Sunday, December 30, 2018

UH wins and attendance, 2018

With another season in the books, it's time for me to update the wins-versus-attendance graph for the University of Houston football program. This graph goes back to 1965, the first year the Cougars played in the Astrodome.

The Cougars averaged 29,838 fans per home game in 2018. This is a decrease of 3,412 fans per game from the 2017 season and a decrease of 9,116 fans per game from two seasons ago. That's a drop of close to 25% over two seasons. Furthermore, these are announced attendance numbers; as anybody who's been in TDECU Stadium over the last couple of years can attest, the actual number of people in the stands has been significantly smaller.

Earlier today (and to my surprise), Major Applewhite was relieved of his duties as head coach of the University of Houston Cougars. I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming post, but this drop in attendance over his two seasons at the helm is a key reason why this decision was made.

The Acropolis

It's really a bit sad that I, an architecture major and history buff, waited until my forty-fifth year of existence on this planet before finally going to see the ancient Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Better late than never, I guess...

The port town of Piraeus, Greece, is right outside of Athens and was the penultimate of call of our Adriatic cruise. We took a shore excursion into Athens to see the Acropolis (along with a few other landmarks, such as the Panathenaic Stadium and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider guarded by the distinctively-dressed Evzones).

The Acropolis has been inhabited for millennia, but the ruins atop it generally date from Fifth-Century Athens, when the city-state dominated Classical Greece.

The Acropolis, as seen from the Panathenaic Stadium. The Acropolis is not the highest point in Athens, but at an elevation of almost 500 feet, and with a relatively flat top, it made the ideal location for the monuments that currently occupy it.

Looking up at the Temple of Athena Nike. Getting to the top of the Acropolis requires a fair amount of climbing. I'm proud to say that my parents - both in their seventies - were able to negotiate the many steps and inclines up to the top.

Throngs of tourists climb up the steps through the Propylaea at the front of the Acropolis. Our cruise was one of several that had docked in Athens that day, and it seemed like all of the shore excursions from the various ships managed to arrive at the Acropolis all at the same time.

Front view of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is the dominant structure on the Acropolis; it was a temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess and namesake of Athens.  The Parthenon is considered one of - if not the - finest example of ancient Greek architecture.

Side view of the Parthenon. The temple remained more or less intact from its completion in 432 BC until September 1687, when a Venetian artillery attack ignited the Ottoman gunpowder stored inside it and caused a devastating explosion.

The Erechtheum, completed in 406 BC, features the iconic "Porch of the Maidens" on its south side. The monument is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, who according to legend contested each other for control of the city.

In the mid-1970s the Greek government began an effort to restore the Parthenon and other monuments atop the Acropolis. To that end, all of the marble building fragments lying about the Acropolis have been catalogued and neatly stacked. Think of it as a 2,500-year-old jigsaw puzzle!

A view of Athens from atop the Acropolis. Pretty impressive.

Corinne and I take a mandatory selfie! (and yes, this picture makes my face look fat. I really need to go on a diet.)

The nice thing about shore excursions is that it allows you to get a "taste" of a given destination and decide whether you want to come back. And while this excursion allowed me to check Athens and the Acropolis off the bucket list, they are definitely going onto the "go back" list.

Corinne and I would like to spend more time atop and around the Acropolis, as well as see the recently-completed Acropolis Museum. We'd also like to see other sites in Athens, such as the Ancient Agora of Athens, the National Arechological Museum, and the Plaka neighborhood. We also want to take in a nice Athenian meal or two - our shore excursion did not include lunch.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Cougars embarrass themselves in Armed Forces Bowl, 14-70

