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Gentrification comes to college sports…according to The Undefeated

A dip in first generation student-athlete participation is apparently a bad thing for ESPN’s The Undefeated website.

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Chances are if you live in an urban area you’ve heard the term gentrification thrown about a lot. Usually that is in regards to the transitions happening in areas that were once or still are lower income and under-developed but becoming less so today due to developments and higher housing and rental costs.

But, for ESPN-owned site The Undefeated, apparently gentrification is now becoming an issue in college sports.

At issue is the fact that kids going to school on scholarship are less like to be first-generation college attendees.

You know, as if that is a really bad thing for American society on its face? Far be it for society to have fewer first-generation attendees and more people with degrees and better economic outlooks because of it. Those damn middle class kids stealing scholarships and all.

At least that is the clear implication at foot from article author Tom Farrey.

The implication of the article is that the NCAA is somehow racist and leaving those who are of lower income brackets behind. It all boils down to race over at The Undefeated anyway:

You may think you’re about to read the same story you’ve read, oh, maybe a thousand times before: Kid from low-income area uses hoops to get a university education, and perhaps a chance at NBA millions. These heart-warming tales underscore the value of college sports as a tool of social uplift for black Americans. And maybe they even renew our faith in the American dream, that anyone can rise from bottom to the top if they work for it.

But, Farrey’s article immediately goes on to point out that fewer and fewer kids from disadvantaged economic circumstances are seen in scholarships given across NCAA Division I athletics, not just the moneymakers of basketball and football where its more likely that disadvantaged youth would be seen.

According to Farrey’s own research:

The declines happened across most sports and for both men and women – from baseball and softball to soccer and women’s gymnastics. There were a handful of exceptions, with increases in men’s swimming and women’s volleyball, for instance. But they didn’t change the overall trend.

So, in less than half of the article, Farrey points out something nefarious is afoot and the inner city black kid is getting screwed, and then points out that it’s actually a trend nearly across the board for all sports — even the ones where black participation rates are low.

Again here, the implication is that only poor black kids are getting shafted by “the system” and there’s no way anything other than something sinister is at play.

After all, everything and anything NCAA is evil.

Farrey points out that the numbers of so-called “first geners” (aka a kid who is the first generation of his family to go to college) are declining. As he notes, today there are fewer than 1 in 5 students playing Division 1 hoops, and 1 in 7 in all Division 1 sports, coming from families in which neither parent went to college. And their numbers are declining.

Yes, because that is necessarily a bad thing? God forbid a generation before them began to go to college, used their degrees and/or athletic ability to become middle class or wealthy and have set their children up for success they never really thought possible. God forbid those children also play sports and happen to be really good at them.

Some would actually call the above scenario the embodiment of the American Dream.

Now, sure, one could see the declining numbers and be curious as to the factors at play. That’s not the issue here, raising a question as to how the numbers happen is just smart journalism. What is at issue is the fact that Farrey came to this article with a theory in mind and never bothered to explore outside of things that would make his theory possible.

Not once is there a hint of looking in to anything beyond the raw number of student-athletes being first-generation college attendees and maybe making a link to those numbers. Not once is there a real hint that what is actually happening may be of a net benefit to society as a whole.

Look, I’m all for examining the reasons behind a decline like Farrey points out from the NCAA studies. It is important to make sure no one is being left behind for reasons that are easily fixable. But, for most of the article, the suggestion is that the drop in first-generation players is a bad thing.

Instead, could it possibly be that the goals of progressive politics are actually being met? Could it be that a segment of the American population that began going to college in greater numbers in the 1990’s and early 2000’s actually used those scholarships and degrees to better their economic and social lives?

If so, shouldn’t that be something to be happy about?

That certainly isn’t the point of this article though. Instead, you are led to believe that there is something wrong and dangerous about what is happening with the decline of first-generation student-athletes. Farrey never bothers to dive deep in to the underlying issues that could be at play to make this outcome a positive one.

Could it be that the drop in the first-generation numbers simply come from the raw increase of those attending college period over the last 40 years? Could it be that through increased access and readily available student loans more economically challenged students have taken advantage of access to college to pull themselves out of poverty?

