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Monday, May 6, 2013

Keegan

Opinion: McLemore case exposes the seedy underworld of college basketball

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Think of the college basketball we watch on television as the most beautiful stretch of landscape you ever have seen. It may be a mountain vista or a Maui beach or the sights on an Alaskan cruise.

But under that beautiful slice of earth lies the foul underworld of college basketball—the part that involves the pursuit of top NBA prospects by disreputable agents who pay recruiters. Think of that underworld as a tunnel that carries raw sewage.

Thanks to a USA Today report over the weekend that detailed accusations made by Kansas star Ben McLemore’s AAU coach, Darius Cobb, we all have had a window to that seedy underworld opened for us.

The gist of Cobb’s allegations: Serving as what is known in the industry as an “agent runner,” a man wormed his way into the life of McLemore’s AAU coach and family members in an effort to steer McLemore’s choice of agents. He paid for McLemore’s birthday party and for trips to Los Angeles for Cobb and a family member to meet with agents. And, Cobb said, he was given two $5,000 payments.

In the underworld sewer beneath college basketball, these "runners" are among the most insidious vermin. The No. 1 reason Kansas coach Bill Self sequesters his players in their hotel rooms during the NCAA tournament is to keep them away from toxic runners.

Now Kansas basketball fans are left wondering whether the NCAA could come down on the program — which goes to great lengths to warn players against getting involved with runners — for the actions of outsiders.

If Self spent all of his energy trying to identify runners and keep them away from his athletes' friends and family members, he wouldn’t have any time left to yell at his players, implement a defensive strategy that stymies the next opponent or pump up the sagging confidence of a slumping shooter.

Based on the USA Today report, by Eric Prisbell, what happened with McLemore fit a typical pattern: A runner (Rodney Blackstock) wormed his way into the life of the NBA prospect (McLemore) through someone who already was close to the prospect (Cobb, his AAU coach). In the McLemore case, the runner-enablers are Cobb and it appears, though he denied it to USA Today, McLemore’s cousin, Richard Boyd.

Cobb told USA Today that Blackstock paid for him and Boyd to make trips to Los Angeles to meet with agents. If true, that sets up this scenario: The runner receives money up front from multiple agents and a big bonus on the back end from the agent the player chooses — or if he really hits a grand slam, the runner becomes the agent himself.

The player doesn’t have any idea others are cashing in on his talent. It’s best to keep him out of the loop for fear he might resent having his blood sucked by so many.

According to USA Today, McLemore requested tickets for Blackstock for a few KU games. Chances are that was no problem for the Kansas coaches; the name meant nothing to them. He’s not an agent. Why should anyone know his name or worry about him? He seemed to be just a friend of the player.

Let’s say Cobb or Boyd asked McLemore to leave tickets for Blackstock. Even if they told McLemore he was going to introduce the family to prospective agents who could lend advice, there is no rule against that, as long as the runner and/or agents don’t pay for anything and the player doesn’t sign with an agent before exhausting his eligibility. But runners don’t care about breaking the rules.

Runners don’t wear a scarlet ‘R’ on their foreheads, so they aren’t always easy to spot. In some cases, a runner might be a mutual friend of a former teammate. They qualify as the single biggest distraction to college basketball players, particularly at tournament time. Not only do they divert a player’s attention to the NBA, they also are known to whisper in a prospect’s ear bad advice such as, “This is your last chance to show the reputation on you is wrong, that you really do have a good outside shot.” Or, “Your coach is holding you back. You need so show the scouts you can take over games.”

Cobb told USA Today that Blackstock paid for McLemore’s birthday party at Wayne and Larry’s. How could Self or anyone on his staff have prevented that? Nothing short of turning student-athletes into prisoners who are transported in vans from class to class and from practice to their locked cells, with three squares delivered through a small window, could have prevented that. Even that wouldn't work: Under those conditions, the agents would turn classmates or van drivers of the prospect into runners.

