Each September, the Pro Football Hall of Fame typically names around 95-125 modern-era players, who played at least part of their careers in the past 25 years and have been retired at least 5, as nominees for induction to the Hall of Fame. No more than five modern-era players are inducted each year, so the vast majority of players listed below won’t be inducted this year and most probably won’t be inducted at all. Still, it’s useful to have a baseline to look at them, show their relevant stats and honors, and argue over which players are worthy of induction.
For 16 years the Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch has been the most popular part of this blog, in various incarnations, by a significant margin, being most of the reason anyone pays attention to it at all and building a base of commenters with varying degrees of grasp on reality. This season, though, with the start of a new media contract, the extension of flexible scheduling to Monday and Thursday nights means the end of an era for the feature, no longer dedicated to figuring out what single game will be shown on Sunday night in a given week.
For all that my commenters appreciate my insight into flexible scheduling decisions, my record at predicting what the NFL will actually do has never been that great, certainly beyond the most obvious decisions. Part of this is because I’m often fumbling to grasp what the NFL is thinking, especially as they’ve increasingly clearly treated appeasing the Sunday afternoon packages as being of equal if not greater importance, and my philosophy in making picks has often not quite aligned with the league’s. But part of it is also that there have been more than a few times where the league has left me utterly dumbfounded, making decisions that remain inexplicable years later. As the Flex Schedule Watch enters a new era, here’s a look back at the most inexplicable flexing decisions the NFL has made over the 16-year history of this feature. These are based solely on the games the league went with for the Sunday night time slot, not any other flex scheduling decisions they may have made, though I may take a more critical eye at a decision if it left a marquee game in an afternoon time slot with limited distribution. Each week generally links to the first flex-schedule post I made after each decision where I react to each move I didn’t predict, with a link to the post with my final predictions, if different, in parenthesis.
(Technically flexible scheduling for Sunday Night Football has existed for 17 seasons, but a) this blog didn’t exist for most of 2006 and b) there actually were tentative games that first season, but they weren’t publicized. They were apparently reported at some point, but I’m not sure I’d have a quibble with any of the resulting flex decisions; the only real eyebrow-raising one for me is Week 14, more for Fox inexplicably protecting Giants-Panthers over Saints-Cowboys, and I’m only looking at the choices the league made with the options they had. The original tentative that week was Pats-Dolphins, 8-3 v. 5-6 when the decision had to be made, which isn’t great but normally wouldn’t be flex-out material, but I might still have predicted a flex with Saints-Cowboys available, especially considering what happened to the same Pats-Dolphins matchup a few years later.)
Yesterday we identified the schools that might form a super league and suggested that a 32-team league would strike the best balance between maximizing the value of the schools selected and ensuring a) that Clemson would be among the schools selected, minimizing the possibility that the best team in what’s left of FBS would be able to claim to be the “true” national champion and reducing the incentive for fans to simply declare FBS their college football competition of choice, and b) in turn, convincing Notre Dame that they need to surrender their independence and join the league to maintain their relevance, rather than lending their brand name and relevance to FBS. But there were some tight margins in selecting the last few teams, and we had to stretch a bit to pick Clemson and Notre Dame’s rival Stanford. So whoever’s forming this league could conceivably decide it’s worth it to expand it a bit and remove the stress over justifiably picking those teams, and once they start going down that path it won’t be long before they’ve reached the point of eliminating FBS as a threat to the league’s claim to be the undisputed top tier of college football entirely. It would effectively take less inspiration from the European super league and more from the Premier League, which was effectively a secession of the existing top flight of English football from the established Football League. What schools would that involve? I’m going to try to keep the analysis to a minimum for this post, but I’m not sure I succeeded.
Having laid out how I’m going to measure the value of schools when choosing them for a super league, it’s time to actually select the teams. I originally intended not to say a lot and just take the teams, and later on that’s what I’ll do, but I started out expounding at length about why certain teams were being selected or turning up on the list when they did, and ended up saying so much that I ended up breaking it into two parts. This part will cover what I imagine to be the smallest possible league, and we’ll look at larger league sizes tomorrow.
