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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:

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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.

NCAA warns Texas about anti-transgender bills

It’s not just the voter suppression bills that will do great harm to the state of Texas and its people if the Republicans ram them through.

Amid all the talk of boycotts and corporate criticism of election bills going through the Texas Legislature, major resistance is also shaping up to another top priority of the Republican state lawmakers.

With the Texas Senate cued up to debate a bill this week that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls’ interscholastic sports, the NCAA recently issued a stern warning that they are watching the legislation.

“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” NCAA officials said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion.”

The NCAA policies allow transgender athletes to participate without limitations.

It is very similar to the statements the NCAA put out just before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a transgender bill similar to the one Texas is considering and one that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem backed away from while warning of an unwinnable showdown with the college sports association.

SB 29, sponsored by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry would ban a student from participating in a sport “opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth…”

[…]

Critics of the Texas legislation and others like it say it’s all part of a wave of bills in statehouses around the nation that are not only discriminatory against transgender children, but dangerous to them.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and the very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Council, a national group that fights violence, discrimination and fear of LGBTQ people. “Like the bathroom bills and the bills targeting marriage equality before them, these bills are nothing more than a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ extremists spreading fear and misinformation about transgender people in order to score cheap political points.”

[…]

The NCAA has been a notable voice against anti-transgender legislation. In 2017, it pulled major sporting events out of North Carolina because of that state passing a version of the bathroom bill. Eventually, North Carolina lawmakers amended the legislation to end the boycott.

The NCAA has major financial commitments in Texas. The men’s basketball Final Four is scheduled to be in Houston in 2023 and then in San Antonio again in 2025. Dallas hosts the women’s Final Four in 2023, and the College Football Championship is set for Houston in 2024.

In 2017, studies suggested Texas could lose nearly $250 million if the Final Four was taken away then. With three Final Fours and the football championships, Texas would be looking at more than $1 billion in economic impact.

“The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes,” the NCAA said in its recent statement to Hearst Newspapers about Texas’ transgender legislation.

That was an early story. The Trib filed a little later, and the NCAA was a bit more specific this time.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors said it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination. The Monday warning sets the stage for a political fight with multiple states, including Texas, that are considering bills in their legislatures that would require students to play sports with only teammates who align with their biological sex.

“Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport,” the NCAA statement said. “Our clear expectation as the Association’s top governing body is that all student-athletes will be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.”

See here for the preview. I for one would very much like these sporting events to be in our cities in those years. But if the Lege follows through on these terrible, harmful bills then the NCAA absolutely should follow through and pull them all until such time as these bills are repealed.

While the legislation has seen some traction in the upper chamber, it’s unclear whether there will be support in the House, where similar bills have yet to get assigned a committee hearing.

In the past, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has pushed back against bills that would weaken protections for LGBTQ people. After the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that removed nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired, had the language reinstated.

Phelan said in an interview at the time that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “This is 2019.”

I would have thought we’d learned this lesson in 2017, but apparently some lessons need to be learned the hard way. We still have a chance to escape that fate, but if we don’t it’s 100% on the Republicans. I hope Dade Phelan meant what he said, but it remains to be seen. To learn more and hear from the advocates of the transgender children who are being targeted by our Legislature, you can follow Rebecca Marques, Jessica Shortall, Equality Texas (the woman you see testifying in that video is my friend Mandy Giles), Kimberly Shappley, and Amber Briggle on Twitter. USA Today, the Texas Signal, and Mother Jones have more.

More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner invited a diverse group of elected officials, community leaders, and business executives to stand in solidarity against voter suppression bills in the Texas Legislature.

More than 50 individuals and organizations have vowed to fight Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, which would make voting more difficult and less accessible to people of color and people with disabilities.

“The right to vote is sacred. In the 1800’s and 1900’s in this country, women, and people of color had to fight to obtain that right to vote,” Mayor Turner said. “In 2021, we find ourselves again fighting bills filed in legislatures across this country that would restrict and suppress the right of people to vote. These bills are Jim Crow 2.0.”

In addition to elected and appointed officials from Harris and Fort Bend Counties, prominent attorneys, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith-based leaders joined the mayor Monday afternoon.

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

NAACP, Houston Area Urban League, Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters Houston, Houston in Action, FIEL, ACLU, Communications Workers of American, IAPAC, Mi Familia Vota, Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Pipe Trades Association, National Federation for the Blind of Texas, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Employment & Training Centers, Inc. and others.

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

I’ll get to the Chron story on this in a minute. The TV stations were at this presser, and KTRK had the best coverage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner hit at a GOP-led effort that lawmakers say protects the integrity of Texas ballots, but what leaders around Houston believe do nothing but suppress the right to vote.

Turner was joined by leaders including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday.

Multiple major corporations based in Texas have already spoken out in opposition to Republican-led legislative proposals to further restrict voting in Texas.

[…]

Both measures are legislative priorities for Texas Republicans, who this year are mounting a broad campaign to scale up the state’s already restrictive voting rules and pull back on local voting initiatives championed in diverse urban centers, namely in Harris County, during a high-turnout election in which Democrats continued to drive up their margins. That push echoes national legislative efforts by Republicans to change voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

Click over to see their video. One more such effort came on Tuesday.

The press conference was convened by the Texas Voting Rights Coalition and included statements from MOVE Texas, Black Voters Matter, Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute. Beto O’Rourke, who traveled to the Texas State Capitol to testify against HB 6, and Julián Castro also spoke at the press conference.

This latest move comes after American Airlines became the largest Texas-based company to announce their opposition to voter suppression bills in Texas. Several of the speakers specifically called out Dallas-based AT&T for their silence in the wake of voter suppression legislation.

Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter, which is based out of Georgia but has several statewide chapters, cited the corporate accountability campaign that took place in his own state after the governor signed sweeping legislation targeting the right to vote, which prompted Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to belatedly issue statements against that legislation. “If AT&T can convince folks to upgrade a phone every few months, certainly they can convince folks that voter suppression is bad,” Albright said. He also mentioned companies with a national profile should be speaking out in favor of voting rights legislation, like H.R. 1, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

O’Rourke also leaned into the pressure that Texans can place on companies like AT&T. He also mentioned several other Texas-based companies like Toyota, Frito Lay, and Southwest Airlines as organizations that should lend their voice against voter suppression. “Reach out to these companies, you are their customer you have some leverage, ask them to stand up and do the right thing while we still have time,” he said.

Castro was blunt about SB7 and HB6. “This is a Republican party power grab,” he said. Castro also called on companies to develop a consciousness regarding the right to vote. “Companies in the state of Texas and outside of it who do business here can choose to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that is only concerned with maintaining its power and want to disenfranchise especially black and brown voters to do that.”

Castro also emphasized that the legislation in Texas is also about voter intimidation. The former mayor of San Antonio pointed out that one of the provisions in the legislation allows for the videotaping of any voter suspected of committing fraud, even though voter fraud almost never happens.

Mimi Marziani, the President of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), also spoke about the grave effects this legislation would have on communities of color. Marziani highlighted some findings that TCRP is releasing later in the week from renowned economist Dr. Ray Perryman that shows that voter suppression leads to less political power, lower wages, and even decreased education.

Marziani also mentioned that voter suppression bills have a track record of impacting states and their ability to generate tourism. “Big event organizers might choose to avoid a state altogether and avoid any appearance of approving a controversial policy,” she said. Marziani cited the decision of Major League Baseball to relocate their All-Star Game out of Atlanta as a recent example.

In terms of direct action towards Texas-based companies, the event organizers indicated that there are going to be several ongoing calls to actions including email campaigns and phone drives. Jane Hamilton, from the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, said her organization (along with the Texas Organizing Project) would be holding a press conference outside of AT&T’s Dallas headquarters later this week to engage with them directly.

And one more:

Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s recent controversial voter law is sparking calls for other organizations to do the same but in Texas.

Progress Texas says that the NCAA should reconsider holding men’s basketball games in Texas in the coming years due to election bills currently on the table in the Texas Legislature.

[…]

“Since Texas Republicans insist on pushing Jim Crow voter suppression efforts, the NCAA basketball tournament should insist on pulling next year’s first and second-round games out of Fort Worth and San Antonio,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director at Progress Texas in a release. “The NCAA can join American Airlines, Dell, Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines and send a message to Texas lawmakers: we won’t stand for voter suppression.”

[…]

According to the NCAA’s men’s basketball calendar, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio are currently set to hold preliminary rounds in 2022, and Houston and San Antonio are set to host the national championship games in 2023 and 2025 respectively.

The NCAA has previously pulled games due to controversial legislation. In 2016, the NCAA relocated seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina over the since-repealed HB 2, a law that required transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to the sex on their birth certificate.

Swing for the fences, I say. All this is great, and I’m delighted to see companies like AT&T come under increased pressure. There’s a lot to be said about the national response from businesses in favor of voting rights, and the whiny freakout it has received in response from national Republicans, but this post is already pretty long.

I applaud all the effort, which is vital and necessary, but it’s best to maintain some perspective. These bills are Republican priorities – emergency items, you may recall – and they say they are not deterred.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB7, said some of the bill’s anti-fraud measures are being lost in the “national narrative” about it. He pointed to improved signature verification rules to make sure absentee ballots are thrown out when they don’t match. Another provision would allow people to track their absentee ballots so they can see that they arrived and were counted.

Still, critics have focused on how the legislation will end drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting locations, both of which were popular in Harris County during the 2020 election, which saw record turnout statewide.

One of those businesses trying to make itself heard is American Airlines.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the carrier said in a statement released Friday.

[Lt. Gove Dan] Patrick fired back a short time later.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session. Senate Bill 7 includes comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure.”

