Tag Archives: sports

Cutting the cable TV cord: Our experience

(photo credit above: AARP)

By Mark A. Marchand

We reached the end of our rope with cable TV in December. It seemed that every month our bill from Spectrum (or Time Warner or Charter…it’s pretty confusing) was higher. When we asked about it, we were basically told that rates were going up, and would continue to increase to $200 per month later this year. That’s a lot for a family that buys the basic cable TV package with one set-top box, phone and internet access. We don’t buy any premium services like Showtime or HBO.

The final clincher was the poorly communicated, confusing Spectrum requirement that all older, analog TVs connected to cable TV without set-top boxes would no longer work on Feb. 1, and would require a free — for now — convertor box supplied by Spectrum. Not only did this create mass confusion, but many consumers here in upstate New York found themselves being billed for the box after being told they wouldn’t pay for a year.

Author’s note: Below is our rationale for making our move, as well as a look at the state of the cable TV industry. If you want to skip this for now, scroll ahead to the sections with steps in the title, or go all the way to the summary at the end.

Our decision

So we joined the millions of fellow Americans who “cut the cord.” To be more precise, as my friend and communications professor at the College of St. Rose Paul Conti pointed out to me, we really didn’t cut the overall cable cord coming into our house. He called the phrase a “cute one,” because we still receive internet access from Spectrum, as well as phone service. So it’s more accurate to say we cut the cable TV cord.

We weren’t alone. According to Variety magazine, the trend is accelerating. Some 22 million customers were expected to have cut the traditional cable TV, satellite or phone cord by the end of last year, no longer receiving the traditional channel lineup from a cable, satellite, or telephone company. The trend is particularly evident among younger adults. Today, many of them set up households without traditional cable TV, or landline phone service. Our sons live in the Boston area, for example, and never even considered cable TV or traditional phone service in their homes.

So how did we fill the gap created by chucking cable TV? It’s important to point out that both of us had grown weary anyway of the formulaic offerings provided by the major broadcast networks and other cable channels. Just how many NCIS-whatevers could we watch, or how many times could we be interrupted by commercials while viewing a one-hour show? (I timed some shows, which offered me just under 40 minutes of programming over one hour.) And the trend toward reality TV confounded both of us. We were uninterested in who danced with what star, or who might survive on some staged competition on an island. Trying to pick which bachelor or bachelorette might be chosen after a staged courtship process seemed boring.  All of this and more added up to many nights of “can’t we find anything good on TV?”

To be sure, I retained my lifelong fascination with live televised sports, much of which came over the major broadcast networks. While we still bought cable TV, I added to the mix by early experimentation with video streaming to watch my Boston Red Sox in a TV market dominated by the Yankees and Mets. And both of us loved watching good, well-scripted dramas and crafty comedy shows, while my wife kept track of world, national, and local news via broadcast news programs.

The choices of what we might do after ending our longtime affair with cable were legion. Websites, magazines, and blogs were filled with recommendations and ideas. We tried to approach the problem pragmatically by doing some homework.

First step: going retro

We started by going back, way back to the dawn of broadcast television. After some online research, we bought two inexpensive indoor high-def antennas online. Mohu makes some good ones. We knew we needed to still receive the local NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and PBS affiliates for local news, most major sports contests, and documentaries. We connected one antenna to our large smart TV in the family room, and another to an old cathode ray tube TV with a digital converter in our kitchen. The relatively cheap digital convertor was needed because Spectrum stopped providing older analog signals on Feb. 1, hence the need for the converter they supplied.



An indoor high-def TV antenna from Mohu. The antenna itself is a light, thin piece of plastic.

The results were mixed to good. Initially, we giggled with delight over receiving the stations without paying a monthly fee, and the quality was pretty good. We received a high-def picture and our smart TV even gave us a sort of cable-like channel guide. For the most part, the signal was strong in our family room. We think it was due to its large, south-facing window. All of the local network affiliates have broadcasting antennas to our south. The signal strength varied, though, depending on weather conditions and where we were standing or sitting in the room. Sometimes, one of us  would get up and adjust the antenna position or location while the other watched. This led to amusing situations where someone would be up on a chair adjusting the antenna behind a picture frame while the other waited and watched for the picture to improve. Often, we’d ask the antenna adjuster to stay where they were, poised on a chair for example, when the picture came in perfectly.

The kitchen was and remains a challenge. We only use that TV to watch the news early over breakfast, or during dinner. Without a south-facing window, however,  we’re constantly adjusting the kitchen antenna location. On one day, the NBC affiliate comes in well. We might get up the next day, though, to find that we cannot receive that same station at all. This is a temporary solution. We’re planning a kitchen renovation soon. As part of the process, we’ll upgrade to a small flat-screen TV and stream video there. More on streaming in a bit.

One final note on receiving over-the-air signals:  It’s great for power outages. We have the misfortune to live in an area where the electrical grid is so shaky we invested over $5,000 in a permanent, natural-gas-fed 10kw backup generator about 10 years ago. It powers about three-quarters of our house, our furnace, our refrigerator, and other important rooms or devices when we lose commercial power from National Grid. Many of our neighbors have similar systems or smaller, portable generators. There’s no mistaking when the power is out in our neighborhood. The roar of generators is constant. When the power is out, that usually means we lose cable TV and internet access within a few hours. With the backup generator, we can power our TV and easily pull in the five local channels over an antenna. Not bad.

Second step: rebuilding our network and channel lineup

Next, we started to look at how we could receive a larger selection of cable-only or streaming-only channels of content. In short, we began searching for what could replace the “package” of channels from cable TV, and in that package we wondered if we could obtain more reliable signals from the local network affiliates.

For this we still needed internet access provided by Spectrum. There were no other reliable alternatives. (Note to Verizon: If you’re reading this, please send your fabulous FiOS fiber-optic-based video and broadband service here. Your DSL broadband service has technical limitations and is just not a viable solution). We also needed a standalone streaming device like Roku or a smart TV that has Roku built in. We have the latter. We bought a nice TCL smart TV well before we moved on from cable TV.


An example of the nice TCL smart TV we bought, with a common on-screen menu for streaming choices.

