VCU’s Cinderella Run Provides Lesson on Belief

March 28, 2011

From a fourth place conference finish and being one of the “last four in” to being in the Final Four, Virginia Commonwealth University’s maddening March run through the NCAA Tournament has captured the biggest headline from college basketball’s biggest event.

While many tend to overplay the sentiment that “sports can teach you lessons about life,” there’s certainly a life lesson to be learned from VCU’s unlikely success through its five-game gauntlet of NCAA Tournament games.

In the hours that followed the release of the NCAA Tournament bracket, the Selection Committee was criticized for its inclusion of VCU, which had lost its last four regular season games and finished just fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association. Pundits, particularly those employed by ESPN, held nothing back in their criticism of VCU’s inclusion.

Commentators said the decision to select VCU was “horrible”, “indefensible”, “failed the laugh test” and one likened VCU and UAB to Rosanne Barr while comparing Colorado, which was left out of the tournament, to Scarlett Johansson.

The sports blog Awful Announcing features a compilation of videos of sports commentators criticizing the Committee’s inclusion of VCU. The Rams used that criticism as motivation, in particular a comment from ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who said of VCU: “They can’t guard me.”

But the Rams didn’t let what others said they couldn’t do affect what they believed they could do.

“When you have a belief in each other and a belief in your coaching staff anything like this can happen,” VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said.

In fact, just prior to tipoff against No. 1 seed Kansas Sunday in the Elite Eight (a game VCU won 71-61), Rodriguez was told by a Kansas player, “You guys have had a good run, but now it’s over.” But the Rams’ confidence and belief didn’t waiver.

“Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game,” said 33-year-old VCU coach Shaka Smart. “But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. We talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. That’s our theme throughout the NCAA Tournament since we were selected. Our guys have done a phenomenal job putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job.”


Senior VP Offers Opinion on Technology Use by Sport Marketers

March 23, 2011

As the senior vice president of sports for GMR Marketing, Ed Kiernan has acquired an intimate knowledge of the world of sport marketing. He recently granted an interview to Sport Marketing Quarterly Industry Insider section editor Jim Kadlecek to talk about some current hot-button issues in the industry. The full interview is available in the March 2011 issue (Vol. 20, No. 1) of Sport Marketing Quarterly.

Q: As we get further into 2011, what predictions do you have with respect to sponsorship activation?

Kiernan: “NFL? ‘The One to Watch in 2011.’ With the possibility of an NFL lockout in 2011, all companies and brands involved with the NFL on a league, team, media, or player sponsorship should be analyzing their current campaigns and promotional activation to determine how they may be impacted. This analysis should consider all potential lockout scenarios and timing and how those will affect current programming and develop contingency plans to minimize the impact and potentially benefit from proactive counter programming. Who will win this battle—billionaires or millionaires?”

Q: What about your predictions about the use of technology?

Kiernan: “You have to learn how to navigate the fragmented social media space in order to micro-target exact niche audiences. The key is to not interrupt the consumer; rather engage and empower them to participate. You must distribute clear brand messages to the right audience, while teaching clients how to be successful in the new world of digital word-of-mouth marketing. The philosophy is simple; bring people closer to the things they love and they will do the marketing for you. Some things to watch in 2011: (a) more website and blog integrations and promotions, (b) enhanced digital content distribution, (c) social network loyalty and engagement, (d) the ever-growing need for digital reporting, metrics, and analytics, (e) mCRM and commerce, and (f) mobile social commerce.”

Q: With HD and now 3D sport broadcasts, what do properties need to do to ensure fans still purchase tickets and come to the events instead of viewing from the comfort of their living room?

Kiernan: “Sports entities are facing more challenges than ever before but their biggest threat is the elevated, at-home viewing experience. As consumers weigh the cost benefits of attending a live game versus watching from the comforts of their home on a large HD television, sports teams are feeling the pinch when it comes to selling out venues. To combat the threat of the “new” at-home viewing experience, sports entities are turning to new technologies in an effort to improve the in-stadium fan experience, offer corporate partners new inventory, and drive their bottom line. Here is a quick breakdown of several new technologies that sports entities are turning to in an effort to enhance the game day experience for fans and offer new integration opportunities for corporate: FanVision: NFL and NCAA; Yinzcam: NFL; Augmented Reality Mobile Applications: USTA, Wimbledon, and NASCAR; Massive Stadium LED Video Boards: Dallas Cowboys Stadium.”

Graduation Rates, Racial Gap Increase

March 17, 2011

When college basketball fans fill out their 2011 NCAA Tournament brackets, they rely on a team’s on-court performance throughout the season to assist them in making their predictions. But what if fans placed greater importance on teams’ academic graduation rates rather than their basketball prowess?

