Friday, October 29, 2010

The Economics of Being a Basketball Fan, Bonus Post: Money Saving Tips

As promised, I've got a bonus-post related to the economics of being a basketball fan. Over my years of being a fan, I've picked up a few tricks for saving money while attending games in the area, and I'd like to share a few of my favorites. As with almost anything that's worthwhile, there's some sacrifice involved, but the things I've detailed below are places where I've cut corners and haven’t really felt like I’m giving much up. Perhaps not all of them are your cup of tea, but I know I've kept my wallet from being constantly empty by using all of the information below.

1) Marquette’s five-game packs are a great deal. I used to have season tickets with a friend, but we dropped down to the five-packs a few years ago. Buying both five-packs gets you the entire Big East season and the top non-conference opponent. Those are the only games that you want to pay full price to see, anyway. You can scalp a ticket to Presbyterian outside the Bradley Center for $10 on any given night, so it sort of hurts when you realize that with season tickets, you’re paying $30 apiece for all of the dreadful non-conference games. No, your five-game pack tickets aren’t going to be in the lower level, but the seats that I’ve gotten have always been near center court (even if they’re a bit high up). If you’re going to let me keep a couple hundred extra bucks in my pocket, I’ll gladly walk an extra flight of stairs each night and watch the action from a bit further away. And seating location matters even less this year, as the Bradley Center’s extremely awesome new scoreboard appears to be capable of giving views of the action that will make everyone feel like they’re sitting courtside.

2) UWM games are an outstanding value. Last year I actually attended one game where there was a half-price ticket promotion and I paid $5 for my seat. That’s exactly $1 more than it would have cost me to go to a high school game. It’s an insane price to see a division one college basketball team. If you go to a UWM game, I would suggest to you that buying the cheapest ticket is almost always the way to go. U.S. Cellular Arena is seldom anywhere close to being crowded, so you can buy the cheap seats and sit in nearly any section that you want. That may not be the case for the couple of games at the Klotsche Center this year, but you’ll probably save a bit on parking at UWM’s campus as opposed to downtown (parking at UWM is frighteningly scarce, but it’s still going to be less costly than going downtown at the times that the games are played).

3) Park wisely. You can easily pay too much to park at any given game if you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t plan ahead. Usually saving a couple of bucks involves a slightly longer walk to the venue, but the savings add up, and you’ll usually be fighting with less traffic at the end of the night. Here are my go-to hot spots for the venues where I most frequently have to pay for parking. None of them are exactly secret, but it boggles my mind how few people tend to take advantage of them.

Kohl Center: Go to one of the city lots and you won’t pay more than $3. The Lake Street ramp just off of State Street ensures that you’ll be stuck in traffic for 30 minutes after the game, so I would suggest that you head over to the Dayton/Mifflin Street ramp. The walk is roughly the same, but it will be much smoother sailing post game. (I get the added bonus of a nostalgic walk past two of my college-era apartments on the way back to my car, which certainly doesn't affect you, but is pretty cool for me.)

Bradley Center: My go-to lot on State Street raised its game day rate last year, so I can’t suggest it anymore. With that gone, your best bet is to park at the surface lot across the street from the bars on Water Street for $5. A word of warning, though–you’ll need to have an extra time cushion built in if you go there, as it can take some time to pay and walk to the game. The walking isn’t a huge issue (it’s only a block or two further away than most lots), but payment can be a pain, as one automatic payment machine on site handles all payments for the lot. If that's not bad enough, the machine is painfully slow (particularly since there are always a few people who struggle with figuring out how to use the machine). If it’s close to game time, you’re virtually guaranteed to spend 10 minutes in a slow-moving, 15-person line filled with people complaining about how ridiculous the situation is. Honestly, I hate this lot because of this issue, but if you’ve got the time and can deal with some frustration, you’ll save a few bucks.

U.S. Cellular Arena: If Marquette or the Bucks are playing across the street at the Bradley Center, just use my advice from above for Bradley Center parking. If the Panthers are the only thing going on downtown, you should be able to find parking at any number of lots for $5 if you’re not lucky enough to happen upon an open spot on the street for free (while rare, this is not impossible).

Al McGuire Center: Home to various Marquette events and high school games, I’m continually amazed when I see people paying $3 to park in the crowded ramp and lot just west of the McGuire Center. I always park for free on Wells Street, in front of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, which is only a two-block walk from the McGuire Center. I not only save $3 by doing so, I also avoid post-game parking lot and pedestrian gridlock. All because I’m willing to walk one block more.

4) Don’t eat or drink at college games. Concession stands can be tasty, but they’re pricy. Where else are you going to pay $4 for a bottle of water? Or $8 for a beer? As a general rule, I tend not to patronize concession stands. If I can’t get home before the game and need to eat something, it’s not that hard to find a place on the way to the arena to buy a sandwich for $4 that’s going to be way more filling than that $4 hot dog. Or, if I'm feeling really unhealthy, Taco Bell can sell me more food than I can possibly eat for under $3. (Yes, that last revelation frightens me, too.)

5) Feel free to eat or drink at high school games. High school concession stands are the exact opposite of college concession stands. It’s not unusual to find a bag of popcorn for sale for 50 cents. You’re likely not getting great food, but if you need a snack, you’re not going to break the bank, and you’re more than likely going to be helping out a high school booster club. So it’s even sort of noble to buy that can of soda for 75 cents.