By dropping cable TV, we reduced our monthly Spectrum bill from about $189 (soon to be $200) to $90 for broadband and the phone service my wife still needs for her writing and communications business. We set a goal: buy high-quality video service with all or most of the channels we wanted, and pay less than we paid Spectrum.

Spoiler alert: We did it, and it wasn’t that hard.

 Three good options

There are several good video content services that have sprung up in the wake of sweeping dissatisfaction with cable TV and subsequent cord cutting. Three popular ones are: Slingbox, HULU Live, and YoutubeTV.

We started by trying the popular HULU Live service. We were already familiar with HULU and had bought a limited service last year to watch their fabulous adaptation of Margaret Atwoods’s Handmaid’s Tale and a few other streaming programs. The new Live service was designed for cable TV refugees, offering over 50 channels and a library of streaming shows. It cost about $40 per month. The channel selection ranged from all the ESPN offerings to the Golf Channel to kids programming to news networks. It came very close to imitating the collection of channels on our old cable TV service. We only watched 20-25 of the cable TV channels anyway.

But over the course of six weeks we experienced some challenges with HULU. First, the streaming quality of live shows was average to poor. We’d try and watch a live sports event and could tell the picture was less than high def and the stream kept getting interrupted, causing oddities like hearing an announcer repeat the same line twice. Other shows not aired live, like an episode of a HULU original program, didn’t experience those same issues, but the quality of the picture was still sketchy. And the menu was not very user friendly. Although I watched HULU daily, I had to fumble around a bit to find where I wanted to go each time I launched the service. The cloud-based DVR service was limited in capacity and I never really learned how to use it.

The final issue proved to be the local network affiliates. In addition to live streaming problems, HULU only provided the local NBC affiliate. That feed was subject to the same transmission problems. We were on our own and forced to use the indoor antenna for the other local network channels.

We decided to move on from HULU. We looked at Slingbox briefly, but after talking to our neighbor who tried it — he’s far more technologically adept than we’ll ever be — we passed.


Our savior was the relatively new YouTubeTV. Like HULU, the service offered a broad cable-TV-like range of channels and networks, but it also included ALL the local network affiliates — not just NBC. We would only have to rely on the indoor antenna for PBS. After some initial confusion, I learned how to use the cloud-based DVR, which offers unlimited capacity. It even allows you to skip past commercials when you watch a recorded show.  One of my favorite features was the channel guide for live programming that is similar to but superior in many ways to cable TV guides. I had it all figured out within minutes.


And the clincher? The quality of the picture is spectacular! We’re definitely receiving high-def signals, and there are no stutters and other interruptions of live streams. If you’ve invested hundreds or thousands of dollars on a smart, high def TV, this is the way to go. I honestly believe the video quality is better and more reliable than the signal we received from Spectrum.

Finally, even though it was a better product, YouTubeTV cost less than the HULU product: $35 per month. They have announced, however, that they are increasing the price to $40. We are grandfathered and can keep our cheaper price for now.

There are some issues with YouTubeTV because with any change of this magnitude there will be problems. They are not insurmountable. For example, you can’t quickly switch back and forth from one program to another. I’ll be watching a college basketball game and decide to switch to the Golf Channel to check in on a tournament. To do this, I need to back out of the basketball game, go into the channel guide, scroll around, select the Golf Channel, and then launch that stream. That can take up to 10 seconds. To get back to my hoop game, I reverse the process. For now, I don’t do that a lot. I’m a patient man. If I need to switch back and forth, I can put up with the delay.

It didn’t surprise me when I found out that Google owns YouTube and YouTubeTV. This giant in the internet and web world has achieved near perfection in designing a service that is more than a capable replacement for traditional cable TV. We’ll stay with them for the foreseeable future.

Other streaming content

I have purposely not discussed two other streaming products we buy. We have a Netflix subscription, and an MLB.TV streaming product so I can watch my Boston Red Sox. I didn’t talk about them because we purchased them when we had Spectrum cable TV, before we cut that cord, and we continue today. Thus, I didn’t include them in my shopping and price comparison.

The savings

Today, we pay $90 for Spectrum broadband and phone, and we pay $35 for YoutubeTV. Our monthly bill is now $124, or $65 per month less than we used to pay Spectrum for all three services. Over a year, that adds up to a savings of $780. And we’ve exercised our brains by learning an entirely new approach to watching TV.

I want to stress that this wasn’t simply about the money. It was the principle. We kept paying more to Spectrum for the same or lower-level of service. We have now arrived at a solution where we pay much less and receive the channels and networks we watched before — in high-quality video.


Let’s wrap this up and review the bidding:

  • Ditch cable TV from Spectrum. Keep broadband and phone, for now.
  • Buy and experiment with inexpensive indoor high-def antennas to receive local channels. This is very useful when the power and — usually — broadband service go out.
  • To replace the traditional cable TV package of service, explore the streaming content packages. Make sure you have a streaming device like ROKU, and take a good look at YouTubeTV. They have come the closest to designing a product that can replace a cable TV lineup, with a crystal-clear picture. Yes, you still need to buy broadband from your cable or other provider for this service to work. There are other potential alternatives in the future, such as a 5G fixed wireless system under development at Verizon…but for now, we’re stuck with the cable company.
  • Experiment with other streaming services, such as Netflix ($11 per month) to broaden your program choices. Amazon Prime is another good option for movies, etc.
  • One final thought: check your broadband speed from Spectrum or any other provider. To receive high-def, good-quality streaming video – and still access the internet from other devices in your house at the same time – you’re going to need at least 20 mb/s. If you’re looking for a good site to test your speed, here’s one I use a lot.

Good luck! I hope this summary of what we did helps. I didn’t write it to be critical of any one company or provider. I’m simply reporting on what we did to replace traditional cable TV. Please feel free to share your experiences, or to write to me at markmarchand56@gmail.com.


America’s Ballparks: Living Time Capsules

They Built Them; I Came

By Mark Marchand

Major league baseball stadiums are like time capsules — living time capsules that preserve the game Americans have loved since the mid 19th century.

Within stadium walls, dazzling plays come to pass, the sometimes plodding nine-inning script proceeds without time constraints, fans cheer, fans boo, beer and peanuts are consumed, one team wins, and one loses. All of this and more occurs without any thought to the world outside. Time capsules, after all, maintain things as they are for future generations to see.  And with some exceptions, spectators today witness the same pitches, the same hits, and the same fielding plays that took place since baseball’s birth two centuries ago.

