Soccer… MMA… softball?

College softball is a bigger deal than the WNBA or MLS, and is getting to be almost as big as UFC.

That’s what I have to conclude after the Women’s College World Series pulled off an average 1.5 rating, including a 1.8 for the rubber match between Arizona and Tennessee, admittedly according to ESPN itself.

I don’t know what ratings for the men’s College World Series are, but if they’re higher they’d have to poke into the twos, which is a bit mind-boggling.

So let’s go out there and start a pro softball league! Well, first of all, the Women’s Final Four gets pretty good ratings, roughly comparable with this, but the WNBA stinks up the ratings somewhere in the vicinity of .4. That said, we already have one, and I’d barely heard of it before last year. It’s six teams with hope for expansion, but despite having MLB as “official development partner”, you probably haven’t heard of it either. It’s not actually part of MLB but it seems to have failed at marketing compared to WNBA and MLS nonetheless. Of course, also part of its problem is that it has teams in Chicago AND Rockford, but none in NY or LA.

The most pivotal day in "Versus" history?

Versus will televise Big 12 and Pac-10 football games as part of a new agreement with FSN, a rehash of FSN’s prior deal with TBS. I’d be more impressed if FSN hadn’t already let Pac-10 games go to ESPN and made another agreement with ESPN for Big 12 games.

This is great news for Versus and terrible news for fans of those conferences who have longed for them to get off FSN. TBS to Versus is a big step down. On the other hand, while Versus isn’t likely to get The Game That Will Determine The National Championship (between ABC and FSN), this is exactly what Versus needs to do to establish its bona fides as a major sports power before the Big Three contracts come up for renewal again in the mid-2010’s. Versus’ limited distribution and the fact that it counted on major sports to establish its reputation, instead of making sure they had one going in, helped kill their shots at NFL and MLB rights (though Versus’ best shot at the mighty NFL, especially considering their distribution, was probably always the package the NFL relegated to the NFL Network for reasons not concerning the individual drawbacks of any network).

Getting the sort of sports that characterized the early days of ESPN and ESPN2 is also a must. Versus has already gotten a head start on that with NLL and MISL coverage, and dipped its toe into Arena Football coverage last season. Jumping into more mid-major sports, like MLS and the WNBA, would seem to be a logical next step, but MLS and AFL rights are locked up into the next decade, and WNBA (and NBA) rights are pretty much too far into negotiations at this point, with the pens practically already sitting by the contract.

The Big 12 has already re-upped with ABC and FSN, a deal that starts in 2008. Versus might be able to interject itself in SEC negotiations, which are up for renegotiation soon for a new deal starting 2009. Both football and basketball are shown on CBS and ESPN, but ESPN’s coverage of the SEC is rather limited, with lesser games (including the basketball semifinals, a bit of notoriety shared by no other Big Six conference) relegated to regional syndication.

Versus probably overestimated the cache of the NHL today in trying to line up deals for better sports. Now they have to hope that even mid-level Big 12 and Pac-10 games will draw enough eyeballs to stop itself from being a joke for any league over the NHL line. I can’t exactly say the battle of Iowa is a good sign of what’s to come, but at least now they might edge just a little bit higher.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 4/28-29

All times PDT.

Saturday
9-5 PM: NFL Football, NFL Draft Rounds 1-2 (ESPN). Which will it be this year? Will the second round be actually treated with a little respect, or at the same level as the second-day rounds?

5-7:30 PM: NBA Basketball, San Antonio @ Denver (ESPN). Carmelo Anthony’s best chance of making it out of the first round is probably to have Joey Crawford officiating.

7:30-10 PM: NBA Basketball, Utah @ Houston (ESPN). What do you want, personalities, or good basketball? If the latter, this game is for you.

Sunday
10:30-3 PM: NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Racing, Aaron’s 499 (FOX). Better than nothing.

5-7:30 PM: NHL Hockey, Anaheim @ Vancouver (VS.). Actually, if I had chosen the NHL game yesterday I would still have the other NBA game that day and the NBA doubleheaders today. But today’s NBA games, well, suck.

