I’ve been wanting to write up a diary on the ridiculously early start dates for spring sports and how they affect the lacrosse, baseball and softball programs.
Personally, I’m excited the season is here so soon and that lacrosse already has a significant win under its belt. But, it sucks when May rolls around and their season is already over. And for a sport that is always seeking new audiences, it doesn’t make sense that they pit themselves against the still-ongoing winter sports season.
I believe the February start dates are hampering these sports’ popularity. The structure of the semester as well as the sports’ postseasons are creating a situation in which the first games creep earlier and earlier and significant portions of their schedules are played in the depths of winter. It’s miserable for the athletes to play these games and even more miserable for the fans to watch them. As a result, spectators don’t show up and this makes it difficult for these programs to get the attention and support they deserve.
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day and softball and lacrosse have already played multiple games. Baseball starts on Friday. But the winter sports season isn’t close to being over yet. March Madness doesn’t start for another month and the Frozen 4 won’t be played for another seven weeks. Let’s take a look at these team’s schedules to see just how ridiculous they are. **I left the golf, tennis and track & field programs out of this analysis primarily because I don’t understand their seasons. Plus, I am more familiar with lacrosse, baseball and softball which I consider to be more spectator-oriented**
Lacrosse is already 1-1, opening their season last weekend, February 6th at UNC. It was clear and cold. Despite the early February weather, 2,000 fans came out to see the game, which isn’t bad (and yesterday they had the fortune of playing in the friendly climate-controlled confines of Oosterbaan Fieldhouse). UNC is a program that usually brings in good crowds, especially in late-spring warm-weather matchups versus its hated rivals Duke and UVA. But, look at what the Michigan game was up against: that night the top 10 Tar Heels hoops team was hosting ACC foe Notre Dame. The lacrosse game wasn’t streamed either - the athletic department’s streaming service showed a gymnastics meet instead. Even if it was streamed the game was on at the same time as Michigan’s only regular season basketball game vs in-state rival Michigan State, so the small community of Michigan lacrosse fans on this board likely would’ve focused on that instead. Oh and the Carolina Panthers were in the Super Bowl that weekend. If you were a casual observer of UNC sports who had an interest in lacrosse, you likely had much bigger things on your plate that weekend.
This year, Michigan plays five games in the month of February, and a total of seven games before the ides of March. That’s half their schedule. This was unheard of in Division 1 even just a few years ago. They also only play one game on their spring break trip and they play zero regular season games in the month of May, when it’s actually nice.
Why does the season start so early you ask? Well, the college lacrosse season is built around Memorial Day which has been the traditional date for the national championship game. The schedule is created backwards from that. But, in the last several years the NCAA tournament field expanded to 16 teams and then again to 18 with play-in games. Also, the ever-shifting conference landscape has created bigger and bigger conferences and now most of them hold end-of-the-year conference tournaments to determine their champions and AQ bids. As a result there are virtually no dates in late April/early May to host home games. Teams compensate for this by scheduling games earlier and earlier which is how we end up with pre-Super Bowl lacrosse. If we’re playing lacrosse games before the NFL is even finished, then there’s something wrong.
Here are some examples of how this is hurting the game. On Saturday, #11 Loyola beat #7 UVA in Charlottesville in 25 degree weather. Only 1,200 fans were in the stands - in milder weather later in the season, that game brings in another thousand fans at least. Even worse, last week Hopkins and Navy played another chapter in their historic rivalry - on a nasty cold Tuesday night. Inside Lacrosse reported that in several recent meetings of the two teams attracted more than 10,000 fans. Hopkins-Navy is basically the equivalent of the Michigan-Notre Dame football rivalry, but on an awful, cold Tuesday night in February 2016, only 665 fans came out to see it. They might as well have played it on Christmas morning in a dark basement with the lights out.
Here is a great discussion on how even the coaches and players hate it. http://www.insidelacrosse.com/article/video-coaches-on-february-lacrosse/33897
Winter and early spring in North America, especially in places like Big Ten country, is not a particularly nice time to do things outside. Nor is it a nice time to do summer-time activities like play baseball. This of course is a major obstacle for the northern teams, most of whom spend the first month of the season on the road in warm places like Florida, Texas and California.
College baseball is ruled by southern schools and those in places like California and Arizona. They can play outdoors year round and can recruit talent that often times is in its own backyard. A look at the past winners of the College World Series show that a northern team has not won the title since Ohio State in 1966 (Fresno St, Oregon St, Wichita St, Vandy and UVA are all non-super warm climate teams who have won, but in that time period there are no winners from east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon).
