Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SEC Championship Game on the Brain

A couple posts from last week regarding the SEC Championship Game.  The first was supposed to be a short post about the fight over the site of the Copa del Rey Final and an analogy to the SEC Championship Game, but it ended up running for over 1,000 words.  I was titillated by the idea of SEC teams winning the conference title on the homefields of their rivals, as opposed to the Georgia Dome:

This scenario got me to thinking: wouldn't it be fun if the SEC Championship Game were played on a rotating basis at campus sites instead of the Georgia Dome? The title game is always a tough ticket, so it does not make sense that it is played at a facility that seats 70,000 when Sanford Stadium, Neyland Stadium, Williams-Brice Stadium, Florida Field, Jordan-Hare Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Reynolds-Razorback Stadium, and now Kyle Field all have bigger capacities?

For instance, when Auburn and South Carolina met in 2010, demand for tickets was through the roof because Auburn was two wins away from their first national title in 53 years and South Carolina was playing in the title game for the first time in their 18th year as a member of the conference. If the game would have been in Baton Rouge, slightly more than 20,000 additional Tiger and Gamecock fans could have seen the game in-person. It seems like a waste for SEC programs to have giant stadia and then to relegate the culmination of the SEC schedule to a smaller venue.

Leaving stadium sizes aside, imagine the fun that would ensue with programs winning titles on their rivals' homefields? Imagine that Auburn is hosting the title game and Alabama wins the West. Imagine that Florida is hosting the title game and Georgia wins the East. Imagine those two fan bases occupying half of their bitterest rivals' sacred home grounds. Imagine 40,000 drunk obnoxious Georgia fans taking over Gainesville's nightlife. Admit it, my stuck record of finding things about European soccer that would make sense for American sports occasionally stumbles onto a good idea.

I realize that it is a little odd to advocate for the Georgia Dome losing the SEC Championship Game shortly after professing my opinion that the facility is perfectly fine and doesn’t need to be replaced, so I’ll just say that the Dome’s adequacy doesn’t make it better than the on-campus facilities in the SEC. 

In the course of writing the article, it also occurred to me that there is a correlation between stadium size and appearances in the conference title game.  There are four SEC programs that have stadia smaller than the Georgia Dome: Vandy, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State.  Those four programs have combined for one appearance in the title game in 20 years.  It turns out that stadium size has been a proxy for success in the conference.  Big stadium is proxy for fan interest, which means revenue, which means higher coaching salaries and better facilities, which means recruiting advantages, which means winning.  Or, viewed a different way, teams that have natural advantages have been historically successful and that success increases fan interest.  Chicken or egg?

I also wrote a shorter post about the opposition of certain SEC coaches to the conference title game when Roy Kramer brought it into existence in 1992:

I finally got around to watching The Play that Changed College Football, the ESPNU documentary on the first SEC Championship Game. In light of the SEC refusing to go to a nine-game schedule (and thus dooming two of the best rivalries in the Conference) ostensibly on the grounds that an extra conference game would be too much of a burden in light of the quality of the league, I was struck by the reaction of SEC coaches to Roy Kramer's decision to split the conference into divisions and stage a championship game.

Just as they are now, the coaches back then were opposed to adding an additional game. Steve Spurrier took the position that it would be unfair for a team that is clearly the best in the conference after the regular season to give a demonstrably lesser opponent an equal chance to win the title. Spurrier also noted that the East champion faced the prospect of playing Alabama on the Tide's quasi-homefield. Pat Dye, Johnny Majors, and Ray Goff all advanced the more basic position that another game against a good opponent is tough and tough is bad.

Upon reflection, it’s interesting that Spurrier’s answer displays more mental ability than those of Dye, Majors, and Goff.  Spurrier recognizes that adding a title game can help some teams and hurt others.  While it is an extra burden for the team that finishes first in the regular season, it is an extra opportunity for the team that finishes second.  Spurrier is able to think on levels, whereas the other three are just saying “more tough games are bad.”  It’s tough to gauge intelligence based on public remarks for a variety of reasons, but in this case, I’m willing to do so.  The fact that Spurrier washed the three out of the conference* with an offense that they had never seen before aids my conclusion.