The NFL schedule story no one’s reporting on

I noticed something interesting about Year 2 of NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

Not the introduction of Keith Olbermann to the studio show, but rather, something about the schedule.

It still consists of the first ten weeks being pre-assigned, while Weeks 11-17 are “flex schedule” weeks, with games being chosen two weeks in advance (one week in the case of Week 17). But last season, the primetime spot on the schedule was simply left blank for the flex weeks.

This year, the primetime spot actually has a game listed, even though it could still be moved to an afternoon spot to make room for a better game.

As I intend on prognosticating on what games will be shown in prime time in this space, that brings up a bevy of questions that I’m not finding the answers to. Will CBS and Fox be able to “protect” the game listed in late night and keep it in the afternoon, or indeed, will they still be able to protect games at all? How closely will NBC hew to the game chosen for late night? Will a game have to be a complete dud for NBC to move away from it, or is the game just a placeholder for something close to the status quo last season, when NBC chose the games it thought best given the restrictions they had to work with (though they seemed to have certain perplexing biases, and choosing Packers-Bears Week 17 seemed to defeat the purpose of moving games only one week prior)?

All of a sudden, I’m dazed and confused and don’t know where to go.

Sports Watcher for the weekend of 4/14-15

All times PDT.

Saturday
1-3 PM: MISL Soccer, Detroit at Milwaukee (VS.). Did you know the Detroit Ignition are an expansion team? You wouldn’t be so impressed if you knew four teams make the playoffs… out of a six-team league.

4-6:30 PM: NHL Hockey, Tampa Bay at New Jersey (CBC). Folks in Canada are incenced the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins (w/Sid the Kid) and Ottawa Senators (only Canadian team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs) is not in prime time, and they have to watch an all-American game on CBC, solely to appease NBC. But the worst part is, the game CBC is airing isn’t available nationally in the States! Personally, I blame NBC for not showing any hockey in primetime other than the Finals. If you really want to grow the game so much in the States by force-feeding us Sidney Crosby, would it really hurt to put it in primetime on by far the weakest night of the week, which the Big Four hardly bother to program anyway?

(Before you think “Is that a sign they’re adding insult to injury by throwing CBC a game no one on either side of the border cares about?” consider that the game on Versus pits the 8-seed Islanders “versus” the 1-seed Sabres. Talk about a squash.)

(Incidentially, while CBC recently locked up a long-term deal with the NHL, NBC only re-upped for one more year with an option for a second… which at first glance appears to be a retread of the previous deal, which was similar, until you note that this coming year is also the last year of the NBA on ABC.)

Sunday
10:30-3 PM: NASCAR Racing, Samsung 500 (FOX). Three drivers have over 900 points out of five with 800. It’s lonely at the top of NASCAR.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, San Diego @ Los Angeles (ESPN). It’s Jackie Robinson Day in MLB and Bud Selig is allowing any player to wear his number; the Dodgers, the team that first put him in the big leagues, is one of a few teams doing it for everybody (Mike Cameron is the only one for the Padres). Expect more 42’s than even Douglas Adams could have ever dreamed. Clearly that day will be the day our planet is obliterated for a freeway bypass.

Baseball and hockey pre-empt boxing, TNA wrestling, and BodogFight MMA from the Watcher, but I did find out that my local cable system now shows exactly THREE PPV channels (outside the porn-only channels), which show porno in lighter hours than you’d think. Is “on demand” creating a new world, one which could force boxing, wrestling, and MMA to re-think their strategies as they increasingly become the only reason for PPV’s existence (alongside porn, but that might be headed for “on demand” as well once parental controls are advanced enough to allow it)? Spike TV will carry UFC 70 for free in the States next week in what could be the most watched (by network executives) and most pivotal sports event on television in recent memory. It could be a test that could establish, once and for all, the viability and popularity of MMA, could be a “test of the waters” for boxing and MMA, to determine if cable is financially viable, to determine if it’s time to come out of the PPV shelter and possibly on the road to respectability, and if that part’s successful, it could be one final nail in the coffin for PPV. (What it would do to professional wrestling, for which PPV is an integral part of the business model to the point where a “big event” happens once a month, not once a year, is anyone’s guess.)