Each year, Inside Higher Education creates a bracket to showcase what the results would be like if schools advanced in the NCAA Tournament based solely on their academic progress rates (APR) with any ties broken using the school’s graduation rate. Based on their findings, Princeton (996), Kansas (1,000, a perfect score), Texas (1,000), and Butler (1,000) would be in this year’s Final Four with Texas and Butler playing in the national championship game.

According to the Graduation Success Rates (GSR), 42 teams in this year’s 68-team field graduated 60% or better of their players and 32 teams graduated at least 70%. However, seven teams had graduation rates of less than 40%, with the lowest being Arizona (20%), the University of Alabama at Birmingham (25%), Connecticut (31%), and Temple (33%).

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida releases the annual study detailing the NCAA Tournament schools’ graduation rates. Their findings for this year’s teams shows that graduation rates are improving overall, with both white and African-American student-athletes graduating at a higher rate than last year. White student-athletes for this year’s NCAA Tournament teams have a 90% graduation rate, while African-Americans have a 58% graduation rate.

Although the graduation rates for both African-American and white college basketball players continues to rise, the disparity of the rates between African-American and white student-athletes increased by 4% since last year. The staggering gap of 32% has increased 10% since 2009.

“For years we have noted the deeply troubling disparity between the GSR of African-American and white men’s basketball student-athletes,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of TIDES. “While the actual graduation rates of African-American basketball student-athletes continue to increase, the gap increased to 32 percentage points! An ESPN poll conducted for Martin Luther King Day this year indicated that the greatest concern of both whites and African-Americans in the general public was this disparity. Hopefully that concern will generate new resources to address this problem.”

While this gap may seem disturbing, compared to African-American men in the general student population, the graduation rate of NCAA Tournament-bound African-American student-athletes is much higher. Despite that widening gap, there are five schools in this year’s NCAA Tournament that have higher graduation rates for African-American players than white players, those schools being Boston University (100%/80%), Northern Colorado (100%/78%), Old Dominion (50%/33%), Pittsburgh (60%/50%), and North Carolina-Ashville (rates n/a).

TIDES also released graduation rates for teams in this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament. As has historically been the case, the 2011 report revealed that women’s basketball teams had a higher overall graduation rate than men’s basketball teams. A graduation rate of 70% or higher was achieved by 91% of women’s teams, compared to 49% of men’s teams who achieved that benchmark. What is the reason for this?

“I think for women athletes and basketball players the emphasis is on balancing academic and athletic performance,” Lapchick said. “Coaches and everybody involved advising the women have pushed positive academic success. That’s become a tradition in women’s sports. But there are some of the same people advising both men’s and women’s teams on these campuses. So there’s a sort of academic challenge there, too. For me the next step is to hold up the women as a model of what we can do.”

Dr. Richard Lapchick is a forerunner in the fight for racial equality in sports and “the racial conscience of sport.” He co-authored the books 100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport, 100 Trailblazers: Great Women Athletes Who Opened the Doors for Future Generations, 100 Campeones: Latino Groundbreakers Who Paved the Way in Sport, and 150 Heroes: People in Sport Who Make This a Better World. All four books are published by Fitness Information Technology and are available at

TV Networks Getting Too Involved in Sports Contests?

October 19, 2010

Much of the country was either asleep or watching Texas polish off the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS on TBS, but late in ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast of the Tennessee Titans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, an odd turn of events occurred and the revelation of why should be unsettling to sports fans and media critics.

With Tennessee leading 23-3 late in the fourth quarter and attempting to run out the clock, Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio began burning his three timeouts. Sports fans have all seen coaches use timeouts late in games when trailing in hopes of pulling off a miraculous comeback, even when logic indicates no comeback is possible. So what Del Rio did by calling timeouts even after the two-minute warning didn’t warrant anything other than a, ‘Oh c’mon, Del Rio, your team has no chance,” reaction. That is, until Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher spoke during his postgame press conference when questioned about why his offense continued to run the ball rather than asking the quarterback to take a knee.

“Jack used his timeouts,” Fisher said. “My understanding is they needed network timeouts, and that’s why Jack used his timeouts. They came over and asked me to do it, but I said, ‘I was hoping to get a first down and kneel on it.’”

That’s right. According to Fisher, ESPN representatives lobbied the coaches of both teams to call timeouts late in the fourth quarter of a game where the outcome was not in doubt simply so they could broadcast commercials.

NFL games typically include five commercial breaks per quarter that were sold by the broadcasting network. Prior to Jacksonville calling timeout, there had only been three advertising breaks in the fourth quarter, with the impending two-minute warning set to provide a fourth. So if neither team had called timeout and Tennessee ran out the clock, which it was content in doing, ESPN would have been one commercial break short in the fourth quarter.

