The plan going forward

I had intended to re-enact my 2008 October of Politics, one of the dumber decisions I had made for Da Blog, this year, only starting far earlier and with more of a buffer. Right now that’s not looking like it’s going to happen at the moment; even allowing schoolwork to fall by the wayside, I’ve gotten basically none of it done over the course of the past month. Most of my time (at least, that’s actually been productive) has wound up going towards webcomic reviews instead, as I’ve been reminded of why I stopped doing them in 2009 in the first place.

I had hoped that that political series would build enough momentum to allow me to raise enough money to pay hosting costs that are due near the start of June. That may end up happening anyway, thanks to support from my parents and, judging from the ad rates I’ve occasionally seen, Da Blog returning to heights of popularity unseen since 2009. I’m weighing the pros and cons of putting up a temporary donation link regardless.

I do still intend to pull off that series, but it’s now likely that it won’t get started until the middle of June. It’s also possible I decide to lay off those plans entirely in favor of another project I have in mind for the site. You may also see me take one or two weeks off from doing webcomic reviews later in the month and especially in early June, to make sure I have something going for my classes.

I’ll continue The Streak to the extent that it’s feasible until then, but I may need to come up with better ideas for filler, possibly even to the point of bringing back the Random Internet Discovery.

Is ESPN the Godfather of college sports?

A constant force working behind the scenes at every stage of college conference realignment has been ESPN. College sports are the bread and butter of ESPN’s business, and their money has in turn become the lifeblood of college sports. Ever since the Comcast merger went through, ESPN has been desperately working to prevent NBC from gaining a real foothold in the college landscape. ESPN has done so so doggedly that they may have inadvertently created a potentially greater competitor; although they teamed up with Fox to box NBC out of getting Pac-12 and Big 12 rights, the reports that Fox might create their own all-sports network should have shocked ESPN out of doing any more such team-ups – if anything, it’s NBC they should be teaming up with to box out Fox, or at least CBS or Turner. But ESPN is still the big man on campus, and at least where college sports are concerned, they may be influencing the outcome of the war in other ways.

The first such case is also the most well-established: when the Pac-10 was trying to annex virtually the entire Big 12 South to create the first 16-team superconference, the deal fell through largely because ESPN promised the Big 12 a more lucrative TV contract even with two schools, including mighty Nebraska, gone. Judging by reports, ESPN was not interested in the existence of such superconferences, at least not yet. But ESPN also collected a more directly lucrative payday from the collapse of the Pac-16 deal, because the continued existence of the Big 12 allowed ESPN to make a deal with the University of Texas to create the Longhorn Network.

The creation of the Longhorn Network set off the second wave of conference realignment, after the NBC-Comcast deal already had gone through. Some see in the moves of this second wave ESPN’s influence trying to further blunt any headway NBC might make. To take one example, ESPN last year was in the middle of exclusive negotiations with the Big East, and the conference rejected ESPN’s offer, presumably waiting for this year and for other potential partners like NBC to become part of the negotiations. But things didn’t work out like they had in mind, as the ACC – a conference not even yet affected by realignment, but worried about potential defections to the Big 12 – poached Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. Anyone who saw that move (and the Big 12’s eventual poaching of West Virginia and TCU) as the proverbial horse’s head in the Big East’s bed for rejecting ESPN’s “offer they can’t refuse” had their fires fueled by the comments of Boston College athletic director Gene DiFilippo, which he subsequently backed off from: “TV — ESPN — is the one who told us what to do.”

If ESPN was the force behind the erosion of the Big East’s football conference, it was a brilliant plan and smashing success. Before, for NBC to pick up the Big East might not have given them something as good as the Big 12 or Pac-12, but it would have given them a BCS conference that probably would count for more than the Mountain West with the likes of West Virginia and Pittsburgh on board. Now, numerically, the Big East has made up for those defections with the additions of SMU, Houston, Central Florida, Boise State, San Diego State, Navy, Memphis, and Temple, but even taking those eight and adding them to Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, and South Florida doesn’t exactly give you the strongest conference. In fact, it looks a lot like Conference USA a decade ago; Rutgers, Connecticut, and Temple are the only schools that were in the Big East as recently as 2004 or so. Add in that the BCS, by all accounts, is looking to remove the official “automatic qualifying” status for conferences, and it’s hard to see how adding the new Big East would be a step up in any way, at least in football. Right now it looks like a lateral move at best from the old Mountain West.

Not that the Big East is entirely worthless (on the basketball side, Cincinnati, Louisville, Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, Notre Dame, Marquette, AND Memphis? Yes please), but unless NBC is absolutely determined to muscle their way in to college basketball, their energies might now be best directed elsewhere, perhaps towards the Big Ten contract coming up in a few years, with MLB and NASCAR far bigger prizes in the short term. But even if they are determined to muscle in to college basketball, ESPN is the big man on campus there as well. NBC recently signed a contract with the CAA, and now there are rumors that that conference’s two marquee programs, George Mason and VCU, may be bailing for the Atlantic 10. Coincidence? You be the judge. And that’s before wondering how much of a hand ESPN had in the decline of the Mountain West – certainly the death of the Pac-16 led directly to Utah moving to the Pac-12, which proved to be the domino that sent the entire Mountain West tumbling.