6) Go to division three games. This one’s a bit tougher. I generally tend to go to games with other people, and sometimes it’s a tough sell to get a friend to go to a division three college basketball game. But if you’ve got a friend who’s a fellow basketball junkie or just happens to be an alum of one of the schools involved, it can be a cheap option to go see the local division three team. Admission is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of what a high school game costs (a few years ago at Carroll University, they didn’t even charge admission) and the players are all guys that were among the best players on their high school teams. It’s high level play without the high level cost.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Economics of Being a Basketball Fan, Part 1: An Analysis of the 2009-2010 Season

The past few weeks have seen me make my first basketball-related purchases of the 2010-2011 season. In making those purchases, I got to thinking about the financial implications of my hobby of obsessively following basketball. Like everyone else, I have not been immune to our country’s ongoing economic recession. However unlike most other people, I tend to compile ridiculous amounts of data about my spending habits (Indeed, I have a log of every cent that has left my hands dating back to November 2007. Yes, I can be a bit obsessive sometimes.). The question of exactly how much money I spend on keeping up with basketball is not something that’s totally new to me. So, in order to find some sort of answer to this question, I spent all of last season meticulously tracking and logging every one of my basketball-related expenses. And due to laziness (and perhaps a bit of fear over finding out what I spend on basketball) I’ve put off analyzing this data until now. Today, however, I’d like to answer the question that I spent all of last season trying to wrap my head around: just how much does it cost to be a serious basketball fan?

Below I’ve broken out my expenses for last season into seven categories. The first two are media related and the last five relate to the cost of actually attending games. Not surprisingly, it costs a bit more to actually go to a game. But that's fine--even if high definition television makes watching games in the comfort of one's own home a spectacular experience, there's still great value to actually heading out an experiencing things first-hand. That should be enough background on this project, so I’ll get to the point--here’s my detailed breakdown of basketball related expenses for the 2009-2010 season:

Media (Print): There are two big media expenses that relate to my basketball obsession. First is the cost of pre-season basketball guides. I’m not the sort of guy that can head into a season without information–I need to know a little something about what’s going on before I can watch it. I have two “must buy” guides that I purchase every year–the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook. Basically everything that I could possibly need to know is in these two books. The combined cost of both last year was $52.89 ($27.88 for the Blue Ribbon and $25.01 for the WBY--shipping charges included for both), and it was arguably the best $52.89 that I spent all year. I still also make an effort to buy a copy of any basketball guide that I see on the newsstand for archival purposes (I am readily aware that this is one of the nerdiest things about me). Unlike ten years ago when that meant buying 7-8 magazines, the number of folks with their hand in the college basketball guide business has dwindled to 2-3. I don’t have figures on what I bought last year (I usually buy my guides at the grocery store and don’t break them out as a separate expense), but it’s probably safe to say that I spent roughly $25.00 on three basketball guides last year. Total Expense: $77.89

Media (Televison): My second media-related expense deals with television. With the way that technology has advanced in the past few years to allow people to watch almost any program with internet assistance, a big part of me thinks that live sporting events are the only reason that I haven’t canceled cable/satellite television service. But it would probably be a stretch to allocate the cost of my Directv subscription to basketball. However, the one programming adjustment that I can clearly attribute to basketball is adding the Directv Sports Pack to my plan from November until the end of March at a cost of $12.99 per month. So that’s $64.95 (not counting a couple of bucks for taxes and fees, which I’m not obsessive enough to calculate) for me to be able to see Pac-10 games, other games from the West Coast, and an assortment of games that I wouldn't otherwise even think of (old AWA wrestling shows on ESPN Classic are merely a bonus). And as hard as I tried not to, I ordered Directv’s Mega March Madness package last year, allowing me to watch any NCAA tournament game that I wanted from the comfort of my own living room. That ran me $69.00, which I will concede is a ridiculous price for a programming package that is relevant for little more than four days (two of which I’m working during) and which is partially covered by free network TV. But it’s like crack to me. I’m hoping that the tournament’s new television deal will make this plan obsolete and save me a few bucks this spring. Total Expense: $133.95 (Note: This also doesn't include the cost of replacing my living room television, which was inconsiderate enough to break down right before March Madness last year. I suspect that I'd have bought a new TV, anyway.)

Tickets: The most obvious cost of attending basketball games is the fee for entry, and it’s where I spent most of my money last year. I spent a grand total of $636 on tickets to games last year. Of that, I spent just $28 attending seven high school games, which are always a bargain at $4 per game. The remaining $608 spent on college tickets puts me at a ridiculously high cost of $45.43 per game over the course of 14 games. That per-game total is skewed high by a few things, though First, I ordered both of Marquette’s five-game packages last year, but was only able to make it to seven of the ten games. So I paid for three games that I didn’t attend, but still factored in what I paid for the tickets that I either ate or gave away (second level Marquette tickets aren’t exactly a hot re-sale item). Second, occasionally I have the opportunity to purchase a pair of outstanding seats for a Badger game from a friend of mine. That happened three times last year. While the seats themselves are reasonably priced, I’m not the type of guy that asks a friend to join him at a game and then asks to be reimbursed for the second seat. That’s just not how I roll. So for three of the games, I’m paying for two seats instead of one. Finally, I foolishly paid more than I’d like to admit to attend the Wisconsin-Duke game and that significantly altered my season costs. Seriously, it was an embarrassingly expensive season last year, particularly given the relatively small number of games that I attended, and the fact that I'm typically not particularly picky about where I sit. Frankly, I'm sort of ashamed. Total Expense: $636.00

