The political economy of college sports is infuriating, profitable, and remarkably resistant to asteroids

Paige

The viewership for this game was, comparatively speaking, terrible. Why didn’t that matter to advertisers? (USA Today)

This week USA Today followed in Kyle Whelliston’s venerable footsteps and termed college sports a “bubble” that’s sure to pop sooner or later. Something strange happened in between the piece’s inception and publication, however, because the final product turns out to consist of a labored and rather convoluted lede placed atop the latest iteration of what has long been an excellent and even invaluable set of data.

For starters the nominal news hook presented by the numbers — most athletic departments operate at what they are pleased to term deficits — would seem to be something of an awkward fit for our traditional stock of “bubble” iconography. Maybe it’s me, but I always assumed that tulip merchants in 1637, the South Sea Company in 1720, Webvan.com in 1999, and subprime lenders in 2006 instead showed astronomic operating surpluses. In fact I rather thought this was precisely the red flag in those cases.

Nor is it clear why a bubble would aptly describe a revenue model now entering its sixth decade of “Seriously! Any day now!” impending legal doom. Finally, fretting about those darned young people and their cord-cutting in a piece based in no small measure on a brand new TV deal whose lead signatory is a legacy broadcaster founded in 1927 qualifies as still another curious ratiocinative choice, surely.

Far from being an “unstable situation,” college sports in general, college basketball more especially, and the NCAA tournament in particular instead present a series of successively smaller and progressively more advantageously situated concentric circles characterized by an unusual degree of hardiness solely as media properties. There are variables in play, naturally, and it’s not too much to term the threat of legal exposure “existential” — with regard to the NCAA. I don’t know who or what will be governing the sport in 2032, and I do trust that by then the players will have long since been receiving their fair share of the resulting revenues.

But if we view the essentials of the tournament as nothing more or less than 68 college teams playing 67 games of win-or-go-home basketball over three weeks from mid-March to early April, I’m yet to see anything even remotely persuasive in the way of a Book of Revelation. The essentials are eyeballs and basketballs, and if a tournament that earned record-setting revenues for a decade before, during and after the largest economic calamity since the Great Depression constitutes a bubble, well, put me down as bullish on this particular bubble.  Continue reading

The season in exceptionally brief review

Kris

(USA Today)

If we turned back the clock five months, here are the events that would have surprised me….

Things I missed badly on:
–Michigan State losing in the round of 64. I had the Spartans lasting a few games longer than that.

–Davidson being meh. I thought the Wildcats would be significantly better (like, NCAA tournament bid-worthy).

Things I didn’t even think to have an opinion on because I didn’t see them coming at all:
–Bo Ryan retiring in-season.

–Jamie Dixon to TCU.

–Kevin Stallings to Pitt.

–Monmouth garnering more coverage than the two 2011 national championship game participants combined. Continue reading

Meet two historically great tournament offenses

Houston

One thing that struck me about the build-up to this national championship game was that initially there seemed to be a fair degree of reticence on the question of how to talk about this national championship game.

North Carolina is favored over Villanova, but only slightly. There’s a decent chance no player in this game will be selected in the first round of the NBA draft this summer, so there’s no obvious “We must stop player X” narrative urging itself upon our consideration. (UNC’s Brice Johnson is currently showing up somewhere between the high 20s and low 30s on the mocks.)

Obviously the Tar Heels have size on their side, while the Wildcats have been shooting stupefyingly well. But with the opposing teams in question being very good but by no means legendary with respect to speed and defense, respectively, it’s tough to spin strength-on-strength yarns.

Frankly it wasn’t until I started finding incredible player stats from the past five games that I realized something very weird has been afoot here all along. With only a minor exception here and there, basically every single player in this national championship game is having a phenomenal tournament on offense. You don’t see that every year on Monday night. In fact I can’t recall ever seeing it. Continue reading

Advance scouting an extreme Final Four

Boeheim

Is this man a defensive mastermind? Lucky that so few teams use his defense? A little of both? (USAT)

In keeping with my decade-old tradition of very late Final Four previews, here are some thoughts I’ve been mulling this week.

Is the Syracuse zone’s effectiveness scheme-blind and a simple matter of novelty? 
The funny thing about the Syracuse reign of defensive terror in this bracket is that — unlike a similar episode in 2013 — this season the Orange defense wasn’t very good.

