Thursday, May 23, 2013
I wouldn't say that the Cleveland Browns are under siege at the moment, but that’s only because they are perpetually under siege. Having spent nearly a decade and a half in a bunker will give anyone a bunker mentality. Still, all the bad press flowing from Berea these days suggests that nothing much has changed and also that the Browns really could use a better media rep.
When the story of owner Jimmy Haslam’s troubles at Pilot Flying J broke, the team seemed particularly ill prepared to understand, let alone respond to, the questions fans might have about it all such as whether this will unravel the underpinnings of Haslam’s financial base and in turn thrown the team into even more turmoil. That’s probably a question Roger Goodell and the other owners in the NFL might want an answer to as well. And while Haslam has talked directly to the commissioner, the team’s media reps haven’t done a whole lot to help Haslam regain his footing with the fans. They may not know how.
If Haslam wasn’t talking out of an abundance of caution given the FBI investigation and the pending litigation, fans would probably understand. But Haslam has been chatty in various other forums though he hasn’t sat down for a lengthy local interview on the subject, not even with a team-friendly media type like Jim Donovan.
What Haslam has said is that he didn’t really want to take attention away from the draft, but that’s just a convenient excuse. The real problem here is that the Browns media department seems poorly equipped to handle the controversy and thus has just dug themselves deeper into their bunker hoping that sooner or later the shelling has to stop. It’s a strategy, I suppose, but so was the signing of Brandon Weeden.
Then came the well deserved hit piece on te team on the web site Grantland by Chuck Klosterman, a writer with local ties whose main gig now is as The Ethicist for The New York Times. Klosterman has a sense of the area having written for the Akron Beacon Journal once upon a time. In his Grantland piece Klosterman blistered the team’s management for first granting and then essentially yanking supposedly unfettered access during the draft. It’s not that the Browns looked petty and small during the whole incident, though they did, in spades. It’s that they looked both paranoid and untethered.
Klosterman’s best line about the absurdity of the Browns’ approach to secrecy was the subtle, stinging “I don’t think they’re building chemical weapons in Berea. But they might be.” Of course this could be applied to any NFL team around draft time but it’s particularly telling about the Browns.
No one, I suppose, expects the Browns to lay out a week before the draft who exactly the team plans on taking with the 6th pick, but let’s face it. I’m not sure anyone much cares outside of a dwindling fan base that’s growing bored with the whole damn thing. The Browns have been perfectly awful at virtually every aspect of building a team for more than a decade now. I can’t imagine there’s a team out there that has much concern about the Browns or their strategy come draft time except in a George Kostanza-like do-the-opposite-of-what-the-Browns-do sort of way. I sense that the Browns could grant unfettered access to its draft room to not just the media but reps from every other NFL team and almost no one would show up except to try and figure out why the Browns are so bad at what they do. Now that would be an interesting inside story.
The thing about the Klosterman situation is that a team with a savvy media department could have finessed the situation, taken advantage of Klosterman’s national stage and used the opportunity to show exactly why the Jimmy Haslam/Joe Banner/Rob Chudzinksi regime is different than the previous iterations. Instead they bungle it to the point that if anything they look even dumber than Mike Holmgren or Phil Savage and that’s saying something.
Then comes the column late last week from Pat McManamon writing on Fox Sports Ohio. McManamon has a bit of a history with the team and an axe to grind so there is that. McManamon used to be the Browns beat writer for the Beacon Journal and then left that to work directly for the Browns mainly writing the crap that masks for news on their web site. I’m not quite sure what happened in that relationship but McManamon hasn’t been much of a fan of how the Browns run things since.
Still, McManamon’s column is useful for driving home a slightly different point, that the there’s something indigenous to the Browns that make them media boobs. McManamon may not have been able to pinpoint the cause but how hard can that really be? This is a team that’s been serially unsuccessful in any aspect of its operations. It should be in the business of embracing the fans and instead acts, at best, as if they’re necessary evils to be managed.
Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the Browns rarely if ever generate any good news and thus those in the media are just being too sensitive to a team that is sick and tired of reading how lousy they are. But then I remember that great line from Don Draper in Mad Men, repeated by his mentee Peggy Olsen, that “if you don’t like what they’re saying about you, change the conversation.”
The Browns seem utterly incapable of changing the conversation. If this new regime is really taking a significantly different approach than all of the ones in the past, how would you know? If Haslam really feels like he’s got the situation at Pilot Flying J under control and that it won’t come back to somehow hurt the fans in Cleveland, how would you know?
The reason the Browns are viewed with scorn and ridicule, locally and nationally, is related not just to their general incompetence but to a media approach to the fans that fosters that perception. But on the other hand why should we expect any different? A team so awful in its core business isn't suddenly going to be good in the rest of what it does.
Maybe it isn’t the Browns but the entire NFL. Word has come down from on high, meaning Commissioner Roger Goodell, that the league will be making, ahem, a few adjustments to its off season in its never ending quest to be ubiquitous 24/7/365. In particular, the draft is being moved to either an early or mid May date for 2014, at the very least. The league is still contemplating whether to start free agency a few weeks earlier. Given how much press coverage free agency garners do you really have to guess what the final decision will be?
The league claims that the move to May next year has to do with a scheduling conflict with Radio City Music Hall and its Easter show featuring, I think, the Rockettes’ re-enactment of the crucifixion. Funny how that kind of scheduling conflict hadn’t emerged in the previous 8 years. It’s such a ridiculous and incredible excuse that you get the feeling the league reached out to the Browns’ public relations department for advice on crafting the message.
Anyone who follows the NFL with any regularity will know that the league office has been pushing to move the draft into May for years, particularly when they moved the Super Bowl into February. The league year starts in March (or used to, we’ll see) followed next by the combine followed immediately thereafter by free agency then the draft and then the rookie camp and mini-camps that move seamlessly into training camp and then preseason and then regular season and then playoffs and then the Super Bowl and on and on, year after year.
The slight problem the league claimed to have in its march toward total media domination is that the combine, free agency and draft all occurred in a 4 week or so period between early March and late April. It left May without any NFL-branded activity except rookie mini-camps. And if you don't think finding stories in rookie mini-camps is a struggle then you missed all the Geno Smith is a diva articles, luckily. Pushing the draft into May is the ultimate no-brainer.
Rather than just admit the obvious the NFL strangely hid behind the shadowy scheduling conflict as if the NFL gives a damn about anyone else’s schedule. Besides, last time I checked Radio City Music Hall was hardly the only venue in New York let alone the only venue nationally that could accommodate the spectacle that the draft has become.
Coaches of course are up in arms about the change because anything that infringes on their time with the players causes them angina. But the coaches hardly have a voice in anything that actually takes place in the NFL. Ask Sean Peyton.
The only problem this creates from a fan’s perspective is that anything that lengthens the draft process by definition lengthens the exposure to Mel Kiper. It will beget even more mock drafts and worthless rumors and front office executives playing games with the fans about the team’s draft plans as if, again, the secrecy is really masking the fact that they’re making chemical weapons. If you think you hate the run up to the NFL draft, just wait.
Maybe the NFL is right and there is no limit to how much of the NFL fans want. It doesn't matter anyway because if there’s one thing we do know about the NFL it’s that it never admits a mistake. The draft will move to May unless the league can figure out how to get the Super Bowl into March. Then the draft will be in June. Suck on that, NBA.
Of course one of the reasons that teams and leagues are so bad at managing their public relations is that they are often working with idiots. If you worked for the Indians’ p.r. department tell me exactly how you’d handle Chris Perez?