“You can check with Jack. It didn’t bother me at all,” Fisher said. “I believe that they asked them to use them. It’s the first time I’ve heard of it. I just said I would have a hard time using them, because I’m ahead.”

Because of the stoppage in play, Tennessee continued to run the football and running back Chris Johnson broke free for a 35-yard touchdown, pushing the lead to 30-3. So in essence Del Rio succumbing to ESPN’s lobbying caused his team to lose by an even wider margin.

But what if an additional score was not all that happened during the additional plays created by the timeouts? What if a player had gotten seriously injured (several concussions occurred the previous day in the NFL)?

But this isn’t the only time this season on-field action has been affected by TV networks. Notre Dame first-year head coach Brian Kelly openly talked prior to the season about how Notre Dame and NBC executives met to determine how NBC’s length, frequency, and timing of commercial breaks could be altered during its broadcasts of Notre Dame home games to serve as an advantage for the Fighting Irish, who under the guidance of Kelly hoped to employ a fast-paced offense.

Fans had learned to live with the fact that TV networks for years have determined start times for games, whether it be determining the day of the week or the actual tip/kickoff time. College football is now broadcast by ESPN on Saturdays, Thursdays, and Fridays (to the chagrin of high school football fans). And ESPN and other networks that broadcast live sporting events often dictate that start times are pushed back or moved up to inconvenient times for home fans simply for convenience of the networks.

But when TV networks begin lobbying coaches to call timeouts during games, the networks are approaching gonzo journalism status.

Some Schools Use Millions in Student Fees to Supplement Athletic Revenue

October 4, 2010

Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano is making more than $2 million per season, and in recent years the University committed to spending more than $100 million to upgrade its football stadium. Meanwhile, student fees contributed nearly $8 million toward Rutger’s athletic department revenue in 2008-09, which equals more than 13% of the revenue generated by Rutgers’ athletics.

According to a USA Today database on athletic department budgets, Rutgers netted less than $200,000 in 2008-09. Take away the nearly $8 million contributed from student fees and the athletic department would have severely overspent.

Rutgers isn’t alone. A recent report by USA Today outlined in detail how some universities are using escalating student fees to support the multi-million dollar budgets of their athletic departments. The practice has some academicians, students, and parents crying foul.

Transparency, or the lack of it, is what has some up in arms, as many universities go to great lengths to make it difficult to discern just how much their athletic departments are benefitting from receiving student fees.

To some, it seems as if the athletic department is the big, bad bully on the block, stealing lunch money from poor students to pay its coaches millions of dollars and build lavish luxury suites for its millionaire alums.

But as Dr. William Kern, chair of the Department of Economics at Western Michigan University, pointed out to Fitness Information Technology, athletic departments aren’t the only units in a university that receive financial support from general funds. Kern and Donald Alexander, also a professor and economist at Western Michigan University, recently conducted a study on the effect of athletic success on state appropriations to universities. Their research will be published in the November issue of the International Journal of Sport Finance.

“There are a number of activities across the university that are subsidized through one means or another,” Kern said. “For example, there are probably a number of academic departments on every campus that don’t generate revenues sufficient to cover the costs of their operations.

“Philosophy might be such a case and the reader can probably think of others in the fine arts where this might also be the case. But we subsidize them because we think they are a necessary part of the university. That argument is easier to justify in the case of philosophy than in the case of non-revenue sports but some would no doubt argue much the same way that sports are an integral part of the university.”

Perhaps the biggest objection with using general funds and state appropriations to support athletic department budgets is the fact that salaries for coaches in football and men’s basketball, in particular, have escalated at a rapid pace during the past decade. It’s now atypical that a coach in one of those two sports at a large university isn’t earning in the neighborhood of $1 million annually, with a select few football coaches earning $3-4 million per year.

In addition, many universities are spending millions to upgrade athletic facilities, not necessarily because they are structurally unfit, but because their rival schools have enhanced their facilities.

“There seems to be an arms race with regard to improvement in facilities and coaches’ salaries, at least in the major sports at large state universities,” Kern said. “This spending is not likely to decline as any individual university that stops spending finds itself at a competitive disadvantage against its rivals. What is really needed to stop this is some sort of rule that constrains spending that applies to all schools. Robert Frank has a nice analysis of this issue in his Knight Commission report of collegiate athletics.”

Frank, an economist at Cornell University, concluded in his 2004 Knight Commission Report that after extensive research, “The empirical literature seems to say that if the overall net effect of athletic success on alumni giving is positive, it is likely to be small.”

Still, while Frank and other economists profess that athletic success has little effect on donations, it should be noted that athletic success is believed to contribute to school loyalty and a student’s enjoyment while on campus.