Out there, meanwhile, wars continue, traffic creeps by, people live and die, jets soar overhead, money is made and lost, and the struggle of life carries on.

The fan who nestles into his or her ballpark seat for about three hours expects to be transported into the more magical, timeless world that author W.P. Kinsella painted for us. Kinsella, who passed away late last year, wrote the book Shoeless Joe, upon which the popular movie Field of Dreams was based. He had a knack for capturing the essence of this simple game, the arenas in which it’s played,  and the game’s  relevance to our lives. His tale of creating a lush, green ball field out of an Iowa cornfield brings to life the feelings many baseball fans harbor for their beloved diamonds and the enclosures in which the game is witnessed. There might be economic turmoil and a cruel world out there in Iowa. But cross the foul line, in Kinsella’s case, and you’re protected as a warm sense of the contest and sentinel-like lights surround you. Perhaps, as he writes, memories of old games and long-lost relatives will arise, and maybe even the ghost of a famous player will wander in from the outfield.

Image result for iowa cornfield baseball fieldThe Iowa cornfield/baseball field from “Field of Dreams

These ballparks come in all shapes and sizes. We watch our games in venues ranging from the cramped wooden or plastic seats in Fenway Park in Boston, to cushy, spacious seats in newer stadiums like PNC in Pittsburgh. Thankfully, many of the newer parks have been built as part of professional baseball’s “retro” phase, during which the design of many new parks harkens back to the shapes and feel of mid-20th century venues.

Almost without exception, major league ballparks remain in the downtown areas of cities. The 1970s-80s trend to move some sports venues out of congested cityscapes to the wide-open suburbs is just wrong. If you’re the Cubs, you play in the city of Chicago. Don’t use the city in your team’s name and abandon it for shopping mall-laden suburban America.

Since seeing my first major league contest in 1968 at Fenway, I have maintained a steady love of the game. I have expanded my fandom to include studying and, eventually, visiting as many ballparks as I can. Armed with a private pilot’s license and a career that had me traveling to cities around the nation (if my former boss is reading this, hey you didn’t expect me to just sit in my hotel at night?) I have so far visited 18 of 30 ballparks. Of those 18, only 16 remain active. Olympic Stadium in Montreal is no longer used by the Expos. They’re now in Washington, D.C. and are known as The Nationals. The Seattle Kingdome was imploded in 2000 to make room for a new football stadium. The Mariners of baseball moved to new Safeco Field up the road.

Here are some observations and reflections on the ballparks I have visited:

Fenway Park (Boston, Red Sox) — Five words come to mind when I think of Fenway, where I’ve co-owned weekend season tickets since 1988: asymmetrical, green, historic, cramped, and beautiful. If famed sports broadcaster Keith Jackson were crafting this piece with me, he’d describe Fenway with his Rose Bowl phrase: “the grand daddy of ’em all.” Fenway Park in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston is, after all, the oldest baseball park in the nation. It’s also the smallest. Fenway opened in 1912, the same week the Titanic sunk in the North Atlantic. Some might say that timing portended the decades of tragedy and failure for which the Red Sox were known. Maybe so, but the Red Sox finally won a World Series title in 2004, ending an 86-year drought.

Fenway was designed to fit into a dense residential-commercial setting, which led to its odd layout. Left field is hemmed in by a 37-foot wall (aka the “Green Monster” and THE most historic, manually operated scoreboard in baseball), while right field ends in bleacher and grandstand seats. The foul pole at the famous left field wall is only 310 feet away from home plate. The right field foul pole is 302 feet away from home, but the short wall there curves quickly to 380 feet away from home, near where the bullpens start. And for good measure, the farthest reach of center field in an uneven triangle is 420 feet away from home — a tough challenge for even the best hitters in baseball.

Looking down at Fenway from above and from north to south, the lower left resembles half of a square. The remaining boundaries are made up of four different lines with nary a right angle to be found. Five neighborhood roads form the irregular shape: Yawkey Way, Brookline Avenue, Lansdowne Street, Ipswich Street, and Van Ness Street.

Image result for aerial view of fenway park

An aerial view of Fenway Park

I could wax on, but there are other ballparks to discuss. Fenway, though, has drawn attention from many writers who have taken descriptions of this 103-year-old baseball monument on a more poetic excursion. Take John Updike in 1960 in the New Yorker magazine:

“Fenway Park is a little lyrical bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus like the inside of an old-fashioned Easter Egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934 and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between man’s Euclidean determinations and nature’s beguiling irregularities.”

I described my feelings about the place in 2012, when Fenway turned 100. This is a column I wrote for The Republican  daily newspaper in Springfield, Mass.

Image may contain: 2 people

With friend Joe Lahiff after watching the Red Sox win the World Series in Game 6 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park

Yankee Stadium (New York City, Yankees) — Home to the dreaded Red Sox rivals, Yankee Stadium joins Fenway as perhaps the two most famous and historic stadiums in all of baseball. The venue where the Yankees play today isn’t the original that Babe Ruth built. A new one opened in 2009, a few hundred yards from the original — but the owners retained or enhanced many of the famous architectural features from the 1923 version. The best known is the facade lining the top of the inside wall.

Aside from my feelings about our rivals, I’ve always liked Yankee Stadium for three reasons. First, it sits in the heart of New York City’s densely populated borough, The Bronx. The swamps of New Jersey might have lured the Jets and Giants of football, but the Yankees are right at home at 161st Street in The Bronx. Second, it’s huge. The capacity is down a bit to 50,000 from the 56,000 that could occupy the original. But there’s a “wow” factor when you enter. The noise, the vendors hawking food and drink, the sheer quantity of people, and massive electronic scoreboards overwhelm the first-time visitor. Finally, while diminutive Fenway has only one or two decks in places, Yankee Stadium soars upward with up to four decks. I once bought a seat in the highest deck. It took my friends and me a full 20 minutes to reach the rarefied air via a series of sloping ramps.