We’ll start with the eight schools most commonly cited as being among college football’s “blue bloods”, listed in order of their value after the academics step:
- Notre Dame
- Ohio State
Earlier this past month, the Pac-12 effectively imploded as a result of its inability to secure a sufficiently attractive media rights deal in the aftermath of USC and UCLA’s departure to the Big Ten, with three schools departing to the Big 12 and two to the Big Ten in a single day. This does mitigate one of the problems with the USC and UCLA move by giving them West Coast partners to play and making them less isolated in that way, but it makes most of the others worse. There are still no schools in the Big Ten between Nebraska and Los Angeles, and we’re now looking at conferences 18, 20, or even more schools in size, with no real steps to make them feel like actual conferences and no real guarantee of a clear conference champion with every conference moving to go without divisions and simply send their top two teams to the conference championship game – only a scheduling and TV rights alliance promising the ability of teams to play the most valuable schools in the conference in football fairly regularly and to earn TV rights fees partly based off of the association with those schools. With an effectively national conference and no divisions, the Big Ten is making its Midwest and Eastern teams in non-revenue sports make the long trek west, or vice versa, all the more often, and to travel decent distances within the West.
It all had the effect of turning my thoughts back towards my wondering what might have been if college football’s biggest schools had decided to leave the auspices of the NCAA and formed a “super league” – whether a relatively modest secession of just the most valuable schools, or a full-fledged split of FBS itself taking most of the Power 5 with it as the Knight Commission proposed – and my desire to create a more robust means of determining what schools might join such a league than I engaged in at the start of the year. The dawning start of the college football season in earnest is as good a time as any to present my more rigorous findings. This post will document my attempt to find a formula to measure the viability of teams for a super league; the next post will attempt to actually identify the teams, and a future post may explore how this affects the conferences for the schools left behind and in other sports.
This month the Pro Football Hall of Fame began the process of naming its class of 2024. The Senior Committee, tasked with choosing players who last played over 25 years ago, and the Coach/Contributor Committee, tasked with choosing persons who made their mark on football in capacities other than as a player (with coaches required to be retired at least five years), each named lists of at least 25 semifinalists, and this Thursday they further narrowed the field to 12… semifinalists (more on that in a bit). Next month the Senior Committee will choose three finalists while the Coach/Contributor committee will name one, which will move directly to the final stage of consideration in January where the full selection committee will vote up-or-down to induct each candidate into the Hall of Fame. As such most of these candidates won’t be inducted this year and some may never be inducted at all, but we can still see who the Hall of Fame voters consider most worthy among the candidates in each category, who might be likely to be chosen by the committees in future years, and look at the relevant honors and argue over who should be inducted.
Last night I talked about how teams are dealing with the collapse of the regional sports network market and how teams with expiring deals with the collapsing Bally Sports and AT&T Sportsnet groups – the Phoenix Suns, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the Utah Jazz – are embracing broadcast television as the way to reach a broad segment of fans, coupled with direct-to-consumer products to reach fans without access to linear television stations otherwise. Given all the other developments happening in the space there’s no guarantee that this model will triumph, especially with Rob Manfred still committed to MLB trying to take over rights to as many teams as he can, but it’s certainly a promising approach for a subset of teams. But what station groups are best positioned to take advantage of the situation and potentially pick up rights for teams whose deals are expiring or being shaken up by the ongoing proceedings, and where might teams looking for a new home end up? How much will teams embrace this approach compared to finding new RSN homes or returning to their current ones?
When we look back, we may find that the end of the age of the regional sports network came very slowly, and then all at once.
That’s not to say that the age of the RSN is actually over, of course. Only two RSN groups are in serious trouble: Bally Sports and its parent Diamond Sports Group with its ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, and AT&T Sportsnet, which will be shut down by new parent Warner Bros. Discovery at the end of baseball season. Other RSNs and RSN groups continue to be profitable, and even within those groups there are RSNs that won’t be shut down entirely; Diamond has made payments to all but three MLB teams it has rights to for the rest of the season, and the Root Sports network in the Pacific Northwest, majority-owned by the Seattle Mariners, will not only remain extant but possibly remain operated by WBD. The problems with those two groups are that Sinclair overpaid for the former Fox Sports RSNs and didn’t have much of a plan to deal with the collapse of the cable bundle, not helped by Major League Baseball and its commissioner Rob Manfred deciding to play hardball with direct-to-consumer streaming rights, that Discovery may not have even wanted to inherit the RSNs (and for a while I wasn’t even completely certain they had) when they took WarnerMedia off of AT&T’s hands, and both of them ran into newly emboldened cable operators dropping them left and right, with RSNs all but disappearing from Dish Network and most streaming TV providers. The former Fox RSNs no longer benefitted from being lumped in with the rest of Fox’s networks, and AT&T and WBD never put any real effort into lumping their RSNs in with their national cable networks, while the move to WBD meant those RSNs were no longer co-owned with a distributor that could effectively subsidize the network. The NBC Sports RSNs have the benefit of other networks to bundle with and Comcast providing guaranteed carriage, so they’re in nowhere near as bad a shape.
