Friday, October 14, 2011

the trouble with regions, or why we should be careful

Editor's note: Fair warning, there's a good deal of high school football coming in this post. It's mainly used for its applicability to the issue of conference realignment, but you may find it off-putting, anyhow. 

Friday night, our hometown Leeds Green Wave solidified its standing for the AHSAA state playoffs with an easy home win over region foe Beulah.
If that last sentence doesn't mean anything to you, read it again and look up the two schools on a map. It's roughly 130 miles, one way, from Leeds High to Beulah High. And the game was a region obligation for both teams.
It's not as though this is an unusual thing for this particular region — aside from Leeds and Beulah, 3A Region 3 includes B.B. Comer (in Sylacauga), Central-Coosa, Clay County, Handley, Marbury (near Prattville and Walter Wellborn (in Anniston). It's a region that literally crosses the entire state. This isn't an isolated issue, for the record: In 6A, for example, Opelika, Auburn, Central and Smiths Station share a region with Enterprise, Dothan and Northview. That guarantees at least one 100-mile trip for every team in the region, every season.
We've discussed this before, but one of the advantages to the old area system was schedule flexibility: In 1999, Leeds played at Handley, at McAdory, at Moody and at Hayden, all trips relatively close to home. The long road trips started in the playoffs.
Aside from the high cost of travel (monetarily), long road trips mean logistical nightmares for the schools — players, managers, cheerleaders and band members all have to leave class early, have to secure buses, have to be fed, and so forth and so on.
(Note: Here's where I point that not everybody has this issue: The Vestavia Hills Rebels, owing to their region alignment and savvy scheduling, don't play a regular-season game farther away than Thompson all season. So it works out well in some places.)
But there's a larger problem here: The region alignment means a string of unfamiliar opponents coming to town. Which means? Smaller crowds.
High school sports are built on rivalries, the idea of young men representing their community in contests vs. young men from other communities, with representatives of those communities looking on from the bleachers. But those games lose some of their luster if the communities don't care about the teams involved. A similar thing happened to the NHL, as Bill Simmons described.
This was a sport that thrived on rivalries and feuds -- Montreal and Boston, the Rangers and Islanders, Philly and Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Montreal and Quebec, Montreal and everybody -- so by moving key franchises and adding too many other ones, fundamentally, they were killing the one thing that made the sport so great. As a Boston fan, how am I supposed to get fired up during the regular season for a steady stream of Nashville, Columbus, Carolina and Anaheim? It's insane. It's illogical.
And I guess my point — and yes, there is a point to all this rambling that's taken two days to put together in a cogent form — is this: we have to be careful, when it comes to conference expansion, that we don't put ourselves out of business.
Look, I'm not buying into the columnist's plaintive cry when it comes to conference realignment: That the greed of executives is destroying the rivalries of our youths. As Tony Kornheiser has aptly pointed out on his radio show, rivalries have always evolved: As recently as 40 years ago, Georgia Tech's major rivals (apart from Georgia) were Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee. Now? Tech fans get excited for Miami, Florida State and Clemson. That's the way of the world.

At the same time, the danger inherent in turning over the conferences is simple: With a schedule no one recognizes, there's no guarantee that fans will continue to care.
Will football remain such a big deal in 10 years if we're showing up every Saturday to play Missouri, Louisville and Oklahoma State? Possibly.
Just something to keep in mind.

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