Image result for photos of new yankee stadiumThe “new” Yankee Stadium

Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore, Orioles) — Next to Fenway and Yankee Stadium, this is my favorite baseball arena. Opened in 1992, the dazzling, green structure sparked a revival in constructing new baseball stadiums that mimic older, classic ballparks, ranging from Fenway to the long-gone Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. For most baseball fans like me, Camden Yards put an end to the boring, downright ugly circular fields that dotted the baseball landscape in the 1970s — including those in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. All three and many others have since been demolished and replaced with warmer, friendly “retro” parks that remind us of baseball’s halcyon days.

Like Fenway, Camden Yards was designed to fit into a tight downtown district. While the outfield layout is more symmetrical than Fenway’s, right field is hemmed in by tall, refurbished brick warehouses and a small section of bleacher seats. Centerfield ends in a collection of bushes and a dark background for hitters. Three decks of grandstand seats rise behind left field.

I’ve walked the entire ballpark and I defy anyone to find a seat with a bad view. The designers did their homework. The food options are great. I first visited on a Sunday in 2000 and for $100 I bought a seat in the first row behind home plate. The ticket also included lunch at the Boog Powell (a famous Oriole first baseman) restaurant behind right field, and access to the private clubs and their tall, cool drinks in the second deck above home. I usually don’t spend that much for a ticket, but it seemed like a bargain to me.

And of course Camden Yards is downtown, and easily reachable via an above-ground light-rail system that connects to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, about 10 miles away. I know many Albany-area Red Sox and Yankee fans who find a cheap ticket on Southwest Airlines to see their teams play in Baltimore. This often creates resentment among Oriole fans, who find themselves out-cheered by fans from visiting teams. But the experience is too good for us out-of-towners to resist.

Image result for photos of Camden yards 2016Camden Yards

Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla., Rays) — I strive for balance when I write, so I have to mention one of the most terrible fan experiences. Quite simply put, this is the worst place in America to see professional baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays play in what is easily the ugliest, architecturally speaking, venue in Major League Baseball. Watching a game there, as I have done twice, is like visiting a mausoleum. No one has ever satisfactorily answered this question for me: Why build an enclosed stadium with a non-retractable dome in Florida? A co-worker once told me it was because Tampa experiences more lightning strikes than almost anywhere else in the U.S. Perhaps, but the last time I checked, Florida called itself, “The Sunshine State.”

In addition to a tilted roof ringed with a series of catwalks inside — a feature that requires special ground rules because some fly balls and pop-ups hit those walks — the blotchy, puke-green artificial turf looks like it’s been around for 100 years and suffered from hundreds of chemical spills. Don’t adjust your TV set when you see a game being played here. The picture you see is real.

The sound is bad, the parking is tight, and the lighting can give you a headache. I pity the poor Rays. They seldom sell out the place, even on the rare occasions when they’ve made the playoffs since the field opened in 1990. Team owners have made several attempts to build a new stadium. It hasn’t happened.

The most fan-friendly feature at Tropicana is the 10,000-gallon tank in center field, where ticket-holders can pet and feed one of 30 devil-ray-like fish called cownose rays.

Image result for photos of tropicana fieldInside Tropicana Field

Rogers Centre (Toronto, Blue Jays) — Speaking of domes, don’t pass up an opportunity to see a game here. Located in downtown Toronto and originally known as The Skydome, this indoor baseball stadium has a retractable roof! I know it costs a lot more to engineer and build a roof that opens and closes, but what a concept: If the weather’s nice (Canada north of the border can be beautiful)  open the dome. Fans can bask in sunlight and warm air, while gazing at the downtown skyline that surrounds the field. This includes the majestic Space Needle-like CN Tower that pokes about 1,500 feet into the sky next door. If it rains, the Blue Jays close the roof. Rain checks are not needed here.

The stadium itself is a little ordinary, and the games are played on artificial turf. There are three decks that rise from the field on all sides, except for the outfield. There are some seats in center, but that area is ringed in by a large video scoreboard and a complex of glassed-in restaurants and hotel rooms. You can eat or just hang out in your room while watching a game. This did create some buzz a few years after the structure opened in 1989. On three occasions, young couples in one of the outfield hotel rooms forgot to close their curtains during romantic encounters.

Image result for photos of Rogers Centre 2016Rogers Centre

Wrigley Field (Chicago, Cubs) — I’ve been here twice during work trips and I have to mention it because the Cubs finally won a World Series last year. It’s the second-oldest ballpark in the country, behind Fenway.  Wrigley suffers from some of the same issues as Fenway. It can be cramped and many of the seats are uncomfortable. But it’s also located in a mostly residential neighborhood, with lots of bars.

And then there’s the layer of climbing ivy vines on the walls that enclose the outfield. Baseball fans must see this unusual ballpark feature once in their lives. There is nothing else like it. It can create some unusual plays, such as when the batted ball gets stuck in the ivy. There are special ground rules that apply in that situation. In most cases, instead of the outfielder fishing the ball out of the vegetation while the runner circles the bases, the runner is awarded a ground-rule double. What many don’t know is that behind the layer of ivy is a solid brick wall. Many an outfielder bounding after the ball has suffered a near or full concussion after bone-crushing collisions with the wall — after expecting a soft landing in the brush.

Image result for photos of wrigley field 2016Wrigley Field

The rest — In no particular order, I also visited and watched games at: Turner Field in Atlanta (which is being closed next year in a controversial move to a suburban, publicly funded new stadium), Cromerica Park in Detroit, Progressive Field in Cleveland, U.S. Cellular Field on the South Side of Chicago where the White Sox play (and soon to have a new corporate name, Guaranteed Rate Field), Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Miller Park in Milwaukee, Target Field in Minneapolis, Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, and Citi Field where the Mets play in Queens, New York. I highly recommend all of them, especially the retractable dome field in Milwaukee.

They built it; I came — with a tip of the hat to Kinsella for his great line in Shoeless Joe. At least 12 other ballparks await.

The Hardwood Primaries

By Mark Marchand

The “primaries” are well underway. Super Tuesday is in the books and passionate hopefuls are jockeying for position in the general contest down the road.
No, I haven’t abandoned my longstanding resistance to writing about politics. If I hadn’t already made that decision, the wretched contest for the Republican presidential nomination this year would have put me over the edge.

