Last week, MLive.com, which covers ten cities in Michigan, laid off another 29 employees, which was hardly surprising. On Monday, Alabama beat Clemson to claim college football's national title. These might seem completely unrelated, but I see a pattern here -- and a warning for college football, if it's smart enough to listen.
In 1835, local citizens who cared about Ann Arbor started a newspaper. It survived a civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, radio and TV. It was still going strong well into the nineties, producing a robust 20-percent annual profit.
Did they put the windfall into the product or the future? Did they take advantage of their unparalleled access to high school and college students, by getting them hooked on the habit with free samples the way Camel cigarettes and Budweiser would have killed to do, if they were allowed? Did they notice how Apple got its products into schools with great discounts, so students developed the Apple habit?
No, The Ann Arbor News and its parent company cut reporters and travel budgets, and sucked out the profits for the owners and executives, while they scoffed at the Internet. In 1998 -- 1998 -- The Ann Arbor News employees still didn't have email, and were given exactly one computer with Internet access. Your home probably had more.
When one of the corporate executives visited the chain's paper in Kalamazoo, he saw a friend of mine doing research on their only Internet computer. The executive joked, "Ooh, you’re looking at porn!" He then compared the Internet to the CB radio craze in the seventies, and pointed to the computer. "Exactly the same thing. The Internet’s a fad."
The executive soon retired with a golden parachute, leaving my friends and their readers to suffer the consequences of his ignorance, arrogance and greed.
The chain assigned publishers and editors to The Ann Arbor News who weren't from Ann Arbor, didn't like Ann Arbor, and didn't live in Ann Arbor, either. The paper they produced reflected that. They didn't care as much about their employees, their readers, or their product as they did about their profits. They never seemed to grasp that those things are all connected.
They folded The Ann Arbor News in 2009, after 174 years. They brought the name back a few years later, with a fraction of the staff, and a smidgen of the quality.
So what's this have to do with Monday's college football game? Last year, college football set up the first four-team playoff in the sport's 146-year history. The games were great, the ratings spectacular, the profits enormous.
This year, they held the two semifinal games on New Year's Eve -- and the ratings plummeted by 40 percent. OK, the games were blowouts, so they blamed that. But on Monday night, Alabama beat Clemson in a 45-40 thriller -- and the ratings still dropped 23 percent. Now what do you blame?
I can answer that. They used to play the best bowl games on New Year's Day, from noon to night, whenever everyone could watch. This year they started the title game at 8:30 p.m. ET, on Monday, January 11, a school night. The game ended after midnight. How many kids saw the finish?
You can trade tradition for novelty exactly once. Just ask Major League Baseball, which started interleague play in 1997, to great fanfare, and now nobody seems to care. It's been done.
College football is also losing future fans by playing their regular-season games at noon, or 3:30, or at night -- or on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. The networks don't move around your favorite shows like that, because they'd lose their audience. Guess what's happening to college football?
Ten years from now, the people running college football will be shocked -- shocked! -- to discover their audience is dying off, younger people are not replacing them, and attendance and ratings are falling. They will blame it on cell phones or the Internet or "kids today!" or just about anything but themselves -- just like the former newspaper executives do now.
But when that happens, please don't tell me it was inevitable, or unavoidable. Instead, remember what the great Molly Ivins said about the demise of newspapers: "I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying -- it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off."
And that's exactly how I feel about the people who are ruining college football.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.