Here’s the first question of the day: Is the NFL draft over yet? The answer, if you include the endless analysis that goes on in every city, is no. Here in Washington you would think the Redskins decision to (finally) draft an offensive tackle was roughly as brilliant as the founders decision to ask Thomas Jefferson to write The Declaration of Independence.
Let’s face it: in April everyone has had a good draft—even the Raiders. Check back in October and things will look a bit less rosy in a few places. Of course by then ESPN’s draft experts will be telling us who is going to go in the first round of NEXT year’s draft. Talk about the circle of life.
Moving on to far more interesting topics. The biggest news of the past few days actually involved golf—but not Tiger Woods or even Phil Mickelson. It involved Lorena Ochoa, who has decided to retire from golf—apparently to start a family—at the age of 28. This is NOT good news for the LPGA; to put it mildly.
The last few years have not gone very well for women’s golf. Some of the issues have been completely out of control of the people in the game: Annika Sorenstam retired, the economy tanked and Michelle Wie, even though she made great strides last year, still has not become the breakthrough star people thought she was going to be when she showed up as a prodigy at the age of 13.
Unfortunately those events happened, for the most part, while Carolyn Bivens was the LPGA’s commissioner. Bivens was to being a commissioner what Dan Snyder has been to owning a football team: she did everything wrong and then tried to blame everyone else. She had lousy relationships with her players, her sponsors and with the media. She tried to make English the official language of the LPGA Tour—speak it or be gone. Other than that, she did fine. She was finally fired by the players last summer but the damage had been done. Tournaments were going under left and right and, even though Ochoa had emerged as a superstar and a number of young players had flashed potential, interest in the LPGA was tanking.
The tour has since hired Michael Whan, who is young and eager and seems to want to rebuild some of the bridges blown up by Bivens. But the key for any commissioner is having a product the public cares about and the best way for any sport to do that is through great rivalries. Maybe Wie or Morgan Pressel or Paula Creamer or Brittany Lincicome (sadly, Natalie Gulbis does not appear to have the game to be much more than golf’s version of Anna Kournikova—a reasonably good player who is a star because of her looks) might have emerged as Ochoa’s great rival.
Now, that’s not going to happen. Does it help, by the way, for at least one of the world’s best players to be an American—yes. That’s not me being Bivens and demanding that everyone on earth learn to speak English, that’s a fact of life in sports. When there was a lull in great American male tennis players between John McEnroe/Jimmy Connors and the emergence of Pete Sampras/Andre Agassi/Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl, among others said bluntly: “We need an American star. We need American television ratings and corporations and American stars drive those things.”
The same is true in golf—men or women. When Tom Watson began to fade as a star and neither Phil Mickelson nor Tiger Woods had arrived yet, golf ratings went down. Greg Norman helped because he was ‘Americanized,’ if not American but Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros as the world’s best players didn’t drive ratings.
Neither Sorenstam nor Ochoa is American, but Sorenstam had lived here for a long time and Ochoa is from close to here and has a unique sort of charm that bridges borders. Still, a rivalry between her and one of the Americans would have been terrific for the sport. Now, unless she has a baby, gets bored and makes a comeback at 30 or 31 (certainly possible) it won’t happen.
What’s sad is we may never see the best of Ochoa. Sorenstam didn’t become dominant until she was 30. She had won two majors—the same number as Ochoa—prior to turning 30 and 23 tournaments. After 30 she won eight more majors and 49 (!!!) more tournaments. She became a star who transcended her sport, which was—needless to say—good for the women’s game. There was never more focus on women’s golf than in 2003 when she played against the men at Colonial. The only bad thing about that week was it put the idea that you could make more money by playing against the men into the heads of Wie and her handlers and led to her multiple ill-fated attempts to play against the men BEFORE she had even won a tournament playing against women.
The other story of last week was the growing drumbeat on the issue of conference expansion in the NCAA. There have been almost as many meaningless words spoken and written on this subject as on the NFL draft. Here’s the deal: The Big Ten—unfortunately—holds all the cards here because of the success of The Big Ten TV network.
That means Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, is wielding most of the power and influence right now. I can tell you two things about Delany: he’s smart and he’s ruthless. He could care less about anything other than what’s best for him—and, thus, his conference—which makes him a very good commissioner if not someone you would want to trust to tell you where the sun will rise tomorrow.
A lot of people sneered when he started The Big Ten network but it has, for all intents and purposes, made him the unofficial commissioner of college athletics. Why? Because the success of the network means that every Big Ten team takes home a check for $22 million at the end of every football season. No one else is making half of that, except for the SEC—which is the one conference Delany hasn’t talked (privately, he never says anything that has any meaning in public) about raiding.
Now, if the college presidents cared anything about doing the right thing, conference expansion wouldn’t even be an issue right now. There are already too many conferences that are too big because of the constant money grab going on. Sixteen Big East basketball teams? Twelve ACC football teams? That’s good for competition, for rivalries, for fans? There are Big East teams that don’t visit another Big East home court for two or three years at a time. Round-robin play, the fairest way to decide a championship in basketball? Gone from all the major conferences except the Pac-10. Every team playing every league team in football? Gone—except in The Big East, which is fighting for survival.
Now, Delany may want to make The Big Ten into The Big Sixteen. He may try to entice schools like Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia (all Big East) and Missouri into his league. He’d love to add Notre Dame—which will NEVER give up its exclusive TV money from NBC—or Texas. If Delany goes on a raiding mission, the leagues raided have to try to raid themselves in order to survive. Why would someone like Syracuse leave The Big East? Again, do the math: $22 million vs. $7 million. Those numbers will trump tradition is any college president’s office any day. The same is true of the other candidates for expansion.
All of this, frankly, sucks. It is also bound to happen. Because he who has the checkbook has the power. And right now, unfortunately for college athletics, no one has a bigger checkbook than Jim Delany.