My primaries relate to the craze that sweeps the land every year as the last dregs of winter give way to spring: March Madness. I cannot name another sustained sports event that so captures my interest and that of sports fanatics around the nation than the NCAA’s annual three-week men’s basketball tournament. As millions watch in arenas and from offices, homes and bars, a field of 68 men’s basketball teams is winnowed down to a Final Four before crowning a national champion on a Monday night in early April. And the fact that a little friendly wagering is involved in the form of office and other betting pools makes it even more interesting. The brackets we fill out have become so famous they gave rise to prognostications in the form of a newly minted science: bracketology.

I was invited to fill out my first bracket at work in 1986, picking winners from the newly expanded field of 64 teams (now 68). I was hooked. Almost every year since then I have watched this dazzling event play out as I follow the action in my family room or in bars with friends, clutching wrinkled papers displaying my picks. Most years, the heavy lines on my sheets reflect the dozens of losers that I had picked to win, but fell by the wayside early.

Lately, though, I have become more fascinated with the preliminary events that precede the highly rated Sunday evening show where the national tournament teams and their seedings are revealed. Most of the consistently successful college programs — Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Louisville, et al — don’t have to worry too much about the automatic invitation to the tournament that comes with winning their conference championship in, say, the Southeast, Big East, Atlantic Coast, Big 10, and other so-called power or major conferences. If the teams don’t win their conference, they will usually be eligible for an “at large” bid to the tourney, based on their record and strength of schedule. They might be seeded lower, which means they play a tougher team in the first few games, but they’re still in.

My fascination is with the smaller, lesser-known conferences better known as “mid majors.” These conferences produce “do or die” battles among their member schools. If you don’t win the conference championship and the accompanying automatic NCAA bid, there is little chance you’ll go “dancing” in March, as participation in the tourney is often called.

Where else can you find a team called the Southern Illinois Salukis (so named for a speedy sight hound whose roots go back to ancient Mesopotamia, not the southerly region of the Land of Lincoln) battling for the coveted Missouri Valley Conference title? How about rooting for the Virginia Military Institute Keydets to snare a bid by winning the Southern Conference championship? And of course how could you not pant with anticipation following the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in their quest for the Summit League trophy?

These are not names that roll of the tongue of your run-of-the-mill hoops fan. Yet it is this wide-ranging field of barely known hoop squads that have given birth to so-called Cinderellas that, on a few occasions, have threatened to turn the college basketball world upside down. Most fans won’t admit it, but in 2008 they probably scrambled to the nearest search engine to find out where the heck Davidson College is when the Wildcats from that Atlantic 10 school slayed college hoop royalty enroute to the Elite Eight remaining teams, before finally losing. They’re from Davidson, N.C., of course. And be honest, who knew much about the George Mason University Patriots (Fairfax County, Virginia) or the Butler Bulldogs (Indianapolis) before they wrecked millions of brackets prior to reaching the Final Four in 2006 and 2010, respectively?

One of these mid-major conferences, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, or MAAC, features a local team that has allowed me to more closely follow the run-up to March Madness. The Siena College Saints of Albany are a perennial contender, and the MAAC conference tourney is often held at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany. This year I chose to immerse myself a bit deeper in the tourney.

I make a last-minute decision to buy a session pass and head to Albany to watch three of the tourney games on a Thursday night. Large buses and cars are creeping down State Street as I arrive around 4:30 p.m. Exhaust from the buses is buffeted by a chilly wind climbing up from the Hudson River at the bottom of State Street. I join a small stream of fans — some bundled up against the cold, and others wearing shorts and tee shirts — heading toward the arena.

At the box office I score a great seat 20 rows back from mid-court. I buy a beer and settle in for the first game. There’s a sparse crowd in this 15,000-seat arena for the contest between Quinnipiac University from southern Connecticut and Rider College of Lawrenceville, N.J.

Tip-off occurs at 5:03 p.m.. There’s so little noise from the crowd I can hear the coaches shouting instructions. Urgent conversation from some of the players drifts up to my seat. “Open,” screams one player. “Cover him,” yells another. Both teams are among the lower seeds in the MAAC, meaning they don’t have great season records. The Rider Broncs came in to the tourney with a 12-19 record. The Bobcats of Quinnipiac were a little worse, winning 9 games and losing 20.

The teams battle to a near draw by the half, with the Bobcats leading by two, 32-30. Watching the play unfold, I’m reminded of what famous Indiana Coach (and chair thrower, and tantrum flinging) Bobby Knight once said: The shot fake remains one of the best plays when a team is an offense. The player with the ball acts like he’s going to shoot, but doesn’t. As he holds the ball, the defending player leaps into the air to block the non-existent shot, temporarily leaving his feet and rendering him unable to follow the fake shooter, who by now has either passed or dribbled the ball around the defender. Both teams, and others I see tonight, do this well.

As the second half begins, more fans are drifting in, but they still have their pick of the plastic blue seats with blue-orange speckled upholstery. The fan noise has increased.

Five minutes into the second half, the teams are tied again. With eight minutes left, Rider starts to pull away, leading 52-44. Broncs sophomore Jimmie Taylor from Florida is providing the spark, scoring 18 points.

During a second-half timeout, the usual fan-related contest on the court is replaced by one I’ve never seen. Two women start under one basket and race to the other, stopping to put on a shirt, then shorts, and finally over-sized shoes placed along their path. After reaching the other basket, the girls turn around and race back to where they started and must make a basket to win a prize. The crowd loves it. I can’t hear the PA announcer above the cheering, but I think Grace won.

Quinnipiac is coming back furiously, but Rider is doing a better job with offensive rebounds. Each trip down the court, they get multiple chances to shoot.

As is most often the case, the last two minutes of this or any other college basketball game are the most entertaining. Quinnipiac hits a three-point basket to make it a one-point game. But in the end Rider prevails. Quinnipiac misses a long, desperation three-point shot. Rider wins 60-57 and lives to play another game in the MAAC tournament. Quinnipiac gets ready to head back to Connecticut. It’s 6:54 p.m. now and I’m off to get another beer and some food during the 25-minute break before the second game.