During the regular season the ACC made 52 percent of its 2s against this D. In the tournament, however, this number has dropped all the way down to a rather ridiculous 36 percent. Are tournament opponents (ACC member Virginia notwithstanding) failing against this defense because it’s so strange and alien to them? Hard to say, but the history here is pretty interesting.

As it happens this season’s 16-percentage-point improvement in interior defense is by far the most extreme manifestation of what was nevertheless a preexisting historical pattern. Starting with Carmelo Anthony’s national championship team of 2003 and running through Sunday evening, the Syracuse defense has been exactly four percentage points better at forcing missed twos in the tournament than it’s been in conference play. (To keep the “novelty” hypothesis clean and tidy I threw out this weekend’s tournament win against league foe UVA, as well as the tournament loss against league foe Marquette in 2011.) That’s a big difference, and the sample sizes here are comforting: Syracuse has played 32 tournament games over that span.

I’ve never really looked at tournament vs. regular-season two-point defense over a decade-plus before, so just to be sure Syracuse really is weird I ran the same numbers for four other national champions of the period: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and UConn. It turns out Syracuse really is weird. The Blue Devils have also played better interior D in the tournament than they have against the ACC, but the difference is smaller (two percentage points) and, anyway, Duke’s played weaker teams in its NCAA brackets than what it’s seen in conference play. Syracuse, on the other hand, has faced an almost identical strength of schedule both in the tournament and in conference play. Continue reading

An accelerated and higher-scoring version of Madness

Caruso

Are you not entertained? (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like this March there was a marked drop in the number of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger pre-mortems for college basketball. True, there was one such foray that I know of, and, to be sure, there could be more to come. The week before the Final Four’s a five-day blank canvass for eager coroners of the sport. Perhaps I’m a little too eager to be the coroner of coroners. We’ll see.

Still, it’s possible that the sudden downturn in doomsaying so far can be traced to a realization that is both quantitative and rooted in that proverbial gut we’re always consulting so assiduously. Even back in the bad old days of the Scoring Crisis and a 35-second clock, the NCAA tournament was still rather entertaining. Now the event is a faster-paced and higher-scoring version of its usual rollicking self. That plus a charitably selective memory (we’ll look past Wisconsin-Pitt and remember Wisconsin-Xavier) makes for a media property worth billions.

Continue reading

A selection at war with itself

spoiler

Every year a bracket comes out, and every year there’s plenty of yelling and screaming to the effect that this is the worst bracket in history and lovable mid-major X that just missed the cut has been traduced in a way no other team ever has been before. That’s what Sunday night and Monday morning are for. Then we promptly forget about the yelling and screaming and we savor the actual games.

The same sequence will play out in 2016, and that’s fine. In this brief, fleeting moment when there are no games, however, I want to hold on to this feeling of dissatisfaction for just a second and suggest that it’s the product of a selection process that’s undergoing an arduous and unavoidably public transition. If I’m right, many of the same bracket objections will be filed by we the people next year even if the committee doesn’t pull a Tulsa.

In effect the selection process is navigating three transitions at once. All three changes are difficult to navigate (or at least the NCAA’s making it look that way), and last night we saw the stormy petulance of an adolescent raging at its fate. Continue reading

How to watch Selection Sunday 2016

lounge

This is where the selection magic will happen today. (Photo: Nicole Auerbach.)

I’m hearing a good deal of talk to the effect that this is the closest or toughest selection ever. One possibility is that this sentiment is a backhanded acknowledgment that basketball-specific metrics are gaining greater acceptance in the committee room by default if not by rule. (Four years ago I dreamily envisioned such a day. Well, it’s likely here.) When you have accurate information at your elbow, you can see how excruciatingly complex that bubble you’ve been assaulting with a blunt instrument for decades really has been all that time.

Bubble
If UConn beats Memphis in the inconveniently late American title game this afternoon, what you will have is effectively eight teams chasing four bids. For the moment let’s just stick with this scenario. Here are your eight bubble aspirants, listed in rough order of Lunardi-Palm bullishness.

Just four will dance (the “UConn wins today” scenario)
Temple
Monmouth
South Carolina
San Diego State
Michigan
Syracuse
Saint Mary’s
Vanderbilt

Continue reading