Patrick is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday to further defend the election reform bill against such criticism.

Hughes said he’s willing to listen to the business leaders upset with the bill, but he said many haven’t been clear about exactly what they want changed in the legislation.

“They haven’t told us what about the bill they don’t like,” Hughes said.

We’ll get to Dan Patrick in a minute. As for Sen. Hughes, the problem with signature verification rules is that there’s no standard for matching signatures, it’s just the judgment of whoever is looking at the ballot. People’s signatures change over time – mine certainly has, from a mostly-readable cursive to an unintelligible scrawl. More to the point, various studies have shown that the mail ballots for Black voters get rejected at a higher rate than they do for white voters. As for what the corporations don’t like about SB7, that’s easy: They don’t like the bill. It’s a kitchen sink of bad ideas for non-problems. Just take out everything except for the provision to allow people to track their absentee ballots online.

I am generally pessimistic about the chances of beating either of these bills, but there may be some hope:

Legum notes that there are at least two House Republicans who have publicly voiced criticisms of SB7 and HB6, and if they are actual opponents of the bills it would only take seven of their colleagues to have a majority against them. Still seems like a steep hill to climb, but maybe not impossible. If you have a Republican representative, you really need to call them and register your opposition to these bills.

As for Dan Patrick and his Tuesday press conference, well…

Is there a bigger crybaby in Texas than Dan Patrick? None that I can think of. His little diatribe was also covered, with a reasonable amount of context.

Do better, NCAA

C’mon. This is ridiculous.

The teams had barely landed in Texas when complaints of inequity between the women’s and men’s tournaments roared over social media posts noting the women’s weight training facilities in San Antonio were severely lacking compared to what the men have in Indianapolis. The women’s field has 64 teams and the men’s tournament 68.

In a Twitter post, Stanford sports performance coach for women’s basketball Ali Kershner posted a photo of a single stack of weights next to a training table with sanitized yoga mats, comparing it to pictures of massive facilities for the men with stacks of free weights, dumbbells and squat racks.

“These women want and deserve to be given the same opportunities,” Kershner tweeted. “In a year defined by a fight for equality, this is a chance to have a conversation and get better.”

Several of the top women’s basketball players see it as a bigger issue than just a subpar weight room.

“We are all grateful to be here and it took a lot of effort for them to put this all together,” UConn freshman All-American Paige Bueckers said on an AP Twitter chat Thursday night. “It’s more of a principle thing. It’s not just a weight room that’s a problem. It’s the inequality of the weight rooms that’s the problem. There’s another tweet going around with the swag bag. It’s not just the weight room. It’s the inequalities and the better stuff the men get.”

South Carolina star Aliyah Boston agreed with Bueckers about the inequities.

“The men have everything in that weight room and we have yoga mats,” she said. “What are we supposed to do with that. The bags, I’m glad we got a body wash, but they got a whole store.”

It’s the Year of Our Lord 2021. Did no one at the NCAA notice this disparity? Or was it just that no one with the authority to do something about it cared enough? The original post about this was on TikTok, which is how my 14-year-old daughter, who is not nearly as interested in sports as her old man, came to know about it, and buttonhole me about it on Friday night. Just embarrassing. USA Today, Slate, and Daily Kos have more.

The “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Wednesday that requiring the national anthem to be played “at all events which receive public funding” will be among his top legislative priorities this session.

The “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act,” which has not yet been filed, comes as the Dallas Mavericks are under attack by some GOP Texas lawmakers seizing on a report that team owner Mark Cuban decided to stop playing the national anthem before home games this season. The team will resume playing the anthem before games, the NBA said Wednesday.

“It is hard to believe this could happen in Texas, but Mark Cuban’s actions of yesterday made it clear that we must specify that in Texas we play the national anthem before all major events,” Patrick said in a statement. “In this time when so many things divide us, sports are one thing that bring us together — right, left, Black, white and brown. This legislation already enjoys broad support. I am certain it will pass, and the Star Spangled Banner will not be threatened in the Lone Star State again.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Patrick called Cuban’s decision “a slap in the face to every American” and “an embarrassment to Texas.”

“Sell the franchise & some Texas Patriots will buy it,” Patrick said in a tweet. “We ARE the land of free & the home of the brave.”

The backlash comes after 13 preseason and regular-season games have already been played at the American Airlines Center without the “Star Spangled Banner,” according to The Athletic. Those games took place without fans in the stands, with the exception of Monday’s game, when The Athletic noticed the change and raised the question.

Cuban told the sports website it was his decision to remove the anthem. He has previously expressed support for athletes kneeling during the anthem before games to protest racial injustice.

But on Wednesday, the professional basketball league released a statement saying “[w]ith NBA teams now in the process of welcoming fans back into their arenas, all teams will play the national anthem in keeping with longstanding league policy.”

There’s so much here, but the first questions I have are “Really? That’s what you want to spend time on in this legislative session?” I get throwing red meat to the base, but this session is already full of red meat issues, and there’s still that pesky pandemic to deal with, among other things. I’d ask who cares about this, but I suppose we can trust Dan Patrick to know what people like Dan Patrick want. What normal people might prefer is another matter. In the meantime, here’s your bright shiny right-wing object for the 2021 legislative session. More here from the Trib.

Women’s NCAA tournament to be entirely held in San Antonio

Similar to what the men are doing, in a warmer location.

The full 2021 NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament will be held in San Antonio, the NCAA confirmed Friday, marking the biggest event in the city since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last March.

Sixty-four teams will fill an estimated 35,000 hotel rooms in San Antonio, competing in 63 games televised on ESPN networks between March 21 and April 4, culminating with the Final Four in the Alamodome.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the effect on the region is “immeasurable.”

“We jumped at the opportunity, knowing not only that San Antonio is the best tournament site in the nation, but that we have proven the ability to host events safely during this very challenging time,” Nirenberg said.

He compared the NCAA’s approach to COVID-19 health and safety protocols to the NBA’s “bubble” last year in Orlando, Fla.

The NCAA said no decision has been reached regarding fan attendance.

Lynn Holzman, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball, said those determinations will be based on the health guidelines in each county, as well as limitations in place at each venue. The first priority, Holzman said, is accommodating up to six friends and family for each athlete, if possible.

[…]

After the field is selected March 15, teams will travel with a maximum of 34 individuals, arriving in San Antonio during the following two days.

Regular testing will also be conducted on site, with players under guidelines to minimize social interaction. Occupancy in selected hotels will be limited to only team personnel subject to testing, with all practices taking place on nine courts in the Convention Center or the two courts at the Alamodome.

Opening-round games March 21-22 will be split between the Alamodome, the Bill Greehey Arena at St. Mary’s University, the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas State University’s Events Center in San Marcos and the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Convocation Center.

The second round will be held March 23-24 at the three San Antonio venues, with teams converging on the Alamodome for the Sweet 16 on March 27-28, the Elite Eight on March 29-30 and the Final Four from April 2-4.

Holzman said many of the NCAA’s specific testing and medical protocols are expected to be finalized next week.

See here and here for the comparison to what the men are doing, and here for the NCAA’s announcement. I don’t know what decision they will make about allowing fans beyond the families of the players, but I will note that the Bill Greehey Arena has a capacity of three thousand, so they’ll probably be playing the lower-profile games there. With or without anyone in attendance, a small venue like that is quite the contrast for such a bigtime event to the usual kind of places that serve as host. Given that the tournament was going to happen regardless of the wisdom of having it, this is probably the right answer. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that neither this nor the men’s tournament are bad ideas in this environment, and hope that the organizers can keep it from becoming a superspreader event.

NCAA finalizes single-site March Madness

Welcome to Indianapolis, assuming anyone is allowed to attend, which honestly they shouldn’t as things are right now.

The NCAA will host its entire postseason men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis and surrounding areas with a bubble-like format, officials announced on Monday.

All 68 teams will come to compete for the national championship and play most of the games at multiple venues in Indianapolis, with some games in Bloomington and West Lafayette. The bulk of the teams will stay in hotels connected to the Indiana Convention Center, which will be used as a practice facility, the NCAA said.

Selection Sunday is still scheduled for March 14, and the Final Four is set to be held April 3 and 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indiana Farmers Coliseum will be used for tournament games. Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Assembly Hall in Bloomington will also be used, the NCAA said.

“This is a historic moment for NCAA members and the state of Indiana,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We have worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure that maintains our unique championship opportunity for college athletes. The reality of today’s announcement was possible thanks to the tremendous leadership of our membership, local authorities and staff.”

The monumental effort will include the largest bubble-like attempt by any major sport during the pandemic.

A local health partner in Indianapolis will handle testing for all players, coaches, staffers, officials and others connected to the event. The announcement did not specify the frequency of testing in what NCAA officials are calling a “controlled environment,” but Marion County officials have approved the NCAA’s plan and protocols.

Teams will stay on “dedicated hotel floors” and abide by social distancing throughout their time in the tournament. And a “limited number of family members” will be permitted to watch games, while other details about fans remain undetermined.

See here for the background. As the story notes, the Division II and III championships will also be held in Indiana, in other cities. This is all happening as various teams are missing and postponing games due to virus concerns, and one major women’s team canceled their season. Speaking of the women, no word that I know of what they will do with their tournament. I feel pretty confident that some form of March Madness, as big as they can make it (who knows, maybe even bigger this year), will happen. If all the other sports can be played to completion, and with all the money at stake, it pretty much has to.

Are you ready to attend a basketball game?

I’m not, at least not yet. Ask me again after I’ve been vaccinated.

