Monday, April 26, 2010

Lorena Ochoa's retirement; Conference expansion – he who has the checkbook has the power

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.


Tony said...


How would adding six more teams to the Big Ten affect their TV payments?

By my simple math

220 M / 10 Teams = 22M per school

220 M / 16 Teams = 13.75M per school

To keep it at the same amount, they would need to increase the total amount up to 352M. Is that likely?

Why would the other 10 Schools want to dilute their earnings?

What am I missing?

John from Indiana said...

OK, I obviously have to declare myself as a Big Ten guy (Graduate of IU, and sending large sums of money there for a son), and accordingly spend a fair amount of time watching the Big Ten network (Thank God for that network, as IU football is so bad, it is the only way I get to ever watch them play, if not in person). I also live in the shadow of the Golden Dome, so have watched with interest the whole NBC gig for Notre Dame. What I can't quite understand is why what would appear to be such a huge financial advantage to the Big Ten and Irish football programs transfers into galloping mediocraty throughout the Big Ten and in South Bend for the last few years. Quite simply, how can schools pour such incredible dollars into their football programs and continue to be so awful? To a degree I can understand why IU fails to compete against the rest of the Big Ten, but come Bowl season, they ALL seem to stink on a regular basis; and the Irish, with that big cash cow, have been bad beyond belief for over 20 years. How does this happen, John? Enlighten the midwest masses please....

Tim said...

Tony - I don't have any sort of expertise, but the way I understand it, The Big Ten Network essentially has two revenue streams -- 1) Advertising and 2) Subscription rates.

With expansion, subscription rates (and reach) is where the big pop could come from. Essentially, xx dollars and/or cents is paid for each home the network is in, by Comcast/TW/DirecTV, etc. If they get schools in different geographic regions than they are currently in, and/or with national appeal, the Big 10 Network could then demand a higher rate per home in addition to being on more of a basic tier than premium sports tier. All meaning more money, and guaranteed contractually at that.

Then, maybe advertising sales and rates could get better.

That's the gist of how I understand it, but someone else could probably describe it better.

Anonymous said...

Golf has a fundamental problem which is it does make for exciting TV most of the time. Most people don't find it interesting. Only interesting personalities can bring viewers and money.

Gulbis certainly is not Kournikova. The LPGA can only wish Gulbis was Kournikova as Kournikova attracted a lot of money to the women's tour; despite what you think of her or her game.

Regarding college realignment, it's driven by money. But is it driven by greed? How else are schools supposed to fund unpopular sports like fencing, softball, cross-country and women's basketball? Private donations isn't getting it done.

There certainly has been lots of meaningless speculation out there about Big Ten expansion. But some very interesting analysis appears on Frank the Tank's Slant blog. I encourage readers to have a look. Lots of good analysis especially on TV issues and possible candidate schools. It's here:

Rich, Denver

cd1515 said...

isn't $22M per year (Big 10 deal) more than ND now gets from NBC?

Anonymous said...

I was thinking the same thing on the $22m being more than NBC's ND deal....but then I remembered that maybe the NBC deal doesn't fully get to $22m, the ability to command high paydays for the neutral site games (which are harder to do with a conference schedule - Yankees stadim this year?) and that ND does get TV rights fees from The Big East for basketball/olympic sports, all probably gets close. And then you take in consideration for freedom and the easier path to the BCS.

Wonder what the full money total is for ND?

Gordon said...


Given your understanding and deep appreciation for the game of golf I am surprised at how badly you missed the mark on the LPGA.

Natalie is NOT Anna! Unlike Anna Natalie has won the Evian Masters a tournament very difficult to win. And she is a very good player who will win. I predict several times inclusive of majors. Butch Harmon is her coach and Natalies priority is golf.

Annika was little better than Tiger when it came to the fans. Few autographs and little fan interaction when she did. For her the fans were a necessary evil. Lorena on the other hand loved and embraced the fans ala Nancy Lopez. She will be missed for many reasons beyond her great, although not so much lately, golf game.

Annika was the so called face of the LPGA because she was so good NOT because she cared about the fans.

AS for commissioner disaster Carolyn Bivens, her English edict was the only thing she tried to do that was right. To be fair to her it was not "English only" It was an edict that all players had to know how to converse on a rudementary level in English. The reason is very simple. Like there PGA counterparts LPGA players are required to play in Tuesday and Wednesday Pro-ams. As the pro-am players are paying between 2 and 5 thousand to play it is not unreasonable for the tour to expect that the pro be able to communicate with her pro-am partners.

It was not prejudice or an attempt to make it more difficult on the Asian players it was an attempt to better serve the sponsors, No other sport has such direct interaction with fans/sponsors. Two years in a row I played in The Wegmans Pro-am in Rochester, New York and both times our pro could barely communicate with us. GREAT way to spend 2Gs.

Mike Whan is doing and saying the right things. One has to have a lot of faith in a man who came from Mission hockey!

And yesterday morning on SportsCenter ESPN had Mel Kiper on to preview the 2011 NFL draft. Thank god they didn't get March Madness.

Anonymous said...

whoooaaa.. when does John Feinstein give a 'darn' about the LPGA.. enough to even write about it. John's M.O. is Tiger Bashing all day everyday.. while french kissing Ernie Els and his 'bro date' Paul Gydos.. cmon dude.. who are u kidding. When do you ever watch the LPGA.. I say never!

Studio City,CA

Chuck B '92 said...

I so agree with Tony above that it's downright frightening. The other missing part of the math here involves the often-rumored Big East Split along football conference/non-football-conference lines.

If they split into two conferences, you have two TV deals that are a better deal for their schools than the 16-team split that exists today, especially if the football schools (call them the "Eastern 10") pick up ECU, Memphis and UCF and the basketball "Big East" picks up Temple, Xavier, and UMass.

Syracuse and Rutgers can play in a 10-team league with UConn and Pitt and negotiate a pretty darn good TV deal, complete with BCS slot, or split the money 16 ways in a monster league with Penn State and Michigan State. I don't know what's more compelling, but I don't think the revenue difference is all that much.

Jay said...


Everything you say about Delaney could be 100% correct, but you've left out the academic portion of side of the coin. With the exception of Notre Dame, the Big 1(1)0 presidents will not allow the conference to admit an academic lightweight (your West Virginia thought is laughable). If your not already aware, google 'CIC' - it's the academic Big Ten, plus the University of Chicago. The CIC members have over 6 billion in research dollars between them. Any institution coming ito the Big Ten will have to bring some research dollars with them, too.

Go back to the late 80s. Penn State had an open door to the Big East and was likely a better athletic fit there. It was the PSU faculty that wanted into the Big Ten and thus the CIC.

You have to at least mention the CIC when you're talking Big Ten expansion.