To directly tie most of this to ESPN’s meddling may be saying a bit much, and certainly it’s a serious accusation that no one should toss around lightly. But certainly conference realignment has had the effect of tightening ESPN’s hegemony around college sports and made it so that any efforts of NBC or Fox to challenge ESPN are best spent strictly on the pro level, maybe on the Big Ten in a few years. (The BCS doesn’t count because ESPN is the only entity that would or could put the BCS on cable, though cable outlets might have a shot at lesser bowls.)

The Mountain West Conference comes crawling back to ESPN

Let me tell you a story of hubris, tribalism, monopoly, and karma.

In 2005, fed up with constantly getting shifted to timeslots that didn’t work for the time zones its teams played in, the Mountain West Conference decided to completely sever ties with ESPN. They signed a long-term contract with CBS to put its games on what was then CBS College Sports, and also agreed with Comcast to start the very first conference-specific network, the mtn., and put games on Versus.

And lo, it was good. Utah, BYU, and TCU were as good as any team from a BCS conference, and while games between them were never on Versus (the network more people got of any of them) in any years when they were the most important, their presence was quite fruitful for Versus, CBS CS, and the mtn. CBS CS and the mtn. got keystone programming, and Versus got some of its biggest ratings outside NHL games. And lo, when realignment hit college football in 2010, the Mountain West looked to solidify its place as a conference on par with any major conference, adding the other team as good as any from a BCS conference, Boise State, and looked to be one of the beneficiaries of the Pac-10’s proposed gutting of the Big 12, picking off incredibly valuable teams – Kansas, Kansas State – from the carcass.

But alas, that is when things turned for the Mountain West. The proposed Pac-16 deal fell through, but Colorado had already jumped ship. The conference was desiring of putting the conference’s size at a stable level, so they added Utah. And suddenly the Mountain West’s fortunes spiraled into a pit of despair. With its Holy War partner gone, BYU decided to become an independent. With Utah and BYU gone, TCU smelled greener pastures and left for the Big East, and later the Big 12. The Mountain West added Fresno State and Nevada, and later Hawaii for football, to compensate for these defections, but Boise was left with a conference not too different from the WAC they’d just left behind.

But that was just the beginning. For the realignment wheel was not done turning, as Boise State and San Diego State would leave for the paradoxically-named Big East. Suddenly the Mountain West was left with a football conference actually worse than what the WAC had, with Air Force and Nevada probably the class of the conference, and in fact were having trouble fielding enough teams to even be a viable conference. They were not alone: the Big East had also poached SMU, Houston, and UCF from Conference USA, and would eventually poach their star school, Memphis. So the Mountain West and Conference USA started talks for some sort of alliance that eventually grew into a proposed merger of the two conferences.

The TV rights for such a conference would prove to be a challenge: the Mountain West with their contract with CBS and what was now NBC, and Conference USA with its own CBS Sports Network presence and a fairly-recently-signed contract with Fox. One of the bigger complications was the mtn., as Conference USA had no similar network; would the mtn. expand to include all of Conference USA, stick to Mountain West territory, or go away entirely? By and large, the network had not been very successful, with much of its thunder stolen by far more successful networks launched by BCS conferences stealing the idea. The mtn. itself had been plagued by carriage disputes, resented by conference schools who saw all their games put there, and lost its best programming with realignment. The Mountain West and Conference USA would eventually realize that a merger would prevent them from collecting exit fees from departing conference members and would lose credits from past NCAA tournaments and softened it back to an “alliance”, but not before the Mountain West had already decided to pull the plug on the mtn.

Now, fast forward to today: the Mountain West has announced that CBS has sublicenced some of their games to ESPN. Oh, there may be only four of them, all but one of which is on a Thursday or Friday with the remaining game likely to be the biggest of the year between Boise State and Nevada, but the move is unmistakable.

State of the Occupy Movement

Admittedly I looked after midnight Eastern time on Wednesday/Thursday, but I didn’t find much national coverage of Tuesday’s May Day protests and even less of the protests in Seattle. Nonetheless, I presume there was enough for Michelle Malkin to use the #seamayday hashtag.

Judging by that tweet and the local coverage, the headline, at least in Seattle, would appear to be the outbreak of violence and vandalism of downtown storefronts, which jibes with some of the reasons Occupy has lost some popularity and momentum since the heady early days. Now, the Occupy movement can say things like how the violent protestors don’t represent them, or how the corporate media is overemphasizing the violence (the Seattle Times is locally-owned but tends to be further to the right than its former competitor the P-I), but there is still one thing that is undeniable.

At least when Martin Luther King was running it, the civil rights movement never (or almost never) turned violent.

One of Occupy’s greatest strengths at this point has been its lack of an overarching leader, its status as a spontaneous movement of the people. Right now, however, if it sees itself as a movement on par with the civil rights movement, perhaps it could use one to keep the movement disciplined and its message clear. Perhaps outbreaks of violence show how desperate people are, perhaps Occupy’s concerns are more frivolous than those of the civil rights movement, but whatever the case the movement seems to be stalled in more ways than one. It’s an election season; maybe it’s time for some of the same tactics as the Tea Party.

