Why does college basketball give away its best games?

Tonight, Minnesota will kick of its men’s basketball season with a game against the University of Louisville. It will be played on a military base in Puerto Rico.

It is certainly the most interesting game on the Gophers’ non-conference schedule. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino will coach against his father, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino. Pitino vs. Pitino, father vs. son, established program vs. a program potentially on the rise.

It should be a good game. But it is one that is part of a trend in college basketball that I simply don’t understand: Why does college basketball give away its best games? Why does the sport increasingly treat its best customers with such disdain? And what is wrong with playing an actual road game?

In my former life, I covered a lot of college basketball. Over roughly 15 years, I covered teams in the Big Ten, the ACC and Conference USA. As a result, I realize just how much garbage is a part of non-conference schedules of teams in power conferences. There are lots of hyphens (i.e. Arkansas-Pine Bluff), lots of directions (you know, the Eastern Michigan’s of the world) and some schools you’ve never heard of (did you know there are actually two schools named St. Francis in D-1 hoops?).

So a game against an actual school you have heard from an actual big conference is gold. It’s something worth looking forward to. And it beats the heck out of most of the November and December nonsense.

But you will have to look really hard this season to find one of these games played, you know, on an actual college campus. Apparently big time college hoops coaches are allergic to playing an actual road game.

As a result, the best customers of the sport — the season ticket holders — get less and less for their money and dedication. Between the explosion in popularity of the neutral court game and conference expansion that waters down league play, the sport’s best customers get fewer games that are truly interesting.

I will admit that this has become a bit of a hot-button issue for me. As a result, I spent a little time peering over the schedules of the schools in the Big Ten. I expected it to be ugly, but the results were even uglier than I thought it would be.

Between now and the beginning of conference play at the end of the December, the 14 Big Ten schools will combine to play 118 home games. Of those games, only 11 (9.3 percent) are against an actual school from another power conference. That’s not good. That’s a lot of bad/non-competitive basketball to see something of increased value.

Four Big Ten schools — Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota and Rutgers — won’t play a single major conference non-conference team on campus this season. Not one. Nebraska is the only school that actually has the courage to play two non-conference teams from big leagues.

But it gets worse.

Because if you take the ACC/Big Ten Challenge out of the equation — the event that is run by the conferences and something the schools can’t opt out of — the numbers are unbelievable. Only 4 of the remaining 111 non-conference home games (3.6 percent) are against major conference opponents.

3.6 percent!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here are the four games: Iowa will host Iowa State, Ohio State will play Marquette and Nebraska has home games against Creighton and Cincinnati.

To put that into context, there were actually more non-conference football games against big conference opponents on Big Ten campuses this fall (six) than the four games college hoops coaches will choose to play. And nobody likes a soft non-league schedule than a college football coach.

Here is the total garbage of a home non-conference schedule for the Gophers: Western Kentucky, Franklin Pierce, Maryland-Baltimore County, Western Carolina, North Dakota, Southern, Seattle, Furman and UNC Wilmington.

Neutral is the new black

Clearly neutral-court games are fashionable because everybody is doing it. The league’s 14 teams will combine to play 38 neutral-court games — that’s about 2.7 per school.

Many of these neutral-court games are the kind of games people want to see. Among the opponents Big Ten teams are playing in true neutral games (not multi-day tournaments): No. 12 Villanova, No. 8 Louisville, Butler, Georgetown, No. 4 Duke, North Carolina, Oregon, Missouri, Notre Dame and Seton Hall.

Now I’m not opposed to all neutral site games as many of them make sense and are great for fans. I understand why Illinois plays an annual game in Chicago and plays Missouri every year in St. Louis. Indiana and Purdue playing in Indianapolis is smart. The good preseason tournaments are cool events.

But I don’t get random games in New York City. I don’t get second rate tournaments in Mexico. I don’t get North Carolina playing Ohio State in Chicago. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

Why not play these games on campus? Why not give value to your season ticket holders? Why not create excitement on campus? And why not keep all that revenue from tickets, concessions on parking, instead of letting somebody else make money?

