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Hot Reads: 56 of One, About Four-and-a-Half Dozen of the Other

April 01, 2020

Veteran college football reporter Brett McMurphy is respected and well-connected, so when he reaches out to all 130 Power 5 athletic directors, 112 of them respond. That's some juice (and a decent sample size).

McMurphy asked those ADs to "rank their optimism on the upcoming season being played from ‘1’ (will not be played) to ‘10’ (definitely will be played)." Before we get to the results of this informal poll, I must mention another achievement in online writing here by McMurphy and his Stadium team.

Meta descriptions, if you're not already aware, are those short story snippets you see when you search for something or see a story link on social media. The recipe for these little word roasts is to lard them with keywords people are already searching for, which is how you end up with something like "Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach had an incredible tweet about Netflix's 'Tiger King' documentary that everyone is talking about."

The meta for McMurphy's story? "If there's no season, we will be f*****." That's it, a quote from the story from an anonymous AD, and it gets a point across. I also, in an inside-baseball way, respect the to-hell-with-keywords approach that says "SEO doesn't always have to win."

Anyway, tone is sort of the point here. "If there's no season, we will be f*****," communicates that pretty clearly. The opening of the story, also puts down camp on one side of the alarmism/optimism divide. Here it is:

"Nearly one-fifth of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) athletic directors believe there is at least a 50 percent chance a full college football season won’t be played this fall because of the impact of COVID-19."

Based on the data McMurphy compiled, that is true; 18% of the ADs that responded rated their optimism a 5 on the 1-to-10 scale, implying that it's a coin flip. But when you actually look at the numbers, how this story begins, combined with the prominent placement of the sizzle quote, it starts to feel a little sensational.

At least to me.

While "nearly one-fifth" of FBS ADs did give no better than a 50-50 chance for football in  the fall, those 18% were the most pessimistic group; none of the 112 ADs that responded scored their optimism lower than a 5. That's interesting, given that we've seen our share of quotes recently from notable college football folks expressing more pessimism about the prospect.

Some alternative ways the numbers in this story could've been framed:

  • More than 80% of FBS ADs more confident than not that football will be played. (That’s the remainder of the group that scored 6 or higher.)
  • Three-fourths of FBS ADs give college football a 70% or greater chance of happening this fall. (While specific confidence intervals aren't mentioned in the story, if we get to assume a 5 is 50%, I think we also get to assume anything 7 or more is greater than 70%).
  • Nearly half of FBS ADs are very confident we'll have football this fall. (49% of respondents scored an 8 or higher, which I'd call "very confident" on a 1-to-10 scale.)

I'm casting no aspersions on McMurphy here. It's a great story with good quotes and useful information. I would assume he has little involvement in how his stories are packaged and shipped off to social for sharing.

I'm more just noting that I had a much different feeling once I'd read the whole thing. After five paragraphs, three of which were punchy quotes, you had a story that seemed like the de rigueur doom and gloom for fall football. But the actual numbers seemed to be some of the most optimistic yet if having a football season is a desired outcome for you.

This seems to be happening often right now. In a moment when "flatten the curve" is the phrase you can't escape, we're all having our statistical fluency and ability to interpret data tested.

I'll chalk that up as one of the small benefits of having nowhere to go.

Staff Picks – No. 7

I’m only two episodes in so this recommendation could still fall apart down the road, but so far I’m enjoying Netflix’s new original series “The English Game” in spite of myself. I say in spite of myself because I am generally very resistant to period pieces. I have no good reason for that preference, I’m just Bartleby when presented with the option of dropping in on, say, 1890s England.

“The English Game,” from the creator of “Downton Abbey” (a show that did not make it through my period-piece firewall), is about the origins of football in the titular country. While I’m by no means a soccer historian, based on the reading I have done on the sport this show nails the early days. There’s the plodding style of the English game butting up against new and innovative tactics from elsewhere. There’s the heavy-handed Football Association, essential in codifying the game, losing control of the sport it helped create. There’s amateurism versus professionalism.

And that’s all after just two episodes. The key to success for any sports-related dramas is to first get the sport right. So far, “The English Game” is.

The Grab Bag

  • Jacob Padilla breaks down Nebraska basketball’s other new Kobe with a look at Kobe King. (Premium)
  • Nebraska isn’t slowing down with new offers despite the current recruiting restrictions.
  • ICYMI: Mike Babcock has started a new series on the glory years for Nebraska baseball to help us through a baseball-less time. The first part is here, the second drops later today.

Today’s Song of Today

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Tags: Hot Reads