Well, digging a bit deeper and doing what Tom Farrey couldn’t do, suggests that there is likely a greater causality to that than what is meant to be suggested in the article.

According to an article in The Atlantic back in 2015, there has been a sharp increase in the number of black students going on to college. It notes the increase in the black student population at four-year degree universities and colleges has been pretty steady.

“Universities focusing on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees also broadly saw gains, with blacks making up 14 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in 1994,” said the article by Andrew McGill.

If you’re keeping track at home, that percentage of college population is almost dead even with the makeup of black people in the overall population of the United States as a whole (14.5 percent according to BlackDemographics.com) . Certainly, an increase in overall college attendance is a good thing for the black population in this country…just as it should be for any racial group across the board.

The question that really needs to be asked if the percentage of black students that are poor and getting scholarships is going up or down? The assumption that first-generation athletes are the only ones that are poor is a bad one. There are plenty of people with degrees that are poor, or plenty of people who attended and never finished college that are poor or not in the upper middle class.

Instead, the focus is only on black athletes and assuming they must come from poor backgrounds. You know, because lumping an entire race in to one category or another is really smart (SARCASM ALERT).

Farrey makes his hypothesis based on a student-athlete survey that the NCAA put out called the GOALS Study. In the study, apparently administered every five years, there was a dramatic drop in “first-gen” participation rates. According to the article:

Surprisingly, the data revealed that most Division 1 sports experienced steep drops in first gen students. The falloff was dramatic even in the sports most associated with tales of uplift: In men’s basketball, the sport that used to have the highest percentage of first gens, the number plummeted by a third in just five years. Women’s basketball experienced a similar drop. Football fell by more than 10 percent.

The author contends that the trend is “scary” and that something nefarious is afoot here — opportunity is being denied to poor black kids because they are black.

Farrey postulates that there are three factors at play in keeping down the black first-generation athlete:

  1. Rising academic standards at the NCAA and its member colleges.
  2. The increasing importance and cost of early training to being recruited for Division 1 sports.
  3. A growing black middle class that can afford the early training and educational advantages that open the door to college sports opportunities.

Those assumptions are easy to see, but the problem here is that two of the three reasons postulated are actually good things.

First up is Farrey’s assumption that better academic standards is a bad thing.

The NCAA has a role to play in making sure that access to scholarships is possible for anyone, but to suggest the organization and its members are going out of their way all the sudden to deny access on purpose is ridiculous.

It’s as if the NCAA and it’s member institutions are supposed to dole out an athletic scholarship to only those who are disadvantaged over anyone else. Nevermind the fact that the No. 1 goal of handing out an athletic scholarship is to find the best players to fit in your program and win games or meets or races, etc and the No. 2 goal is to make sure the student in student-athlete can actually hang in college.

(Of course whether that last part is really of importance in big sports is plenty up for debate)

The harsh reality is that sports exist as a way to market a school and bond with the community they are in, and they also exist as part of a larger university that is focused on and cares deeply about the academic side of things. It’s the NCAA and athletic department’s jobs to balance both athletic and academic pursuits.

Sometimes that means saying no to someone who may be talented but never put the work in in the classroom. It’s also why the NCAA has come up with things like the APR and minimum qualifying standards — those  standards of which are often times far lower than the student body at large may we point out.

Are there flaws in how the APR is put together? One could certainly argue that, but it’s hard to argue that the goal of graduating student-athletes and having actual academic standards is anything but a noble goal.

Are there flaws in a blind system of GPA’s and test scores? Of course there are, because they are standards and universally applied. There are always exceptions to those standards and those rules and there always will be. But, it is the university that is taking on the academic, athletic and financial risk of bringing in athletes on scholarship and having standards by which one can enter is a good thing by-in-large.

One area I think most can agree on is the second of his points — the cost of entry.

Farrey brings up the larger point of access to training and specialization in youth sports as barriers for low-income athletes. He’s right to see that as a factor, because that can be an area that affects poor athletes the most. It can be their largest barrier to access, but then again, those with talent almost always find a way around the financial burden of the AAU circuit in basketball or to access to club soccer or 7-on-7 football, etc.