The warm weather schools also don’t suffer road fatigue the way the northern schools do. Look at Michigan’s first month of games - they play five straight weeks of road games. That’s 19 consecutive away games including a pair of Saturday doubleheaders. Before they play their first home game on March 25th, they will have logged thousands of miles going to Florida, Hawaii, Oklahoma and five different cities in California. Contrast that with the schedules of teams like Texas, LSU and UCLA who host games in February and hardly have to go anywhere when they do go on the road.
Michigan baseball has a nice long homestand in April, but they play 36 games of their 50 regular season games on the road. If they make the tournament and CWS they could be playing as late as June 29th.
Like baseball, softball spends the first several weeks of their season in far-off warmer corners of the planet because it’s simply too cold to play in the midwest in February.
This year, Michigan kicked off the season in Tampa. Then they go to Tallahassee. Then it’s on to Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Fullerton and then Louisville. They finally play their first homestand on March 16. Out of 50 regular season games on the schedule, 34 of them are somewhere other than Ann Arbor. Their last home game is May 8 before finishing up the regular season on the road and then heading to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Softball is dominated by Western teams. Before Michigan won its first national championship in 2005, no team east of the Mississippi had ever won the Women’s College World Series. A look at the past winners of the WCWS shows that Michigan is the only northern team that consistently competes for the national title. Having one of the best coaches in all of sports may be the thing that helps Michigan get over its climate handicap.
If Michigan goes deep this year, as expected, they could be playing as late as June 8th.
From a markets perspective, the spring sports season is saturated. The month of March is dominated by the NCAA basketball tournament, to the point that most people stop paying attention to the NBA and NHL (I definitely do). After that we have Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Later in April, the NHL and NBA begin their marathon playoff slags that go to June. Also in the spring we have other American sports traditions like the Masters, the Triple Crown, the Indy 500 and the NFL Draft. Niche and non-revenue sports are going to have a hard time trying to compete in this media landscape.
But there is a simple solution - move the seasons back, even just a few weeks. If these sports play most of their meaningful games when people will see them, their popularity is likely to grow. While the field is crowded in spring, there is a significant drop-off in late May. By the end of May the NBA and NHL have whittled down to only a few teams and their games are often few and far between. They’re done in mid June at the latest and unless it’s an Olympic or World Cup year, there is only pro baseball for the next three months until football starts up again.
Sports-wise there is little to do on college campuses once the basketball and hockey programs finish up their regular season. But, by the time it’s actually nice enough to sit outside and take in a game, the baseball, softball and lacrosse teams are wrapping up their seasons. Summer in AA is great, but I would’ve loved to have played some home lacrosse games in early May and been able to go see some baseball and softball games in June.
For lacrosse, the answer is simple - just move the championships back a week. Memorial Day can still be a huge weekend for the sport - they can even play the first two rounds of the tournament on the Saturday and Monday - the way they do with the Final 4 now. This would essentially shorten the tournament and open up more days in early May for on-campus games. More importantly, it would eliminate the need for early February games. They could also create a hard start date of March 1st (more realistically February 21st) and require all teams to play 3 or 4 games on their spring break.
Baseball/softball should also push back a few weeks. I would love to see them start the season in March and play both the CWS and WCWS on the July 4th weekend or even later. The northern teams should lobby hard for a calendar change like this so they don’t have to spend the first six weeks of their seasons on the road.
Alternatively, they could move to a summer season. There has been talk on mgoblog that the Big Ten should consider scrapping baseball/softball as spring sports and create a summer season. Of course the downside of this would be that B1G teams wouldn’t be able to compete in the NCAA tourney/CWS. And it would make it difficult for these student-athletes to rest and get important summer jobs and internships. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by this idea. I think it would add an interesting feature to college towns in the summer and would make the sports more popular.
And while these sports are non-revenue, I wonder if they would make more money if they were played in the summer. And that’s really the only language the NCAA understands.
Of course, these sports will always have to compete with other college and pro sports for the hearts, minds and eyes of fans. But, I think the current set-up makes it difficult for these programs to succeed. The NCAA should make it easier for athletes and fans to enjoy the spring sports season.
Many people have attempted to frame Jim Harbaugh as a crazy person but what he truly is, is a tactical genius!
Why the oddities?
The sleepovers received major attention as being creepy but what one fails to realize is this truly is a maximizing of time and exposure to the recruit. No one stops to think about the amount of time it takes to drive from a nearby hotel to a recruit’s house but I bet Jim Harbaugh does. Why waste that time when you could be front and center spending 20 more minutes with a potential recruit? Harbaugh wasn’t going to sleep on the floor either (although I bet he would) and would have some of the best care.
What has not been mentioned in news articles is the amount of time spent away from family. I am not certain of the actual hours spent away from family but Harbaugh has young children. If I had to spend x number of weeks away from my family and my success was dependent upon some 17 year old saying yes to my proposal then I would make darn sure that kid is going to say yes. What Harbaugh is doing is not odd at all when people understand it in the context of maximizing time, contact, and exposure. A sleep over may seem odd but spending 2-3 more hours to make your case than the next coach is most certainly not.