Sports Watcher for the weekend of 4/7-8

All times PDT.

Saturday
12:30-3 PM: MLS Soccer, Colorado at DC United (ABC). Finally, the MLS season opener doesn’t compete with the Final Four pre-show. Of course, now it’s up against the first round of the Masters…

4-7 PM: College Hockey, Michigan State v. Boston College (ESPN). The third-biggest championship the NCAA administers. Of course, it’s light years behind even women’s college basketball and isn’t really that far from last place.

7-10 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 69 (PPV). I could write reams on why UFC is whipping boxing’s ass right now, but I’ll save them for a later date. (But a word of advice: If you want to become really mainstream and not elicit comparisons to illegal cagefighting or pro wrestling, dump the steel cage. I don’t know of any fighting organization of any kind that doesn’t use anything more than the classic ropes.)

Sunday
11:30-4 PM: PGA Golf, The Masters Final Round (CBS). You know, if that Tiger Woods gets a few more major wins, maybe, one day, if he’s really lucky, he’ll be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, Boston @ Texas (ESPN). Even though Curt Schilling will be Boston’s starter, we’ll still be caught up in Dice-K mania.

Next weekend: Hot NHL playoff action! (cue crickets)

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 3/31-4/1

All times PDT.

Saturday
12-2:30 PM: NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Kroger 250 (FOX). The Truck Series graduates from Speed Channel… for a couple of races per year.

3-5 PM: College Basketball, Georgetown v. Ohio State (CBS). At this point, the best thing for my bracket is for Ohio State to go on to win the national championship. My bracket is a mess right now, and I need to come away salvaging something.

5:45-7:45 PM: College Basketball, UCLA v. Florida (CBS). If you think it’s 2006 all over again, you’re wrong. This is only the Final Four, not the national championship.

Sunday
12-1 AM: WWE Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (USA). Nothing like a bunch of players of a fake sport being inducted into a nonexistent hall of fame, especially when you’ve heard of maybe one or two of the people going in, most of the inductions are left out of the hour show, and even that show is on after everyone has gone to bed.

10-11:30 AM: PBA Bowling, Tournament of Champions (ESPN). I’ll be watching the NBA, as ABC has some pretty good games, but I have a policy of putting every championship possible on the Watcher.

12-3 PM: LPGA Golf, Kraft Nabisco Championship (CBS). I support women’s sports in every form, so of course I’ll be watching Dallas and Phoenix. And NASCAR. Haven’t seen the Car of Tomorrow yet. But this is on the Watcher because it happens to be a major and I have the aforementioned rule on championships.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, NY Mets @ St. Louis (ESPN2). I pull for women’s basketball huge, so why am I picking Opening Night over the Women’s Final Four? Because without fail, every single year I find myself watching it, and often being fascinated with it. Maybe it’s just the lack of baseball we’ve had all winter.

(Yes, wrestling fans, I know I left out WrestleMania but included the HoF ceremony. I only list wrestling as a joke when there’s nothing else on.)

The 2007 Mid-Major Conference

Refer to this post if you don’t know what this is about or to catch up on the rules.

This year, six conferences produced multiple bids to the NCAA tournament: the MVC, MWC, WAC, A-10, CAA, and Horizon. These conferences are guaranteed one spot each in the Mid-Major Conference.

Four teams reached the Sweet 16, all from different conferences; only one of these teams did not come from a multi-bid conference. (In my view, Memphis’ trip to the Sweet 16 is tainted by the fact there were no major teams in its pod.) Of the three multi-bid conferences that did not produce a Sweet 16 team, all had one team win its first-round game and one team lose its first-round game. (This also applies to the three conferences to produce Sweet 16 teams as well.)

This leaves only one spot in the MMC to be determined by my discretion, with no conference restrictions.