And yet, should the Bally Sports networks completely collapse, the only RSN in the entire country that wouldn’t be at least partially owned by at least one of the teams it carries would be NBC Sports California in northern California – assuming that network even survives the pending move of the Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas. The Bally networks account for around half the US teams in the three major sports that provide content to RSNs, so even if its problems can be attributed to Sinclair’s mismanagement the fate of the Bally RSNs would effectively determine the fate of the RSN market as a whole, and their collapse would mark the point where it became clear that RSNs are no longer a license to print money and can only sustain themselves under specific economic circumstances, be they some combination of being owned by a team, owned by a distributor, or owned by a company able and willing to bundle them with other popular cable networks. And just because other RSNs are doing fine financially now doesn’t mean they’ll continue to be; cord-cutting is continuing apace, weakening the revenue streams for other RSNs (MSG was reportedly already flirting with bankruptcy itself this spring), and with potentially over half the teams in each league caught up in the proceedings, what they do now will help set the path for everyone else. Do they simply take over their existing RSN, or start a new one? Do the leagues take over the RSNs and use them to transition to a new streaming-focused distribution model? Or do teams and leagues rediscover a technology that’s been largely ignored for the last few decades but could be perfect for this new era?
Way back in 2009, Steven Pemberton, a programmer and researcher who had contributed to many of the bedrocks of the modern Web, including XHTML and CSS, gave a presentation on his vision of the next evolution of the Web. While the first iteration of the Web, what could be called “Web 1.0”, was based around individual, isolated websites, mostly operated by brands and professionals, the “Web 2.0” paradigm that sprouted over the course of the preceding decade was based around centralized platforms, designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to contribute, allowing countless people to congregate in a single place and creating hubs for content created by thousands or millions of people. Social media services such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter represented the pinnacle of the Web 2.0 experience, but it also covered blogging sites like Blogger, WordPress, and the later Tumblr, more specialized services such as YouTube and LinkedIn, and even sites like Wikipedia where the sum total of everyone’s contributions is more important than each person’s individual contributions.
About two weeks ago, the Nevada legislature, called into special session by Governor Joe Lombardo, passed a financing package for a new ballpark on the Las Vegas Strip for the Oakland Athletics, making that venerable franchise’s relocation to Las Vegas seemingly a fait accompli. Not since the Seattle Supersonics were inexplicably sold to a group of Oklahoma businessmen and needlessly stolen from the Pacific Northwest has a professional sports franchise relocation been more controversial and hated. Admittedly that covers a period of relative stability in franchise locations in the traditional four major sports with no teams moving after the Sonics until the NFL got serious about re-colonizing Los Angeles, and I don’t mean to denigrate the hard feelings the people of St. Louis and San Diego have about losing their NFL teams, but the backlash to the A’s pending relocation is definitely up there with the biggest ones in pro sports history, with A’s fans staying away from the stadium and their terrible team in droves except for a “reverse boycott” where over 20,000 fans swarmed the stadium in a massive show of support for keeping the team in Oakland. Owner John Fisher has been accused of following the “Major League” playbook for moving a team, intentionally driving away fans by making the team stink to better justify moving the team, while not seriously negotiating with the Oakland and Alameda County governments on a new stadium project at Howard Terminal that would have had more capacity than the Vegas stadium and given Fisher the opportunity to benefit from miscellaneous redevelopment in the area not possible in Vegas. And while sports commissioners are expected to stand by their owners no matter what, Rob Manfred’s aggressive and antagonistic remarks have further inflamed tensions and raised questions about just how good a commissioner he really is.
It’s an especially bitter pill to swallow for the people of Oakland, which stands to go from three major professional sports franchises to none in less than five years. The loss of the Raiders to Vegas and the Warriors across the bay stung, but they had their own logic to it and didn’t seem quite so unnecessary or cruel as what’s happening with the A’s. Folks in the East Bay argue that Oakland is its own city with its own culture and shouldn’t be lumped in with San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area, and deserves its own teams separate from it. A number of commentators have made the argument that, contrary to Fisher’s and Manfred’s claims, the A’s may well actually be better off as the second team in the Bay Area, a top-ten media market, than as the one team in Las Vegas, one of the smallest markets in professional sports.
All of that may be true, but nonetheless I can’t bring myself to feel as bad for the people of Oakland as in the case of other infamous franchise relocations. When you understand how the businessmen in the front offices of the major professional sports leagues think, it becomes apparent that Oakland is just too close to San Francisco, and the Bay Area as a whole not large enough, to justify having its own separate teams, especially considering the geography of Northern California as a whole, and it’s actually a minor miracle that MLB and the NFL put up with having teams in both Oakland and San Francisco for so long.