Parking: It’s easy to forget that you often have to pay to park your car when you go to a game, but that expense adds up. Fortunately, high school games generally offer free parking. Similarly, if you’re notoriously cheap (as I usually am) and slightly knowledgeable (as I occasionally am), you can park for free or extremely cheaply at most Wisconsin games (city parking ramps in downtown Madison remain one of the greatest bargains of our time, though only novices park at the super-busy Lake Street Ramp on game day). Generally where I get dinged the worst for parking is at Marquette games, as downtown Milwaukee is just a different sort of animal. If you time things right and are willing to do some walking, you can still find a couple of places to park in downtown Milwaukee for $5. Usually a number of factors have to work out in order to pull this off, though, so you need to plan ahead. Bottom line, I kept my expenses fairly low for attending 21 games, but I can probably do better this upcoming season. Total Expense: $60.80

Concessions: Some folks cannot envision going to a game without getting a hot dog and a huge soda. I’m not one of those people, largely because as I noted earlier, I can be notoriously cheap about certain things. While I love a soft pretzel as much as the next guy, I’d much rather keep my $3 in my pocket and make a sandwich when I get home. So it should come as no surprise that I only opened my wallet to the concession people once this past season, to the tune of $9 at a Marquette game. Were I to guess, I’d say that I probably had a slice of pizza and a bottle of water, and that it hurt my soul when I handed over my cash to the man behind the counter. Total Expense: $9.00

Miscellaneous: From time to time, I end up spending money not at the game itself, but doing things that I would not have done if not for attending the game. For instance, sometimes I’ll need to grab dinner somewhere when I’m heading directly from work to Madison for a game (stopping for a pre-game gyro at the Parthenon on State Street totally beats grabbing a hot dog at the game both in terms of value and taste), or I’ll stop at a gas station for a water or soda on the way home from a far-flung game. I don’t believe that I factored in most pre and post-game outings with friends in this category last year, those felt like things I would have been doing with or without a game going on (though I’ll probably track this in the future). Bottom line, I did a good job of keeping my miscellaneous costs down. Total Expense: $47.33

Gas/Travel: If you can believe it, I generally tried to track my mileage for every game that I drove to this year (with varying levels of preciseness in my tracking). I did not include games to which other friends drove, as it was not my car taking the hit. But in the 17 games that I took responsibility for driving to (including side stops related to the games), I logged a grand total of 833 miles. It’s a big number, but given that it includes four trips to Madison and back, it’s not all that shocking. According to the EPA, my car gets 26 miles per gallon of gas (combined highway/city). Thus, it took just over 32 gallons of gas to get me to and from games last year. Estimating a cost of $2.60 per gallon (which may not be accurate for the time period involved, but seems reasonable to me), that adds up to $83.20 in gas. That’s a very palatable number, as long road trips in prior years have tended to skew this number higher. Total Expense: $83.20

Total Cost (All Categories): $1,048.87

While dropping just over a grand on hoops over a 5-6 month period doesn’t totally upset me, I know I can do a bit better. And here are the three places in which I could potentially see myself saving some cash this season:

1) Media (Television): As I alluded to earlier, the NCAA’s new television deal seems aimed at providing national coverage of every game on four different channels. If so, that would seemingly eliminate the need for the Mega March Madness plan and the need for me to fork over $69.00 to watch as much hoops as possible. Even if it doesn’t, I’ll hopefully have the will power to resist a programming package that’s only useful for a very short period of time. For reasons unrelated to basketball, I may look into switching away from Directv around February, anyway, so perhaps this won’t be a temptation anymore.

2) Tickets: I’ve dropped down to only one Marquette 5-game plan this year, so right off the bat I’m up $150. And Duke's not coming to town again, so I shouldn’t have another high-cost game. I would anticipate lots of high school games this year, too, leading me to get my number of games seen this season up without the high costs of college games.

3) Gas/Travel: I’m giving some semi-serious thought to taking a year off from following the Badgers and adopting a different team to follow this year (to be clear, a lowered cost is not why I would do this–it would merely be a side benefit). In the unlikely event that I find the will power to actually do this, it would keep the miles off my vehicle. However, if trips to Madison and other far-off spots are in the cards, this expense also has the potential to go way up.

