Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Where Did All the Terrapins Go?

As I sit here typing, the Cincinnati- University of Minnesota game is on the television. Last night, I watched portions of the Michigan- Notre Dame game (double OT for the Wolverines). This morning I caught the highlights from yesterday's St. Joseph's- Hofstra game (OT for the Dutchmen). And I watched every minute of Saturday morning's Maryland- Manhattan game (Manhattan in a game that wasn't as close as the final score). It's safe to say, I've seen my fair share of this year's NIT.

My dominant reaction is disappointment. The games, by and large, have been well played, hard fought matchups. By and large. The glaring exception is my beloved Maryland Terrapins. Which is not to say that the Maryland players gave inadequate effort on the court. However, something was missing. Certainly, something was missing for the team most of the season. They never played up to their abilities in the most important games. Win or go home games, even in the NIT, certainly qualify.

More than anything else, the missing factor was the support. Or more narrowly speaking, the crowd. Watching Saturday's game (with, yes, an 11AM tipoff on the first day of Spring Break for an NIT game), the vast stretches of empty seats- good seats- struck me. But I told myself, it's the NIT. What can you expect?

What you can expect are packed houses (or at least packed enough that the fan at home can't tell the difference), raucous crowds, and honest to goodness home court advantages. Cincinnati, Michigan, and St. Joe's fans showed up. Pulling on my experiences as a student, many paying customers show up or don't depending on the opponent. On their own, they watch the games on campus the same way paying customers watch an NBA game. Politely, from their seats, clapping approvingly, cheering only when prompted. The students are an entirely different case. Loud, standing, yelling, stomping, chanting, going wild after defense steals, exploding after key baskets, occasionally as in need of a timeout as the players on the court, and- during the most charged of moments- causing the entire crowd to rise and yell. When I say the Cincinnati, Michigan, and St. Joe's fans showed up, I really mean the students. And the Maryland ones didn't.

One could apologize for the Maryland students and fans. Maryland, the 2002 NCAA Champions, just missed The Tournament for the second straight year after participating in The Tournament for 11 straight years. After just missing, for the second straight year, the NIT is a disappointment. The team and coach certainly sent that message, initially declaring they would decline an invitation to the NIT only to learn they had already committed themselves to playing. But is Cincinnati not just as disappointed? They also just missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a long while. Their fans, however, showed up for an NIT game. What gives?

I don't know how Cincinnati or Michigan or St. Joe's distributes tickets. I don't know when their Spring Breaks fall. Maybe those are the factors which really matter. Disappointed as I am- in the play of 'my' team and in the dedication of 'my' co-fans- I can't say I'm surprised. The Maryland administration/ athletic department has been seeking a more cosmopolitan crowd since the Comcast Center opened for the 2002-03 season. Prior to Comcast, when games were played in Cole Field House, students picked up their tickets ahead of time, presented their student ID and a student ticket at the door, and sat in the student section (front to back row along the bench sideline with some overflow behind the baskets). Picking up tickets for the big games involved lining up at the ticket window when distribution began two weeks or so before the game (or occasionally spending the night in Cole for the really big games). Getting good seats meant walking through the doors when they opened (two hours before game time). This system was abusable. Former students (ahem, yours truly for a season there) who still had their IDs and friends in school could go to the games (as could a visiting friend who looked a bit like someone else's borrowed ID).

With the move to Comcast, the University instituted a new distribution policy. Students request tickets on a website. Depending on availability, tickets are awarded on a lottery basis. Each ticket you get (and game you subsequently attend) earns points which increase your chances of getting a lottery drawn ticket. Your custom ticket (which can be printed up in your dorm room) has your name and student ID number on it. No transfers are possible. Additionally, students are assigned entry times (staggered to avoid lines, queuing up, etc) with earlier times given to students with more points. While theoretically encouraging and rewarding loyalty, the system strikes me as far too clean and passionless. This is exactly what the University wanted- a cleaner, less disruptive distribution plan (and for fair reasons- what school wants kids skipping class and sleeping on concrete for tickets instead of doing their work?). And now they have it and all that comes with it. The students have far less invested- in time, in preparation, in effort- in going to any single game. Cumulatively, this adds up. The fans are less devoted. The players- who in college truly do feed off the crowd- receive less of a lift. In turn, the fans devotion is even less. And on and on it spirals. Until the going gets rough and there's no one there to help pick you up. Like last Saturday. It is a sad turn of events made even more so by the love and dedication fans at a Cincinnati or Michigan are able to show their team, even under disappointing circumstances.

The game is now over. Cincinnati and its fans get to cheer another day. Hopefully Maryland's will as well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Beth Orton Can't Whistle

Although her cough (aka f*ing lung infection as she called it) may have had something to do with that. Despite the difficulties, Orton put on an enjoyable, personable show. Her crowd banter was engaging if not quite funny. Her jokes fell flat, although that may be attributable to the language barrier (she's English). Her older works stood up well under the stripped down instrumentation she is now playing. The songs from her newest album, Comfort of Strangers, were more alive than they are on the disc. Especially Worms, the album's opening track and probably the high point of the evening for me (while a wonderful performance, the construction of the concert was relatively nondescript).* As the evening's most rousing number and Orton's sole turn on the piano, Worms was the only song that shook the evening's pace.

