Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Other sports

USC and UCLA to join Big Ten

Wow.

USC and UCLA have been accepted as the newest members of the Big Ten conference with league officials approving their membership Thursday night. The programs have announced their respective departures from the Pac-12 beginning in 2024 with the pair marking a significant acquisition for the Big Ten that will significantly change the college sports landscape.

“Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said. “We are excited that our values align with the league’s member institutions. We also will benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of Big Ten institutions; the increased visibility, exposure, and resources the conference will bring our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our passionate alumni nationwide.”

“After careful consideration and thoughtful deliberation, UCLA has decided to leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big Ten Conference at the start of the 2024–25 season,” said UCLA chancellor Gene D. Block and AD Martin Jarmond in a combined statement. “… Each school faces its own unique challenges and circumstances, and we believe this is the best move for UCLA at this time. For us, this move offers greater certainty in rapidly changing times and ensures that we remain a leader in college athletics for generations to come. As the oldest NCAA Division I athletic conference in the United States and with a footprint that will now extend from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Big Ten membership offers Bruins exciting new competitive opportunities and a broader national media platform for our student-athletes to compete and showcase their talents.”

Big Ten presidents and athletic directors first met Wednesday night to discuss adding USC and UCLA to the league, sources told CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander. A subsequent vote was held Thursday night to officially welcome the programs into the league beginning Aug. 2, 2024.

“As the national leader in academics and athletics for over 126 years, the Big Ten Conference has historically evaluated its membership with the collective goal to forward the academic and athletic mission for student-athletes under the umbrella of higher education,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “The unanimous vote today signifies the deep respect and welcoming culture our entire conference has for the University of Southern California, under the leadership of President Carol Folt, and the University of California, Los Angeles, under the leadership of Chancellor Gene Block.”

I did not see that one coming. The ACC and the Big XII had lost members to other conferences before, including the University of Colorado to the PAC12, but this is earth-shaking, at least on the scale of UT and Oklahoma jumping to the SEC. The PAC12 will now have to negotiate a new TV contract without its two flagship schools, who were motivated to seek greener pastures in the first place because the PAC12’s TV contract wasn’t all that lucrative.

History and tradition have long been dead as reasons for conferences to exist and stay together, but I would have thought geography might have been a limiting factor. Not so much now, as the Big Ten literally spans coast to coast, with members in such heartland states as California, Maryland, and New Jersey. At this point, I wonder when we’ll get to a place where the “conference” idea is wholly discarded in favor of divisions, like in the NFL. I also wonder what effect this will eventually have on non-football schools that have become national powers in basketball, like Gonzaga.

A bit of local perspective from the LA Times:

“This is the most volatile and uncertain era in the history of American collegiate athletics,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in a statement. “USC must ensure it is best positioned and prepared for whatever happens next, and it is our responsibility to always evaluate potential opportunities and be willing to make changes when needed. Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports.”

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond told The Times, “College athletics is changing, and UCLA has always led in times of change. For the sake of our student-athletes, and for preserving the legacy of Bruin excellence, we cannot afford to stand still.”

This new, changing world Bohn and Jarmond referred to is one in which college athletes for the first time can earn money from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) — a right the NCAA and its member schools long denied to players in the name of the ideals of amateurism.

With so much unknown about where athlete compensation is headed beyond NIL, USC and UCLA leaders felt they had to address the long-term financial viability of their programs.

“As the oldest NCAA Division I athletic conference in the United States and with a footprint that will now extend from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Big Ten membership offers Bruins exciting new competitive opportunities and a broader national media platform for our student-athletes to compete and showcase their talents,” UCLA chancellor Gene Block and Jarmond said in a joint letter. “Specifically, this move will enhance name, image and likeness opportunities through greater exposure.”

[…]

In moving to the Big Ten, USC and UCLA also solve another issue that’s long plagued the Pac-12: Kickoff times. Both schools were often relegated to the late window on Saturday nights, neither often finishing before half the country was asleep.

“For our fans, Big Ten membership equates to better television time slots for our road games, but the same number of home games either at the Rose Bowl, in Pauley Pavilion or other UCLA venues,” Block and Jarmond wrote.

As members of the Big Ten, late kickoffs are almost assuredly a relic of the past. The most glaring problem for the Pac-12, however, has long been what happened after kickoff.

We spend a week or two each year on the west coast visiting family. That makes for some great sports-watching opportunities, because the games start as early as 9 AM and then go all day. If USC and UCLA fans don’t mind some early morning kickoffs and never having an evening home game going forward, then I guess this will work out fine for them. ESPN, Slate, and The Ringer have more.

NFL pushing for “indefinite” suspension of Deshaun Watson

That sounds like it counts as “at least one year”.

The NFL and Deshaun Watson’s legal team presented their arguments before a disciplinary officer for a second day Wednesday, with both sides holding firm as the hearing is scheduled to continue in Delaware on Thursday.

The league is insisting on an indefinite suspension and Watson’s side is arguing there’s no basis for a punishment that significant, two people in attendance told The Associated Press. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because the hearing isn’t public.

Former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players’ Association, is tasked with determining whether Watson violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy and whether to impose discipline.

If either the union or league appeals Robinson’s decision, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee “will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute,” per terms of Article 46 in the collective bargaining agreement.

See here for the previous entry. I guess I had expected the hearing to be just one day and that we’d have something definitive by now, but in retrospect that was unrealistic. I support a long suspension for Watson but am not sure yet how I feel about it being “indefinite”. It would depend on what the terms are for it ending, I suppose. We’ll see what the landscape looks like after the hearing is over and we can get reactions from the parties involved. What do you think?

NFL to seek at least a one year suspension for Deshaun Watson

That would count as significant.

The NFL is poised to argue for an indefinite suspension of at least one year for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson at a hearing scheduled to begin Tuesday in front of the sport’s new disciplinary officer, according to a person familiar with the case.

The league will contend that Watson, who was accused of sexual misconduct in two dozen civil lawsuits filed by women, violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy and should be suspended without pay for at least the entirety of the 2022 season, that person said. Watson would have to apply for reinstatement under the league’s proposed penalty.

The NFL Players Association is expected to argue to former U.S. district judge Sue L. Robinson, the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the league and the NFLPA, for far less severe discipline against Watson, perhaps seeking no suspension at all.

Robinson will make the initial disciplinary ruling, under the revised personal conduct policy put in place with the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union completed in 2020.

If Robinson rules that Watson violated the conduct policy and imposes disciplinary measures, the league or the union could appeal the penalty to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person designated by him. If Robinson rules that Watson did not violate the policy, the case would be closed, with no possibility of an appeal.

Under the previous version of the conduct policy, Goodell was empowered to both make the initial disciplinary ruling and resolve any appeal. This is the first case under the new system.

It’s not clear how long the hearing will last or when Robinson will make an initial ruling. The NFL aims to have the entire case, including the resolution of any appeal, resolved before the opening of training camp, a person with knowledge of the matter previously said. The Browns, who completed a trade with the Houston Texans for Watson this offseason, have their first full practice involving veteran players scheduled for July 27.

See here for some background, which covers the reasons for why the NFL is asking for such a long suspension, and why the NFLPA disagrees so completely. I’m as pro-labor as you’ll find in these matters, but I’m fine with Watson being made to sit for a year or more – let’s not forget, he’ll mostly be paid for all that time thanks to the terms of the contract he signed with Cleveland – if only because of the magnitude of the offenses. If there’s some mitigating factor that we the public don’t currently know, then fine. Maybe the terms of the 20 settled lawsuits are available to Judge Robinson. Maybe the NFLPA’s argument that the NFL has let owners like Daniel Snyder totally skate on egregious sexual misconduct charges, as Defector’s Ray Ratto notes, will carry some weight. Whatever the case, we’ll know exactly what the NFL is asking for tomorrow, and we’ll have the judge’s answer in a couple of weeks. ESPN and Sean Pendergast, who notes that Watson appears to have been trying to negotiate a settlement with the NFL over his forthcoming sentence, have more.

“Significant” suspension expected for Deshaun Watson

I should think so.

The NFL will argue that Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should receive a “significant” suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, multiple people familiar with the case said Friday.

The league “probably” will seek a suspension of one full season for Watson, a person on Watson’s side of the case said Friday. A person familiar with the league’s view of the case cautioned to be “careful” about specifying a precise length at this point for the suspension the NFL will seek. But that person also said: “Significant would be the proper term.”

[…]

Under a process that was revised in the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA completed in 2020, the initial ruling on a prospective suspension or fine will be made by Robinson, now an attorney in Wilmington, Del., after retiring from the bench in 2017.

The case would be finished, with no appeals possible, if Robinson rules that there was no violation of the personal conduct policy. If she rules that there was a violation of the policy and imposes a penalty, either side could appeal to Goodell. The NFLPA pushed for revisions to the personal conduct policy in the CBA after clashes, some of which spilled into courtrooms after litigation filed by the union and players, in previous disciplinary cases. Previously, Goodell was responsible for making both the initial disciplinary ruling and resolving appeals.

It’s not clear whether Robinson will hold what amounts to a quasi-trial before making her decision. She declined to comment this week, referring questions to the league and union.

The NFL’s investigation has been conducted by Lisa Friel, the former chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who is the league’s special counsel for investigations.

Friel interviewed at least 11 of the women accusing Watson who are represented by attorney Tony Buzbee, according to a person familiar with the investigation, along with other women. She reviewed relevant available documents. The NFL’s representatives interviewed Watson over several days in Houston.

[…]

The league has made a presentation on the case to the NFLPA and Watson’s representatives, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. That led those on Watson’s side of the case to conclude that the NFL will seek a substantial penalty.

It’s not clear whether Major League Baseball’s two-season suspension of pitcher Trevor Bauer under its domestic violence policy will serve as a precedent for the NFL’s proposed suspension of Watson, another person familiar with the league’s view said in recent weeks. But the NFL is aware that the length of the Bauer suspension could affect the public’s expectations and reaction in the Watson case, that person said.

Outside NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler has become involved in the case. A person familiar with the NFL’s view said the league is wary that Kessler will argue for no disciplinary action at all.

Kessler declined to comment Friday, referring questions to the NFLPA. The NFLPA could cite the lack of criminal charges, although the NFL’s policy allows discipline to be imposed without such charges.