The Rockets on Thursday made official their plans to have limited numbers of fans in attendance at home games under a variety of health and safety protocols during the spike in cases in the coronavirus pandemic.

There will be a reduced capacity of spectators at Toyota Center of approximately 16-20 percent (3,000 to 3,660) for Rockets games and other events, beginning with the Rockets regular-season season opener next Wednesday. Thursday’s preseason game against the Spurs is to be played with staff, friends and family in attendance as a final test of the health and safety requirements and sanitation steps planned.

Fans will be required to answer health questions prior to entering Toyota Center with additional league-mandated testing protocols required of fans closer to the court.

Face masks are required for all those in the building 2-years-old and older, other than players, unless eating or drinking. Gaiters, bandanas or vented coverings will be not considered acceptable face coverings.

The NBA did a great job with the bubble for their 2020 playoffs, but that’s not practical for the regular season, which will be slightly shorter than usual but still pretty close to normal. College basketball is happening now, though I don’t know what the fan attendance policies are. I’m not ready for this, and I don’t think it’s a great idea. I wish I knew what the city of Houston and/or Harris County think about this, but that topic was not explored in the story. I hope this doesn’t cause any large-scale breakouts, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

(By the way, the scheduled season opener for the Rockets yesterday was postponed because of COVID concerns on the team. Womp womp.)

The entire NCAA men’s tournament in one place

If we’re able to have an NCAA basketball season at all, then something like this makes some sense.

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee announced today the relocation of 13 predetermined preliminary round sites for the 2021 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

In recent weeks, the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee has engaged in a thorough contingency planning process to determine the most effective way to conduct a safe and healthy March Madness for all participants for the 2021 championship. Through these discussions, it became apparent to the committee that conducting the championship at 13 preliminary round sites spread throughout the country would be very difficult to execute in the current pandemic environment. The committee has decided the championship should be held in a single geographic area to enhance the safety and well-being of the event.

As a result, NCAA staff are in preliminary talks with the State of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis to potentially host the 68-team tournament around the metropolitan area during the coordinated dates in March and April. Indianapolis was already slated to host the Men’s Final Four from April 3-5, 2021.

“My committee colleagues and I did not come lightly to the difficult decision to relocate the preliminary rounds of the 2021 tournament, as we understand the disappointment 13 communities will feel to miss out on being part of March Madness next year,” said Mitch Barnhart, chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee and University of Kentucky athletics director. “With the University of Kentucky slated to host first- and second-round games in March, this is something that directly impacts our school and community, so we certainly share in their regret. The committee and staff deeply appreciate the efforts of all the host institutions and conferences, and we look forward to bringing the tournament back to the impacted sites in future years.”

The committee emphasized the importance of conducting the championship in a manageable geographic area that limits travel and provides a safe and controlled environment with competition and practice venues, medical resources and lodging for teams and officials all within proximity of one another.

“We have learned so much from monitoring other successful sporting events in the last several months, and it became clear it’s not feasible to manage this complex championship in so many different states with the challenges presented by the pandemic,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball. “However, we are developing a solid plan to present a safe, responsible and fantastic March Madness tournament unlike any other we’ve experienced.”

Basically, this is a bigger version of the NBA playoff bubble. If you scroll down at the link, you’ll see there were 13 other locations that would be involved if nothing changes – Dayton for the First Four, then eight first and second round locations, plus four regional final locations. (Dallas is an opening rounds, the only Texas city on the list.) You can eliminate a lot of travel by consolidating down to one location, but it’s a much bigger logistical challenge because there will be so many teams present, even if (sadly) it won’t be all of them.

Now again, all this assume there will be an NCAA men’s basketball season. (This story is about the men’s tournament committee – I have to assume that if they go this route, the women’s tournament committee will at least consider following suit.) As we’ve discussed before, while basketball involves fewer people per team than football, at least football can be played outside. NCAA hoops would be going on right now in a normal year, and no one can say when or if the regular season will start, though I’m sure the current plan is for January, with a shortened conference-only schedule. The issue of crowds (short answer: hell no) will have to be addressed, and of course the certainty of players and coaches and other personnel testing positive will wreak havoc. I want to believe we’ll be able to have March Madness in 2021, that we’ll be at a point where it’s reasonably safe to do so. But we sure have a long way to go to get there.

Coronavirus and college sports update

What life is like for Texas’ college football teams.

In the world of COVID-19-era college football, Sunday is a day not for resting but for testing.

Each Sunday this fall brings a new set of checklists and guideposts that players and staff members must negotiate before they can think about playing, let alone winning, on any given Saturday.

It has not been a uniformly smooth road for Texas’ 12 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Nine of the 12 have had at least one game on their revised schedules affected by their own positive COVID tests or those of an opponent.

This weekend alone, Texas A&M and Rice were idle because their games against Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, respectively, were postponed as college football enters the final month of its truncated, delayed regular season. Nationally, 15 games were postponed or canceled this weekend.

But with the exception of Rice, which delayed its season opener into October, each of the 12 Texas schools will exit this weekend having played at least a half-dozen games, which speaks to their success in maintaining the discipline required for success and health.

“We’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds in the most social time of their lives to be more mature than many adults are being,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “They’re doing a pretty darn good job of following the rules and being disciplined.”

A month remains, though, in which things can go awry quickly.

“We can’t let our guard down,” said Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork. “We can’t get too comfortable, especially with our communities surging right now. But everyone has done a great job.”

While each of the five conferences represented by the 12 Texas schools — the American Athletic, Big 12, Conference USA, Southeastern and Sun Belt — have their own weekly procedures, all are on the same approximate schedule.

You can read on for the details, but basically it’s testing on Sunday and at least one other day, contact tracing and quarantining anyone who was in contact with someone who tested positive, coordinating with the visiting teams, and so on. With the exception of Texas State, every school that is playing football has had at least one game postponed, with those that had scheduled non-conference games having them mostly or all canceled. I’ll be honest, this has gone better than I expected in terms of getting the games played – the effect of the outbreak in the towns that have these universities is another story, but that’s about more than just the games – though the wisdom of doing this at all seems to have been accepted regardless of the outcome. I think we’re going to be debating that for a long time.

Meanwhile, this is the time of year when college basketball normally gets underway. Suffice it to say, there are challenges. At least football is played outdoors, where some of the COVID risks can be minimized. If there’s going to be basketball of any kind before a vaccine is fully rolled out, I don’t see how it can be done with fans in the stands. We’ll know what they’re up to soon.

Everybody is invited!

I missed this last week.

ACC men’s basketball coaches are proposing an expanded 2021 NCAA tournament that would include every Division I team.

Several ACC coaches would prefer to avoid nonconference games in the 2020-21 season due to complications from the coronavirus pandemic, with sources telling ESPN that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is spearheading the push for an all-inclusive NCAA tournament.

ACC coaches voted Wednesday to propose the expanded 2021 NCAA tournament, sources confirmed to ESPN. The vote was first reported by Stadium.

Krzyzewski released a statement later Wednesday that said, in part, there “is no better way” to celebrate the game “than involving every team in the most prestigious basketball tournament on the planet.”

He said the primary factors the coaches considered were the health and safety of players, the incentive that there will be games leading to the tournament, and that they need to be unified as a sport, with all 357 Division I teams.

“This is not a regular season,” Krzyzewski said. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative.”

Oh, my God, this would have been awesome. I mean, dumb and unworkable from a pandemic perspective, but come on, let us dream for a minute. We all love the scrappy underdogs taking out established blue bloods in the first round, and a first round that included 256 teams would have had all kinds of possibilities for that happening. Just getting to see a slew of new mascots and goofy uniform color schemes and 15-second promos for each school we’d never heard of would have made the whole thing worthwhile. So of course the cooler heads at the NCAA killed the idea without even giving it a chance to breathe.

The ACC’s proposal for an all-inclusive NCAA men’s basketball tournament that would feature every Division I team does not currently have the backing of the event’s leadership.

On Thursday, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the organization is not considering a “contingency plan” to expand the tournament, a day after ACC men’s basketball coaches, in a movement led by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, proposed a field that would include every Division I team in the 2021 NCAA tournament after a Wednesday vote.

“Every college basketball team’s goal is to play in the NCAA tournament because everyone loves March Madness,” Gavitt said in a statement. “Certainly we missed it this year and can’t wait for 2021. While all who care about the game are entitled to their opinion, and we’ll always listen respectfully, at this time we are not working on any contingency plan that involves expanding the tournament field.”

Spoilsports. OK, OK, I admit, there were logistical issues, but surely they could have been overcome.

Consider:

  • There are 346 Division I schools eligible for NCAA tourney play this coming season. That is 324 more teams than the NBA sent to its Orlando bubble. Conservatively estimating each school’s travel party at 25, we’re going to repeatedly test and quarantine more than 8,000 people? Just so half of them can lose and go home after 40 minutes of basketball? I don’t think so.
  • The bracket itself, while amusing, would tax even the best of us. The basic math dictates that 166 teams receive opening round byes. The remaining 180 would play 90 additional games to create a symmetrical field of 256 teams, followed by a tidy eight-round gauntlet through the Final Four.
  • All told, we’re increasing the number of games — with commensurate travel and risk — from 67 to 345. That’s a fivefold increase and, while epidemiology is not my “ology,” I do know that infectious disease transmission is not arithmetic. We would be looking at way, way, WAY more than five times the amount of exposure.

Yes, yes, I know, the damned pandemic. I know in my heart of hearts that this would never have been possible. But damn, it would have been fun.

NBA agrees to offer its arenas as voting centers

Nice.

“What was the plan?” was always the wrong question to ask of striking NBA players; what they wanted was to not play basketball, and they got it. But they used that time not playing to talk, to think and to make their voices heard.