The real question is if the limited access is the prevailing factor in his hypothesis ? No, it’s simply not. The difference is too large for that factor to measure so heavily, especially since not a lot has changed in terms of the access points over the last five years.

Instead, Farrey hints time and again that the only thing that should matter is the raw numbers of student-athletes that are first generation college attendees. There’s never any real exploration of the underlying reasons for it happening, it’s just that it happening is a bad thing.

Call me crazy, but isn’t seeing the number reduce generation over generation a good thing? Isn’t the fact that one generation was able to use its opportunity as first generation student-athletes to better themselves and the next generation a net positive for society?

Shouldn’t it be a good thing that fewer kids have parents without college degrees and therefore an increased opportunity to climb out of poverty and up the middle class ladder?

Shouldn’t it be a good thing that the children of those college-educated parents don’t know the struggles, the crime, the bad living conditions that often come with a life in poverty?

Shouldn’t we as a society applaud the fact that fewer numbers of people come from homes without the struggles of the generation before them?

What I see here is a really good thing for American society. We have more adults going to college (whether they finish or not), fewer kids growing up with hard economic lives and more kids continuing to know the value of education and sports.

Yet, the folks over at The Undefeated have decided a positive step towards socio-economic growth and stopping the cycle of generational poverty means something is wrong with the college sports model.

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Veteran of the Digital Sports Media world, with work featured on Fox Sports, ESPNU and other outlets. Previously employed at Bleacher Report, The Comeback and FanSided. Consumer of sports media and member of it since 2011, you can find me still beating the drum of independence and truth in sports coverage.

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ESPN

Are politics to blame for exodus of subscribers from ESPN in 2018?

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The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, better known as ESPN, has been in trouble for some time now. Recently posted fiscal numbers from parent company Disney suggests that the trend downward isn’t stopping any time soon.

According to a report in Variety, ESPN reported a loss of 2 million subscribers in this past fiscal year. For 2018, ESPN saw subscriptions drop to 86 million from 88 million in 2017. 

On its face, a 2 million subscriber loss may not portend a great fall for the giants of the sports world. But, fiscally, it’s a massive deal, as ESPN is getting about $8.11 per customer for ESPN and ESPN2 programming bundles.

Add it up and that means ESPN is suffering a loss of at least $16.2 million dollars per month or $194.4 million per year. 

That’s a huge problem for a network that has paid billions per year for live sports programming and multi-millions of dollars for on-air talent (on programming like The Get Up that are failing miserably) 

For those who are conservative, these types of losses tell the world that the network continues to just not get it when it comes to shoving politics down our throats while we try to watch sports.

But, do the numbers mean what people think? Not exactly. 

That’s because almost every Disney-owned cable network has seen a similar decline in 2018. 

According to Variety’s report, Disney Channel has also seen its subscribers ebb to 89 million, down from 92 million in fiscal 2017. Freeform fell by 2 million to the 90 million mark. Disney Junior (69 million) and Disney XD (71 million) both lost 3 million subs.

If ESPN were the only Disney-owned cable network losing subscribers at a rate of 2 million (or more) per year there would be some fire to the thought that the politisport nature of ESPN over the past few years would be to blame. 

But, that’s clearly not the case given the loss is nearly across the board. Instead of it being politics to blame, it’s very likely other forces are at hand. 

So, before you celebrate ESPN losing subscribers to some right-wing or conservative boycott or people being sick of politics being driven down their throats all the time, let’s remember the reality is that it likely has nothing to do with that. 

Could it be that those who are sick of those things happening have decided to cut the cord? Sure, but those people are likely a small subset of a larger trend across the country. People in general are increasingly interested in cutting the cord and going with digital subscriptions to things like Hulu, Netflix and YouTube TV to name a few.

Even those who are cutting the cord and going digital with live TV that includes ESPN, they are doing so at a much smaller per-subscriber rate than ESPN can get for the cable side of things.  

For example, YouTube TV charges $35 per month for access to over 50 channels. That’s an average price of 70 cents per channel, a far cry from the over $8 charged to customers on the cable platform. 

That’s not a recipe for making up not only the overall subscriber numbers, but also the financial bottom line. But, it isn’t the only thing that should be troubling to the powers that be at Disney. 