When Perez had his dual meltdowns this past week, a certain segment of fans with good memories blasted him on Twitter. So Perez did what any right thinking person would do in this case. He deleted his Twitter account.
Perez has been a fairly active member of the Twitter community, usually offering his followers a song of the day or something relatively innocuous. He typically doesn’t court controversy in that forum. Instead he saves it for the blow torch approach, criticizing the team and its fans directly through the media when it suits his interests.
Apparently the only one that didn’t see all this coming was Perez. His approach to saving games makes Bob Wickman nervous. But despite his high wire approach he has been an effective closer except maybe to the small group of fans that accept nothing but perfection. So it wasn’t a surprise that when Perez finally tripped those fans would pounce. Call it payback, deserved or otherwise.
What’s funny about the whole thing is the way Perez handled it. Instead of letting it blow over he deleted his account and then let the Indians’ public relations team issue a press release that reflected the collective sensibilities of the Indians’ public relations team imagining what a guy like Perez might say if they could actually script his words, which they did in this case.
That’s why we get a Perez “quote” of the likes of “we have an extremely positive and supportive group of players, coaches and staff members in our clubhouse and I want to participate in activities and routines that contribute positively to the culture we are building here.” That sounds exactly what Perez would say, doesn't it?
Anyway, I guess fans won’t have Perez to kick around on Twitter for the time being (who doesn't think he reactivates if/when he gets on a save streak?) but that doesn't mean he’ll be less of a problem for the p.r. department. Perez will go back off the reservation. He can’t help himself.
The Cavs just "won" the NBA's draft lottery and thus this week's question to ponder: How nervous are you that Chris Grant is the Cavs' general manager?
Thursday, May 09, 2013
On Tuesday night, the Cleveland Indians beat the Oakland A's 1-0. It was the second straight win for the Tribe over the As. It also was the team’s 8th win in their last 9 games and pushed their season record to 16-14. Overall, a decent start to the season, right? The answer depends on what you’re measuring.
While the Indians were winning there were a total of 9,474 people in attendance at that game or about 40 less than the night before. Those are the kind of pre-Jacobs Field numbers that ought to give fans the willies. Apparently it’s just giving them shrugs.
The Indians have the worst attendance in the major leagues and they aren’t even sniffing the next worse team, the Kansas City Royals. In fact, the Indians would have to increase their average per game attendance by a whopping 27%, or another 268,000 fans over the rest of the season, just to equal the Royals’ average.
Parsing further, if you eliminate opening day and the first game of the Yankees’ series, each of which drew over 40,000 fans, the Indians are averaging almost to the person the attendance at Tuesday night’s A's game. That would mean they’d have to attract almost a half million more fans than the current pace just to stay with the Royals' current average.
Lest anyone think this suggests that the Indians’ attendance is in a free fall, that wouldn’t be quite accurate. Year over year the Indians are averaging a mere 534 fans less per game than at the same point in 2012. This year’s poor attendance isn’t news, it’s the norm.
When you think about all this in economic terms it’s pretty clear that the Indians’ are losing more and more ground against their competitors. If you assume that the average fan spends a mere $20 at a game, including his ticket, the difference between the Indians’ and Royals’ attendance translates to more than $5.3 million less in revenue for the Indians and that’s being exceptionally conservative in estimates. It’s probably far closer to $10 million and likely even more than that.
There are a multitude of reasons for the Indians’ poor attendance including the deadening approach that the owners, Larry and Paul Dolan, have taken over the years. A seemingly never ending string of poor personnel decisions wrapped around an exceptionally tight budget have combined to make the Indians not just a perennially lousy team but a boring one as well. The fans have been systemically conditioned to expect the worst. This past off season the Dolans decided to switch the paradigm, at least for one season, by spending money in advance of the revenues. It’s resulted in a marginally better team and a less boring one to boot. They lead the league in home runs, for example. But the revenues at this point aren’t following. Indeed they are still dropping. If that trend continues, don’t look for deficit spending next off season and so the spiral will deepen.
The Dolans haven’t been the worst owners in team history or even the cheapest. But they haven’t done much to infuse the franchise with much excitement either. They've entrusted their franchise to Mark Shapiro, first as general manager and now as team president, and the results, well, speak for themselves. Chris Antonetti is relatively new to his job but he’s a Shapiro acolyte and subordinate so there’s no reason to expect a different approach or result. The on field results this group has achieved are dubious. But perhaps the broader indictment is that they’ve been part of a far larger problem. Their indifferent ownership and poorly executed approach has helped foster a town of indifferent sports fans, people that at best casually care about what's happening but certainly not enough to invest.
The Indians mostly own the spring and summer and as they’ve wallowed in the muck and mire, people who were once fans have been infected not with disdain but indifference. At least when fans show animosity toward you they’re feeling something. They’re engaged still on an emotional level. When they’re indifferent it simply means they just don’t care what happens.
But we can’t lay this all at the feet of the Indians though because they have the longest season they get a slightly larger share of the blame. Cleveland is a Browns town and it hardly bears mentioning the soul-sucking siege that this team has inflicted on this area. Randy Lerner was not just a reluctant owner he was an indifferent one as well and it showed in both his approach and in his results.
The sale to Jimmy Halsam was at least two years too late. Yet even with all the issues Haslam is facing professionally, he still remains the best hope to re-energize the moribund franchise. Unfortunately, those professional issues are a huge distraction to Haslam personally and will be for months, if not years, to come. Meanwhile he’s entrusted the day to day operations to perhaps the most boring front office executive ever in Joe Banner. Holmgren was a joke but his nonsensical outbursts at least added comic relief. Banner just generally rests his head on his hands and sighs. It’s the perfect meme not just for the completed draft but for the fans as well.
Then there’s the Cavs, bleeding fans at a faster clip than even the Indians. The Cavs have been in a free fall for 3 years now coinciding with the loss of LeBron James. During that time owner Dan Gilbert has been mostly distracted by an expanding empire of other businesses including his casinos. Fans also know that the NBA is the toughest league in which to turn around a franchise so even a fully engaged Gilbert wouldn’t make much difference anyway. Fans don’t just know the Cavs are awful right now they know they’ll be awful for years to come as well. Put it this way, when the biggest selling point going into the next season is to tout the rehiring of a former coach who couldn’t win a championship with LeBron James, the franchise is in more trouble than it realizes.
When you look out toward the horizon on each franchise there’s nothing much to see and there hasn’t been for a long time, especially in the case of the Indians and the Browns. It’s had an impact, a significant one, on the fans. They’ve gone well beyond cynicism and are now simply indifferent and if there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear from the Indians’ attendance results thus far, indifferent fans don’t throw good money after bad.
One of these years one of these teams will emerge to reinvigorate this town and give the fans a reason to believe again. It's just that when you look out into the distance it doesn't look like a ship will be coming in any time soon.
One team that isn’t suffering from an indifferent fan base is the Ohio State Buckeyes. According to a study done by USA Today in conjunction with the Indiana University National Sports Journalism Center, the Buckeyes are one of but a handful of schools that have self-sustaining athletic departments, meaning that their revenues exceed their expenses without the need for subsidies either from local governments or student fees. Of the $49 million in ticket revenue generated by Ohio State fans, $41 million was from football. I'd say that the Indians, Cavs and/or Browns owners would do anything to capture that kind of passion and coin but I know it isn't true. They've had any number of opportunities and simply haven't done it.
The larger story on the Buckeyes front though is that they are mostly an anomaly in college sports. They are one of only 23 Division I programs out of 228 that broke even or were in the black. Within that group of 23 were just 7, including Ohio State, that didn’t receive any form of subsidy from either taxpayers or students in the form of fees. And of that 7, Ohio State has the most intercollegiate teams to support: 36 overall.