Honestly, it would have been better if they had just declined this bowl invitation.
Army's relentless triple-option attack produced bowl records with 507 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns to send the Cougars to an embarrassing 70-14 loss in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium. 
The 56-point loss matched the worst in NCAA bowl history, breaking the previous record set by Tulsa in a 63-7 win over Bowling Green in the 2008 GMAC Bowl. 
Army also scored the most points ever against the Cougars in a bowl game, surpassing the previous mark by Hawaii in a 54-48 triple-overtime win in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl. 
Army, which completed the first 11-win season in program history, finished with 507 rushing yards against a banged-up UH defense that was without three injured players on the line and All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who skipped the game to focus on the NFL Draft.
Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, Jr. accounted for five of Army's touchdowns, including a 77-yard run in the first quarter. The Black Knights only passed the ball four times (all of which were completions) and never punted; they scored on all of their possessions except one which ended in a turnover. When Army’s offense wasn’t running the ball down the Houston defense’s throat, they were sacking UH’s hapless backup quarterback, Clayton Tune. Tune was sacked ten times - an Army record (they’ve playing football since 1890, by the way) - and one sack resulted in a fumble that was returned by the Army defense for a touchdown. 

Yes, there have been injuries. The Cougars were playing without their entire starting defensive line or explosive quarterback D’Eriq King. And yes, this season's defense has been statistically the worst in program history. But injuries and a crappy defense cannot by themselves account for the sloppy, unmotivated performance that resulted in a service academy hanging 70 points on the Cougars as well as the Cougars producing what was by far their worst offensive output of the season. The coaches didn't have their heads in this game, either, as was evidenced by head coach Major Applewhite’s decision to punt from Army’s 30 yard line in the third quarter.

Nobody, from coaches to players, was interested in playing this game. The Cougars would have done better to have stayed home and forfeited than to have embarrassed themselves, their fans and their school with such a pathetic, gutless performance. 

Houston has now lost three bowl games in a row, by a combined score of 57-137. A 2018 season that at one time held promise - the Cougars were 7-1 and ranked in the top 25 after defeating South Florida - ended with a whimper, as the team lost four out of its last five games, culminating in the worst postseason loss in program history.

The University of Houston football program enters the offseason with a dark cloud hanging above it. Offensive coordinator Kendall Briles is leaving after only one season to take the same job at Florida State*, meaning that now Applewhite must fill both coordinator positions. If Twitter and message boards are any indications, the UH fanbase has lost faith in Applewhite, and don't see any upside to a third season with him at the helm. Next year's team is losing eight starters on defense, most notably Ed Oliver. The 2019 schedule features opponents such as Oklahoma, Washington State, North Texas, Central Florida and Cincinnati (along with Tulsa and SMU teams the Cougars consistently struggle against and a Memphis team they haven't beaten in three seasons).

In the wake of the embarrassing loss, and no doubt aware of the fact that season ticket renewals for the 2019 season will certainly plummet as fans lose interest in the program, UH president Dr. Renu Khator has said that the school will "review and evaluate" the football program. However, it is unlikely that Applewhite will be fired, because of the large buyout his contract entitles him to and also because this program has traditionally given coaches at least three years to prove themselves (even when it was pretty clear that they probably weren't going to be able to get the job done, as was the case for Dana Dimel and Tony Levine).

I like Major Applewhite and I want him to succeed. But, at this point, I'm feeling no optimism about the 2019 season. Last weekend's embarrassing bowl blowout was a real gut punch, and I'm sure I'm not the only UH football fan who feels this way. 

*For what it's worth, I think Briles is somewhat overrated. Yes, the offense was better than last year, but a lot of that had to do with the athleticism of D'Eriq King. Besides, if Briles gets credit for the offense when it was good, then he also must take the blame for its piss-poor performances against SMU and Army.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

New Mexico Bowl: North Texas 13, Utah State 52

Probably not the way the Mean Green wanted to end the season:
Utah State walked into the New Mexico Bowl with one of its best records in school history but uncertainty. Its head coach, Matt Wells, left to take the Texas Tech job. Interim coach Frank Maile had to prepare the Aggies with an army of graduate assistants and an announcement a new coach was coming next month.
North Texas, meanwhile, was coming into Albuquerque with experienced coach Seth Littrell and highly touted quarterback Mason Fine.
The Aggies pushed those distractions aside Saturday.
Jordan Love threw for 359 yards and four touchdowns and Jalen Greene had six catches for 151 yards and a score to help Utah State rout North Texas 52-13.
It didn’t help that Mason Fine was injured in the first quarter, but his absence had nothing to do with the fact that UNT’s defense was torched for 556 total yards and gave up passing scores of 72 and 67 yards. Utah State's defense also preyed on UNT's passing game, picking the Mean Green off four times.

