Something longer-term readers of mine may remember is that, for years, I wrote about Tennessee football. I did not actually begin covering Tennessee basketball in a serious/somewhat season-long fashion until the 2017-18 campaign. For a while, this made sense, because of a couple of things:
- College football is significantly more popular in Knoxville, TN than college basketball.
- Simultaneously, Tennessee football was in a good-enough spot in 2015 and 2016 that writing about them on a weekly basis was, if nothing else, interesting.
This is why if you Google my name and “Knoxville” or “Tennessee”, you’ll see the usual results of this site but you’ll also see that I covered Tennessee football up to midway through the 2018 season, after which I finally accepted two things that reversed the above two observations.
- College football is more popular, but college basketball is more interesting to me;
- Tennessee football was very much not in a good spot in 2018, while the basketball team was in the best spot it had been in a decade.
So: the Show Me My Opponents that used to be about college football are now about college basketball. Maybe they’ll still exist in five months, maybe they won’t. This post is not really about that. Last year I explained the writing process behind these. This summer, in lieu of a superior essay idea, I’m explaining why I got to where I’m at and how I’d describe my personal investment in the five major sports (baseball, basketball, American football, hockey, and football/soccer) at this point of my life. Spoiler: it’s a lot different than 2015-16.
More or less, I’ve written something in some form for most of my life. I wrote little recaps of NFL games for my grandfather when I was 7; I wrote a college basketball newsletter exclusively for myself at age 13; I wrote for my high school’s newspaper at age 16-17 about a variety of things. But out of boredom after graduating college in 2015, and to escape the monotony and horrors of my first real day job, I started writing little recaps of every Tennessee football game on a personal blog.
These received mild attention in the form of getting offered to be a Staff Writer™ for a local blog that no longer exists, wherein I did the same thing. But I had a curiosity that I wanted to explore: the idea of previewing every game in a fashion that other sites didn’t do at the time. I mention MGoBlog on this site all the time for obvious reasons, but they were really well ahead of the blog competition in terms of covering every Michigan football game from every angle. One thing they did better than anyone was using GIFs and video to explain how the opponent worked. (Here’s a 2021 example by writer Alex Drain.)
Tennessee had nothing like this, and until Austin Burlage did it for a few years (here’s his newsletter, if you’re a college football fan I’d sign up), it hasn’t had anything like it since. These early previews were kind of terrible, but they were honest and offered more information about the opponent than any pay site in existence. This preview of the 2016 Georgia game is probably the best-ish example of it; if you look at it closely, you’ll recognize a lot of hallmarks of the basketball coverage. There’s GIFs. There’s tons of stats examples laid throughout it. There is a menace towards the vague opponent that is hammered into you by way of fandom of our national bloodsport.
So: I did that for two full seasons. I committed to do it in 2018, and even did it on a paid basis for Reed’s Ranch, which is a podcast/media outlet run by my good friend Jon Reed. I’d imagine these previews were still at least fine, but frankly, midway through the season, all passion had departed. I skipped a couple of the late season games and never wrote about the team again.
Part of this is because Tennessee football sucked at the time and frankly furthered a 15+ year tailspin I’m not convinced they’ll fully recover from. (A very cynical read of it would not be Nebraska football but rather Indiana basketball, which has made terrific hires on paper that have simply failed to work out, over and over and over again.) The other part is that, as long as I can remember, I’ve simply preferred basketball as a sport. I played it for a long time, yes, but it’s just more watchable and understandable to me. Unless you played football, it’s honestly pretty hard to understand everything that goes on unless you invest as deeply into it as the MGoBlog writers do or guys like Burlage did.
That’s why those previews no longer exist. I haven’t written a thing about college football since November 2018 (unless you count a personal essay about attending the Big Ten Championship Game) and I don’t plan on writing anything about it again, barring a serious change of heart and mind. I simply find basketball to be the much more interesting and consistently unusual sport to write about. This is not to disdain college football fans or anything; it just doesn’t mean much to me personally anymore. Basketball does, though. However, that’s a complicated story as well.
