The PGA TOUR re-ups with CBS and NBC

I almost feel like this was a formality, as it only brings the broadcast rights to expire at the same time as the existing Golf Channel deal. ESPN’s alleged quest to kill sports on ABC probably took that network out of the running, and golf will never, ever be on Fox. But it does take place after the NBC/Comcast merger went through, keeps golf off ABC for the rest of the decade, and apparently broadens the Golf Channel’s role, so however technically, it counts as a win for NBC and CBS.

What’s far more notable is Versus’s new evening programming, which turns out not to be the SportsCenter-killer I was hoping it’d be, but still, baby steps.

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Why I’m not heaping praise on Jimmie Johnson

Another year has come and gone, and with it another year of Jimmie Johnson winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Oh, it was tougher this year, but it’s now five straight, two more consecutive Sprint Cup championships than any other driver in NASCAR history. And with it has come another round of NASCAR pundits telling us to respect Jimmie Johnson as one of the all-time greats. And why aren’t we respecting Jimmie Johnson? Apparently, because we just want someone else to win. I still seem to be the only one (admittedly, not very vocal about it) who wonders if the change in format to the Chase system – instituted just two years before the start of the streak – means Johnson’s championships aren’t directly comparable to the Cale Yarboroughs and Richard Pettys and Dale Earnhardts. In the past, I’ve wondered if Johnson’s dominance wasn’t the result of NASCAR booking an unbalanced selection of Chase tracks that virtually assured Johnson’s victory every year, but it’s hard to make that case (though Wikipedia tries). You have regular ovals, short tracks, even Talladega Superspeedway (though not a road course).

But the ESPN commentators said something on Sunday that gave me an epiphany. It’s not the Chase tracks. It’s the Chase itself.

The ESPN commentators said something about how grueling the NASCAR season is and how tough it is to maintain that consistency over the course of the year, and to keep up that consistency for year after year after year. Yes, we should congratulate Jimmie Johnson for maintaining his consistency over the 36 races of the NASCAR season… except NASCAR has effectively shortened its season to 10 races! All Johnson has to do is be good enough to be one of the top 12 drivers over the first 26 races, not a particularly high bar (though admittedly he’s the only one to make every Chase), and only be the best over the course of the last 10 races.

It’s incredible. At the start of the 20th century, no sport in the United States had a playoff system as such. It wasn’t until the 40s, 50s, and 60s that most sports started developing the multi-round playoff structures we’re familiar with today. Now we’re shoehorning playoffs into sports they can’t possibly fit, where everyone competes in every event. NASCAR and golf wanted to attract the casual sports fan who’s familiar with the playoff systems of the traditional Big Four professional sports and college basketball – the fans of what they used to deride as “stick-and-ball sports”. They made their deal with the devil. But did they really want to?

Get a good look at your future, NASCAR fans. You can write off Jimmie Johnson’s dominance with “well, he’s just that good” now. But in a few years, even decades, once Jimmie Johnson has fallen off and retired, will you start to see multi-year dynasties become the norm in NASCAR? Will four- or five-year runs at the top become passe? Will the past, when it took a truly great driver just to repeat, give way to a future where the list of champions looks more and more like its own past entries, and where at the very least Cale Yarborough’s three-peat starts being disrespected? Which future do NASCAR fans want to live in?

If you want to avert that future, I don’t know what NASCAR should do. I don’t think it was a mistake for the PGA TOUR to introduce its own points system in imitation of the Chase – before the FedExCup it didn’t have a season championship to speak of – and frankly the TOUR’s “Playoffs” has so few events that inconsistency in the winners is more likely than in the Chase. Probably the solution is to go back to the old system where there was no cutoff and no points reset; every race was the same as every other race in terms of determining the champion – or maybe just have a restrictive cutoff without a reset. Or if it really wants to have a “playoff”, perhaps NASCAR should institute a “championship race” of just 10-20 drivers, with no qualifying session and start order determined on points or wins (with the other category as a tiebreaker), that rotates from track to track every year, and the winner of that race is automatically your Sprint Cup Champion.

But if NASCAR really wants to attract the casual fan, they may be doomed to failure for this simple reason: While Jimmie Johnson was winning his fifth title in dramatic fashion, more people were watching the Vikings and the Packers. As long as the Sprint Cup Championship is crowned in the midst of football season, it will always seem anticlimactic.

Can the FedExCup be saved?