Meanwhile, the NCAA as an entity has never enjoyed greater profits. It had a whopping $71 million budget surplus in 2012, which, when coupled with the previous paragraph, tells an intriguing and disturbing story about the state of college athletics.
Perhaps the poster child for how wrongheaded things have gotten are our newest bestest buddies, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. According to the USA Today study, Rutgers spent over $28 million more on athletics then it took in just last year. To cover the short fall it had to take over $18 million from other areas of the college and the other nearly $10 million directly from the students in the form of additional fees. I suspect the financial picture for Rutgers will get a bit better as members of the Big 10 but that alone won’t suffice. Just over half, 7, of the Big 10 schools are running at a profit and only 5, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Indiana and Nebraska are doing that without any form of school or student subsidy. Michigan needed over $250,000 in subsidies to make ends meet, which isn’t significant but it is informative. If they can’t at least break even on their own accord with a facility like the Big House in Ann Arbor and its 100,000+ fans for 7 or 8 games a year along with the massive amount of merchandising revenue they generate, then what hope is there for Rutgers?
There are any number of reasons this matters but the most important is the simple fact that getting a college education has never been more expensive or more out of reach to the middle class than it is now. When a school like Rutgers is draining other academic programs as well as the wallets of its students to pay for athletics, you have to question what it's trying to accomplish as an institution. And Rutgers is hardly alone. Fully 90% of Division I schools are doing something similar though perhaps not at the same scale as Rutgers.
If you’re looking for another reason this matters consider Indiana University. Though the school turned a small profit in its athletic program in 2012, about $276,000, it needed nearly $2.8 million in subsidies from the school and the students to get there. In other words, it didn’t really turn a profit at all. But let’s suspend that bit of reality and consider the impact of robbing Peter to pay Paul at Indiana. Because there are no coincidences, that university recently announced that it is limiting all employees there to 29 hours or less of work each week as a way of avoiding the impact of the Affordable Health Care Act, a result it wouldn’t need to worry about if it would quit paying subsidies to its athletic program. Quality employees who have options will eventually leave IU for a school that offers them better benefits, like health care. It's a topsy turvy world where school administrators fund a mediocre athletic program at the expense of the larger mission and the general welfare of the rest of the school's population.
The real benefactors of this insane race for athletic prominence and its increasingly illusory promise of pots of gold is undercutting the very reason these academic institutions allegedly exist. The NCAA could do something about it though that would cut against its own economic interests.
I’m not sure exactly how Rutgers can sustain itself as a viable school, let alone a member of the Big 10, if it continues to run up such huge deficits. Surely its board of trustees must be asking themselves that very question and if they aren’t they should be removed. The same goes for virtually every school running at a deficit. At some point some prominent school will drop out of the race either by force or by conscious, but it will happen unless there is a massive change in attitude and approach. But as we’ve seen for so long, the NCAA traffics in the small problems like tattoos while the rest of the house is literally on fire.
The Browns have a rookie mini camp this week and if not for them signing a pile of undrafted free agents it probably could have been held inside a conference room in Berea rather than on the practice field.
To this point two of the draft choices have been arrested with one of them, Armonty Bryant, a serial offender. I knew Joe Banner was following a rebuilding blue print from other teams, but I thought it would be the Philadelphia Eagles. I didn’t realize it would be the Cincinnati Bengals.
Given the character issues that already have emerged with this Browns' draft class, this week's question to ponder: Does anyone in the Browns' scouting department know how to even do a Google search on prospective draft picks?
Friday, May 03, 2013
The announcement barely earned a mention in the Plain Dealer last week but Scott Fajita, the former linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, has officially retired. He signed a one-day contract with the New Orleans Saints so that he could officially retire from the franchise that wouldn’t pay him enough to keep from becoming a free agent and signing with the Browns. He never much liked the Browns anyway, just their money.
Fujita, for reasons that extend well beyond anything he’s done on the field, has become one of football’s more compelling personalities. Usually thoughtful, often combative, Fujita seems to be coming to the role of the passionate advocate as his on field career ends. It started with his front and center role in the labor dispute between the owners and players. It got its sea legs when he found himself engulfed in the maelstrom that surrounded the Saints’ bounty scandal. It’s taken wing on a variety of social issues, from player safety to gay marriage.
Admittedly I’ve not been the biggest fan of Fujita owing to in my view the destructive role he took in helping prolong the NFL lockout. Sucked into an ill-conceived strategy by NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith that it was better to litigate than negotiate, Fujita and players like former teammate Drew Brees helped sell the strategy to the rank and file that failed miserably. By believing they could force the owners’ to withdraw their demands for various concessions by first decertifying and then suing under anti-trust laws, the union essentially refused to negotiate until it became clear that the courts would offer no relief or even negotiating leveerage. While this helped lengthen the overall dispute significantly, when it failed it helped get a deal done that was there for the taking months prior.
Fujita was on the wrong side of that issue and the damage it did to fringe players who lost real money and opportunity has mostly gone unnoticed. But it did occur and Fujita owns part of that legacy.
The other thing about Fujita is that I initially saw him to be mostly a phony when it came to issues about player safety. What’s probably more accurate is that he’s sincerely conflicted on the subject and he’s let that conflict at times blunt the noble attempts of his efforts. Fujita, like other players, want to lay the league’s sorry record on concussions at the feat of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and yet see no contradiction as they unceremoniously criticize Goodell every time he punishes someone like James Harrison for trying to tackle opponents with his head.
Then there’s what took place in New Orleans and how that impacts on Fujita's attempts to make the game safer.. Fujita essentially turned a willful blind eye to the actions of his own teammates who were running a bounty system designed to put players from other teams (or, as I like to call them, Fujita’s union brothers) out of commission.
It’s hard to square Fujita’s role as a team leader in New Orleans with the fact that he did nothing to stop the bounty program. It's tough to claim the safety higher ground if you don’t try to stop deliberate head and knee hunting by your teammates. Even if that atmosphere was fostered by the coaching staff, like Gregg Williams, and that does appear to be the case, Fujita didn't stand up to them either. Would taking a stand have been difficult for Fujita under those circumstances? Most certainly. But that's what leaders do.
There’s also the inconvenient fact that Fujita brought the maelstrom he incurred over this issue on himself by admitting at the outset that while he would never participate in a “bounty” system, narrowly defined as a scheme to pay teammates who deliberately injured opponents so that they couldn’t play, he did admittedly contribute to a pool to pay teammates for good, clean hits. Such a fine line, though even what Fujita was doing was in contravention of salary cap rules.
It bears mentioning too because it reflects on what makes Fujita both compelling and complicated is that his exoneration from the bounty scandal was similarly tortuous because of his own hardheadedness. Fujita wouldn’t participate in the league’s appeal process because he didn’t feel it was fair. It was the appeal process laid out in the collective bargaining agreement he helped ratify but when it applied to him he wanted no part of it. After being placated but not accommodated Fujita eventually did participate, had the chance to tell his story and present his evidence and then was exonerated months later than he would otherwise have been.
These complications in his thinking aside, part of presenting the entire picture of Fujita is to not just acknowledge but praise his other more worthy contributions, especially to the ongoing dialogue that is earnestly trying to make the sport and society better.
Fujita, despite of or perhaps because of his past, has kept up the pressure, mostly in the right way, on player safety issues. What Fujita now seems to recognize is that the day has long since passed when we stopped viewing hard-nose football and player safety as contradictory concepts. I’d like to see Fujita be more even-handed in his approach or at least be as critical of his union as he has been of management. It’s a shared responsibility and perhaps as a retiree Fujita’s views will even out. But he's doing the right things now.
