Friday, May 30, 2014

A Blogger In the Press Box: Watching Sports In a Different Way

I've been blogging for nine years; writing about sports from a fan perspective.  Sometimes watching the game on television, sometimes from the stands as a paying customer.  This past weekend, I watched the Big Ten Baseball Tournament from a new perspective.

As credentialed media, in the press box.

Yep, the Big Ten gave me credentials to cover the baseball tournament. It's not like I don't have a legitimate claim to a pass. My work has been published in preview magazines; I'm even a member of the Football Writers Association of America.  But I've always done my writing from my fan perspective: buying tickets, sitting in the stands.  Or watching on TV.  This was different.

It has some major advantages:  reserved parking, catered food, and a dry, climate-controlled seat. (That came in rather handy during Sunday's game.  It also confirmed just how lame the tired "Ameritragedy" gag really is.  Storm delays are just so... inconvenient.)

But it's also different. I almost broke the golden rule of "no cheering in the press box" in the top of the first of the Sunday game. The press box windows at TD Ameritrade Park don't open, so the crowd noise is muted. And the assembled media definitely don't cheer.  It wasn't exactly quiet, though.  The World-Herald's contingent of reporters kept up a steady conversation all day long.  It was almost like being at a sports bar, except for no alcohol, and the conversation generally had absolutely nothing to do with the game in front of them.  Go figure.

I found the way to keep myself from cheering was to focus on Tweeting and providing game updates at CornNation. It's a good think that it wasn't a football game, as I'd have a much more difficult time keeping my enthusiasm in check.

Afterwards, the pass got me into the post-game press conference. I didn't have the nerve to ask any questions; I figure that Darin Erstad was too intense to take a stupid question from me. And I didn't want to take away any opportunities from the professionals in the room.  After the Saturday game, there was an unexpected bonus: a question and answer session with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

Yeah, this got very much real.  I almost got up the nerve to ask Delany whether he had ever consider pursuing a baseball challenge series with the SEC, much like basketball's challenges with the Big East and ACC.  I didn't get a chance before Delany ended the conference, though.

Would I do this again? I think it would depend on large part whether the opportunity ever presents itself again. I don't expect to ever get credentials for a Husker football game, though it would be an interesting opportunity. I suspect that I'd be more interested in having access to the postgame press conference than watching the game from the press box. I'm far too animated watching Nebraska football, and I make no attempt to hide my rooting interest in wanting to see Nebraska win.

That probably disqualifies me from ever getting that pass for football. In my defense, I don't believe that disqualifies me from being able to ask critical questions. It doesn't do any good for me to sugar coat what I write: if anything, it probably makes me more critical.  (Just read some of what I wrote back in 2007, if you don't believe that.)

If anything, that might disqualify me more than my cheering.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

FXFL Plans to Bring Developmental Football League to Omaha

This fall, sports attorney Brian Woods plans to launch a new professional developmental football league in six markets:  New York, Orlando, Boston, Portland, Omaha, and either San Antonio or Memphis. The new FXFL, standing for Fall eXperimental Football League, will play a six week schedule on Wednesday nights, starting in October. The goal isn't to compete with the NFL (or college football), but rather to complement the NFL.  In fact, their goal is to turn the league into a developmental program for the NFL.  Woods told ESPN Cleveland that the goal is to run the league as a source for development and training mid-season replacements for NFL squads.

"Forty percent of the (college) juniors that declared for the NFL draft this year were undrafted. Because of the new rookie contract structure and the college landscape changing, now more than ever there’s a need for a developmental league."

The FXFL is well aware of the failures of past attempts to create a league like that. But if the FXFL is planning on Omaha, then they clearly are looking at the one place where a lower-level professional football team actually seemed to work. The Omaha Nighthawks drew huge crowds in 2010 at Rosenblatt Stadium, and did OK in 2011 as the league floundered. But in 2012 with almost no organization, the Nighthawks succumbed as the UFL crashed.
I still believe that if you can make a developmental football league work, Omaha is about as proven of a market as you can. The FXFL is planning on utilizing 40 man rosters, with a reduced emphasis on special teams to help keep roster sizes manageable. Players will earn about $1000 a game. A television contract is being negotiated as well.  The plan is to make teams sustainable with average crowds of 6000 fans, and ticket prices averaging $30. Players will be allowed to leave for the NFL, with the goal being to establish a relationship with the NFL.

Sounds an awful lot like what the UFL was generating, before people realized that the league wasn't going to make it.

So where would a FXFL team play?  Alcohol sales (and the revenue from it) might suggest that the most likely candidate would be TD Ameritrade Park.  But don't rule out Werner Park in Sarpy County, though. While it's unclear whether it could accommodate a full-size football field, it would be big enough for the crowds that the FXFL wants to generate.  The league will own "two or three" franchises, and will franchise the others at a cost of $500,000 per team, typically to owners of minor league baseball franchises, who already have the infrastructure in place for selling tickets and operating events.  And the fact that the @GOFXFL Twitter account follows the Sarpy County baseball team sure indicates that they are likely working together.