But the players did get a significant commitment from their bosses: turning as many NBA arenas as possible into voting sites for November.

The league and union announced Friday that the playoffs will resume Saturday. That announcement included a concrete promise from the league. Every team-owned arena will turn into a polling place for the November election in locations where that’s still legally possible in order for voters to have a large, COVID-safe place to vote in person.

Three teams had already committed to this earlier in the summer — Bucks, Pistons and Hawks — and the Rockets made the announcement on Thursday.

Chris Paul, the Thunder point guard and longtime union president, gave an emotional interview to bubble media after the announcement.

“In 15 years in the league, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Paul said. “Everyone expects us to go out and play. I get it. But we needed some time,” he said, adding that he had spoken to Jacob Blake’s father.

We knew about the Toyota Center. I had not been aware of the other three arenas, which was apparently something that happened in early July. Here’s some more details about what this announcement means:

On Friday, the NBA and NBPA announced a three-point plan to promote social justice and racial equality, which includes converting NBA arenas into voting centers for the 2020 presidential election. The NBA playoffs will resume on Saturday in Orlando.

“1. The NBA and its players have agreed to immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.

2. In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local election officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID. If a deadline has passed, team governors will work with local elections officials to find another election-related use for the facility, including but not limited to voter registration and ballot receiving boards.

3. The league will work with the players and our network partners to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”

In theory, that could mean voting centers in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona in addition the four that are already signed on. Maybe Dallas and San Antonio will join in as well. How many of these actually happen, and what kind of response the players will have if they feel the effort fell short for whatever the reason, remains to be seen. But in terms of direct action resulting from the wildcat strike the players engineered this past week, it’s pretty impressive. Well done.

(A more recent article than the NPR story I linked above suggests some other NBA teams, as well as teams in the NFL, NHL, and MLB, are taking similar action to allow their stadia to be used for voting. Not clear to me what relation these two efforts have. For sure, there are plenty of stadia, including hundreds of college stadia and arenas, that could also be used in this capacity, in all 50 states. It would be nice to say we’re just limited by our imagination, but of course we are very much limited by the ferocious opposition to this idea that those who don’t want to make voting easy and convenient would bring. What the NBA players have done is a great start. There’s a lot more that could and should be done.)

Big 10 and PAC 12 scrap football for this fall

Boom.

Big Ten Conference presidents and chancellors voted Tuesday to postpone all fall sports seasons, including football, with the hopes of playing in the spring, it announced Tuesday.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.

“We know how significant the student-athlete experience can be in shaping the future of the talented young women and men who compete in the Big Ten Conference. Although that knowledge made this a painstaking decision, it did not make it difficult. While I know our decision today will be disappointing in many ways for our thousands of student-athletes and their families, I am heartened and inspired by their resilience, their insightful and discerning thoughts, and their participation through our conversations to this point. Everyone associated with the Big Ten Conference and its member institutions is committed to getting everyone back to competition as soon as it is safe to do so.”

[…]

In making its decision, the Big Ten said it relied on the medical advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.

“Our primary responsibility is to make the best possible decisions in the interest of our students, faculty and staff,” Morton Schapiro, the Chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern University president, said in a statement.

The University of Nebraska, after Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost on Monday said his program is prepared “to look at any and all options” in order to play this fall, on Tuesday issued a joint statement saying “we are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten.”

“We have been and continue to be ready to play,” the Nebraska joint statement said. “Safety comes first. Based on the conversations with our medical experts, we continue to strongly believe the absolute safest place for our student athletes is within the rigorous safety protocols, testing procedures, and the structure and support provided by Husker Athletics.

“… We hope it may be possible for our student athletes to have the opportunity to compete.”

See here for the background. Here’s the official statement from the Big 10. Something I noticed after rereading my draft was that basketball, which obviously starts in the fall but has a sprint championship, was not mentioned in the news stories. It’s not mentioned in the statement either, so at this point there’s no news. Any postponement of basketball will have further effects, but for now that decision has not been made.

A few hours later, the PAC 12 followed suit.

The Pac-12 CEO group voted unanimously Tuesday to postpone fall sports and will look at options to return to competition next year, the conference announced.

“The health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports has been our number one priority since the start of this current crisis,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott in a statement. “Our student-athletes, fans, staff and all those who love college sports would like to have seen the season played this calendar year as originally planned, and we know how disappointing this is.”

Impacted Pac-12 student athletes will continue to have their scholarships guaranteed. The conference is also encouraging the NCAA to grant students who opt out of playing this academic year an additional year of eligibility.

The league’s medical advisory group had “concerns that many of its current recommendations cannot be achieved consistently across all universities at this point in time. Currently, the availability of frequent, FDA-approved, accurate testing with rapid turn-around time vary at each of the Pac-12 institution locations. In addition, in many locations within the Conference, community test positivity rates and number of cases per 100,000 in the surrounding community exceed levels which infectious disease and public health officials deem safe for group sports.”

The medical advisory group said “it is anticipated that over the next few months, rapid point of care tests will become more available and we will have a greater understanding of potential short- and long-term health effects of COVID-19 to better inform medical decision-making.”

Here’s their statement, which says they will “postpone all sport competitions through the end of the 2020 calendar year”. That also doesn’t mention basketball, but as noted since a bunch of (generally non-conference) games are played in the fall, it would seem to affect that as well. We’ll see what that means.

Looking at the other Power 5 conferences, it seems that the SEC is most likely to try to have a season, while the Big 12 may be the last one to made a decision. Whatever happens from here, this was a first step. There will be tons of fallout and repercussions from this, and we may not see a return to “normal” for some time. And that’s without factoring in the financial consequences. Hold onto your hats. The AP, CBS Sports, Slate, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: An interesting fact from the Chron: “As of Tuesday, 53 of the 130 FBS schools will not play football this fall.” Just a guess here, but that number is going to go up.

A few bumps in the road for the NBA

How’s that season restarting going?

A month ago, superstar players got on a Zoom call and reportedly created a united front to support a safe return to play. A lot has changed since. Last week, the 28 NBPA player representatives all voted in favor of the league’s proposal (which was approved by the board of governors the day before). But a closer look at the NBPA statement shows that the vote was strictly an approval of “further negotiations” with a caveat that “various details” were still to be negotiated.

Now that we’ve arrived at those various details, different parties have started to speak up with dissenting opinions. Last week, commissioner Adam Silver was fielding concerns about whether older coaches would be allowed to sit on the bench. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that a faction of players is hesitant to restart the season because of a policy that wouldn’t allow visitors until the first round of the playoffs, as well as a lack of motivation for teams unlikely to compete for the championship. Yahoo Sports reported Friday that a “significant” number of players were upset about not having a vote in approving the proposal and that some were reluctant to express their opinion to star players who want to play. Kyrie Irving, who is a vice president of the players union, was reported to be pushing for players to reconsider the planned restart.

[…]

One of the main concerns is that some players believe a return to play would detract from the current protest movement prompted by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Some players have already participated in the nationwide protests, and many have spoken out against police brutality on social media, including LeBron James, who yesterday announced plans to form a voting rights group with other athletes and celebrities. Malcolm Brogdon said on The JJ Redick Podcast that there are players who are interested in sitting out the rest of the season as part of a protest. Garrett Temple, meanwhile, told The Ringer that he believed going to Orlando was the right move and that being there a month before tipoff would give players the opportunity to come up with a plan to send a message.

“When you take a stance on things, you do that to bring attention,” said Temple, who is also an NBPA VP and represented the Nets in the player vote. “Then, after that, you have to actually do something to cause change … so whatever we do, it needs to be something that can cause tangible change in our community, in our game, in our country.”

That initial agreement was reached almost two weeks ago. Players were also surprised to find that the Disney/ESPN quarantine “bubble” doesn’t include Disney/ESPN employees, who will come and go from the site as before. Sure looks like a bit of a risk factor there. Even Commissioner Adam Silver is saying there are still issues to work out, and maybe this won’t be for every player. It still seems likely that the NBA will restart, but (no pun intended) it’s not a slam dunk. Things change fast, and time is limited. Until the teams actually start practicing and games get put on the schedule, it’s not a done deal.

Since I mentioned MLB in that earlier update, which at the time looked to be providing a “don’t be like this” contrast to the NBA, here’s one more Fangraphs article to read about how much the players were willing to negotiate versus how much the owners were willing to negotiate. That forthcoming grievance is gonna be something else.

MLS agrees on its restart, WNBA still considering options

More sports coming.

The MLS Players Association voted Wednesday to approve a revised collective bargaining agreement with the league. The new deal will run through 2025 and clears the way for Major League Soccer to resume its 2020 season via a single-site format in Orlando, Fla.

“I can’t give any further specifics on that Orlando concept,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a video conference with media. “That was a very, very big part of our discussions with our players. …We were fortunate to be able to finalize an agreement, as the union announced early this morning.”

Garber said details regarding the competition in Orlando, including format and dates, will be released later, but it is expected to be a tournament lasting no longer than 35 days. It will be conducted at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, which is where the NBA is planning to finish its season.

The commissioner also reiterated his commitment to finishing the season, even if that means pushing the MLS playoffs into 2021.

See here for the background. As noted, the NWSL is already set to return, on June 27. The NBA will be using the same ESPN facility, and I have yet to see how the logistics of that will be handled. I’m sure someone has a plan for it.

Meanwhile, the WNBA is still figuring things out.

The WNBA is considering playing its season at an MGM Resorts International property if it has a season this year, according to a report from The Associated Press.

