Thursday, December 31, 2015

On New Years' Eve, Lots Of Red Flags Around Sport of College Football

New Year's Eve is supposed to be about all the good things about college football.

For FCS, it's about the run-up to the FCS National Championship game in Frisco, Texas.  This season - again - North Dakota State heads to the party once again, while the No. 1 team in the nation. Jacksonville State, tries to be the team that finally harpoons the Bison to break their consecutive national championship streak.

In the FBS, the bowl games that really matter - the plus-one playoff teams, the four teams that could win their bowl championship - are being played.  Lots of people will tune in.  Advertisers will see a very strong return on investment on their ad buys for the game.  The administrators for Alabama, Michigan State, Clemson and Oklahoma will be entertained, and well paid.

Yet now, at the end of 2015, there are dark clouds on the horizon looming pretty much everywhere about the entire sport.  Folks are worried about head injuries more than ever.  The bowl system, with more exhibition games than ever, feels overstretched, and the games are competing with more and more sports entertainment and feeling diluted.  Even the revenue model for sports on TV feels under threat as more and more people cut the coaxial cable and media conglomerates like ESPN actually shrink in viewership.

College football was, and still is, the greatest sport in the entire world.  But many forces of change feel like they're coming, and it's making a lot of folks pessimistic about the future of the sport.

Seahawks CB Richard Sherman
I don't promise to have a better understanding of CTE or head injuries than anyone else.

But what is abundantly clear is that more people are concerned about head injuries in sports than in years past.

Personally, I try to take a middle approach.  I'm all for lots of money for research on the impacts of concussions and sub-concussive hits on football players, while still taking some of the research with a grain of salt.  I don't think the incidence of concussions in a sport should be enough to ban its existence, which is what some people appear to want.

But what is clear is the news reports about CTE, articles and even a movie about concussions are having an impact on participation in football at all levels.

The nation's largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, a sign that the concussion crisis that began in the NFL is having a dramatic impact at the lowest rungs of the sport. 
According to data provided to "Outside the Lines," Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season. 
Pop Warner officials said they believe several factors played a role in the decline, including the trend of youngsters focusing on one sport. But the organization's chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, cited concerns about head injuries as "the No. 1 cause."
This article, though published in 2013, still has impact today, and will continue to have impact down the line.  Fewer youths playing football in 2013 will eventually mean fewer high school students playing football down the line, which will mean fewer football teams at the college level.

An interesting response to that trend came from a very intriguing piece by NFL CB Richard Sherman, also back in 2013:
A NASCAR driver understands that anything can happen during a race; his car could flip at 200 miles per hour. A boxer knows when he goes in the ring what’s happening to his body. Just like them, we understand this is a dangerous game with consequences not just in the short term, but for the rest of our lives. All of us NFL players, from wide receivers to defensive backs, chose this profession. Concussions are going to happen to cornerbacks who go low and lead with their shoulders, wide receivers who duck into contact, safeties who tackle high and linemen who run into somebody on every single play. Sometimes players get knocked out and their concussions make news, but more often it’s a scenario like mine, where the player walks away from a hit and plays woozy or blind.  
Quarterbacks obviously have to be protected from vulnerable situations and late hits—they’re always a premium—but there are some penalties being called on legal plays where the quarterback is barely being touched and the penalties are affecting ball games, all because the NFL thinks preventing the highlight reel knockout is going to fix an image that doesn’t even need fixing. People are always going to play football, and if higher income families choose to pull their kids out of the sport, it will only broaden the talent pool, giving underprivileged kids more opportunities to make college rosters. Most of the top guys in this league come from underprivileged situations anyway.
I played at 5 years old because it was fun. You meet all of your friends, you learn about teamwork, camaraderie, discipline, following directions, how to time manage and how to rely on other people. Do I think about the consequences 30 years down the line? No more than I think about the food I’m enjoying today, which could be revealed in 30 years to cause cancer or a heart murmur or something else unpredictable. Those are the things you cant plan for, and the kind of optimism I have right now is the only way to live. 
Perhaps football at all levels will be fine, as Richard Sherman says, but sometimes it's hard to remain optimistic when you look at the decline in participation.