I don’t get the ‘TV wants it’ argument. There are too many windows for TV to fill with games and too few truly good games. Are you telling me that if the Gophers and Louisville played tonight at Williams Arena or at U of L’s Yum Center, that ESPN wouldn’t want the game? I don’t buy that for a second. ESPN would kill for that game.

The death of the home-and-home

It wasn’t that long ago when coaches would actually play home-and-home series — two games against an opponent in a two-year span, one at home and one on the road.

When I covered the Gophers in the ancient days of the early 2000s, Minnesota played a bunch of these. There were home and homes against Oregon, Georgia, Nebraska and Texas Tech. And that didn’t include the ACC/Big Ten Challenge games. As a result, fans got to seem some interesting games almost every year against good quality teams.

Big Ten teams will play 20 road games this season, seven of which are part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That leaves 13 games by choice.

I’m giving the Gophers the benefit of the doubt and am counting the game against St. John’s in the Preseason NIT as a road game. Michigan State is playing at Navy this weekend as part of package with the Spartans football game at Maryland. I have no idea why Rutgers is playing at Monmouth or why Penn State is playing at Marshall.

There are a few interesting road games and I commend the coaches who dare to actually play a road game — though I believe it will pay dividends in Big Ten play.

Maryland is playing at Oklahoma State; Michigan is playing what should be a great test at very good Arizona; Purdue is going to Vanderbilt and Northwestern is playing a decent game at Butler.

No Big Ten team is as brave as Wisconsin. Fresh off of a Final Four appearance, the Badgers should be pretty good and Bo Ryan’s team will have a couple of tests away from Madison. This year’s annual game against Marquette will be in Milwaukee; the Badgers are actually playing a road game against UW-Milwaukee and they are also playing a game at Cal.

How about that? Some games on actual college campuses. I like it.

I just wish there was more of it. I also don’t understand why there isn’t.

And then add in a watered-down league schedule

The argument that schools and coaches have made at times in the past to rationalize bad home schedules is that league play is so good and there are lots of great games that fans want to see.

There’s some truth in that, but less than there used to be.

Conference expansion means that there are fewer games each season against the long-standing members of a league.

Because I’m closest to it, let’s look at Minnesota’s home schedule. There are five teams in the Big Ten that are ranked in the AP preseason top 25 — Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan.

In the old, old days, you played everybody in the league twice. Then you went to playing nearly everybody twice. Now there are four teams in the league that teams don’t host.

For the Gophers, that means that they don’t play two of the ranked teams at home — Michigan State or Michigan. Minnesota also doesn’t host Indiana (one of the big brands of the conference) or Maryland (the most interesting school from a basketball perspective of the latest expansion). This will be the second year in a row that Minnesota hasn’t hosted Michigan State.

In conclusion

I realize this has been a bit of a rant, but I don’t understand the thinking behind this.

I don’t get why at a time when conference schedules are watered down that athletic directors allow coaches to water down home schedules.

I don’t get why in an era where I believe the game is less interesting — less skill, less offense, less free-flowing play — that schools would choose to make the home non-conference schedule less valuable.

And I don’t get that at a time when fans have more and more of an excuse to simply watch games from the comfort of their coach why schools would offer a product that simply isn’t as good and expect people to buy it.

If the college basketball experience is so superior to the NBA experience as college hoops zealots claim — the band, the energy, the students — why would we want less of that? Why would we want more games in NBA arenas or half-filled arenas in exotic locales? Why? I don’t get it.

Can somebody explain that? Because I sure as hell can’t.


The soccer-ification of sports

The weekend provided a very interesting interesting story in The New York Times about how the Ottawa Senators are encouraging soccer-fan behavior in one section of selected home games.

Here’s a bit from the story:

“But not in Section 319 in the upper deck, where red-and-black-clad fans stood, beating on drums and raising a din all night. “Oh, when the Sens! Go marching in!” they sang again and again, between chants of “This is our house!” When Ottawa scored, the fans, mostly young men, jumped around with such reckless joy that they almost tumbled from their rows.

The raucous proceedings, taking place under the watchful gaze of club employees, are believed to be the first team-supported attempt to foster the atmosphere of an avid soccer crowd in the N.H.L. If it catches on, the Senators’ arena will feel less like a library.”