With only a few weeks left until practice opens, here’s looking forward to a season of constant fun and constant fiscal responsibility. (Man, I really have gotten old in the last few years...) Back tomorrow with a bonus economic post. I had intended to continue on today and share my personal basketball-specific money saving tip, but I recognize that today's thoughts are already a bit long-winded without tacking on one more thing. So back tomorrow with those tips.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Observations On the New WIAA Tournament Brackets

In my last post, I shared my general objections to the new 5-division WIAA state basketball tournament. However, until the actual tournament brackets came out in late September, there were still a lot of unanswered questions about how the state tournament would look. I’ve since had a chance to peruse those brackets, and today would like to share some observations about what I’m seeing. For your reference, here are those brackets:

Division 1

Division 2

Division 3

Division 4

Division 5

Most of my thoughts below (the first six, to be exact) revolve around Division 1. This is for two reasons. First, Division 1 is perhaps the most drastically altered by the new tournament format, as only half as many teams as in the past from that division will get to play at the state tournament this year. Thus, it has a lot of interesting changes occurring. Second, I simply happen to be more familiar with Division 1 than any of the other divisions.

Without further adieu, here are some of the interesting, amusing, and potentially upsetting things that I’ve noticed from glancing at the new state tournament brackets:

1) In general, I’m not crazy about the Super Tuesday game concept (the final Division 1 games before the state tournament being played at big venues on a night when none of the other divisions are playing). I do like having four huge, hyped up games to determine which Division 1 schools go to the state tournament. And I appreciate the WIAA’s attempt to give a special night to the Division 1 schools after taking away four of their state tournament berths. However, let’s be honest–these games would be better played on a Friday or Saturday. Putting the games with the potential for the most geographically far-flung teams on a Tuesday night in the middle of the school week seems an odd choice to me, particularly given that the winner will be missing school for the state tournament later that week. I suppose the distance issue is one that small schools in remote areas deal with all the time, but that’s out of necessity. It sure seems in this instance like there should have been a way to avoid the potential of sending a team from LaCrosse on a 5-hour round trip to and from Stevens Point on a Tuesday night.

2) I find it remarkable that there is a Super Tuesday game to be played in Stevens Point and that of the 19 schools competing to play in that game, there are exactly two whose cities are within an hour’s drive of Stevens Point. I find it even more remarkable that Stevens Point Area High School has been placed in neither of the sectionals competing to play in this game. If SPASH wants to go to state, it will have to travel to Oshkosh, instead. Given that the WIAA is based in Stevens Point, I’d have to assume that someone noticed these points and that there's some reasoning behind the placements. But I'm at a loss for what that reasoning could be.

3) In Division 1, all of the Milwaukee-area* schools are spread between three sectionals, none of whom are in the same bracket to get to the state tournament. Thus, there’s a possibility of three Milwaukee-area teams going to the state tournament. While this was a possibility last year, as well, the possibility of three out of eight teams at the state tournament being from Milwaukee was a bit different than three out of four teams having a Milwaukee area base. While as a Milwaukee native, I certainly don’t mind that the WIAA split things up in this manner, it does sort of conflict with all of the talk that I’ve heard over the years about wanting to have different geographic regions represented at state. And does it not seem weird that if, say, Menomonee Falls wants to make it to state, they’re going to have to play a game in Oshkosh first? Or that most of the schools in Sectional 7 are within a 10-15 minute drive of the Al McGuire Center (one of the “Super Tuesday” game sites), but that the winner of Sectional 7 is playing its Super Tuesday game at UW-Whitewater?

*Note: I’m counting Sectional 4, comprised of Waukesha and Ozaukee County teams as Milwaukee-area. I had an acquaintance in college who was willing to fight anyone who claimed that Hartland wasn’t a suburb of Milwaukee, so I think I’m on pretty solid ground here.

4) As for the Whitewater Super Tuesday game that will include one Milwaukee area team, I can virtually guarantee that you won’t find me going to that one. The drive between Milwaukee and Whitewater at night is unnerving enough due to the darkness and tricky points on Highway 12. I can only imagine what it will be like late on a Tuesday night with a bunch of teenage basketball fans who’ve never driven the stretch before. (I seem to have shifted into bitter old man mode there–sorry about that.) Then again, perhaps the long trip will kill attendance for the Milwaukee Public Schools, which typically have fan bases that don’t travel well. As Milwaukee King Coach Jim Gosz predicted about fan attendance at a potential game in Whitewater even before the Sectional pairings came out, “If we get one busload there, it would be a half bus more than I would figure.”

5) Division 1's Sectional 7 is absolutely brutal. It’s got Milwaukee King, Milwaukee Washington and Milwaukee Vincent, the three dominant City Conference schools of the last two decades. Then you mix in the typically strong programs at Milwaukee Marquette and Brookfield Central. And the winner more than likely gets to face off with Madison Memorial, the biggest non-Milwaukee-area talent magnet in the state, for the right to play in the state tournament. That's no easy path. Special kudos to Milwaukee Washington for being the only team to opt up from Division 2 to Division 1. Washington had to suspect that it was going to be placed in a sectional like this, and it takes guts to invite competition like that.

6) Milwaukee Hamilton coach Tom Diener may be the luckiest man alive. For years when he coached at Milwaukee Vincent, his teams were placed in a sectional away from all of the powerhouse teams now located in Sectional 7. Now, three years removed from his tenure at Vincent, the Vikings are in Sectional 7 with all of the other longtime Milwaukee-area powers and Diener’s Milwaukee Hamilton squad is placed in the significantly less-brutal Sectional 8. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

7) As I accurately noted in my post from Monday, the new Division 3 will contain four private schools (Racine St. Catherine’s, Whitefish Bay Dominican, LaCrosse Aquinas and Manitowoc Roncalli) that were dominant in the old Division 3. I stand by my comments that we should plan on those schools continuing to dominate in the new Division 3. Given the geographic diversity of the schools, only St. Catherine’s and Dominican appear in the same sectional, so it’s still entirely conceivable (perhaps even probable) that three of these four dominant programs could find themselves at the state tournament.

