Category Archives: Basketball

Why is the NCAA Basketball National Championship on TBS?

Tonight, Villanova and North Carolina will face off for the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship – but you won’t see it on CBS. For the first time ever, college basketball will crown its national champion on cable, with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Grant Hill calling the action on TBS (and slanted “team stream” coverage of each team on TNT and truTV). How did this happen? Why was the NCAA willing and able to take the smaller audience of cable? Well, I gave the short answer in my book, The Game to Show the Games:

By 2010 CBS wanted to get out from under a contract to air the NCAA Tournament that was set to lose it considerable amounts of money each year, to the point of engaging in talks to get ESPN to take it off its hands. Certainly the NCAA was very interested in moving most of the tournament to cable, which not only had the potential to increase the rights fees the NCAA collected but also allowed every game to be shown nationally, without the regionalization CBS had engaged in. CBS ended up retaining the tournament by forming an alliance with Turner to show games on TBS, TNT, and truTV in addition to the CBS broadcast network. Turner had never shown college basketball before and truTV, once known as Court TV, had never shown sports of any kind before, but Turner, which was paying a larger portion of the rights fee, went so far as to start alternating the Final Four with CBS starting in 2016 (later negotiations allowed TBS to show the national semifinals in 2014 and 2015 while the national championship game remained on CBS).

The long answer? You’ll have to get the book for that, and for how television money has completely upended the world of sports over the last decade, especially since the BCS blazed this trail with its 2008 agreement with ESPN, how the race for sports rights has changed the TV industry in turn, and how it might all prove to be built on a house of cards that might already be tumbling down. For this week only, until Friday, April 8th, you can get it for Kindle absolutely FREE, or you can buy the paperback at most online booksellers anytime. By the time you’re done reading, you might wish you hadn’t watched the game at all.

An Open Letter to Steve Ballmer

A while back I heard that you had rejected a $60 million dollar offer from Fox Sports to renew their contract to show Clippers games and were considering setting up your own streaming service.

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. You leaped pretty much directly from being the CEO of Microsoft to owning the Clippers. At Microsoft, you’ve been immersed in the pace of technological change and the increasing role computers have played in our lives for virtually the company’s entire ascent; once in charge, you saw a path for Microsoft to remain relevant in a tablet world, a path that gave Microsoft its biggest OS embarrassment this side of Vista (also released during your tenure) in the short term but which Apple recently affirmed the wisdom of. You already dipped your toe in the streaming-video revolution with the XBox. You see the direction technology is going and the revolution that is already upending the cable industry and the business model Fox’s RSNs run on, and you want to blaze a trail with a new business model in a territory you’re more familiar with than any other owner of a professional sports team not named Paul Allen. You want to set the course for the professional sports team business model of the future that teams around the country hope to follow. So what’s the best business model to go with?

Let’s say you decide to put up a paywall and offer Clippers games as a subscription service. A source quoted in the New York Post thinks you could make up for the money lost by not taking the Fox deal by selling subscriptions for $12 a month to 500,000 homes. Without even looking I’m pretty confident in saying the average audience for Clippers games on Prime Ticket isn’t even a third of that as it is. So let’s assume that, regardless of price, the most households you can get to subscribe to a service that’s offering just Clippers games is 150,000. To make up the $60 million Fox is offering, you’d need to charge $400 a season. Even at $35 a month, that’s going to cut off a substantial number of households that can’t afford that much, forcing you to increase the price higher, forcing more homes out of the service, and so on. That’s before production costs Fox would have covered as well as the costs of hosting the games on your server and sending it out to customers.

Okay, so you don’t care about how profitable the deal is in the short term; you’re getting out in front on a business model that’s more sustainable than what Fox has and you want to control it all yourself. So long as it’s profitable or even takes a loss in the short term, you’re building a streaming infrastructure you can sell out to other teams and taking in all the advertising money instead of letting Fox take it. But even with all that, there’s another, deeper problem. LA is a frontrunning town to begin with, and despite your recent success and the Lakers’ recent floundering, you’re still very much the #2 team in LA, with even record low Lakers ratings not being enough to fall behind the Clippers. The Clippers aren’t even like most other places with two teams in the same sport (including LA’s baseball and hockey teams) in that they don’t draw from any particular geographic area; no one, I suspect, is truly a diehard Clippers fan, they just follow the Clippers because they can’t bring themselves to root for the Lakers. (In other words, most of your fans are probably Bill Simmons-types, in that they’re expatriates from other places who hate the Lakers too much to shift their allegiance to them but still want to see basketball games regularly as long as they’re in LA.) Donald Sterling’s decades of incompetence isn’t going to be washed away overnight; as successful as the Clippers have been in the last few years of Sterling’s tenure and the start of yours, it’s going to take many, many years, maybe generations, to build a fanbase that’ll follow your team through thick and thin, and that assumes nothing goes wrong in the meantime, that the Clippers will remain as successful and attractive as it is today. Your reign has already shown signs of mismanagement of its own, even if not at Sterling levels; what happens if Jimmy Buss gets forced out somehow, either relinquishing control of the Lakers to the more competent Jeanie or outright selling the team?

