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Tigers and Dawgs and Sooners, Oh My!

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I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write this week, so I decided to write about the upcoming college football playoffs this year.  Here are four thoughts that will make your Sunday reading that much more mediocre.

1.  As of the time I’m writing this, we still don’t know which four teams will be in the playoffs, although we are quite sure about three of them.  Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia all have only one loss and all won their conference championships, so they are pretty much locked in.  For that fourth spot, the discussion will center around whether the committee will select Ohio State, the Big Ten conference champion that has two losses, one of which was a really ugly blowout to Iowa, or Alabama, which has only one loss, but didn’t win their conference championship and played a relatively weak schedule.  A few people will argue for Southern Cal, which sports a resume that looks remarkably similar to Ohio State’s (a conference champion with two losses, one of which was really ugly), except that USC’s ugly loss was to a better team (Notre Dame).  The problem with USC is that the “experts” consider the Pac-12 to be a little weaker than the Big Ten this year.  I suspect the experts are wrong, but I am fairly certain that the selection committee won’t be calling me to ask for advice.

ESPN has scheduled a four hour selection show this afternoon in which they will spend at least two hours talking about whether it should be Ohio State or Alabama for that last spot.  I don’t get ESPN anymore, but if I did I’d have to say I’d be looking forward to an in-depth discussion of the nuances of Buckeye and Crimson Tide football in the same way I look forward to having my arm amputated.  I just can’t imagine that two hours on this topic will be more interesting than, say, a PBS fundraiser show featuring Yanni belting out his favorite rap songs.  Of course, understand that these are the words of a hypocrite. I’m writing over 800 words on the same subject.

I suspect that if Alabama and Ohio State played ten times, they’d finish at 5-5 with a couple of overtime games thrown in for good measure.  Nonetheless, I’m about 90% certain the selection committee’s going to take Alabama.  These guys just love Alabama. (Editing note:  Did I call it, or did I call it!  Maybe it’s time to try my luck in Vegas!)

If I were the deciding vote, I’d take USC.  They’re more interesting because they have a good quarterback.

2.  Speaking of quarterbacks, this was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in college football.  At the beginning of the season, the experts were listing about six quarterbacks who were expected to take college football by storm and proceed on to the NFL, where they would dominate the League for the next fifteen years.  Almost all of them had disappointing seasons and only one of them, Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, is going to be in the playoffs (assuming that Sam Darnold and USC don’t get there).  I haven’t watched a bunch of college football this year (remember my exile from ESPN), but I have seen all of the quarterbacks on that preseason list play.  I even saw a little of Josh Allen of Wyoming.  Despite the disappointing seasons, all of them are capable of making it at the next level if everything breaks right and all of them have flaws that might sink them.  None of them look like the next Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott, but we should remember that Dak Prescott didn’t look like Dak Prescott when he came out of college.  You never know.

3.  One big difference between professional sports and college sports is that the pros try to bring at least some semblance of parity to their competition.  College sports, and especially college football, really do everything they can to inhibit parity.  Last year, the college football playoff teams were Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Washington.  Sound a little familiar?  The year before, it was Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Michigan State.  The year before that, they stunned everyone by adding Oregon and Florida State in with Alabama and Ohio State

The NCAA could easily fix this situation with stricter limits on scholarships and tweaking a few other rules.  They won’t.  They like the current setup.  Whether or not this is a good thing is a subject for another day.

4.  I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a prediction for the playoffs.  There is just a hair’s width of difference between these teams making this about as equal as any football final four ever.  Usually, you look to who has the best quarterback.  That would have worked out well last year, as DeShaun Watson of Clemson was clearly the best quarterback in the final four and Clemson did win the National Title.  This year, the best quarterback, by a lot, is Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and it doesn’t matter a bit if Alabama or Ohio State is added to the mix.  But Oklahoma’s defense is pretty average (and quite a bit worse than the other teams in this conversation), and I don’t think you can count on them at this level of competition.  The team with the best balance of offense and defense seems to me to be Georgia, so that’s my pick.

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First, a confession.  I don’t watch ESPN and haven’t for three or four years now, so I’m probably not the most knowledgeable guy to be talking about this.  On the other hand, why I stopped watching might be instructive.  We didn’t exactly “cut the cord” on cable TV (antenna reception here in the hinterlands is a little inconsistent), but when the rates for “basic” cable spiraled through the roof, we did a little research and found out that the local cable company offered something that was sort of a super basic plan that included the local networks and a few other channels like the Weather Channel, three or four home shopping channels, and Univision.  They do provide TBS, which used to be a good network, but now specializes in reruns of The Big Bang Theory.  From a sports standpoint, it’s not all bad.  Sometimes, when I’ve drunk heavily enough to think soccer is interesting, I’ll catch a game on Univision.  Unfortunately, the charges for this stripped down version of cable are starting to skyrocket as well, so we might be forced to cut the cord for real.  Apparently, our local cable company hasn’t quite figured out that they don’t have the monopoly that they’ve enjoyed for so many years.  That monthly payout we’ve been making to Netflix is looking like a better investment every day.

ESPN is hemorrhaging viewers and money at an alarming rate and recently had to fire a lot of people to put a tourniquet on the bleedout, including a lot of their on-air talent.  Given my personal experience with local cable, when ESPN spokespeople state that this loss in viewership is because of several factors (including rising cable rates) and has nothing to do with their wide swing to the left on the political spectrum (a shift that they freely admit was a part of their business strategy), I believe them.  Or rather, I believe that they truly believe that.  ESPN also made some really terrible business decisions over the past few years.  If you’re not a fan of college football, you might not have noticed that it’s nearly impossible to watch a football game after December 10th if you don’t have ESPN.  ESPN now pretty much monopolizes the entire college bowl season, right up to the national title game.  To achieve that monopoly, the network had to spend a lot of money for the rights to air these games.  With more and more people cutting the cord, advertisers are less willing to fork over the big bucks to help defray those costs.  It’s not just college football.  ESPN overpaid for the rights to almost every sporting event it shows.  Basically, the market ESPN caters to shifted away from cable television and ESPN didn’t adapt to that shift fast enough.  Now, they have to navigate through the consequences of that mistake.

Still, in choosing to become the network of the sports-conscious social justice warrior (or if you prefer, the politically left leaning sports fan; take your pick), ESPN made a deliberate decision to tick off at least half of its audience on a routine basis.  Unless it intentionally wants to become a niche market like the Carpentry Channel, this just doesn’t seem like a good business strategy.  Here in Flyover Country, ESPN was already a four letter word even before this foray into politics.  Most sports fans around here believe, with a good deal of justification in my opinion, that ESPN should be renamed the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network of Everywhere East of the Appalachian Mountains and North of Chesapeake Bay (although I understand that ESPNEEAMNCB is probably a little too bulky for advertising purposes).  If you watched ESPN’s baseball coverage, you might think the Major League baseball was only played in Boston and New York and, sometimes, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  I don’t have the numbers to back it up, but I have to think that the shift left was the last straw for at least a few people and right now ESPN needs every viewer it can get.

Probably the two biggest killers of businesses are the failure to adapt to new circumstances and the failure to understand your customer.  For both of these killers ESPN is really killing it.

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