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.