You’re counting on the team being and remaining attractive enough that people will pay up to see your team’s games that aren’t on national television. If the team starts to fall back to earth, people will cancel their subscriptions and you’ll have less revenue, and it’ll be that much harder to get back to where you were before. To those people, your team will become all but invisible, even further out of the LA sports conversation than under Sterling, and it’ll be that much harder to get those people back if the team does get good again. That’s before even considering all the fans you’d be pricing out of the market to begin with, or the casual fans who won’t elect to pay you for games they might not watch that much of and whom it’ll be that much more difficult to turn into hardcore fans who will pay.

Okay, so let’s say you go in the complete opposite direction and offer Clippers games to everyone in your television territory for free. You could even go one step further and offer Clippers games to everyone period for free, and try to build the team up as “America’s Team”, but the NBA is likely to frown on that; you’d be undercutting the NBA League Pass package and the RSN deals of all your opponents. So let’s just restrict it to your TV territory for now.

According to the Los Angeles Times, last season Clippers games averaged a 1.04 rating on Prime Ticket, a decline from either 1.25 or 1.27 the previous season. That means 1.04% of all television households were watching a Clippers game at any given time over the course of the season. That may not sound like much, but during the 2014-15 season the Los Angeles market boasted 5.5 million households with television. 1.04% of that number is a little under 58,000. Since you’re offering games for free to people who may have cut the cord, we can assume the number could climb a little higher; 1.25-1.27% would bring the number to around 70,000, but for particularly attractive games the number could top 100,000. Are you ready to provide the infrastructure required to deliver Clippers games to 100,000 devices at once, without buffering, lag, or other problems, especially as audiences demand better picture quality through technologies such as 4K? Can you handle the even larger audiences that would come with an “America’s Team” strategy?

This is why the prospect of streaming disrupting the live-event market in the way it’s disrupted the market for on-demand shows has always been overblown. The true reason sports has become so important to the linear television industry is that it’s the one place where linear television’s strengths shine – its ability to scale to deliver content to many people at once. That doesn’t mean you aren’t smart for blowing off Fox – they can only pay you $60 million because they charge hefty subscription fees to every household in the LA area that subscribes to cable, and if only 70-100,000 of them watch Clippers games (and it’s not like the Kings, Ducks, and high-school and lower-tier college sports are that much more popular), the rest of them aren’t going to take it much longer, and it won’t be long before that $60 million rights fee evaporates. Does that leave you completely trapped? Is there a way forward towards pioneering a new sports-rights paradigm for the twenty-first century suited for the challenges inherent in it?

Yes, and it’s a decidedly retro one: sign a contract with a group of broadcast stations.

Due to its size and relative isolation, Los Angeles has pretty much the most broadcast television stations in the country, even if a good number of them are foreign-language and other multicultural stations. Leaving aside the Big Four affiliates, KTLA, KCAL, KCOP, and KDOC are all general entertainment stations with histories with sports, and the first three have all aired Clippers games at various times in the past. As has always been the case all over the country when broadcast stations have aired local sports, they never aired more than a small smattering of Clippers games, which opened the door for regional sports networks to take the rest and, in most cases (including the Clippers), ultimately take them all. For this strategy, which is also a strategy for the very survival of broadcast television itself, that’s going to have to change.

The key is that, in the long term, this strategy is really a modification of the offer-games-for-free strategy, except it’s moving the delivery mechanism to one that’s better suited to the task, one that can better handle large audiences tuning in for at least the highest-demand games, and one that requires considerably less expenditure on infrastructure to start. You’re still producing the games yourself and controlling their distribution and advertising revenue; you’re simply syndicating the games to broadcast stations within your TV footprint as a means to manage demand while maximizing exposure, giving stations control of a small percentage of advertising in the process to target their specific markets. Selling advertising on the traditional linear television model may give you the chance to increase ad rates compared to the usual online model of serving up custom ads based on users’ personal information, a model there’s a lot of resistance to.