Circa 2016, all of six years ago, I would’ve ranked the major American-ish sports for me as such:
- College basketball
- College football
- Vague, loose soccer interest
- Other loose ends (auto racing, whatnot)
And this likely would’ve been rational for each one. College basketball had just finished popping out what some consider the best national title game in the sport’s history. College football had a terrific national championship game and new blood in the playoff with exciting teams popping in and out of the upper echelon. The NFL was…well, the NFL: interesting. The NBA had a terrific rivalry with the Warriors and Cavaliers. The rest, minus my Nashville Predators fandom, were on a separate level to themselves, but they did exist.
The problem is that these rankings are no longer accurate and haven’t been for a long time. That’s explained above somewhat, I guess, but the best way to explain it further is to do something very self-indulgent. Below are how I personally feel about the five major sports in America, with separate breakdowns for college vs. professional where necessary. I don’t expect agreement, obviously, but I think for someone who writes in the public sphere, this is a useful exercise to explain to you where I’m coming from and why the writing on this site is done the way it’s done. Also, it’s June, and I’m not writing about the transfer portal if I don’t have to.
These are done in alphabetical order.
A pretty frustrating, yet rewarding sport to follow.
For the following reasons:
- Baseball’s star players are the most interesting they’ve been to me, the viewer, in 20 years. Shohei Ohtani is the most singularly captivating player the sport has had since Barry Bonds. Juan Soto is crazy entertaining. Both Juniors, Tatis and Guerrero, are amazing. It’s the richest group of upper-echelon talent in a long time…
- …so why is it somehow harder than ever before to actually watch the games? MLB already makes you pay $160 or so for the rights to MLB.TV, admittedly a terrific service, but you’re out of luck if you live basically anywhere in America, because at least one or two teams will be blacked out in your market. (If I didn’t have access to our family’s cable login, I could not watch Braves or Reds games, for instance.) This is all while they parade games around on Apple TV+, Peacock, YouTube, and a variety of services.
- For every good move the sport makes, it seems to find an equally bad one to pair with it. A pitch clock? Terrific and sorely needed to speed up the game. The runner on second still in existence? Horrible, not real baseball. Universal DH? Probably a good thing because there have been extremely few pitchers that should be hitters in my lifetime. Deadened baseball that neutralizes any impact a universal DH brings? Awful for watchability.
- Rob Manfred is probably the single worst sports commissioner since I’ve been alive, which is an incredible accomplishment when you consider his competition.
Despite all of this, I absolutely adore listening to baseball games and could listen to a quality radio broadcast all day. (The Phillies crew has been my favorite of late for running purposes.) MLB could rank pretty high on someone’s list if they gave it time, but the people that run the sport make it remarkably hard for anyone to want to give it the necessary time.
Shockingly, I still feel pretty rosy about basketball as a whole. I play at a local gym once or twice a week; I watch most NBA Playoff games; I watch most NCAA Tournament games. This website covers the college basketball season in-depth, typically. So yeah, this is my favorite sport. But I’ll go deeper with that, starting with
Where I think we’re at an inflection point of sorts, not just transfer-wise. Statistically, this was the most efficient season of offense (at 1.02 ORtg) since the three-point line was moved back prior to the 2019-20 season. This is because we’re seeing fewer turnovers than ever, which I’d call a good thing considering some of the slop I grew up watching. There are still a lot of three-point attempts, improving free throw shooting, improving shot selection on the whole, and the lowest Free Throw Rate in the sport’s history.
…but at the same time, did anyone else feel like this most recent season was pretty underwhelming? The second-best team this year was Houston, a 5 seed who was indeed really good but would’ve ranked sixth-best in 2020-21 and seventh-best in 2018-19. The champion (Kansas) ranks 21st of 24 champions in KenPom’s database. The sport also posted its lowest Assist Rate since that stat has been measured. One-on-one scoring is obviously a good and exciting thing, but it’s weird to see college basketball trending in a less team-friendly direction while the NBA is going the opposite way, posting its second-highest Assist Rate as a league ever.