* – With assistance from Eric Ramsey’s dictaphone and Phil Fulmer’s et tu brute moment.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shorties from Last Week

Two shorter offerings from the past two weeks…

One was an analogy between Atlanta and Paris as sports cities, based on the fact that both are full of transplants:

Like Paris, Atlanta can be described as a city where a good portion of the populace comes from elsewhere, seeking better social and economic opportunities. Also like Paris, Atlanta sports fans are more attracted to the spectacle that the local teams can sometimes provide than we are creatures of habit, going to games because that's what they have always done. When the Braves came out of nowhere to contend in 1991, Fulton County Stadium was home to the spectacle, especially with the Tomahawk Chop being new and exciting. When Mike Vick hit the scene, the Georgia Dome was home to the spectacle, as Vick was the most exciting player that most of us had ever seen. To a lesser extent, the Hawks had the same attraction when Dominique was in his prime. For a hot minute, the Thrashers provided a spectacle when Heatley and Kovalchuk were electric. In short, we need a reason to go.

Naturally, it ended with a shot at Bill Simmons for making excuses on behalf of Pats fans that he would never make for Atlanta or other sports markets in the Sunbelt.  Speaking of Simmons, I strongly recommend the piece from the Classical about PSG.  It cites Simmons’ podcast with the CEO of Ticketmaster regarding the steps that American sports teams are taking to attract casual fans by making the gameday experience as personal as possible.  Of course, it also attacks Simmons for taking a very 1% view of the sports experience, but in this respect, I think that the author underestimates the ubiquity of flat-screen TVs.  Generally speaking, if you can get past the Nader-ite tangents (I especially love the fact that the whole piece is built around a defense of fan culture at PSG, when one of the two galaxies of fan associations – the Virage Boulogne – is a right-wing, all-white, sometimes ractis entity), it’s a fascinating look at the changes at PSG, ostensibly to deal with fan disputes.  There are some very interesting political parallels along the lines of “what do we sacrifice when we place security uber alles?”  I almost linked the piece again when I was writing about SEC scheduling, as there is a parallel to be made in terms of the management of sports teams viewing consumers as nothing more than walking wallets who will always support their teams, regardless of how poorly the fans are treated.

The second piece was a complaint about sports talk radio that will sound very familiar to those of you who have been reading this blog for a while.  The gripe, as usual, was reducing sports discussion to etiquette:

The discussion on 680 was mostly about the Super Bowl, but there was some attempt to discuss recruiting, namely the fact that the same teams are on top of the recruiting rankings every year. The discussion wasn't especially interesting, but at least the effort was there. The discussion on 790 was whether it is appropriate for high school stars to announce their college decisions in press conferences.

This is exactly what drives me crazy about sports talk radio in general and Mayhem in the AM specifically: the devolution of sports discussion to simplistic moral judgments. This discussion yesterday was about athletes being jerks when they (or their entourages) don't tip appropriately. The discussion this morning was another foray into the world of deciding what behavior is acceptable for athletes. My commute is generally about 20 minutes; I don't need to spend it listening to three middle-aged guys doing a bad imitation of Judith Martin. Any idiot can judge someone else's behavior. Before my commute was half done, I had started listening to The Solid Verbal podcast after muttering to myself "what the hell took me so long?" Oddly enough, the discussion was about actual topics relating to recruiting.

My tolerance for sports talk radio waxes and wanes.  During football season, I listen because there is some coverage of the games that interest me.  Later in the season, it was enjoyable listening to Steak Shapiro overrate the Falcons yet again.  (Listening to him discuss the Falcons is like surveying the emotions of a small boy during movie previews.)  With football done, I am less likely to listen because the local shows are going to put even more emphasis of schtick.