Another FedExCup has come and gone. The PGA TOUR’s TV partners have been shoving it down golf fans’ collective throats for months, showing every golfer’s rank in the standings at every event as though anyone cared, trying to get people revved up for the “Playoffs”, and it still didn’t go over with golf fans.

The FedExCup was supposed to be golf’s answer to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Finally, golf would have its own season-long points chase culminating in a “playoff” event to crown a champion. It hasn’t worked out that way. After the first two FedExCups ended anticlimactically, the PGA TOUR (as it pretentiously capitalizes itself) decided they didn’t want to risk even the slightest chance of the Cup being decided before the TOUR Championship was even played, and adopted a bizarre system where the values of the Playoff events ballooned to five times the normal levels, and the points weren’t reset until the TOUR Championship itself, at which point anyone in the top 5 could win the Cup. Was the TOUR Championship an event held at a course appropriate enough to crown the champion of the entire year in golf? Who the hell knows.

All I know is that NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup doesn’t seem to have been negatively affected by the possibility of someone all but locking up the title before the final race. I also know that guaranteeing that the FedExCup would come down to the last event hasn’t actually gotten anyone more excited for the FedExCup. It doesn’t help that Tiger Woods was out of the running this year, but no one cared last year either, when Tiger won the whole thing.

What’s the difference between the Chase and the FedExCup? What is NASCAR doing right that the PGA TOUR is doing wrong? Some of it is elements outside the TOUR’s control; NASCAR already had a tradition of a season-long points chase, and golf owes virtually all its popularity to one man right now. No one cares about the vast majority of people competing for the FedExCup, and the PGA TOUR has made it worse by inviting over a hundred people to partake in their “playoffs”, virtually ensuring no one any good is going to be on the bubble not to get in. Wow, way to make your non-majors matter! No wonder you moved the reset to the last event!

The points system doesn’t help – golf fans mocked it roundly when it first came out for its complexity (winners received 4500 points!). At the same time that it moved the point where the points reset, the TOUR also decided to make the points more user-friendly. It did this by reducing the points for a win… to 500. Wow, that’s nice and intuitive. Granted, the TOUR needs to make room in their points scale for the 70 players that make the cut. NASCAR only needs to make room for 43 or so, so they get away with awarding 190 points for a win. The TOUR would probably be awarding 300 points if it wanted to be proportional about it, but it can do even better.

How about this: 100 points for a win.

It’s a nice, round number – everyone and their mother is familiar with 100, and can conceptualize it in terms of percent. The World Golf Rankings use 100 for a win in a major, let alone a regular event; complex modifications aside, what’s wrong with the points system you already had? I’m not going to be using the World Golf Rankings points system, though, and I’ll explain later how I cram 70 players into 100 points.

2nd place receives 50 points, a bit less than the World Golf Rankings and a lot bigger drop-off than the 20 points from a higher number in NASCAR. If they lose in a playoff, they get 70 points, reflecting the fact that outside the US Open, most golf tournament playoffs involve choosing one hole that may or may not be representative of the entire course.

3rd place gets 35 points, 4th 30, 5th 25, 6th 21, 7th 18, 8th 15, 9th 12, and 10th place receives 10. Ties receive the highest possible number of points. Yes, I know money is awarded by taking the average of the tied positions, but the money list does that because it has a set purse; the amount of money it awards in total is predetermined. For points standings, do you really want to ask casual fans to do all that addition and division to decipher the points standings or determine how many points each golfer will get? And is there anything less user-friendly than fractions of a point?

Beyond 10th place, points are awarded based on strokes, not positioning; subtract one point for each stroke behind 10th to a minimum of 1 for anyone who makes the cut. This is one of the biggest sources of confusion in existing ranking schemes: in most golf tournaments, most of the players who make the cut tend to cluster around a few scores, resulting in massive ties. By awarding points for these positions based on position, the number of points awarded is almost based on chance, even using the money list’s system. This way, mid-table golfers know every stroke is worth one point – no more, no less. And setting a hard minimum of 1 also gets rid of those horrible fractional points.

What about majors? 150 points for winning a major, 100 for playoff losers, 75 for second, 50 for third, 40 for fourth, 30 for 5th, 25 for 6th, 20 for 7th, and the same as before for the rest. THE PLAYERS Championship awards 125 for winning, 80 for playoff losers, 60 for 2nd, 40 for 3rd, and the same as before for the rest. World Golf Championship events award 110 for winning, 75 for playoff losers, and the same as before for the rest. Events held the same weekend as bigger events give winners 25 points, 20 for second place (playoff or no), 15 for 3rd, 12 for 4th, 10 for 5th, and deductions for strokes behind 5th to a minimum of 1 – though beyond a certain point, you shouldn’t get benefit of the doubt for squeaking past the cutline and then crapping out at an event the best players were spending somewhere more important. Again, no fractional points.

