End of An Era As Mad Dog Resigns

Radio shows should not mean this much to me, or anyone else – but this one did. For anyone not part of the Mike and the Mad Dog family over the last years, listening to any part of today’s swan song gave a glimpse to how many people they effected and how deeply they effected them. We invited Chris and Mike into our lives for almost twenty years, and they invited us into theirs. Today officially ended an era, not just at WFAN or in New York sports media, but in radio history.

I grew up with Mike and the Mad Dog. Sitting on my kitchen counter listening to the small clock radio as I helped my Dad prepare dinner as a kid. Desperately trying to call in to win Giants playoff tickets, as if a ten year old could ever answer their trivia. Those pre-Internet years when we all relied on the duo to bring the first two days of the NCAA tournament to life because New York was the mercy of CBS’ one game. My annual ritual of sneaking the radio into school with the headphones up one sleeve to listen. Same thing when Opening Day for baseball rolled around.

Delivering newspaper’s for four or five years, through rain, sleet, sun, or snow, they were there. I remember their debut on YES, spring 2002, right during YES’ carriage disputes with the cable companies before baseball season started. But I remember it more because I was watching right before attending my grandfather’s funeral. Over six years later, I had my parents bring me a walkman during a long hospital stay so I could tune in from 1-6:30.

In between, we had all the Yankee playoff runs, especially the magical ’96 season when the production staff made the rallying music before each World Series game. Who could forget Dog’s tirades after the Giants lost in the playoffs in the early ’90’s. The list goes on. The interviews, the callers, the classic moments, the memorable moments. Enough material to put the show into syndication like classic TV shows. All over now.

Forget why this happened or who’s fault it is. Both unanswerable questions. Celebrate the show for what it was – the best sports radio talk show ever, at any level. Now what? Both will certainly have success going forward, however the spotlight is on each, forever compared to what they did together.

Francesca starts his journey Monday, same time, same channel, new format. Expect things to remain status quo. He’ll remain on YES as well, though less entertaining for television without the gestures and tirades of Russo. Francesca announced he has full reign to re-create the program and plans to recruit new talent to appear regularly, not a new full-time partner.

Russo, on the other hand, opened himself to more risk. Rumors have him accepting a national deal with Sirius/XM satellite radio. Today he spoke of missing the hotness of New York sports, plus his contract release has a no-compete with ESPN Radio in NY, not satellite, further indications he will end up along side Howard Stern for a newly merged company desperate for listeners.

More questions rise than answers. Other RSN’s in New York have to consider Mad Dog for a program, if not a simulcast, now that he’s not obligated to YES. MSG is particularly hurting in the sports department, and could use some fresh blood, while Russo would fit right in on SNY, although he may overshadow the other FAN talent already in place. His personality translates and histriconics translate to more entertaining television on a daily basis than Francesca does. Mike operates well in a more controlled network setting, the exact format his successful Mike’d Up on WNBC follows. Russo will resurface on TV somewhere.

Looking at the bigger picture, what will this do to sports radio? We’ve already seen a seismic shift to the Internet in recent years, will this break-up have a ripple effect. It sounds far-fetched to think one little radio show in New York could change the whole landscape, but this same show already did change the landscape when it first started. Now, a whole generation of followers may choose to move elsewhere. Does ESPN radio in NY win? Does Francesca or Russo in solo efforts win? Does some new trend emerge from this? Will WFAN produce another star from the Mad Dog replacement?

The questions can go on all weekend, as could the stories about the show and the last 20 years, and all the moments we shared with this dynamic duo. Something in me died when I read the news last night. More importantly, I’m grateful for the last 19+ years, and like all the other listeners out there, I’m happy to have lived through this amazing run.

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High Schooler Not Sacrificing Education with Euro Venture

Brandon Jennings decision to skip college in favor of playing professionally in Europe until he becomes eligible for the NBA draft raises many issues and controversial topics. Len Elmore, the superb broadcaster, former All-American player, and lawyer, took a strong stance on why the Jennings decision is wrong on many levels in this week’s Sports Business Journal. However, his argument misses one major premise.

Elmore contends that Jennings fell prey to his so-called advisors, like Sonny Vaccaro, and is undervaluing education by going overseas. Jennings may go on to star in the NBA, making this an afterthought, but Elmore worries about the others who may follow but are not qualified for pro basketball. Without a solid education their future remains in doubt.

Nobody can argue the value of a college education, and even more so the college experience that teaches some of the most important life lessons a young adult will learn. The assumption Elmore makes is that these college athletes who decide to attend college, while pursuing a pro career, don’t take advantage of the system. Elmore seems to agree the “one and done” rule does not work. It simply prolongs the process. Look how many first-year players entered the draft unprepared for the NBA, and fell into the second round or went undrafted. It’s no different than the players who went straight from high school and failed in the league. Most of these one-year players attend minimal classes, schools do their best to kepp the eligible by bending rules at times, and they bail on school once the season ends. Explain how that is any better than playing professionally in Europe.