Butchering the Past, SEC Scheduling Edition

I have a fairly lengthy column up at SB Nation, complaining about the possible end of Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee as annual events.  I start with an extended analogy to the antebellum yeoman farmers who wanted to avoid having to use currency or work for larger landholders and then end with a gripe about the SEC emphasizing short-term profits over anything else:

In sum, the SEC has been so thoroughly sucked into the vortex of being a quasi-pro sport that short-term revenue maximization is now the name of the game. The changes to the conference in the 90s - splitting into divisions and joining a two-team playoff - proved to be beneficial in getting the league where it is today, but the decision in the works to jettison two of the SEC's best rivalries is unlikely to have any such upsides. Aside from the facts that the decision has angered the league's core consumers and could turn them against the new arrivals ("thanks, Mizzou, you cost us the Deep South's oldest rivalry and the Third Saturday in October"), the change will upset the rhythm of the season and ever so slightly diminish the quality of the TV product. The SEC is losing a little of its soul with this decision, and its soul is part of what makes the conference so profitable.

I wonder about whether the college football ticket market is a bit of a bubble waiting to pop.  One of the driving forces here is that teams want to keep the right to schedule as many home games against lesser opposition as they can possibly shovel onto the slate.  A nine-game conference schedule would solve the scheduling issue created by SEC expansion, but that would leave one less spot for the New Mexico States and Furmans of the world.  I seriously wonder about Georgia fans who would normally pay thousands of dollars for season tickets looking at their athletic director and saying “you sacrificed the Auburn game, which is often the best game on the home schedule, in order to preserve a glorified scrimmage.  Screw you, I’ll buy tickets to the games that I really want to attend on Stubhub.”  Demand for season tickets looks solid right now, but it would not surprise me in the least to see it soften in the next 5-10 years if the SEC maintains its current course.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Richt Versus Bobo as Offensive Coordinators

Kudos to Patrick Garbin for taking a numbers-based approach to comparing Mark Richt and Mike Bobo as offensive coordinators in Athens (HT: Blutarsky), but there is a fairly big hole in his reasoning.  The period in which Richt was an offensive coordinator (2001-2006) was a defensive era in the SEC, whereas Bobo's period has taken place during an offensive explosion.  Thus, we should not be simply comparing raw numbers. 

For instance, the six-year Richt period produced only one team that finished in the top ten nationally in total offense, while the Bobo era has seen three.  Likewise, the Richt era saw only two SEC teams finish in the top ten in scoring offense, while the Bobo era has seen five.  The median scoring average for the SEC collectively during 2001-06 was 25 points per game; from 2007-11, it has been 28. 

To do the comparison properly while accounting for context, we would need to compare Georgia's ranks within the conference.  Doing so gives a slight edge to Richt.  I'll put the full chart up later, but here are the averages in four key offensive categories:

2001-06: Average Ranks
Scoring Offense - 4.7
Total Offense - 4.7
Yards Per Play - 4
Turnovers Lost - 4.7

2007-11: Average Ranks
Scoring Offense - 4.6
Total Offense -5.4
Yards Per Play - 4.2
Turnovers Lost - 5.2

Now, a slight defense of Bobo is that Richt's period is one year longer.  Once Bobo has had the chance to coach a relatively veteran offense next year, then we should have a straighter comparison.  For instance, after next year, both Richt and Bobo will have had three seasons coaching an upperclassman at quarterback.

The dominant impression that I took from the numbers (and this will surprise absolutely no one, given that I like the college-specific offenses [the spread-to-run and the Airraid] over the pro-style attack) is that Georgia's offensive numbers in the Richt era are underwhelming.  Out of 44 chances to lead the conference in one of these four categories, Georgia has done so exactly twice.  The Dawgs were tops in scoring offense in 2002 and yards per play in 2005.  Not coincidentally, those are the two years in which Richt's Georgia won the SEC title.  Also not coincidentally, the one year that Georgia led the conference in yards per play (the most meaningful of the four categories) was the one year in which the Dawgs started a quarterback who could really run.  2005 was also the season in which Georgia had the best average rank in the four categories combined. 