I also thought this NCAA Tournament was one of the three worst since I started watching in 2002. This Tournament ranked 35th of 35 (in the 64/68-team era) in 3PT%, 34th in FG%, and 32nd in efficiency. A 15 seed made the Elite Eight, which was interesting until they immediately turned back into a 15 seed in the Elite Eight. The two best teams in the field got bounced because of unusually poor shooting nights. To top it off, the low Free Throw Rate did lead to less fouling and shorter games, but a genuinely useful argument can be made that this was a negative. Teams are getting away with fouls they would’ve been called on just a few years ago, which is leading to poorer offense.
So: I think that college basketball, on the whole, is in a good spot. NIL has given teams the chance to compete with second-round (and some late first-round) NBA contracts, which is allowing players who may have otherwise gone to the NBA Draft to return for a well-deserved payday. Most of the top 20 picks in this upcoming NBA Draft opted to play college basketball instead of the G-League or international play, which is a positive trend. Only one (Leonard Miller) of the top 50 2022 recruits elected to skip college. That’s good for the quality of the game.
Still, changes must be made. Officiating probably needs to be stricter in the sense that teams shouldn’t be allowed to get away with hyper-physical play. The block/charge call requires a full rewrite and frankly should result in more block calls. Most of all, the sport must have a fully standardized basketball for all teams. The fact that even high-major basketball teams can realistically play with six different basketball brands in one college season is truly insane. I’d still rank college basketball first, but either due to age or focus I’m more aware of its shortcomings and flaws than ever.
The inflection point passed here a while ago. Players have more freedom than ever before, which is a great thing, but as a fan of a non-elite team (the Pistons) who generally watches the Playoffs as a neutral, I do wish there were more rivalries. I’m honestly not sure what you’d call the best rivalry the NBA has right now, which is a real drawback when there are several excellent college rivalries where both sides have genuine hatred for the other. Rivalries make sports more interesting. The best one in the NBA at the moment is either Bucks/Heat (which is a ‘rivalry’ in the sense that they had two playoff matchups) or Mavericks/Clippers. (Hawks/Knicks could be it if either team ever discovers a real general manager.)
The quality of the play itself is fine and I think 1990s basketball fans greatly overstate how much more ‘fun’ it was to watch at that time. At the time I wrote this section, Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals had just happened. I had a great time watching Boston come back from 17 down to win by 12 thanks to a pretty shocking fourth quarter, all of which would’ve been much more difficult to imagine in the 1990s when the three-pointer wasn’t that popular. I greatly enjoy the fact that there are four two-time MVP holders actively playing and that the young talent in the league is as exciting as I can recall.
All of the standard complaints apply: the regular season is too long and the final 25% of it is almost entirely meaningless. The diversity of styles between teams is not as great as it used to be. Player freedom is terrific, but I do selfishly miss players building up rivalries with teams or even coaches over the course of several years. Too many players like NFTs. The Pistons probably won’t get Jaden Ivey in the upcoming Draft. None of these complaints are that great, I guess, but they feel obvious and real.
Football (the American variety)
Well, here we go.
I think it was 2018 when it first hit me: it’s the exact same teams every year.
It’s the exact same ones.
Oh yeah, sure, they might let LSU steal one from time to time. Maybe they’ll let Notre Dame in, as a bit. Maybe Michigan State slides in once on the good fortune of having the world’s largest horseshoe jammed firmly up Mark Dantonio’s rear end. But for the most part, it became pretty clear by summer 2021 that this is a six-team sport, and really more of a three-team one. There have been eight Playoffs now and 32 total bids; Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma are responsible for 21 of them. It probably says a lot that when the 2021 Playoff happened it felt like a miracle that only one of those four actually made the field.