One thing that I noted in my previous post was not entirely accurate, though. My statement that “A few schools will get lucky and dodge these powers by moving down to Division 4" implied that Division 3 would basically stay the same as it always had. I believed that at the time that I wrote my prior post, but after examining things a bit more closely, that’s clearly not the case. Of the 127 schools that were part of the old Division 3, only 33 remain in the new Division 3. Of the other schools, 89 move down to Division 4 and four move down to Division 5 (You’ll note that only adds up to 126. I’m not entirely sure that the remaining school, the Milwaukee Wisconsin Career Academy, even exists or fields a basketball team anymore. All I know is that I can’t find it in any of the new divisions.) The net result? The aforementioned Division 3 powers now play schools that are slightly more equipped to compete with them, and the majority of the old Division 3 gets a break by moving down a division. I still think the new five division plan ignores the private school issue and simply shifts it to a different set of schools, but at least it’s semi-defensible when you examine the upward and downward movement of the schools involved in the new Divisions 3 and 4. It’s sort of uncanny, though, that the four schools that have been the subject of the most discussion were among the minority of old Division 3 schools that did not shift downward.

8) Semi-defensible as the five-division plan is for the reasons above, I find that the WIAA’s method of defining the enrollment limits for divisions somewhat lacking in terms of logic. Here are the official enrollment cut-offs for all of the divisions:

Division 1: Schools with an enrollment of 1200 and above

Division 2: Schools with enrollments ranging from 600 - 1199

Division 3: 50% of schools with enrollments between 200 and 600

Division 4: 50% of schools with enrollments between 200 and 600

Division 5: Schools with enrollments of 200 and less

One thing jumps out immediately when you look at the enrollment limits for each division–Divisions 3 and 4 are the only divisions without hard numbers as their limits. I’m troubled by this. As I’ve always understood it, the reason to separate teams into divisions is to ensure that no team is put at a vast competitive disadvantage solely because of its school’s enrollment. I’m all for divisions when they address a competitive imbalance. But based on the WIAA’s failure to make a clear line separating Division 3 from Division 4 that seems not to be what’s going on here. Having no set lower limit to Division 3 and no set upper limit to Division 4 implies that there’s no clear reason to differentiate between the two, other than the fact that there are a lot of schools of this size. And crafting a new division simply for the sake of convenience seems particularly misguided to me.

So, those are the things that jump off the page to me. Am I missing anything interesting in any of the divisions that I’ve discussed, or for that matter, those that I am not informed enough to discuss?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Things That I'm Decidedly Not Excited About This Season

Not everything that goes on in life is great. Similarly, not everything that goes on in the world of basketball is something that I can get excited about. Usually there are a couple of things that go on during the offseason that serve primarily to damper my enthusiasm for the upcoming season. This past offseason, I read about two such things. The first is a minor annoyance. The second is, in my mind, a more fundamentally upsetting change. And today I bring you my angry rants about those things. I’m generally a pretty positive fellow, so you’ll undoubtedly note that the list of things that I’m excited about this year is considerably longer than the two things that bring me down. But it must be noted that the following two items do upset and disappoint me (particularly the second one):

1) I was disappointed a few months ago when I read that this upcoming December's installment of the annual Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout is moving to Concordia University after spending its first five years at the Al McGuire Center. The Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook website notes that the move was made due to NCAA rule changes. Though I am unfamiliar with the rule changes that necessitated the move, I can only assume that they involved some sort of prohibition of or set of limitations imposed on tournaments like this one being held on division one college campuses. Indeed, one can see how such a tournament being held in the Marquette University practice facility could be a recruiting advantage. That said, as a guy who's a fan of Marquette's big in-state rival, I never had a problem with the tournament being held at the McGuire Center. It is, quite simply, a fabulous venue for such an event, and I could care less if a kid or two gets swayed toward Marquette every couple of years by getting to experience the Golden Eagles’ gorgeous practice facility. Regardless of what the reason is for the change (and indeed, I recognize that my assumptions as to why the rules changes occurred may be completely wrong), the fact remains that the WBY Shootout is good for basketball and should be located in the best venue possible. And that venue is located in downtown Milwaukee, not out in Mequon.