“Students seem to be demanding more and more amenities associated with their college experience and sports in both participant and spectator forms appear to be a part of that,” Kern said. “Most students don’t seem to want to attend ‘no-frills’ universities that would eliminate these sorts of things and just stick to the basics of instruction.”

Do NCAA Licensing Deals Exploit Student-Athletes?

September 9, 2010

It’s a debate this isn’t likely to end anytime soon, but a recent event once again stirred up questions about whether collegiate student-athletes should be paid.

Talented University of Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green violated NCAA rules by selling his game jersey from last year’s bowl game to a person the NCAA recognizes as an agent. As a result, Green has been suspended for the first four games of this season.

For those on the “pay the players” side of the argument, a column by Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated made some strong arguments that players such as Green are being exploited by their universities, apparel corporations, and the NCAA.

Green reportedly sold his jersey for less than $150, but the violation of NCAA rules cost him four of the Bulldogs’ 12 regular-season games. As Staples points out, the University of Georgia sells Green’s No. 8 jersey (see image) for between $60 and $150, of which Green receives nothing.

Staples argues that it’s a double standard that the NCAA preaches about amateurism, maintains a tax-exempt status, and then earns millions of dollars courtesy of the athletic achievements of its “student-athletes,” who are punished for the slightest overstep of the NCAA’s Britannica-like rulebook.

The sale of jerseys adorning popular players’ numbers is just a small portion of the licensing revenue the NCAA reaps from the performances of its amateur athletes. A more recent phenomenon has been the use of players’ “likenesses” in video games, which produces millions of dollars of additional revenue for the NCAA and video game creators such as EA Sports.

Some of these issues have moved into legal battles, as described in a column in the September 2009 issue of Sport Marketing Quarterly (Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 160-164) by Anita Moorman and Marion Hambrick. In their column titled “To License or Not to License: That is the Question for Professional Sport Leagues and the NCAA,” Moorman and Hambrick describe how three recent court cases are intertwined with regard to licensing. Two of those cases directly involve the NCAA.

In Keller v. Electronic Arts, Inc., former football player Sam Keller filed a lawsuit against EA Sports, the NCAA, and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) for the video game maker’s use of players’ likenesses, mannerisms, and distinctive appearances without the players’ permission. In O’Bannon v. NCAA, former basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA and CLC on behalf of himself and former student-athletes, who he claims, since their eligibility has expired, should no longer be bound to the amateur status form (Form 08-3a) that the NCAA requires all student-athletes to sign.

“As these cases wind their way through the legal system, the NCAA must revisit the delicate balance it has achieved between preserving amateurism, and avoiding exploitation and over-commercialization of student-athletes and maintaining its vital revenue-producing activities, including licensing student-athletes’ names, image, likeness, or other aspects of identity.” (p. 163)

While there is currently no clear-cut answer to the question of whether collegiate athletes should be paid, things are slowly trending toward the point in time when deeper discussions among decision makers must take place.

Examining the Economic Effects of Conference Realignment

June 21, 2010

Even though the creation of “super” conferences appears to no longer be imminent, the realignment of the Big Ten and Pac-10 certainly created some ripples in the sea of college athletics. But if the pair of leagues had expanded to 16 teams as many speculated, those ripples of change would have become waves that would have washed away the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) setup.

Sport economist and University of Alberta professor Brad Humphreys believes the formation of four “super” conferences could have signaled the end of the current BCS setup.

“If you are a fan of the current bowl/poll system, traditional rivalries, and the rest of that, then the current outcome—with only Nebraska, Colorado, and (Utah) moving—and the same basic BCS conference configuration is a good thing,” Humphreys said. “If you want a playoff, then a 16-team ‘super’ conference configuration is better, as the BCS is probably untenable under that configuration.”

The Pac-10 made a serious run at reconfiguring its league membership from 10 to 16 institutions, but was ultimately turned down by Texas and a collection of Big XII members. It was also being speculated that the Big Ten would consider growing to a 14- or 16-team league. But for now, the Big XII will have 10 members and the Big Ten and Pac-10 will each have 12 members.

The Big Ten (which despite its name had 11 members) got to 12 teams by plucking Nebraska from the Big XII, while the Pac-10 grew by adding Colorado from the Big XII and Utah from the Mountain West. Now both those conferences are able to host a conference championship game in football, which they were previously unable to do since the NCAA mandates a membership of at least 12 schools in order to have a conference championship contest.

But just how beneficial financially is the coveted conference championship game in football? It depends on the TV deal and fan turnout, according to Humphreys.

“While the lure of holding a conference championship game in football is what started all this moving, I think the overall profitability of those games is uncertain,” said Humphreys, an associate editor of the International Journal of Sport Finance. “Sure, the SEC championship game is a huge financial success, but I don’t think the ACC championship game has produced the kind of revenue that was expected.” Read the rest of this entry »