Tip-off for the second game, which was supposed to start at 7 p.m., takes place at 7:21. It’s an all-western New York contest. The Canisius College Golden Griffens from Buffalo (13-18 on the season) are battling the 7-24 Niagara University Purple Eagles, from, of course, Niagara Falls. Emile Blackman of Niagara opens the scoring at 17:55 with a thunderous dunk that seems to shake the arena. Canisius’ Phil Valenti from Victor, New York, answers with a three-point basket and we’re off.

Canisus’s strength is obviously in the long-ball department. They hit a gang of three-point goals and the Griffins are up 11-2 as the Niagara coach calls a timeout just four minutes into the half. He’s shouting as his players gather at the bench.
The best timeout entertainment during this game features two men and two women in a wheel-barrowing contest from one end of the court to another. The guys win, but I’m pretty sure they cheated.

Niagara storms back. With less than six minutes left in the half, they’re up by two points. They’re paced by a player who wears the uniform number “0.” Guard Chris Barton from Pontiac, Michigan, has poured in 11 points.

The teams race back and forth. They generate brief, flickering shadows on the court, created by the strong arena lights above. A constantly changing banner of ads scrolls up and down in front of the scorer and timekeeper table. Cheer and dance squads from both teams do their best to excite the fans who have followed them to Albany. During timeouts, they put on elaborate dance routines set to music. More fans have crept into the arena.

At halftime, reached at 7:57 p.m., Canisus has come back to take a 40-36 lead.
The second half continues in much the same back-and-forth manner. A fan in front of me is reading the comics page from the local paper. I assume he’s there waiting for the third game of the night, the Manhattan College Jaspers against the Marist College Red Foxes from Poughkeepsie, an hour south of Albany. He has a long wait in front of him, as it turns out. I think about asking him how Beetle Bailey is doing, but I pass.

Midway through the second half, I can see Canisius is having trouble setting up what’s known as a pick, which allows the offensive player to better penetrate the other’s team’s defense. To set a pick, an offensive player without the ball stands where he thinks the defender covering his teammate with the ball will run. If all works as planned, the defender runs into the player who is standing still, and the player dribbling the ball is free to advance toward the basket. Several offensive drives by Canisius are thwarted when no one on the team sets a pick.

With only 50 seconds left in the second half, Canisius guard Kassius Robertson from Toronto hits a long three-point shot to tie the game at 71. Canisius has one more chance to break the tie but wastes time setting up a last shot that clangs off the front of the rim. Five minutes of overtime awaits.

The overtime action is furious, but both teams stay close. With almost no time left, Blackman of Niagara attempts a three-point shot and misses, but he’s fouled with his team down by three points. This means he gets three free throws. In a harbinger of things to come, he hits all three. Tie game. Second overtime period. And the teams who were supposed to play in the final game are left still warming up in the aisles.

The second OT period is more of the same. Some of the fans behind me, waiting anxiously to see their teams play, start muttering about a third overtime. And of course it happens. It’s 93-93 and we’re off to a rare third overtime period.
The players are tired now. The quality of play is ragged. The crowd has grown even larger, and noisier. They know they’re seeing something special.

Somehow Canisius summons a second (or third?) wind. They run off seven straight points and win the game 102-97. Both teams combined to score 199 points, a rarity in college hoop. And of course, I think, this is the type of game I expected. This is the prelude to March Madness, and I love it. The Niagara players and coaches shake hands with their counterparts, but they look tired and defeated. I feel badly that someone has to lose after such a gem of a game.

It’s after 10 p.m. now. The third game was supposed to start an hour earlier so I decide I’ve had enough. If I remain for the Manhattan-Marist game, I’ll be walking back to my car after midnight, by myself.

I zip up my ski jacket, tug my gloves tight, and head back out onto dark, frosty South Pearl street. A group of young players from a local hoop team are leaving at the same time. Coaches and parents exhort them to stay close and not run into traffic. But it’s still pretty quiet out. They don’t have to worry much.
I’m tired but breathless after witnessing the triple overtime thriller. March Madness hasn’t even started yet, and I’m excited about what this 2016 college hoop season has already showed me. It’s only March 3.


Coda on March 7: Local favorite Siena College beat Manhattan College Saturday to advance in the MAAC tourney, but ended up losing to Iona the following night. Better luck next year, Saints!

Dispatches from March Madness in Brooklyn – 2014


By Mark Marchand:

As we approach the Final Four this weekend in North Dallas, I’m reminded that my bracket was trashed at about 4:30 p.m. on the first day of the tourney two weeks ago. But my journey into March Madness began a week earlier in the borough of Brooklyn…

For almost anyone, doing the same thing for 12 hours straight – work, school, play, watching TV, reading, etc. – presents challenges that range from exhaustion to boredom. Yet this is exactly what I chose to do on March 14, focusing on one of my all-time loves: division one college basketball. After years of following on TV the conference championship season that precedes the “Big Dance” of the national NCAA tournament, I made a decision. I would spend the day watching all four games of the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals in the new Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. My alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is an A-10 member and fielded a good team that was a lock to make the Big Dance even if they fizzled in the conference tourney.

I resolved to ditch my car and make the trip from my home in Saratoga County, N.Y., via public transportation. In the end, it proved to be a day filled with dazzling hoop plays, surprises, a bit of boredom, fatigue, shockingly expensive Bloody Marys, and an even better understanding of how the game is played.

Prior to sunrise on March 14, the day began…

6:55 a.m. – The New York City-bound Amtrak pulls out of the Albany/Rensselaer station, squeaking along tracks that will guide the train south on the east side of the Hudson River. Destination: Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan. The car is relatively quiet and I delve into the day’s New York Times and a cup of coffee. To my right, jagged pieces of ice thrust upward from the mostly frozen Hudson. Further south, there’s less ice and more open water. Birds scatter as we rumble past. The rising sun casts the train’s shadow on the riverside trees, bushes, and a few houses as we zip along. Nearing Manhattan, I spot the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge and I think about the workers forced to endure the nearly arctic-like conditions we’ve experienced during our difficult winter. Still further south, the George Washington Bridge rolls by and, almost ahead of schedule, we’re in Manhattan.