Coaches and administrators educate their players on what is and isn’t allowed. They warn them about potential parasites appearing in their lives. But in many cases, it’s not only out of the control of the coaches, it’s out of the control of the players.

Could the NCAA take victories away from Kansas by ruling that McLemore had lost his amateur status? Technically that’s possible, but not likely. If it does, the NCAA would create a great deal more work for itself, because college basketball programs will start turning each other in left and right, based on mostly true rumors that runners are picking up expenses of third parties close to players. It's hardly an uncommon practice.

Nobody detests the existence of agent runners more intensely than coaches, some of the most controlling people on the planet. Yet even coaches can’t come close to controlling them.

Agent runners are people who when you see them you should make you run in the opposite direction as fast as you can to the nearest scalding hot shower — just in case some of their slime has rubbed off on you.

Comments

kureader 1 year, 3 months ago

It's not clear to me as to why Cobb would break this story, when HE was the one who pocketed 10 G's. And, as someone posted earlier, while KU (and even McLemore) seemed unaware of this activity, it's impossible to say what will happen to KU. The NCAA is a joke ... they're totally unpredictable. It's probably good that this happened in the offseason. By fall, we'll be on to other things.

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Jason Keller 1 year, 3 months ago

Why would he break this story? What is at stake RIGHT NOW? Andrew Wiggins, my friend. The timing and release of this story is directly related to the recruitment of Andrew Wiggins. Don't buy it? Okay, give me another plausible motive for Cobb to voluntarily become one of the most despised individuals in high school/ college athletics. Before you respond, remember that he already has the money and no one and I mean NO ONE else would have ever leaked this story.

Also, why USAToday? That is a very strange way to make such an admission.

The whole thing stinks and if you buy it, you aren't using your head. There is more than meets the eye to this one, boys.

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kay_you 1 year, 3 months ago

Can not buy into the conspiracy theory. Cobb is probably pissed that Blackstock is hoarding in on his action and stands to make a lot of cash from someone he doesn't even know.

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Danny Hernandez 1 year, 3 months ago

But how would Cal and/or Kentucky insiders have known about Cobb? From the runner himself is a logicial answer because he has his hooks into Cal's players.

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jay381 1 year, 3 months ago

Why USA Today? Follow the ownership. USA Today digital properties owns KY Sports Radio. They operate a web site celebrating KY basketball and specifically Calipari.

Don't believe me. Follow this link and then scroll to the bottom of the page and the ownership is listed as a property of USA Today Digital Properties.

Wiggins recruitment to KY is the goal.

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karken1992 1 year, 3 months ago

You are thinking way too conspiracy theory on this one (although in this crazy world can't say it's not possible).

There are two scenarios that played out. Both of which would be Cobb came forward strictly out of revenge.

The USA Today article mentioned that Cobb approached Blackstock to get advice because he wanted to become an agent (most likely first client a certain lotto pick he has coached since 15). Cobb introduced Blackstock to the McLemores. Cobb then warned the McLemore's of Blackstock's growing influence to the point that the McLemores and Cobb had a falling out and no longer speak.

Scenario 1 is Cobb wanted to be Ben's agent and make money off him and Blackstock either went direct or told the McLemores this guy doesn't have a clue how to be an agent let me hook you up with a real agent that is going to help you and not himself. Thus cutting Cobb out of the Money Cow so he turns to USA today to spill his guts (and most likely receive money for the article) to get back at the McLemores.

Scenario 2 Cobb really was attempting to be an agent runner but didn't have the contacts (I.E. he knew no agents that would pay him) so he approached Blackstock (a real agent runner) and told him he would deliver McLemore. Blackstock made the initial SMALL payment of $10,000. Once he got in good graces with the McLemores decided he did not need to pay Cobb the larger payment. Thus cutting Cobb out of the Money Cow so he turns to USA today to spill his guts (and most likely receive money for the article) to get back at the McLemores.