Signing of the Stars
Somewhere someone created a national signing day for high school recruits. Media exposure during what is considered a dead news season for college football has created a media event. If you have to give attention to this event then why not go all out? Why not make it a spectacle? If you want to fault anyone then fault those who chose to give exposure to the recruits as they select a hat off the table but most certainly don’t fault the man transforming the day into what it was quickly becoming: a gala. What is Coach Harbaugh in this situation? Honest! You might as well gain exposure for your program while you are being honest with the events that surround the day.
Practicing in Florida
Genius! Once again Harbaugh has managed to come up with a solution that gives his team practice time; gives him a selling point with the location; and exposure with a recruiting powerhouse. Does Harbaugh care about his student-athletes and their study time? Absolutely! The man posted GPAs publically for the world to see last semester. He cares about the players’ grades. They get to practice and have fun all on Michigan’s dime. He gets headlines and the eyes of recruits on him all across the country.
Well, it's no wonder the SEC wants to keep Harbaugh out of Florida. The last time he brought Michigan there, the Wolverines smoked SEC East champion Florida 41-7 at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. And now he wants to practice there in front of recruits? Of course he's persona non grata in Dixie. - Brian Bennett, ESPN
He wears out his welcome?
Where did he wear out his welcome? San Diego? Stanford? San Francisco? The first two schools never would have fired him and Coach Harbaugh would still be there to this day if he wanted to. Stanford promptly kept almost everything intact that he built and continued their success. The San Francisco situation and blame is now clearly being placed on Jed York’s shoulders. If you are dealing with a man driven then he may rub you the wrong way but you learn to deal with it and work with him as he is making your organization successful.
Jim Harbaugh is not certified crazy; he is a genius! May OSU and the SEC have more headaches for years to come.
[Bumped (and added some photos) because it's good and so is our softball team. --Seth]
Sprinkle the cheese
It’s hard to put the experience of Michigan’s 2015 softball season into words. It was totally unique in so many ways. Michigan fans were desperate for something to go right after hockey, basketball, and football all came up well short of pre-season expectations. Jim Harbaugh was making headlines, but concrete results were still months away, and the Michigan community was still convalescing from its long bout of Brandonitis. It was the perfect time for niche sport to make a bid for mainstream status, as fans needed something, anything to go right, to make things feel like Michigan again.
Into this void stepped a group of twenty young women, swinging bats and making pizza as they blasted their way through the country and the Big Ten, into the record books and Maize and Blue hearts nationwide. The team combined absurd offensive production and strong pitching with an unmatched rootability factor. Whether on TV or in person, this team was fun. When Lauren Haeger’s Gators bounced them in the last game of the season, it felt like an injustice, just like Trey Burke missing out on his crown or the Legend of Shawn Hunwick falling short against Minnesota-Duluth.
The difference between those crimes and this one, however, is that Michigan has a chance to put things right. Almost everyone is back from the 2015 squad, and there’s no question that they’ve been working harder than ever all offseason to earn what was denied them a year ago. It’s a new year with fresh faces and stiff competition, but this is a team on a mission. Below, we’ll break down roster changes, offense and defense, and the opposition Michigan will face in the season ahead. 2016 isn’t going to be 2015 all over again, and Hutch and her crew are smart enough not to try to make it that. It just might be a little bit better.
[Hit THE JUMP to see what that team lost and what to expect from this one]
Recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football program. It is one of the three key components along with player developement and sceme/game day coaching, that leads to championships. Many of us feel that we have 2 and 3 covered with the current staff, but how far are we away in the talent department if we want to compete with the big boys?
To answer that question, I looked at the last four recruiting classes with the focus on five and four star players using the 247 Composite Rankings. This a simple method and has some flaws, but it is a starting point for discussion. One problem is that 247 only awards 25 five stars and in 2016 they awarded 313 four stars. That seems a little off to me. Rashan Gary, as the #1 player, was given a score of 1.000 while the #25 player was rated at .9835. That is a fairly tight grouping. The four stars range from #26 at .9821 to #338 at .8901. Player #339 drops off by only .0002 to .8899, yet he becomes only a three star. So with this method of only counting the number of stars a team takes, no weight is given to which end of the scale those stars were nearer to. And then there are the issues with the ratings themselves and how subjective they are. Did this player attend our camp and what does his offer sheet look like?
Lastly, this method looks only at incoming classes and doesn't account for incoming grad transfers, PWOs or attrition.