This is why I’ve more or less stopped watching games I have little-to-no emotional attachment in. (That’s a nice way of saying I watch every Michigan game to talk to my dad about them and watched five or six of Tennessee’s games last season.) For the most part, 124 of the 130 (I think?) top-flight FBS teams have no better than a 2% shot at making the playoff year over year. This past season felt like a huge breath of fresh air because famed historical underdogs Michigan and Georgia made the field of four. And even then, we still ended up with approximately the Same Old Crap: an all-SEC title game that was profusely boring for 75% of the allotted time.
Sure, there are interesting stories every year. There are ones like Coastal Carolina coming out of nowhere to go undefeated; Cincinnati sneaking into the College Football Playoff and acquitting itself about as well as any other 4 seed; people tell me Wake Forest was entertaining. That’s all good and nice. What chance did they have to win the actual national championship after the sixth week of the season?
This is why I’ve gravitated more to college basketball being the premier college sport. For better or for worse, all of the top 15 teams in the sport enter the season-ending tournament with at least some chance of winning the title. You hang banners and hold town-wide celebrations for simply being one of the last four standing in a tournament that resembles more meat grinder than fair setup. If you make the last four in college football and aren’t named Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, or Ohio State, your reward is getting to play a team with much more money and much more resources and much more stars than yours. Michigan/Georgia looked entertaining on paper but revealed itself to be more like a 1 vs. 8 than the supposed 2 vs. 3.
Therein lies the problem: until the powers that run college football can figure out most people don’t want a 4-6 team sport, this will continue staying the same and likely getting worse. The most likely four-team Playoff combination for 2022, per oddsmakers, is…Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State. The exciting thing about the basketball Final Four is that, in the same time span of eight years and 32 total bids, 22 different teams have survived to see the final weekend of the season. In college football, that number is 13, and over the last five Playoffs (20 total bids), it’s nine. One sport sees real variety; the other produces more of the same on repeat. It’s like the Premier League, but the Premier League has real rivalries built on 100+ years of hatred. With teams changing conferences constantly and long-standing rivalries simply dying you don’t even get that anymore.
The other major problem: attending games kind of sucks now. College football’s game time has continued to balloon, with the most recent average number sitting at 3 hours, 24 minutes, the longest in the sport’s history. Any fan of a team that appears on FOX/CBS/ABC during the season will notice the relentless waves of awful advertisements (anyone want to estimate how often they saw the Matt Damon crypto ad this year?) that interrupt otherwise potentially interesting games. Commercial-kickoff-commercial is becoming more normalized, which is horrifying. I attended two college football games in 2019 and one of them, a 42-3 blowout, lasted 3 hours, 42 minutes with the kickoff coming nearly 15 minutes past scheduled start time.
This should not happen, and neither should the absurd, ballooning ticket prices that are a scourge. I live 20 minutes from one of the most historic stadiums the sport has to offer. I have not attended a game since 2019 and haven’t paid for a ticket since 2017. Why? Because even against garbage opponents, it’s no less than a seven-hour time investment in frequently uncomfortable weather and cheek-to-cheek seating to watch football that isn’t very high-quality. If I actually have to pay for tickets for my wife and I, that’s no less than an $80 investment (including parking) to sit in the nosebleeds or around a $110 investment if I’d like to sit in the worst lower bowl seats. Again, this is against bad teams, not even interesting opponents. When you can watch the same game from a better angle in 70-degree comfort at home and the crowd numbers themselves are lower than they’ve been in 40 years, why attend?
Couple all of this with how easily people seem to dismiss largely underpaid athletes bashing their brains in for our collective entertainment and it’s become easier to simply do something else rather than stay attached.
The problem is that the NFL is the most interesting it’s been in a long time thanks to great quarterback play and quality rivalries that are developing at hyper-speed. Every time the Bills and the Chiefs play each other, I actively desire to clear my schedule to watch it. Every time the Packers and Bucs get to face off, I want to see it happen. Sunday Night Football, as an entertainment product, is (and maybe was, depending on new announcers) the single most well-oiled machine sports has going right now.