Then there’s his advocacy on the part of gay athletes. Jason Collins, late of the Washington Wizards, came out Monday as the highest profile male athlete to declare he’s gay. Someone had to go first. It won’t be long before others follow.
Fujita for his part has been a passionate advocate for the rights of gays, generally, and gay athletes in particular. It is just this kind of leadership that’s needed so that the specter of discrimination can be eradicated on this front.
It is simply shameful that in 2013 this country, as a matter of policy, still allows for the overt discrimination of gays. We allow those who claim a sincerely held religious belief over a decidedly unreligious topic to control the debate when all that debate is really doing is masking irrational homophobia. If your First Amendment right to free association allows you to hang with a large group of intolerant religious zealots to express your views publicly then it stands to reason that that same amendment allows the other person to hang with a group of overly liberal gay atheists doing likewise. But more to the point that same amendment dictates that as a society we must allow these two disparate groups to coexist. Majority rule by either extreme has no place at the table. I don’t have to like your friends or your ideas and you don’t have to like mine. That’s why we live in this country. The entire underpinning of freedom rests on the peaceful coexistence of disparate thought.
It’s just a matter of time before it’s no longer a story when a male athlete declares that he’s gay just like it’s just a matter of time before no one seriously questions the rights of gays to marry each other. Our disgusting history as a country that has taken too long to right the wrongs borne from discrimination time and time again will eventually catch up with us when it comes to gays and when that finally happens the society and our sports will be the better for it. The economic performance of our country has likewise shown time and again that each time discrimination in some form is eradicated, the economy expands. Why do you think sensible immigration reform is finally getting the serious bi-partisan discussion it deserves?
Fujita was one of several athletes to sign a friend of the court brief in the Supreme Court cases pending over the issue of gay marriage. He supports it. The only question is why everyone else hasn’t? Hopefully Fujita and the handful of others like him with a larger pulpit can push the issue even harder.
I’m going to continue to disagree with Fujita on the uneven nature in which he sometimes ham handedly goes about being an advocate for the rights of his fellow athletes but I won’t disagree with him on his intentions any longer. He’s just a man struggling to stay on the right side of history and sometimes finding that path isn’t nearly as elegant as we’d like it to be.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
The controversy surrounding Pilot Flying J seems to change by the day. What doesn’t is the impact any of it will have on Jimmy Haslam’s new toy, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the great unknown. Then again, it’s the Browns so what’s new?
The Browns have nearly cornered the market in unknowns so it’s not a huge surprise when it comes to the fortunes of the Browns that a corporate scandal involving the current owner of the Browns barely registers as a significant event anymore. Maybe it should, assuming fans are still interested in seeing the Browns v2.0 actually succeed.
Here’s why this matters. If you’re Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who serves as an owner/CEO of Pilot Flying J, there’s a worst case scenario that ends up with him serving time for fraud. Evidence could develop that implicates him in what essentially amounts to cooking the books to make the company look more profitable, putting him in the crosshairs of the criminal justice system. If that happens he could join an ever growing prison population of corporate fraudsters. He could also find himself in the crosshairs of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his fellow owners who don’t want someone of his ilk mixing among someone of their ilk. In either case, it would most certainly put the franchise in flux once again. In other words, it will be like the entire run of the Randy Lerner regime.
But there is no way to know at the moment how likely it might be for the worst case scenario to come to pass for Haslam. I do know that Haslam and his team are staying up late, reading affidavits, making phone calls, and basically being embarrassed as each day they do so they uncover a little more ugliness that has caused Haslam to go from the defiant defender in his first press conference to the humbled executive in his last. Put it this way, a company doesn’t announce a 5-point plan that involves an independent investigation, the suspension of several employees, a mea culpa on a few of the rebates and the impending hire of a Chief Compliance Officer if something hasn’t gone terribly wrong somewhere. The only question now is the scope of the problem, not the existence.
To the extent that Browns fans should be worried about what’s happening at Pilot Flying J it’s less about Haslam personally and more about it rocking the financial underpinnings of the fortune both Haslam and the fans were counting on to support the franchise. Fans in Cleveland already know what it’s like to have owners who don’t have the cash to play at the high rollers table. We lived with Art Modell for years as he borrowed from one bank to pay off another while blaming the city for all his troubles. We’ve lived with the Dolans now for years as they continue to obfuscate their own financial issues by crying about being a small market team.
The reason Haslam’s breaking a sweat at his press conferences these days is that the damaging blow to the company’s reputation and credibility directly translates to potentially less business as the Standard and Poor’s rating agency warned. Less business means less cash to meet its expenses, including an ever increasing debt load that must be serviced. Pilot Flying J is privately owned, mostly by the Haslam family. A private equity group owns a little more than a third of the company. Twice in the last 18 or so months it has taken on relatively heavy debt in order to finance a dividend payment to the owners. The financings have been used for a variety of purposes—to pay down other debt incurred from acquisitions, for general corporate purposes and to put money in the pockets of the owners. Some of that money, perhaps a good deal of that money, was used by Haslam to fund his purchase of the Browns.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that nor is there anything the least suspicious about it. Taking on debt to fund a dividend to the owners of a private company is pretty common. But that debt comes at a relatively high cost to ongoing operations. Pilot Flying J’s corporate debt is rated below investment grade and may get lower, which means that it will be perceived as an even greater credit risk That’s not unusual, particularly in businesses that sell fluctuating commodities like gas. But to the investors that are funding that debt, they are taking on a higher risk and thus charge a higher interest rate. It’s like an individual with a spotty credit rating trying to get a mortgage. The bank might be willing to take the risk but it will charge a higher interest rate than it would to someone who is a much better credit risk.
Why this matters is that the company took on this debt confident that its business was strong. It’s the largest operator of travel centers in the country and until about a week ago had a stellar reputation. For the time being, that reputation is taking a mighty hit and so too will its business. People don’t want to do business with those who might be cheating them. If Pilot Flying J loses too much business it will have trouble meeting its debt payments and that in turn will make the entire company and hence Haslam personally more vulnerable to collapse. And if Haslam collapses he’ll have to sell the Browns and on and on and on.
It’s too soon to speculate on the fortunes of Haslam, Pilot Flying J and the Browns but they are intertwined. The only thing Browns fans should be worried about at the moment is how the front office will screw up this year’s draft. Instead they should actually be worried about who might be the next owner of the Browns. Calling Dan Gilbert….
Speaking of Dan Gilbert, he did a major about face this week when he re-hired Mike Brown to coach the Cavaliers. Judging from the reaction on Twitter, this isn’t one of Gilbert’s more popular moods. Gilbert must know how ridiculous it looks to have divorced Brown, quickly remarry and then find himself longing for his original bride.
No one really knows whether it was a mistake to fire Brown in the first place and/or whether that mistake has been compounded by rehiring him. But there are other issues about this that should be talked about, not the least of which is whether Gilbert isn’t really some closeted version of George Steinbrenner and Brown is his version of Billy Martin.
If Gilbert really made a mistake by firing Brown it was because Brown used the leverage of the 10-day window in his original Cavs’ contract to force Gilbert to make a decision. When the Cavs bowed to the Celtics three years ago in one of the weirdest, most miserable playoff efforts LeBron James will ever have, thoughts turned immediately to what it would take to re-sign James. No one really knew because James wouldn’t say. The speculation though was that James didn’t like Brown. Meanwhile Brown had a contract with an option year that had to be declined within 10-days of season’s end or else that last year became guaranteed. Gilbert wanted more time and Brown wisely said no. That caused Gilbert to make decisions he now says he regrets.