Before we can win a natty, we will first need to win the Big Ten. How well do we stack up against our fellow conferebce members? Pretty well, thank you. I broke this down by division because I found it to be very interesting.
|2013||2014||2015||2016||2013 - 2016|
In the last four years, the Big Ten has landed a total of 228 five and four star players and 189 of them, including all 10 five stars, went to the east division. In the 2016 class, the ratio is 53 to 9. Wow! Talk about competitive balance. Not. Iowa and Purdue each managed only one four star in the last four years. WTF?
We appear to be in a two-team race with OSU and we were pretty much in a dead heat this year. Over the four-year period, these two teams landed 51% of the top talent taken by the Big Ten. A current problem for Michigan is that we have two weak classes sandwiched between our strong 2013 and 2016. We have a great shot at winning the Big Ten this year based on talent.
Here is the top recruiting competition on the national scene.
|2013||2014||2015||2016||2013 - 2016|
To no surprise, Alabama is in a class by themselves. Only OSU, LSU, FSU, Auburn, Georgia and USC are even in the conversation. Michigan is about two full recruiting classes away from catching up with Alabama talent, meaning they would need to add about 28 more 5 and 4 stars. If Michigan continues recruiting at this years pace, we will be fine. At a minimum, I think that we need to achieve an on-going four year cycle of two top 15 classes and two top 7ish classes to stay competitive with talent. I think that is very doable as long as we continue to show results on the field.
Hey it's Bill C day. For those of us who love the statistics he is a must read. Today's earlier post had me thinking about Phil Steele's annual look at teams ranked by returning starters as I am a big believer that unless you are Bama or 2-3 other schools experience matters. Last year's came out in January (here) but I don't see one yet for 2016. After some googling I found this neat story by Bill C last week (here) as he foreshadowed today's overall rankings. As always he takes the normal stats we have relied on (X starters is better than Y starters!) to a new level - i.e. a mediocre starter w/o much production is not a big advantage. (i.e. Rutgers is bringing back a lot of crappy players) So rather than just bodies returning he looks at production returning.
With the caveat it's much more difficult to do in football than basketball i.e. scoring assists rebounds are easier to measure than what an returning offensive tackle can give you, below I snipped portions of his tables. UM was "less experienced" on offense than I expected until I remembered the most important position on the field has departed and with him all that production.
Here are some key takeaways Bill offers at the 40K foot view (he has only been doing this for a few years so he now has enough data to offer these views without sample size screwing it up)
- Experience matters more on defense than offense (in effect on S&P+ rank for that unit)
- Experience in the secondary matters more than in the front 7
- Teams with under 50% returning offensive production usually meant doom - in 2016 that means it might be a rough time for OSU and Stanford.
Some of these things are counterintuitive to me. For item 1, I expected the opposite but maybe I am clouded by the experienced of RichRod and Hoke where inexperience meant doom on offense. But other programs seemingly just reload (hi Baylor Oregon OSU etc) so maybe we are the wrong place to judge. Item 2 makes sense as one mistake in the secondary and you are looking at a TD. One mistake by a LB and you usually just are looking at a 22 yard gain. Item 3 makes sense (except for Baylor apparently) - you don't need to be supremely experienced on offense but if you are very green you will feel pain.
There is also a controversial view on "returning OL starts" measuring future offensive success (he found almost no correlation ...which obviously is not true) but Bill believes he needs to find a better way to measure it. So he is not saying OL returning stars don't matter - he just needs to find a better measure than career starts. Again it's not basketball where an OL is easy to measure in performance.
If you are into the statistical stuff a full read of his piece is in order as he goes through various correlations impact on Defensive S&P+ (an advanced stat) i.e. how much impact returning pass breakups correlate overall defensive rank vs sacks returning, etc.
Tables below don't list all P5 but I picked "top 25ish" teams to list at extremes of top and bottom and then other teams of interest at bottom. Showed entire Big 10.
*I also included the 3 UM non conf opponents
As expected - OSU with 6 returning starters is the team bringing back the least production in P5 (ASU not far ahead), and MSU's O without Burbridge & Kings and Cook needs to rebuild production from scratch in passing game. As I noted in the "Our 2016 Schedule is not Extremely Tough so Stop Saying It Is" diary a while ago - there is not a better time to play OSU and MSU on the road than this year (well, at least until those coaches retire from the programs).
Outside those 2, Iowa brings back a good amount of production so that looks like a tough game as expected...while Wisconsin is going to be bringing in an inexperienced team to the Big House.
Should also note UCF was horrible last year but they at least will be experienced this year - and Colo brings back a lot of production so I expected that to be a tricker game than most folks think due to their dual threat QB... and this only reinforces that.
In non UM stuff, Charlie Strong finally brings back some experience in year 3, TN has been tagged a team to breakout this year and you can see why, Bill loves Washington and the production returning shows why, and LSU if they can find a QB should do great things....
P5 "In the Middle"