It was a tough way to end a 2018 season that saw the Mean Green notch nine wins for the second season in a row, including a win at Arkansas (that featured this hilarious trick play). North Texas has now lost three bowl games in a row, and the Denton Record-Chronicle's Brett Vito wonders if the window for that elusive bowl victory is closing for the Mean Green:
UNT has raised the bar in three seasons under Littrell.
He’s raised it to the point that there is an uneasy feeling among the Mean Green faithful after the Aggies blasted UNT 52-13 at Dreamstyle Stadium.
College football — and college athletics in general — is all about capitalizing on the rare windows of opportunity to vault a program forward.
UNT is in one of those windows now, thanks to the pairing of Littrell and quarterback Mason Fine.
Fine is one of the best quarterbacks in program history. Littrell is well on his way to carving out a significant legacy with the Mean Green.
UNT has capitalized to a certain extent. The Mean Green have played in bowl games in each of the past three seasons and won the Conference USA West Division last year. That’s a significant step forward.
It just isn’t enough to satisfy Littrell, Fine or anyone else. A bowl win has been UNT’s goal from Day 1 of the Littrell era.
The chase will now extend into the fourth season of Littrell’s tenure that will also be Fine’s final year at UNT.
The Mean Green are 0-for-4 in championship games when you count those three bowl games and last season’s Conference USA title game loss to Florida Atlantic.
The state of the UNT football program is much better today than it was just a few years ago, but the big prizes - a Conference USA championship, a bowl victory, perhaps even a season-ending top 25 ranking - have yet to be realized. With a quarterback entering his final season and a head coach that continues to attract attention from other programs, 2019 could very well be a "now-or-never" type of season in Denton.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christmastime at the Roosevelt Hotel

Corinne and I went to her hometown of New Orleans last weekend, and she took me to see one oft he Crescent City's holiday must-sees: the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel.
The lobby of the 124-year-old hotel spans a block, the length of which is positively bursting with Christmas. It's been lined with 78 birch trees that glitter with lights from bow-bedecked planters, and 46 Christmas trees dusted with fake snow and shimmering with red and gold ornaments. 
There are also 387 bows and 1,610 feet of lighted garland — and that's not including the other decorations throughout the hotel, which flank the reception hall doors and are scattered throughout the incredibly festive gift shop. 
All that decor is added to an already opulent setting, with a line of chandeliers down the lobby.  
Though the hotel opened as The Hotel Grunewald in 1893, it wasn't until the '30s that the tradition arose of decking out the lobby — the same decade that Governor Huey Long would regularly stop by to stay at his own suite there. Since then, it has become a local favorite, with thousands of New Orleans residents and visitors filing in to enjoy the stunning seasonal show. 
Every day throughout the month of December, crowds shuffle in and out throughout the day, dressing up in their Christmas card best to snap family photos and pictures with friends. If they stop in at noon, they can catch local school choirs signing carols.
Although the hotel itself dates back to 1893; the current building was built in 1923. It was severely damaged after Hurricane Katrina and was extensively renovated a couple of years later. It is now a Waldorf-Astoria property.

A view of the lobby from one of its entrances. The corridor was packed with hotel guests as well as sightseers.  

If you look carefully, you can even see Santa Claus enjoying the spectacle.

Another view of the lobby, which is pretty impressive even without the holiday decorations. The tile floor is pretty cool. And look at those chandeliers! 

Corinne and I decided that the festive scenery would make a nice backdrop for a picture.

Of course, you really can't fully enjoy the spectacle without a Sazerac from its namesake bar in the hotel.  

While perhaps not quite as spectacular, Canal Street just outside the hotel was decked out in holiday lights, wreaths and ribbons, too.


