MLB realignment intruiging, but would hurt upstart rivalries

By Aren Dow

note: the author is trying footnotes on a template not exactly designed for footnotes. let us know if it works

Ever since I can remember, my St. Louis Cardinals have had to play five other teams in their division.1 One more than everyone else, except the American League West – which only has four teams? I never understood this as a kid, and now it still does not make sense. It has never bothered me too much – the Cardinals have had a much better recent history than any NL Central team.2

And now with talks of realignment, that division inequality may be coming to an end.
Really though, baseball is full of unfairness. The Yankees spent five times more on their squad than the Padres, interleague play does not pit all the teams against each other and some teams have more in their division than others.

Does it necessarily make it right? No, but as baseball fans we have come to accept it. Other sports would have nothing to do with that level of inequality; they try to do everything in their power to keep the highest level of parity possible. There has been a heavy uproar from NFL fans when their team has to play just one game in London.

Out of the seemingly two choices on the table, moving each league into one, large 15-team division is a huge move in that direction. No longer will teams play such an uneven amount of games against division teams, and they will play each team in the opposing league once.
Would baseball lose its identity? Would that really work? For kids like myself, I have no memory before 1969 when each league split into two divisions. One division for each league seemed to work for 66 years.

The biggest issue that comes into play when talking about one division is the erosion rivalries. As Mike and Mike brought up this morning, there are really only three big, constant rivalries in baseball – Yanks/Sox, Cards/Cubs and Dodgers/Giants. Sure, there are others in baseball, but many are in flux. Cardinals/Astros was a huge deal six years ago, but very few Cardinals fans get worked up anymore unless Bud Norris takes the mound. Now Cincinnati is the object of our scorn.

Rivalries are built on proximity and the success of both teams. Fans need to be able to reasonable travel to enemy line and teams need to keep the competitive atmosphere alive. And really, rivalries are built through the regular season and emphasized in the postseason.3 Repeated postseason matchups between teams are too rare to really foster a lasting rivalry between the two.4

But the frequency of the games is something which adds so much fuel. It gives players and coaches enough time with each other to really start the tension. Would Brandon Phillips still have called the Cardinals “little bitches” if they didn’t play each other so much? And the frequency of play continues that atmosphere. After that series ended, everyone looked to the calendar to find the next matchup –less than a month away. Would the intensity of the hatred been as strong if they had to wait another two and a half months?

Yes, non-Yankees and Red Sox fans hate seeing those teams constantly on television. But that should not be the basis of your argument as to why fewer games against division rivals should be played. Teams lose that familiarity which does so much to foster rivalries.

Either way, the Cardinals would not be affected too much by the changes. The intensity with Chicago will never go away, and the yearly bout with the Royals will stay in place. Whoever out of Milwaukee and Cincinnati is hotter will be a bigger rival because of proximity. Pittsburgh hasn’t been there for a long time, and doesn’t look like it is coming back soon. Some tension with Houston will stay because, well, they won’t let go – no other team is nearby.5

Who it will affect are the historically bad teams, and (relatively) new teams. You know how long it took for the Rays to start something with the Yankees and Red Sox? It’ll be even longer with teams that aren’t in their division or they won’t play as much.

Geography has split teams into divisions for good reason – those teams are close together. Really, with one division, I see only the Blue Jays (next to Tigers and Indians) and the Pirates (Phillies and Nationals) who will have a close proximity to teams not currently in their division.

One large division is an intriguing idea, a throwback to the days before Jumbotrons and sausage races. But it just doesn’t make sense in that it would grow the sport of baseball. It seems like it would just return attendance numbers back to the old days as well.

1. I’m 23.
2. The Astros are the only other Central team to make the World Series in the past 20 years. It’s been since 1990 since another Central team, the Reds, won the Series. -find out the NL Central playoff record.
3. I thought Cardinals/Mets was going to be the next big thing after 2006. It was such a good NLCS, went to seven games, plenty of heroics. But of course the Mets fell off and couldn’t keep the postseason rivalry alive. And those teams only play around seven games a year in regular season against each other.
4. That may change somewhat if the league moves to five or six playoff teams. But not much.
5. Of course, that’s assuming they stay in the NL.