The NFLPA’s defense of Watson will raise the issue that owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys were not suspended by the league for incidents involving them and their teams. That was confirmed by a person with knowledge of the case after first being reported by Pro Football Talk.

I think one year is the minimum. The charges against Watson are considerably greater than those against Bauer, and as such I wouldn’t mind seeing him get two years as his punishment. Maybe Robinson or Friel found Watson’s accusers to be not fully credible, or maybe the NFLPA’s argument about the lack of punishment for these miscreant owners will hold some sway, I don’t know. I just don’t have any sympathy for either Watson or the Browns. Whatever the case, the expectation is that there will be an answer by the start of NFL training camp, which is to say by late July.

Rice to join AAC in 2023

As expected given prior developments.

Nearly eight months after accepting an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference, Rice on Wednesday announced it has finalized an agreement to officially enter the league in 2023.

Rice — along with UTSA, North Texas, UAB, Florida Atlantic and Charlotte — will jump from Conference USA to the AAC on July 1, 2023.

Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard said the announcement “brings Rice athletics a step closer to its very bright future.”

Left out of the Big 12 following the breakup of the Southwest Conference in the mid-1990s, Rice spent eight years in the Western Athletic Conference and eventually joined C-USA in 2005.

The AAC’s agreements with the six new schools — which were spread out over the last five days — ends the latest round of conference realignment that began last summer with Texas and Oklahoma accepting invitations to join the Southeastern Conference. That set off a wave of moves, with the Big 12 adding the University of Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida from the AAC and independent BYU, and the AAC quickly adding six C-USA schools to form a 14-team football league.

On Friday, the AAC said it reached agreements on $18 million exit fees with its three departing schools — who will join the Big 12 on the same date — to pave the way for Rice to finally set a concrete date to join its new league.

As part of the departure, Rice will forfeit two years of revenue distribution, an amount estimated at $3 million, according to an industry source familiar with the payouts.

The move to the AAC outweighs any short-term loss of revenue, with Rice expected to benefit from an increase in visibility (the AAC has a multimedia rights deal with ESPN) and boost financially. Football-playing schools in the AAC received anywhere from $5.33 million to $9.44 million in revenue distribution, according to tax documents for the 2020-21 fiscal year. C-USA schools receive $500,000.

The AAC’s press release is here. By “prior developments” I mean UH and other officially joining the Big XII in 2023. It just made sense for the AAC to fill out its roster with its new players at the same time. The question still remains about when UT and OU will leave the Big XII for the SEC, but they’re on their own timetable. It’s not a big deal for the most part if those two overlap with the new Big XII members for a season. I hope this conference is more durable and sustainable than previous ones were (I will admit for a fondness for the old and too-short-lived WAC 16, which honestly would have been an awesome conference if certain members hadn’t broken off to form the Mountain West) and that Rice does its part to improve its teams and facilities. It’s been a rough few years for Owl fans. I hope this is the start of something better.

Houston wins its bid to be a 2026 World Cup host

Excellent.

The World Cup is coming to Houston.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, chose Houston as one of 16 sites for the 2026 Men’s World Cup, the first edition of the tournament to be co-hosted by three nations: the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Sixty games will be played in the U.S., including all from the quarterfinals on. Canada and Mexico are to host 10 games each.

Houston did not stage matches the last time the U.S. held the World Cup in 1994 — Dallas was the closest venue — but the Bayou City is now getting its shot.

[…]

World Cup games in Houston — likely five or six — will be played in 72,000-capacity NRG Stadium. Chris Canetti, the local bid committee CEO, said he is hopeful Houston hosts some knockout round matches as well as group stage matches. NRG Stadium is not a candidate for the semifinals or finals because FIFA requires a minimum of 80,000 seats for those games. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and AT&T Stadium in Arlington are believed to be the top contenders to stage the final.

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which hosted the 1994 World Cup final, was left out, as was a combined bid representing Baltimore and Washington, D.C., meaning the United States capital will not play a role in its biggest sporting event in 2026.

FIFA will also select two training sites out of five proposed venues: PNC Stadium, Houston Sports Park, AVEVA Stadium, Rice University and University of Houston.

This will be the first 48-nation World Cup, up from the 32-team format used since 1998. In a tournament likely to run from June 11 to July 12, but possibly start and end a week later, there will be 16 groups of three nations. Each team will play two first-round games instead of three, meaning one nation in each group opens against an opponent who will have already played. The top two in each group advance to a 32-nation knockout bracket.

Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, said some of the last decisions on host cities were not made until Thursday. The decisions, he said, were made “to ensure fans did not have to travel too far, to ensure everyone has a fantastic experience.”

To reduce travel, FIFA plans to group participating teams by region. Houston is in the Central along with Kansas City, Dallas, Atlanta, Monterrey, Mexico, and Mexico City.

The East region is Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and New York/New Jersey. The West: Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles (SoFi Stadium) and Guadalajara, Mexico.

“This is the biggest, most popular, most prestigious, the most important sporting event in the world,” Canetti said. “Bigger than the Super Bowl, bigger than the Final Four, bigger than the Olympics and for our city to be able to land this event is spectacular. It’s going to be something unlike anything we’ve ever seen here before and it’s going to bring great value and great benefits to our city.”

As noted before, this has been a years-long process, and it’s great to be among the chosen locations at the end of it. You can see a map of the host cities in the story. Congrats to everyone involved. Just let me know when tickets will be on sale. CultureMap has more.

We will learn Houston’s fate as a World Cup site this week

It’s been a long road.

On June 16, FIFA will announce its host cities for the 2026 Men’s World Cup set to be held within the U.S., Canada and Mexico. If Houston is one of the 16 locations chosen for the 48-team tournament, the city’s robust international soccer culture will serve as a prominent backdrop.

The Houston metro area is more racially and ethnically diverse than the United States as a whole, and is notably home to the nation’s fourth-largest Hispanic and Latinx population. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Harris County’s Hispanic population grew by 363,000 from 2010 to 2020, the largest increase of any county in the United States.

Houston’s global culture is reflected in its two professional soccer teams. The Dynamo’s roster includes players from 13 different countries, including eight in Latin America. Seven countries are represented on the Dash, including Mexico and Argentina.

[…]

As part of the pitch from the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee, in which Dynamo FC majority owner Ted Segal has taken an active role, the Dynamo offered up PNC Stadium and its Houston Sports Park practice ground as locations for training or other events around the World Cup.

That would give the Dynamo some operational responsibility for the tournament. But more importantly, [Dynamo President of Business Operations John] Walker said, “I think it’s about the buzz that it’s going to create in the city for the next four years around soccer.”

“The programming that will go on that leads up to it will be so soccer-focused and we think that’s a benefit to us,” he continued. “Because the more discussion about soccer that is going on in the city, the more relevant it becomes as a sport and hopefully our teams become relevant as well.”

NRG Stadium would serve as the primary venue for World Cup games in Houston. The arena, with a capacity of 72,000, has hosted soccer friendlies featuring powerhouse European clubs FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Manchester United.

The city made its initial pitch in 2017, and survived the first round of cuts the following year. All that was happening while the joint US/Mexico/Canada bid was still competing to be the host countries for the 2026 FIFA World Cup; they were officially named as hosts later in 2018. We got annual updates with not much in the way of actual news after that, and the most recent dispatch was last October. I sure hope we make it after all that. I plan to buy some tickets if we do.

UH will officially join the Big XII in 2023

No use waiting around.

The University of Houston will start play in the Big 12 in 2023 after the school came to an agreement on exit fees with the American Athletic Conference.

The Cougars will pay the AAC $18 million spread over 14 years to leave early and join the Power 5. The school will pay the first $10 million by 2024 with the rest to come in the following 12 years.

The Cougars, Cincinnati and Central Florida, are leaving the AAC and joining the Big 12 along with BYU, which as an indepentend already had announced plans to join in 2023.

The conference shift came after Texas and Oklahoma announced last summer they would leave the Big 12 and move to the SEC. Texas and Oklahoma still say they won’t move until 2025, so the Big 12 could have 14 teams for two seasons unless the schools negotiate an early departure.

The exit of the three schools from the AAC will also impact when Rice will leave Conference-USA to join the AAC along with UTSA, North Texas, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic and UAB.

UTSA announced its intent to join the AAC in 2023, while Rice said it hoped to release more information soon.

See here for some background. We noted this possibility in April. As for the exit fees, UH will be able to afford it.

While the Big XII may temporarily swell to 14 members in 2023 – which will make its name no less accurate than it is now, with ten members – I think there’s a strong chance that UT and OU will make their way to the SEC at the same time. UT is already scheduling games with Texas A&M, so really it’s all just paperwork and contract details at this point. By the same token, I’d expect Rice and its fellow C-USA refugees to be fully in the AAC in 2023. It was always the most likely scenario – every other conference reshuffling happened ahead of the originally announced timelines, because once that cat is out of the bag the incentives are very much in favor of moving things along. I’d expect the rest of those dominoes to fall in the coming weeks. CultureMap has more.

The NYT takes a closer look at the Deshaun Watson situation

It’s even worse than it looks.

It is time, Watson and his representatives say, for everyone to move on.

Yet a New York Times examination of records, including depositions and evidence for civil lawsuits as well as interviews of some of the women, showed that Watson engaged in more questionable behavior than previously known.

The Times’ review also showed that Watson’s conduct was enabled — knowingly or not — by the team he played for at the time, the Houston Texans, which provided the venue Watson used for some of the appointments. A team representative also furnished him with a nondisclosure agreement after a woman who is now suing him threatened online to expose his behavior.

Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lawyer, said his client “continues to vehemently deny” the allegations in the lawsuits. He declined to respond in detail to the Times’ questions, but said in a statement, “We can say when the real facts are known this issue will appear in a different light.”

The Texans did not respond to specific questions about Watson’s use of team resources. They said in a statement that they first learned of the allegations against him in March 2021, have cooperated with investigators and “will continue to do so.”

Watson has said publicly that he hired about 40 different therapists across his five seasons in Houston, but the Times’ reporting found that he booked appointments with at least 66 different women in just the 17 months from fall 2019 through spring 2021. A few of these additional women, speaking publicly for the first time, described experiences that undercut Watson’s insistence that he was only seeking professional massage therapy.

