Before the madness of March, February football fuels winter’s sports
February is infamous for its relatively lackluster sport appeal, sandwiched between the Super Bowl and March Madness. The NHL trudges along in the middle of its regular season, a few high school and college winter sport seasons wind down, and MLB heads into spring training. The 2019 NBA All-Star weekend, broadcast in 49 languages this year and finally hosted by Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets, provided a bit of a spark in the month. Remember, just a few years ago, Charlotte lost the right to host the All Star weekend, and the state of North Carolina lost the opportunity to host all NCAA postseason contests due to the short-lived bathroom bill requiring individuals to use public restrooms according to their biological sex.
What is there to do to satisfy the appetite of die-hard sport enthusiasts when a polar bear jump doesn’t quite do the trick? Bring on more football!
The new Alliance of American Football (AAF), with its lucrative mainstream television rights (CBS) and an all-star leadership board featuring ex-Steeler players Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward, has added a noteworthy curiosity to spice up the winter doldrums. The 10-game league for the inaugural eight teams, which kicked off this month, has stymied speculation that a return of the XFL in 2020 would be the most anticipated debut in pro sports. In any case, the NFL will fail to be phased by another competitive rival, since no entity can touch the supremacy of the most profitable professional league in the world.
College football has always served as the primary feeder program for the NFL. Perhaps the AAF will become the new NFL farm system, much in the way the Gatorade League and minor league baseball serve as placeholders for the NBA and MLB. Certainly, there are enough collegiate players to fill AAF rosters, and by attracting a solid media partner and positioning the season between February-April, sustainability may be a reality and the XFL may be late to the game.
With his professional debut as a quarterback for the New Jersey Generals in the defunct USFL and eight years playing for teams in the Canadian Football League, Heisman trophy winner Doug Flutie is no stranger to rival NFL leagues. While also touted as one of the great NFL quarterbacks for 12 seasons, Flutie widely is remembered for his last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass that propelled Boston College to a miraculous victory over Bernie Kosar and the Miami Hurricanes in 1984. The following two years, enrollment at Boston College increased by 30 percent, which prompted marketers to coin the phrase “Flutie Effect” to describe the positive impact on admission applications following a significant event. Georgetown University also experienced the Flutie effect during a span of basketball success in the 1980s, culminating in a 45 percent enrollment spike during a three-year period.
Significant events can just as easily have the opposite effect on enrollment. Freshmen enrollment at the University of Missouri, for example, dropped 35 percent in a two-year span following a short-lived student-led boycott involving the football team in 2015. If the boycott supporting students protesting racial issues and leadership ineffectiveness persisted and the team refused to play its next scheduled game against Brigham Young University (BYU), the university would have been on the hook for a $1 million breach of contract penalty. Instead, the president and chancellor of the university resigned, and the football team went on to beat BYU by a score of 20-16. Two years later, the university faced a $49 million deficit, almost 200 faculty and staff positions were eliminated, and enrollment was at its lowest point in over a decade.
To add to its woes, the NCAA Committee on Infractions just banned Missouri’s football team (in addition to softball and baseball) from postseason competition next year (no bowl game). Due to academic fraud, the teams must vacate a number of win-loss records and are on a three-year probation with scholarship restrictions. The NCAA also levied a $5,000 fine against the university, plus 1 percent of each team’s budget for the 2019-20 academic year. The penalty stems from a former tutor completing online courses and final exams for student-athletes. The Go-Fund-Me account to assist with the tutor’s legal fees is no longer active.
Northern Colorado, California State Northridge, and Georgia Southern were all found guilty of similar infractions in the past year. Conversely, the NCAA just reversed its decision against University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for academic fraud after an investigation that lasted almost four years and cost UNC more than $18 million in related legal fees. At the end of the investigation, the only NCAA violation was reported to be the refusal of key witnesses to cooperate. For years, UNC offered online courses taken by athletes and non-athletes where only one research paper was required. The online course, created and graded by a manager in the African and Afro-American Studies department, begs the question of where to draw the line between legal compliance and ethics in higher education.
Thankfully, UNC has not been implicated in the FBI investigation blanketing NCAA Division I basketball. Bribery and money laundering allegations have been leveled against coaches, agents, and adidas executives with at least three convictions, thus far. The madness may get a little more intense in March.
Speaking of Adidas, the German company has an interesting love-hate relationship with Nike and Under Armour as the three corporate retail giants vie to gobble up the global sport market space. Nike’s recent risk-taking move to feature Colin Kaepernick in a commercial proclaiming “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” has sparked mixed reactions. Time Sports, a small sporting goods store in Pueblo, Colorado is closing its doors after 20 years citing plummeting sales a month or two after the owner’s decision to boycott Nike.
Regret for the owner? Maybe. Personal decisions based on morals aren’t always the best decisions for business. It’s likely that a few more factors besides a few months of not carrying a line of Nike equipment and apparel affected a verdict to close shop. Nike doesn’t deserve that much credit in the ultra-competitive sport retail marketplace.
Stay tuned next month for more global, national, or local stories that provide a window to understanding the intersection of sports with business, politics, and life.
Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sports management at Tiffin University.