How bad is too bad?


Watching the Carlton-Gold Coast game Saturday, particularly the first half, was an exercise in patience – especially after watching the amazing Richmond victory over the Magpies earlier in the day.

Even though the Blues gained a split of the season series with the Suns, they still seem doomed to ‘win’ the wooden spoon this season – and watching them play, it isn’t hard to see why.

In 17 games before Saturday’s game at the Metricon, Carlton’s opponents have outscored the Blues by a total of 709 points. Over 41 points per game. Seven-goal losses, every time out.

If you’re a tipping person, you probably don’t bet on Carlton to win very often, nor do you likely favour their cousin in despair, the Gold Coast Suns. Gold Coast started the year with a pair of unexpected wins. They won one against Carlton, and the other in downright hazardous conditions on the northeast coast in Cairns, where they outswam the Kangaroos 55-39 in a game where every goal came at the same end of the field in torrential rains.

They managed a third victory in week five at the Gabba while Brisbane was still learning to walk as a team, figuratively speaking.

Between Round 6 and Saturday, they had the same record as the Blues: one win, eleven losses, 510 points in arrears. Carlton’s record is 529 points under par. Had the regular season started in late April, the race for the spoon would be incredibly tight.

And as I detailed in an article a few days ago, combining the results of four distinct rating systems to compare teams, there really isn’t any competition.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 27: Kade Simpson of the Blues looks dejected after a loss during the 2018 AFL round six match between the Western Bulldogs and the Carlton Blues at Etihad Stadium on April 27, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia.

The Carlton Blues (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

My other strong sports passion is American collegiate football, although it has its own set of problems (just like every other sport or anything else, I suppose). Scheduling is one of those problems. Because there are upwards of 750 colleges which sponsor men’s football, setting up fair competition is a bit of a challenge.

There are six vast divisions of programs, mostly determined by the amount of money the school is willing to spend on the sport. Conferences are set up within each of those collections – you probably know about the five ‘Power’ conferences and the ‘Group Of Five’ conferences right behind them, although there are actually 14 other conferences in major college football that stage their own championships. (But three of those opt out for various reasons. Never mind. It’s complicated.)

However, that doesn’t mean that teams don’t play each other intra-divisionally when they’re not facing teams in their own conference.

One practice that has drawn disproportionate attention because of the potential of abuse is something called ‘bodybag’ games.

A large program (think Alabama as an example) pays a smaller program (think Savannah State as an example, a school that can barely afford to give scholarships) something on the order of one million dollars American to come play them, in their (Alabama’s) stadium, presumably get the tar beaten out of it, with no plan for a return game as would be the case if you were scheduling with a ‘peer’ school.

Alabama gets a cheap win, a chance for its alumni to come tailgate barbecue in the parking lot and brag about how good their team is, and far more than that million dollars in the coffer for selling out their 80,000-seat stadium (plus concessions, plus their tv deal, plus…)

Savannah State gets a million dollars added to their athletic department’s budget (minus the cost of travelling to the neighboring state of Alabama), which might very well keep three or four of their other sports afloat. They also get some TV exposure that their conference games against other relatively poor schools would never get (and you know the expression: “any publicity is good publicity”).

Their players (and recruiters) get to say that they played in that amazing stadium against the multi-time national champs, and they see first hand what ‘the best’ looks like – almost always a plus when you’re a teacher of young men.

Win-win, right?

Except for the notion of a competitive game. They’re often called body-bag games because the visiting team is figuratively shipped out in a body-bag after the game, having been (figuratively) killed by the (figuratively) murderous championship team.

Ezekiel Elliott playing college football for Ohio State.

Another cracking week of college football is done and dusted. (Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

And some of those games can be truly terrible to watch. 84-0 is not an unusual score when the opponents are that disparate. I chose Savannah State as my example because just a few years ago, they were playing former national champion Florida State and being demolished something like 40-0 at halftime.

A storm was bearing down on the Florida State stadium and was expected to arrive within an hour, well before the presumed end of the game as normally configured.

So the two head coaches and the referees agreed before the start of the second half to have a running clock for the rest of the game – the clock never stopped except for a time out, regardless of scores, out-of-bounds plays, turnovers, you name it. Final score: Florida State 55, Savannah State 0, and everyone got out before the worst of the storm hit.

Was that worth the price of admission? Was it worthy of an audience member’s wasted day? Perhaps – I suppose it depends on your point of view. Savannah State got their full paycheck. Florida State got all the gate money, although their concessions were undoubtedly down that game.

If you’re Alabama or Florida State, those games are just glorified scrimmages. They know they’ll have difficult games against teams at their own level (like each other) in their own conference and division. Playing one game against a Savannah State probably comes as a nice break for the coaches and players – the third and fourth string players get to play in a ‘real game’ for their parents to see them in uniform.

There are all sorts of advantages, as long as it’s only one game. If every game is 84-0, it might be non-productive even for the team that’s winning. The University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team deals with this problem. They’re so far above 98 per cent of their competition that they’ve run off multiple winning streaks recently measured in years, not games. Any game that’s competitive for them is a surprise.

Now put yourself in Savannah’s shoes. It’s a similar argument. You can put up with one of those games on your schedule. If you absolutely must, maybe two games spread out would be tolerable. But if you’re losing like that every-single-week? You’d have to be pretty special to keep playing. (And after taking a few beatings from teams so much stronger than you are, you’d probably run out of healthy players after a few games, too.)