10:35 a.m. – After checking my bags at a hotel in Manhattan, I return to Penn Station to board a #2 subway to Brooklyn. I settle into a vacant seat, which surprises me because it’s still a work day and the car is pretty full. As we pass through lower-Manhattan/Wall Street stations, passengers disembark at every stop…and suddenly I look up to find myself all alone in the car! I cannot believe it. I’m in a city of over eight million people and I’m all alone on a subway car on a weekday morning? I look through the doors to the connected cars before and after my car, and they’re almost half full. I become a bit nervous as the subway departs the last Manhattan stop and heads below the East river to Brooklyn. My fears prove unfounded. The car remains empty as we begin making stops in Brooklyn. Finally, some 20 minutes after leaving Penn Station, I leave the train at the Atlantic Avenue/Barclays station.

11:30 a.m. – I emerge from the subway and gain my first view of the nearly new Barclays Center and its faux rust exterior. It’s an architectural wonder. A massive elevated “ring” with a center open to the sky and a stunning video screen greets visitors. I’m disappointed to find out it’s still chilly, but I walk around the center a bit to learn more about the neighborhood. I spot a large shopping mall across Atlantic Avenue and make a mental note that it might be good location to eat during the two-hour break between the afternoon and evening games. That supposition proves to be very wrong later.

11:50 a.m. – I enter the arena and am greeted by some of the nicest security people and ticket takers I have ever met. I have a strange inkling that I’m someplace other than a sports arena in a major city. After reading the tourney program between games, I discover why. The people who work at Barclays are trained at the Disney Institute. If anyone knows how to teach people to deal with visitors and guests, it’s Disney. Smart move. I buy a beer and head to my seat.

Noon: — My college basketball extravaganza begins as I find my seat near the TV cameras in the second level near mid court. The #9 seed and lowly St. Bonaventure Bonnies from remote Olean in western upstate New York are facing off against tourney # 1 seed St. Louis Billikens, a nationally ranked powerhouse. Even though I’m still mad at St. Louis for beating my UMass team with a last-second basket in the last game of the regular season a week earlier, I dip into my iPhone to find out just what a Billiken is. The Billiken mascot prancing around the court near the St. Louis cheerleaders looks like the Grinch in the “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” cartoon. I learn it’s an elf-like doll created almost a century ago by a Kansas City art teacher and illustrator. A St. Louis University football coach later adopted it as a mascot for the team, and its use spread throughout the athletic program. I’ve seen lots of mascots over the years, but the Billiken is interesting in a disturbing way. Anyway, he had good dance moves and he kept up with the cheerleaders.

St. Louis jumps to an early 14-6 lead. They are an efficient, well-organized team that executes set plays and reacts well on rebound chances. The heart and soul of the Billikens is Atlantic 10 player of the year and senior guard Jordair Jett. He is a wonder to behold as he dashes up and down the court, his long locks moving to and fro as he dishes passes or shoots. Somehow, though, the Bonnies stay in the game and in my notes I start writing “upset?’ early on. They do a nice job double-teaming Jett. Bonnies senior guard Charloon Kloof from Suriname in Northeast Africa puts up a quick 14 points for the Bonnies. During timeouts I watch and listen to the school pep bands located at each end of the court. I end up being entertained by almost all of them throughout the day, but I give my award for this game to the St. Louis band and their terrific electric bass player. At halftime, students from Middle School 244 in The Bronx deliver a spirited dance routine that draws loud applause.

Midway through the second half, the Bonnies draw closer, trailing 52-51. St. Louis seems to tighten up a bit and at 4:32 left in the half it’s tied 61 all. The Bonnies edge ahead briefly, but Billikens senior guard Mike McCall ties it at 63-63 with one of the game’s most beautiful plays: a reverse layup after gliding directly under the basket. Finally, Bonnies junior guard Jordan Gathers breaks the tie with a three-point shot as the clock runs out, and Bonnies win 71-68. St. Louis, already a lock for an at-large NCAA bid, looks stunned.
I feel I have already received my money’s worth, with a major upset that ends up drawing tweets from college hoop expert broadcaster Dick Vitale and bulletins from CBS Sports. But a long day awaits.

2:15 p.m. – Before the second game begins at 2:30 I head downstairs to buy a beer, but decide on a Bloody Mary as I wander by a stand selling mixed drinks. It ends up being a bad move. Not only is it a drink made with a pre-made Bloody Mary mix, it tastes bland and costs $12.75. I wave goodbye to much of my $20 bill as I pass it to the bartender. It’s beer or water from now on.

2:30 p.m. – The Hawks of St. Joseph’s from Philadelphia and the Dayton University Flyers take the court. It promises to be a close game since they are the #4 and #5 seeds respectively. Before the game begins, the Dayton pep band wins my “favorite band of the game” contest as they race out en masse from a tunnel beneath the stands while a loud siren sounds. For pure team spirit, though, the St. Joe’s mascot wins hands down. The Hawk starts his never-ending routine of raising wings over his head every few seconds and won’t stop until the game ends. The student selected to don the Hawk costume raises his wings some 3,500 times during an average game but earns a full scholarship for accepting the role.

As expected the first half is close. St. Joe’s leads 35-34 at halftime as senior guard Langston Galloway from Baton Rouge pours in 20 points in 20 minutes. I scamper downstairs to a Nathan’s stand in the arena and try to buy some French fries. They tell me they don’t sell fries and point me to another food stand. A Nathan’s that doesn’t sell fries? I’m shocked.

3:30 p.m. – As both teams return from halftime, I decide to develop some sort of meaningful statistic that might speak to the pure volume of watching four games in one day – something that goes beyond the 562 points I will eventually see scored on March 14. It occurs to me as I watch Dayton junior guard Jordan Sibert dribble the ball: how many times does the ball bounce while being dribbled during one game, and then four games? Since I’m taking scant notes I quickly realize I just can’t sit there and count bounces or I’ll miss the games themselves. I arrive at mathematical extrapolation. I decide to count bounces during a two-minute period of the second half, and then spread that across the 40 minutes of play during each of the four games to arrive at a rough estimate. It’s not advanced math so I try it. I also decide to include bounce passes since it involves a player intentionally bouncing the ball on the court, as he does during a dribble. Between the 18 and 16 minutes points of the second half I count 71 bounces. If one spreads this across a 20-minute half of a college game that means 394 bounces every 10 minutes, or 788 bounces per half and then 1,576 bounces per game. Carry the two and multiply by whatever and this gives us some 6,304 bounces over four games. It’s a rough estimate, but impressive!