Beth, you did a wonderful job and you're quite the gamer with your two encores. Feel better (fat chance, Sunday was the first night of her tour). And, please, work with Willy Mason.

Willy Mason was the opening act. In something of a new experience for me, I was familiar with the opening act before the show thanks to my having stumbled across his precocious Oxygen. I was interested to find out if he is a real talent or just a guy who got lucky with one song. Sadly, he's neither at this point. When he sings slow, deep (voiced that is), almost rythmless songs, he's any guy on stage. When he adds pace to his music his voice and wit show themselves to be something special. The pace may simply force him to annunciate better (he's a bit of a mumbler when he speaks- I never did catch the last name of his clarion voiced violinist / accompaniest Nina something or other). Unfortunately, more of his performance was the any guy on stage than the guy you remember. But at only 20 or so years old, he's still finding himself. I remain hopeful.

*Full disclosure, I am enamored with the lyrics to this song, such as:
They [chickens] got a wishbone
Where their backbone
Shoulda grown

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Past is Future?

Or should I say “Let's get the family back together.”

22 years ago the feds busted up AT&T. Before the break-up, AT&T was synonymous with the telephone. One bill for all of your services (of course, there were far fewer services at the time- local service, long distance, and that's it) and they provided the hardware (that was starting to phase out by the 1970s). There were a smattering of non-Bell (AT&T, aka Ma Bell) local service providers- the largest of whom was GTE- commonly referred to as 'independents.' AT&T was, essentially, the only long distance provider. The entry of MCI (and satellite technology) struck the blow which ultimately led to AT&T's divestiture.

AT&T, pre-1984, was a patchwork organization consisting of AT&T proper (Ma Bell) which operated the long distance network, the Bell Labs, and the so-called Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) which provided local service. The Regional Bells were arranged according to state lines and AT&T's acquisition processes (the Feds stopped that during the first part of the century). The divestiture order consolidated the Regional Bells into 7 companies and then spun them off into completely independent entities— Bell Atlantic, Nynex, BellSouth, Southwestern Bell, Ameritech, USWest, and Pacific Bell. Essentially, the government recognized local phone service to be a natural monopoly (and limited the so-called Baby Bells to providing local service so as to blunt that monopoly power) and attempted to create competition within the long distance market by forcing AT&T to buy it's access the same as any other long distance provider (additionally, Ma Bell was forced to disavow the Bell name).

Fast forward to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which attempted to foster competition in local phone service (by allowing the Baby Bells to enter the long distance market only after they opened their local networks to competitors). As we walk forward in time, 1997 saw Bell Atlantic buy Nynex. In 1998 Southwestern Bell bought Pacific Bell and added Ameritech to the family the next year. Bell Atlantic bought GTE in 2000 and re-named itself as the far less regional sounding Verizon. Also in 2000, USWest was purchased (with tech bubble funny money) by Qwest. Last year Southwestern Bell— who had by now changed their name to the far less regional sounding SBC— purchased AT&T and Verizon acquired MCI (but only after winning a bidding war against Qwest). Which leaves only poor little BellSouth without an interesting corporate history. Until last week, that is, when it was announced AT&T (SBC chose to use AT&T's more well known- and far less regional sounding- name when they merged) is in bringing BellSouth back into the fold.

The 7 Baby Bells are now 4, heading toward 3. You can only wonder how long until the family is back together. Verizon and SBC are the successful children. Verizon largely broke from the family and pursued its own path (making peace with the family's long standing nemeses GTE and MCI). SBC is the better sibling- giving Ma Bell a place to live when she could no longer take care of herself, offering a home to the smaller siblings. BellSouth is the mid-life bachelor of the family, coming home because he's lonely. USWest is the truly wayward Baby- taking up with a sketchy partner and as a result saddled with questionable debt. Maybe Qwest is re-united with the family at some point over the next few years, but I doubt it.

On the cellular front, BellSouth and SBC are the joint owners of Cingular. In 2004 (in preparation for giving up on this whole independent living thing), AT&T sold its wireless division to Cingular. With the pending merger of AT&T (nee SBC) and BellSouth, the Cingular name will be retired in favor of the better known AT&T brand. Which makes sense- I buy part of you. The rest of you is bought by someone else (who part owns me to begin with). They buy the rest of me. I take your name.

None of this should be interpreted as an argument either way. Things have changed with the advance of cable, cellphones, and broadband. But have they changed so much that what was done should now be undone? Are there really adequate economies of scale involved?

At the same time, it is probably a mistake to think in terms of the concentration and size of the telephone companies. Rather, telecommunications- phone and cable companies if we're talking about the wires into our homes, many others if we are talking about the actual services provided- is probably the more accurate market concept. Which brings me back to an idea I considered a few weeks ago- public ownership of the wires. As the giants of the telecom infrastructure are increasingly making clear, part of the allure of owning the information highways is charging content providers and users for the privilege of using the bandwidth. Why shouldn't this be public property? Control over those wires is not the sole driving force behind this merger (in the short term, consolidating the cellular situation is probably a bigger deal), but telephone and cable companies both know the more homes they connect to, the rosier their future will be. I wish the same could surely be said for the people who live in those homes.