2) We’re entering the first year of a new format for the Wisconsin high school basketball tournament and I couldn’t be less excited about it. The two key “innovations” of the plan are the addition of a fifth division and a change in the number of Division 1 teams that make it to the state tournament from eight to four. Before this new format was adopted a few months ago, Nicholas Kartos of very clearly broke down some of its pros and cons. Check out his blog if you want a good summary of how things will be different. If you’d prefer a long, bitter rant about the change, I present you with my list of the three things that most bother me about the change.

a) Five state champions is too many. As the blog post linked above notes, every one of Wisconsin’s neighboring states has four state champions, and each of those states contains more high schools than Wisconsin. While adding a fifth division doesn’t totally strip the meaningfulness of the designation “state champion,” it’s tough to argue that it doesn’t at least devalue it. Truth be told, I’d rather go back to the old three division format that the WIAA did away with just over twenty years ago. There was something logical about having champions of the large schools, medium sized schools and small schools.

b) There seems to be no compelling reason for the change. I honestly can’t think of any problem that shifting to five divisions solves. Nor have I seen any clear explanation of what this move fixes or any compelling argument about how it makes the tournament better. If there truly was any significant problem (and it’s arguable that there was) with the four-division format of the WIAA state tournament, it was that a small number of private schools have tended to snatch up a disproportionate number of Division 3 state tournament berths and titles. Addressing this issue would have at least been a defensible reason to consider some type of restructuring. Indeed, initial drafts of the five division format, while flawed in their method of approaching this issue, at least attempted to solve the problem by creating a mechanism for shifting powerful private schools upward in the division structure. The format that was actually adopted is totally silent on this issue. And I have yet to see an explanation of any other issue that the new format could reasonably solve, or a reasonable argument for why this makes the tournament better.

As an aside about how this change in format does not address the public-private issue in division three, it’s notable that of the four most successful teams from the old Division 3 (Racine St. Catherine’s, Whitefish Bay Dominican, LaCrosse Aquinas and Manitowoc Roncalli) are all in the new Division 3. In the last decade, those five schools have combined for 15 state tournament appearances, seven Division 3 championships, and two Division 2 championships (Aquinas and St. Catherine’s had years earlier in the decade where their enrollment placed them in Division 2). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Division 3 private school dominance will continue with this new format. A few schools will get lucky and dodge these powers by moving down to Division 4, but for everyone else sticking around or moving into the new Division 3, the story will remain the same.

c) Limiting Division 1 to four teams at the state tournament makes the tournament less exciting. I recognize that I have some inherent bias on this issue, having gone to a somewhat large high school and having lived only in Milwaukee and Madison, home to most of the state’s large schools. I also recognize that a handful of the state’s great Division 1 teams will now drop to Division 2 (my own alma mater included). And finally, I’m fully aware that the mission of the WIAA is not to ensure the best tournament match-ups or create the most exciting tournament possible. But can we all look past that for a moment and just all admit that watching teams from the biggest schools is generally more fun. I liked having eight Division 1 teams at state for two reasons. First, they’re usually the most talented teams there. It’s not tough to figure out that a Division 1 team made up of the 14 best players from a school of 1,800 students is going to almost always be much better than a Division 5 team made up of every able-bodied male who’s enrolled in school and doesn’t entirely hate basketball. The more talented the teams, the more fun the games are to watch. Second, a format where a team has to win three games in three days to win the championship lends itself to allowing you to seeing a few games so that you can get to know the teams. By the time that the state finals came around each year, I found myself caring a lot more about the two Division 1 teams because I’d seen them play for the past two days, rather than one quick game.

I find it significant that the new format ultimately makes no change in the number of teams that make it to state to play for a championship. It merely shifts the state tournament berths from large schools to generally less talented small schools. Oh, and the number of games to be played at the Kohl Center drops from 16 to 15. In return, we get to hand out one more gold ball. That doesn’t feel like a fair trade off to me.

So those are the items that are wearing on me a bit. I'll be back in the next day or two with some more in-depth thoughts on the new WIAA tournament and a few observations about the recently released tournament brackets. And not to worry--not everything will be negative. There are positives about even the worst of situations.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Starting Things Up Again: Things I'm Excited About This Season

It’s time to fire up for another season of hoops, and it’s time for my annual attempt to document my thoughts about all of those things. Unlike in years past, I’ve actually prepared a bit ahead of time this year, and have organized my thoughts into seven different postings that I’ll unleash in the weeks leading up to the season. After that, there should be enough going on that I’ll have new topics to talk about (no guarantees that I won't completely crap out like I did last year, but I'm much more of a writing mood than I have been in several years). The first of those is today, when I’ll share four things that I’m excited about headed into the season. Seeing as things are new, I figured that I’d start things out on a positive note. After today, here are the topics that I'll look to tackle over the course of the next two weeks.

Things That I Am Decidedly Not Excited About This Season

Observations From the New WIAA Tournament Brackets

The Economics of Being a Basketball Fan, Part 1: An Analysis of the 2009-2010 Season

The Economics of Being a Basketball Fan, Part 2: Choosing a Television Provider

Thoughts on the 2010-2011 Wisconsin Badgers

Thoughts on the 2010-2011 Marquette Golden Eagles

After that, hopefully I’ll settle into a bit of a routine. As for today, I might as well jump right into the things that I'm really looking forward to this year:

Marquette vs. UWM at the MECCA

This is the year when Marquette finally plays UWM on the Panthers’ home court. The frosty relationship between the two schools seems to have warmed a bit since the departures of former head coaches Tom Crean and Bruce Pearl. Their successors, Buzz Williams, a particularly affable fellow, and Rob Jeter, a man who spent some time at Marquette prior to his gig at UWM and who seems to be one of the most likeable people on the planet, appear to lack the animosity towards one another that their predecessors had. So while the fun is still there, the bitterness is gone.

