Monday, September 30, 2013

New York Times State of Mind

Word spread around the blogosphere pretty quickly on Sunday - the New York Times had written an editorial saying baseball was becoming irrelevant.

I had visions of the editorial board of the Old Gray Lady of journalism sitting around the office talking about that particular issue. Then I found out that the "editorial" was actually an op-ed piece, meaning it was one person's opinion. In other words, it wasn't the entire newspaper staff that believes baseball has lost its luster. The person in question who does is Jonathan Mahler. You can read his article by clicking here. I'll wait.

The immediate reaction of most people to the headline, even before they read the story, was that this was typical New York City-think. The Yankees had a year to forget, with its longtime stars either leaving or thinking about it. The Mets continued their rebuilding plan for another year, meaning they weren't very good.

I'm not sure how to judge if baseball has fallen out of the national conversation, as Mahler claims. Attendance seems to be quite good, competitive balance is at record levels. Great talents are arriving in droves, including Matt Harvey of the Mets to go along with names like Machado and Trout.

It's tough to argue that television ratings for the World Series, etc., are what they used to be, because they aren't. Yes, I know in a 300-channel universe (for those silly enough to pay for all those channels), there are more ways than ever to divide the audience. So everyone's numbers are worse than they used to be.

Here's what you need to know about that: The ratings for Breaking Bad's finale Sunday smashed records - 10.3 million viewers. The buzz about that show was terrific. Care to guess how many people saw me on "Jeopardy" in 1998? About 15 million.

I do have a theory, though, on what has happened to television ratings for the big events in baseball, basketball and hockey.

We're in an era where virtually every team in those sports has a connection to a television outlet. Here, the Sabres' games are carried on MSG. The Yankees and Nets are on the YES Network, although I'm still trying to figure out how one channel becomes a network. You can watch virtually every game of your favorite team these days.

Contrast that to the "good old days." In New York City, a good chunk of the games of the Yankees and Mets were on home TV, but that was relatively rare. In places outside the major metro areas - and remember we only had 16 teams in 14 cities in 1960 - the Saturday game of the week was pretty much. That made the World Series a major event because you could actually watch a game - well, you could if you were home during the day before night games arrived in the Series in 1971. And if you didn't want to watch those games, well, there were only a couple of other choices on the dial.

Hockey used to be even more restricted in its broadcasting. After 1967, you could get a game of the week on CBS and NBC if you didn't live near a team, and that was it - provided your local station carried it. Many in the South didn't. That even included the playoffs. It's different now. Most people have a rooting interest in a team, and after seeing three games a week for 26 weeks more or less, they may not be in too much of a hurry to see teams they don't care about if the Sabres aren't in the postseason.

Mahler argues that baseball was slow to adapt to changing times coming out of the Fifties, and lost its place to the NFL as the nation's top spectator sport. No argument here. Football also is a great sport for television, and a great sport for gambling, and those two factors have grown hand-in-hand. It's also a once-a-week commitment, event programming that makes a huge difference in interest for a particular game.

One other point here - Mahler has this to say after pointing out that college football and basketball been fed increased interest in their professional counterparts: "Why has college baseball failed to attract any meaningful interest? Mostly because there are already so many professional baseball games to watch."

You mean there aren't many college football and basketball games on television? In football, there's a game on virtually every night of the week, and a couple of dozen on Saturday. When January arrives, it's tough to avoid college basketball. Baseball is a different animal, with some top high school players siphoned off into the minor leagues. and without the tradition the other college sports have. It's apples and oranges.

And for the argument that the baseball draft has much more interest than football and basketball - let those two sports draft 18-year-olds out of high school, and see how much of an event it is.

Baseball isn't in the same spot as it had many years ago, but that's all right. It's still doing quite well by most metrics. You don't have to be a guest columnist for the Times to know that.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Olbermann, again

You can always count on Keith Olbermann to come up with a reason to write a column.

I've stated my admiration for his broadcasting talents in this space in the past. He's a brilliant communicator, someone who simply commands your attention when he's on the air. But Olbermann also has shown over the years that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and when you are that smart, there are more than a few fools out there.

That's led to a unique career path, that's includes some sports jobs and some news stints over the years. I lost track of Olbermann when he was on Current TV, Al Gore's channel that wasn't on my cable lineup. I'm told that didn't end particularly gracefully either for anyone involved there.

(Tangent: Someone will have to explain to me where people get the money to guarantee that they are able to watch every possible channel at a given moment. I'd don't even particularly like paying $80 for the basic channel lineup of 2 through 70 - with some of those missing. But I digress.)

We wondered what Olbermann's next step would be, and it was a surprise - a return to ESPN. Someone famously described his departure from that outlet as not just burning bridges, but napalming them. Olbermann's reply about his comeback there was along the lines of, when the bridge is out, take tunnel.