The other location under consideration is IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The league announced the suspension of its season in April amid the coronavirus pandemic and has not decided on a start date. Operational details of a possible start are not clear, but the league would use a single site — much like the NBA.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the AP on Tuesday that the league has discussed a variety of options but did not confirm whether Las Vegas or IMG Academy were possible locations.

“We’re looking at the pros and cons of a number of different locations,” Engelbert told the AP.

The WNBA hadn’t actually started its season yet – like MLB, it was still in its preseason when it suspended activities. If the WNBA chooses to play its games in Las Vegas, they may have some company in the form of the National Hockey League, which is considering Vegas among a list of other cities to play its games; like the NBA, the NHL season was suspended just before playoffs were to begin. Again, I’m sure someone will figure out how to handle multiple leagues and all their people sharing the same facility. I’m just trying to stay on top of the news here.

NBA sets a plan, MLB still working it out

Happening today.

The NBA is finalizing details of a plan which is expected to be approved by the league’s Board of Governors on Thursday, paving the way for a return from the coronavirus shutdown.

The board is poised to give the green light to commissioner Adam Silver’s return of basketball which would begin July 31 with a 22-team format, and end in mid-October with a champion being crowned, ESPN reported.

The plan requires support from three quarters of the league’s 30 teams in order to be approved.

The NBA suspended its season on March 11 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Nets and Orlando Magic currently hold the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies occupy the postseason positions in the Western Conference.

Under the plan, each of the 22 teams will play eight regular-season games for seeding purposes for the postseason.

The 16 teams currently in the playoff picture will be joined by the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference.

In the East, the Washington Wizards are also included.

[…]

All games are expected to be within the confines of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando Florida, with all teams remaining on site to minimise risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

See here for the background. ESPN adds a bit more:

Life in the NBA bubble will be governed by a set of safety protocols. While players and coaches will be allowed to golf or eat at outdoor restaurants, they will also need to maintain social distancing, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The NBA is planning to have uniform, daily testing for the coronavirus within the Disney campus environment, sources told ESPN. ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Company.

If a player tests positive for the virus, the league’s intent would be to remove that player from the team to quarantine and treat individually — and continue to test other team members as they play on, sources said.

Employees at the Disney resort will have to maintain similar protocols. For example, no staff will be allowed into players’ rooms, and hallways will be carefully managed to avoid crowding, sources told Shelburne.

Weird, but the NBA had played the bulk of its season anyway, and the playoffs are always a different thing entirely. I just hope those employees at the Disney resort had someone thinking about their welfare as this deal was being hammered out. The Chron has more.

And then there’s MLB:

Major League Baseball has rejected the players’ offer for a 114-game regular season with no additional salary cuts and told the union it did not plan to make a counterproposal, sources confirmed to ESPN.

Players made their proposal Sunday, up from an 82-game regular season in management’s offer last week. Opening Day would be June 30, and the regular season would end Oct. 31, nearly five weeks after the Sept. 27 conclusion that MLB’s proposal stuck to from the season’s original schedule.

MLB told the union it had no interest in extending the season into November, when it fears a second wave of the coronavirus could disrupt the postseason and jeopardize $787 million in broadcast revenue.

While management has suggested it could play a short regular season of about 50 games with no more salary reductions, it has not formally proposed that concept. Earlier this week, multiple players told ESPN that they would not abide a shorter schedule, with one saying, “We want to play more games, and they want to play less. We want more baseball.”

See here for the previous update. If this sounds dire to you, let me refer you again to Eugene Freedman, who’s been around this block a few times.

Basically, it looks like the sides have agreed to the March deal, and now need to work out the safety and testing details, plus what to do if a player wants to opt out. Maybe the NBA getting set to start at the end of July will inspire them to agree on some version of their July 4 Opening Day season. Fingers crossed. The Chron has more.

The NBA inches closer to a return

We’ll know more soon.

NBA teams are expecting the league office will issue guidelines around June 1 that will allow franchises to start recalling players who’ve left their markets as a first step toward a formal ramp-up for the season’s resumption, sources told ESPN.

Teams expect a similar timeline from the league on when they’ll be allowed to expand individual workouts already underway with in-market players to include more team personnel, sources said.

The NBA suspended the 2019-20 season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The league is discussing a step-by-step plan for a resumption of the season that includes an initial two-week recall of players into team marketplaces for a period of quarantine, one to two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities, and a two- to three-week formal training camp, sources told ESPN.

Barring an unforeseen turn of events, many NBA owners, executives and National Basketball Players Association elders believe commissioner Adam Silver will green-light the return to play in June — with games expected to resume sometime before the end of July, sources said.

The NBA is still considering a two-site format for the return of the season, including Orlando’s Walt Disney World and Las Vegas, sources said.

See here for some background. That story was from Thursday. As of Saturday, things had progressed a bit further.

The NBA is going to Disneyworld. Or at least, it hopes to save its season and declare a champion in a single-site scenario outside of Orlando.

In the most public sign yet that the NBA is hopeful that it can resume its 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the league has begun exploratory talks with the Walt Disney Company about using its venue in central Florida to hold practices and games without fans present.

“The NBA, in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association, is engaged in exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about restarting the 2019-20 NBA season in late July at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as a single site for an NBA campus for games, practices and housing,” Bass said in a statement.

“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place.”

The MLS is also looking at Orlando, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility. I don’t know how much that might complicate the logistics, but one presumes they will figure it out. The Chron had reported earlier in the week that the Toyota Center in Houston had been in the discussion as a potential venue, but that is apparently no longer in play. It’s possible the NBA will go straight into a playoff system, or it may play some more regular season games but eliminate the teams with the worst records to limit the number of people required to be there. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

As you know, Major League Baseball has also been working on a season-starting proposal, though in typical fashion the owners are making up claims about financial losses in an attempt to back out of the previous agreement with the players and squeeze them on salaries. I suspect this will get resolved at some point, in which case we may suddenly have a lot of sports coming back to us. Assuming, of course, that there isn’t a big post-reopening spike in infections or other insurmountable obstacle. But if things go as the optimists hope, we could go from no sports to a fairly full slate in a hurry. We’ll see.

The NBA takes a baby step towards coming back

This may not amount to much, but it’s a potential sign that there may be more like it coming.

The NBA is reopening team practice facilities beginning on Friday for players in states and municipalities that are loosening stay-at-home restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

Players can return to team facilities in states such as Georgia for voluntary individual workouts as soon as next week, which allows for NBA organizations to start allowing players to return to training in a professional, safe environment.

Teams will remain prohibited from holding group workouts or organized team activities, sources said.

In markets in which more restrictive governance of stay-at-home orders remain in place, the NBA is telling teams the league will work with franchises to help find alternative arrangements for their players, sources said.

The NBA’s decision to reopen facilities based on the loosening of local governmental policies isn’t reflective of a new timetable for a resumption of play this season, sources said. Commissioner Adam Silver and owners still believe they need more time for a clearer picture on whether, when or how they could possibly resume the season, sources said.

Many team executives have been clamoring for the chance to get players back into their facilities, which they believe to be among the safest possible environments around the pandemic. On a conference call with general managers and Silver on Thursday, some GMs said they had players asking about the possibility of traveling to Atlanta to work out in fitness centers with gymnasiums, an idea that concerned many team executives, sources said.

“If our players can travel and play at a 24-Hour Fitness in Atlanta, they should be able to have access to our facilities,” one GM told ESPN on Saturday.

With Greg Abbott’s announcement about a plan to “reopen the economy” coming today, we might see the Toyota Center among those facilities. As noted before, the NBA is still sounding a lot of caution about when or if it might be able to resume its season. Unlike MLB, they have not been floating various games-in-a-bubble scenarios. As such, I don’t think this is necessarily anything more than just the teams trying to provide a (hopefully) safe way for players to work out. It’s not hard to imagine how that could lead to something more, however. It’s also not hard to see how that could lead to more players getting sick. For right now, it’s a bit of news, and we’ll see where if anywhere it goes.

The NBA is still looking for its way back

Nobody really knows what the next couple of months look like.

On the eve of what would have been the start of the postseason, NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Friday said he could not predict when, if or how it would resume its season or even when the league might know.

“We are not in position to make any decision and it’s unclear when we will be,” Silver said after the league held its annual spring Board of Governors meeting on Friday.

“I don’t mean to send any signals about the likelihood or not of restarting the season. All I can say is we’re still at a point where we don’t have enough information to make a decision.”

Quoting Disney CEO Robert Iger, who made a presentation to the Board of Governors, Silver said decisions were “about data, not the date.”

With that in mind, Silver could not even predict when decisions would have to be made because of the uncertainty in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He said many formats to play regular-season games and a postseason would be considered and that the league would be willing to delay the start of next season if necessary.

Still, even the factors that would have to be weighed to attempt to salvage the 2019-20 season showed how difficult it will be to resume the season that had been suspended on March 11.

“We’re looking for the number of new infections to come down,” Silver said. “We’re looking for the availability of testing on a large scale. We’re looking for the path we’re on potentially for a vaccine. And we’re looking at antivirals. On top of that, we’re paying close attention to what the CDC is telling us on a federal level and what these various state rules are that are in place.

“There’s a lot of data that all has to be melded together to help make these decisions. That’s part of the uncertainty.”