How exactly the championship is awarded is a thornier issue, although the current approach surely isn’t it. The purest approach is to not do any reset or jacking up of the points, but then you need to be prepared for the championship being well in hand at the final event, and maybe even the winner not showing up there at all. You could just do successive cutlines without resetting the points standings, so each “playoff” event counts the same as any other, but that’s unlikely to affect the top players.

Do you have a four-event playoff, and reset the standings beforehand? Maybe, but you need to make sure the events are balanced – some courses have higher roughs, some wider fairways, some are longer than others. Make sure you have enough of a balance of challenges as you do the rest of the year, so everyone is challenged evenly and someone has to be a very good all-around golfer to take enough of a lead to skip an event.

This is something I’m not sure NASCAR has figured out – near as I can tell there isn’t a single road course in the Chase, and while I know correlation doesn’t imply causation, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not a coincidence that the advent of the Chase has coincided with Jimmie Johnson’s literally unprecedented run of dominance. Also, in accordance with the notion of providing a balance of challenges, have only one cutline and cut only the top 70 or 30. (Or maybe two, with a second cutline where you go from 70 to 30.

Do you bring only the top 15-30 players or so to the TOUR Championship, and have that event be winner-take-all? Maybe, but if so, you better make damn sure you push it as a fifth or sixth major, at least on par with the PLAYERS. Put it at storied courses like Pebble Beach (the course also needs to do a good job of teasing out the best all-around golfer rather than being an outlier), hand out major-level money or more, do everything you can to make sure golfers and fans see it as one of the top six most important events and prizes of the year. Only enjoin it with other events in a “playoff” if a) you do cuts without resets as above, or b) the cutline for the playoff events is determined entirely by the order of finish on the course that week. A low cutline also ensures it succeeds in its real goal, encouraging participation and success in the TOUR’s “other” tournaments.

In retrospect, it may have been a mistake for the TOUR to leave ESPN in favor of the Golf Channel as its sole cable partner; heaven knows ESPN wouldn’t just shove it down our throats but send it out the other side. The TOUR is left hoping the Comcast/NBC merger not only goes through but succeeds in creating a true competitor to ESPN. It’s also still an open question whether or not non-head-to-head sports like the PGA TOUR or NASCAR should even have “playoffs” given the need to balance fair competition with a dramatic finish. And in the end, will anyone care if Tiger doesn’t care? Will anyone care if there is no Tiger? Will anyone care about golf if there is no Tiger?

You may try, but until you get attention for this you’re not the fifth major.

Day 35 or 36 on the BottomLine Watch. It keeps on turning…

We all know that, among other ways Augusta National is intensely protective of its Masters broadcasts, it forces CBS and now ESPN to use a 1995-ish CBS graphics package for the Masters.

But either NBC has a change to its graphics in the works and its production of the Golf Channel’s coverage of the Players Championship includes graphics, or the Players is just as controlling about its graphics as Augusta.

NBC Graphics at the Players:

NBC’s normal golf graphics:

Golf Channel’s normal graphics:

Rnd.1 Highlights: AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am – video powered by Metacafe

Golf Channel using Player’s Championship graphics (you’ll need to get about 42 seconds in or more):

A funny thing happened on Around the Horn Monday…

The topic was Tiger’s win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Bob Ryan opens the discussion by saying it’s his second-best win behind his first win at the Masters! Kevin Blackistone slides it behind only his win at Pebble Beach nine years ago.

Then after Jay speaks, Woody Paige chimes in: hey, remember his last win? The one he won in a 19-hole playoff on one leg at the US Open? And Ryan quickly slides this win below the US Open win and Blackistone claims Woody’s somehow agreeing with him even though he still has only the Masters and 2000 Pebble ahead of this one, not the Open.

It’s still absurd to rank it this high when it’s really a stage-setter for this year’s Masters, though. It’s like after the Super Bowl when it seems like everyone leaps to call it the Greatest Super Bowl Evar(r) every single year.

Predictions for SportsCenter’s "Top 10 Games" of 2008

In case you haven’t heard, this was a particularly exciting year in sports. When ESPN’s “SportsCenter” does its annual “Top 10 Games” countdown, they could easily extend it to a Top 20. With so many great games, I’ve taken it upon myself to take my own stab at mimicking the ESPN list and what it might look like.