The amount broadcast stations can pay you will probably still be inflated by the cable bundle as stations hope to use Clippers games to maximize retransmission consent revenue, but if there’s no major change in the regulatory environment in the near term and cable operators continue to try to prop up their subscriber numbers with “skinny bundles”, that market may remain intact for longer than you think, or at least longer than the RSN market will. Moreover, in the long term linear television of all stripes, broadcast and cable, will be as much a demand-management mechanism for broadband providers as anything else. A typical optical node on a cable operator’s network, which serves as the last relay point before reaching individual households, serves 500-2000 homes, according to Wikipedia; even on the low end of that scale, if 1.04% of those homes are trying to watch a Clippers game that amounts to at least five households, which may not sound like much but which means serving them all with a single linear television stream could reduce the bandwidth demands to a fifth of what they would be otherwise. With continued technological development, especially the advent of ATSC 3.0 which should be finalized by this time next year, you should be able to reach a wide variety of devices with a bare minimum of need for the Internet to deliver video, including being able to reach mobile devices without needing to use viewers’ data plans or going through wireless carriers, something a cable network or streaming service can’t do. People could use any Internet-capable device, including what we call a television today, to watch the game directly from the broadcast signal (or a relay thereof sent over Wi-Fi) while going through the Clippers’ web site.

Of course, all this assumes the broadcast stations in question are even interested. KCOP is owned by Fox, the very same entity whose $60 million offer you rebuffed, and they are not going to take part in undermining their RSN hegemony and substantial investment in cable networks – unless you convince them that that hegemony and those cable networks are going to crumble anyway and at least this allows them to get a piece of your streaming plan and salvage something from the ashes. CBS, which owns KCAL, might be more receptive but has enough cable dreams and investment in retransmission consent of their own to be hesitant. KTLA might have a different problem – the prospect of regularly pre-empting CW network shows – and would only really be an option to the degree we’d like if the CW shuts down or Tribune no longer takes part in it, and KDOC is the smallest of the four stations we’re considering, and might well put up its spectrum for bid in next year’s incentive auction. But that just underscores the importance and impact what you do could have on two industries – and the urgency of it. We already know anything other than the traditional RSN model will help set the tone for the local sports media landscape of the future. But signing up with a group of broadcast stations won’t just establish an infrastructure that might be, technically, the best one available, one with direct and indirect benefits to numerous parties. By pointing the way forward to an era of increased importance and relevance, it might just save the broadcast television industry from itself.

How Kentucky May Have Saved Turner From Another Teamcast Fiasco

Last year Turner, in their first year airing the Final Four, decided to supplement their main coverage on TBS with two “teamcast” feeds on TNT and truTV, offering team-centric coverage of each team in each game. The result, however, was people turning on the teamcasts thinking they were the main feed and complaining about the “biased” announcers. So as much as Turner may have publicly proclaimed the Teamcasts a “success”, when they announced they would be repeating the Teamcasts this year, it was clear they would need to do more to direct people to the main feed on TBS and let them know what the purpose of the Teamcasts actually were, whether over the previous rounds of the tournament or at the Final Four itself.

Kentucky may have just done more to achieve that goal than anything Turner did or could do itself.

One of the more noteworthy elements of the Teamcast fiasco was that the vast majority of complaining tweets concerned the TNT Teamcast, and TNT’s viewership far outpaced truTV’s viewership for both teamcast games, making up a substantial chunk of the viewership for both games. Because of this, a leading theory for the cause of the Teamcast fiasco, or at least a factor that might have exacerbated it, was that people associated TNT with “the basketball channel”, not making the association Turner wanted them to make with TBS as the network for college basketball. To me, this only made sense if it only applied to those people that hadn’t watched TBS’ coverage of the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight; if they had watched those games, they could have probably figured out that TBS was airing games in rounds TNT wasn’t, and was likely to continue doing so into the Final Four. But the numbers back that up as well: TBS’ Elite Eight games last year had viewership numbers of 9.97 million and 7.2 million. The Final Four games had audiences of 10.39 million and 7.1 million on TBS alone. In other words, Kentucky/Wisconsin didn’t improve much over the Elite Eight numbers on TBS alone, and Connecticut/Florida did worse on TBS alone than either Elite Eight game. The Teamcast confusion primarily affected people parachuting in for the Final Four without necessarily having watched much of anything from the earlier rounds.

Fast forward to this year, when Kentucky played Notre Dame in a thrilling fight to the finish with Kentucky’s perfect season on the line on TBS. The result was a game that attracted an 8.4 household rating and 14.7 million viewers, the highest-rated and most-watched college basketball game on a single network in cable history (which opens up a whole other can of gripes for me, but whatever). That’s 14.7 million viewers with no choice but to turn on TBS to watch the game, and 19.7 million tuning in during the quarter-hour starting at 10:45 PM. To put that in perspective, Connecticut-Florida only attracted 11.65 million viewers last year across all networks, while Kentucky-Wisconsin attracted 16.25 million.