See here for some background. I’m less interested in the particulars, which includes something similar to the MLB games-in-a-bubble idea, than I am with the basic concept that no one has any idea when things will return to something sufficiently resembling “normal”. Right now, we’ve got the Governor talking about “reopening the economy”, and we’ve got whackjobs filing lawsuits and engaging in socially-undistanced protests over stay-at-home orders, all of whom want to more or less pretend that things are fine and we can all go back to going about our business. We also have these multi-billion-dollar enterprises, like the NCAA and major sports leagues, who would also very much like to get back to their own business of making money but have to take into account the very real risk to the health of their players, their employees, their fans, and so on. These leagues will act in their own self-interest, but that self-interest is balanced against other forces, which includes the players’ and officials’ unions, and the local governments where their teams are. The fact that a entity like the NBA, which is seeing the calendar run out on its current season, cannot say when it might be able to play its games again tells me more about our ability to “reopen the economy” than any crony-laden gubernatorial task force ever could.

The NBA tries to look forward

Hope + uncertainty = where we are right now.

While expressing a hope that bordered on determination that the NBA would be able to salvage its season in some form, commissioner Adam Silver also said the unknowns in the COVID-19 crisis are greater than even three-plus weeks ago when he suspended the season and that no decisions will be coming soon.

“Essentially, what I’ve told my folks over the last week is that we should just accept that for at least the month of April we won’t be in a position to make any decisions,” Silver said in a Twitter interview with TNT’s Ernie Johnson on Monday. “I don’t think that necessarily means on May 1 we will be.

“That doesn’t mean internally and in our discussions with our players and the league we aren’t looking at many different scenarios for restarting the season. But I think it is just honestly too early, given what is happening right now, to be able to project or predict where we’ll be in a few weeks.”

Silver said he hopes “to try to finish a regular season in some form and then move on to the playoffs” but that the league has not made any decisions.

He said the NBA initially was considering options for regular and postseason schedules based on potential restart days but has learned that even hypotheticals were relying on excessive guesswork.

“We just have too little information to make those sorts of projections,” Silver said. “I will say, though, as we look out into the summer, there does come a point we would start impacting next season. Even there, a few weeks ago nobody thought we were talking about a potential impact on next season independent on what we might choose to do to finish our regular season and playoffs.

“I don’t want to leave anybody under the impression we’re not trying to do everything we possibly can under the right circumstances. Player safety and the health of everyone in the NBA family has to come first. That may mean there is a scenario we can play without fans. That’s something we look a lot at.”

As we know, MLB is also thinking about when it can begin again. Both of these followed a meeting of multiple sports commissioners with Donald Trump, who would really really like it if this coronavirus thing went away ASAP. Again, I’m happy that the leagues are thinking about how this might work for them, but I think May is an aggressively early timeframe for it. The NBA is in some ways more constrained than MLB precisely because they have to start worrying about their next season, which would start in September. If they’re not able to begin playoffs soon, who knows where they’ll be in the fall. It’s just that none of this is really within their control.

Congratulations, Rudy T!

Long overdue.

At last, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame no longer will underestimate the accomplishments of a champion.

Rockets icon Rudy Tomjanovich will be named Saturday to the Hall of Fame Class of 2020, a person with knowledge of the voting said Friday.

While Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett undoubtedly will headline the class in their first season of eligibility, the coach who long had fallen short in the voting will receive the call his peers and successors had so badly wanted for him.

Tomjanovich, 71, received at least the 18 votes necessary from the 24-person Hall of Fame panel after he fell short of being a finalist last year and couldn’t garner enough votes in two previous seasons as a finalist. He had been the only coach to lead teams to multiple NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal who wasn’t in the Hall of Fame.

An All-American at Michigan and a five-time All-Star as a Rockets player, Tomjanovich will be inducted as a coach who long has been celebrated by his peers.

“Everybody knows when he said, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion,” he was talking about his team,” former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “But unfortunately, that’s what’s happened to him. Everybody’s underestimated him and his accomplishments and his heart and his class. To me, it’s an absolute shame … I hope they rectify.”

Besides Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and Tomjanovich, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, former Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, former Indiana Fever and Olympic star Tamika Catchings and Bentley coach Barbara Stevens were named as finalists.

That story was written before the formal announcement, which confirmed Rudy T’s enshrinement. If there’s one thing that cemented my identity as a Houstonian, it’s the 1993-94 Rockets’ championship run, which was just amazing to watch. (Their encore in ’94-95 didn’t hurt, either.) Great team, super coach, well-deserved honor, I’m overjoyed to see it. Congrats all around.

(By the way, kids, did you know that back in the year 1994, the first round of the NBA playoffs was mostly on pay-per-view? I watched several of those games, in ’95 as well, at sports bars because of that. It boggles my mind to think about it now, but that was the state of the NBA on TV at that time.)

The conditions under which baseball can return

If coronavirus cooperates. Cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Major League Baseball owners have approved a plan to address salary and service-time issues amid the indefinite delay to the start of the regular season, according to ESPN and multiple reports.

The owners completed an agreement reached between MLB and the players’ union Thursday night, which came after nearly two weeks of morning-to-night negotiations that involved players, owners, agents, executives, union officials and commissioner’s office staff.

As part of the agreement, obtained by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the players and MLB primarily agreed that the 2020 season will not start until each of the following conditions are met:

  • There are no bans on mass gatherings that would limit the ability to play in front of fans. However, the commissioner could still consider the “use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible”;
  • There are no travel restrictions throughout the United States and Canada;
  • Medical experts determine that there would be no health risks for players, staff or fans, with the commissioners and union still able to revisit the idea of playing in empty stadiums.

While there was no formal framework in the agreement, owners and players both want to play as many games as possible. The flexibility of both sides was seen in the willingness to extend the regular season into October, play neutral-site playoff games in November and add doubleheaders to the schedule.

That’s the basic gist of it, though I’d recommend you read the whole story. There are a lot of moving parts, and who knows under which conditions Commissioner Manfred might reach for that “appropriate substitute neutral sites” clause. You also have to wonder when leagues like the NBA and NHL, which are in the middle of suspended seasons, will come out with some similar document for their own return. (The NBA is watching the Chinese basketball league to see how their efforts to restart go.) This agreement between MLB and the players’ union will also have profound effects on amateur players and potentially the minor leagues – I recommend you read this Fangraphs article for the details on that. We should all also remember that we’re still on the upslope of this curve. There’s an ending out there and it’s good to look forward to it, but we can’t yet see it from here.

Further delay for Opening Day

Mid-May at the most optimistic, and that’s very likely too soon.

Major League Baseball pushed back opening day until mid-May at the earliest on Monday because of the new coronavirus after the federal government recommended restricting events of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made the announcement following a conference call with executives of the 30 teams.

“The clubs remain committed to playing as many games as possible when the season begins,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled or postponed across the country for the next eight weeks.

“The opening of the 2020 regular season will be pushed back in accordance with that guidance,” Manfred said.

No telling at this point when games will start. The All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on July 14 could be in jeopardy.

“We’re not going to announce an alternate opening day at this point. We’re going to have to see how things develop,” Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida. He didn’t want to speculate about the possibility of playing in empty stadiums, saying part of that decision would depend on timing.

See here for the background. This assumes that after eight weeks we will not be under a general directive to greatly limit public gatherings, and that MLB players will be more or less ready to go as soon as that happens. I’ll take the over on this best and assume that sometime in June is a more realistic target. The NBA is currently aiming for mid-to-late June, and if that is how it works out for MLB as well, I’ll be reasonably satisfied. That could yield an MLB season of between 90 and 120 games, depending on when in June things could start and whether the end of the season could be pushed back and/or whether there might be more doubleheaders. I’m sure there will be plenty of discussions between the league and the union, as there are now about pay and service time and what have you. Three months seems like forever now, but if we’re at a point of normality again where sports have returned, I for one will be pretty damn happy. I mean, there are plenty of worse alternatives at this time.

In which I agree with Ted Cruz: Shame on the NBA

When he’s right, he’s right.

Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has the support of some lawmakers in D.C., even as the Rockets and NBA have apologized for his comments supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Morey over the weekend tweeted and quickly deleted an image including the words “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” His comments were quickly rebuked by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and an NBA spokesman who noted they “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz slammed the NBA, saying in a tweet “human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.”

Cruz said he was proud to see Morey “call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong.”

“Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating,” Cruz tweeted.

[…]

Cruz is a well-known Rockets fan. But he wasn’t the only Texas politician voicing support for Morey. Democratic presidential hopefuls Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke also took to Twitter to back Morey.

“China is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S.” Castro tweeted.

“The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” O’Rourke tweeted. “What an embarrassment.”

Deadspin has been all over this, so start there and google around as needed. This is exactly the kind of craven behavior I usually expect from the NFL. For shame.

Bring back the Comets

Jenny Dial Creech would like to see one more professional sports team in Houston.

As [Tina] Thompson — the league’s first No. 1 overall draft pick — was inducted into the [Naismith Basketball] Hall of Fame, we were all reminded that the Comets set the bar for greatness in the WNBA.

“The Comets were the impact,” Thompson told ESPN earlier this year. “They made people stand up and watch. They made skeptics of the league and its ability to survive into believers. Houston set a tone. It created awareness and excitement, like a curiosity of, ‘What’s going on over there in that league? What is it that everybody’s talking about?’ Not just in the state of Texas, but also in other states and other cities, because they wanted to kind of know what the fuss was about.”

The Comets were widely supported, averaging more than 11,000 fans per game in their first five years. Cooper, Swoopes, Thompson and their teammates were stars.

Since 2008, a passionate group of Comets supporters has clamored for the return of their beloved team. It’s not that easy, of course.

There doesn’t seem to be a WNBA expansion plan. And though one team, the Liberty, is for sale, the hope in New York is that the new buyer will keep the franchise there.

But even though there isn’t a clear answer to get a team to Houston, the city should jump at any chance to get one.

