ever seriously consider moving ESPN games to FX (and definitely not to the patchwork quilt of Fox Sports Net affiliates).  It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the two conferences that make the most money outside of ESPN (Big Ten with the BTN and SEC with CBS) also make the most money from ESPN. Money certainly talks, but the Big Ten seems to be a property that ESPN will pay up to get them to stay (and the desire to stay on ESPN will be reciprocated by the conference).

That leads to Point #2, where apparently the Pac-12 is a conference that ESPN is not willing to pay up for.  More specifically, ESPN appears to believe that the Pac-12 TV package is worth less than comparable ACC rights.  This doesn’t surprise me at all.  I’ve been fairly consistent on this blog that the ACC is in much better shape than what a lot of sports fans (that have concentrated on the conference’s relative weakness on the football field over the past few years) believe. 

National marquee brand names are extremely important for determining college sports rights and the ACC has 2 big ones for football (Miami and Florida State) and arguably the 2 very biggest ones for basketball (Duke and North Carolina).  The ACC basketball package is also unique in that it draws football-level ratings in several of its markets, which is something that none of the other BCS conferences can claim (even those that might be better on the court in a given year, such as the Big East).  If and when Miami and Florida State get back on track, you’ll see a dramatic turnaround in the football perception (and TV ratings) of the ACC.  In contrast, the Pac-12 is largely reliant on the strength of USC for football and UCLA for basketball in terms of drawing national interest.  Beyond the LA schools and Oregon’s wacky uniforms, the Pac-12 continues to struggle with getting much notoriety in the Eastern 2/3rds of the country.

The Pac-12’s inability to get much of a large bid out of ESPN should be a small warning sign to the Big 12 and a large red flag to the Big East, who are both hoping to receive large TV rights increases from the Worldwide Leader.  Several conferences last summer were under the impression that ESPN paying such a large amount to the ACC meant that the network’s greenback gushers were wide open and they could switch the style up, but if they hate let ’em hate and watch the money pile up.  Instead, it looks like ESPN is going to keep all its money in a big brown bag inside a zoo.  Dan Beebe and the Big 12 members may sweat it out a bit as there were some financial assurances from ABC/ESPN this past summer that aided in keeping the conference from splitting apart.  Personally, I’m a believer that ESPN understands the big picture and seeing that they presently want to avoid the formation of superconferences, they’ll pay enough to the Big 12 so that the conference makes good on its promises to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.  With ESPN’s investment in the UT network, the Big 12 needs to stay alive and a few extra bucks on the conference contract would be money well-spent.

The Big East is a different matter.  That conference has already bore the brunt of having football games moved by ESPN to Thursday nights initially, and then when the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 saw that Thursday was a great night for exposure, the Big East has been kicked around to several Friday nights and even some Wednesday evenings.  Much of the hope of a Big East TV contract increase rested on leveraging its valuable and massive basketball package into better football exposure.  However, if ESPN isn’t willing to pay the Pac-12 TV rights in line with the ACC, then it stands to reason that they’re going to value the Big East even less.  Unless Fox or Comcast swoop in with competing bids for the Big East, the conference’s schools are going to have a difficult time coaxing the increases that they’re hoping for from ESPN.  I’m sure that you’ll see the Big East get what amounts to an inflationary increase (maybe 150% of what they receive now), but not enough to get on the same tier as the other BCS conferences.

Under Point #3, Larry Scott seems extremely determined to start a Pac-12 network.  However, Jon Wilner pointed out a large potential obstacle: Time Warner Cable.  He noted that TWC is the largest cable provided in the Los Angeles market and they’ve had a habit of getting into carriage fights regarding regional sports networks.  What Wilner neglected to mention (and I find to be even more important) is that TWC just sent a Valentine’s Day present to Jerry Buss of what’s rumored to be around $150 million per year to create two new regional sports networks in the LA market (one English language and the other Spanish language) built around the Lakers.  With 3 Fox Sports networks in that market already, that means that the LA market will be supporting 5 RSNs and making it even more crowded than the New York City market.  This crowded environment in the Pac-12’s most important market has huge implications on whether a conference network can realistically be formed.  The Big Ten Network only had to compete with 1 RSN in each of the markets within its footprint (even in its largest market of Chicago, which only has Comcast SportsNet Chicago).  Thus, it was a more palatable for the cable providers to give in when the BTN was RSN #2 on their systems… and even then, it took over a year of carriage fights for them to get to that point.  It’s a much different value proposition for the Pac-12 attempting to enter into market that already has 5 other RSNs – TWC has a whole lot more leverage to demand lower subscriber rates or refuse basic carriage entirely.  Note that a potential Big East Network would face the same issues in the NYC market with so many RSNs already clogging up cable bills.  This was a factor in the Big Ten ultimately deciding to not go after schools like Rutgers or Syracuse in this last round of expansion, as the BTN absolutely had to get basic carriage in the NYC market in order to financially justify those additions, and they didn’t see that happening anytime soon.

