A Well-Kept Secret

A Well-Kept Secret

College basketball needs to seize its opportunity

This is a unique moment in American culture. It’s been 11 years since MySpace surpassed Google for a time as the internet’s most-visited site. We’re now far enough into the social media era that it’s part of our day-to-day lexicon, albeit with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram having long since supplanted Tom & your Top 8 as primary hubs. However, we’re still adjusting to social media’s effect on our lives.

Sports provides a good Petri dish to observe the impact. Consider, for instance, the NFL, which entered the social media age as America’s far-and-away dominant sports obsession. The years before the onset of Web 2.0 were halcyon days for pro football. From the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” to the birth of the New England Patriots’ still-ongoing dynasty, the league’s popularity was undeniable.

But social media has played a big part in the NFL seeming unable to keep an ever-darker tarnish from forming on its precious shield. Dave Duerson and Junior Seau’s suicides were the first major public events proving head injuries had major consequences. The NFL’s steps to alleviate issues surrounding CTE moved awkwardly from denial to reimbursement to badly mismanaged attempts at avoiding consequences. Meanwhile, forcing Thursday night and foreign games on fans diluted the product. An overabundance of parity, and a reluctance to practice for fear of non-game injuries, resulted in mediocrity sweeping the league and, ironically, more injuries when teams actually faced competition. Throw in a dash of domestic violence, a pinch of the Patriots in Spygate and Deflategate, and the utterly inane contention over what constitutes a caught pass, and the NFL has produced far too much self-damaging content for its own good. With each administrative faux pas, no amount of PR spin has drowned out fans using Facebook and Twitter to call out the league’s mularkey. Players protesting societal issues also worsened by polarized social media has been the icing on the cake for many fans.

Exacerbated by the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers-less fall from grace this year, I hit a wall myself a couple weeks ago. After I had to cope with the idea that you need two feet in to make a catch, but only one buttock, but that your back landing out of bounds after your buttock isn’t part of completing the catch, but having the ball come loose after taking it across the goal line securely is, I threw up my hands. When Sunday’s Packers/Lions game is over, I see myself losing interest in the NFL until the Super Bowl, which I will watch moreso because it’s a cultural event. At this point, when good teams play, I’m pretty sure a random rule or occurrence will decide the winner moreso than a team actually outplaying another. The quality of both play and competition isn’t as good as it seemed to be 10-15 years ago.

If the Packers enter a 1970’s-like tailspin, and the league continues to be mismanaged, I can see myself surrendering interest in the NFL the same way I largely did so with the NBA when I sensed Michael Jordan and other superstars were being officiated differently than most of the Milwaukee Bucks during the 90’s. I got a little back into the Bucks during the Ray Allen/Glenn Robinson years, but the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, and 2002 Western Conference Finals, reaffirmed feelings that the only team I want to root for doesn’t have a chance. If the Packers get to a post-Rodgers state of similar hopelessness, it will be difficult to support the NFL’s insatiable greed and bumbling incompetence.

Why did I just spend four paragraphs ranting about what the NFL has become? Because what broke me out of my football-induced sports doldrums last night was a tremendous college basketball game between Marquette and No. 6 Xavier. While yes, Marquette lost by a final of 91-87, I went in expecting a great matchup between teams with contrasting styles, got a game that bested my expectations, and walked away feeling like nobody could have been less than entertained. It was, in short, the opposite of recent NFL experiences.

Marquette/Xavier was one of three games that opened a 2017-18 BIG EAST basketball schedule where every single game could be competitive. The other two had Butler/Georgetown in a double-overtime thriller, and DePaul, long the league’s doormat, staying within reasonable range of No. 1 Villanova, cutting a 30-point deficit down to 17 over nearly nine minutes in the second half. Even with the Wildcats up big shortly after halftime, DePaul still gave you reason to watch. All three games last night summed to a far better average product than what you saw this past weekend in the NFL.

College basketball isn’t perfect by any means. On a macro level, there are big problems that may cause major changes to the structure of the game very soon, while there’s been enough one-and-dones, and top talent skipping the college game to make it not feel like the cradle of future greatness it once was. Marquette also faces unique issues. It needs to win back locals that may have seen back-to-back Wisconsin Final Four appearances and a three-year MU tournament absence as reasons to become Badger devotees. BIG EAST games are often on the insular FS1, if not the outpost of FS2, which have not become destination sports channels and face questionable futures in light of Fox divesting other sports properties. Furthermore, ESPN’s growing ruthlessness with regards to only covering events it has rights for doesn’t help Marquette or the conference. Remember, ESPN thought the BIG EAST was so dead after it decided not to make a competitive offer for the re-formed league’s rights, it actually wrote the conference a requiem. If you want to know more, ask the NHL.

Still, if you could take what we saw last night with Marquette/Xavier, bottle it and put a little of that magic, energy and environment in every college basketball game, you’d have a consistently fun product to watch. In the far-from-dead BIG EAST, that’s what you usually have, and with Marquette back to being one of the nation’s best offensive teams, they make every game interesting.

Something being interesting, and drawing interest, are two different things, though. Regular-season college basketball ratings often leave networks wanting such that the sport is often seen as mere filler programming. Maybe this is the time for college basketball, its fans, and Marquette to seize the opportunity: Cure the issues so the social media dialog can remain focused on the competition. Demand change to give players reason to want to come and play, including compensation, even if delayed. Follow the NBA’s lead in seeking every way possible to promote the game on social media. And, most importantly, keep the game fair, balanced, and more focused on the on-court product than the money-making apparatuses surrounding it. Dollars will come if the game itself is kept in the spotlight.

The NFL isn’t putting together a good product right now. College basketball is, if it produces many more games like Marquette/Xavier. If it can transform itself and solve its issues, there’s great potential for the sport. It needs to take advantage of this unique moment.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

UP NEXT: MU/Georgetown, 3:30 p.m. Saturday downtown. You should watch; it’s fun stuff.

Photo: Getty Images

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