If anything, at least players earn a check in Europe to help take care of their families. Further, living overseas can potentially open their eyes to a new world, providing a cultural education that college players never receive. Case in point, Freddy Adu, the soccer prodigy, has excelled in Portugal after struggling in the US. Adu is a slightly different story, having grown up under the spotlight and signing a big contract with Nike before playing.

If a new labor agreement can enforce a three-year draft eligibility rule, as Elmore outlines, it will help college basketball and most important, help high school kids become men. One and done is hurting college basketball. It’s turned the college game into free agency. Players still enter the NBA draft unprepared as basketball players and unprepared for life – some, not all. Would three years in school hurt anyone? Perhaps a player’s draft stock would fall or someone would get injured. But if they are not good enough in college, the NBA would weed them out immediately anyway, and many players have shown you can recover from injuries and still make it to the NBA, Brandon Rush and Bill Walker for example.

Anyone that opts for Europe in today’s one and done era is better off, since they don’t value the education and would likely find ways to bypass the classroom anyway. At least they earn money, and are exposed to a new world. Clearly the best option for everyone involved is a rule to change to keep student-athletes in school.

Poor Timing for IU

Scout.com reports that Indiana University reached an eight year extension with adidas for $21M to remain the official outfitter for all teams and coaches at the school. At $2.6M per year, the contract is an annual increase of $500k over the previous four year deal.

While lucrative, the deal comes on the heels of the Kelvin Sampson scandal, which is still sure to garner negative attention when the NCAA convenes in June, or if Sampson makes headline by accepting an NCAA job. Tom Crean takes over a decimated roster, losing its two star players, and multiple other contributors to graduation, the NBA, transfer, and discipline. With the school’s most valuable athletic asset reeling, destined for at least a year or two of rebuilding, how much, if anything, did that cost IU at the negotiating table?

Michigan garnered about $8M per year, if you include its signing bonus, Notre Dame rakes in $6M per year from adidas. IU is considered one of college basketball’s crown jewels because of its rich history, but its recent struggles on the court and controversies with each of its last two coaches have tainted the program, knocking it down in popularity and national prominence. Instead of basketball’s version of Notre Dame, a great name struggling on the field, Indiana’s contract closely matches Nebraska, a former powerhouse struggling on and off the field. Ironically, both schools bring new coaches, and renewed hope to their cornerstone programs this year. Unfortunately, it will not recover the few million Indiana may have left at the table.

BCS Unlikely to Change

Despite rumblings earlier this season of a Plus-One, or even playoff format proposal to determine college football’s champion, all indications are the current BCS system will remain in tact for at least another season.

Multiple roadblocks continue to stall any proposed changes, notably the separate Rose Bowl contract with the Pac 10 and Big 10 and lack of consensus on the best method for choosing a champion. Fox’s $320 million BCS contract is up for renewal this year, they have a one month exclusive negotiation period in September though other networks have also expressed interest in bidding, while the Rose Bowl-ABC contract runs through 2014. The Big 10 and Pac 10 conference commissioners remain staunch opponents of any format changes, unlikely to change course at least until that contract expires, giving the rest of college football enough leverage to sway them.

Each proposed system has its flaws. The current BCS creates controversy because teams are often rewarded or punished based on their schedules and its too often left in the hands of computers to determine the two best teams. A plus-one format pushes the problem out from the argument of who deserves number two, to who deserves number four, and number gets snubbed. Opponents of an NFL style playoff system cite scheduling issues, damage to the entire bowl system, and travel problems, among other shortcomings.

From a revenue standpoint, college football stands to lose money by remaining status quo. Outside of January 2006, television ratings for the BCS as a whole continue to slide annually. Each of the past two seasons the championship game posted a solid 17.4, however only the Rose Bowl reached a 10 or higher, with none of the other three games even registering an 8 this season. Matchups and schedules are the biggest culprits.

The BCS renders all but the BCS Championship Game meaningless, and the system leads to unattractive matchups from both an appeal and competition standpoint – case in point Kansas-Virginia Tech and Georga-Hawaii, two of the three lowest rated BCS games this decade. A plus-one system adds importance back into at least two more games, possibly the entire BCS depending on how the system is structured – either using the top 4 seeds play, winners advance method, or the play all the BCS games, then determine the 1-2 based on ratings after those games. Better games, more interesting for the casual fan, more competitive, leads to better ratings.