One woman, who did not sue Watson or complain to police, told the Times that he was persistent in his requests for sexual acts during their massage, including “begging” her to put her mouth on his penis.

“I specifically had to say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy. “And that’s when I went into asking him, ‘What is it like being famous? Like, what’s going on? You’re about to mess up everything.’”

[…]

Since the first wave of suits were filed against Watson last year, the main allegations against him have become familiar. Women complained that Watson turned massages sexual without their consent, including purposely touching them with his penis and coercing sexual acts.

It’s not clear when he began looking for so many different women to give him massages. Hardin has said his client needed to book appointments “ad hoc” when the coronavirus pandemic began, though Watson began working with numerous women before then.

Not all of the women who gave Watson massages between October 2019 and March 2021 have detailed their interactions with him. Some who have shared their experiences say they had no problems with him. Others describe troubling — and similar — behaviors.

The 66 women are:

— The 24 who have sued him, including two who filed suits within the last week. In the most recent suit, the woman said Watson masturbated during the massage.

— A woman who sued but then withdrew the complaint because of “privacy and security concerns.”

— Two women who filed criminal complaints against Watson but did not sue him.

— At least 15 therapists who issued statements of support for Watson at the request of his lawyers and gave him massages during that period.

— At least four therapists from Genuine Touch, the massage therapy group contracted with the Texans.

— Five women identified by the plaintiffs’ lawyers during the investigation for their civil suits.

— At least 15 other women whose appointments with Watson were confirmed through interviews and records reviewed by the Times.

A deeper look at the lawsuits, including a review of private messages entered as evidence, shows the lengthy efforts by Watson to book massages and the methods he used to assure women that he could be trusted.

It’s a long story and worth your time to read. Here’s a brief Twitter thread from the story’s author, if you need more of a preview. Remember that the NFL still has not said what its investigation has revealed or what its discipline for Watson will be, and please note as Sean Pendergast pointed out, there could still be more criminal charges against Watson, as the most recent accusers were not part of the original grand jury hearings. Every day this story gets worse, and we’re not finished with it yet. Defector has more.

Get ready to start raking in the cash, UH

Money, money, money.

As the athletic director at Texas, Chris Del Conte is the CEO of one of the richest college athletic departments in the nation. He also knows what it’s like to have to make every penny count.

At TCU, Del Conte oversaw the school’s transition from the Mountain West to the Big 12 in 2012. As a member of the Mountain West, part of the so-called Group of Five, TCU never received more than $2 million in annual payout. So, when the Horned Frogs joined the Power Five, a change of address to the high-rent district of college athletes, you can imagine the shock of a few extra zeroes in the bank statement.

And that was before TCU became a fully vested member in its fourth year in the Big 12.

“Not right away, but there was for sure,” Del Conte said of the impact of an increased revenue flow for the Fort Worth private school. “The economics changed completely. There’s a big jump.”

A similar increase in revenue awaits the University of Houston, which along with BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida, could join the Big 12 as early as 2023.

Upon entry, UH won’t see anywhere close to the $42.6 million the Big 12 announced Friday on the final day of its spring meetings, but the not-yet-announced revenue distribution for the incoming schools will be a considerably more than the current setup in the American Athletic Conference.

UH received $8.52 million as part of its annual revenue payout from the AAC, according to tax documents for the 2020-21 fiscal year. That was the second-highest total among AAC schools behind Cincinnati ($9.44 million), according to the Orlando Sentinel. UH’s revenue payout was nearly double the $4.43 million in 2021 and $4.354 million in 2020.

Once UH joins the Big 12, it can expect a similar framework for revenue payouts as TCU and West Virginia, the last two teams to join the league in 2012. The two schools received staggered shares for three years, receiving 50 percent in Year 1, 67 percent in Year 2 and 84 percent in Year 3 before becoming fully vested in the fourth year.

[…]

What could the revenue payout look like for UH? Based on this year’s Big 12 payout of $42.6 million — much of that coming from TV revenue — and again the following two years, which would represent UH’s first in the league. That would translate into at least $20 million in Year 1 and at least $26 million in Year 2. After that is unknown as the Big 12’s TV deal with ESPN and Fox is set to expire in 2025, which coincides with Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the Southeastern Conference.

Last summer, Bowlsby told Texas lawmakers that the remaining eight schools could lose 50 percent, or about $14 million per year, in TV revenue upon Texas and Oklahoma’s departure.

So that’s more than double the revenue early on, with the possibility of a significant drop that would put them close to where they are now. That’s a lot hinging on that next TV contract. I suspect the Big XII will be fine – we’re unlikely to run low on demand for college football and basketball on the tube – but it does suggest a bit of caution before going all in on whatever expensive new toys are out there. Good luck figuring it out, y’all.

What is going on with the Houston Dash?

Nothing good.

The Dash have suspended coach and general manager James Clarkson, who is being investigated by the NWSL and its players association.

The suspension came “in light of initial findings received this week,” the Dash said.

The team opens its regular season Sunday and will name an interim coach during the investigation.

“As an organization, our highest priority is creating and maintaining a safe and respectful work environment for our players and staff, which we believe is critical to our success on the pitch,” the team said in its statement. “The Club has made counseling services available to all members of the organization interested.”

The investigation is part of a recent initiative by the women’s soccer league to review current and historic complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.

Last year, several NWSL managers were fired for verbal abuse, including former OL Reign manager Farid Benstiti and former Washington Spirit manager Richie Burke. Former North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley was fired for allegedly engaging in the sexual coercion of players during his time as manager of the Portland Thorns.

When it was revealed that the various NWSL stakeholders were aware of the circumstances under which Riley was fired by the Thorns in 2015, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.

The league and the union agreed that league personnel would voluntarily take part in the union’s investigation of sexual misconduct, and that there be total transparency by the league in terms of other ongoing investigations.

Clarkson has been head coach since 2018, and with the team since it was founded, along with the NWSL, in 2014. The new NWSL Commissioner says this is a good sign that the new process is working.

New National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jessica Berman said Wednesday that while it’s disappointing another league coach has been accused of misconduct, programs that were implemented in the wake of last season’s league scandals have helped make sure players’ concerns are addressed.

[…]

“This is the manifestation of the process that the league and the players’ association put in place which provided a pathway for individuals to bring forward issues and for those issues to be investigated and managed appropriately,” Berman said. “And so while we never like to have situations like this happen, the fact that the process worked the way it was intended to, and that all of the appropriate parties worked together on the interim solution and the next steps was really important and constructive overall for the progress that the league is making on this issue.”

Berman, who began her job April 20, said she could not address the specifics of the investigation because it is ongoing.

Clarkson is the longest-tenured coach in the NWSL. He was the only head coach still with his team who was coach at the start of last NWSL season. All the others have either voluntarily left the league for new opportunities, gone to other teams within the league, resigned or were dismissed because of alleged misconduct.

I guess you could call it a good sign, but it sure is a bad look overall. Though to be fair, it’s not just the NWSL.

The University of Florida announced it fired women’s soccer coach Tony Amato after just one season with the program. The move comes after players complained about how Amato treated them and a large number chose to transfer from the program.

“We have worked diligently with Tony since last fall when I first became aware of challenges with relationship building and communication,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a statement. “As the issues continued to be brought to my attention, it became apparent that sufficient progress was not being made and Tony was not a fit for the University of Florida.”

Florida hired Amato away from Arizona last year, after the coach spent eight years with the Wildcats. In total, Amato has been a head coach in each of the last 19 seasons for four different schools.

The Gators went 4-12-4 in their first year under Amato. However, according to Payton Titus of WUFT, players had complained that Amato “pressured them about eating habits and their bodies” last year. Amato was reportedly strict over what the players ate, to the point that some players said they had developed eating disorders as a result.

There’s a range of behaviors here, and we don’t know what James Clarkson is alleged to have done. There may not be anything in common between his actions and those of Tony Amato, but I think we can agree that Amato’s behavior falls into the bucket of things that can be called abusive, and that’s the larger issue with the NWSL. As I said, it’s a bad look, wherever it’s happening. I hope that league really has taken a substantive step towards fixing it.

No collegiate gymnastics in Texas

I did not know this.

Ragan Smith did not lack options when it came to choosing a college, as tends to happen when you’re an elite gymnast with a national title on your resume.

One option was unavailable to Smith. It doesn’t exist.

Texas, the site of this week’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, the state that’s produced Olympic champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and Simone Biles, the state that has over 20 colleges and universities currently classified as Division I, the state that features some of the most prominent gymnastics programs in the country if not the world, has exactly six women’s gymnastics scholarships available, all of them at Division II Texas Woman’s University.

That meant that Smith, who moved from Georgia to the Dallas suburbs as a 13-year-old to train at the gym owned by former world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal, had to leave Texas to compete at the Division I level.

“All these great clubs are in Texas, and you would think (the big schools) would have a program,” Smith said. “But they really don’t.”

Things worked out just fine for Smith, now a junior at Oklahoma. She and the Sooners will aim for their fourth national title in eight years on Saturday when they take on Florida, Auburn and Utah at Dickie’s Arena, the opulent facility located less than three miles from the TCU campus.

The Horned Frogs offer 13 varsity women’s sports, including equestrian, rifle and triathlon. Just not gymnastics.

It’s the same at Texas (which offers rowing, among others), Baylor (which has acrobatics and tumbling, a cousin of artistic gymnastics), Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston and Rice and all the rest. Contacted this week by The Associated Press, representatives at Texas and Texas A&M both indicated there are no plans to offer women’s gymnastics as a varsity sport.

[…]

There are 12 full scholarships available at Division I women’s gymnastics programs, with a move being made to potentially expand the number to 14. Throw in training, travel, coaching salaries and everything else, and it’s not cheap to launch a competitive team. Add in the ripple effects of Title IX — which requires “ athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally and effectively accommodated ” — and the math can be tricky.

Still, there is hope in some places that women’s gymnastics can be “revenue neutral.” It’s a model LSU coach Jay Clark hopes his program can reach by the end of the decade, though the Tigers may be the exception. LSU is typically among the national leaders in average attendance and drew an average of 11,691 fans to their five home meets this season, tops in the country.

While adding scholarships could be a hurdle for potential programs to navigate, Clark sees it as a supply and demand issue.

“We haven’t had an increase since 1995 and the pool of talent has grown four-fold,” he said.