Reports from Cleveland and New York indicate that announcements could come early in June.  My main question is whether a new football team in Omaha would try to reclaim the Nighthawks name.  It probably could be acquired very cheaply, with ready made logos and likely some equipment as well.  It is a cool name, but did the UFL's demise tarnish the brand?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

10,424 Reasons Why Sarpy County's Werner Park Isn't B1G Enough

Back when TD Ameritrade Park was bidding for the Big Ten baseball tournament, there was a perception by some that Sarpy County's Werner Park would have been a better venue.  I've long disagreed on multiple counts:  nearby amenities such as restaurants, bars, and hotels, but also more importantly, the tournament would draw better in Omaha than anywhere else.

Sure, almost nobody showed up last year in Minneapolis.  Not many people showed up in Columbus, Ohio either. But those are different markets.  Omaha likes college baseball.  More importantly, Omaha loves the Huskers.  Even old-pal AJ the Huskerh8er recognizes it, in this backhanded compliment:

This week, Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald was the latest to suggest that Werner Park would be better in terms of venue earlier this week.  6400 seats, with the capability to seat up to 9,000 on the berms, would be enough in Minneapolis.  Or Columbus.

He will be the last to ever suggest that.  Day One of the Big Ten baseball tournament at TD Ameritrade Park drew 10,424 fans.  Yeah, the vast majority of those were Husker fans who only stayed for the afternoon matinee.  Doesn't change the fact that yesterday's crowd was bigger than what Werner Park is capable of accommodating.

Now the question is what the crowds will be like today, after yesterday's thrilling 7-6 victory over Ohio State.  First pitch is at 5 pm, and some people may be able to sneak out of work an hour or two early to get to the game.  Is 12,000 possible today?  I think so.

And if Nebraska wins today, they'll play one - or two - games on Saturday.  How many will show up that day?  CornNation's David McGee told me earlier this week he thought it would be over 15,000.  Maybe even 20,000.  On Monday, I thought that might be overly optimistic.

Now, I'm thinking David had a better read on this than I did.

Two years ago, Martie Cordaro tried to sell his ballpark as being "right-sized."  Well, day one made it clear that wasn't true.

Werner Park simply isn't B1G enough.

Monday, May 19, 2014

How Many Husker Fans Will Attend the Big Ten Baseball Tournament?

The Big Ten baseball tournament begins Wednesday in Omaha, starting at 9 am.  The Huskers play Ohio State at 1 pm that day.  Somewhat surprised by the spaced out scheduling, with games starting so early and going so late.  The last game of the day probably won't finish until about midnight.

It'll be interesting to see how many Husker fans will be in attendance.  A few weeks ago, they announced that over 4,000 all-session passes had been sold, and earlier tonight, a quick scan of Ticketmaster indicated that most of the seats between the dugouts have been sold.  I didn't count the numbers, but I suspect that's ticket sales of around six or seven thousand.

I suspect a large number will walk up on Wednesday, and if the Huskers make it to Saturday, I'd be disappointed if attendance doesn't top 10,000.  If over 11,000 fans bought tickets for a midweek game between Nebraska and Creighton, I would think at least that many would want to be at the ballpark on a weekend with a championship on the line.

And if that happens, it'll finally end one media talking point that periodically bubbles up. The cozy relationship between many sportswriters and the former Omaha Royals has resulted in periodic suggestions that Sarpy County's new ballpark would be perfect for the B1G tournament.

They have a point if you think that the same number of fans will attend in Omaha as they did last year in Minneapolis.  Of course, all you have to do is compare Nebraska baseball attendance to the rest of the Big Ten to realize that isn't going to happen.  I fully expect Omaha to set Big Ten baseball tournament attendance records this week.

File Photo - April 2013
There are other reasons why TD Ameritrade Park is better for the Big Ten Baseball tournament.  Let's start with the schedule, which features 15 hours of baseball on Wednesday and Thursday...and maybe Saturday.  Maybe some people will sit through every game, but they'll be relatively few in number.   Most people will come and go, and all of the nearby hotels, restaurants, and bars provide plenty of opportunities for fans to do something other than watch baseball.  (Heck, those fans who DO sit through 15 hours of baseball probably will appreciate having one of the 1,000 hotel rooms within a five minute walk of the ballpark.)

In Sarpy County, it's a ten minute drive to just about anything else. Last fall, Drafthouse Cinema was rumored to be building out at Pennant Place, but there hasn't been another update on that since then.  In fact, a Facebook page for the project that launched last fall has since been been deleted.  Based on the lack of updates, I suspect that not much has changed out in BFE Sarpy County in the last year.

So no, the Trailer Park in BFE wouldn't be a good location at all for the Big Ten baseball tournament.  Does the Trailer Park even have locker facilities to allow teams to get ready for a game while another is underway?

Right now, it's all speculation on my part.  I could easily be wrong.  It'll be up to Husker fans to pack TD Ameritrade Park this weekend to give us a definitive statement on which ballpark makes the most sense.