Well, duh. Gilbert regrets it because he didn’t really know what might make James re-sign. More to the point, how James felt about Brown shouldn’t have even entered into the mix. That it did caused the cascading effect of Brown being fired and the truculent Byron Scott being hired. Here’s a lesson for Gilbert: if you really are going to let the inmates name their own warden then you better be sure how they really feel about the current one. Here’s another lesson for Gilbert: never let the inmates choose their own warden.
Will Gilbert follow either of these lessons? That’s getting increasingly hard to say. There’s so much talk these days (and hopefully it’s just idiotic media speculation) that a factor in the rehiring of Brown was the completely illogical supposition that it would play well with James and give the Cavs an enhanced chance to re-sign him if he opts out of his Miami contract after next season. Oy.
Disregarding the illogic of this new theory, the truth is that the chances of James coming back to Cleveland will not rest at all on who is coaching the team. Erik Spoelstra is the head coach of Miami for God’s sake and that was almost irrelevant to James. What James knows better than the people who cover the sport for a living is that the head coach is the least important factor in the equation in the NBA. Talent is the difference maker and James went to Miami because he was able to have his buddies play with him in Miami because they wouldn’t play with him in Cleveland. James saw them and not Spoelstra as his ticket to a NBA crown. Hitler could have been the head coach and it wouldn’t have matter. James was right.
James will return to Cleveland only if it suddenly becomes his best chance to continue to win championships. There isn’t a sentimental bone in his body. He’s driven solely by the need to win championships and he knows that it takes an abundance of talent not an abundance of coaching to make that happen.
Where a coach makes a big difference in the NBA is on a team like Cleveland that is struggling to put together the pieces. More victories can be squeezed out through good coaching. The Cavs for example would have had a handful more of wins if the team had simply played better defense. Brown will help with that. It doesn’t mean that the Cavs will suddenly become contenders. They won’t until the talent improves significantly.
I guess it’s nice that Brown’s back but I say that only because I’m not sure what the other viable alternatives really were. Gilbert had no interest in taking another flyer and that left only a handful of other candidates every one of whom had at least as many warts as Brown.
I think the Cavs will be better next year because of Brown but that doesn’t mean they’ll be good. If you want to worry about something, forget about James and worry about how Brown’s defensive emphasis will play with the Cavs’ next free agent in waiting, the defense-adverse Kyrie Irving. If Irving eventually bolts like James will Gilbert get rid of Brown again? Put differently, how many times did Steinbrenner fire Martin?
Another new regime making draft day decisions for the Browns is the source of this week’s question to ponder: What is the most graceful way for the Browns to end the Brandon Weeden experiment?
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
The whole Tiger Woods cheating episode that bridged Friday night into Saturday morning this past weekend reminded me so much of Kramer’s confrontation with former major league ballplayer Steve Genderson over the improper cleaning of the golf ball during a round. Its outcome may have spurred Genderson to commit murder but it most certainly prompted Elaine to ask why Kramer was such a stickler for such a silly rule. Kramer says “a rule is a rule. Let’s face it. Without rules, there’s chaos.”
Exactly, and now the golf world has chaos and as usual Woods is at its center.
The Masters looks bad and Woods looks worse but yea I suppose if Woods had won then Nike could have run more of its tone deaf “winning takes care of everything” ad featuring Woods crouched over a putt and everyone would have had a good chuckle. Enough is enough. Winning doesn’t take care of everything. It doesn’t even take care of anything. This isn’t Machiavelli and the ends don’t justify the means.
Whatever adulation Woods still gets is still undeserved. His massive character flaws, make Don Draper look like Pope Francis. The only thing that I puzzle over, but then only for a moment, is why so many want to give Woods a pass? Heck, they aren’t giving him a pass, they have created the mess he’s become.
Masters officials, in concert with the like minded commercially driven officials at the USGA, conspired to contort the rules they are supposed to guard so that their meal ticket, Woods, could play the weekend in the Masters. Woods drives ratings because he’s so talented and because he’s such a train wreck. Truth be told, the only thing more compelling than watching Woods at the top of his game is watching Woods try to overcome another self-created hot mess. We shouldn’t be surprised by Woods. His integrity has long been shot. We should be surprised by the Masters and USGA officials. They were our last, best hope.
Let’s pour over the facts again, because I’m a lawyer by trade and I think it’s sometimes best to just let the facts and the reasonable inferences from them tell the story.
When Woods’ third shot on the 15th hole in Friday’s second round of the Masters hit the flagstick and spun back in the water, he had to take a drop. Bad break, but it happens. Woods had options including dropping the ball within two club lengths of the point where the ball first crossed the hazard. He also had the option to replay the shot from his previous spot. He chose neither. Instead he intentionally (his words) chose to drop it two yards behind his original spot and did so for the sole purpose of giving himself an advantage for his next shot. Again, in his words, he figured that if he could hit exactly the same shot again but from two yards further away he wouldn’t risk hitting the flag stick again and then would be in a position to make bogey. Woods may have been humblebragging about his skills considering how ludicrous it all sounded, but then again things pretty much went as described and Woods ended up with a bogey.
As even the most casual golfer now knows, Woods’ drop violated the rules. It’s a two stroke penalty which he was required to add to his final score. When he didn’t do so, he ended up attesting to a score he didn’t achieve. That carries one of the most known penalties in golf: automatic disqualification. There’s no grey area about that. None. Zero. Ask Roberto Di Vincenzo. He knows better than anyone.
The red herring in all of this is that the Masters (not Woods, but the Masters) claims it didn’t find out about the rules infraction until someone called it in. But that’s only half the story and only half true anyway. According to one of the most convoluted explanations I’ve ever read (courtesy of Monday’s Wall Street Journal via the powers that be at the Masters), the Masters’ officials, unbeknownst to Woods, fielded the call, considered the evidence and decided Woods didn’t violate the rules before Woods even finished his round. They never bothered to ask him about it.
If you follow tournament golf, you already can surmise that this explanation doesn’t make sense. The protocol is to talk to the player about the situation before he signs his scorecard and get his view of the matter. That allows for a full airing of the issue and avoids having the player possibly sign an incorrect scorecard. That they chose not to highly suggests that the situation didn’t unfold as they suggest. To put a sharper point on it, had the protocol been followed they would have learned directly from Woods what he had done, the penalty would have been properly assessed and the scorecard that he signed would have been correct. Woods would have been clear of any controversy whatsoever.
Now it could be that the Masters’ officials screwed it up by not talking to Woods first and had they just said that, they’d be off the hook though Woods wouldn’t. But they don’t admit to that kind of error, either. That's why their explanation is only half true. They next heard about the violation not from a caller but from Woods himself who described the drop in response to a question in a post-round press conference. That put them in a real pickle. Having decided to look the other way on a potential disqualifying action by the world’s number one player, here was that player now forcing them to revisit the matter and in the most uncomfortable way possible by admitting in intimate detail exactly how he violated the rules though Woods never put it in those terms.
So what did they do next? They decided to essentially ignore what they heard from Woods and instead kind of sort of reverted to when they first heard about the violation. They pulled out the newly amended decision about what happens when someone calls into a network to report a violation. A few years ago the USGA and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in Britain, the two bodies charged with developing the rules, came out with a decision that essentially says that if someone watching a tournament on television sees a violation that the player didn’t otherwise acknowledge, it will be a 2-stroke penalty and not a disqualification for signing an incorrect scorecard if the player and the officials at the tournament couldn’t discern at the time that a violation occurred. They used that as a way to give Woods the pass they already had decided to give him anyway even though that phone call that supposedly started this mess (which, in fact, it did not) was the least important event in the entire time line or if not the least important than the least relevant.