I spent my first year and a half of college at the California Institute of Technology; Caltech for short, before my mother’s cancer brought me back home. Academically it was an amazing, unparalleled school, and it is to academics what Alabama is to college football.

As a sports college? Not nearly as successful. We often brag that our football team hasn’t lost a game since 1993 – because it was disbanded at the end of that season. In 2011, our men’s basketball team famously broke (wait for it) a 26-year long, 310-game losing streak in its conference (against ‘normal’ schools) with a 46-45 last-second win. It was national news.

Playing for a team like that gets old really fast. Watching a team playing like that gets old even faster. For seven years, I taught at a high school where the girls’ basketball team went 0-for-my-career there.

140 games: 18 a season plus two playoff games to be eliminated every year. Plus the last seven the season before I arrived – 147 in a row. Nobody wanted to go out for girls’ basketball by the end of my tenure there. (I was the band director, by the way; I had no hand in the basketball program. But I had to put a pep band together for every one of their home games. That became a chore itself for the same reason.)

What creates interest in any kind of competition is some sense of competitive balance – the notion that there’s at least a chance that David will slay Goliath. Whether you’re watching reality television or Aussie rules footy, you aren’t going to care for very long if you think the outcome is pre-ordained.

If the two candidates left for The Bachelor to choose from are roughly equal, you’re more likely to watch than if one is intelligent and beautiful, and the second is hideous and foul-mouthed.

Of course, if you’re reading a sports zine on line, you’re probably not likely to watch regardless of the candidates. Bad example.

How long will fans keep coming to the grounds or tuning in on television to watch the weekly demolition of a team with no hope of winning? Even a club with the legendary past that the 16-time champion Blues have?

They’re not showing reruns of the 1970 grand final, mind you: this is 2018. For the good of the other sixteen teams, there must be some sense that what happened a week ago at the Sydney Cricket Ground is at least possible every week. It doesn’t have to happen more than a couple of times a year at minimum, but if it never happens?

Why would you continue to watch an AFL team scrimmage around human witch hats for two-plus hours?

I track the CrownBet numbers that the tipster contest collects each week, and the public perception of the viability of these two clubs is scary.

Going backwards from before Saturday’s victory, the percentage of folks who tipped the Blues over their opponent each week was five, nine, thirteen (vs Brisbane), four, and four.

Steven May

Steven May of the Suns (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

For Gold Coast, those same numbers were zero, thirteen (vs Essendon), two, seven, and zero. Those zeroes mean that less than 0.5 per cent of the people tipping that week’s AFL games believed in Gold Coast’s ability to win (against Sydney and Hawthorn, in these cases).

The fact that they actually beat Sydney is almost immaterial: if nobody thought the Suns could win, nobody would have bothered tuning in to find out. (Following their win over Sydney, Gold Coast was tipped by 89 per cent of those competitors, compared to 11 per cent who correctly chose the Blues.)

In the United States, where I live, the major sports leagues convinced the courts several decades ago that the twenty or thirty different teams in each major league were independent companies, competing with each other economically, and therefore not a monopoly and thus not illegal under anti-trust law in our country. But the truth is that without those other companies, no single entity can exist, because they have no other teams to compete against.

That’s why there are owners’ meetings; that’s why there’s a competition committee; that’s why they create their licensing agreements as one body. They co-exist as a confederated pool of similarly operated conspirators, not competitors.

The other sixteen teams in the AFL need the Blues and the Suns to be at least marginally competitive. Right now, that’s exactly what they are: marginally competitive. As long as the public continues to see them as no worse than that, then the status quo can continue.

If it gets any worse, however, there isn’t any responsible choice but to either artificially prop those two teams up into a more competitive situation, or remove them from the competition for the good of the other teams and the fans. And that’s when the extra draft picks come into play.

But it shouldn’t come to that.

Do you know what it was that got my (sort-of) alma mater of Caltech out of the dungeon and actually into its conference as a valid participant? One player – a 6’10” young man named Nassar al-Rayes – started the turnaround.

A legit big man gave those semi-talented players on the outside a little help, and they started winning two or three games in conference every year. Now, young men who actually played basketball in high school consider Caltech a school where they can keep playing as well as get a Nobel-quality education.

One player also brought that high school team of mine back into the realm of winning (occasionally). She was a ball-handling guard who didn’t care what the history of the team was: she was a basketball player, and she wasn’t going to quit to go play football with her friends.

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Gold Coast has been down this road before. Back in 2010, they convinced a still-young, shaved-head Brownlow winner to be the founding face of the newest AFL franchise. Until injuries slowed him down, that formula worked for the Suns: three wins each of the first two seasons, then eight, then ten… then injuries, then depression, then problems in the culture drove them back to where they started (or worse).

Carlton already has the piece they need to build around, and his name is Patrick Cripps. As of the end of Round 18, our meta-Player of the year scoring had him fifth overall, despite playing for a 1-16 team.

The Suns have held out hope that they already have the pieces in place to build around – if not one Ablett, then a combination of Lynch, May, Miller, maybe Young and Witts and Harbrow and Wright….

Maybe. Maybe.

And any good PR department should be able to sell the public on ‘maybe’.

Article link: How bad is too bad?. Written by Gordon P Smith, on The Roar – Your Sports Opinion.

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