Would this game have been infinitely better five years ago when the inability to come to terms and play a game led Marquette and UWM to seemingly hate one another, and when UWM was one of the hottest mid-majors in the country? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean that this game won’t still be fun. While the Marquette and UWM athletic departments may be getting along better, it doesn’t mean that fans aren’t hanging on to the old bitterness. My friends that are UWM fans are still charged up to have the opportunity to beat the big local program that didn’t give them a chance when they felt that they deserved it. My friends that are Marquette fans are all excited to give a massive beat down to a team that they view as whiners who only wanted a game when they were good enough to compete. Fans, you see, don't forgive and forget like the people involved do.

Why is this game any different than the games that have been played between the two teams over the last two years? Quite simply, it’s the fact that the game is being played at the U.S. Cellular Arena. The location is significant for two reasons. First, it’s the Panthers’ home court. Marquette has had the joy of beating UWM badly at the Bradley Center already, but it’s an entirely different level of humiliation to beat a team down on their home court. On the other side of the coin, UWM undoubtedly knows that strange things can happen when our state’s mid-majors host the big boys. UWM’s last second loss to Wisconsin at the Klotche Center in 2002 and UW-Green Bay’s win over Wisconsin last season are two memorable examples. These games don't happen often, but when they do, we tend to remember them. The second significant factor about the location of the game is that U.S. Cellular Arena is Marquette’s old home arena. While much of the MU fan base these days is now too young to remember the days when Marquette called the building home (indeed, I was 10 years old when MU moved to the Bradley Center and can admit that I only barely remember the days in the old MECCA), playing in the old arena will stir up memories for many longtime Marquette fans.

Sadly, I realized earlier this week that I won’t be able to make it to the game on November 27 due to a prior commitment, but you can bet I’ll be feverishly checking for scores all day. Whether I’ll be wearing my Marquette jersey or my UWM sweatshirt at the time is something still to be decided.

The New Bradley Center Scoreboard

I recently had the opportunity to attend the home opener for the Milwaukee Admirals, the local minor league hockey team that shares the Bradley Center with the Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette. I learned virtually nothing about hockey (a sport that I know little about anyway) that night, but what I did learn upon walking into the Bradley Center is that the new scoreboard there is nothing short of spectacular. As hockey goons punched each other in the head, I spent much of the game staring at the huge HD screens with my mouth agape, thinking about how great this new technology will be at basketball games. My Marquette five-game pack tickets are sure to place me far away from the court for all games, and after seeing the scoreboard, I’m seriously questioning how much time, if any, I’ll spend looking at the actual court when I have a giant screen above giving me a much closer look at the action. If I had second level seats behind one of the baskets, I’m fairly confident that I would never even glance at the arena floor–there would be no reason to. I’ve never particularly loved the Bradley Center, but this scoreboard is a huge upgrade and will clearly and significantly improve the game experience. And I say that as a guy who tends not to get excited about big flashy signs in arenas. Kudos to the Bradley Center for making what looks to me to be a phenomenal investment.

Vander Blue vs. Wisconsin

The story of Vander Blue’s college recruitment is one filled with drama. As a relatively unknown high school sophomore at Madison Memorial, Blue gave a verbal commitment to play for his hometown school, Wisconsin. A year later, he turned in a dominant state tournament performance and began to make a name for himself on the national circuit. Then, in his senior year, Blue backed off of his verbal commitment to Wisconsin, only to sign with the Badgers’ big local rival, Marquette.

Now that Blue’s in college, the real fun begins as he gets to face Wisconsin once a year during his time at Marquette. Luckily for Blue, he gets to ease into things this year in front of a supportive home crowd, rather than being thrown to the wolves in Madison. Unfairly or not, Blue is going to be the man that everyone has eyes on for the next four meetings between Marquette and Wisconsin. Wisconsin fans are going to hate Blue and roundly boo him whenever they have the chance, out of anger over his changing his mind about becoming a Badger. Marquette fans are going to celebrate every one of Blue’s successes, reminding Wisconsin fans that not only did they beat the Badgers out for one of the most outstanding state high school players in recent memory, they did so even after Blue had originally decided that he wanted to play for Wisconsin. If you need any point of reference for how heated things should get, consider how loudly fellow former Madison Memorial standout Wesley Matthews was always booed during his appearances at the Kohl Center after spurning the Badgers’ offers out of high school. Matthews’ recruitment had none of the twists and turns of Blue’s and ended with him giving a straightforward, polite “no thanks” to Wisconsin before he took his services to Milwaukee. So one can only imagine how polarizing Blue’s career will be given the added drama of his decision process. In years to come when Blue becomes a key player for MU we'll start to see the real fun, but as Blue begins his freshman year in a reserve role, we can start watching things develop with his first crack at the Badgers.

(As an aside, I’ve likely noted this before, but as primarily a Badger fan, I don’t harbor the same type of anger towards Blue that many of my fellow Badger fans do. While I’d have loved to have had him wearing red and white, the fact remains that Blue’s college options changed so significantly from his sophomore year to his senior year that I find it hard to argue with him backing off to examine those options. From everything that I’ve read, it appears that Blue has a strong family influence behind him and did not make a hasty final decision. In short, he seems like a good guy that got himself in over his head when he made a premature decision at age 15. That notwithstanding, I’m still looking forward to booing him when he steps onto the Kohl Center floor next year. Having a logical reason not to hate someone is nothing that should stand in the way of a good rivalry...)