The NFL has a ton of problems. It’s far too easy at forgiving domestic abusers. The commissioner is an annoyance. They seemingly have a new disaster occur within the league every year. The Super Bowl is generally an underwhelming affair. BUT. The NFL Playoffs have been excellent as of late, the league is great at developing season-long storylines, and your team is never that far away from jumping out of irrelevance. All it takes is one great quarterback, which I find inherently more interesting than college simply being “who has the most five-stars?”.
Credit to Gary Bettman, I guess. After the worst Playoffs the sport had seen in over a decade, they decided to make goalie pads a little smaller and let offense run the show. All it’s done is make the 2022 NHL Playoffs the best that I can recall seeing in forever. The first game of the Western Conference Finals the other night finished with an 8-6 score. The stars have largely shined at various points. Goalies have a tougher job than they have in two decades, which has made it much more exciting when a goalie steals the show. Crowds are back in full force. The Carolina Hurricanes ate it at home in a Game 7. This is all after a pretty entertaining regular season in which the league saw the most goals scored in 26 years.
I still have a hard time fully attaching myself to hockey that isn’t the Nashville Predators, simply because national TV coverage remains a little spotty in the States and I’m not willing to interrupt everything I’m doing to watch, say, Boston versus Florida on a Tuesday night. But that’s more of a me problem than a league problem. Now to wait and see how the NHL inevitably screws this up.
Soccer (or football)
Up to two years ago, I would’ve considered the idea of soccer fandom kind of laughable. I never fully bought in to the new waves of fandom that hit the States during/after the 2010 and 2014 World Cups; I loosely followed soccer abroad but didn’t find it that interesting. MLS didn’t really appeal to me because the closest team was in Atlanta. The USMNT was at its lowest point in decades.
And then I watched this game.
On a tip, I was told by two friends with very different rooting interests to check out this Leeds United squad. They were in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years and played a pretty intense style of soccer. I didn’t think much of it – I’d previously failed to become a Crystal Palace, Swansea City, and even AS Monaco fan – but I gave it a try. Watching these clearly undermanned guys throw themselves at the defending champions with such pace and ferocity was the single most exciting thing I’d seen in a sports affair since COVID hit.
I started to watch more Leeds United games. They’d escape battles with Fulham and Sheffield United and Aston Villa and other teams I vaguely knew about. Suddenly, in December, I realized something that would’ve shocked me months prior. Tennessee was playing Florida in a college football game at 3:30 on CBS just like old times. I barely cared to even look up at the screen it was on. On my laptop, I had Leeds, who were playing Chelsea on NBC at the same time. Despite a loss that wasn’t very close, it was simply more entertaining start-to-finish by far. Something unfathomable had happened: European football had passed American football for me in the span of a few months.
It honestly hasn’t been close since. I watch most of the important English affairs, but I’ve taken an interest in soccer as a whole. The USMNT is back in my life and I actively look forward to their matches. I try and keep up with Nashville’s new squad. I’m invested in and actively following Knoxville’s new semi-professional team. I’m hoping to attend as many matches as I can, both local and regional, this year. I can’t say the same for pretty much any other sport.
The sport of the future has finally hooked me. As for what state it’s in, I’m not sure I really know; the English will tell you it’s the worst it’s been in decades, while other Europeans will say it’s in a good spot. Americans seem pretty happy with the quality of it. All I know is this: I’m still learning and finding new reasons seemingly every day to love it more. Could this one day become my favorite sport? Possibly, even though I never played it. I just know it’s become #2 on my board in a stunningly light amount of time, and I’m quite thankful for it.
After all of this self-indulgence, I figure it’s only fair to close with this: how would I rank my personal investments in each sport now versus six years ago? After thinking about it for a few weeks, this is what I’ve got:
- College basketball
- College football
- Other loose ends (auto racing, etc.)
Really, the only things that have changed that much are soccer’s rise and college football’s fall. I’d still rank the four major sports more or less the same, though they’re closer rather than further apart. If anything, maybe this is a useful learning exercise: why do I like these sports? Why do I watch them? Maybe it’ll stoke some curiosity for you, too.