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Jason Keller 1 year, 3 months ago

I think you're partially right. I do believe that there was a fallout with the Mclemore family and I do think that revenge was a factor but I also think that his pockets are being lined by the "wolf" in his next project. He is doing a favor for someone who works with people who can advance his career in the future. He is doing this indirectly for John Calipari. Maybe he wants to be an agent one day, I don't know. The point is that he wouldn't have burned this bridge purely out of spite without building another one first.

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ahpersecoachingexperience 1 year, 3 months ago

Haven't we beat this horse enough already?

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Stephan123 1 year, 3 months ago

I agree. Let this story go away until something of further substance surfaces. Of course, it is slow in sports right now and columnists need some fodder.

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BainDread 1 year, 3 months ago

So which is it LJW? Blackstop or Blackstock?

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Suzi Marshall 1 year, 3 months ago

or Blacktop...doesn't matter. The guy and his compay are/will be out of business.

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Carolyn Hunzicker 1 year, 3 months ago

As long as you deal with the ONE AND DONE'S YOUR GOING TO HAVE THIS AT ANY SCHOOL

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KUFan90 1 year, 3 months ago

You do realize that Mclemore was not a One and Done when he was recruited, right?

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Carolyn Hunzicker 1 year, 3 months ago

oNE AND DONE WAS TOTALLY EXPECTED WHEN, THEY RECRUITED HIM. IT WORKED OUT JUST AS THEY EXPECTED ONE YEAR

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Woody Cragg 1 year, 3 months ago

Many,many possible motives-Wiggins Calimari, Cobb is still pi$$ed Ben didn't go to misery, he hates KU, blah, blah, blah. Another likely bet is Cobb sold the story to USA cause he's out of the loop with Ben now. This guy would not likely burn his last bridge unless someone else was lining his pocket still. Then again, he may just be that stupid since he's an ex con from misery. At this point nothing should bea surprise.

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kay_you 1 year, 3 months ago

Blackstock was a CEO of a non-profit so there was no reason for KU to be suspicious but I bet they will start doing background checks from now on.

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Jack Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

I think you're absolutely wrong on your premise. kay_you, I picked your post because it goes precisely to the point on my mind.

If I'm coach Self, I would want to know every detail of every person on each player's ticket list, and who that player is associating with. It is coach Self's business, for you privacy freaks out there. You are in charge of a program that can be substantially harmed by 3rd parties. Part of your job is to protect the program, and the players. Further, you have potential NBA draft picks on your roster which leads to a higher sleaze alert, so to speak. These guys are targets.

As this article points out, the "runners" are guys to look out for. Self obviously knows this. So -- look out for them, right?

Everyone who is not a clear "ok" should be under suspicion. Player turns in his list of comps on tickets. Mom - good. AAU coach -- may not like it, but standard deal. Brother -- sure. Cousin -- ok. Girlfriend -- check. CEO of an out of state non-profit? Uh, let's be a little careful here.

Point is, kay-you's point about doing background checks "from now on" should basically have been done, period. Perhaps not the formal background checks, but something close to it. If you want tickets comped to you, please fill out this form and sign. Not hard.

Given the devastation not being diligent can cause .. to the huge money maker and publicity monster that is KU basketball .. why not? And actually, I would not fault KU if they had 2 or 3 private investigators on call to do what needs to be done -- pry, investigate, and provide information on potential harm to the program and its players.

How do you really prevent an AAU coach (long standing friend) or a relative from engaging in this stuff? Probably can't. But a CEO of an out of state non-profit? That should be an easy red flag -- if you're looking for it.

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Steve Kubler 1 year, 3 months ago

At one time I'd be all in on this idea. However after experiencing the lack of reliability and effectiveness of background checks I have lost faith in them. Oh, if you spend enough money you can probably get decent information. But then look at the recent tragedy in Boston. One of the perpetrators of that event had been checked out by multiple federal agencies, both here and abroad, with no positive results.

With the time restraints and volume of people they would have to check out I just can not see KU having a good odds of detecting slime bags like this. Heck, even if they do learn someone has agent connections I do believe a student athlete providing tickets for them is perfectly within the rules. It is the underhanded stuff that is unlikely to be detected that causes the trouble.

