Every year around the holidays, a team south of the Red Line unleashes a surprise stretch of inspired play. Upset kings can spring up from any corner of Hoops Nation. One year, it could be Rhode Island, Nevada, Pacific or Davidson. Or in 2009, it could be William & Mary, Portland, Charlotte or Western Carolina. When the magic happens, fans of that team will drop by the chats and ask, "Is this enough to get us into the Top 25?"
Back in the ESPN years
, I had a stock reply. "Sure! The team's playing real well, and they'll get the recognition they deserve, I'm sure." There was never any lie in that, and it was exactly what people wanted to hear. My role in that transaction was to make people feel good about themselves, not to be controversial. (And I never had a vote in the thing, so I never understood why people asked me
Nowadays, I'll just be upfront with people. "You don't want that," I'll type. "The absolute last thing you want is to be in the Top 25."What?
Are you nuts? Why wouldn't we want to be recognized for their accomplishments?
When the coaches' and media polls began in the early 1950's, by United Press and the Associated Press respectively, the mechanics were very much different. Local voters might give a first-place nod to a friend in the business, or vote for very local teams with very local accomplishments, but those entries would be diminished as outliers by pure polling dynamics. Teams with advanced standing in the polls were the ones that truly deserved to be ranked higher; their wins caught the attention of voters outside their areas. The No. 1 team in the land was the one that had earned the No. 1 national reputation.
But that was back when people got their news from newspapers. Now, all the coaches and writers have the same ESPN that everyone else does. They all read the same small handful of national columnists, read the same national websites, and are consumers of the same starstruck feature stories that we all get to read. The Top 25 was once a useful convention with which to measure value and create an unofficial national consensus. Now, it's just another end-result of the hype machine, another mirror reflection, another weekly after-the-fact snapshot.
Now, it's just another tool of the Sports Bubble.
When a team from the SoCon or CAA or Big West catches the attention of the tastemakers, and makes it into the Top 25 for the first time in 50 years, the Bubble descends and envelops the campus. The interview requests for players and coaches are relentless. The sports information director is pressed into action, fielding and evaluating and prioritizing requests for time. Who should get first crack, Katz or Goodman? Wait, how did they get Coach's cell number?
Fans and alumni get excited. We're good now! I can finally wear my gear out in public!
Nobody asks where they were during all those lean, non-ranked years, back when the team had trouble drawing 1,000 diehards to the games. Casual adopters get on the bandwagon, punch up the website of the school bookstore, eager to get their hands on the t-shirt of the next George Mason.
Inside the compound, in the inner sanctum, it's chaos. Basketball people are some of the most routine- and process-driven people you'll ever meet. Every minute of every practice is meticulously planned out in advance, every phone call is cataloged (thanks, NCAA), and road trips require precise itineraries to get 20-plus people from one place to another. Nothing is as disruptive to a team than a sudden onslaught of cameras, microphones and famous people in expensive suits, all clamoring for a piece of you.
And when it happens, I have one piece of advice. Don't lose a game. Ever, ever again. Beyond a few regional or personality quirks to fit in a feature article, the Bubble doesn't care about who you are, or how special and unique you might be. The Bubble only has use for you if you're winning, dying or lying.
When you finally do drop a game, you'll be questioned. You'll be labelled a fluke. The top-dog competition will be disparaged, questioned themselves, and the Bubble will move on. You'll be replaced in the Top 25 by a fourth-place Big 12 team, or Vanderbilt, or some other long-suffering mid-major who's on the upper end of the trajectory you just rode. You will be forgotten once the wins stop; it is the destiny of every small-conference school to be forgotten. Whether you're George Mason, Creighton or Davidson, you'll be forgotten. (Butler, you're next.)
Like Portland, for example. In one week, with three wins over Oregon and UCLA and Minnesota (the latter pair on ESPN), the Pilots were voted in. There were soft-focus features, SportsCenter spotlights, and finally poll votes. Portland spent its first week in the Top 25 in a half-century by losing to Portland State and Idaho.
I've only spoken to Eric Reveno once, and that was for a standard preview article. Even if I knew him better, I'm sure he wouldn't go on record about the disruption to the team's routine that Top 25 status brought. And he doesn't have to, because the results speak for themselves. If you saw any of those two losses, you'll see a defense that was a mere shadow of the lockdown effort that held Minnesota and UCLA to 33 percent shooting. The Vikings and Vandals shot better than 50 percent both nights. It was almost as if the Pilots weren't properly prepared for the games.