Finally, with respect to Point #4, Larry Scott confirmed that all media rights for all Pac-12 members would be controlled by the conference.  This is important for one massive reason: the University of Texas.  With the Pac-12 taking that position, it has effectively wiped out any reasonable possibility of Texas joining the conference in the future, as the new Longhorn Network would be unable to exist under those conditions (and I don’t see UT giving up in excess of $10 million per year for any reason).  For the fear mongerers (who are all wrong, by the way) that continue to believe that UT’s ultimate goal is to end up independent or in the Pac-12, at the very least, that Pac-12 option is gone.  (I’ve listed a multitude of reasons of why UT wants to stay in the Big 12 in perpetuity and, in fact, needs that league to live, but many people seem to believe what they want to believe on that front.)

Fans of all conferences should keep a close eye on the West Coast since how the Pac-12 proceeds will be a significant indicator of how TV networks will pay for college sports in this next round of contracts.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

Land-o-Links for 5/19/2009

Michael Jordan Larry Bird McDonalds

It’s been a very long time since a Land-o-Links post, so here you go:

1.  What If I Don’t Want a Big Mac? (Blog-a-Bull) – An entertaining comparison of all of the current Bulls with various McDonald’s menu items.  Truer words have never been spoken about the McRib.  On a related note, there have been some suggestions out there that the Bulls ought to go after Carlos Boozer.  Now, is Boozer a better low post player than anyone else in Chicago at this time?  Yes.  However, is it worth crushing the Bulls’ salary cap space for Boozer and give up the chance to go after either Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh? NO, NO, NO, NO, NOOOOOOOO!!!  (If you ask politely, I’ll tell you how I really feel.)

2.  It’s Not You, It’s Jazz and the NBA (ESPN.com) – Paul Shirley examines why some of his friends haven’t been paying attention to the NBA (as judged by a survey of his poker buddies where only 3 of 8 knew all of the teams that had made the playoffs) by presenting an interesting corrollary between pro basketball and jazz, where the improvisation involved in both the game and style of music, making them relatively abstract, might make it difficult to be appreciated by those that haven’t played either.  As someone that did spend most of the first part of my life playing both organized basketball and trombone in jazz bands, I completely understand where he’s coming from, where both forms deal with a base structure but require a lot of improv within them.  There are two problems that I have with Shirley’s argument, though.  First, Shirley implies that part of the issue is that people need to have played basketball and jazz to be fully appreciative of each, but the thing is that a whole lot more people have played basketball in America compared to football and baseball.  Case in point, when was the last time that you’ve seen a pick-up baseball game in the park?  That never happens, yet you’ll find basketball hoops on urban playgrounds, suburban driveways, and rural farmhouses – if anything, it’s the most widely played sport across socioeconomic lines by a significant margin.  Second, I think that the fact that Shirley lives in Kansas City, which doesn’t have an NBA team, has much to do with his friends’ supposed ignorance of the NBA.  If you went to Portland or Salt Lake City, the average sports fan in those places would likely be more hardpressed to name the teams that make the baseball playoffs in any given year simply because they aren’t following baseball all season without having a hometown team to follow.  Frankly, the NFL is probably the only sport where you can use a standard where you can assume that the average sports fan knows where every team might be in the standings.

If I were to apply the “abstract jazz” issue to any sport, it would definitely be hockey.  In basketball, even if a casual sports fan or someone that never watches sports at all doesn’t understand how to run a pick-and-roll or properly box out an opposing player, that person can ultimately watch LeBron James and realize that he’s able to get the ball into a basket at a higher level than the other players on the court.  However, if you watch a hockey game that involves Sidney Crosby, he will make amazing moves that no one else in the world can do yet he’ll fail to score on such moves 9 out of 10 times.  So, it’s very difficult for someone that hasn’t played hockey (please note that everything that I know about hockey moves and formations is based on the 3000 hours that I spent playing EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college) to understand why a certain move or play is impressive or not – the relative lack of scoring in hockey almost de facto makes it abstract.