The purpose of the rule the Masters relied on, in a vacuum, is to allow for context to inform situations that would have gone unnoticed but for cameras being perched everywhere, especially at major tournaments. For example, if a television camera catches a player’s ball having moved from its prior resting spot but the player never notices it (maybe he’s still engrossed in club selection) nor do the rules officials following the group, then it seems to make sense to assess a 2-stroke penalty in retrospect and not the more draconian result of disqualification.
But this wasn’t that situation, not even close. No context is even needed. Indeed it is completely irrelevant that someone called in the violation by Woods. The fact is that Woods described in vivid detail exactly what he had done to a room full of reporters. When an official heard that admission they knew they had to revisit the situation because it was only a matter of time before an inquiring reporter with a working knowledge of the rules would have asked the question. Actually they knew more. They knew they had to disqualify him unless there was another way. That there wasn’t didn’t deter them in the least. Square peg met round hole and was pounded in thusly.
Obviously Woods didn’t realize he was ratting himself out for violating the rules, though he should have. Woods isn’t your typical weekend golfer, not by a long shot. He’s played thousands of rounds and has likely confronted virtually every situation that one could uncover. Let’s recall one of the more infamous situations where Woods, well schooled on the rules, used them to his distinct and legal advantage.
In 1999 during the final round of the Phoenix open, Woods hit his tee shot on the 13th hole into the desert and it came to rest near a boulder. Woods cleverly sought out a rules official and asked if the boulder was considered a movable object. The reason he asked is that he knew that movable objects, even if they’re boulders, can be moved unless embedded. The boulder, lying harmlessly in the desert, did not look embedded to Woods but he wanted to be sure. When the rules official told him that it was movable, Woods, again invoking the rule book, asked if he could get some help from the crowd to move the boulder because it weighed, by some estimates, about a ton. The official said he could. The crowd was eager to help, moved the boulder and Woods went on to birdie the hole.
This context is important. It shows that Woods well knows the rules of the game, even the more esoteric ones.
Now back to Friday’s Masters round. The rule about re-playing a shot from the original spot comes up in a number of contexts. It not only applies when a ball is hit in a hazard but also, for example, when it’s hit out of bounds, something Woods has done probably hundreds of times in his career. In other words, he knows that he’s supposed to replay the shot from the same spot. He did not.
There have some who have come to the defense of Woods but most of those have focused on the supposedly new rule that came into effect about two years ago. But their focus is misplaced. It would be relevant if Woods had never described the situation to the reporters, the call came in from a viewer, and the officials decided the drop was wrong. In that case and only in that case would a 2-stroke penalty and not a disqualification have been justified.
Another one who came to Woods’ defense was David Feherty the former pro turned irreverent golf commentator. He said this was a silly controversy but not because of the supposedly new rule but because every pro out on the tour does the same thing—drops the ball a few feet away on a re-hit instead of in the same spot. In other words, per Feherty everyone violates the rule so Woods shouldn’t be singled out. Bullshit.
First of all, Feherty’s claim is untrue. It simply isn’t the case that professional golfers routinely flaunt the rules. It’s the exact opposite. Golfers, professional and otherwise, call violations on themselves all the time that no one would ever have seen. It’s a bedrock principle of the game and one that makes it unique from virtually any other sport. Second, consider Feherty’s words in light of his role. He’s a commentator on a network that televises most of the tournaments. He runs into Woods several times a year. Do you think Feherty wants the burden of incurring Tiger’s wrath by saying that Woods should have been disqualified? Feherty remembers how Peter Kostis was shunned for months by Woods because Kostis criticized Woods’ rebuilt swing a few years ago.
Woods is an imposing, intimidating figure. He’s also a really bad guy and a serial cheater (by his own admission and when it comes to women) who has no respect for the game or its traditions. He’s still the truculent loner who has been able to shit on anyone just because of his otherworldly golf skills and does so with impunity.
The breaks in golf, as in life, don’t have some predestined way of evening themselves out. Woods will continue to win golf tournaments, if/when he surpasses Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors won it will be celebrated. But even that won’t obscure who Woods really is. He’s Don Draper: a talented guy who pursues whatever and wherever at the expense of the soul he seemingly lacks. Nike may want everyone to believe that winning takes care of everything, but that’s because they have product to sell. Winning can’t change Woods. He is exactly what we know him to be.
Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Usually I end my Lingering Items columns with a question to ponder but today I flip the conceit: Are sports fans in general cynical or is it just Cleveland sports fans?
Though I don’t usually weigh in on the answer but ask because I'm concerned. About me, about you about the nature of sports in Cleveland generally. I had just finished writing my once or twice a year column on the Cleveland Cavaliers and decided to let it sit for a few days. Something about it didn’t seem quite right. When I returned to it, the problem became clear. It seemed to be drenched in a baseline cynicism that can best be summed up as “the Cavs suck, what’s new?” That really wasn’t what I intended to say. Thus beget the question to ponder and then another, more existential variation: did I have anything more to say about Cleveland sports that I hadn’t already said?
At that moment, the answer was “no.” I seemed to be saying “of course the Cavs need to fire Byron Scott because, well, it’s just their turn in the barrel. This is Cleveland and this is how we roll. The Browns and Indians have just done another in their various yet endless resets and so it just stands to reasons that the Cavs are now on the clock.”
It’s almost beside the point that on some level it happens to be true. What I was really dealing with was not the quixotic attempt to find a different angle to the same ol’ same ol’ but a better way of talking about what really is interesting to me about the fact that the Cavs do need to fire Scot.
Let me deal with the Cavs for a moment in the form of a casual observer, which I am not. It’s true that I don’t write much about the Cavs, but there are two reasons for it. First, there are many better suited to school you on the nuances of just how lousy the team plays defense. Second, I don’t find the NBA a particularly compelling form of professional sports entertainment. The individual games, especially when played by third tier teams, are about as meaningful as a Pringles commercial. If the Cavs beat Orlando by 10 or lose to them by 20, it means nothing except in the race for ping pong balls.
But what is compelling about them and hence what makes me far more than just casual about them (and the town’s other two teams) is the inexorable journey they’re on as they try to become relevant in a sport that seems more relevant to a billion Chinese then a 100 million Americans. Indeed if I had to really ferret out exactly what interests me about sports in general, it’s that journey and all the various missteps that are taken along the way.
When I consider that context, I realize that I’m not particularly cynical about sports or even Cleveland sports because after all these years the results hardly matter. What I am cynical about is the ability of those that control Cleveland sports to do the right thing when it comes to navigating the path from the outhouse to the penthouse. It’s not exactly like I need to go chapter and verse on each of the teams in this town but I will if you dare me to. Until then, suffice it to say that no matter how many days and weeks and months and years seem to pass the ability of any Cleveland team to build itself into a winner always seems fanciful. It’s like the fans are stuck playing an endless game of chutes and ladders except that the team rarely finds a ladder but always lands on the chutes and usually the one that takes you not just one or two rows back but the one that takes you all the way back to the beginning.
And so it is with these Cavs at these moments. They have cap space. They have one verifiable talent and they have one incredibly bored fan base. Is it right to hold only Scott accountable for it? Of course not. But it’s not right to give him a pass, either. Let's look at what's really driving the conclusion.