Portland is still a very good team; I love watching the Pilots play. Once they recover from the shock of being Bubbl'd, they'll be fine. When the upsets come again, I'm sure they'll have their priorities in order.
Because the poll doesn't determine who gets into the NCAA Tournament, and never did. The Top 25 has nothing to do with the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8. It's only as important as you allow it to be.
Once -- just once -- I'd like to see a team make the Top 25 for the first time ever, and shut out the media. Just once, I'd like to see a head coach set his ego aside, step away from the spotlight, and stay on course -- conducting practices the way he always does, not deviating from the goal. I'd love to see a SID not return anyone's calls (with his AD's permission, of course). I want to see what the Bubble's reaction to the stonewall would be, whether it reacts as one in negative backlash. I want to see the hype machine try to run with no gas in the tank.
Two weeks ago, when I was back home
for a few days, I experienced a defining moment. It was one of those details that happen a thousand times an hour, but one that stood out, one that I'll never forget.
I was flipping through the TV channels on a late Friday morning. On ESPN, the anchorman was discussing the latest developments in the sudden fall of the fast-curtaining decade's top American athlete. Then, three stations over on The View
, the ladies were in the middle of a roundtable discussion... about the very same story.
The channel for 18-35 men, and the show for 25-39 women, overlapping. Both were talking about the same soap opera. That's when I realized I was witnessing a historic moment, and that the pussification of the American male "sports guy" was complete and capstoned. This had been in the works for years -- bedroom anxiety, metrosexuality, body wash (and then man-loofas), and now this. The Sports Bubble has been stealing penises away slowly and softly, all the while whispering doublespeak about what real men
we are. Now, many guys are as insecure and confused as teenage girls, obsessing over gossip.
It's not male-specific. The ultimate goal of the Bubble is to make us all gender-neutral, as titillated as a raw nerve ending but sexless as an ATM.
And it's not being done directly and overtly. ESPN quietly takes your money with cable/satellite subscriber fees
, and charges product vendors to advertise between their golf-cock updates on its TV channels, magazine pages, website screens and radio hours. The products are made by companies that want to keep us docile, obedient, loyal and reliant. Fat, too... definitely fat.
A sportz website like Deadspin, which now finds itself in scooping contests with ESPN for lurid tidbits, also has an ad-based model. It's only profitable if they can produce big numbers for advertisers (and is dead like Sploid
if it doesn't), and there are pay-per-hit bonuses
for writers that best cater to the lowest common denominator. It's all just one big Bubble.
The Bubble perpetuates itself while the rest of us fight for survival-scraps outside the walls. It's maddening sometimes. We can't make our budget, our actual and real travel costs, which consist of less than the cost of one 30-second spot on SportsCenter. For the first time, I let myself be angry about that. It's not jealousy or spite. Just plain old self-indulgent anger, at the complex series of factors and events that made things the way they are.
There are a lot of sports without sportz, and a lot of games that Americans love without the need for attention or hype. There are tens and hundreds of thousands who live for minor-league and independent baseball, kids' soccer, the WNBA and roller derby.
But men's college basketball is really the only major sport in America that straddles the two worlds; a part of it lives inside the Bubble and the majority lies elsewhere. Some want desperately to get inside, and they all have their own reasons, but all those outside are bound together by a common tragic love for a game that has nothing to offer but itself. Most are confused and perplexed about the barrier between the interior and exterior, and don't know how to approach or interact with it. We didn't choose this because of this fascinating dynamic, it's just something we discovered along the way of discovering more about Our Game.
Our matching funds exercise seems headed for failure. That's more due to lack of execution than it is to effort, and it has nothing to do with the generosity of our gracious supporters. A soft landing for Season 6 is not guaranteed, but it's just as assured as it was at the beginning. Our strategy has been just keep going until we can't happen anymore.
We're not going to give this up, the stakes are too high. This fight will not truly be "won" in the David-Goliath sense; all we hope to do is outlast our enemy. We're going to keep going in some form, and keep supporting our friends in the true online sports revolution. We're going to fight to make sure this continues, and we're going to do everything it takes to make sure that happens -- whether you choose to support us or not, we're going to be here.