3. NHL’s Story a Regional One (Sports Media Watch) – Digging a little deeper into hockey, Sports Media Watch notes what most people know already, which is that the NHL has shown an ability to draw fans within its local markets but continues to struggle on the national level.  What drives me insane about Gary Bettman and the NHL’s leadership is that they know that they face a stacked deck compared to the other sports leagues yet make decisions that compound the league’s problems.  Case in point was last Thursday night, where the NHL had two game 7s (Detroit-Anaheim and Boston-Carolina), with each of them featuring a large market Original Six team.  This should have been one of those magical nights of hockey (particularly when the Bruins-Hurricanes game went into overtime) that would have drawn in a plethora of casual fans.  However, in the infinite wisdom of the NHL, the nation would only see the Red Wings-Ducks game in its entirety on Versus and if you wanted to see all of the Bruins-Hurricanes game, you had to shell out $79 for a pay-per-view feed.  If the part of the purpose of the NHL moving to Versus was that the network had a commitment to show more hockey, WTF is the league doing scheduling two game 7s at the same time?!  Meanwhile, the NBA had two game 6s going on that same evening and those games had staggered start times so that they could be a featured doubleheader on ESPN.  Say what you will about David Stern and the NBA, but that entity knows what it’s supposed to be doing on the television front in order to maximize its audience better than anyone else in sports.  It would be great if the NHL could get someone that would take into account the lessons of the NBA… wait a second… Bettman was David Stern’s right-hand man for over a decade prior to being named NHL commissioner?  Jeez – it’s not a good sign if a league would consider Bug Selig to be an upgrade.

4.  Lost, “The Incident”: The Men Behind the Curtain (What’s Alan Watching) – I’ll be putting up a Lost season finale post eventually (since the premiere of its final season won’t be coming until January 2010, meaning there’s time to mull everything over and with all the various storylines, we may need every moment to process it all), but in the meantime, please go over to Alan Sepinwell’s Lost analysis.  It’s a shame that I only stumbled onto Sepinwall’s blog this year since it’s now the first place that I turn to after each Lost episode – he puts up extremely well-written posts even with a short time constraint while the numerous commenters are generally pretty good (which is tough to find with respect to Lost blogs, where one segment of people get way too technical on one end and the other group on the opposite end consists of complete dolts).

And finally…

5.  Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath (The New Yorker) –  While Paul Shirley compares basketball to jazz, Malcolm Gladwell draws a line between how lesser talented basketball teams’ use of the press provides insight into how underdogs are able to win wars.  Fascinating reading as always from Gladwell, who might be unparalleled at this time in terms of non-fiction writing, although I’ll quibble at a technical level with the long-term effectiveness of the press through an entire 48 minute game.  I understand the argument that it’s a disruptive tool that can shake the opposing team.  However, the press is by far the most tiring type of play that you can employ in the game, meaning that a team would need incredibly in-shape athletes to execute it over an entire contest.  Of course, if you had such in-shape athletes, that would mean that you’re a “Goliath” instead of a “David”, which eliminates the efficacy of using that strategy in the first place.  At the same time, once you get to the higher levels of organized basketball, any decent coach can draw up a press break that can often result in a wide-open layup on the other end of the court (since the press, which uses double-teams, will always end up leaving at least one player open).  Still, Gladwell sets forth a great game plan for how an underdog in any walk of life can beat the favorite: disrupt the opponent and take it out of its comfort zone.  The reason why not everyone does this?  Well, that disruption almost always takes a whole lot more hard work than just going through “conventional warfare”.  So, it really does come down to effort.

On tonight’s agenda: Game 2 of Hawks-Wings, Game 1 of Lakers-Nuggets, and, one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year, the NBA Draft Lottery.  Frank the Tank’s couch is definitely where amazing happens.