The Cavs are approaching Ted Stepien-era level futility and it’s not as if the fans aren’t noticing. The shine of LeBron James’ reign here has long since dissipated and so too has the insane promise owner Dan Gilbert made that the Cavs will win a championship before the James-led Miami Heat. The truth is that the Cavs won’t even make the playoffs before the James-led Heat win their third or fourth championship.
The reason that the Cavs are a futile, boring, mind-numbing mess has something to do with Scott, something, maybe more, to do with the front office and plenty to do with the NBA. Let’s take it in order.
Scott is starting to feel some pressure, finally, from the media and the fans and you can tell the crisp collars on his dress shirts are feeling a bit tight these days. Frankly I’ve not seen the media give a bigger pass to a head coach since Eric Wedge was manipulating the Indians’ starting lineup on a nightly basis. Indeed the Wedge comparison is most apt. The local media gave Wedge a pass even though he was a mostly ineffective micromanager mostly because the Indians were terrible and who was managing or mismanaging the lousy product the front office was putting out there seemed almost irrelevant. The same holds true for Scott I suppose.
The Indians’ front office seemed to notice that Wedge wasn’t wearing any clothes right about the time it became clear that Wedge didn’t have the ability or temperament to develop young players. By comparison, the series of nitwits the Browns have hired as their head coach have garnered far greater scrutiny and given far less rope than the Indians gave Wedge or that the Cavs, at the moment, are giving Scott. But should Scott really enjoy the freedom to underperform night in and night out? It may not be fair to judge the team in terms of wins and losses because their talent is so far inferior to the better clubs in the league. But it is fair to judge them by intensity and effort and on this score even Scott has noted several times this season (and last year) that too often the team doesn’t seem interested in competing.
I’ll take his word because he’s closest to it but even from the cheap seats and my outdated overstuffed leather recliner there’s no reason to argue the point. Scott told the Plain Dealer last Thursday that he’s aware of the muted rumors about his job and he didn’t have much to say about them, except that in not saying much he said plenty. He pointed out that injuries and an overall lack of talent have kept him from fielding a competitive team. All true. Yet, curiously, he said that if he had to grade his own performance, he’d give himself a “C.” Maybe he was being self-deprecating, but can that be true if the grade is correct? This team has been playing out the string for most of the season and by playing out the string I mean going through the motions, giving half effort and generally hoping to get through the game unscathed and to dinner before the restaurants close.
It may not be Scott’s responsibility to acquire the players and I won’t blame him for the horrid roster. But I will blame him for an almost complete inability to reach these players in a way that at least guarantees a team that’s willing to fight for a win 82 times a season.
If there is such a thing as coaching out the string, Scott is doing it. He seems to alternate between being lost and being uninterested. If your life depended on your ability to name one positive thing Scott has brought to this franchise, particularly this season, could you do it? I couldn’t.
I’m not even sure Scott is actually a lousy head coach. But I am sure he’s a lousy head coach of a team with lousy talent. I don’t know what exactly Scott works on with his team in practice but the results aren’t impressive. The young talent under him hasn’t developed either technically or professionally. What is apparent is that he hasn’t instilled in them the work ethic they’ll need to better compete.
It would be interesting I suppose to see what Scott could do with a talented roster, but there’s no reason to give him that chance in Cleveland. By his own admission he’s done just an average job. Is that really the kind of coach owner Dan Gilbert wants for his team? Would he tolerate “C” level performance in any other part of his organization?
The front office is more than culpable in this mess, maybe more than Scott. The roster they have compiled is not particularly interesting save for Kyrie Irving. It's a mish mash mostly of spare parts and projects. It's compiled that way I suppose in order to retain a mythical flexibility for some future point when they'll spend that flexibility like drunken sailors at a strip club.
What too of its decision to hire Scott in the first place? He had an impressive resume as a player but to call his resume mixed at the time the Cavs hired him is being generous. After a rough first year, he had a very successful two year run with New Jersey. Then the team stopped listening to him and he didn't make it through what was turning into a miserable fourth year. Since then he's mostly found himself coaching at the bottom tier of the league. It's true that the New Orleans Hornets made the playoffs twice under him, most of the time they were near the bottom of the standings.
In other words, Scott's resume reads like the resume of a typical journeyman head coach in any sport. He's Bobby Valentine without the fake mustache and glasses. What makes his hiring curious is that Gilbert had to sign off on it and did so knowing that there wasn't anything particularly compelling about Scott as a head coach. You could argue that the most distinguishing thing about his career is that shortly after realizing any level of success his employers were quick to fire him thereafter almost as if they couldn't wait to rid themselves of him. The other thing that was more than clear though, which makes his hiring even more strange, is that he has virtually no record of actually developing a young roster.
So it's not a surprise the Scott is on the edge of losing another job when you consider his history. But the thing to worry about is now the “when” of the Scott issue but the “what happens next?” issue that follows. This same front office that's put together a middling roster while keeping its powder dry for a mythical future it can only describe in mystical terms is the same front office that hired Scott and the same front office that will hire his replacement. Does that inspire confidence that they'll get it right? Should it?
These are the questions Gilbert ought to be asking because while it was always taken as hurt feelings his boast about the Cavs' near term fortunes vs. the Heat's, what will not be taken is a long walk through the desert without a canteen of water in sight. Gilbert has a record of accomplishment in most of his business dealings but right now he's failing not just the fans or the team, but himself.
Finally, let's talk about the NBA as an entity. The cycling through of lousy season after lousy season, the revolving door of marginal talent, the constant lottery picks, the wheeling and dealing, the saving of cap space on the if-come are all part of the 10-year cycle of team’s that occupy the outer boroughs of the NBA.
I’ve written about this before but it bears mentioning again that the NBA statistics are as iron clad on this fact as any other sports statistic you’re likely to see: when a team hits the skids it takes at least 10 years to get back to any level of respectability. So the fact that the Cavs are in this hellish cycle of dread isn’t really a surprise. Nor is the fact that this team is still several years away from legitimately competing.
Gilbert certainly is aware of this and while not completely powerless to do anything about it, he's going to have to do more then just look engaged. He has to demand more from the basketball people, including the head coach, brought in to steady the ship. The NBA deck is stacked against bad teams and the only way out is to hope that the ping pong balls bounce your ways more than a few times in a row. Teams like the Cavs need to consistently pick in the top 5 every year until they get good enough to get the hell out of the lottery. In the meantime they have to find other ways to supplement the roster so that when they graduate from the lottery they don’t get stuck too long in the next inner ring of hell occupied by teams just good enough to squeak into the playoffs but not good enough to make a legitimate run.
Fans will get excited the next time the Cavs make the playoffs, which is about 5 years away by my calculations or longer if the team is unable to hold onto Irving because he, like James, sees greener pastures in warmer climates. But at some point the team will squeak into the playoffs and after the initial fun of it wears off two years in the Cavs will have to do something dramatic to get into the better neighborhoods. That’s the time when saving all that salary cap money will especially come in handy. Again, though, assuming the NBA history holds true (and in few if any cases hasn’t it held true) the Cavs are at least 7 years and probably two or three head coaches away from facing that dilemma.
So let me end this interminably lengthy column with one final question to ponder: Given what you know about the process, can you ever actually imagine a scenario where James leaves Miami after the 2014 season to come back to Cleveland?
Tuesday, April 02, 2013
Apparently no one associated with the newest, latest version of the Cleveland Browns believes that less can be more. When it comes to the Browns and their recently announced radio broadcast rights deals, more is more under the theory, I suppose, that there is no limit to how much Browns related programming can be absorbed. Actually we’re about to find out as the Browns flood the airwaves over the next year with 1,000 hours of stupefying shows.