How many of those millions of people that turned on TBS to watch Kentucky-Notre Dame will now know to turn on TBS to watch the Final Four? We’ll know in a week’s time how this year’s Teamcast (or “Team Stream” as it’s being billed this year) works out; ideally both games would see the vast majority of their audience flip to TBS and leave tiny portions of the audience on TNT and truTV. But if Duke-Michigan State sees most of its audience turn on TBS, but Kentucky-Wisconsin sees only about 13 million or so people turn on TBS, we’ll know any improvement in TBS’ numbers vis-a-vis the teamcasts will have had more to do with the Kentucky-Notre Dame game than anything intentional on CBS or Turner’s part. Even that, though, would still be a massive improvement over last year.

2013-14 NBA Ratings Roundup, Part III: Playoff Games

Here are ratings for all 89 games of the 2014 playoffs on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, and NBATV, organized by most watched.

Was the bloom already coming off the rose of LeBron James’ Miami Heat? Every game of the Eastern Conference Finals beat all but one game of the Western Finals – but that one game, West Finals Game 6, was the most-watched game before the NBA Finals, and the most-watched game before the conference finals was Mavericks-Spurs Game 7. The four most-watched games on cable before the conference finals (and six of the top seven overall) all involved the Clippers as a result of the controversy surrounding Donald Sterling, with the most-watched pre-conference final game on cable not involving the Clippers being Grizzlies-Thunder Game 7, not any game involving the Heat.

Cable household ratings through May 11 from Son of the Bronx; household ratings from May 12 and later and all ABC daytime numbers from SportsBusiness Daily and Sports Media Watch. 18-49 numbers, when available, from TVbytheNumbers and The Futon Critic. Read More »

2013-14 NBA Ratings Roundup, Part II: NBATV Regular Season Games

Continuing from this post, here are ratings for every game on NBATV last season. In part because we’re so far removed from it, I didn’t bother trying to find out what games were on in each spot, except for the top few games so that you know that the only games with over 700,000 viewers involved the Heat when they still had LeBron James.

All numbers from Son of the Bronx. 18-49 ratings, when available, from TVbytheNumbers or The Futon Critic. Read More »

2013-14 NBA Ratings Roundup, Part I: ABC, ESPN, and TNT Games

With Christmas just behind us, here’s last season’s NBA regular season ratings on ABC, ESPN, and TNT, to kick off what will hopefully be a series of ratings roundups, not just confined to the NBA. This is mostly a copy of this list. As only one NBATV game beat any games on any of these networks, those games will be in a separate chart.

Household ratings from Son of the Bronx for ESPN games and SportsBusiness Daily for ABC games and those TNT games where it is available. 18-49 ratings, when available, from TVbytheNumbers and The Futon Critic. Read More »

2014 College Basketball Postseason Ratings Roundup

This post is going to be a little more useful than last week’s. Here are ratings for all 67 games of the NCAA Tournament, every game of the NIT on traditional television, and every game or coverage window of the women’s tournament. The top four games of the tournament all involved Kentucky; their Elite 8 and third round games both did better than the other Final Four game, though curiously the much-hyped matchup between Kentucky and Louisville not only did worse than all those games, but another third-round game involving North Carolina. Kentucky was also involved in the most-watched second-round game. Only two NCAA Tournament games not on truTV did worse than the most watched NIT game, the championship game. Meanwhile, the top seven women’s games involved at least one of the two undefeated teams, Connecticut or Notre Dame.

CBS numbers from Sports Media Watch, Turner and ESPN numbers from Son of the Bronx. 18-49 numbers, when available, from TVbytheNumbers and The Futon Critic. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts. Read More »

2013-14 College Basketball Ratings Roundup

In honor of the start of the college basketball season, here are last year’s college basketball ratings!

Getting nailed on the Olympics is one thing, getting nailed on college basketball is quite another. SportsBusiness Daily had two different weeks where they didn’t get any CBS numbers in time for their deadline, and Sports Media Watch didn’t get numbers for the total of four college basketball windows that were affected by that for its own college basketball ratings roundup. The highest of the four games’ overnights I estimated would have finished with around a 1.7 final household rating, which is high enough that I’m only listing the top ten regular-season college basketball ratings of the year. I am listing all 109 women’s college basketball games to air on a national Nielsen-rated network, though, although the one CBS game didn’t have viewers reported so I have to guesstimate it. (That chart is going to be in a very unfinished state.)