I have become something of a soccer fan. I have been to three different MLS stadiums over the past couple of years, I watch the beautiful game on television, I  went to see Manchester City and Olympiacos play at TCF Bank Stadium.

All of that said, American sports — especially MLB, NHL and NBA — can learn a little something from soccer in this country.

I understand that it is easy to scoff at such a suggestion, but I’m completely serious.

In my experiences at MLS games — especially in Portland and Kansas City — there seems to be a much greater sense of community among the fans. They know each other, they have a beer together. When I was tailgating with my buddy before a Sporting Kansas City match, a fan was going around with a massive homemade get well card for an injured player.

Some of that is likely the result of players making less and teams needing the fans more. But even so, the soccer fanbase is certainly younger (lots of millennials), much less corporate and potentially more engaged than other U.S. pro sports.

To their credit, the Timberwolves have worked to build some community and steal some of the good from soccer. There is the T-Wolves Army in the end zone near the visitors bench. There is certainly some chanting, there is the dude with the face paint who leads cheers, there are those inflatable noise sticks. It looks like they are having fun.

That’s much of what’s happening in Ottawa during certain games this season. From the story:

“For those games, fans in that section can bring in drums and flags, they can stand up the whole time and they can make as much noise as they want,” said Chris Atack, the Senators’ director for season-ticket and group sales. “They still have to respect the code of conduct — no profanity, no drunkenness, no abusive language, no throwing things — but otherwise, be loud and have fun.”

I also think the scarves that the Wolves game to season-ticket holders a couple of years ago was a nice touch.

My takeaway from the whole thing is that I find it interesting that established pro sports in North America are looking to steal some of the good from the upstart. And there is certainly some good.

Other items I found interesting in the story:

– “Ottawa also has problems selling out regular-season games. The official attendance last Tuesday was 16,436, about 2,700 short of capacity. But a couple of thousand more seats were empty.”

I had no idea that any of the Canadian teams struggled to sell tickets. I thought they were all tough tickets.

– If this catches on in Ottawa, expect this to spread. The team has already gotten inquiries from Nashville and Arizona on how to replicate.

I’m not complaining. Any way to replicate the energy seen in soccer stadiums — especially while potentially bringing in some young professionals as fans — is fine by me.


It’s official: I am once again a sports fan

For those of you who know me, this might seem like a ridiculous statement. After all, I learned to read by reading sports stories in the newspaper, I memorized the back of baseball cards as a kid and I spent a ton of my life writing about college basketball.

But something happened somewhere in the mid-2000s. I was burned out on sports — or at least sportswriting. I was tired of coaches, I was tired of athletes getting into trouble, I was tired of calls/emails from fans. The job that I thought I would do forever had become a serious drag. It was no longer fun.

In the spring of 2007, I covered Tubby Smith being hired as the University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach, covered the Final Four and pretty much said goodbye to being a sportswriter.

It has been seven-plus years since then and I’ve gone through stretches where I cared about sports and others where I wasn’t all that interested. But I think I’ve come to a point where I again like it.

A little more a month ago, I spent a weekend in Arizona. I played some golf, hung out with my parents and actually attended two sporting events — a NHL game and a NFL game — in less than 24 hours with my father.

When I posted a photo on Instagram from the Arizona Cardinals-Washington Redskins game, a friend of mine left a comment indicated he was stunned that I would be at a NFL game. Not only was I at a NFL game, I had a great time.

Since then, I have found myself doing things that I didn’t do in recent years: I have tickets to six Wild games this season and have pondered if I should buy a jersey; I again purchased the NHL package to watch all games online; I’m pondering again purchasing the NBA League Pass; I set up and organized a fantasy hockey pool and I have actually scheduled my life around some recent televised sporting events. I’m tweeting more about sports on the television in front of me. All in all, I’m just more engaged in the world of sports.

Now I’m not going to listen to wall-to-wall sports talk radio, paint my face or be blind to the issues that are out there, but I’ve reached the point where I’m interested in again writing some about my thoughts on sports, interesting pieces of media I have consumed and places I’ve been.

How much will I post? That’s TBD, to be honest. I would like to say “on a regular basis” as there is a lot of wiggle room there.

I have some ideas of some topics, I’ll post some links, I’ll even provide some opinions. And I’ll go from there.