(Image from Cavalcade of Awesome)

A Bulls Market Once Again

derrick-rose-chicago-bulls-boston-celtics-2009-nba-playoffs

With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Team Chemistry and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/9/2008

I’m off to Napa Valley for the weekend, so the truncated parlay posts continue for at least one more week.  For your enjoyment, here’s a nasty dunk from last night by Celtics rookie Bill Walker:

While I was impressed with the dunk when I caught it on SportsCenter last night, what got me to rewind my DVR numerous times was the fantastic sight of the entire Celtics bench, particularly superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, going absolutely bonkers for a rookie to the point where they had to hold each other back from spilling onto to the court (in a preseason game, no less).  If you’ve read my blog for the past several years, you’ll know that I’m of the general opinion that winning creates team chemistry more than the other way around.  However, there’s something to be said for how tight the Celtics appear to be as a team – Kobe Bryant has posterized opposing players hundreds of times in the same manner as Walker but the rest of the Lakers are usually too busy hitting on the flavor of the month actress sitting courtside to notice.  At the same time, the sight of Andres Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich going nuts on the bench for a Tyrus Thomas dunk would be only slightly less awkward than this piece of history.  Anyway, here are this week’s football picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) INDIANA HOOSIERS (+6) over Iowa Hawkeyes
(2) MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (+2.5) over Vanderbilt Commodores (It’s time to cash in your Vandy chips)
(3) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (-12.5) over Minnesota Golden Gophers

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 3-0

Illini Games for the Season: 2-2
Overall Season: 10-7-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) Green Bay Packers (+2.5) over SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
(2) DENVER BRONCOS (-3) over Jacksonville Jaguars
(3) Chicago Bears (-2.5) over ATLANTA FALCONS

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-0-2

Bears Games for the Season: 1-31
Overall Season: 5-7-3

The Amended and Restated Teams You Can’t Cheer For List

With the prospect of the Bulls becoming a favorite bandwagon team once again after they select the #1 pick in the NBA Draft later this month and coming across this Jim Caple column about the overexpansion of Red Sox Nation, I’ve decided to re-visit this post from a couple of years ago where I listed the top ten teams that people should not be allowed to root for unless they have a direct and concrete geographic (as in the location where people spent their formative childhood years), alumni (for college teams), or family (fandom that is passed down from a parent that qualifies under the two previous reasons) connection. Since then, I feel that I have become even more hardened in terms enforcing these standards and am much more suspect of those that cheer for teams outside of the aforementioned legitimate connections. (On the off-chance that I have a new reader out there, I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, so I’ve been a diehard Bears, Bulls, and White Sox fan since the moment I could comprehend what was on the television, while I went to college at Illinois, so I live and die with the Illini. I feel more than confident in stating that my fandom is pure without any shenanigans.) Much of this is based on the general d-baggery of Red Sox fans over the past few years that Caple refers to (Minneapolis Red Sox excluded, even though he is an admitted baseball bigamist, which is another matter) and the increasing focus that ESPN and other media outlets have on a select number of teams at the expense of others.

In re-reading my old post, I’m actually disappointed by how lenient I was on Dan Shanoff’s adoption of the Florida Gators, particularly in the wake of the fact that he wrote an expanded post regarding this subject on his own blog a few months ago. If anything, the fact that he disposed of his alma mater Northwestern, which is a Big Ten school, in favor of an SEC school that happens to be very successful in both football and basketball as a result of his wife is unconscionable on several levels. It might have been somewhat plausible if Shanoff hadn’t attended a non-BCS school (as bad as Northwestern might be outside of women’s lacrosse) so that he could have a rooting interest on football Saturdays, but that wasn’t the case here. At the same time, I’m fairly certain that he wouldn’t have adopted, say, fellow SEC member Vanderbilt with quite the same fervor if his wife was a member of the Commodore community. Shanoff’s piece is written well enough, but the substance behind it is opportunistic and shallow. Unfortunately, there seems to be a whole lot of other people out there that take the Shanoff approach to picking teams.

As I noted in my old post from a couple of years ago, what the sports world ought to have is a list of teams that a fan can’t cheer for unless he or she can unequivocally prove a geographic, alumni, or family connection. While the claim of fandom of any team anywhere without such a connection is a punishable offense, an illegitimate fan of a team on this particular list would have an enhanced penalty, such the suspension of his Man Card in the case of a male. To amend the approach that I previously took, this list should be set up in the same manner as the UN Security Council, with permanent members that will always be off-limits and other members that rotate on and off depending upon their success. The permanent members ought to include the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Cowboys, Lakers, Knicks, Notre Dame football, and Duke basketball. No matter how good or bad these teams might be in a given year, they carry such inordinate power and sway over sports and television executives that you need extra proof to avoid the bandwagon tag for any of these clubs at all times.