And if Nebraska fans want more Big Ten tournaments to come to Omaha (like basketball), they'll want to support baseball this week.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Michael Sam's Kiss Shows Us Our Sports World Is Changing

As the 2014 NFL Draft came to an end, two storylines seemed to be emerging; one comical, one serious and a little bit serious.  The comical one was whether any Texas Longhorns would be drafted.  Some thought this was a result of Texas' recruiting failures over the years.
If it truly was the result of recruiting failures, it was also a failure of recruiting services. From 2009 to 2012, Rivals consistently ranked Texas incoming classes as top five.  Now that Nebraska's three years removed from the Big XII, I haven't followed Texas that closely. I suspect that the problems in Texas had much more to do with development than with talent acquisition.  Fortunately, that's something that incoming head coach Charlie Strong knows how to do; his Louisville team had three first round draft pick...from recruiting classes that scored in the forties, according to Rivals.  That'll take the sting out of the #texasShutout in the NFL Draft moving forward.

The other storyline was Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. The SEC defensive player of the year and all-American was thought to be a second-day draft pick going in, but didn't go until late in the seventh and final round. Some attributed it to Sam's poor showing at the NFL Combine. There is some merit there, though Sam did post significantly better numbers at the Missouri Pro Day.

The elephant in the room, of course, was Sam's revelation in February that he was gay. NFL types all wanted to say that it wasn't a factor, but deep down, everybody knows that had to play a factor. Especially as NFL teams dug deep to take flyers on 1-AA and non-BCS conference players while ignoring the SEC player of the year.

Eventually, the St. Louis Rams decided to take a chance. It was a safer pick for the Rams, with Columbia being just a two hour drive away. Missouri Tiger fans are going to be more supportive of their guy, and that'll limit the fallout from people who somehow think that sexual preference has any impact on a player's ability to sack the quarterback.

Sam agreed to allow ESPN into his draft part and show his reaction to being drafted. We can only assume that Sam was extremely nervous and uptight as the possibility that he might be shunned in the draft became more and more likely.  So when Sam did get the call from the Rams, the emotion was unmistakable, and became one of the most memorable sports moments we've seen.

When the clip began, we saw Sam standing with a friend, which didn't seem any different than any other draft party we've seen over the years.  Watching the two interact, though, made it clear this was different. But yet, really the same. There was a hug.  There were tears of joy.  There was a tender, celebratory, emotional kiss.  We've seen it before...except this time, it wasn't a male and female, it was two males.

Some people might have found it offensive. That's their opinion...and that's all it is. It's Sam's life, and his business how he wants to live his life. If you have a problem with it, that's your problem, not his.
Bomani Jones kind of captured my thoughts on the matter as it happened.
I haven't seen men kiss like this before in real life either.  I suspect this was the first time something like this every happened on ESPN...and it won't be the last time.  If you don't like it, that's your problem because unless you are on the other end of the kiss, it's really none of our business.

Look to your own moral belief structure to guide you as to what is right and wrong for you. Whether that's religion, atheism, or agnosticism, roll with whatever beliefs you choose. This is America, where we're allowed to believe what we want to believe. (Except apparently in Alabama for some twisted reason.)

If you don't like someone like Michael Sam playing football, that's your problem. And you'd better get used to it, because more players will be open about their personal life moving forward.  In the 1930's and 1940's, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in sports. In 2014, Sam broke the LGBT barrier.  And over time, it's going to mean less and less.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Ralston Arena Loses $4 Million in Year One

Interesting little tidbit from the 2012-2013 annual report for the city of Ralston:  in the first year of operation, the new Ralston Arena operated at a $4 million deficit.  The arena charged $3,370,607 for services in the first year, and received another $239,241 in "operating grants and contributions."

Expenses in year one totaled $7,633,914.  That's a revenue shortfall of $4,024,066 in year one.

One caveat on the results on the Ralston Arena.  Sales tax revenue from the new Menards store that opened last fall is intended to help pay for the new arena, but since the store didn't operate in year one, those revenues weren't available for 2012-13.  That changes in the current year, so the numbers should improve in year two.

That likely won't solve all of the financial concerns, though. Ralston will get 70% of the sales tax revenue generated by Menards, and if the new store generates $40 million in sales, as is the average for Menards, that's only about $2 million a year.  Unless operations improve significantly in Ralston, it looks like this new arena will be yet another money loser, much like the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs.

And that, in turn, raises questions about the financial viability of UNO's new Aksarben arena currently under construction. How will UNO's arena be able to break even (or even turn a profit) when other arenas don't?

I'm not privy to the numbers that justify the UNO arena, but I've long been a skeptic. And my skepticism continues to grow.  I don't believe that the new UNO arena can be justified from a financial perspective.  Does UNO have some magic ability to succeed where others fail?  I doubt that.

Maybe from an athletic perspective, the new UNO arena makes sense. Maybe having a near-campus facility that's connected with a practice facility is just what UNO's hockey program needs to break through on the ice. The shuffling around town for practice and odd scheduling requirements imposed by sharing the CenturyLink Center with Creighton and other events may make a compelling case to build the arena.

Even though it's likely going to cost more to build and operate than supporters want to acknowledge. And if you are building it without the expectation that the new arena is going to improve UNO's fiances, the inevitable losses won't be as big of an issue.