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Breathing life into the Cougar/Saluki rivalry

By Aren Dow

For SIUE to secure a deal with Carbondale to put the Cougars on their basketball schedule is a massive achievement for the university. The Dec. 19 match is already generating buzz on both campuses – for different reasons – and is sure to be a highlight game for the Cougars this season.

The trouble with scheduling mid-majors is that, well, they don’t want to be scheduled. Those schools were in the position SIUE was in one time, and they are not looking to go back anytime soon. School like Carbondale and Illinois State have no interest in playing the Cougars; there is little upside. If they win, well, they were supposed to. But if they lose, that prompts angry questions from the fan base and later pops up on ESPN as a “bad loss” come March. And for mid-majors, they need every advantage they can get in as an at-large bid.

SIUE is not an attractive name for many of the neighboring universities like SLU, Illinois State and Evansville. Of course, they will schedule SIUE because they have the same problem the Cougars have – the U of I’s and Mizzou’s have no interest in losing to the mid-majors.

For SIUC, it is a little different; it does make some sense for the Salukis to schedule SIUE. It means a slightly larger crowd, which means more revenue for those games. And for the way the Saluki program is heading, they need any revenue they can muster right now.

But above all, this is huge for SIUE. This is the biggest thing to happen to the men’s basketball program since they announced the jump to D-I. Fielding a good basketball team is incredibly tough during the transition phase, and many familiar with the process expect few wins during its time.

But perhaps an even larger challenge to foster an environment fans can get excited about. When the product can’t sell it itself, you turn to atmosphere and rivalries. The former has been adequately met as the stadium’s facilities have been improved and a decent small-school atmosphere has been developed. There is finally a band back in the stands, promotions highlight games and a seemingly well-organized student fan section is underway.

Rivalries, though, take years to develop. You need familiarity, the memory of sweet victories and agonizing losses. You need stories for fans to talk about the time back, oh 15 years ago, where we stormed back from a double-digit deficit to stun our rival. History does not come quickly with new schools, schools we haven’t played but a handful of times. And really, a rivalry cannot develop unless each team wins a few games. Geography only goes so far if the contest is one-sided.

But Carbondale is different. Many at SIUE seem to have this little-brother mentality when it comes to our sister school from the south, that they think they are better than us. Coming from Springfield, I had no idea coming in, but it’s clear that those who grew up in the area have a slight bitterness towards Carbondale. I myself have never made my way down there; maybe they aren’t so bad.

Either way, this drives revenue, especially for SIUE.

When Illinois State made their way to the Vadalabene Center in 2009 for the Cougars’ opener, more than 3,600 fans packed the building. This past year, there was not one home game out of the 15 where the VC housed even 2,000 fans. That’s not an attractive number for ticket sales and concessions. And with the costs needed to transition up to D-I, it’s just another punch. For the university’s sake, they are probably just thankful they are dealing in basketball costs rather than football costs.

A four-year contract with Carbondale means they have two games with huge expected attendance figures. It means they have two games they can generate a marketing plan around. Remember the “BEAT ISU” marketing plan from a couple of years ago? SIUE now has that small bump in revenue given to them on a silver platter. It doesn’t matter if the Cougars just have a small chance to come out ahead in the actual game.

By the time the contract ends, SIUE will have been a full member of the OVC for three years – complete with a chance to upset a team or two in the postseason tournament and generate a little buzz. It’s the perfect set-up until we hit the closer of whomever the Cougars can rough up (providing they will).

Wishful thinking in full force, this game with Carbondale should turn into yearly deal. Granted, it will take some time before the Cougars are on the Saluki’s level, but it makes too much sense for the two to create a little out-of-conference rivalry. The tension is already there and it will drive revenue.

Of course, that is if the Salukis want it that way.

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