He’s not joking. Within the last decade the number of active Level 10 gymnasts — which comprises the vast majority of college athletes — has nearly doubled from 1,600 to nearly 3,100.

As you can see, OU’s gymnastics team went on to win that national championship, so indeed all worked out well for Ragan Smith. I confess, I had just assumed that schools like UT and A&M would have had women’s gymnastics programs, because why wouldn’t they? Sure, a gymnastics program might cost a few bucks, but have you seen what schools like these pay their football and (mostly men’s but increasingly now women’s) basketball coaches? If there’s one thing I expect these big schools at the Power Five conferences to be able to do, it’s extract enough money from TV networks, advertisers, and fat-cat boosters to cover whatever expenses they have and then some. Obviously, there hasn’t been the demand for that largesse to include these programs as yet. Given how popular gymnastics is overall, and how many alumni must have had daughters that competed in gymnastics as kids, I’m a little amazed by that.

Big XII may get temporarily bigger

The dominoes fall when they fall.

Next week, the Big 12 plans to discuss the future of the conference regarding its expansion, per Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger.

Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are expected to join the Big 12 in the 2023–24 academic year, potentially joining the conference before Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC by the ’25 academic year.

Per The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, the American Athletic Conference still has to sign off on the three schools exit. The process so far has been amicable.

“No agreement has been reached to permit the three (UCF, Houston, Cincinnati) to leave early,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told Auerbach. “Our negotiations are continuing.”

Though their joining was already expected, the negotiations are expected to be finalized in the next week, according to Dellenger. BYU will also be joining the Big 12 in all sports, not just football.

There is a possibility that there will be 14 teams in the Big 12 during the 2023 and ’24 seasons. Conference officials will be meeting next week to discuss how a larger team pool could work, examining all possibilities including divisions and whether there should be eight or nine league games.

See here and here for some background. An early exit from the AAC by UH, UCF, and Cincinnati might hasten the arrival of its new members as well. Thing might be slightly less complicated if UT and OU are able to officially join the SEC in time for the 2023 season – which I have always thought would happen – but that’s a different domino. I feel like now that this one is in motion, the rest may follow, but we’ll see.

Houston Comets 2.0?

I’d be happy to see the WNBA come back to Houston.

From 1997 to 2000, legendary players Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson, and Sheryl Swoops led the Houston Comets to the first four national WNBA titles. The team was a dynasty: To this day, it’s the only franchise to win four consecutive championships.

But when the league tips off on May 6 this year, it will mark more than a decade since Houstonians have rooted for a hometown team.

The Comets dissolved in 2008 due to financial problems. Since then, many fans have wondered when conditions might be right for the WNBA to expand again, and what it would take to bring a team back to the Bayou City.

As the league reaches an all-time high in popularity, fans and experts say now is the time.

“If you love women’s basketball, and you love the history of women’s basketball, like I do, like so many others do,” said Howard Megdal, founder and editor at The Next: A Women’s Basketball Newsroom, “it almost feels like a crime that there isn’t a WNBA team in Houston.”

The Comets folded during a decade of WNBA contraction – the league went from 16 teams in 2000 down to the current 12.

But it’s a much different story today: The league, affectionately known as the W among fans, saw decade-high viewership last season, and reported record social media engagement and merchandise sales. Ahead of the 26th season in May, the W raised the most capital in its history at $75 million dollars.

“The idea that there would be a significant expansion in the WNBA within two to four years,” said Megdal, “that seems like a perfectly reasonable time frame, as far as I can tell.”

The league has not publicly committed to expansion, but Megdal said its sounded more open to the idea since the capital raise. He’s watching to see what cities emerge as viable markets at a time when investment in women’s sports is going up exponentially.

But if the city does hope to see a WNBA team, Megdal said it needs stable ownership willing to make an investment – including a place to play.

That latter point is critical. Last season during the playoffs, the Phoenix Mercury were not able to play on the team’s home court due to a scheduling conflict with its shared arena, a move widely criticized among fans. The only W team currently in Texas shares its stadium: the Dallas Wings play on the University of Texas at Arlington campus.

In Houston, fans say they want a place to house the legacy of the Comets, plus a hometown team to root for.

We were season ticket holders for the Comets for eight years, starting in the venue formerly known as The Summit, then to Toyota Center, and then the last year at the godawful Reliant Arena, which was easily the worst place I’ve ever had to watch sporting events in. By that time, the Rockets had sold their interest in the Comets to a local furniture store owner (no, not Mattress Mack), and it was clear the team had little cash flow. I doubt that would be an issue now, and I’d expect a new WNBA franchise would be able to play at Toyota Center. The Comets always had a passionate fan base at its core, though the total audience shrank over time as the team got farther away from its glory days. I think a new team would start out with no trouble drawing fans, and from there it would be up to them. I’d be happy to see the league come back to Houston. I don’t know when it might happen, or even if, but I do hope it’s out there.

Texans added to Brian Flores’ discrimination suit against the NFL

Of note.

Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores amended his class action racial discrimination lawsuit Thursday to include allegations that the Texans retaliated against him by removing him from consideration for their head coach vacancy because he sued the NFL and spoke publicly about systemic discrimination in the league.

The lawsuit claims Houston’s “blatant” retaliation “is clear” because the franchise backed away from potentially hiring former quarterback Josh McCown, a white candidate with no NFL coaching experience, after Flores initially sued the league Feb. 1 and instead hired a Black candidate by promoting defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.

The swift pivot by decision-makers, the lawsuit said, made clear the Texans were concerned that hiring McCown would support the allegations of racial discrimination, “particularly given” the franchise had just fired David Culley, who is Black, after one season as head coach. The lawsuit also suggests the Texans made “this retaliatory decision” on its own or that the NFL “pressured” them not to hire Flores after he filed the lawsuit. The league declined to comment on that claim through spokesman Brian McCarthy.

[…]

The Texans hired Smith on Feb. 7, and he later said he didn’t know when he officially became a finalist. Caserio did not specify when Smith became a possibility, saying there was “no direct line” in his head coaching search and noting that Smith was under contract and visited with the McNair family after the season was over.

Flores’ attorneys said in statement that day that while Flores was “happy to hear” the Texans hired a Black candidate in Smith, “it is obvious that the only reason Mr. Flores was not selected was his decision to stand up against racial inequality across the NFL.”

The amended lawsuit repeated that Smith’s hiring “is a positive thing,” but added “it is equally problematic that the reason that the Texans did not hire Mr. Flores in the first place was because he filed this lawsuit and opposed systemic racism in the NFL.”

Caserio said during Smith’s introductory news conference that Flores’ lawsuit “didn’t affect us at all” and dismissed the notion the Texans were planning to hire McCown by saying “there were never plans to hire anybody until we kind of arrived at an endpoint.”

I didn’t blog about this as it was happening, and I skipped over a lot of the timeline details in the story, so read the whole thing if this is not familiar to you. As someone who followed this story, it was always bizarre that the Texans were fixated on Josh McCown, who had not done any coaching at any level. Flores had seemed like a good fit for the team, and then he filed his lawsuit and the next thing you knew the Texans’s short list was Lovie Smith. I will generally attribute incompetence and organizational chaos to the Texans ahead of malice in most things, but this is just so weird that it makes sense for Flores to add the Texans to his complaint. If nothing else, the possibility that the NFL might have intervened, to “persuade” the Texans not to hire a totally inexperienced white guy after firing one of the two Black head coaches in the league so as not to make the NFL look even worse at a critical time, is too great to overlook. We’ll see what comes of it.

“Due diligence”

I’m just gonna leave this right here.

The Browns said they did due diligence before agreeing to give Deshaun Watson a $230 million contract and complete a trade with the Texans.

Watson is facing 22 civil suits for sexual harassment or assault but a Harris County grand jury recently declined to indict the quarterback on nine cases. The NFL said its investigation is ongoing.

“We spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity to trade for Deshaun Watson,“ Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a team news release on Sunday. “We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision. Our team’s comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved.

“We also understand there are still some legal proceedings that are ongoing and we will respect due process.”

Last week, the Haslams flew to Houston with general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski and met with Watson.

“He was humble, sincere and candid,” the Haslams said. “In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field. … We are confident in Deshaun and excited about moving forward with him as our quarterback and supporting his genuine and determined efforts.”

The civil litigation involving Watson remains ongoing. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, said Tuesday “there’s no discussion” about settling any of the cases. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed lawsuits, has been deposing Watson in four-to-six hour blocks and said it could be well beyond April before the cases are potentially brought before a jury in civil court.

The Browns have not reached out to Buzbee or his clients, the attorney said Friday.

Emphasis mine. Yeah, I don’t think that’s how “due diligence” works. But thanks for taking full responsibility for whatever happens next. The Hang Up and Listen podcast (segment three, fast forward to about the 48 minute mark if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing), which notes that no other team did any more “due diligence” than Cleveland did, has more.

Deshaun Watson traded to Cleveland

He’s someone else’s problem now.

The Texans have traded Deshaun Watson to the Browns. The quarterback waived his no-trade clause for Cleveland after initially eliminating the franchise, a person with knowledge of the negotiation said, but Watson reversed his decision Friday after the Browns offered a five-year contract worth $230 million.

The new contract, which is fully guaranteed, preceded the terms of the trade. The Texans will receive Cleveland’s first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the Browns’ 2023 third-round pick and 2024 fourth-round pick.

Once finalized, the trade will end one of the longest and messiest divorces in Houston sports history. The 14 month-long saga began with the former franchise quarterback’s trade demand and ended after a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Watson following a criminal investigation that was triggered by 22 women who filed civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage therapy sessions.

The blockbuster trade did not yield the second-round picks that were part of the returns second-year general manager Nick Caserio solidly requested for almost a year, but it remains enough capital to reinforce the new regime’s efforts to sculpt the franchise in their own image.

The rebuilding franchise also cleared Watson’s previous four-year, $156 million contract extension off the books, which immediately boosts Houston’s roster budget as the free agency period begins. Caserio has made frugal signings so far by re-signing 15 players and acquiring nine other veteran players, but the executive now has the financial freedom to become more aggressive.

Meanwhile, the civil litigation involving Watson remains ongoing. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, said Tuesday “there’s no discussion” about settling any of the cases. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed lawsuits, has been deposing Watson in four-to-six hour blocks and said it could be well beyond April before the cases are potentially brought before a jury in civil court.