I believe, as others have pointed out, that the only way to begin to fix this mess is to give the players some legal way to receive money. Base it on family income/expenses just like student aide and have the amounts universally applied and not set by the school. There is no reason not to pass some of the immense income provided to the schools by these students back to them in a even handed and organized manner.

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Jack Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

Kubie: Give the players some money. So that stops what happened here? Everyone wants more money. Millionaires still try to scam people. Major league pitchers feels snubbed if the get an annual contract of $12 million per year instead of $15 million (or whatever).

And on background checks, I'm not suggesting to hire some cookie cutter company. Like anything else, a person has a bad experience, and all of a sudden they aren't worth anything (kind of like folks expecting perfection from rivals).

"I just can not see KU having a good odds of detecting slime bags like this. Heck, even if they do learn someone has agent connections I do believe a student athlete providing tickets for them is perfectly within the rules."

This quote stumps me. Do you really think it is that hard to detect this stuff? Blackstock, CEO of an out of state not for profit, just happens to be a "family friend" of an inner-city family from St. Louis. May be innocent. May be a dad of a kid he met playing AAU ball. But maybe not.

Further, who says KU can't limit who is on the cop ticket list?

I looked up Rodney Blackstock. Ran the website www.hooplifeacademy.org (which is now not active). A "sports mentoring" organization as noted in the articles. Red freaking flag, right?

A 5th grader could have seen that red flag without any investigation beyond a basic internet search.

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Adam Evans 1 year, 3 months ago

Keegan: brilliant piece. One of your best. With that, if its a wiggins conspiracy, it could help to draw attention to the attention bmac is getting. Top 2 pick? Yes please. Not saying he should pick KU because we're corrupt. Quite the opposite. Everyone hates us because we're always good every year and we do things the right way. And can still push out lottery picks every year.

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Danny Hernandez 1 year, 3 months ago

Jealousy and Hate can burn a hole

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jhox 1 year, 3 months ago

I agree, Keegan, one of your best to date. The one thing I worry about is that the NCAA has always had it out for Kansas. Larry Brown pays for a recruit to fly to a family funeral, a transfer recruit already on campus and committed, and we get a ridiculously harsh penalty. He definitely was in the wrong and broke rules, but the penalty didn't fit the crime. I just have a bad feeling here that they're going to find a way to hammer us yet again.

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JakeBarnes 1 year, 3 months ago

Thank Heavens!! Someone finally pointed out what a great column Keegan has written. Now if he would tell us about recruiting high school players with the same candid specificity he has here. Nevertheless, Great article.

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bennybob 1 year, 3 months ago

I dont think the title of this piece needs the caveat "Opinion", I think its a widely accepted fact.

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William Weissbeck 1 year, 3 months ago

What does Jay Bilas have to say? He doesn't have a dog in this fight. Maybe the NCAA would be a better service if they set up a financial/career advice center for all scholarship athletes (at least for the FB and BB ones) to do everything in their power to give these kids advice independent of AAU coaches, agents, runners, alumni angels, etc.

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KansasComet 1 year, 3 months ago

AAU Coach took advantage of the situation and got paid. (I don't choose to mention his name) This AAU Coach only cares about himself. This is all about him, his pockets and now his 15 minutes of fame. This guy is not the least bit concerned about the McLemore family, and probably never was. Everyone knows that McLemore did not come from the best of circumstances, and unfortunately, he was taken advantage of. I just hope there is someone to look after this young man, when he begins receiving millions of dollars to play basketball, once his pro career starts.

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jaybate 1 year, 3 months ago

Comet,

The complexity of managing large sums of money amidst money predators is why slayr makes a good case that readiness to play the pro game is not alone sufficient cause to turn professional. A player needs to have a business head on his shoulders (note: every KU basketball player should be required to take a finance and accounting course plus a business law course, as part of a "sports business degree"). A player has to be mature enough to disentangle himself from the money predators that have attached themselves to himself and his family and to recognize the ones that will be trying to do so. For these reasons, Ben was lucky to have to sit a year. He is more emotionally ready for this sort of warfare, but even now he is exceptionally young.