He's in his third week of broadcasting now on ESPN2, and it's been a tough time to debut. ESPN has had the rights to the U.S. Open tennis tournament for most of that time, and as we know, no one can predict when such a broadcast will end. So Olbermann has been backed/backed/backed well into the night most of the time.

Therefore, when I've asked a few people if they've seen the show, the answer usually has been no. But thanks to my particular lifestyle, I've caught it a lot. And one word comes to mind when describing it.


There's a great deal of smarts on display each night, and it comes in a variety of forms. The show often starts with a strong, fairly long segment on a particular issue in sports. A guest frequently turns up to offer opinions on the matter as well. It can be anything from the NCAA's suspension of Johnny Football to soccer in Costa Rica, but so far I haven't seen a bad one.

Then there are the highlights of the night, filled with the attitude and Olbermann and Dan Patrick virtually invented 20 years ago on ESPN. Two other regular features so far are "The Worst Sports Persons in the World," familiar to viewers of Olbermann's "Countdown" show on MSNBC, and "Time Marches On," a newsreel-like group of silly stories.

But there are also good solid interviews along the way, too. The program actually has some authors on the show, and how often do you see authors on television these days? (O.K., I'm biased on this one because of what's in this link, but it's still worth noting.) You can only talk about Tim Tebow's future for so long, and SportsCenter probably has gone past its limit there.

What we've got, then, is Olbermann's old show in a slightly altered form. Tackling sports matters has taken the intensity down a notch at times, and it feels a little less in-your-face. I don't know if the right wingers will ever forgive Olbermann for his nightly liberal viewpoints on the MSNBC show, but that's their problem.

It will be interesting to see if this program evolves in the months to come. Maybe it could become something of a "Nightline," with particularly long segments dedicated to stories that warrant such coverage. No matter how it's done, though, it will be done with plenty of smarts.

Therefore, when I can watch it, I will.

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Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Gamble

I just finished the book, "The Gamble," something of a review of the 2012 Presidential election race from the point of view of political scientists. The authors, John Sides and Lyn Vavreck, have poured over all sorts of numbers and polls from the election cycle, and they came to a conclusion that surprised me quite a bit although it probably shouldn't have done so.

Very little happened during the race in terms of movement.

In other words, the authors could have made a very public guess in December 2011 on what the election would look like almost a year later, based on what the economy was doing at the time. They would have been less than a percentage point off.

In other words, all of those so-called big moments of 2012 really didn't do much in terms of the final outcome. Everything stayed more or less static until Election Day.

All of those ads that those of you in battleground states? The net effect was essentially zero. It's interesting to note that people tend to remember political ads for about a day, and then any slight bump quickly disappears - at least according to the evidence. 

The "47 percent" line from Romney and the "you didn't build that" line from Obama? Didn't have much of a long-term impact.

Obama's performance in the first debate? It gave Romney a small bump, but Obama did better in later debates and the effect evened out.

And so on. The "game-changing events" didn't have an effect for very long. People more or less knew who they were going to receive their vote, even most of the independents, and little changed from those views. If anything, the big events merely hardened the probables to definites.

That's not to say that the billions of dollars spent on the campaign were wasted. If one party had thrown a big party and not spent a dime, there would have been an impact on the final result. But the evidence for 2012 indicates that the two sides essentially cancelled each other out.

If you want to argue that Obama ran another brilliant campaign and that Romney was a poor nominee, be my guest. But the evidence indicates that both did about as well as could be expected. I have often wondered if another Republican politician could have done better as a candidate in 2012. If I'm reading the book correctly, the answer probably is no. A fringe candidate (I guess Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich might qualify) probably would have done a little worse. Romney was shown to be closer to the majority of the voters ideologically than Obama was, but enough people saw enough steady growth in the economy to be convinced not to change courses.

Who struck me as the "loser" in the book? Those who follow these elections closely for professional reasons. That includes those in the campaign business, such as the endless political strategists who offered public commentary. But it also included media commentators and many media outlets themselves, such as the all-news channels, who have a vested interest in making the election dramatic.You aren't going to get them to say that campaign tactics or perceived gaffes or news analysis doesn't affect voters.

Sides and Vavrick also do some tearing apart of commentators late in the book, when it comes to such things as "mandates." It sounds as if political types are so carried away by electoral victories that they assume everything on a political platform has received a ringing endorsement ... and then they remember that there are still arguments about all sorts of individual issues.

This is not the sort of book that is going to be a big seller, naturally. Political science books never are. There aren't many anecdotes here, which are always interesting to read after the fact. The resulting text comes off as dry. (Reviewer's note: I read a Kindle version of the book for early release in which the charts and tables did not translate to the format. I got the idea of the points from the text, but I'm sure it loses a little when read this way.)

It's certainly good to have such voices as part of the discussion, though. "The Gamble" offers some interesting conclusions about politics, and they are worth your attention if the subject is of interest.

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