We were season ticket holders for the Comets from 2001 through their last season. They may have averaged 11K per game in the first five seasons, but it definitely dwindled after that. (I can’t find season by season totals on the internet, so you’ll have to trust my memory on this.) I’d say part of that is that Houston fans can be fickle, and part of it is that the team just wasn’t as good after Cynthia Cooper retired. The team started out with a superstar trio (Cooper, Swoopes, Thompson), and never found another high-level player. There’s only so good that a basketball team can be with two stars and a bunch of mostly interchangeable spare parts. I don’t know what the WNBA’s plans are for expansion in the near to medium term, but if and when that becomes a thing, bringing a Houston franchise back to the league should be a priority. If you don’t remember the Comets or just want a refresher on their history and how damn good they were for those first four years, this Undefeated story from 2016 has you covered.

Final Four returns to Houston

Mark your calendars.

The NCAA announced Monday that Houston and NRG Stadium will host the 2023 men’s Final Four. College basketball’s marquee event will be held April 1 and 3.

It will mark the fourth time the event will be held in Houston, joining 1971 in the Astrodome and 2011 and 2016 at NRG Stadium.

[…]

The NCAA also announced Phoenix/Glendale (2024), San Antonio (2025) and Indianapolis (2026) will host Final Fours.

The latest announcement joins a growing list of major sporting events that will be held in the city over the next several years. Houston will host a 2020 NCAA Tournament men’s basketball regional, the College Football Playoff national championship game in 2024 and is among 17 cities vying to host as part of the winning North American bid for the 2026 World Cup.

“Houston’s on a roll,” said Janis Burke, chief executive officer for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “We keep getting bigger, better and stronger when you look at our footprint.”

I’m always happy for Houston to get these events. I think by now it’s very well established that we have good facilities and we do a good job with them. It’s a little hard to believe now, but Houston was a total no-go zone for 15 years for big sporting events. Between the 1989 NBA All-Star Game at the Astrodome and Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, as far as I can tell from googling around there was bupkis. New stadium construction and downtown revitalization have turned that around completely. That may change again – Houston did host several events in the 1980s, so perhaps there is another dry spell in our future. I kind of doubt it, though. Good for us.

Tina Thompson

Congratulations to original Houston Comet Tina Thompson for her selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Tina Thompson

Tina Thompson was honored for her stellar college, professional and Olympic career when she was named to the 2018 Class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.

The associate head coach for the University of Texas women’s basketball team joins a list that includes NBA greats Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Grant Hill and former Ohio State and WNBA standout Katie Smith.

[…]

Throughout her 17-year professional playing career, Thompson was a four-time WNBA champion with the Houston Comets (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000), a member of the WNBA All-Decade team, an eight-time All-WNBA team selection, a nine-time WNBA All-Star, and the WNBA All-Star MVP in 2000.

Thompson ended her professional career with the Seattle Storm in 2013 as the league’s all-time leading scorer with 7,488 points in 496 games played (15.1 ppg). She still remains the league’s second-leading all-time scorer behind Diana Taurasi (7,867 points).

On the international level, Thompson has won two Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA in 2004 (Athens) and 2008 (Beijing).

Jenny Dial Creech gives Thompson some well-deserved love. For a bit of perspective here, the Comets had more championships in their twelve years of existence than the Astros, Rockets, and Oilers/Texans have combined in their histories. They were an amazing team, and Tina Thompson was a foundational piece of it. It’s a shame the franchise was disbanded, and it’s a shame that the memory of them fades as time passes, but as long as Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper are in the Hall of Fame, a piece of the Comets and their amazing legacy will live on. Congratulations, Tina Thompson!

Tilman Fertitta buys the Rockets

Meet the new boss.

Houston billionaire Tillman Fertitta has reached an agreement to purchase the Houston Rockets from Leslie Alexander.

The $2.2 billion sale price to break the NBA record sale of $2 billion from when the Clippers were sold to Steve Ballmer, according to the person familiar with the terms of the deal.

“I am truly honored to have been chosen as the next owner of the Houston Rockets,” Fertitta said in a statement. “This is a life-long dream come true.

“Leslie Alexander has been one of the best owners in all of sports, and I thank him immensely for this opportunity. He has the heart of a champion. Lastly, out of respect for the NBA’s approval process, I can say no more other than I am overwhelmed with emotion to have this opportunity in my beloved city of Houston.”

See here for the background. I have no deep opinion on Fertitta – Jeff Balke makes the case for optimism in the Press, if you’re interested – but at least he’s a local and so hopefully won’t have some back-of-the-brain urge to move the team somewhere else some day. Mostly, what I have to say is 1) Don’t screw it up Tilman, and 2) the last time the Rockets changed ownership, they won the next two NBA championships. I’m sure that pattern will repeat itself. Deadspin has more.

Rockets for sale

The end of an era.

Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, among the longest-tenured owners in North American professional sports, has put the franchise up for sale, team president Tad Brown announced Monday in a stunning, hastily-called news conference after Alexander reached his decision.

Brown said Alexander, 73, has no health issues that led to the decision to sell the team nearly 24 years to the day after he purchased it for $85 million from Charlie Thomas. Brown said Alexander reached the decision that shocked the NBA, the organization and even those closest to him Monday morning.

“It’s something he’s been thinking about a little bit,” Brown said. “It can wear on you after so many decades. There are passions in his life now that are becoming more and more clear, his family and his philanthropic efforts.

“He made the decision. Once he makes up his mind, his mind is made up.”

Brown said there is no specific timetable for the sale of the team, but the NBA does have a list of prospective buyers that have shown interest in purchasing a team. Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who bid for the team in 1993, said he would be interested again. The price tag could run as high as the record $2 billion the Los Angeles Clippers sold for three years ago.

Brown will oversee the effort to sell the team in consultation with the league. He said Alexander is committed to finding a buyer that will keep the team in Houston. It would be unlikely that any ownership group would seek to move the team to a considerably smaller market. The Rockets’ lease with Toyota Center runs through 2033.

Forbes in February placed a valuation on the franchise at $1.65 billion, though Brown said those valuations have typically been “very low” when teams have been sold. The Atlanta Hawks were sold for $850 million in 2015, the most recent sale of an NBA team.

Like most people, I am sorry to see Alexander go. Beyond the cachet he gets from being the owner for two championship teams – and though they are now long gone, he gets credit for four Houston Comets championships, too – he was just exactly the kind of owner a fan could want. He put the team first, he didn’t shy away from letting his GM make a big move, and he was a very good public citizen. I’ve never been embarrassed to be a Rockets fan, and that’s something I can’t say about any other team I root for. Godspeed, Les Alexander. I can only hope your successor follows in your footsteps. NBA.com, ESPN, Yahoo, and the Press have more.

Athletes against SB6

From Athlete Ally:

Dear Texas,

The love of sport is in part what makes Texas great. The passion and competitive spirit that reverberates throughout the Texas athletic community is hard to match across the United States. It’s that passion – and the storied history of Texas athletics – that often makes the state a go-to destination for major sporting events and why we love to compete in the Lone Star state.

As members of the athletic community, we’re committed to upholding the very values that sport instills in each of us. Values like fair play, equality, inclusion and respect. We believe that everyone should be afforded the same access, opportunity and experience both in sport and under the law. This is why we’re joining together to speak out against Senate Bill 6 (SB6), and the dozen more anti-LGBT bills already filed, and the harm they would do to the state of Texas, to the transgender community, and to the sports we have come to know and love.

SB6 would require transgender people to use bathrooms based on “biological sex,” and would preempt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender Texans and visitors to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Other bills filed would prevent same-sex couples from getting married, allow campus groups to reject LGBT members, nullify local non-discrimination protections, allow healthcare professionals and educators to discriminate against LGBT people, and more.

As long as bills like these remain a possibility, Texas is sending a clear signal that LGBT players, fans, coaches and administrators are not welcomed or respected, both on and off the field. This should worry Texas, as the athletic community has clearly stood by its LGBT constituents and against discriminatory legislation. We have seen this story unfold in North Carolina, and we do not want it to be repeated in Texas.

Over the next year, Texas is slated to host the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four, the World Golf Championships, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, and many more. A recent economic impact study showed that the local San Antonio economy will receive a boost of $135 million in direct spending as a result of hosting the Men’s Basketball Final Four. Additionally, the study predicts an influx of 71,000 out-of-town visitors to the San Antonio area, resulting in a rise in spending at local businesses such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores and entertainment venues. Texas will likely not have the honor of hosting such prestigious events should bills like SB6 become law. This would be a shame for the state of Texas, but it can be avoided.

Texas can choose to uphold the values of sport by rejecting SB6 and other anti-LGBT bills, and the negative impact they would have. These bills are answers in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. SB6 isolates, excludes, and others the transgender community and exacerbates many of the issues transgender Texans already face. The only solution that embodies the spirit of sport is to expand equality by embracing diversity. That diversity is inclusive of the LGBT community and is why we hope you will do the right thing and reject these discriminatory bills.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned Members of the Athletic Community

There are some 55 signatories, and if I have one complaint about this otherwise fine letter it’s that the large majority of them are not from Texas. Former Baylor star Brittney Griner is the most notable Texan, and I am delighted beyond words to see five people from my alma mater on there – three coaches, one administrator, and one current student. I wish there had been more, but let’s view this as a starting point and go from there. Link via ThinkProgress.

Of more immediate interest is this:

A top Republican in the Texas House has confirmed he will hold a public debate on the so-called bathroom bill, but he said he doesn’t see any reason for it to become law.

“In all the years I’ve been on [the House Committee on] State Affairs, we’ve never seen an issue that would indicate there’s a need to address a bathroom bill,” Byron Cook, the Corsicana Republican who chairs the committee that will next take up the measure, told The Dallas Morning News on Thursday. “There’s no evidence of a problem.”