The most-watched game not involving Duke, Michigan State or Kentucky was San Diego State-Kansas on CBS January 5 with 2.623 million viewers, also the most watched game not involving a power conference team (assuming you count the American as a power conference – Louisville-Kentucky drew 3.246 million viewers to CBS December 28). Note that that game had an NFL playoff game as a lead-in and spilled into primetime. The next such games were Michigan-Ohio State in a Big Ten semifinal, which drew 2.471 million viewers to CBS March 15, and Syracuse-Virginia, which drew 2.45 million viewers to ESPN March 1. The most watched game on ESPN not to involve Duke, either Michigan team, Kentucky, or Syracuse was Kansas-Texas February 1, which drew 1.924 million viewers. The most-watched non-CBS game I don’t have 18-49 numbers for is Kansas State-Kansas January 11, which drew 1.39 million viewers to ESPN.

The most-watched game to involve solely non-power-conference teams was the Mountain West Championship which drew 1.909 million viewers to CBS March 15. The most-watched game involving a non-power-conference team on ESPN was Boise State-Kentucky on December 10, which drew 1.213 million viewers; the most-watched non-power-conference-only game on ESPN was the WCC Championship March 11, with 1.045 million viewers. The most-watched game between two non-power-conference teams that wasn’t a conference championship was VCU-Saint Louis on ESPN February 15, which drew just 711,000 viewers. (If the American counts as a non-power conference, Connecticut-Louisville drew 1.772 million viewers to CBS on March 8, the American championship between those two schools drew 1.688 million viewers to ESPN March 15, and the game at Connecticut drew 1.522 million viewers to ESPN January 18. If the Big East counts as a non-power conference, Villanova-Syracuse drew 1.448 million viewers to CBS December 28, and Butler-Georgetown drew 1.083 million viewers to CBS February 8.)

The most watched game not on ESPN, CBS, or ABC was Ohio State-Notre Dame on ESPN2 December 21, which drew 1.323 million viewers and only barely made the top 100 overall. The most watched game not on ESPN, CBS, ABC, or ESPN2 was Ohio State-Marquette on Fox November 16 with 799,000 viewers, followed by the Big East Championship on Fox Sports 1 March 15 with 702,000 viewers. ESPNU’s most-watched game was Clemson-Syracuse February 9 with 675,000 viewers, which was edged out by the Pac-12 Championship on Fox Sports 1 March 15 with 680,000 viewers. Its next-most-watched game was Belmont-Kentucky December 21 with 577,000 viewers.

Top Ten Most-Watched Regular Season College Basketball Games of the 2013-14 Season

    Vwr (mil) HH 18-49 Time Net

1

MCBB: Duke @ Syracuse

4.745

2.9

1.6

2/1 6:30 PM

ESPN

2

Big Ten Championship:
Michigan State v. Michigan

4.525

2.7

 

3/16 3:30 PM

CBS

3

MCBB: Syracuse @ Duke

4.159

2.4

1.3

2/22 7:00 PM

ESPN

4

MCBB: Michigan State v. Kentucky

4.002

2.6

1.4

11/12 7:30 PM

ESPN

5

MCBB: North Carolina @ Duke

3.498

2.1

1.2

3/8 9:00 PM

ESPN

6

MCBB: Louisville @ Kentucky

3.246

2.0

 

12/28 4:23 PM

CBS

7

ACC Championship: Virginia v. Duke

3.168

2.2

1.0

3/16 1:00 PM

ESPN

8

Big Ten Semifinal:
Michigan State v. Wisconsin

3.161

1.9

 

3/15 4:15 PM

CBS

9

SEC Championship: Florida v. Kentucky

2.99

2.0

0.9

3/16 3:15 PM

ESPN

10

MCBB: Kansas v. Duke

2.977

2.1

1.3

11/12 10:19 PM

ESPN

Read More »

2014 March Madness TV Schedule

Here is the schedule for all 67 games of the NCAA Tournament on CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV. All times Eastern.

Read More »

How to Fix the Hall of Fame (And How Not to Fix It)

Maybe it was the fact that Keith Olbermann now has a sports-oriented platform with which to rail against the “banana republic” that is the Baseball Hall of Fame. Maybe it was Deadspin’s stunt where they turned over what turned out to be Dan Le Batard’s Hall of Fame ballot to the public for them to vote on. Maybe it was the continued hand-wringing over the steroids issue, or the fact not a single modern-era player was inducted the previous year, or the ballots and accompanying grandstanding and sanctimonious moralizing that made Le Batard’s stunt seem reasonable. Or maybe it was some combination of the above. Whatever the reason, despite the induction of three very worthy first-ballot candidates, this year’s Hall of Fame election became as much about how broken the election process supposedly is than about the election itself.

