Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sticky Number: $5.54

ESPN and cable companies have overplayed their hand.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 29, 2013 at 4:00 AM

Some numbers we never forget because of their place in history — 9/11, 11/22/63, 12/7/41.

Some we shouldn't forget but sometimes we do, like your spouse's birthday or your anniversary.

And some numbers are unforgettable for personal reasons for certain people, like the day Elvis died (8/16/77), the price of the first McDonald's hamburger (15 cents), the length of a marathon (26.2 miles), and perfection on the SAT (1,600).

Sports fans thrive on numbers. If you don't know the significance of 61, 714, .400, 16-0, the 4.3 40, Game 7, or 23 feet 9 inches, you are probably not a fan of baseball, football, or basketball. Sports nuts have a head full of numbers implanted in their brains at an early age and now on their mental hard drive from years of repetition.

That brings me to ESPN. The number $5.54 is the monthly charge subscribers pay for ESPN in a bundled cable television package. The Weather Channel is 13 cents; Comedy Central is 18 cents. That $5.54 from 100 million homes adds up to $6 billion a year to ESPN and its parent company, Disney, according to a series in The New York Times this week.


The $5.54 fee is a sticky number in a complicated story. It enables ESPN to pay billions for long-term rights to pro football, major league baseball, college football, and the U.S. Open tennis tournament going on now in New York. As the series explained, ESPN buys up and "warehouses" more games than it can show to keep them from competitors. Because money talks, it can dictate what time and on what day games are played, such as this Thursday's match-up of Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, the University of Louisville's slate of Tuesday night games, and the University of Memphis' Wednesday night game with Cincinnati on October 30th.

Let he who is without sin throw the first spiral, preferably at the know-it-all noggin of Keith Olbermann. That person, however, would not be me. I have logged way too many hours watching sports, from major ones on CBS back in the day to an occasional obscure one on ESPN3. And if à la carte ordering ever replaces cable bundling, ESPN will probably be back on my plate if the price is right.

What I hate to see is the overriding influence of big money and sports on how we spend our time and tax dollars and how we set our priorities. The college football coach with a $3 million annual contract will be as quaint as the coaches who made $45,000-a-year 30 years ago. Within a few years, I expect to see a multi-year contract for $100 million, paid collegiate athletes, autograph-for-pay shows hosted by teenagers, Game Day every day of the week, and a schedule of games and hype from morning to midnight to feed the national sports lust.

A couple of things could derail this. One of them is that $5.54, a number that competitors, politicians, reporters, and customers can zero in on to sum up their frustration. We're not rational creatures when it comes to fees. We accept our property taxes, sales taxes, and utility bills but get upset over small components or increases. So it is with our bundled bills for cable, phone, and internet service.

Another one is technology, which will make it easier to stream events to a television screen without hooking up a special device or enlisting the help of someone with more know-how than yourself.

Boredom is another possibility, but I wouldn't bet on it, despite the Alabama student who told The Wall Street Journal, "You can do other things on a Saturday, like get a head-start on your drinking."

Funny line, but ESPN knows better. The 30-somethings who will be running the show for the next generation were schooled by the masters of marketing and politics. And they have probably watched and forgotten more about sports on the 24/7 cycle than their parents ever knew, which is saying a lot.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Revisiting the March

Ten Demands from 1963 that set the civil rights agenda to this day.

Posted By on Tue, Aug 20, 2013 at 2:41 PM

This is the year of big anniversaries in American history: the 150th of the Battle of Gettysburg and the 50th of the Kennedy assassination and the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

The publicity has already begun, but, unless you are at least 60 years old, you probably don't remember much about the day that more than 200,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Every baby boomer remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated, but the march, billed as "a new concept of lobbying," wasn't like that.

How remarkable — and successful — it seems from the perspective of 50 years. The full name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. There is nothing in the organization manual about guns, drugs, martyrs, or affirmative action. All of the organizers were men. Sponsors were limited to "established civil rights organizations, major religious and fraternal groups, and labor unions." The bad guys were "reactionary Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress," including Senator James Eastland, a segregationist from Mississippi who was chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee.

Publicity was not taken for granted. Supporters were urged to distribute leaflets "by duplicating this item at their own expense." Buttons cost a quarter.

Three events that year magnified the impact of the March. In June, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi. In September, four little girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Kennedy called for passage of a civil rights bill in June and was killed in November. In Memphis, Henry Loeb was in his first term as mayor. Schools had been desegregated by a dozen black students in 1961.

What was the march about? Media accounts will focus, understandably, on Dr. Martin Luther King's speech, the crowds, Kennedy, and the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and Marian Anderson. But there is no better answer than the 10 demands in the organizing manual. This is one Top Ten list that is well worth reading:

1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.

2. Withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.

3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.

4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised.

5. A new executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.

6. Authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.

7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.

8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this.)

9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.

10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

The main organizer was Bayard Rustin, who kept a low profile because he was gay and a former member of the Communist Party. King was one of 10 chairmen and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The march set the civil rights agenda for the next 50 years. Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Johnson, signed and steered to passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The latter has been extended and amended by Congress four times, most recently in 2006.

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act regarding federal oversight of elections in states (including Mississippi but not Tennessee) and local governments with a history of discrimination in voting practices as unconstitutional. By a 5-4 margin, the court ruled that the guidelines were good law at the time they were enacted but are no longer necessary.

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