There’s been a lot of grousing about preseason rankings and critics. When did Ducks fans develop such a thin skin? Rather than pound the table, I say bring it on.
To the national pundits we’re known as the Blur or Track Town, USA. Speed may impress, but it doesn’t always earn long-term respect. We hear it all the time. They call it gimmicky. They question the team’s grit, their toughness. Think about it. The Tide may move slowly, but that’s only because Nick Saban doesn’t have to move for anybody. When a team is respected outside of its own conference, you don’t have to worry about pleasing the critics. Like it or not, blue-blood teams are just expected to be tough. Their reputations have become their own currency.
Outside of the Pac-12, Oregon’s currency is wildcat tender. Audiences expect an offensive show but, fair or not, they still have questions. I have a plan to fix that. In a word: outreach.
And thus the genesis of this gripe: even when Oregon is ranked in the Top 5, it’s hard enough to watch them on the east coast. Pac-12 president Larry Scott and network chief Lydia Murphy-Stephans are doing great work bringing Pac-12 action to Australia. Thank them later. And they signed Twitter. Live action; 140 characters at a time. (Yes, I know they will be streaming but I doubt I will be watching.) But growing the brand seems beyond their reach.
Pac-12 athletic directors must look to the southeast and wonder why, with the likes of USC, UCLA, Stanford and Oregon, the Pac-12 Network is yielding around $1M per school annually when the SEC Network kicks back around $7M per. Answer: supply and demand. Even as the Pac-12 Network hosts some 850 live events, who’s watching? Supply is ample, but national demand is lean.
The Network’s efforts to grow the market with DirectTV failed because the deal required an asset transfer from public universities that mandated competitive bids. Which begs the question: don’t antitrust laws prevent cartelizing a market and limiting access? Yet the Pac-12 Network has done exactly that to the televised sports market for 12 public universities. But I digress … I just want to watch the Ducks, even when they play UC Davis. And where’s the demand for that game? Right in the lumberyard.
Which leads me to my next point: scheduling. During the excitement of each new season, it’s easy to quiet the nagging disappointment we feel with our non-conference scheduling. I can’t be the only one.
Sure, we usually have one big game. Nebraska’s blue-blood program is a welcome opponent. We go tit-for-tat for two years just as we did with Michigan State. As we look past 2017, however … meh. Two big non-conference opponents are lined up: Auburn in 2019, back-to-back duels with Ohio State in 2020-2021 (let that sink in: it will be 2020 before we can shut up the other OSU fans).
What Oregon football needs is a blue-blood rival. As much as I loathed Stanford during the Jim Harbaugh era, a sentiment which has almost vanished under David Shaw whom I respect a great deal (to be fair, now that Harbaugh is not wearing cardinal red I’ve a new found respect for him as well), and as much as I cringe at the fact that Stanford has won 3-of-5 Pac-12 titles, every year I look forward to the Stanford and USC duels with Notre Dame. Why? Because when any Pac-12 team plays blue-blood, they are the conference standard-bearer.
Stanford and USC have played Notre Dame every year since 1996 and 1997 and will continue to do so every year through 2024 and 2023, respectively.
Those rivalries are not just part of football history, they serve as bellwethers. While USC has taken only two of the last six Jeweled Shillelaghs (after dominating eight straight years), Stanford has taken seven of the last nine Legends Trophies, which demonstrates how far that program has come since they lost seven straight from 2002-2008. In contrast, this year we can juxtapose the results of the University of Virginia game with the 2013 results from Mark Helfrich’s first season.
While Duck fans complain about respect, Stanford, our chief division rival, is ascending on an annual stage that it built to play, not just for a national prime time audience, but for a devout Irish fan base. I doubt any Irish fan “likes” Stanford or David Shaw, but I would be willing to bet the vast majority of them have learned to respect the Cardinal in this decade.
It’s difficult to gain national respect when your biggest rivalries have no currency outside of the Pac-12. If it’s not in their backyard, southern and middle American football audiences have zero interest in anything Oregon does outside of a title game. That won’t change until Oregon proves itself year-in-year-out to a blue-blood fan base.
It doesn’t have to be the Irish (but that would be awesome). It could be Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Bama, Harbaugh’s Michigan - I don’t care. The opponent is secondary to the continued exposure to an outside market and the respect that a long-term investment in an annual blue-blood rivalry will yield.
Why should we listen to you, Matt? You live in New York and are hardly even an Oregonian any more. If we limit our non-conference exposure to one big annual audience, don’t we necessarily restrict our ability to prove our mettle to as many as possible?
The answer: how’s that working out for you?
Critics and fans, when they are not yours, have a short memory. Do you think East Lansing still talks about the Eugene 47-27 drubbing of 2014? If they speak of it at all, they likely chalk it up to the Marcus Mariota factor: an exceptional but momentary Oregon talent. Yet I bet every time Oregon is mentioned at P.T. O’Malley’s, talk turns to holding the Blur to 21 points in 2015.
Another example: the 2014 Rose Bowl. A brilliant game. Yet few outside of Oregon will cherish it as we do. Do you think anyone remembers the turnovers, Tony Washington’s touchdown or the Ducks D holding fast at the 1-yard line? I doubt even Kirk Herbstreit remembers questioning the national audience “can we finally put to rest the question of this team’s toughness?”
The question is back and won’t be put to bed until Oregon runs the ball down the throat of some blue-bloods for several years in a row. Every Greenblood knows that year-in, year-out our athletes will make us proud. Give them the opportunity and they will Win The Day. They are the pride of our state. Let them prove themselves against any team in the nation and they will not only make us proud, but they will earn the nation’s respect.
That is the missing ingredient in the Oregon recipe. No one, not even Chip Kelly, was charting a course to a long-term national stage. Respect is not won. It can’t be built like a performance center. It’s not even guaranteed to come with the title. Respect is earned when generation after generation trades blood for victory on an opponent’s pitch. When those fans stand to applaud, out of respect, the critics will follow. Within the Pac-12, there is no question Oregon has earned the respect of its rivals. Outside of the conference, at least for now, questions about Oregon will persist.
There’s a lot about Oregon that I miss. Other Ducks, for one. People cared about the Platypus Trophy. And there was always a place to watch the game. Now, that’s all gone. No one cares. Out here, when I need a venue to watch a game, I have to go to Buffalo Wild Wings like a schnook.
Top photo credit: Wikimedia