I love football, and I think football has a great place at Lehigh and at other colleges and universities.  And like Richard, I also think that the impacts of concussions should be studied and ways to make games safer should be developed.  But what is clear is that years of coverage about concussions and CTE are having one dramatic effect - people choosing not to play.

*****

Did you watch a bowl game this year?

For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel the need to tune into one of the lesser bowl games.

Every year, I play ESPN's Capital One Bowl Challenge, which is a free game where the user picks who they think will win each and every bowl game.  This season there were 42 bowl games to pick, including the FCS-related Celebration Bowl, the Foster Farms Bowl, featuring a 5-7 Nebraska team (who won, I just learned), and the GoDaddy Bowl, played two days before Christmas and featured Bowling Green and Georgia Southern.

It may seem hard to believe, but a mere 20 years ago in 1995 there were a grand total of 18 bowls.

Amazingly, only four of the 36 teams in those bowls (Toledo, Nevada, Colorado State and East Carolina) played in conferences that are considered to be a part of the Group of 5 today.

The dirty little secret of the expansion of bowls is the explosion of the number of lower tier bowls that don't have a "big" school playing in them, like the GoDaddy bowl, which has a conference tie-in with also-rans from the MAC and Sun Belt conference championships.

In 1995, watching a team like East Carolina play a big team like Stanford had a lot of David-versus-Goliath appeal.  In 2015, watching David play David doesn't hold the same type of cachet, like when 5-7 San Jose State beats 6-6 Georgia State in the Cure Bowl.

That the bowls in 2015 are diluted down from the quality of bowl games in 1995 is hard to debate - it clearly is by any measure.  Nobody is going to historically look back with fondness on the Cure Bowl except some alumni of San Jose State or Georgia State, who might remember a good party and a nice trip to Orlando, or maybe just the thrill of seeing their alma mater on TV.  But certainly not the same way that East Carolina fans will look back on their 19-13 win over Stanford back in 1995.  That, by any measure, was a bigger deal.

The larger question regards the dilution of the product on TV.

Another piece of information that is hard to deny is the fact that NCAA men's basketball on TV, as a product, is also one that is heavily diluted.  In the past, there were college basketball games on a handful of channels on the TV dial.  Now, during college basketball season in the first week in November, you can see any number of games, either on TV on more than a dozen channels, or, increasingly, online, through a web stream.

For smaller programs such as Lehigh, online streams are a godsend.  As a Lehigh fan, I now can enjoy nearly every Lehigh football game on my TV through the magic of the internet and a $35 piece of machinery called Google Chromecast.

Pretty Sure I Watch Stuff Like This
I don't need to care about anything else.  I don't need to tune into to ESPN to find out what the other scores were in the Patriot League.  I don't need to watch Rice vs. Texas to feel like I'm experiencing college football.  I can experience college football in every possible way that I care about.  Maybe sprinkle in an occasional SEC game, a big game involving Penn State, North Dakota State or (this year) Temple, and I'm good.

I think the bottom-up expansion of online content from schools like Lehigh are really hurting those middle-of-the-road football games on TV.  In football, not everyone will sacrifice Michigan State vs. Rutgers to stream Lehigh at Colgate, or North Dakota State at Northern Iowa, or Tennessee State at Jacksonville State , but combined, enough of them will to make a difference.

Large numbers of people will still tune in for the Really Big Stuff, like the College Football Playoff at the FBS level, or the NCAA Tournament, which is so big it's actually ingrained in the culture of America.  It seems likely the College Football (Bowl) Playoff is destined to get there soon, though it's not there yet.  But there's a lot that people will tune out, like those January basketball games between St. John's and DePaul, and things like the Cure Bowl.

You've actually started to see this year one bowl, the Arizona Bowl, unable to secure a TV partner this year.  Campus Insiders, the same folks that produced and brought you a decent number of Patriot League football games this year, actually produced and broadcast the Arizona Bowl as well, online-only.

If the long-term trend of bowls are to become online broadcasts of the same technical production and broadcast reach as a Patriot League league game, how can lower-tier FBS teams possibly justify their existence in that subdivision for the "exposure" of bowl games?