The NFL has yet to render a decision from its own investigation into Watson. The league could potentially suspend for an unknown number of future games, although it’s possible a punishment won’t be handed down until the civil litigation ends.

Not really much to say here. Once there were no charges filed against Watson, everything fell into place for him to be traded, as teams were willing to live with whatever civil action (and likely league suspension) would happen, just not criminal penalties. Watson himself basically dictated the terms thanks to his no trade clause. And now he’s gone, and whatever one might have once felt about him and his abilities on the field, that’s gone as well. I’ll keep an eye on those civil cases because they do matter even if they no longer truly affect his football career, but I’m happy to not think about Deshaun Watson otherwise. Good riddance. Rivers McCown and Sean Pendergast have more.

The COVID College Football Playoffs

Wow.

If a team is unavailable to play in College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve because of COVID-19 issues, the game will be forfeited and the available team will advance to the championship.

With COVID-19 cases spiking across the country due to the omicron variant, the CFP announced Wednesday contingency plans for the semifinals and national championship game, which is scheduled for Jan. 10 in Indianapolis but could be delayed as much as four days.

No. 1 Alabama is scheduled to face No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl in one Dec. 31 semifinal and No. 2 Michigan is set to play No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl in the nightcap of the CFP doubleheader.

[…]

As college basketball faced a wave of cancellations and postponements due to the omicron surge over the last week, it seemed only a matter of time before it impacted bowl season.

“As we prepare for the Playoff, it’s wise and necessary to put into place additional precautions to protect those who will play and coach the games,” College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said in a statement. “These policies will better protect our students and staffs while providing clarity in the event worst-case scenarios result.”

The contingency plans were agreed to by the CFP management committee, comprised of the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director.

The CFP said each school will be responsible for determining whether it has a sufficient number of available players.

While there will be no rescheduling of either semifinal, the championship game could be delayed until as late as Jan. 14.

If a team cannot play in the title game, the available team will be declared national champion. If neither team has enough available players by Jan. 14, the championship will be considered vacated.

For the semifinals, if both teams scheduled to play each other are unavailable, that game shall be declared a no contest and the winner of the the other semifinal will be declared national champion.

If three semifinal teams are unavailable to play on Dec. 31, the team that is able to play will be declared national champion.

On the one hand, that’s the sober and safe and responsible thing to do. Much better to cancel the game than to put the athletes at risk, which includes a greater risk of injury if their team is especially short-handed. On the other hand, it’s completely bonkers, and I have a hard time imagining that the people with zillions of dollars at stake – the TV networks, the NCAA itself, the schools and conferences involved – will just let any of these games be canceled, whatever the consequences for playing them may be. As the story notes, the teams are working to get their players boosted, and are trying to keep them sufficiently isolated from outside contact, but all it takes is one guy getting sick to put it all at risk. ESPN and CBS Sports have more.

And just a reminder that this is a thing that could happen.

Texas A&M became the first college football team to be sidelined by COVID-19 and the recent omicron surge.

The Aggies will not play in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve because of an outbreak that left the team without enough players, the school announced on Wednesday.

Texas A&M’s decision to withdraw from the game against Wake Forest comes amid a coronavirus surge across the nation and is the first impact on the college bowl season.

“It is unfortunate, but we just don’t have enough scholarship players available to field a team,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.

I applaud Texas A&M for making the right choice, which I’m sure was not easy for them to make. But let’s not kid ourselves, the stakes are lower here than they would be in the CFP. Remember the “oh, shit” moment we all had when the NBA paused its season following Rudy Gobert’s positive test, and the NCAA tournament was canceled, and MLB spring training got postponed? That’s what we’re on the edge of here. Hope for the best, for everyone involved.

COVID puts NHL on pause

A bit of an ominous throwback.

The NHL is beginning a leaguewide shutdown Wednesday amid a rise in positive COVID-19 test results among players, and with 10 of the league’s 32 teams’ schedules already paused and their facilities closed.

The league announced Monday night that it will open its annual holiday break two days earlier than scheduled and have it run through Saturday. The decision, reached in coordination with the NHL Players’ Association, means five additional games scheduled for Thursday will be postponed, bringing the total this season to 49.

Two games slated for Tuesday are still set to go on as scheduled. Teams will then report back for COVID-19 testing and practice on Sunday, a day before games are set to resume. Players and members of each team’s traveling party will be required to test negative before being allowed back in their respective facilities.

The decision to begin the break early comes a day after the NHL and NHLPA issued a joint statement announcing they were attempting to avoid a leaguewide shutdown by making decisions on a team-by-team basis. The holiday break was previously supposed to run from Friday to Sunday.

Of the 49 games postponed, 44 have occurred over the past two weeks with the delta and omicron variants spreading across North America.

The story notes that about 15% of players are in virus protocol, which is a lot! Of course, when one player gets exposed, it’s easy for many others to be exposed as well. It’s big enough that NHL players will withdraw from the Olympics, which is a smart move for the league and bad news for anyone looking forward to Olympic hockey.

Meanwhile, the NBA is hoping to avoid a similar fate.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday that there are “no plans” to pause the season, even as numbers of players entering the league’s health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus continues to rise.

Silver, in an interview with ESPN, said the league has examined multiple options but does not yet see a reason to stop play. Through early Tuesday evening, at least 84 players from 20 teams — not including some coaches and staffers — were believed to be in the protocols, though those numbers tend to change almost on an hourly basis. The count is largely based on what teams have disclosed on their most recent injury report.

“Frankly, we’re having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now,” Silver said. “As we look through these cases literally ripping through the country right now, putting aside the rest of the world, I think we’re finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to for the past several months — and that is that this virus will not be eradicated and we’re going to have to learn to live with it. That’s what we’re experiencing in the league right now.”

[…]

The NBA has postponed seven games so far this season, but none from Wednesday onward yet. Some of the teams scheduled to play on Saturday have numerous players and coaches in the league’s health and safety protocols right now; the Nets currently have 10 players on that list, which is the highest known figure for any team.

The league is allowing teams to sign replacements to hardship contracts when a player tests positive for the virus, with hopes such moves can minimize the need for postponements.

They have been shifting some game times around and may do more of that on Saturday – if your Christmas tradition involves a daylong basketball binge, you might want to check nba.com for the latest updates before tuning in.

Even with the games going on, there’s a real effect on the teams, as new players are being shuffled in to replace those who are sidelined. The NFL had two Tuesday night games yesterday, both COVID postponements, but with the Washington team starting a quarterback who had been signed off of the Patriots’ practice squad three days before. At a macro level, they’re making it work, but on a team-by-team and game-by-game basis, there’s more than a little ridiculousness to it all.

Not yet on the menu, as the Hang Up And Listen podcast discussed: Playing before empty stadia again. All these leagues have very highly vaccinated teams and team staffs, but for sure the same is not true for the fans. I seriously doubt there’s much appetite for this step, especially after the revenue losses from last season, but big crowds are exactly what we don’t need right now. Unless local governments do something, that’s what we’re going to get. Make better decisions, y’all. ESPN has more.

UPDATE: I should have also mentioned that European soccer leagues, especially the English Premier League, are also dealing with major COVID issues right now.

Settlement in Larry Nassar abuse case

Good.

The legal wrangling between USA Gymnastics and the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, among others, is over after a $380 million settlement was reached.

The fight for substantive change within the sport’s national governing body is just beginning.

A federal bankruptcy court in Indianapolis on Monday approved the agreement between USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the more than 500 victims, ending one aspect of the fallout of the largest sexual abuse scandal in the history of the U.S. Olympic movement.

Over 90% of the victims voted in favor of the tentative settlement reached in September. That agreement called for $425 million in damages, but a modified settlement of $380 million was conditionally approved by the court. More than 300 victims were abused by Nassar, with the remaining victims abused by individuals affiliated with USA Gymnastics in some capacity.

The financial reckoning is just one part of the equation. A series of nonmonetary provisions will make the victims stakeholders at USA Gymnastics going forward. The provisions include a dedicated seat on the organization’s Safe Sport Committee, Athlete Health and Wellness Council and board of directors, as well as a thorough look at the culture and practices within USA Gymnastics that allowed abusers like Nassar to run unchecked for years.

[…]

Rachael Denhollander, who in the fall of 2016 was the first woman to come forward to detail sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, said the provisions were a pivotal part of the mediation process.

“It’s not about money, it’s about change,” Denhollander told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “It’s about an accurate assessment of what went wrong so that it is safer for the next generation.”

Denhollander has been one of the most outspoken Nassar victims from the outset of the scandal. She said it was important to move past the legal proceedings so women can move forward with their lives and get the help they need.

“The frank reality is the longer this goes on, the more difficult it is for survivors,” she said. “So many of these women, they can’t access medical care without a settlement. We had to balance that reality with the length of time it was taking. We felt it was in the best interest of everyone to accept this settlement … so that survivors would receive some semblance of justice.”

Denhollander pointed out some of the medical care required is not covered by certain types of insurance. The settlement will ease part of the financial burden.

The settlement comes nearly four years after an emotional sentencing hearing in Michigan in which hundreds of women detailed their experiences with Nassar and the toll it took on their lives.

This story has Texas connections, in part because Simone Biles is one of the plaintiffs, and in part because a lot of that abuse took place at the Karolyi Ranch. I’m glad these women will be getting the money, and I hope it helps them with whatever treatment and healing they need. I also hope those changes to the structure of USA Gymnastics brings about real change in that organization, and real accountability for it going forward. What happened here was horrible enough. Anything less than a full effort to make sure it never happens again is not enough.

Quinn Ewers

This story caught my eye.

They got played by an 18-year-old.

Depending on your sports acumen, hearing the name Quinn Ewers either makes your ears perk up or leads you to ask, “Who?”

The former Ohio State quarterback’s name is back in the news – again – after announcing that he’s leaving the school to enter the transfer portal. Just a few months ago, Ewers made national news when he skipped his senior year of high school to enroll early at Ohio State so that he could capitalize on NIL money. It’s been reported that he’s made over $1 million.