The Return of Tone Boyle to UWM

I’m as excited to see Tone Boyle suiting up for UWM this year as I was disappointed to not see him playing last year. Boyle was the team’s top returning guard last year, and an 2nd team all-Horizon performer in the 2008-9 season. And he was fun to watch, too. Back in November 2008, here’s what I said about Boyle (who was previously unknown to me at the time) after watching him play against Marquette’s stellar trio of senior guards, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James:

The biggest surprise of the night for me was UWM’s Tone Boyle, who shot the ball well, and was able to get by any and all of Marquette’s perimeter defenders with ease (to be fair, it seemed on Saturday like anyone could have gotten penetration on Marquette, though). Boyle’s one weakness was an amazing inability to finish layups once he got to the hoop. He tallied 23 points, but I suspect he’d have easily had over 30 points if he’d have put in any reasonable number of the inside 4-foot shots that he took.

Last season should have seen Boyle using his talents to team with fellow seniors James Eayrs and Ricky Franklin in challenging for a Horizon League title. Instead, nagging back problems that struck Boyle before the season started never went away and he ended up redshirting.

Last season’s loss is this season’s gain, though. And UWM is luck to have Boyle back, because with the losses of Eayrs and Franklin to graduation, the Panthers need someone compelling to watch on their roster. Earys, with his 6'7", 310 pound frame and sweet touch from behind the three-point arc was always reason enough to tune into a Panther game. But this year’s roster generally lacks interesting players or well-known local players. I’m somewhat intrigued by seeing if Anthony Hill can build off of his outstanding play near the end of last year and keeping tabs to see if I’m right about the vast potential that Lonnie Boga seems to have, but I will admit that it would be a stretch for those things to keep me interested in the Panthers. Boyle immediately ups my interest level and should do the same to yours. He’s a talented, entertaining player with a good comeback story. And I can guarantee that I’ll have fun watching him this season. And, of course, there's something inexplicably awesome about a team that has a guy named Tone (Boyle), a guy named Tony (Meier) and a guy named Anthony (Hill).

UWM’s Occasional Use of the Klotsche Center

I was excited back when I heard that UWM is playing their exhibition games and one non-conference game at the Klotsche Center this year. I suspect that many people feel that playing at the tiny Klotsche Center is a big step back for a program just a few years ago found itself in the Sweet Sixteen. Truth be told, it probably is. However, the UWM basketball program isn't exactly generating the same buzz that it was during the Bruce Pearl glory years, and there's something to be said for stepping backwards in a smart manner.

Just over a decade ago UWM had fallen on some lean years and made a similar move for its program, shifting games from what had become a largely vacant MECCA for their games to a more tightly-packed Klotsche Center. While a huge arena has some advantages, the atmosphere and intimidation factor of a small gym cannot be overlooked. I was at the Klotsche Center on the night in 2002 when the Panthers nearly upended a very good Wisconsin team, and I honestly believe that the venue played a role in the Badgers almost falling to their in-state foes to the east. It has become clear in the last few years that UWM selling out, or even half filling the MECCA on a regular basis is not something that's going to happen anytime soon. So why not generate some excitement by packing a more size-appropriate venue and moving the action back on campus to give students easy access?

The Expanded NCAA Tournament

I have deleted some earlier thoughts about my love of the newly expanded NCAA tournament because they were based on a false premise. I was intensely excited about the newly expanded tournament's "First Four" games until it was pointed out to me below in the comments section by the Phil Mitten, formerly of Hoops Marinara fame, and currently an outstanding writer for Bucky's 5th Quarter, that I had completely misread the format of the "First Four" games involving the last four qualifying at-large teams and the lowest-ranking automatic qualifiers. As it turns out, my belief that the at-large teams and automatic qualifiers would be squaring off against one another was totally wrong. The at-large teams are playing against one another for the final two at-large spots and the automatic qualifiers are playing for the final pair of sixteen seeds. This alters my view of things, and makes me feel essentially neutral about the change. While two very interesting games between at-large teams will now take place, one more automatic qualifier gets marginalized in the process. I'm still trying to figure out if that's progress or not.

Because my feelings about the expanded television package have not been affected by the fact that, you know, I've finally figured out how the tournament is really going to work, I'm leaving that part of my excited ramblings below. You may resume your normal reading...

The second benefit to the expanded NCAA tournament is the new television deal which accompanies the expansion. Now all games will be televised live nationally on one of four channels. That’s amazing access. As a man who has spent big money on tournament television packages and exerted far too much energy on tinkering with media options to see games, this feels like a major victory. With one touch of the remote on tournament weekend, I’ll be able to switch to any tournament game that I want to see. I’m almost weeping with joy over this development. It may be the most spectacular thing that the NCAA has ever done. I’m this close to driving to Indianapolis to try and hug NCAA president Mark Emmert (the fact that the date of his appointment implies that he had nothing to do with this deal, notwithstanding).

So those are the big things that I'm excited about this year. As you can see, 2010-11 brings a lot to be excited about. Of course, not all new developments are good, and next week I'll detail the pair of things that leave me less than excited as we head into the new season.

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