The Patriots are the perfect example of a non-permanent member – a decade ago, they were the NFL equivalent of the Clippers and weren’t anywhere on that national sports radar, but have since become such a dominant franchise that anyone who has started cheering for them outside of the Boston area since Tom Brady arrived should be cut off immediately. However, once they are no longer an upper-tier team, they will likely be removed from the list because the interest in that franchise doesn’t carry the same widespread bandwagon inelasticity of, say, the Red Sox or Cowboys. On a related point, the Bulls were at the top of the list back in the 1990s as probably having the most bandwagon fans of any team in sports history, but they receded out of the national sports consciousness quickly after Michael Jordan retired for the second time. If likely draft pick Derrick Rose becomes as good as I believe he will be, then the Bulls will get right back onto the non-permanent member list with all of the national television appearances that go along with it. Anyway, the current non-permanent members outside of the Patriots include the Celtics (this year’s NBA Finals will have the largest concentration of bandwagon fans in any sport since MJ and Magic faced off in the ’91 Bulls-Lakers series), Cavaliers (simply for the presence of LeBron James), Colts, New York Giants, USC football, UCLA basketball, Florida football and basketball, and Ohio State football and basketball. (While a number of these teams might seem like possible permanent members and the reason why they’re listed here is that there’s a bit extra blowhardedness from the media about these teams in contrast to others, I’ve observed in recent years that when these teams did not perform well, the national news coverage of them declined in commiserate fashion. In contrast, look at the ridiculous volume of ink that was spilled on the horrid Notre Dame football team last season and the drama that surrounded the Lakers before they turned it around this year. That’s the difference between permanent members and non-permanent members – it’s how much you hear about them when they’re terrible.)

Please feel free to add your own suggestions to the permanent and non-permanent lists, along with any defenses that you may have if you cheer for a team that falls outside of a geographic, alumni, or family connection (although such defenses will likely fall on deaf ears on this end unless you fall into the “I grew up in a metro area without an MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL team”, “I didn’t go to a BCS school”, “I grew up in a place like Nebraska or Kentucky where everyone cheers for the flagship university regardless of whether they or their parents went to school there”, “I was an Army/Navy/Air Force/Shawn Kemp brat that moved every couple of years”, or “my formerly favorite team moved cities so I picked a different one” exceptions).

(Images from Boston Dirt Dogs and LakersTopBuzz)

The NBA Finals That We All Wanted (Outside of Detroit and San Antonio)

The ABC/ESPN hype machine has gotten the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals matchup that it has been craving since the day it took away the league television contract from NBC six years ago. (The worst thing about the network move was that the glorious John Tesh theme song was mothballed in favor of a rotation of music “stars” that has gotten progressively worse over the years, culminating in the horrific current opening that stars Tim McGraw and Def Leppard. For as much as the ESPN empire bashes us over the head with pop culture references, they seem to have confused the highly urbanized NBA audience with a group of carnies from Decatur. This might also be planting the seeds of another sick ploy by the television conglomerate to jam NASCAR cross-promotions down our throats.) I’ll be honest with you – I’ve been craving this matchup, too. It’s not that I have any personal affinity for either of these teams, but I couldn’t take another NBA Finals involving the Pistons (unequivocally my least favorite pro sports franchise after the Packers) and the Spurs (a team that I know I ought to like as a pure basketball fan, but they annoy me in an irrational manner). Plus, as a sports fan in general, I’ve come to appreciate the rekindling of storied rivalries at the highest level since people can’t bank on it anymore with increased parity in all of the sports leagues. Back when I was a little kid, the Celtics and Lakers playing in the NBA Finals was considered a common occurrence, so the fact that it has been 21 years since they last met for the championship (a series that I remember clearly) is the latest in a long line of historical moments that have reminded me that I’m not really young anymore. What’s unique about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is that it isn’t based on geography or conference/division affiliation like almost every other sports rivalry, such as the general New York vs. Boston/Philadelphia or Chicago vs. Detroit/Green Bay/St. Louis matchups (note that Cowboys-Redskins is still a divisional rivalry), but instead on excellence where they have met on the final stage with incredible frequency for a three decade stretch of time. The closest comparison might be Notre Dame-USC, but even then, they have only played one game where the teams were ranked #1 and #2 (this occurred in 1988, which was the last time the Irish won a national championship).