It strikes me, though, that many of the reforms that many writers and other commenters propose to fix the Hall miss the reasons for the rules they want to change. Doubtless the voting could be expanded beyond merely sportswriters, and writers who throw away their ballots in ways more outrageous than Le Batard did should lose them. But for example, Deadspin elected the top 10 candidates that received a simple majority of the people’s vote, rather than the 75% the Hall requires, explaining that the high threshold helps allow the process to be “hijacked by cranks, attention-seeking trolls, and the merely perplexed—people who exercise power out of proportion to their numbers due to the perverse structure of the voting.” But it should be difficult to get into the Hall; someone should only get in if there’s some sort of consensus that they’re deserving.

Nor do I buy the argument that because there are already cheaters and general assholes in the Hall of Fame, that justifies inducting the steroids users as well. Yes, the general public is ambivalent at best about the steroids issue, but the sport’s history is more important to baseball than any other sport; the steroids users have irrevocably tainted that history, and it seems odd to play up that history in one breath while backing the induction of the steroids users with the other. The single-season and career home run records, once the most hallowed in sports, will forever be untrustworthy and have an asterisk mentally if not physically attached to them, and many other records besides. Of all the players blackballed from the Hall, only Shoeless Joe Jackson might have done more damage to the game. (There’s an argument to be made that players that had Hall-worthy credentials without steroids should be inducted, which would put Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and possibly Mark McGwire in, but not Sammy Sosa, who no one had heard of before he came from out of nowhere in the summer of ’98, or Rafael Palmeiro, who actually received few enough votes to be dropped from the ballot this year. That a player like Sosa could effectively juice his way into a Hall of Fame career underscores why the steroids issue can’t be simply swept under the rug. I would bet Gaylord Perry would be in the Hall of Fame regardless of whether or not he spit.)

Many commentators, including Olbermann, faulted the 10-person limit for forcing voters to make very difficult choices on a loaded ballot, resulting in part in Craig Biggio missing induction by two votes. What would be the harm, they say, in allowing as many people as the voters find worthy to get in? Theoretically, if someone isn’t one of the ten best candidates on the ballot maybe they aren’t that strong a candidate after all (again, it’s supposed to be difficult to get in); but even beyond that, it’s not so much having a ton of people getting in at once than losing those people in future years. Craig Biggio will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, possibly as soon as next year. But if not next year, it’s very possible he (or someone like Mike Piazza or Jeff Bagwell) may end up saving the Hall from a repeat of 2013, when no one was inducted. It’s worth noting that even with a supposedly loaded ballot, only three people were actually inducted, and only seven even received more than half the vote. Clearly there isn’t that much consensus over which candidates are more deserving to get in over which other candidates.

Perhaps the baseball Hall could take a cue from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which repeatedly cuts down all the numerous candidates for induction down to a list of 15 finalists, then brings the voters together Super Bowl Weekend to debate the merits of those fifteen candidates and further whittle them down to five. Result: the Pro Football Hall of Fame always inducts the maximum five modern-era players despite actually having a higher threshold for induction at 80%, and so actually tries to clear its backlogs. Obviously, given the fact that the BBWAA has hundreds of people voting, it’s impractical to get them all together to discuss the candidates, but what would be wrong with a two-stage voting system, where the first ballot cuts the list down to 10-15 finalists, who are then subject to a straight up/down vote?

Underlying the last complaint, however, seems to be the notion that someone either “is a Hall of Famer or he is not“, that it’s ridiculous for someone who wasn’t considered a Hall of Famer X number of years in the past to suddenly be a Hall of Famer now. Presumably many of these people would prefer to hold a single up/down vote on a candidate five years after their retirement, induct anyone who crosses the threshold of induction, and keep out everyone else. It’s an attractive prospect, but it seems cruel to subject a player’s destiny to a single vote at an arbitrary point in time, especially if the rules may be different at a different point in time; should Edgar Martinez’s chances be based on the luck of how the voters feel about the DH issue in one particular semi-random year? The Hall of Fame voting window allows candidates to be looked at fairly and with some degree of historical perspective; five years after retirement allows voters to vote somewhat dispassionately without being too close to the player’s career, but leaving their fate in the hands of the Veterans’ Committee after fifteen years ensures that a player’s fate lies in the hands of those who actually saw him play. That’s why I’m leery of giving Bill James a Hall of Fame vote. Bill James is awesome; he may well go in to the Hall of Fame for the way he revolutionized the way we look at the game. But Bill James perfectly encapsulates why there’s a statute of limitations on how long a player can wait before it gets much tougher for them to get into the Hall of Fame. We don’t need him engaging in historical revisionism to justify why some random player from the 30s no one at the time would have ever dreamed of getting into the Hall should get in using statistics no one at the time could have ever conceived of. It’s disingenuous for someone to complain about, say, Bert Blyleven getting in without any change in his resume in one breath and argue for Bill James to get a Hall of Fame vote with the other. It’s called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Great.