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Giants' Owners, the Georgia Dome, and the NFL as Crony Capitalism

Sometimes, my column ideas come as the result of days of thought.  Other times, the idea comes to me in the shower.  This column is the latter, so I'm interested in your thoughts on whether I'm off the reservation.  Here is the gist:

Last May, FC Barcelona won the Champions League for the third time in six years. On the two previous recent occasions that the club won the title, the trophy was presented to team captain Carles Puyol. Puyol is an iconic figure, a native Catalan who came up through the team's youth ranks and is noted both for being a great leader on the field and for looking like a caveman (or at least a Dokken roadie). When Barcelona won the title last May, Puyol gave the honor of lifting the trophy to Eric Abidal, the team's French left back. Abidal had had an excellent season for Barca, playing both left and center back because of injuries, before he was felled by a liver tumor early in 2011. Abidal recovered in time to play in the Final, where he shut down Manchester United right-winger Antonio Valencia. Thus, there were few fans around the world who weren't a little touched by the scene of Abidal receiving the Champions League trophy from his countryman Michel Platini, himself a French legend who led the French side that won the European Cup in 1984 and made the semifinals of the World Cup in 1982 and 1986.

Forgive me for sounding like a Eurosnob* for a moment, but the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy last night didn't quite have the same flair. (Watch trophy presentation video here.)

Instead of a football icon handing the trophy over, we get Roger Goodell, a life-long NFL suit who is most noted for giving himself the power to suspend players for any reason he sees fit and for persuading Peter King to write the most sycophantic cover story that I can recall reading in Sports Illustrated. Instead of a club totem like Puyol or a cancer-survivor like Abidal accepting the trophy, we had the New York Giants' owners getting the honor. Puyol and Abidal got the right to hold the trophy aloft because they established themselves as some of the best players in the world at their positions; John Mara and Steve Tisch got the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy because they inherited the team from their parents. On the list of individuals about whom Giants fans were feeling very strong affection last night, I doubt that the team's owners were in the top 20.
This leads to a complaint about the Falcons having the gall to ask for a new stadium to replace the Georgia Dome, a facility in which they have all of twenty seasons under their belt.  The overall point is that the NFL is a perfect illustration of crony capitalism, an entity that socializes profits by extorting concessions from local government and minimizing the incentives for good management.  Somehow, the awarding of the Lombardi Trophy to the Giants' owners and the Falcons' chutzpah in asking for a $700M new stadium seem linked in my head, although I'm not sure that I properly explained why.

Other thoughts for the director's cut:

1. You'll notice that there is an asterisk with no footnote.  That was going to be a paragraph where I list all of the reasons why the US is better than Europe, including the fundamental contradiction that is the EU (putting Greece and Germany under the same roof isn't a recipe for stability) and our bad-ass technology for blowing things up.  (Generally speaking, I could have just said "our technology.")  When I was done with the footnote, it read like a loyalty oath, so I took it out.  But, just in case you are concerned, G-d bless the USA! (HT: Lee Greenwood.)

2. I was also going to include a footnote to the effect of "I'm not saying that everyone should love soccer because of the way the sport is structured in Europe.  I grew up playing and watching the sport, so I'm not offended by a nil-nil.  Your mileage may vary.  In the old days, I would get mad at Americans who didn't like soccer because that sentiment kept it off of TV.  With the Internet and digital cable, that's no longer an issue, so if you find the sport desperately boring, that's your choice and I respect it."

3. Is there anyone out there who thinks that the Georgia Dome needs to be replaced?  Seriously.  I know the selling point is going to be that the new stadium will be funded by a hotel tax, but a significant number of Georgians will end up paying that tax.  Additionally, if we are going to raise $700M, then I can think of 20 better ways to spend the money.  For starters, how about a moratorium on plunking metal plates down on our roads?  $700M would pay for some pretty smooth surface streets.  The public gets this, hence the significant opposition to a new stadium.  If there are any Polisci students out there, this issue would make for a really interesting thesis.