MSU athletic director Mark Hollis shares a laugh with volleyball coach Cathy George on stage at the Detroit Economic Club luncheon at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit Tuesday. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Detroit -- Like all business moves, this deal college sports has made with the devil — television, I mean — has two sides.
And on a day Ohio State president Gordon Gee, the man with the $500 shower curtain and a powerhouse football program on probation, announced his “retirement” effective July 1, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here about balancing the scales.
Gee, the bow-tied, loose-tongued leader of one of the nation’s largest universities, was under fire for his latest round of inflammatory comments, including derogatory remarks about Notre Dame and the Southeastern Conference, among other strange bedfellows.
But one of the least controversial things he said during that now-public meeting of Ohio State’s Athletic Council last December — this was Gee’s “47-percent” moment, a la Mitt Romney, apparently — was in reference to the recent Big Ten expansion. Adding Maryland and Rutgers to the fold, Gee noted, “gives us 40 to 50 million more viewers, makes the (Big Ten Network) worth more money than God.”
And then, as he likes to do, Gee added, “I did say that. I mean, it’s a very powerful instrument for us.”
So are audio recorders, obviously. And open records requests. But the powerful lure of TV money is what keeps driving college athletics to new extremes — new depths, many of us would argue — and as the game of give-and-take moves forward, we’re seeing all kinds of unintended consequences.
Like a university president joking about getting fired by his lying, rule-breaking football coach, as Gee did not long before Jim Tressel “retired” at Ohio State. Or like a Midwestern football conference jumping at the chance to add such tradition-rich programs as Rutgers and Maryland, the way the Big Ten did this past winter, much to the dismay of alumni on both sides.
Or even like an athletic director worrying about college students buying tickets to football games and then deciding not to show up for the games, as Michigan State’s Mark Hollis was doing again Tuesday during a packed luncheon at the Detroit Economic Club at the Westin Book Cadillac.
“For the first time ever, the Big Ten conference generated more money off of TV revenue than ticket sales,” Hollis told the crowd. “I think that’s an eye-opening proposition for those of us in intercollegiate sports, asking us to respond to different questions than we have in the past.”
Among them: What to do with all the fans opting to stay at home to watch the games on TV? After seeing too many blocks of empty seats — particularly in the student sections — Hollis says Michigan State surveyed more than 12,000 fans to figure out, as he put it, “Where are you with Spartan football?” And then to find ways to “reengage” them, whether it’s by adding wider seats or Wi-Fi in the stadium.
“The value for television is full venues,” Hollis said. “And if you don’t have full venues, that value is going to come down and it could turn into a very vicious downward cycle in support. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future. But we’re seeing trends with student populations, not only at Michigan State but across the country — at Alabama, at Georgia, at Wisconsin, at Michigan — of individuals purchasing tickets and then making choices not to attend games.”
At an administrative level, university presidents — and the conference commissioners to whom they’ve given so much power over the years – have made all sorts of choices, of course. Conference realignment is just one of them. (Fittingly, one of the moderators Monday referred to the Big Ten’s “Legions” division, gone but not forgotten, I guess.)
“Things are changing in football, there’s no question about that,” said coach Mark Dantonio, who’ll see some $24 million in facility improvements in the next year as the school puts “a front porch” on Spartan Stadium. “Much like the business world, there seem to be conglomerates merging together for the almighty dollar. Is it good? Is it bad?”
Dantonio didn’t even try to answer that, other than to say, “I do think that it brings new challenges.”
But doesn’t it worry them just a little bit, the way the tail wags the dog?
“I do (worry) a little bit, I really do,” said Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s basketball coach who has talked about this fear a lot, frankly, but decided Tuesday wasn’t really the time for him to stand on his soapbox. “When you start talking game times and these (mid-week) 9 o’clock games — in the NCAA Tournament we played a 10:03 p.m. game — I do worry about some of that.
“But just like everybody else’s profession, there’s plusses and minuses. Like Twitter, you know? Plusses and minuses — 98 percent minus and 2 percent plus. I think TV’s got a better ratio than that.”
How much better? I’m not so sure. And I’m pretty sure few among those who are as invested as the athletic directors and coaches in this machine really do. The athletes don’t have a say at the moment, though they just might if this O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust lawsuit tilts the scales in their favor later this month.
But for now, as Gee told his athletic council, “It’s kind of a screwy world.” And even if Gee’s time is up, there is no end in sight to the part that’s doing the most to screw it up.
While answering a question about the Big Ten’s ill-fitting brand name, Gee proceeded to demean everyone in the SEC, calling them both illiterate and “shameful,” he showed no shame himself.
“We know how to count,” he said. “And the thing about it is, we know how to count the money, which we have a lot more than the SEC. And we’ll continue to have that.”
That’s a good thing, right?