When figuring out how to fix the Hall of Fame (in any sport), there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The fate of players should be in the hands of a group of electors who experienced their career as it happened, that is, not making a post facto judgment. They should also, however, have a good grasp of the standards by which someone should be considered a Hall of Famer and the historical perspective to assess players by those standards in a relatively unbiased fashion, at least as a whole. The selection process should facilitate striking a balance between these competing concerns.
  • Reasonable people will always disagree over someone’s Hall credentials. They also disagree over how stringent the standards should be for induction, with some “small Hall” people arguing that only the very best of the very best should be honored.
  • Once a player is inducted into the Hall, they become a benchmark for any other player to get in; i.e., “if player X is in the Hall, player Y should be too.”
  • Once a player is inducted into the Hall, they are never un-inducted. The body of electors should be very sure of themselves if they wish to induct somebody.

With these challenges in mind, we can begin to sketch out a proposal for organizing a Hall of Fame that reflects some level of consensus over who does and does not belong. There will, of course, continue to be debate over who does and does not belong, but hopefully even those who disagree with the Hall’s selections can agree that it reflects the consensus of those who lived through the era on the matter of the best and most important players and other figures.

One place to start would be to adopt Bill Simmons’ pyramid idea, that is, assigning all Hall of Famers to one of five tiers, with the top tier (“the Pantheon”) reserved for the very best of the best and each subsequent tier containing progressively less esteemed players until the players with the shakiest cases show up on the bottom level. I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of “ranking” the best players, feeling it makes things too much of a competition and that it becomes a case of splitting hairs between specific players as you get further down the list; shouldn’t it be enough that a player is considered a Hall of Famer? Why belittle the guys perceived to have shakier cases by placing them on a lower level or considering them not “real” Hall of Famers? However, I think this would be a good compromise between the “small Hall” guys and the more liberal guys. The “small Hall” guys would have only the guys they would allow in on the top one or two levels, while still having all the other players on the lower levels. It would serve as a way to refocus and rekindle the debate and provide some necessary clarity to the Hall, reorganizing it by players’ importance to the game and thus better allowing people to appreciate its history. Depending on what kind of Hall of Fame we’re talking about, we could use different terminology to distinguish the levels, even naming each level (for example, Bronze/Silver/Gold) if circumstances warrant.

I have a couple of issues with Simmons’ specific implementation. First, Simmons’ pyramid distributes Hall of Famers across five physical floors of the pyramid. Actual Hall of Fames, however, tend to throw all their Hall of Famers into a single literal hall; they are museums first and Hall of Fames second. The Hall may be the room everyone gravitates to and even the most prominent room, but it’s still a single room. Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a place that already vaguely looks like Simmons’ pyramid (and, incidentally, by all accounts a place that makes Cooperstown look like the model of integrity) throws all its Hall of Famers onto a single level of a six-level building; the closest thing to what Simmons might be talking about might be the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There are some points in this model’s favor, even from the perspective of the Halls themselves, as it provides a single place for you to be overwhelmed by the prestige and the eminent personalities all around you, to take it all in all at once, besides the fact it allows the Hall not to overwhelm the building’s place as a museum. But this consideration doesn’t completely invalidate the model; physical differences in the honoring of each Hall of Famer, such as a plaque made of different materials or placement on the floor, could distinguish players of different tiers, which could be indicated by the personality used. For example, each plaque could have one to five stars on it and we could refer to Hall of Fame members as one-star to five-star Hall of Famers. Or we could arrange the Hall as a spiral going around a larger building, connecting with the exhibits on each floor with each full turn or half-turn, each tier arranged in chronological order or in rough order of importance within each tier, up to the Pantheon taking up the entire top floor, with statues instead of mere plaques for each Pantheon member, and if the sport has a Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Wayne Gretzky, one single undisputed best player of all time, they get their statue in the center. This could be considered taking a cue from the Guggenheim Museum, which arranges its artifacts in a spiral one browses starting from the top and working their way down.