“If I enroll at Ohio State, obviously I’d be able to make money off the deals, and I feel like it’d be a big advantage of learning the playbook and getting comfortable with the campus and all my teammates,” he told Yahoo Sports in July. “But if I stay and don’t get paid, I may be able to win a state title.”

Because Texas, where Ewers is from, is a terrible place run by a litany of unintelligent Republicans, the state’s University Interscholastic League has a rule that won’t let high school athletes like him profit off NIL – even though he was the state’s biggest recruit, wanted to stay home and play, and was the No. 1-ranked player in his class.

So, since the system wanted Ewers to leave over $1 million on the table, Ewers finessed them by graduating early and enrolling at Ohio State in a glorified redshirt season that put a lot of money in his pocket, while also getting him acclimated with being a college athlete. And after only taking two snaps all season, Ewers is back on the market, and it’s expected he will wind up on a roster in Texas next season a whole lot richer than when he was when he left.

The Texas connection and the mention of a rule about NIL for high school athletes intrigued me, so into the Google rabbit hole I went. First, I found several stories about Ewers’ pending transfer, which may be to UT, A&M, Texas Tech, or who knows where else, but none filled in the blanks for me about that “rule”. I searched more specifically about the Lege and “name image likeness”, and found this Trib story.

College athletes in Texas will soon be able to receive compensation from outside businesses that want to use their name, image or likeness under a new law Gov. Greg Abbott signed Monday evening.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said he sponsored the bill to keep Texas collegiate athletic programs competitive as other states have passed similar legislation. At least 15 states have passed bills lifting the ban on allowing student athletes to be paid by outside parties since California was the first state to approve the change in 2019.

NCAA rules ban athletes from receiving any kind of compensation other than scholarships for playing college sports. This law would not change that ban on direct payment by a college or university, but would allow college athletes to receive payment elsewhere.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the Texas House and Senate, though some lawmakers expressed concern it would negatively affect college sports, which multiple lawmakers said should “be played for the love of the game.” Supporters said college athletes deserve to benefit from the industry in which they play a major role.

“The biggest winner in this needs to be all of the student athletes,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, on the Senate floor in April. “We gain entertainment. Universities gain revenue, and they need to share in that because of their hard work.”

The NCAA Board of Governors voted to allow players to be paid for their name or likeness in October 2019, but the Division I Council postponed a vote on specific rules in January as it continued discussions with the federal government over rules.

I did not blog about that at the time, though I did note the California law and its potential effect on Texas back in 2019. The bill in question is SB1385, but it’s about allowing college athletes to get paid, not preventing high school athletes from doing the same. Still, it’s the most likely vehicle for such a restriction, and in reading the text of the bill, we see the following:

No individual, corporate entity, or other organization may:
(1) enter into any arrangement with a prospective student athlete relating to the prospective student athlete’s name, image, or likeness prior to their enrollment in an institution of higher education

That right there appears to be the prohibition on high school athletes making the same kind of arrangement for themselves, and indeed a visit to the UIL webpage confirms that:

It is the opinion of UIL staff that a transaction in which a student-athlete is engaged “to promot[e] a product, plan or service related to a UIL sport or contest” using the student-athlete’s NIL in exchange for compensation received by or on behalf of the student-athlete would be in violation of Section 51.9246 of the Education Code and Section 441 of the UIL Constitution and Contest Rules.

It is the opinion of UIL staff that the student-athlete would be in violation of this section if an agreement was executed prior to the student being enrolled in an institution of higher education, even if the student, or a third-party receiving compensation on behalf of the student, does not receive compensation “until all athletic competitions are completed in the 12th grade.” Section 441(a)(2) prohibits the receipt of “valuable consideration,” which covers any inducement, including a promise of future compensation.

They are referencing the section of the Education Code that was revised in SB1385, so that’s that. I strongly suspect that the supporters of this law did not envision the Quinn Ewers scenario, but now that it’s happened I wonder if there will be a push to amend the law to close that loophole. The Texas college that gets him on their team will be happy for this (though one could argue they’d have gotten him a year sooner if the law hadn’t been in place in this form), but his high school can’t be too happy about it. I’ll be interested to see which of those 800-pound gorillas can prevail if they disagree about the unintended side effects of this law.

Anyway. Nothing earth-shattering here – as the Deadspin story notes, Ewers comes from a well-to-do family, so this was more about the principle that he should have been able to pursue this money than the need for the money – but it’s fascinating and not something that had been on my radar. And now you know, too.

USFL 2.0

It’s all 1985 up in here.

Houston will be home to another spring football league.

A Fox Sports-backed reboot of the United States Football League, which originally existed from 1983-86, was announced Monday with play starting in April 2022. The eight teams will play in one host city to be determined.

The eight-team league will include the Houston Gamblers, a franchise with the same name as the city’s original USFL franchise that played in 1984 and 1985 and featured future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. He had signed with the USFL after balking at playing for the Buffalo Bills, who selected him in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft.

The league will have two divisions. The North will be comprised of the Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers. The South will have the Gamblers, Birmingham Stallions, New Orleans Breakers and Tampa Bay Bandits. All the team nicknames were used in the original USFL.

[…]

Houston’s last spring football team was the Roughnecks of the revived XFL in 2020. The league suspended operations in April 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with the Roughnecks the only undefeated team at 5-0.

See here and here for more about the “new” league, which unlike in the 80s you can follow on Twitter. I suspect that the rebooted Gamblers, much like the late, semi-lamented Roughnecks will be better than the Texans, though that doesn’t answer the basic question for me of “why did anyone think we needed another reboot of another failed football league”. I thought I saw somewhere the Birmingham will be the city in which all the games will be played – I assume this is for logistical reasons, as that will be cheaper and easier than trying to get eight stadia for use – though it seems like a bad way to build fanbases. But this is probably more about TV revenue anyway, so whatever. If you like this kind of thing, it will probably be the kind of thing that you like. Mean Green Cougar Red has more.

There were settlement talks with Watson and his accusers

They did not succeed.

The attorney representing 22 women suing Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson says settlement talks between the two sides broke down before the NFL’s trade deadline because of language Watson’s legal team insisted they include in nondisclosure agreements.

“In what was submitted to us, there were nondisclosure agreements and many of the women pushed back on those,” attorney Tony Buzbee told Houston television station Fox 26 in an interview Tuesday evening.

Buzbee said he and his colleagues modified the language in the proposed nondisclosure agreements “substantially” but added that “there were still some women who said, ‘I’m never going to sign that.'”

He told Fox 26 that the NDAs were ultimately a “deal breaker” in efforts to settle the cases.

Buzbee’s interview is the first confirmation from either of the legal teams involved in Watson’s civil cases that the two sides had entered a period of mediation.

“Now that the heat is off I probably won’t be getting calls from the other side wanting to settle the case,” Buzbee said, a reference to the pressure involved in settling the lawsuits prior to the NFL’s Tuesday trade deadline.

[…]

Buzbee also said in his interview with Fox 26 that Watson’s team appeared willing to settle a portion of the 22 civil cases.

“First it was, ‘We need to get 22 cases settled’ and then it was, ‘Well, maybe we can get 20 cases settled,’ and, finally, there was some discussion of maybe even less than that,” Buzbee said. “But based on the terms that were submitted to us, we weren’t going to get 22 settlements. Period.”

See here and here for the background. We assumed there were settlement talks happening, the possibility of a trade was predicated on there being a settlement, and now we have confirmation. I don’t know that it would have served justice for such an agreement to be reached, especially if it came with a blanket NDA on all of the accusers, but that’s not my call. I don’t know if there’s any impetus for settlement talks to continue now – beyond what would normally be there, anyway – so we may not hear much else for awhile. Watson can’t be deposed until February at the earliest, and a trial date (if it comes to that) can’t be set until early May. So we’ll see.

A brief meditation on the Deshaun Watson situation

Let us pause for a moment and contemplate this John McClain column about the likely football fate for the Texans’ soon-to-be-former star quarterback.

Deadlines have a way of initiating action, and if the Texans are going to ship quarterback Deshaun Watson to Miami or another team, they better do it by the NFL’s trade deadline on Nov. 2 at 3 p.m.

If Watson is still on the roster after the deadline passes, the Texans will have to wait until the start of the new league year in March to reopen negotiations on a trade that probably wouldn’t happen until close to the draft that begins April 28.

[…]

Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross has approved a Watson trade, but he wants his legal issues resolved. The only way for Watson to do that before the trade deadline would be to settle the 22 civil suits. League sources say Watson doesn’t want to settle his cases because he believes it would be an admission of guilt.

Before a deal can be completed, Ross would have to find out from commissioner Roger Goodell if Watson would be suspended under the personal conduct policy, and if so, how many games he would miss.

[…]

At the league meetings on Tuesday, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, told reporters that, in the event of a trade, it would be up to Goodell to decide if Watson would be available to play for his new team right away.

“We don’t think we have the necessary information to place him on the exempt list,” Goodell said. “We don’t have all the access to that information and (we) pride ourselves on not interfering with it. That process is ongoing.”

Watson could be suspended, or he could be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Watson is being paid his $10.54 million base salary to report to the Texans each day and be inactive on game days. The exempt list is a paid vacation for the player, who can’t be part of the team and has to work out on his own.

If Goodell didn’t place Watson on the exempt list at the start of the Texans’ training camp, it’s unlikely he would do it after a trade.

Emphasis mine. The main takeaway here, for those who don’t care about the football angle, is that we may get a sudden and almost certainly confidential resolution to this whole sordid mess. There are some criminal complaints and an FBI investigation as well, but the former at least could be dropped as part of a settlement agreement. There will be some loud protest in Miami or Charlotte or wherever Watson gets traded, if that does happen, and it will fade away over time as we get distracted by more pressing matters. And then that will probably be that. I don’t know exactly how I feel about all this, but it’s not a good feeling. The Ringer and Rivers McCown have more.

(The fact that the Texans will undoubtedly screw up the draft picks they’ll get in the trade because they’re a terrible organization with a shitheel owner is a side matter.)

Last chance to make a good FIFA impression

Coming to the end of this very long process.

Houston’s diversity is being played up in the city’s recent push to host the 2026 men’s World Cup. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined forces with prominent business people and community leaders to highlight the benefits of featuring such a rich multicultural community on the biggest stage for the global pastime.