*****

As gleeful as FCS people might be to see the high water mark of the bowl system starting to recede, there's another problem - the possible long-term collapse of the business model of college sports on TV.

Disney And Their New Low-Cost Night Watchmen
In the past three months, Disney stock fell from a high of 120 to about 105.  That is extremely odd, especially considering Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a Disney property, just about broke every cinematic record known to man in the past week and a half.

But there are serious concerns in the industry that ESPN, which has been the driver of growth for Disney, is about to become a liability.
The speed at which cord-cutters have slashed their cable bills has shaken the industry. Seven million U.S. households have dropped ESPN in the last two years, Disney said last month in a federal filing, shrinking the field for the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" to 92 million homes, its lowest subscription base in nearly a decade. 
That's a bad sign: About 45 percent of Disney's operating profit last year came from cable TV, and that income is expected to flatten in the next year due to the shrinking TV business. Meanwhile, ESPN has shown no signs of ending its TV-rights spending spree. Disney last year signed a deal with the NBA costing $1.4 billion every year for nine years — three times as expensive as Disney's previous TV deal with the league — even though ESPN's basketball viewership last season fell 10 percent to 1.5 million viewers, the network's lowest since 2008. 
The simple way to keep cord-cutters paying and preserve ESPN could be offering it up on streaming video directly, a move even Disney chief executive Bob Iger has called "an inevitability." But the "direct-to-consumer" business brings its own hassles: namely, fights with cable companies like Comcast who buy and bundle channels for sale to TV watchers, and who have their own business interests to protect. 
The bundle has also offered Disney such a lucrative cash stream that cheaper online streaming services have not come close to matching. If a third of ESPN's subscribers, or about 30 million households, shifted to paying for the channel online, the sports network would need to charge three times as much, or about $21 a month, to make its money back.
Believe Me, This Logo Cost Disney A Lot
Not mentioned directly in the article, but extremely germane to the conversation, is that a significant amount of ESPN's "spending spree" involves college football, including an immense layout for the College Football Playoff, and sponsorship and broadcast of minor bowls as well.  By all accounts, the Celebration Bowl between the MEAC and SWAC champions of the FCS wouldn't exist without Disney's largesse - the bowl is owned and operated by ESPN Events, a subsidiary.

This system might work in a world where there is media revenue growth as far as the eye can see.  But what about the future, when viewership is flat, and Disney is trying to find a way to rejigger ESPN to remain a profit leader in an online streaming world?

If ESPN and Disney start to truly struggle to keep ESPN at the same level - what's the first thing to go?  Most likely some of the lower-value content that ESPN produces.  So where do minor bowls and mid-tier college basketball rights fall in that hierarchy?  And even if the rights are retained, will the prices of renewal remain the same, or will they actually decrease?

It seems likely that the big-time events, like the CFP and March Madness, will continue to be top dollar.  What is in serious question is whether the tide of those huge events will continue to lift all boats in Division I athletics, or whether the revenue streams on which many schools are reliant will be the first cords that ESPN cut in an effort to remain profitable.

And the problem is not only with ESPN.  Fox and Fox-run TV properties (like the Big Ten Network) are running into the exact same TV headwinds as ESPN.  They rely as much, if not more, on cable fees to make the majority of their money.  If Fox offers cord-cutting options, they will need to soak cable subscribers more as well.  This isn't the type of model that seems like it will continue to stand.

Talk of this shift has been happening for years, but 2015 was the first year where theory started to reflect the reality of shrinking subscriber bases and ubiquitous online access.  If this trend continues, media companies will suffer, and if media companies suffer, college sports will suffer, or at least experience the same level of flatlining.

In 2015, we've seen some great strides in college football, and experienced some great games.  Coverage is abundant - maybe even a bit oversaturated.

The revenue model works - so far.

But looking ahead to 2016, there's a lot of change on the horizon.  Only one thing seems clear - expecting 2016 to be more of the same thing of 2015 seems incorrect.  2016 will see more change, some good, some bad, than ever before.

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