Playing these games over the course of five days hurts college football in the end. For years, bowl games owned New Years Day, an American tradition. They still dominate the landscape on January 1st, but quickly lose fan momentum after that, especially when competing with the NFL playoffs. THe BCS games played after January 1st, before the BCS Championship Game, become a slight afterthought, then after the NFL takes over for the weekend, college football loses at least some buzz, especially with the casual fan, heading into the championship. Bowl games need to leverage the American persona, take back New Years Day, and keep up the momentum. One idea, play a BCS triple header on January 1st, bumping the other bowl games to early start times or to New Years Eve, or play a double header on January 1st and January 2nd. Condense the time between games to keep the fan engaged. Then hold the championship game one week later, creating the lead-in that the NFL does for the Super Bowl.

Pac 10 and Big 10 officials need to get over this Rose Bowl issue. The tradition went out the window in 2002 when Miami and Nebraska played in Pasadena for the championship, the first non Big 10-Pac 10 matchup. Instead of clinging to something no longer present, these conference commissioners should embrace a new system and contribute their ideas rather than posing threats. However, until college football can unify the television contract of the Rose Bowl with the rest of the BCS, creating a unified system, change remains unlikely.

Without change, ratings will continue to slide, and the conferences will lose out on potential revenue from a more valuable television contract, new marketing opportunities, and sponsorship deals. Expect the downward ratings trend to continue.

In the upcoming BCS renewal, when Fox bids again, the commissioners should find a way to get the network involved during the season. Fox has no presence all year, then suddenly pops up on New Years Day – new announcers, new graphics, new hosts than fans saw all season. Developing a presence throughout the season allows for more appropriate promotion, and creates a community with the fans. It also makes the TV package more valuable.

Fox does own the digital rights during this contract, though they have yet to leverage those rights to the fullest extent. It remains to be seen what they have planned for the final two years on the current contract. The BCS needs to force the networks to deliver a digital strategy at the bargaining table, then place a value around those digital rights. New media remains a mystery to most. However, its clear that digital will play a big role in sports coverage. The NBA recently bundled digital rights into its deal with TNT. Without precise pricing models, its hard to place an exact dollar value on the rights, other than knowing it sweetens the pot.

Lack of consensus among the conferences will likely prevent any changes heading into the next BCS contract. The longer it takes to change, the more controversy swirls, the more money the schools leave on the table. College football should use NCAA basketball and the NFL playoffs as model.

Rays Spending Wisely

When Tampa Bay sent uber-prospect Evan Longoria down to AAA to start the season, eyes rolled. Here we go again, Tampa acting cheap by holding back players in the minors to delay arbitration eligible years, and eventual free agent years. They did the same with Delmon Young a few years back. A tactic that only creates animosity with the player, and creates an image for the entire league about what type of franchise the Rays are.

Surprisingly, by April 12th Longoria found himself starting at 3B, batting third, against the Baltimore Orioles. By the end of the week he had a six-year contract in hand. Talk about turning over a new leaf. The same team scoffed for preventing players from coming to the majors so they can avoid doling out the cash gives an unproven prospect a six year contract in under a week.

The 6-year, $17.5 million pact gives Longoria guaranteed money right through his arbitration eligible seasons, while Tampa locks in a potential star at what may look like bargain basement annual salaries by the time Longoria reaches years five and six, each valued at $11.5 million. Ryan Howard recently garnered $10 million in arbitration, and he’s not even close to year 5 and 6 yet. Not to put that expectation on Longoria, widely considered the top prospect in baseball, but if he evolves into the player most expect the Rays will surely be paying below market value on this contract.

After years of bad free agent signings – remember Vinny Castillo and Greg Vaughn – new owner Stuart Sternberg and General Manager Andrew Friedman finally have the Rays headed in the right direction. In addition to Longoria, Carlos Pena is signed for three seasons, up and coming pitcher James Sheilds is locked up for four years, the club holds options on Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, Japanese import Akinori Iwamura is signed through 2009 with a 2010 club option, and last years top draft pick David Price has a six year deal. Next on the list CF BJ Upton and lefty starter Scott Kazmir, both approaching free agency. With a solid, young nucleus in place, combined with an influx of young pitching on the way from the minors, the Rays are ready to compete.

At slightly over $43 million, Tampa’s 2008 payroll ranks next to last in baseball, only above the Marlins – not much of an accomplishment – but moves like the Longoria signing prove Tampa is committed to winning and heading the right direction. Following the model Cleveland used in the mid-1990’s, buying out the arbitration years on young players to control costs while keeping a young team together, Tampa has taken a calculated risk with a high reward. They are well-positioned to improve each year, possibly compete for a playoff as soon as next season.