Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Gritty, Gutty Yankees

So the Yankees won the World Series. Congratulations to them, even though to TigerBlog, it feels roughly the same as it would if a student got all B's one year, went out and paid three guys a total of $420 million to do his work the next year and then became valedictorian.

Besides, the Yankees are only a side note to today's thoughts. The real issue is Major League Baseball and how willing it seems to be to destroy itself.

This isn't about the economic model that currently exists that enabled the Yankees to outspend the next highest team in baseball this year by $70,396,382 or to outspend its World Series opponent by $110,811,699. As an aside, the second-highest payroll belonged to a team that shares the same city as the Yankees, a team that went 70-92 this year.

And for those who say that the Mets this year are evidence that money can't buy success, that is true to a certain extent, except that the Yankees go so far above everyone else that it's ludicrous. And if you're keeping score, that's five World Series championships, seven World Series appearances and 13 postseasons in 14 years for the Yankees.

Under any normal economic model, the Yankees wouldn't be able to amass that record of domination without being much shrewder on personnel choices. In other words, the Yankees would be more like the Jets or Giants.

Ah, but TigerBlog digresses. The real issue here isn't money or the Yankees or even steroids or ticket prices or anything else about baseball. It's about television.

Much like Cole Hamels, TigerBlog could barely get out of the fifth inning of a postseason game. The deciding game of the World Series began at 7:57 when the temperature was 47 degrees, relatively warm considering it was Nov. 4. Time of game? Three hours, 52 minutes. Temperature at game's end? 39 degrees.

The World Series used to end in early October and has since gradually drifted back towards and finally into November. All games used to be day games. Now all games are night games, some starting at 8:20.

The league championship series used to be best-of-five. Now it's best-of-seven, with extra off days built in so that the NLCS and ALCS can both be shown in primetime.

Why has all this been done? In the name of squeezing every possible dollar out of television, that's why.

Can there be anything more shortsighted? TigerBlog's interest in baseball grew when he was a kid, fueled largely by watching the 1969 and 1973 postseasons and rooting for the Mets. It peaked while watching the Braves in the 1990s, and it has declined steadily since. TigerBlog Jr.? Little Miss TigerBlog? The only interest they or their friends had this year was generated by school-wide attempts to get the kids interested in the Phillies. TBJ will watch football, basketball, hockey and lacrosse all day and all night, but he had almost no interest in watching the World Series. Or in playing baseball.

As an aside, the manager at the Dicks Sporting Goods near the Oxford Valley Mall told the father of one of the kids TBJ plays football and lacrosse with that of every 10 kids who walked into the store in the spring, nine were buying lacrosse equipment and one was buying a baseball glove.

If baseball keeps up at this rate, it can't possibly survive on the level it is at now.

Here at HQ, our attitudes towards television are not quite what they are in Major League Baseball, but television definitely drives the decision-making process in many ways. Some of it has been good; some of it has been bad.

At least our motivations are a little purer, as our relationship with television is based not on money but on exposure (a chance for fans throughout the country to see Princeton teams play on television), recruiting (a chance for recruits to see the games and to know that there's a chance they'll be on TV as well) and student-athlete experience (hey, everyone, I'm on TV).

Princeton is fortunate to have pretty good access to TV, through deals with ESPN and Verizon Fios 1 Sports, as well as some other outlets. In the last two years, those deals have enabled Princeton teams in football, basketball, lacrosse, soccer, hockey and water polo to play on television.

TigerBlog operates on the idea that in a few years, television as we know it will have evolved radically, away from the traditional "game is on this channel" to "let me watch the high-def video stream on my i-phone-type device." For now, though, Princeton does see the value in having its games on television.

The question then becomes, how far are you willing to go to accomplish this? Princeton-Colgate football, for instance, drew 5,685 fans on a Thursday night, a day and time determined by ESPNU. How many would have come on Saturday? Probably more.

The No. 1 impact television has on Princeton is altering the start time, and as in the case of the football game, the day of the contest. Is this always good? No. Princeton started a basketball game a few years ago at 9 p.m., and the resulting overtime took the game past 11:30 on a weeknight. That season, Princeton actually played two of its seven Ivy home games at 9 for television; it would be somewhat counter to the philosophy of trying to draw families with young children to games to start them at 9. In fairness to us, we have resisted subsequent attempts to start basketball at 9 for TV.

On the other hand, TV has also enabled Princeton to stumble into some good start times. It was TV that moved a Saturday men's basketball game from its decades-old, etched-in-stone time of 7:30 to 6; now all Saturday games are at 6.

Television has moved the face-offs for the coming Princeton men's lacrosse season all over the map, from a noon game against Hofstra on Feb. 27 to a 5 p.m. start against Cornell to a 6:30 start against Syracuse. For that matter, the top five drawing men's lacrosse games on Princeton's campus has been against either Syracuse or Johns Hopkins; TV has moved those games off campus altogether.

Even beyond that, TV has influenced games for those watching in person, or even the strategy of games. TV timeouts have long since became SOP at basketball games, with timeouts at the first deadball at the 16, 12, 8 and 4 minute marks and the first 30-second timeout called in the second half. How often have you heard announcers talk about or seen in person teams playing to "get to the media timeout?"

For the Colgate football game, there were three TV timeouts per quarter, and the elapsed time was 3:19. The game two weeks earlier against Lehigh, with no TV timeouts, was 2:35.

Is it really fair to ask fans to sit through these TV timeouts? Or, put another way, it shows how conditioned fans have become that they sit through the TV timeouts like it's nothing. And at least nothing here is as bad as score-commercial-kickoff-commercial-play, as the NFL routinely does.

Where do we draw the line? Hopefully we're smart enough not to destroy what we have going here, which is family-friendly, low-cost, high-quality college athletics, in the name of television.

On the other hand, TigerBlog was in a meeting once where it was suggested that the department adopt a rule that would prevent teams from scheduling events on holidays. Among other problems, TB pointed out that if ESPN called and said "we want Princeton at North Carolina basketball on Dec. 25," it was pretty obvious what the response would be:

"Merry Christmas, from Chapel Hill."

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