The NCAA and NBA have created this problem by having the players play one college season. I am not one of those that thinks everything hinges on how many years a player stays in college. Persons can go four years undergraduate and seven years in medicine and still know nothing about business. Everything depends on education and intern experience regarding business decision making. For this reason, I am a strong supporter turning sports from a student activity outside of his degree path into a degree path with a classroom curriculum oriented to sports business education and an on-court curriculum of learning to play the game. A player should leave KU, if he wants to with a Bachelors Degree in Sports Business. It should be part of KU's business school. There should be majors in playing (NBA path, or Foreign Path), just as there are in music, and theater, and there should be minors in business, finance, coaching, sports administration, sports law, and sports marketing.

KU's recruiting pitch would then revolve around "our players not only make money, they keep the money they make and make more."

There would then be a substantive benefit to staying in school just as there are in other fields.

And if the NBA refuses to back this sort of change, then the top 100 D1 programs operating through private, not-for-profit athletic departments, should start their own professional teams operated on a not-for-profit basis same as their college teams and quickly run the NBA out of business based on their advantages in subsidy.

The NBA is extremely vulnerable to competition. It always will be as long as it is operated as a cartel. A D1 professional league would wipe the NBA off the map within 10 years, maybe 5. It could offer a superior game with lots of continuity in players and systems and fan allegiance.

D1 Pro--Its What Basketball Is Really About!!!

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KansasComet 1 year, 3 months ago

An absolute enjoyable read! Thanks! Love the term "Money Predator", because that is exactly what they are.

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jaybate 1 year, 3 months ago

Tom seems not to be disputing any of the McPaper story reported so far. Instead he seems to be saying agent runners are bad, and Self could not reasonably have known about any wrong doing that happened, in a preventative sense, at least, which though reassuring, may leave open the issue of whether Self had knowledge after the fact (i.e., perhaps failure to report).

Self persists for a few days now with no comment.

John Calipari's reputed ally in recruiting, William Wesley, aka WWW, would seem to fit Tom's description of a rather more well known agent runner, though I have never been able clearly to understand exactly what WWW has done for Cal at Memphis and UK regarding attracting recruits, except that he has long been reputed to be involved with attracting recruits to Cal.

Interestingly Cal reputedly openly pals with WWW and WWW reputedly openly hangs out around Cal and his players. In contrast, Tom makes it appear that Self did not realize Rodney Blackstock was, as Tom opines, an agent runner.

I do not recall Cal has ever been disciplined for working with WWW, so we can probably infer that Self would not be disciplined for associating and allying openly, or covertly, or even unwittingly, with Blackstock, either. It follows then that it must not be the association alone, either intentional, or accidental, that would be sufficient problem to make Self let his no comment stand for a few days now. Something else must be driving his no comment.

I recall Self noting during Ben's PC about going pro that Self made a seemingly inconsequential remark about Ben needing to do what was best for Ben and his family and not others. Maybe it had more import than it appeared at the time and Coach Self anticipated some blowback for advising Ben as he did.

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jgkojak 1 year, 3 months ago

This is about money and ratings. The NCAA doesn't want Kansas anywhere near the Elite 8/Final 4 because our market share isn't big enough - so they will do everything they can to keep us from winning. Witness the Michigan game officiating.

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KnightsWhoSayNi 1 year, 3 months ago

So, therefore, conspiracy theorists believe that Elijah was simply acting as an agent for the NCAA?

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JakeBarnes 1 year, 3 months ago

Normally I would blow this off as B.S., but given all that is at stake monetarily, I wonder. Humans do almost anything for a dollar, from killing to loving, the gamut of possibilities. I like what jaybate says about Cal and his runner.