The XFL comes to Houston

More specifically, the newest incarnation of Vince McMahon's spring football league is coming to the University of Houston:
TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston will be the home field for Houston’s team in the XFL, the spring football league owned by WWE chairman Vince McMahon that will begin play in 2020, the league announced Wednesday. 
Joining Houston among the eight XFL charter cities are teams in Dallas-Fort Worth, playing at Arlington’s Globe Life Stadium, plus Los Angeles (StubHub Center), New York-New Jersey (MetLife Stadium), St. Louis (The Dome at America’s Center), Seattle (CenturyLink Field), Tampa (Raymond James Stadium) and Washington, D.C. (Audi Field). 
Houston will be in the XFL's Western Division with Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Seattle. New York, Tampa, St. Louis and Washington will comprise the Eastern Division. Teams will play a 10-game regular season, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.
Last January I noted that the wrestling mogul wanted to resurrect his football league, whose 2001 effort folded after a single season due to poor TV ratings; I also expressed skepticism that this attempt at a springtime football league would be any more successful than his previous effort, or the USFL, or the World League/NFL Europe. However, I'm willing to give him a benefit of the doubt, especially because one of his teams will be playing at, and paying rent to, the University of Houston. I might even attend some games.

I'm also willing to give McMahon the benefit of a doubt because his new league - which will be overseen by former Houston Oilers quarterback and West Virginia Athletics Director Oliver Luck - will be completely different than the gimmicky, hyper-masculine 2001 version:
The original XFL positioned itself as an alternative to the staid NFL, with nicknames (remember He Hate Me?) on the backs of jerseys and a no-fair catch rule on punts. But in this more safety-aware era of football, Luck indicated the league is looking into modifying the action on punts, kickoffs and extra points, although he didn’t go into any specifics on what those plans might be.
Luck also said the league wants to tweak some rules and use a shorter play clock in the hopes of having games that clock in under three hours.
“Improving player safety is a top priority of ours,” Luck said. “We are establishing an extensive health and wellness program based on input from an accomplished medical professional board with folks who are experts in the areas of neuroscience, orthopedics and mental health.”
Luck also made it apparent that the new XFL wants to “complement” the NFL as opposed to competing with it.
“Our research indicated that fans want more football,” he said, “and we intend to provide it to them,” adding that the startup league has had “productive meetings and conversations” with the NFL. 
The new league, he said, will be “family friendly.”
“We want the XFL to be affordable for families,” said Luck, adding the league intends to set ticket prices that are “significantly lower than other major sports.” 
Another difference: unlike the 2001 XFL, which focused heavily on markets that did not have NFL franchises - Birmingham, Las Vegas, Memphis, Orlando; even Los Angeles had no NFL team at the time - the new XFL will locate all its teams in cities that already have (or recently have had, in the case of St. Louis) an NFL presence. This indicates that the XFL wants to rely on established football markets for its fanbase, rather than the mix of smaller, supposedly "football-starved" markets and wrestling fans that the 2001 league was apparently intended to appeal to.

Franchise nicknames and logos will be unveiled at a later date. I don't suppose anybody's thought about seeing who owns the rights to the name and logo of Houston's old USFL team, but, since springtime football is coming back to Houston, why not bring back the Gamblers?!

The University of Houston's announcement is here. Kuff has some thoughts of his own. We'll see where this goes and how long it lasts.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Is Uber in trouble?

Uber has become ubiquitous, as people have come to rely on the app-based transportation networking company to provide a ride to the airport, or from the bar, or as an easy and convenient form of mobility in general. But it is also hemorrhaging money: it posted a $1 billion loss last quarter, after losing $4.5 billion in all of 2017. Uber presents itself as a "techy" business concept, but is its fundamental practice sustainable over the long haul?
Uber has never presented a case as to why it will ever be profitable, let alone earn an adequate return on capital. Investors are pinning their hopes on a successful IPO, which means finding greater fools in sufficient numbers.
Uber is a taxi company with an app attached. It bears almost no resemblance to internet superstars it claims to emulate. The app is not technically daunting and and does not create a competitive barrier, as witnessed by the fact that many other players have copied it. Apps have been introduced for airlines, pizza delivery, and hundreds of other consumer services but have never generated market-share gains, much less tens of billions in corporate value. They do not create network effects. Unlike Facebook or eBay, having more Uber users does not improve the service.