As game two wears on and the Dayton band cowbells resonate around the beautiful new Barclays, I settle back and absorb the back-and-forth rhythm of the games. I always suggest to fellow sports fans that if basketball inventor James Naismith were alive today, he’d point to the fast-paced college game as the way he intended the game to be played, not the often lumbering pace of the NBA half-court game. The college game seems to be played by young men and women who leave little wasted time. They inbound the ball or grab the rebound and rush up court. They then usually spread out the offense and quickly pass the ball back and forth, constantly probing for the slightest of vulnerabilities in the opposing team’s defense and then quickly try to exploit it with a drive under the hoop or a long-range shot. Successful offensive drives often depend on how quickly the ball handler can sense he’s being double teamed and then finding the teammate who’s surely unguarded. And it seems no offensive effort resembles another. There are infinite possibilities.

3:55 p.m. – Longtime St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli prowls the sideline anxiously as the game is tied following a barrage of three-point baskets by each team. Hawk guard Galloway is up to 26 points with 8:16 left in the game. In what appears to be a pre-planned move the Dayton band changes their hats for the third time. With just 15 seconds left, Galloway appears to push the Dayton defender away with his right forearm (no foul called and boos/hisses from the Dayton fans) and hits a three-pointer for a 69-67 St. Joe’s lead. While the Hawk mascot appears to be fading, St. Joe’s hangs on for a hard fought 70-67 win and my day is half done. I must leave the arena because the afternoon session is over and use my evening ticket for the last two games.

5:30 p.m. – I visit the previously seen shopping mall across Atlantic Avenue to forage for an early dinner, and I get skunked. The only two mall restaurants I find are an Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings – both of which have lines out the door. A search of the immediate area turns up scant restaurants. How can it be that a 17,000-seat arena is built in an area where there are so few places to eat? I finally discover a small seafood bar and wolf down some of the worst fish and chips I’ve ever eaten.

6:15 p.m. – I re-enter Barclays and find my seats for the evening session. There seems to be a larger crowd, with a big contingent of Virginia Commonwealth University fans. My seats are in a corner in the second level but I end up moving back to the center court seats I had in the afternoon when I see no one sitting there. VCU, the tourney’s #2 seed, storms to an early 8-1 over # 7 seed Richmond Spiders and it goes downhill for Richmond from there.
I spot yet another fascinating team mascot. The Richmond good luck charm is a student dressed up in a sort of Hamburgler type mask with four furry legs sprouting from his back…intended to make him look like a spider. I actually feel sorry for the student wearing the costume. It’s neither scary nor funny.

7:23 p.m. – The first half ends with VCU up 38-22. VCU freshman forward Mo Alie-Cox has thrilled the crowd with a few thunderous dunks…some of which seem to send shock waves all the way to my section. Richmond opens the half with a spirited run, but with 13:30 left VCU leads 51-31. I start to feel myself dragging a bit. It is, after all, the second half of the day’s third game. I find myself wishing this game would end soon so I could gain some energy from the last game, featuring my alma mater UMass. At 8:30 the game ends with VCU players headed to the locker room with a 71-53 win. I head down for a beer, popcorn, and bathroom break.

9:00 p.m. – Perhaps the largest crowd of the day settles in for the last game of the day, featuring #6 seed UMass vs. #3 seed George Washington University. I quickly discover I’m a lone UMass fan seated in huge throng of GW fans. I resolve to be pretty quiet. For support I glance over at the familiar UMass Minutemen mascot, who seems to be pretty docile and quiet tonight.
My hopes begin to fade quickly as GW surges to a 15-7 lead with 12:56 left in the first half. UMass looks tentative and tired. GW senior forward Nemanja Mikic from Serbia scores nine points in the first 11 minutes. With 7:31 left in the half, GW opens up its first double-digit lead, 25-14. UMass sixth-man Maxie Esho continues his recent streak of outstanding play with a coast-to coast steal and score. He will go on to score 22 points. But the best UMass player, hometown favorite and guard Chaz Williams of Brooklyn, can’t seem to get it going early. He’ll end up scoring 19 points with a late push, but it’s not enough. GW leads 40-31 at the half.

As the second half begins, I take more notice of a GW fan one row in front of me and just to the left. He has become increasingly tense and loud, screaming and swearing at the referees for each call that goes against GW. I make up my mind that if he keeps going he will have a heart attack. He is slamming his fist on the glass tunnel wall next to his seat and has reached the point where large veins in his neck are bulging. I think about some basic instruction I had in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation decades ago. He seems to be fixated on UMass coach Derek Kellogg whenever he steps onto the court while playing is going on, crudely urging the ref to call a #$%@ing technical foul. He ignores similar moves by GW Coach Mike Lonergan. I simply pray that if he does have a coronary he ends up being okay. In contrast, I end up striking up a great conversation with two GW fans from Washington, D.C., sitting on my right. They are quite familiar with UMass, and they admire the university.

UMass, already considered a sure bet to gain an at-large invitation to the NCCA tourney, never really threatens the Colonials. With four minutes left, fans begin heading for the exit. The last four minutes stretch on for a long time as UMass tries to mount a comeback, and fouls/timeouts stall play. With 1:34 left, I consider leaving but stay because it’s my team. At 11:15 it’s over, and GW heads to the tourney semifinal with an 85-77 win.

11:15 p.m. – I have witnessed four games in 11 hours and I am still full of energy. Pushed along by the crowd, I leave Barclays and walk to the crowded subway station, waiting only five minutes for a Manhattan-bound #3 train. Even at that late hour the train is filled with students, workers, young couples, hoop fans, and others. As a close friend had suggested to me, it was the quickest and safest way back to my Manhattan hotel at that time of night. As we stop at stations in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, I gaze out the car window and find myself mesmerized by the movement of three to four other trains going in opposite directions into and out of the station.

11:55 p.m. – My long day’s journey into college basketball is done. I walk the four blocks from Penn station to my hotel on West 37th Street. Before turning in after midnight I ponder the day and make one decision. You can never have too much college basketball. Close to some 6,400 bounces of the basketball might seem boring to some…but I’ll be back…