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Steve Gantz 1 year, 3 months ago

Saying they don't want us because of ratings is foolishness. Do you think Butler had any kind of ratings draw? They made two finals in a row. Wichita St. made it this year, same state as us, why didn't they officiate them out of the tourney too? I'd say we're a bigger draw than WSU. If they're trying everything they can to keep us from winning as you state, why do we have the 2nd most wins of all time? And Kentucky's first, they're not exactly a big market share.

Think about what it would take to pull that off. CBS and the NCAA would have to decide to 'eliminate' Kansas. And by logic a bunch of other teams who would pull less ratings than KU. Then they would have to go to the head of officials and tell them this is what they need to do, and then I assume supervisors underneath the head of officials, then lastly the 3 officials who worked the game. Everyone has to agree to compromise their professional integrity, because if this becomes known, these officials and on up are done. Same with CBS. They'd take a huge publicity hit for pulling strings to make this happen. And finally, not one person can mention anything about this happening. Not a chance. Someone would spill the beans.

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jgkojak 1 year, 3 months ago

Butler/WSU/VCU, etc. have the underdog factor- Butler v Duke is a classic 'Hoosiers' type story- had Butler won that game its the biggest sports upset of the decade - it was also one of the highest rated recent title games.

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Jack Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

I do not think there is any evidence of attempts to eliminate KU, from what I've seen. Unless coach Self is involved -- I'm kidding.

I do, however, buy into conspiracy theories when it comes to money. After seeing Duke's golden path to the Final Four in 2010, and the way the Baylor-Duke game was officiated, I'm biting on some conspiracies there. With big money at stake, I don't doubt much of anything.

Duke got a tough path this season. Conspiracy off.

Really, my speculation is that the referees are the bigger source of corruption. Official "A" doing the Tuesday Colorado St.-Texas El Paso game. Knows the spread. Lets his brother know to put $5,000 on Colorado St. plus the points. He just needs to keep it close.

Can't do it every time money is bet, but enough times to make a boat load of extra money.

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Suzi Marshall 1 year, 3 months ago

Don't forget the officiating for the '03 Kansas-Duke Championship! The call was made somewhere to it to Duke. There is no way you can get a group of "Final Four" refs to make consistanly biased calls throughout the entire game without some purpose.

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jaybate 1 year, 3 months ago

Wissox,

  1. Butler is from Indiana with 6.5M persons; that's over double the size of Kansas, and Indiana teams draw Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky eyeballs because of regional loyalties and rivalries. KU DRAWS SQUAT FROM SURROUNDING low population STATES. Butler is a vastly better TV draw than KU!!! That's partly why the Duke Butler ratings were so high: northern industrial states vs eastern seaboard. Classic tv matchup with a Cinderella angle too.
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jaybate 1 year, 3 months ago

P.S.: over half of Indiana counties are in the eastern time zone, which is another marketing advantage to indiana teams in either time zone.

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Bryce Landon 1 year, 3 months ago

This is one of the most idiotic statements I have ever heard. The officials were bad in that game and were suckered by UM's flopping, but we still had the lead until EJ went brain dead in the final media timeout of regulation.

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Steve Gantz 1 year, 3 months ago

If any of you need an agent or runner or whatever, I'm available.

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patkindle 1 year, 3 months ago

you don't need a degree in art, or be an English major to decide this is all about the money, how many parents of ball players get moved to lawrence, with cushy jobs from local alumni when they get here , no one cares about how much tickets are, it is only money when you have plenty, the po folk can watch it on tv

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FearlessJayhawk 1 year, 3 months ago

It's all one stinkin mess. That's why I'm not a fan of pro sports period because of all the slimeballs lurking around corners trying to make a buck. It's unfortunate, but that what pro sports has come to. It's all about the money. Everyone, including all the players are all over paid. You can have it.

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Steve Jacob 1 year, 3 months ago

BTW, the USA Today story was was well written and researched, so it's hard to dismiss.

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milehighhawk 1 year, 3 months ago

Excellent article, Mr. Keegan.

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kay_you 1 year, 3 months ago

Enough with the conspiracy theories. The simplest explanation and one with the fewest assumptions is likely the correct one.

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