A simpler but perhaps more challenging problem has to do with the process of assigning a level to each member, which Simmons would do by taking the average score each member gets from an assignment committee, “rounded up”. The problem should be obvious: if the assignment committee consists of 50 people, 49 of them votes a member to level 1, and the 50th votes them to level 2, their average is 1.02, which gets rounded up to 2. That one single voter got them bumped up to level 2! It would seem that very few people would be selected to level 1 unless their election to the Hall at all was so tentative as to make it unlikely they would be elected in the first place. Considering part of the appeal of the pyramid for Simmons is to throw all the borderline candidates to level 1, this seems counterproductive. Even if we made a post facto argument that past decades were undeniably mistaken in putting someone in, and everyone votes them to level 1 because even those who would have voted for them agree it’s ridiculous to put them any higher, it’s hard to see how the bottom level would grow. Simmons seems to be counting on the assignment committee to disagree with the selection committee, and specifically to agree with his own judgments. (Rounding up has another, similar problem: it’s very easy for someone to get into the Pantheon just by racking up enough level 4 votes and a couple of level 5 votes to get their average just over four. “Small Hall” people would much rather round down, making it more difficult to get into higher levels; while that gives the Pantheon the opposite problem, requiring induction to be unanimous, a case could be made that if your average can’t top 2 you don’t deserve to be in level 2 or above anyway.)

Instead, I prefer to see each level and the ones above it as its own sub-Hall of Fame within the Hall of Fame. If you wish, you can consider only those in tier 2 and above “real” Hall of Famers, and “small Hall” people would prefer to restrict it to the top one or two tiers. As such, the procedure would go as follows:

  • The Selection Committee consists of a mixture of sportswriters (including bloggers), fans, players (possibly including existing Hall of Famers), coaches, historians of the sport, and other people involved with the sport and the media. The vote is weighted towards the writers, fans, and other people who have a good grasp of what it takes to get to each level and are familiar with each candidate’s case.
  • On the ballot, each voter must give each candidate a number from 1 to 5, signifying what level they would induct each candidate to, or leave it blank or mark it with a 0 to indicate that they would not elect that candidate at all.
  • A player must be given a number on 70% of the votes to be inducted, at which point they are inducted to the level at the 70th percentile of their vote. For example, to be inducted to the Pantheon at least 70% of the votes must vote you to the Pantheon. To be elected to level 3 at least 70% of the votes must put you on level 3 or above, and so on. This keeps it difficult to get inducted to the Hall and to each level; I originally considered making the threshold 60%, but I don’t want someone to get into the Pantheon when only 60% of voters agree he deserves it.
  • There may or may not be a limit on the number of players to be inducted (I would support limiting Pantheon inductions to one a year), but there is no limit on how many people may be voted in or voted to a particular level. A player that has received the necessary votes to be inducted to a particular level but is excluded due to yearly limits may have their induction postponed to the following year, but generally cannot fall below the lowest or highest level they were ever voted to.
  • If there is a difference between the median level a player is voted to and the 70th percentile, the player remains on the ballot in subsequent years; as with players pushed out due to yearly limits, they cannot fall below the lowest or highest level they were ever voted to. A player not inducted to the Hall must be chosen for induction on at least half of all ballots just to remain on the ballot the following year; a player with the votes to make the first tier must have at least half the votes naming him to the second tier in order to remain on the ballot for the chance to move up to the second tier, or else their future fate is remanded to the Historical Committee where it gets much tougher for a reassessment to find that a player was wrongfully kept out or elected to too low a level. A player may appear on fifteen ballots; once they have appeared on fifteen ballots, they are either inducted to whatever level they are voted to their final year, or the highest level they were ever voted to. (Alternatively, once a player has the votes for induction and aren’t kept out by numerical limits they are inducted to that level, but may be “re-inducted” to a higher level later.)

This is a similar system to the up/down approval voting system Deadspin and others would favor, but the addition of the pyramid and tier system turns it into a range voting variant, which for various reasons is probably the best voting system for achieving the best outcome without perverse incentives. The notion that “the first ballot is sacred” (which only succeeds in producing “second-ballot” Hall of Famers like Roberto Alomar) would become less relevant if the Pantheon (and possibly the tier or two below it) serves the role of separating the “elite” from the rank and file, and broadening the electorate beyond sportswriters helps keep people with agendas from hijacking the process. Ideally, we’d have a single vote to determine the legacy of each candidate, without candidates completely crowding each other off the ballot, without necessarily risking some induction ceremonies being too big (though more time can be devoted to players going in to higher tiers) or nonexistent, and without completely precluding reconsideration later, but only if a substantial enough number of people believe from the start that someone’s case merits reconsideration (that is, 5% of the electorate can’t keep someone who clearly doesn’t have a shot taking up space on the ballot for fifteen years).

So we have two different solutions to what seems to be the most obvious and agreed-upon problem with this year’s baseball Hall of Fame induction: an overabundance of qualified players crowding each other out because of the 10-player limit. A system similar to that of the Pro Football Hall of Fame would limit the number of candidates and make it easier to give each of the resulting finalists a straight-up up/down vote, but instituting a pyramid system would help fix some of the deeper, more systemic flaws and restore at least some prestige to America’s Halls of Fame among those who might feel it irredeemably lost.