The mind has a way of suppressing memories that hemorrhage at the slightest rekindling of them.
Remember the conference-realignment scare? Remember the term “Forgotten Five”?
Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri in some circles became known as that when college athletics were on the verge of a seismic shift driven largely by conferences seeking schools that could generate the biggest television bucks.
KU had two strikes against it. The Flint Hills may take breaths away, but beauty and a low-stress lifestyle free of insane traffic don’t equate to TV sets. Rutgers and Maryland are headed to the Big Ten because they are in the middle of large media markets, even though viewers aren’t tripping over each other to watch the Terps and Scarlet Knights play football.
Once Kansas made it out of the Forgotten Five forest alive, it was time to find out why raiding conferences were avoiding the school the way we all avoid compulsive talkers cursed with bad breath and a tendency to prattle about nothing but their ailments, their children, their shot-by-shot accounts of their most recent golf round.
They were told in part what they already knew. They didn’t have enough TV sets. They weren’t conveniently located. They were the idiot-savant of the college athletics world, brilliant in basketball, nationally anonymous in so many other sports.
To overcome the population and geographic issues, the Jayhawks had to patch the holes that they at least had the potential to fix.
That in a big way was behind the move to strike a deal with Time Warner. So the athletic administrators swallowed hard, coated themselves with a beehive-shaped coat of armor made of paper mache and handed clubs to those in their fan base from whom they had stripped their TV remote controls for two exhibition games and four regular-season ones. Tonight’s contest in Allen Fieldhouse against Iona College is the third of six such games.
Those who either can’t subscribe to cable TV because it’s not offered in their areas or choose to subscribe with a competitor of Time Warner’s and live in an area that blacks out a half-dozen of the games on ESPN3 feel like the next-door neighbor who liked their cozy neighborhood just fine and doesn’t like the idea of a hot-shot crashing the block, tearing down a small house and resurrecting a mansion. They feel helpless to do anything about it. They yearn for the way it once was because it was perfect.
The athletic department likes the new deal because it gives national exposure to sports that normally don’t get that and because of Time Warner, at its cost, not at the university’s cost, has produced coverage of the school’s lesser-attended sporting events. Also, Time Warner has loaded the airwaves with what’s known as “shoulder programming,” shows devoted to KU basketball, football, other sports and even academic-related activities.
KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger wishes he could tell the disconnected-for-six-games customers something they want to hear, but he can’t, so he is left to answer a simple question: Why did he do it?
“Two-fold,” Zenger said. “First, I believe any decision we make, the core value has to center around your student-athletes. This provided 500 student athletes the most exposure possible to regional and national coverage. What it did for them in exposure and recruiting is unrivaled.”
The games and shoulder programming are seen nationally, increasing exposure of a brand that in one way has a subtle advantage on most because, in the Jayhawk, the school has one of the nation’s coolest mascots. (I love it when someone from another region of the country looks both ways to make sure nobody’s looking and quietly asks: “Is it a real bird?”)
“If you are in the Time Warner areas, you’re naturally in there,” Zenger said. “Then the ESPN3 part lays over the top of it and takes you into another close to 100 million homes. Let’s say Ritch Price recruits a kid in California or Hawaii, Florida, wherever. His friends and family can watch him play baseball, whereas before they couldn’t. What he and other coaches were running into, now that we have it, we can say it, that was a problem.”
The switch has been painful for blacked-out fans whose interest in KU athletics pretty much begins and ends with KU basketball and in some cases to a lesser extent football.
“I’m from here (Hays),” Zenger said. “I would never do anything to alienate anyone in our fan base. But at the end of the day, we have to take care of our student-athletes and our coaches and give them that competitive edge every day and hope that people understand that those decisions are based on what’s best for the student-athletes and the coaches.”
What’s it in for Time Warner? Teaming with KU gives it an edge on its competition.
“They came to us,” Zenger said, “and said, ‘We’re willing to give you somewhere between $1 and $2 million worth of production a year that you don’t have to pay for. And not only are we going to do all these telecasts, we’re also going to do 300 hours of shoulder programming for basketball, football, for the university.’”
“If you watch Jayhawk Insider, the Chancellor was on there the other night,” Zenger said, “talking about all the attributes of the University of Kansas. We’ll have our Provost, the E.V.C. (executive vice president) of the Med Center. This is truly a Jayhawk Network to help sell this institution. In doing that, we expanded our brand to a level that most other schools don’t have the opportunity to do.”
Zenger’s position doesn’t allow him to repress the scary days and sleepless nights of the conference-realignment tremor. Becoming a more attractive conference member is reason No. 2 to the stated No. 1 of looking out for all student-athletes at KU.
“It’s all too clear in my recent memory,” Zenger said. “I was encouraged by folks around the country to continue to expand our national footprint and exposure.”
Those telling Zenger what negatives had to be reversed typically started by praising the basketball team and academic reputation and then told him KU needed to become elite and stay elite “nationally and within your conference with your brand.”
“You’ve got to keep your national coverage, be a national brand, for everything, not just basketball,” Zenger said. “Your basketball has to stay at that high level, and your other sports have to rise up to it.”
As long as Bill Self stays at Kansas, basketball will remain an elite school. The winning tradition and conference affiliation are factors as well. Zenger signed Self to a 10-year contract extension worth nearly $50 million, so he did what he could there. Highlighting the tradition will take another step forward with the construction of the building that will house the original basketball rules.
That leaves conference affiliation. Zenger was told by credible sources he needed to increase the national brand of the athletic department and make more sports relevant to be well positioned the next time conference realignment rears its venomous fangs.
The TV partnership with Time Warner helps toward that end, even though it means for two exhibitions and four real games ripping the remote out of the hands of so many people who cherish KU basketball as the most important form of entertainment in their lives.
Given the talent and entertainment value of this year’s team, the negative consequence of a smart play for the future is especially painful.