It’s easy to conclude that the unique deal the Browns signed with WKNR and its rival station, WKRK, The Fan, was all about the money. And of course, that conclusion is always going to be well justified when it comes to sports. It was about the money. But I think there’s more to it as well, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
First, let’s talk about the overblown deal that was announced. Clear Channel and its local outlet, WTAM, are for the first time since the Browns returned the odd station out. It still has the Cavs and the Indians and in some ways it seemed to treat the Browns like second class citizens when the seasons overlapped so it makes sense that the Browns wanted to find a more dedicated partner.
The Browns did that and more by essentially finding two dedicated partners. The two rival radio stations colluded combined in a joint bid whereby each of the stations will get to broadcast the Browns’ weekly march toward one 4-12 season after another. Two of the stations, WKRK and WNCX, are on the FM spectrum, the other, WKRN, on AM. So wherever you may be driving, or if you just prefer to watch the broadcast but listen to Jim Donovan and Doug Dieken instead of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, it should be pretty easy to find someone broadcasting the game.
Broadcasting games on the radio is still a pretty big deal. It’s carries with it a certain amount of cachet for the stations involved and it’s just that cachet that the Browns dangled in front of two stations desperate to break from the numbing sameness that is terrestrial radio.
The bigger part of the deal though is the ancillary program that each station agreed to. WKNR has agreed to dedicate 4 mind-numbing hours to the pregame, which means the pregame will last, on average, an hour longer than the actual game. Then when Doug Dieken completes his post-game “interviews” (the process by which Dieken makes a statement like “you had to be happy with the blocking today” and then waits for whoever is on the other end of the mike to agree with him), there will be two hours of post game on WKRK.
Then there will be the midweek shows. And Oh! the midweek shows. Vic Carucci, who carries the title of Browns senior editor for the Browns-owned web site will host a two hour a day chatfest, sponsored by Liberty Ford, which is one of the ways that the stations in turn recoup the money they paid the Browns. Meanwhile new head coach Rob Chudzinski will host a weekly show. So in addition to all the Rick’s from Brunswick that call in anyway to talk about the Browns, fans will get official Browns-dedicated programming two and sometimes three hours every single day.
What the Browns have done here is actually quite brilliant. The Browns now control the messaging on the city’s two dedicated sports talk radio shows and didn’t have to pay a nickel for it. Indeed they are being paid millions for the privilege of making sure that the stations most likely to foment discord at their dysfunctional operations will instead present the more positive aspects to why still another regime change is in order. Why bitch about coverage from the local media when you can just control it instead?
This is why Jimmy Haslam is a genius and Randy Lerner is an idiot. Haslam is a billionaire on his way probably to being a raging gazillionaire because he understands business and isn’t afraid to work at it. Since buying the team, he’s dispensed of Mike Holmgren and his unique brand of lethargy, he’s sold the naming rights to the stadium, and he’s found a way to tightly control the team’s messaging and getting the local media to fund their own sellout..
Lerner is a billionaire (maybe) by birth who has essentially become Arthur but without the ever-present vodka tonic. It may be hard for Lerner to actually squander all the cash he was given but you can pretty much guarantee that he isn’t going to stop trying. I wonder if Greg Kokinis is still being paid by Lerner?
That the Browns changed radio partners may not seem like a big deal to the fans but when they can’t find a radio host to beat the drums over why this team needs to make that move, they’ll begin to understand that it's because the media no longer represents them, they represent the team.
The expansive control that the Browns now lord over the local media by virtue of their radio deals (coupled, as it is, with the local TV deals it has with those who broadcast their preseason games) is really the next phase of what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban identified as the next logical step in the shakeout of dying local print and electronic media.
As you may recall, Cuban started to limit media access to his team in favor of having in house “journalists” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) interview the players post game and distribute the quotes to the media. Cuban came under the predictable criticism for it but wondered aloud, well, he did more than wonder, he came out and basically said that the time is near if not at hand where teams will write their own game stories and supply their own quotes. He called it an efficient use of resources in a time where independent media outlets are struggling to fund themselves. I’d call it propaganda. When the only perspective is that of the people running the operation, the only stories you’re going to get are those favorable to those running the operation.
Yet for all the criticism Cuban got, there hasn’t been a peep out of the local media in Cleveland about the more stealth version of Cuban’s business model the Browns have created. Part of that is because the radio reporters aren’t going to complain publicly on the airwaves of those that the Browns have paid for and the print reporters covering the Browns are lazy from years of being spoon-fed by the Browns’ PR department. But part of it is because most people don’t consume media the way they used to anyway. People run to the internet for their “news” and are pretty indiscriminate about where they get it from. If the Browns are running a propaganda operation and using once independent radio stations for their outlets, so be it. Who cares? Really, who cares?
There’s also no question that newspapers are on the decline. Pick up a copy of your local Plain Dealer or Akron Beacon Journal and see how much of their copy is actually local anymore. Not as much as you’d think. Newspapers are run by shadow staffs and they tend to fortify their online presence by utilizing local bloggers who, if they are paid at all, are paid very little. The competition for stories isn’t particularly robust.
Teams on the other hand have somewhat expanded their own in house operations. Carucci is a former print journalist who got out just in time to join, first, NFL.com and then the Cleveland Browns. His title is senior editor but don’t think for a moment that he has free reign to do anything other than tow the company line, something that he’s more than comfortable with by the way.
I’m not criticizing Carucci for finding a steady paycheck in a dying business and I’m not criticizing the Browns for wanting to control how their product is reported. But just keep both of those in mind as you read stories on the Browns’ web site or listen to all the hours of new programming on the radio.
If you doubt this, just consider the words of Alec Scheiner, the Browns’ new president. He told Crains Cleveland Business that the Browns will “work with their new partners in deciding the on-air talent” for the pre and post game programs. I wonder what it takes to get those jobs?
It’s a disturbing but inevitable trend. The deal with the devil that WKRN and WKRK made was that their ratings and hence their advertising revenues would soar by becoming, essentially, extensions of the Browns. They’re probably right. The only thing more voracious than Browns’ fans appetites to talk about the game about to be played is Browns’ fans appetites to talk about why the Browns lost the game they just played. There is no nuance too small or insignificant to escape scrutiny. Everyone has an opinion about what the Browns need to do to win and it’s equally valid to make before or after a game.
Meanwhile over at WTAM, despite still having the Cavs and the Indians, the loss of the Browns still has to hurt. But if there’s one thing you can count on it will be that Mike Trivisonno, the weekday talking troll, will suddenly turn into the biggest Browns’ critic on the planet.
When the Browns were on WTAM the only thing as funny as listening to Trivisonno fawn over a Browns’ official is listening to Trivisonno fawn over Cavs and Indians officials. Trivisonno may be a no talent boob of the highest order but he isn’t as dim as his opinions would suggest. He knows how the bread gets buttered which is why he wouldn’t criticize Randy Lerner, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Mike Holmgren or anyone else associated with the Browns until the word “formerly” appeared before the words “associated with.”
But with the Browns elsewhere it wouldn’t surprise me if Trivisonno is already railing against the team or its management in one inane fashion or another. WTAM lost some prestige and given that the Browns’ rights aren’t up for bid for the next several years, there’s no reason for Trivisonno to hold back with his unique blend of non-sequiturs. Of course to test my theory on Trivisonn you’d actually have to listen to Trivisonno, something I don’t recommend to anyone who values their brain cells.
Given that the Browns will essentially be choosing the on-air “talent” for their pre and post game lovefests, this week’s question to ponder is how many ex-Browns do you think will end up with those jobs?