What should really trouble ESPN overall is that of those 2 million subscribers lost, they aren’t making it back up with their new all-digital subscription service either. 

Just a few months ago, ESPN celebrated itself for reaching the 1 million subscriber mark for its ESPN+ service. It seems like a great start on the surface, especially for the fact that it took just five months or so to get there. 

But, as we pointed out when that number came out, ESPN may be fudging the real number just a bit thanks to how it treated some of its other paid services — namely rolling over its ESPN Insider subscriptions in to ESPN+ subscriptions. 

Those numbers were never broken out or told to anyone, even after multiple media request for those numbers. At best we may be talking about 600,000 Insider subscribers and at a low we may be talking about the 300,000 range based on previous digging by other media outlets dating back a few years. 

You start to see a problem coming ESPN’s way in 2019 when you look at those numbers too. What happens if the majority of rolled-in subscribers decide not to pony up the $4.99 per month for ESPN+ after their Insider subscriptions expire in 2019. 

This may all seem doom and gloom, but if ESPN was looking for a glimmer of hope, it came in the fact that their rate of loss of subscribers went from 3% between 2016 and 2017 dropped to just 2% between 2017 and 2018. So, the rate of loss is slowing according to the numbers. 

While all of it adds up to a business that hasn’t figured out how to adapt to the changing times for TV these days, it doesn’t add up to some exodus due to politics as some will spin this.  

It does add up to a business that continues to be a drain on the bottom line for parent company Disney and that’s a major reason why change may happen and has already happened with John Skipper’s ouster earlier this year.

We’ll see if the changes ESPN made in its programming bent over the past six months can save the network going forward. 

Given the losses sustained the past two years, it could be too little too late though. 

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Tim Tebow says what most media won’t about Terps coaching fiasco

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When the University of Maryland decided to keep head coach D.J. Durkin on Tuesday, the backlash on social media and from the sports media in general was overwhelming. 

24 hours later and university president Wallace Loh took action and fired Durkin

It was a wild period for the university, Durkin and all involved and it left plenty scratching their head. Either it took Maryland too long to do the right thing or they didn’t the courage of conviction to begin with. 

On Friday, former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was asked to weigh in on the whole situation on ESPN’s First Take program and he didn’t mince words. 

What was Tebow’s problem? It wasn’t the decision to hire or the decision to fire. Instead, he took Maryland to task for not having the stones to make a decision, get everyone on the same page and stick by what they decide. 

“You need to make a decision and you need to stand with it,” Tebow said. “Because right now (the decision to fire Durkin) shows people are so afraid to have conviction to believe in something when they make a decision that they’re like, ‘oh my goodness social media’s against us. Well we’re gonna fire him now.’ You just made a decision to keep him. If that’s your decision, if you believe that’s what’s right for the program, then it shouldn’t matter what I say, what social media says.”

He took them to task especially for listening to the whims of social media and then backtracking because of the mob response to what took place on Tuesday. 

“So many people want to be liked instead of being respected. And I think more universities need to stand by what they believe is right.”

Tebow also pointed out that there’s a difference between the debate on social media and in the sports media and what the university has to do. 

What exactly was the point of the 10-week investigation if a decision couldn’t be agreed upon by all parties involved or at least followed by everyone involved. 

Instead, it appears internal politics and Loh specifically working to keep his job and his reputation intact that was at work here. 

As for the sports media, there was a large backlash and even outright advocacy at play. 

CBS’ Dennis Dodd outright advocated for mutiny and protest by the Terps players because he didn’t like the decision that was made. 

“The Maryland players must protest. Probably a boycott is best. Don’t play, guys. Your lives are at stake.

Some sort of extreme dissent is all they have left. Their university abandoned them. Their strength coach humiliated them. Their head coach created a culture of intimidation. Oh yeah, and one of their brothers collapsed and eventually died running gassers while all of them watched.

Jordan McNair paid for this culture with his life.

Meanwhile, that coach, DJ Durkin, will continue to be paid and return to leading the team.”

Nevermind what the majority of players believe or wish would happen. Nevermind if they believe Durkin is the leader they want to play for or the person they choose to lead them going forward. 