Houston is one of 17 U.S. candidates that will be whittled down to 11 host slots for the 2026 games, hosted jointly between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which will provide another five host cities. With FIFA officials set to make a site visit to Houston Oct. 26 to prepare for their final decision later this year, local stakeholders are hammering the point harder than ever.

“Soccer is the world’s game, and as one of the most diverse cities in North America, bringing the World Cup here is a perfect match,” said Chris Canetti, former president of the Houston Dynamo and Dash and president of the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.

If chosen, Houston would host six games that would likely bring tens of thousands of fans to the city. Some would watch the game at the 70,000-plus seat NRG Stadium and more would simply soak up the atmosphere at bars, restaurants and gathering spots around the city.

Host cities could net between $90 million and $480 million beyond taxpayer contributions, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. Previous World Cups, including the 1994 U.S. tournament, have burdened public funds, but North American stakeholders say host cities can avoid unnecessary expenditures in 2026 by utilizing preexisting infrastructure, such as the Houston Texans’ home.

Officials said that 2026 is still working through the cost estimates with FIFA and expect to have more details after the Oct. 26 site visits.

[…]

While many media rankings give Dallas the slight edge over Houston due to the city’s larger AT&T Stadium, the Bayou City’s bid committee is touting Houston’s diversity and pointing to the city’s successful track record of hosting major sporting events, including the Super Bowl and Final Four.

See here for the last update. I’ll skip my usual nattering about the uselessness of these sports-related economic projections and just admit up front that it would be cool to host some World Cup games. The linked article at the end tries to suss out which 11 cities from the 17 contenders will get to host those games. I don’t see why Houston and Dallas have to be in competition with each other any more than they are with the other 15 wannabes, but we’ll know soon enough. I’m ready for this to be settled.

On Rice and the AAC

It’s a great move for Rice. It also means they will need to step it up in men’s athletics.

On the job a few months in early 2014, Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard met with alumni at a fundraiser in Boston.

On the trip, Karlgaard made the 50-mile drive to Providence, R.I., to meet with Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, the newest league in college athletics that debuted a few months earlier. The informal meeting included lunch at The Capital Grille and a brief tour of the AAC offices.

Over the next eight years, Karlgaard forged relationships everywhere he could, all part of a strategic plan to position Rice for the next round of conference realignment.

“Throughout the time, I’ve tried to build the right relationships, tried to listen very well to what it is that may better position us,” Karlgaard said. “The opportunity hasn’t always presented itself like it did the last several weeks.”

Calling it a “historic new direction” for the school’s athletic department, Rice accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference on Thursday.

With the addition of six schools, all from Conference USA, the AAC will become a 14-team football league as early as 2023. Two other Texas schools — UTSA and North Texas — will join Rice, along with Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to comprise a new-look AAC that will have a 10-state footprint.

[…]

The move will provide an increase in revenue for Rice, which received a $500,000 annual payout in C-USA. This past year, AAC schools received about $7 million.

Karlgaard pointed to ticket sales, sponsorships and fundraising as areas Rice should receive a financial bump from the change in conference. Rice will also receive increased visibility with the AAC’s deal with ESPN.

“I think it will have a significant economic impact,” he added. “I believe our distribution will be significantly better from the American Athletic Conference than they have been – ever, no matter what conference we’ve been affiliated with.”

[…]

Rice has made campus-wide facility upgrades in recent years, most notably the $31.5 million Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center in 2016.

Rice president David Leebron, who will retire in 2022 after 18 years, vowed to “invest more in the athletic program’s success.” At the top of the list on needed upgrades: 71-year-old Rice Stadium.

“We know our stadium needs some investment,” Leebron said. “But virtually everywhere else we have invested in major facilities and renovations. We’re in really good shape.” He added the move to the AAC “reflects stability in what our future looks like.”

See here for the background. Rice football hasn’t been a factor since the early David Bailiff years, the men’s basketball team last played in an NCAA tournament game in 1970, and the baseball team is trying to rebuild after a long decline (from an admittedly high peak). The women’s teams have been much more successful in recent years, so it’s up to the men to prove that they can be competitive in a tougher conference. More exposure and more money can help, but they’re not enough on their own. I speak for a lot of long-suffering Rice fans when I say we’ve been waiting a long long time for something good to happen. I sure hope this is a step in that direction.

That said, the alternative of being left behind as this was happening would have been a death knell. I have a lot of sympathy for our soon-to-be-former conference mates.

That future does not look as bright for C-USA, which is now left with eight schools: UTEP, Old Dominion, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Florida International. Earlier this month, C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod sent a letter to Aresco proposing an alliance of sorts between the two leagues. Instead, the AAC raided C-USA and the league reportedly could lose some of the remaining members to other conferences.

I feel especially bad for UTEP, who was an original WAC member when we joined that (now basically dead) conference in 1996, and for LaTech, which joined the smaller WAC after a bunch of the other schools split off to form the Mountain West Conference. At this point, I have a lot more affinity for them than for most of our former SWC rivals. Whatever happens with C-USA, I hope they land on their feet, and I hope we schedule them for some non-conference action going forward.

UPDATE: Also, too:

I approve this message.

American Athletic Conference to expand

Time for some more dominoes to fall.

The American Athletic Conference is set to consider expansion this week after six Conference USA programs applied for membership on Wednesday. If all six teams are added to the AAC, it would expand to become a 14-team league once realignment shakes out.

The six potential institutions looking to join the American from Conference USA include FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB, sources told CBS Sports on Monday. It’s expected that all six programs will be approved as new AAC members. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel first reported the movement.

Adding North Texas, UTSA and Rice would allow the AAC to retain a strong geographical foothold in Texas, while FAU would join South Florida in the conference, Charlotte and UAB would have regional partners in East Carolina and Memphis, respectively.

The potential moves comes months after AAC members Cincinnati, Houston and UCF opted to depart for the Big 12, leaving the league with just eight football-playing members. The AAC previously looked to the West by courting Mountain West institutions Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State. However, all four schools declined the possibility of moving conferences.

“We do want to get back to either 10 or 12 [schools],” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Orlando Sentinel in September. “We have some good candidates and we’re only dealing with candidates who have approached us — who have expressed an interest in us. It’s proceeding and I’m reasonably confident we’re going to end up as a strong conference and our goal is to be even stronger than before.”

The AAC is banking on safety in numbers. At 14 teams with many important geographic footprints under its belt, the American would stand with the Mountain West as the two strongest non-Power Five conferences. The move would also gouge Conference USA, which may now seek teams from the Sun Belt or a partnership with that conference after itself being reduced to eight members.

This round of realignment would leave Conference USA with just eight remaining members, which is one reason why it recently sought but failed to convince the AAC and Sun Belt to regroup along geographical lines. It is believed that there will remain 10 FBS conferences following this round of realignment.

[…]

The group puts an emphasis on big markets, featuring teams in Houston, San Antonio, Birmingham, Charlotte and on the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Other schools that will compete in the hypothetical AAC include SMU, Memphis, East Carolina, Temple, Tulsa, South Florida, Navy and Tulane.

It’s not clear what a 14-team AAC would be worth in media rights revenue. Conference USA schools get about $500,000 annually in their current TV deal. The AAC, as it currently exists, averages $7 million per team. That figure is expected to decline significantly after the loss of three schools to the Big 12.

Something like this was highly likely after UH and others left for the Big XII. As the story notes, it could have been the Mountain West adding members, but they decided it was better financially to stand pat. The AAC isn’t as strong as it was before the departures, but some of these schools look like up-and-comers, in particular UTSA, a large public school with a big city market all to itself in college sports. It’s a great move for Rice, which has had far more success in women’s sports in recent years (the women’s basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams all went to the NCAA tournament last year) than the men’s, but the step up in competition is a double-edged sword, to say the least.

The timing of this all hinges on when UT and Oklahoma make their actual move to the SEC, as everything else will follow that. I continue to believe that UT and OU will suit up for the SEC no later than the spring of 2023, and it won’t surprise me at all if they’re there for football in 2022. I guarantee, there’s plenty of talk going on about that right now. ESPN and the Chron have more.

No vax needed to see a Rockets game

No, thanks.

The Rockets will not have any entry or seating restrictions beyond those required by NBA health and safety rules this season, according to Rockets president of business operations Gretchen Sheirr. The team does provide an option for fans to purchase seats in sections with social distancing provided in a variety of areas in Toyota Center.

The NBA requires that all those within 15 feet of the court be able to show proof that they are fully vaccinated or can provide a negative test for COVID.

The Dallas Mavericks last week announced that all fans be fully vaccinated or provide a negative test, joining Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder, along with teams in New York (the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks) and in San Francisco (the Golden State Warriors) where local guidelines require it.

The Rockets’ policy for Toyota Center is in line with policies for Texans games at NRG Stadium and Astros games at Minute Maid Park.

But those are at least generally held outdoors, and even if the roof is closed on those stadia there’s still a lot more open space. The Rockets play in a much more enclosed space, and while they do have some limited “socially distanced” seating available, this sure seems like a recipe for transmission. It’s also quite different from last season, when face masks were required and attendance was capped at about 20% of capacity. I don’t begrudge them wanting to have fuller crowds – they gotta make money – but if the Mavericks can require proof of vaccination or a negative test in order to attend a game, I don’t see why the Rockets can’t. You can do better than that, y’all.

COVID and college football

We sure these sellout crowds are a good idea?

At Virginia Tech last Friday, the packed crowd bounced to “Enter Sandman.” At the University of Wisconsin the next day, fans jumped around to “Jump Around.”

College football and its crowd traditions are back to their full glory like they were in 2019, before Covid-19 restrictions sharply limited fan attendance in 2020.

Some of the country’s biggest powerhouses — including Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, to name a few — are hosting games to full capacity on Saturday. And fans who attend these games won’t have to prove their vaccination status, won’t be required to social distance and won’t have to wear masks in their seats.

The return of college football and its unique cultures, which began in earnest last week, are a source of communal bonding for sports fans, yet they also represent a source of anxiety for others.

[…]

Both the SEC and NCAA deferred to schools to make their own decisions — based on local and state requirements — when asked what each was doing to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at football games. Both do have Covid-19 protocols for student-athletes.

“My ask of our fans is to try to take advantage of what science has done,” Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner, said last month.