Without further ado, the eight members of the 2007 Mid-Major Conference:

Butler (Horizon League)
Southern Illinois (Missouri Valley Conference)
UNLV (Mountain West Conference)
Memphis (Conference USA)
Nevada (Western Athletic Conference)
Xavier (Atlantic 10)
Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial Athletic Association)
Winthrop (Big South Conference)
Honorable mentions: Appalachian State, Akron, Marist

Davidson, Appalacian State, and Winthrop were the main contenders for the last spot. Davidson’s case was hurt by a big loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and the fact that it would lose a tiebreaker to App State. I wanted to reward the strong year for the SoCon with an MMC spot, especially since I considered App State’s resume to be awfully strong to dismiss completely for an NCAA bid, but getting demolished by Ole Miss in the first round of the NIT didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Winthrop finally broke through the glass ceiling and won its first NCAA Tournament game; that must deserve special recognition. Rest assured, App State would be the first team in if the MMC were nine teams deep.

Marist makes the honorable mentions because it’s the only team from a conference not producing multiple NCAA bids to win its first round NIT game.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 3/24-25

All times PDT.

Saturday
9-11 AM: Women’s College Basketball, Bowling Green v. Arizona State (ESPN). ESPN has this really weird concept, when they’re showing the women’s tournament, called “showing every Sweet 16 game to the entire country.”

11:30-1:30 PM: Women’s College Basketball, Rutgers v. Duke (ESPN). If the Duke-haters are going through withdrawl since Coach K got pwned by VCU, at least the women have a cupcake path to the Final Four.

1:30-3:30 PM: College Basketball, Ohio State v. Memphis (CBS). Memphis will lead the Buckeyes for awhile before ultimately collapsing improbably.

4-6 PM: College Basketball, Kansas v. UCLA (CBS). Two of the most storied programs in college basketball, and they’re probably reduced to carrying Florida’s water.

6-8 PM: Women’s College Basketball, NC State v. Connecticut (ESPN). According to ESPN’s advertising, NC State’s run is inspiring for some reason. Hell if I know why.

8:30-10:30 PM: Women’s College Basketball, Florida State v. LSU (ESPN2). “Hmm… we’ve got a game the majority of which will be played after midnight on the East Coast. Who should we have playing there?” “How about an East Coast team against a Central Time Zone team?” (Actually, Stanford was upset by 10-seed FSU in the second round.)

Sunday
8-9 AM: Drag Racing, NHRA Lucas Oil Series (ESPN2): Oh wait, you say April Fools’ day is still a week away?

9-11 AM: Women’s College Basketball, Marist v. Tennessee (ESPN). Marist has had two improbable upsets over overrated BCS teams. Now they face… Pat Summitt. Welcome to reality, Foxes.

11:30-4 PM (or 2-4 PM, see below): College Basketball, Midwest (Florida v. UNLV/Oregon) and East (Georgetown v. North Carolina/USC) regional finals (CBS). Watch Florida basically get coronated into the Final Four, and then watch an actual college basketball game. Or vice versa. Who knows?

Only if Florida is in the first CBS game
11:30-1:30 PM: Women’s College Basketball, Mississippi v. Oklahoma (ESPN2). Courtney Paris has a double-double in all but three games of her collegiate career, including 60 straight. So naturally she’s due for a letdown.

Honorable Mention: 10:30-3 PM: NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Racing, Food City 500 (FOX). If your bracket’s busted and you don’t care what happens from here on out, why not watch some history instead? This is the first NEXTEL Cup race to use the “Car of Tomorrow”, the next generation of stock-car racing vehicle. Expect the sloppiest race you’ve ever seen, of course.

4-6 PM: Women’s College Basketball, Georgia v. Purdue (ESPN2). Bet you never thought of Purdue as a power women’s team. I never thought of any Big Ten team as a power women’s team.

6:30-8:30 PM: Women’s College Basketball, George Washington v. North Carolina (ESPN2). Hey, it’s George Mason all over again!

After college basketball: Mid-Major Conference Naming Ceremony (Da Blog). One mid is in the Elite Eight, one lost in the Sweet 16, two are still playing in the Sweet 16, and the rest never made it out of the first weekend. That’s good enough to name the members of the first MMC.