Between some college football playoff-related features and Da Blog’s regular features, I think it’s reasonable to schedule the College Football Rankings’ release, as well as the bowl schedule, for Thursday.

#10: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, men’s basketball gold medal match, USA v. Spain. The “Redeem Team” lives up to their name in a game Bill Simmons called “one of the 10 most dramatic basketball games of my lifetime. And nobody gave a crap or even knew. The game started at 2:30 in the morning ET and vanished into thin air. Only West Coasters and super-diehards stayed up to see it.”

#9: NHL Hockey, Winter Classic, Pittsburgh Penguins @ Buffalo Sabres. Could the NHL have asked for anything less than a shootout from the first (true) Winter Classic?

#8: College football, SEC Championship Game, Florida v. Alabama. If the regular season is a playoff, this was its semifinal – and it certainly played like one.

#7: MLB Baseball, ALCS Game 5, Tampa Bay Rays @ Boston Red Sox. For the moment, just forget about the fact the Sox couldn’t come all the way back to win the series.

#6: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, swimming, 4x100m freestyle relay OR 100m butterfly OR 4x100m medley relay. The first two were dramatic finishes on Michael Phelps’ road to Mark Spitz’s record. The last was the one that broke it and had an exciting finish of its own. And I only have it at #6.

#5: College football, Texas @ Texas Tech. The Red Raiders came out to an early lead, only to see Texas come storming back to take a lead of its own. In the end, Texas Tech had the play of the year, and as it turned out, the one that kept Texas out of the National Championship Game.

#4: Wimbledon, men’s final, Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal. This and the next two I could have put in any order. A five-set, record-length classic that ended with Nadal finally getting the best of Federer away from clay.

#3: Men’s college basketball, NCAA Tournament Final, Kansas v. Memphis. Finally, a National Championship game that lives up to being the culmination of March Madness instead of being a complete anticlimax!

#2: US Open Golf, playoff, Tiger Woods v. Rocco Mediate. 19 holes of pure tension, as basically an unknown gives Tiger every inch of challenge he has, and brings out Tiger’s best to put him on top. And Tiger was injured to the extent it’s still the last event he’s played!

#1: NFL Football, Super Bowl XLII, New England Patriots v. New York Giants. Perhaps the greatest iteration ever of the biggest sporting event of every year? How can it not be #1?

Honorable Mentions: IRL racing, Indy Japan 300 (Danica wins!); Euro 2008 quarterfinal, Croatia v. Turkey (or was it the semis, where Germany beat Turkey? Basically a sop to my soccer-crazed dad anyway); MLB Home Run Derby; ArenaBowl XXII, Soul v. SaberCats (about the only thing that could make it better is if it were the last one); some NBA game I’m forgetting; some obscure game I never heard of or just didn’t watch (possibly from MMA, boxing, the LLWS, Fresno State’s run, the WNBA, MLS, or the like)

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 9/27-28

All times PDT. All college football rankings reflect my C Ratings for teams in positive B Points.

9-12 PM: College Football, Northwestern @ Iowa (ESPN Classic). Three teams in my top 25 and a team not in the top 25 but ranked ahead of either one of these two could conceivably go in this spot. But none of them are playing teams in positive B Points, and this might be a game to take that leap into the top 25, especially for Northwestern. Wait… Northwestern’s actually good?!?

12-2 PM: WNBA Basketball, Los Angeles @ San Antonio (NBA TV). Wait… a conference finals game on NBA TV? And it might be the deciding game?!?

Honorable Mention: 12:30-4 PM: MLB Baseball, regional action (FOX). All the hot playoff chase action! Too bad everything’s probably already determined.

4:45-8 PM: College Football, #1 Alabama @ defending 2004 Auburn-Utah title holder #6 Georgia (ESPN). Boy, how about my prediction on last week’s Watcher that Alabama would be “surprisingly strong”? Isn’t this two straight weeks CBS has screwed up the best SEC game? Not that Tennessee-Auburn is bad, per se…

10:30-3 PM: PGA Tour Golf, THE TOUR Championship (NBC). The end of the playoff system that’s nothing like a playoff that no one cares about.

Honorable Mention: 11-3 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, Kansas race (ABC).

5:15-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Philadelphia @ Chicago (NBC). A mediocre team and a team that was mediocre last year. But at least you got the big time markets!

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 9/20-21

All times PDT.

9:30-12:45 PM: College football, Alabama @ Arkansas (Raycom Sports). Look for Alabama to be surprisingly strong when the new ratings come out on Monday.