[…]

The bathroom bill has become one of the chief areas of disagreement this year between the House and Senate. Both chambers are dominated by Republicans, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made the measure one of his top priorities, just as [House Speaker Joe] Straus said it wasn’t one of his. The House speaker said it’s more crucial that lawmakers grapple with how to fund public schools and an ailing child welfare system in a tight budget year.

“Clearly, I’m not a fan of the bill that they’re discussing in the Senate,” Straus said last week when a Senate committee debated the bill.”They have their agenda; we have ours.”

Hard to know for sure what that means in practice. As the story notes, we don’t know when – or even if – Rep. Cook will schedule this for a committee hearing and possible vote. That’s what you need to keep your eye on, and it wouldn’t hurt to reach out to the State Affairs Committee members and tell them what you think about SB6.

The NBA is keeping an eye on SB6, too

I’d be shocked if they weren’t.

While lauding the work of New Orleans to take on the NBA All-Star game after the league pulled its events from Charlotte because of House Bill 2, which limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people in the state, NBA commissioner Adam Silver did not sound eager to take those steps again.

Silver said the NBA will closely monitor similar legislation pending in Texas and other states when considering bids to host future All-Star weekends and its many related events.

The Rockets have prepared bids to host either the 2020 or 2021 All-Star weekend, a person with knowledge of the process said on the condition of anonymity because the effort had not been announced publicly.

“In terms of laws in other jurisdictions, it’s something we continue to monitor very closely,” Silver said. “You know, I’m not ready to draw bright lines. Clearly, though, the laws of the state, ordinances, and cities are a factor we look at in deciding where to play our All-Star Games.”

[…]

“We’d have to look at the specific legislation and understand its impact,” Silver said. “I mean, I’m not ready to stand here today and say that that is the bright line test for whether or not we will play All-Star Games in Texas. It’s something we’re, of course, going to monitor very closely.

What we’ve stated is that our values, our league-wide values in terms of equality and inclusion are paramount to this league and all the members of the NBA family, and I think those jurisdictions that are considering legislation similar to HB2 are on notice that that is an important factor for us. Those values are an important factor for us in deciding where we take a special event like an All-Star Game.”

Greg Abbott is gonna be so mad about this, you guys. And from the league Commissioner, not some “low level adviser”, too. The NBA has already moved an All Star Game out of North Carolina, so they have a track record of action. Sure, the NBA All Star Game isn’t as big a deal as the Super Bowl, but there are three NBA cities in Texas, and there have been three All Star Games played in Texas since 2006, with Houston aiming for another one soon. Why would we want to mess that up?

Also, too, there’s this:

In addition to the NBA and NFL, the Big 12 has said it’s keeping an eye on the bill’s progress. The NCAA has deferred comment even as it threatens to move several championship games from North Carolina over the state’s bathroom law. San Antonio is set to host the Men’s Final Four in 2018. Dallas is hosting the women’s championship this spring, but the bill won’t be passed before the event.

The NCAA we know about, but recall that the Atlantic Coast Conference also moved several conference championship games elsewhere. Texas is home to schools in the Big XII – which will be having a football championship game again; wouldn’t it be a kick in the pants if they decide to have it in, say, Oklahoma City instead of Dallas? – the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the Southland Conference, and more. Lots of conferences, lots of sports, lots of tournaments and championship games potentially not being held in Texas. And for what?

Again, there is no such thing as an acceptable bathroom bill

The current strategy for Dan Patrick in trying to round up support for, or at least blunt opposition to, his bathroom bill is to claim that it will contain exceptions for sports venues, so no one needs to worry about boycotts or other bad things. Unfortunately for Dan, no one is buying it, and the actual lived experience of North Carolina remains the prime piece of evidence why.

But in the shadow of the millions of dollars in lost tourism-related revenue in North Carolina, opponents of the Texas bill warn that perception trumps specifics when it comes to business and that the exemption may not prevent Texas from feeling the economic repercussions that riddled the Tar Heel State.

“We have discussed that with our meeting planners and sports organizers — they don’t care about the nuances,” said Visit Dallas CEO Phillip Jones, whose group is among a coalition of Texas tourism bureaus and commerce chambers organizing in opposition to SB 6. “Perception is reality, and if there’s a perception that there’s a discrimination taking place in Texas that’s sanctioned by the state as a result of this bill, they will bypass Texas.”

SB 6 would restrict bathroom and locker room use in public schools and government buildings to be based on “biological sex,” and it would override portions of local anti-discrimination ordinances meant to provide transgender Texans protections from discrimination in public bathrooms and other facilities.

But while the bill would require government entities to set bathroom policies for other public buildings, such entities that oversee publicly owned venues would have no say in the bathroom policies in place while sports leagues like the NCAA hold championship games at a stadium or during a performer’s concert at an arena.

[…]

Officials in North Carolina used a similar argument to defend their bathroom law, but it still cost the state millions in cancellations: The NBA moved an All-Star Game from Charlotte, costing the city $100 million in profits. The city estimated it lost another $30 million when the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled its football championship. Businesses scrapped expansions in the state, and performers canceled concerts. And the NCAA relocated seven championship games from North Carolina during the 2016-17 academic year.

In light of those cancellations, business and tourism officials in Texas say they are bracing for similar fallout, arguing that the stadium and convention center exemption probably won’t be enough to keep business from leaving the state.

“The really consistent message we get back is: Don’t count on it saving you,” Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, said of feedback her group has received about the exemption from tourism officials in other states where similar legislation has been passed. Her nonprofit was recently set up to promote Texas businesses as LGBT friendly.

Associations holding conventions in Texas are already “expressing concern” over the legislation, tourism officials say. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has reached out to Patrick regarding the legislation, Patrick’s staff confirmed. And the Texas Association of Business, which represents hundreds of businesses and regularly sides with conservatives, is also opposed to the legislation, in part over concerns about it affecting the state’s ability to obtain business investments and recruit top talent to the state.

See here for some background. Jerry Jones is just another low level NFL adviser, so we don’t need to worry about what he has to say. Whatever you think about the NFL’s recent words, the fact remains that the NBA and the NCAA have shown with their actions and not just their words what they think of North Carolina’s bathroom bill, and if that state’s Republican-controlled legislature fails to repeal that law by the end of the month, they risk another demonstration of said opinion. There’s not enough lipstick in the entire Mary Kay collection for this porker. The only sensible thing to do is to leave SB6 in a back room somewhere, never to be seen again.

Super Bowl or bathroom bill?

Choose one or the other.

Texas’ next trip to the Super Bowl may hit a roadblock in Austin, where conservative lawmakers are pushing a bill to ban transgender people from the public bathrooms they feel most comfortable using.

“If a proposal that is discriminatory or inconsistent with our values were to become law (in Texas), that would certainly be a factor considered when thinking about awarding future events,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email response to a Chronicle question about the bill.

It was the league’s first statement on the matter since the legislation was introduced in January.

“The NFL embraces inclusiveness,” McCarthy added. “We want all fans to feel welcomed at our events, and NFL policies prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard.”

[…]

The NCAA did not directly address the situation in Texas when pressed, but a spokesman noted the precedent it set in North Carolina.

The NBA, likewise, said it considers “a wide range of factors” in determining where to host events like the All-Star Game. “Foremost among them is ensuring an environment where those who participate and attend are treated fairly and equally,” spokesman Mike Bass said in an email.

[…]

The NFL arguably represents the biggest threat. Houston’s NRG Stadium had barely emptied from last Sunday’s Super Bowl LI fans before civic boosters started talking about the next time the city would host the big game.

Former league official Frank Supovitz was quick to remind that the NFL in 1991 rescinded its offer to let the Phoenix area host a Super Bowl after Arizona legislators failed to recognize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.

The state policy was changed in 1992, and the 1996 Super Bowl was played in Arizona.

The NCAA has already moved championship events out of North Carolina, while sounding a very loud warning about future events. The NBA moved the All Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans. You can make what you want of the NFL’s statements, but they sure look pretty clear to me. Meanwhile, Dan Patrick is over there swearing that nothing bad will happen if SB6 passes. Who ya gonna believe?

Also, too.

A coalition of faith leaders, including several reverends and a rabbi, offered a similar message Thursday at a press conference at First United Methodist Church near the Capitol, aiming to equate the “bathroom bill” and additional anti-LGBT measures filed this session to discriminatory acts that run contrary to their religions’ values.

“Today, there is a systematic effort underway to make LGBTQ people second-class citizens in this state,” said Taylor Fuerst, a pastor at First United Methodist Church. “When such an injustice is done in the name of religion … faith leaders and people of faith cannot be silent. Our faith, our god calls us to stand up and speak out, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Fuerst also drew a parallel to the HERO debate and the current one over SB 6.

“They found what worked in Houston was to galvanize a certain branch of the faith community behind defeating [HERO] by using fear,” Fuerst said. “Those who are working for the passage of SB 6 and similar legislation found that approach worked and said, ‘Hey, we can use that.'”

The religious community had already entered the picture earlier this week, when Episcopal Church leaders suggested they could pull their triennial General Convention from Austin next year. In a letter Monday to House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican who has expressed deep reservations about SB 6, the leaders wrote they are “firmly opposed to this legislation and condemn its discriminatory intent.”

So that’s the NCAA, the NBA, the NFL, the American Society of Association Executives (see the Chron story), the American College Personnel Association, the Episcopal Church, and who knows who else. (Actually, Texas Competes is tracking this sort of thing – see their spreadsheet for the details.) Anyone lining up to say they won’t come to Texas unless we do pass SB6? I didn’t think so. The Trib has more.