Georgia’s plan to host such a large crowd comes as the state has fully vaccinated about half of its residents 12 and older, one of the 10 lowest vaccination rates among all states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Athens-Clarke County, where the Bulldogs play, has a “high” rate of Covid-19 community transmission, the CDC says.

Last week marked the full opening of the college football season, and stadiums across the country were packed with fans eager to rejoin the communal sports experience.

In Georgia, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta hosted nearly 72,000 fans for an Alabama-Miami game on Saturday and hosted about 31,000 fans for the Louisville-Ole Miss game on Monday. At both games, the stadium roof was open and masks were required in enclosed spaces but not in open-air areas, and there were no vaccine requirements.

A number of the universities that have packed fans into seats this season require students to be vaccinated, including at large Big Ten schools Michigan (109,000 in attendance), Maryland (44,000) and Illinois (41,000).

These schools are hardly breaking new ground by holding packed games. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have similarly held full capacity events this summer, and the National Football League will do so when the season begins later this week.

This story was published Saturday morning, before this week’s games were played. Those other sports aren’t a great comparison because they have smaller crowds and their gamedays aren’t all-day party affairs. The SEC and some other conferences put an emphasis on getting players and coaches vaccinated, but getting fans vaccinated is not on their agenda. I can hardly blame them, because I can imagine the pushback they’d get if they tried. There’s evidence to suggest that limited-seating football games did not help spread COVID, but we are not doing limited seating any more – these are full stadia, with 80K to 100K people in attendance. Don’t be surprised if that has a negative effect.

UH officially joins the Big XII

Long time coming.

Hello, Big 12.

In a historic day, the University of Houston has accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference.

The Big 12’s presidents voted unanimously Friday to formally invite Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida to form a 14-team league.

UH will begin play in the Big 12 as early as fall 2023.

“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” UH chancellor Renu Khator said in a statement. “Our expectations for our University remain high, our aspirations continue to be bold, and we embrace this new opportunity to compete at the highest levels in all we do.”

[…]

As members of the American Athletic Conference, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF must give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league and pay a $10 million exit fee.

BYU is an independent in football and could join sooner.

What the Big 12 will resemble in a few years remains uncertain. Texas and Oklahoma said they will honor current contracts until 2025 when television rights with ESPN and Fox run out. Both schools would have to pay a buyout of $80 million to leave early.

See here for the background. Scheduling could be a little chaotic over the next season or two until everyone gets where they’re going. I’d bet a nickel on all the moving parts settling into their new places in time for next fall, but there’s a lot that could cause delays. I assume the AAC will now go trawling for some new members, so there’s still more to this story. In the meantime, congrats to the Coogs for finally catching the car they’ve been chasing since 1996.

The Big XII is finally ready for UH

Hope it was worth the wait.

Five years after a potential match fizzled, the University of Houston and Big 12 Conference are on the verge of uniting after all.

UH has emerged as a leading contender to join a reconfigured 12-team Big 12 with a formal vote planned for next week, two people with knowledge of the talks said Thursday.

The shift comes just over a month after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, starting another round of conference realignment that could eventually fulfill UH’s longtime desire to join one of the major conferences in college athletics.

Earlier reports Thursday by ESPN, The Athletic and the Dallas Morning News said the Big 12 has targeted UH, BYU, Central Florida and Cincinnati as expansion candidates to join the league’s eight remaining schools. Long the powerbrokers of the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma have accepted invitations to join the SEC in 2025.

The Big 12 requires eight of its current 10 members to approve candidates before expansion can occur. A person with knowledge of the process said UH is expected to receive unanimous approval.

The Morning News said the expansion timetable “remains very fluid,” with one source saying, “it can move as fast as everyone wants it to.”

[…]

By adding UH, UCF and Cincinnati, the Big 12 would raid the American Athletic Conference, which has long been considered the best league outside of the so-called Power Five that includes the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. The addition of the three schools would allow the Big 12 to remain involved in the Houston television market, extend its reach to Florida and add a Cincinnati program that begins this season in the football top 10.

BYU, which is independent in football, brings a strong national brand, large fan base due to its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and rich football tradition. All of BYU’s athletic programs except football currently play in the West Coast Conference.

See here for some background on the last time UH was on the Big XII dance card. As you know, this is all the result of UT and OU saying good-bye to the Big XII for greener pastures. Cincinnati and UCF make sense as additions and BYU is a nice get, probably the biggest non-Notre Dame free agent out there, but it’s going to make for some geographic challenges – Utah is a long way away from the next closest school in the conference. The PAC 12 probably makes more sense logistically for BYU, but they decided to stand pat for whatever the reason. BYU is now the center of another political and religious fight, which may bring some negative attention to their future conference and conference-mates, but that’s more or less the cost of doing business these days. The UH Board of Regents is having a special meeting today to discuss their Big XII prospects, and I think we can expect that they will go along with any plan to join up. So congrats, Coogs, you finally made it.

UPDATE: UH’s Board of Regents has officially approved pursuing Big XII membership.

The PAC-20?

Here’s one possible outcome for the left behind members of the Big XII.

According to multiple reports, the commissioners of the Pac-12 and Big 12 met Tuesday to discuss how the conferences might benefit from working together or maybe even merging.

The merging part has us very interested.

A full merger of the Big 12 and Pac-12 would create a 20-team conference with schools in every major U.S. time zone, something no other conference has.

That would make it unique and very different and potentially pretty valuable in the ever-important TV contract discussions for conferences.

What could a Big 12 and Pac-12 merger look like?

Here’s some possibilities to split up the conference, should the Pac-12 and Big 12 decide it is in their best interests to join forces.

You can read the rest. There’s lots of reasons why this probably won’t happen, but it’s at least amusing to contemplate. We live in very strange times.

Also in the “we live in strange sports times” news department:

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said the league has never “plotted” with ESPN to pursue teams from other conferences.

“Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures,” Aresco said Wednesday during a video conference call to kickoff AAC media day.

Aresco said the AAC is not actively looking to add schools.

“I want to emphasize we are not looking at realignment and not out there attempting to take teams,” Aresco said.

[…]

Aresco said he has not spoken to any Big 12 schools.

“Any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regards to the structure of any other conference is completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation,” Aresco said.

See here for the background on that. We’ll see if Bob Bowlsby provides some receipts for that initial claim. In the meantime, if the AAC and every other conference isn’t thinking about realignment and what they might do about it, I don’t know what they are doing. I’m not saying they should want to live in this ever-religning world, but I am saying it is the world they are in fact living in, and they should adjust accordingly.

The Austin Bills?

Noted for the record.

Maybe they’re negotiating. But in any negotiation, the negotiators need to be willing to act in order to have any credibility.

As to the negotiation between the Bills and Buffalo that has begun with the Bills wanting taxpayer funding to pay the full price of a new stadium, an impasse could lead the Bills threatening to move — and potentially moving — elsewhere.

Citing an unnamed ownership source, Seth Wickersham of ESPN.com reports that Austin is a possible destination — or threat — as one of the cities to which Bills ownership was referring when telling government negotiators that “there are other cities elsewhere that desire an NFL franchise and would pay handsomely for it.”

San Antonio was one of the leverage destinations for the Raiders before they moved to Las Vegas, and the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans weren’t believed to be thrilled about the possibility of a third team coming to Texas. Presumably, they wouldn’t want a team in Austin, either.

Hard to know how seriously to take this. I suppose the reason Austin is being dangled as an alternate for the Bills and not San Antonio is that Austin doesn’t have an NFL-ready stadium at hand and would have to build one, which is clearly what the Bills’ owners want. San Antonio has the Alamodome, which was used by the Saints in 2005, but is presumably not up to date with the latest luxury items that a typically avaricious NFL owner desires, so it would not do. San Antonio, which has in recent years spent a bunch of money on Alamodome-related projects, may be less interested in financing a brand new playpen. Who knows? Anyway, if this particular item gains traction in the coming months, you’ll know that this is where it all started. CBS Sports, KXAN, Reform Austin, and the Statesman have more.

Big XII visits the Lege

It’s something to do, anyway.

As the University of Texas prepares for a jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, state lawmakers are working to determine how the move will affect the rest of the state — and whether they might be able to intervene in such a move in the future.

The first hearing of the committee on the future of college sports in Texas on Monday produced more questions than answers. Senators, economists and representatives of the universities left behind brainstormed how the Big 12 could remain viable — perhaps by adding up-and-coming Texas programs such as the University of Houston and Southern Methodist University.

But with the exits of UT and the University of Oklahoma sealed, there was little lawmakers could do but commiserate and propose potential solutions.

“I think there are options for us to partner with other conferences, there may be opportunity for mergers, there may be opportunities to add members,” said Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. “There may be other opportunities that are currently unforeseen. … The multitude and severity of the challenges that are out there right now is likely to cause lots of changes.”

The eight remaining schools — which include Waco’s Baylor University, Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University and Lubbock’s Texas Tech — agree that “staying together is probably our best approach in the near-term,” Bowlsby said.

[…]

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the chair of the newly formed committee, said she’d invited representatives from UT and ESPN to testify on Monday, but they declined. Texas A&M, which left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, also rejected an invitation.

See here for some background on the committee. Nothing is going to happen, as this issue isn’t on the special session agenda and of course there’s a quorum break going on, but everyone got to express their feelings, and I’m sure that helped. As for UT, they weren’t there to share their perspective, but they still had something to say.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell on Monday publicly defended the school’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference along with the University of Oklahoma in 2025 and denied Texas lawmakers’ claims that the school violated Big 12 bylaws in doing so.

“This future move is the right thing for our student athletes for our student athletes, our programs and our University in the face of rapid change and increased uncertainty,” Hartzell said.

[…]

“It is timed to avoid the legislature in its legislative session, where it is structured with the power to make decisions,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Hartzell said that he initiated discussions with the SEC in the spring — while the regular legislative session was going on.

He disputed claims made by lawmakers and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the Texas school violated the league’s bylaws by not giving advance notice of their departure.

“I want to set the record straight — we have and will continue to honor all agreements,” Hartzell said. “We have not violated any Big 12 bylaws.”

Lawmakers argue that the process was done in the dark, and would have far-reaching effects on the remaining schools in the conference, notably the three that reside in Texas.

See here for more on the accusations of UT and OU’s alleged duplicity along with ESPN. Lord knows, this Legislature knows how to do things in the dark. Game recognizes game.