Nor, after a certain point, does adding more drivers. Uber does regularly claim that its app creates economies of scale for drivers — but for that to be the case, adding more drivers would have to benefit drivers. It doesn’t. More drivers means more competition for available jobs, which means less utilization per driver. There is a trade-off between capacity and utilization in a transportation system, which you do not see in digital networks. The classic use of “network effects” referred to the design of an integrated transport network — an airline hub and spoke network which create utility for passengers (or packages) by having more opportunities to connect to more destinations versus linear point-to-point routes. Uber is obviously not a fixed network with integrated routes — taxi passengers do not connect between different vehicles.

Nor does being bigger make Uber a better business. As Hubert Horan explained in his series on Naked Capitalism, Uber has no competitive advantage compared to traditional taxi operators. Unlike digital businesses, the cab industry does not have significant scale economies; that’s why there have never been city-level cab monopolies, consolidation plays, or even significant regional operators. Size does not improve the economics of delivery of the taxi service, 85 percent of which are driver, vehicle, and fuel costs; the remaining 15 percent is typically overheads and profit. And Uber’s own results are proof. Uber has kept bulking up, yet it has failed to show the rapid margin improvements you’d see if costs fell as operations grew.
The article, which is worth reading in its entirety, explains that Uber has undercut traditional taxi companies not because it is a better product, but because the $20 billion in investor funding that it has raised over time has allowed it to subsidize its customer base, giving it a competitive advantage over taxi companies that must recover all their costs. Compared to taxi companies, however, Uber is actually at a disadvantage in the long term: it has higher overhead costs, and it cannot manage schedules or capacity to optimize efficiency. The considerable data Uber collects about the rides it provides, moreover, does not appear to have made much difference in terms of its profitability.

Uber’s struggle to turn a profit has also had a negative impact on its drivers:
While Uber has reduced its negative gross margin over time, those improvements have come mainly from squeezing driver compensation, so that they now net less per hour on average than taxi operators. Through 2015, 80 percent of fares went to drivers. In its early years, Uber gave drivers high payouts to attract good drivers and also offered drivers incentives to buy cars. Uber cut that to as low as 68 percent, then partially reversed it as driver turnover became acute to its current, roughly 70 percent level. In 2017, Uber’s margin as reported using GAAP was a negative 57 percent. It would have stayed at the negative triple-digit level absent the driver pay-throttling.
The pay cuts have led to more driver turnover, which leads to higher managerial costs. And it is degrading service quality.
But what if Uber were to get rid of their drivers entirely? Autonomous vehicles would surely allow the company to begin turning a profit, right?
But what about driverless cars? Let’s put aside that some enthusiasts like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak now believe that fully autonomous cars are “not going to happen.” Fully autonomous cars would mean Uber would have to own the cars. The capital costs would be staggering and would burst the illusion that Uber is a technology company rather that a taxi company that buys and operates someone else’s robot cars.
The article doesn’t mention that there’s evidence that TNCs such as Uber may contribute to congestion and may negatively impact public transportation. Granted, those are probably not things investors care about when they put money into Uber: they're simply looking for a return on that investment. Unfortunately, Uber has failed miserably in that regard:
Uber has succeeded in getting the business press to treat its popularity as the same as commercial success. A few tech reporters, like Eric Newcomer of Bloomberg, have politely pointed out that Uber’s results fall well short of other tech illuminati prior to going public. The pitch that dominance would produce profits is demonstrably false and Uber seems unable to come up with a new story. There’s every reason to think that investors, not local cab companies, will wind up being Uber’s biggest roadkill.
I wonder how many of Uber's users and drivers even understand how unsustainable Uber's business model is. I'd hate for all of them to have to find out the hard way.