The vast minority of players, as in just three according to multiple reports, staged some sort of protest by walking out of either a team meeting or practice. 

No doubt there are plenty of raw emotions regarding teammate Jordan McNair and all the things that have gone on behind the scenes. 

But, few in the media were willing to say what Tebow said. This should’ve been a chance for Maryland to show a unified voice and stick by a decision they came to. 

Instead, they got egg on their face all because they couldn’t be true leaders. 

Instead, Maryland succumbed to the whims of social media and advocacy wrapped in the cloak of journalism. 

Thus is the power that sports writers have today. One article leads to one tweet leads to a social media ground swell and bam…you have the appearance of a crisis and the need to react immediately.

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ESPN

ESPN+ celebrates 1 million digital subscribers, hides key details

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ESPN has seen a steady decline in ratings and most importantly subscribers over the past few years. It’s had a huge affect on the bottom line for the company and parent company Disney. 

Declining ratings + declining subscribers = less money to charge for advertising on the channel. 

It all ended up meaning something had to change for the struggling “Worldwide leader in sports entertainment.” Enter the idea of ESPN+, a subscription-based service that gives access to all ESPN content plus digital-only content that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

The service was launched in April and since then has continued to add both live sporting content and original programming to attempt to attract today’s sports fan. 

At $4.99 a month, the goal was to attract those customers who cut the cord but love sports. It was seen as a long-term play and something that wouldn’t take off right away. Sports fans are a creature of habit after all.

But, five months after April’s launch and suddenly the folks in Bristol had reason to party. That’s because they hit the magical one million subscriber mark

Not too shabby for a five-month old service that many see as an add-on to cable subscriptions. 

This is how ESPN celebrated that milestone via their PR folks: 

“Reaching one million paid subscribers is an important milestone for any video subscription service, but reaching this benchmark in such a short amount of time is an incredible testament to the teams from DTCI and ESPN who have worked tirelessly to bring this product to market and continually improve it since our April launch,” said Kevin Mayer, chairman, Direct-to-Consumer and International, The Walt Disney Company. “We’re thrilled so many sports fans have quickly come to love the service. The future is bright and we believe growth will continue as we add features, distribution partners and more exclusive content in the coming months.”

But, as with all things press release from ESPN, the devil really is in the details. 

What ESPN won’t tell you is that during the five months since launch, they have also rolled all ESPN Insider subscribers in to the ESPN+ fold

Just how many of those subscribers make up the one million mark ESPN has been touting is a huge question. Numbers for ESPN Insider subscriptions have been hard to come by by themselves, so imagine trying to look in to the PR spin for the truth here. 

According to Ad Age (back in 2012), subscriptions to ESPN Insider were around the 670,000 mark. That’s a whole lot of subscribers making the move over to the digital TV service you’re offering and touting. 

But, those numbers are six years old and in many cases also include their own secondary layer. Usually subscribers to ESPN the Magazine (yes, that’s still a thing) would have free ESPN Insider access. 

So, if you’re following at home we would have to suss out the number of ESPN the Magazine subscribers, then the number of flat ESPN Insider subscribers and finally subtract those totals from ESPN’s one million number. 

Let’s say the ESPN Insider subscriptions have been halved since the 2012 numbers. That’s still 335,000 of a one million number — otherwise known as over a third of the subscriptions. 

But, ESPN has largely disputed the idea that either of those numbers are correct. 

Melvin would also take on former ESPN employee and sports business reporter Richard Deitsch as well. 

Me doth think someone protests too much though. There’s also the fact that technically, even if there were only 335,000 “rolled-over” subscribers, having two-thirds as fully paid subscriptions would be a “vast majority.” 

However, ESPN doesn’t exactly have the cleanest of track records when it comes to being honest about its numbers. Of course, they have to be in certain areas given they are part of the Disney ecosystem and are beholden to Disney’s shareholders. 

The reality is, it is hard to believe that ESPN has magically gained one million subscribers in such a short amount of time all on its very own. 

There was help, and likely a large amount of help from rolled-over subscriptions. 

What will matter the most is where the numbers stands come the end of 2018 and in April of 2019 when most of those Insider subscriptions are likely to expire. 

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