Of course, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aren’t going to have much effect on this series. I was very excited about the prospect of the Celtics-Lakers matchup at the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, but over the past few weeks, it’s been looking more and more like this series can’t possibly live up to the hype. Hopefully, I’m wrong and this will push out to seven games, since that would be a transcendent sports moment. However, the Lakers look dominant right now and they disposed of the Spurs (who I think would beat the Celtics head-to-head) in five. There’s little indication that L.A. wouldn’t be able to dispose of Boston in the same number of games, so I’ll avoid the typical conservative commentator prediction of a six-game series and say that the Lakers will win 4-1 (I foresee a split of the first 2 games in Boston and then the Lakers rattling off 3 straight at the Staples Center).

Kobe Bryant continues to play out of his mind (the yahoo portion of the Bulls fan base that didn’t want to give up guys like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and/or Luol Deng for this guy last fall continue to look horrible) and will clearly be the best player on the floor (which you could say no matter who the Lakers are playing). I love Kevin Garnett as one of my favorite athletes that hasn’t played for a Chicago team or the Illini (although he’s a native Chicagoan), but he can’t necessarily take over a game the way Kobe can. At the end of the day, Paul Pierce is going to be the one that needs to match Kobe shot-for-shot while the rest of the Celtics have to hold down Pau Gasol and the balance of the torrid Lakers offense – that’s going to be a whole lot tougher than the one-man-LeBron-show that took Boston to the brink of elimination or the Pistons club that could only utilize Chauncey Billups in limited fashion.

At the same time, the Lakers have a monster coaching advantage in Phil Jackson over Doc Rivers. For the Phil-haters out there, particularly from Boston, that discount his accomplishments since his championships came with the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, I would like to point out that Red Auerbach never won a championship without Bill Russell in an era when power forwards rarely cracked 5’10”. I’m not sure why this never gets mentioned. Granted, I’m a bit biased here since I grew up as a Bulls fanatic and Phil was at the helm of the teams that provided me with probably the most memorable sports moments of my life. However, he should always deserve credit for getting the max out of that franchise in the 1990s. As much as I love Mike Ditka (to the point where I have this autographed photo in my basement), the ’85 Bears ended up being the ultimate one-hit wonder in sports history instead of the becoming the first championship team in a dynasty that should have lasted for the rest of the 1980s (Bill Walsh’s 49ers teams ended up filling that space) due to a lot of internal squabbling and personality clashes (many of which were caused by Ditka himself, much less the case of him not being able to solve them). In contrast, the ‘90s Bulls were able to achieve success even when they had a murder’s row of Godzilla-sized egos – MJ was a cold-hearted competitor to the extreme, Scottie was always a Toni Kukoc-last-shot-play from snapping, most of the rest of the team was perpetually at odds with Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause about their contracts, and there was that slightly-off personality known as Dennis Rodman during the second three-peat. The fact that Phil put those guys into line for six championships (along with three more rings with Lakers teams that were nearly as ego-filled) is a testament to his ability to coach in the modern NBA.

Meanwhile, Phil’s well-known soft skills in managing personalities and digging into players’ psyches are complemented by what I believe is an underrated substantive skill: I don’t know of a basketball coach at any level that has ever managed rotations of players better than Phil. Phil would often take MJ out of regular season games relatively early, yet the Bulls rarely collapsed because he got key bench players substantive playing team with Scottie Pippen running the second unit. This paid off massively in the postseason since (a) MJ was always healthy because he wasn’t unnecessarily put through max minutes early in the season and (b) the bench players often came up huge as a result of not just being in there at garbage time, which is why reserves such as John Paxson, Bobby Hansen and Steve Kerr live on in Chicago sports lore with key baskets in championship clinching games. Phil has done the same thing with the Lakers by regularly removing Kobe early and giving the second unit quality minutes with Lamar Odom running the offense. That means that Kobe and the rest of the starters are fresher (and already younger) than an older tapped-to-the-brink Celtics team and Luke Son-of-a-Bastard Walton or someone else of that nature will be primed to make a number of clutch shots in the series when Kobe is double or triple teamed. On the other side of the floor, Doc Rivers is acknowledged to have one of the most inconsistent rotations in the NBA (guys will play 30 minutes one game and then get DNPs for two weeks straight), which is a severe disadvantage when the Celtics are much more banged-up and can’t really depend on their stars to go 48 minutes every night.

Like I’ve said before, the basketball fan in me hopes that I’m wrong and that this becomes an NBA Finals that lives up to the hype. However, the basketball analyst in me believes that this will be a pretty easy stretch for a significantly superior Lakers team.

(Image from Sportslifer’s Weblog)