More on this (hopefully) next week, in a series I’ve been trying to get off the ground for over a month.

Dang it, if I’d posted this yesterday I could have dropped not one but TWO Homestuck references.

(From Axe Cop. Click for full-sized cover-maintaining murder.)

Would you believe that we have our first webcomic to be adapted to a broader medium – and it’s not PVP or Least I Could Do, or Girl Genius or Gunnerkrigg Court, or Order of the Stick or Sluggy Freelance?

Would you believe that it is, instead, a comic about an axe-wielding cop joined by his absolutely insane collection of fellow crimefighters that turned into an internet sensation shortly after its debut in 2010?

Would you believe that this comic has been adapted into print comics by Dark Horse, including a print-only miniseries, has crossed over with Dr. McNinja, and has had an RPG set made for it?

Would you believe that this comic has been picked up by the Fox network for six 15-minute episodes for a new late-Saturday-night animation lineup debuting sometime next year?

Now, would you believe that the author of this comic is just seven years old?

I almost feel sorry for the kid, who I doubt can even grasp entirely the way the product of his imagination has been exploited and turned into a money-making machine. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for wondering how much of the comic’s popularity owes itself to the novelty value of a comic made by a kid as opposed to having anything to do with the comic itself. You’ll also forgive me for wondering how much of the comic’s popularity is akin to when your kid wants to tell you a story and you humor him and tell him how great his story is no matter how much it’s really utter crap. Sure enough, Axe Cop is full of the sort of ridiculous silliness that makes you say “this is so cool!” “this is so stupid” you’d expect from a comic written by an overimaginative five-year-old. Almost everyone’s name, especially the major protagonists, is a description, so Axe Cop’s name is literally Axe Cop; he charges into battle yelling “I’ll chop your head off!“; looking for a partner, he picks out a Flute Cop, who promptly turns into a humanoid dinosaur-creature by getting splashed with dinosaur blood; among their other allies is Sockarang, a character with socks for arms who can detach them from his body and throw them as weapons.

It almost sounds redundant at this point to note that I did not make any of that up.

El Santo makes an interesting point, though: even considering all the craziness populating Axe Cop, it’s possible we’re more willing to accept it coming from a six-year-old kid than from an adult, or at least understand it. We see elements like Mega Man-esque absorption of powers from blood and a dude with socks for arms and we think, of course that’s the sort of thing a six-year-old kid would come up with! We excuse the insanity of Axe Cop because we honestly don’t expect a six-year-old kid to do any better. It’s much harder to pull off those sorts of things as an adult without getting laughed out of the place.

As is evidenced by his allies, Axe Cop quickly becomes less of a police officer and more of a superhero, fighting a variety of villains as completely bonkers as the protagonists. Don’t go looking for petty crooks getting their heads chopped off. There are aliens and vampires and robots and mad scientists and any number of other wacky enemies. As such, it’s interesting to see it through the lens of that genre, both for what it says about the definition of a superhero, and in how it reflects the core appeal of the genre. Some parts of the comic display such a self-awareness that I can’t help but wonder if it was in some way goaded into being added by Ethan, but for the most part, at least in the early part of the comic, it is just a barrage of one bizarre development after another, ratcheting up the awesomeness quotient as high as it can go.

(Incidentially, the way the site is set up far better reflects the more-than-a-webcomic philosophy, and possibly the implications of PVP‘s new setup, than anything else I’ve encountered. Axe Cop has so successfully set itself up as at least giving the appearance of a larger franchise that you’d be forgiven for missing that it’s a webcomic at all. If nothing else, Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere should take a good, long look at the Axe Cop site and take copious notes, even if they don’t end up using them.)

I think my opinion of Axe Cop is somewhat opposite from that of the general public. I couldn’t stand the original, memetic comics, constantly facepalming and eventually bailing after the first two or three chapters because I just couldn’t take it anymore. On the other hand, I have to begrudgingly admit that more recent comics are considerably more tolerable – albeit possibly at the expense of the elements that made it popular in the first place. The characters are still as crazy in concept as they’ve ever been, and the events that happen to them are as silly and nonsensical as ever, but the characters now seem to lead relatively more grounded lives, and the comic seems to have settled at its natural level of craziness and found a normalcy within the silliness, if that makes sense. It’s not really that much crazier at this point than Dr. McNinja, or the worse sufferers of PVP/Goats Syndrome (such as Scary Go Round), or even Homestuck, or even Sluggy Freelance or Irregular Webcomic! The problem, of course, is that while it may now have more reason to exist, its reason to exist in the first place was to present the wild and outrageous imaginings of a real-life Calvin, so as it gets more reason to exist, it paradoxically and simultaneously loses its reason to exist.

Perhaps El Santo is right, and perhaps Malachai is losing interest as he gets older and more self-aware, and perhaps Axe Cop doesn’t really have much life left in it. Perhaps it was always a short-lived meme destined to flame out. But if that’s the case, we can only hope the TV show doesn’t end up tainting webcomics as a source for adaptation to broader mediums.