12:45-4 PM: MLB Baseball, regional action (FOX). As usual, this is the only place baseball can fit.

4-6 PM: WNBA Basketball, New York @ Connecticut (NBATV). Now the playoffs are in full swing.

6-8 PM: WNBA Basketball, Sacramento @ San Antonio (NBATV). Man, the schedule really gets cramped this week and next with all the stuff I have to squeeze in.
9-3 PM: Ryder Cup, final round (NBC). Is it just me, or does it seem like only sports journalists and groups that cover sports (ie ESPN) care about the Ryder Cup? And gee, it seems a lot bigger now that ESPN is covering the final round…

Honorable Mention: 10-3 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, Dover race (ABC). When I looked, both this race and the next one were identified as the “Camping World 400”, but with different “presented by” sponsors.

5-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Dallas @ Green Bay (NBC). Obligatory NFL game that has to be SNF.

Sports Watcher Labor Day 3-day Weekend Special for the Weekend of 8/30-9/1

All times PDT.

8-11 AM: College Football, Appalachian State @ defending 2008 BCS title holder LSU (ESPN Classic). Yes, it’s college football season again! Can lightning strike twice for App State?

12:30-3:30 PM: College Football, defending 2007 Boise State title holder USC v. Virginia (ABC/ESPN2). The move of the App State/LSU game could have opened things up for baseball, but this isn’t change, this is more of the same!

5:30-8:30 PM: College Football, Illinois v. defending Princeton-Yale title holder Missouri (ESPN). Once my C Ratings come out, everything is based on relative rating. Until then, you get this.

10-12:30 PM: WNBA Basketball, Seattle @ Connecticut (ABC). I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know whether this is a regular season game or an early-round postseason game.

12:30-3 PM: IndyCar Racing, IndyCar Grand Prix at Detroit (ABC). Normally road course races are a bit of a slog, but I was glued to my TV last weekend rooting for Helio Castroneves to break a lengthy winless streak at Infineon. Too bad it was relegated to ESPN2.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, LA Dodgers @ Arizona (ESPN2). Bumped to the Deuce by NASCAR.

11-3 PM: PGA Tour Golf, Deutsche Bank Championship (NBC). I didn’t realize until this week that the PGA Tour “playoffs” no one cares about had started. I had been thinking this was an important weekend for Sports Watcher with no real big events…

4-6 PM (potentially 4-9 PM on the West Coast): US Open Tennis, octofinal-round action (USA). The Labor Day college football game is mediocre v. mediocre in Tennessee v. UCLA, only of interest to masturbating “my c0nf3rence is teh rulz” spewers, and otherwise I couldn’t get tennis on here.

5-8 PM: College Football, Tennessee v. UCLA (ESPN). Mediocre v. mediocre. How exciting.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 8/9-10

All times PDT.

2-1 PM: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, soccer, shooting, badminton, fencing, equestrian, beach volleyball, basketball, and weightlifting, including the awarding of shooting and weightlifting medals (USA). Same on both coasts. According to NBC’s olympic site, “the first gold medal awarded at the Beijing Games could come in” either the shooting or weightlifting events. Aren’t they both scheduled for a certain time? Could you not just look at the schedule?

1-3 PM: Little League Baseball, Senior League Softball World Series (ESPN2). No, they’re not just making random shit up to tide people over for the big shebang.

3-5:30 PM: IndyCar Racing, IndyCar 300 at Kentucky (ESPN2). A moment of silence for the IRL’s impending move to Versus.

7-10 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 87 (PPV). So it turns out the UFC does space out its PPVs after all. I apologize for suggesting otherwise. Interferes with Olympic primetime coverage on the West Coast.

11-11 AM: Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, basketball, tennis, soccer, archery, and weightlifting, including the awarding of medals in archery and two in weightlifting (USA). Same on both coasts (if that causes a problem, coverage is on NBC from 12:30 to 6 AM). Because real men stay up all night watching the Olympics!

11-4 PM: PGA Golf, PGA Championship, final round (CBS). If golf were to become part of the Olympics, what would happen to the PGA Championship?

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, St. Louis @ Chicago Cubs (ESPN). Hey, I need to get baseball in somewhere. I should have NBC’s primetime coverage next week.

11-1:30 AM: Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, boxing and tennis (CNBC). NBC has said that they’re putting stuff on CNBC that fits with its male demographic. Um… not the UFC, bloodlust-filled male demographic… more like the wimpy, pass-the-caviar, rich-snob demographic…