Saturday, August 19, 2023

Realignment time again

Remember during the last round of college sports conference realignment, when I told you not to worry if you didn't like where your favorite school ended up "because we'll probably be doing this again in a few years?" Well, it hasn't even been two years, and here we are again. 

Two weeks ago, the most radical - and sudden - realignment in college football history occurred, wherein a “Power 5” conference with over 100 years of history was essentially dismantled over the course of a couple of days. The Pac-12, which was already facing the losses of USC and UCLA following the 2023 season, saw five of its schools depart for other conferences after a meeting to sign a conference media rights deal fell apart at the last moment. The 2023-24 sports year will be the venerable Pac-12's last in its current configuration, and likely for good.

The Pac-12: disappearing in 2024
As sudden as this was, it was not entirely unexpected. Rumors that Washington and Oregon would join the Big 10 and that the “Four Corners” schools of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah would join the Big 12 had been floating around the online college sports world for months. Once it became clear that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff could not land a media rights deal that would satisfy his conference's members, the inevitable happened and the rumors became reality. These departures - reluctant as they might have been - left the Pac-12 with only four schools: California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State. 

The waters churned in the Pac-12 breakup's wake. Last week, it appeared that Cal, Stanford and even SMU were headed to the ACC, even as schools already in that conference like Florida State were looking for a way out. The ACC seems to be standing pat for now, but that could change at any moment (especially since their television contract isn't as advantageous as those of the SEC and Big Ten). Meanwhile, the fate of Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Wazzou remains unresolved and will likely involve adding or joining schools in the Mountain West or American Athletic Conferences. That in turn, will cause more dominoes to fall. Things are still in flux, and even as the 2023 football season gets underway we have no idea what the conference lineup for 2024 is going to look like.

There's plenty of blame for the demise of the Pac-12, starting with the folks who run the Pac-12 itself, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Connor Letournau explains:

A complete failure of leadership pushed the Pac-12 to this point. By overvaluing their product, showing a stunning lack of urgency and refusing to adapt with the times, league decision-makers reduced the West Coast’s premier conference to four castoffs. The eight teams that departed over the past 13 months weren’t merely opportunists; they identified the problem.

Though Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff has made his share of costly blunders since taking the job three years ago, his predecessor, Larry Scott, deserves much of the blame for the league’s predicament. Before he signed a historic 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with Fox and ESPN in spring 2011, he failed to add an escape clause.

That locked in the Pac-12 until 2024, which left it vulnerable to having its teams poached by Power 5 conferences with bigger subsequent annual media-rights payouts. By inking a TV deal in spring 2016 that lasted just six years, the Big Ten positioned itself to beat the Pac-12 back to negotiations and, ultimately, convince UCLA and USC to come aboard. Those two defections last summer set the Pac-12 on its current trajectory.

Scott’s biggest misstep was the Pac-12 Networks, which didn’t come close to realizing their billing as a cutting-edge enterprise that would serve as an industry standard-bearer. Instead of partnering with a proven media company like ESPN, Scott launched a network fully owned by the schools in summer 2012, complete with an odd seven-channel model that confused consumers.

The Pac-12 Networks struggled to find distribution. Without ever approaching the revenue Scott had projected, it is now considered an albatross that weighs down the remaining league members’ bottom lines.

More recently, the conference apparently turned down a television rights deal worth $30 million per school, because they thought they deserved more. The media disagreed, leaving the Pac-12 to scramble, ultimately unsuccessfully, for another media rights deal. 

In that regard, blame also needs to be laid at the feet of the television networks, who are willing to destroy college football's regional tradition as long as it means new conferences with more marquee matchups that attract more viewers. The conference commissioners and university presidents chasing after those television dollars are also culpable. Everybody will try to avoid blame for the Pac-12's demise, but everybody is responsible. (A great Twitter X thread by a University of Michigan regent slams the NCAA for failing to do its job as the supposed oversight body for college sports.)

As a college football fan, I find this latest round of realignment to be rather bizarre. In what world does it make sense for a school in Eugene, Oregon to be in the same conference as one from Piscataway, New Jersey? How are student-athletes, especially those playing non-revenue sports such as volleyball or soccer, supposed to balance their studies with the cross-country travel (and attendant jetlag) that these mega-conferences will entail? 

Furthermore, having been a student at the University of Houston when the Southwest Conference disintegrated and Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor went to join the Big XII while the Cougars, along with Rice, TCU and SMU, got shunted off to “mid-major” leagues like C-USA and the WAC, I can't help but feel bad for the folks at Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State who are almost certainly looking at a future in the "Group of 5" world. I know what this feels like: a gut-punch; a betrayal. (It should also strike fear in the hearts of administrators at "second-tier" Power 5 schools like Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Indiana and Wake Forest. Next time, it could be them.)

With that said, I'm selfishly grateful that Houston was able to make the jump from the Group of 5 "have-nots" to the (now) Power 4 "haves." In being admitted to the Big 12 right before this latest round of realignment occurred, Houston may have gotten on the "last chopper out," so to speak. 

The new Big 12: appearing in 2024
I'm also excited about the new Big XII, which will actually be a collection of 16 teams in the summer of 2024, when Texas and Oklahoma depart for the SEC and the "Four Corners" schools come aboard. (Confused? ESPN's College Football Realignment Tracker can help you follow along.) It's going to be a fairly evenly-matched conference, lacking a "big dog" school like Alabama or Georgia or Michigan or Ohio State that will win it more often than not. It will feature traditional rivalries like the Holy War and the Territorial Cup. And it will be, hands down, the best mens basketball conference in the NCAA.

Until, of course, the next round of realignment occurs and the conference's lineup changes again.

In that regard, it truly isn't difficult to argue that realignment is killing college sports. Add it to NIL and the transfer portal, and it also isn't difficult to argue that college football is truly becoming professionalized. The Washington Post's Kevin Blackistone thinks that, since college football is now "virtually indistinguishable from the NFL," it's time for colleges and their football programs to go their separate ways:

There are now too many irreconcilable differences between the not-for-profit college mission and for-profit football. It's time to get on with the divorce.

I don't believe college football has attained the NFL's level just yet. But that may, sadly, be where the sport is headed.

I'll have my preview of the 2023 UH football season up in another week or so.

On being homeowners

As I mentioned a few months ago, Corinne and I have purchased a house. We closed at the end of March and moved in in mid-April. Four months later, we still have a lot of unpacking to do, but we've otherwise settled in to our long-desired home sweet home. 

This is not the first time either of us have purchased a house - both of us owned homes in our previous lives - but it had been so long since either of us last bought a house that the homebuying experience may as well have been completely new to us. 

Our original plan was get out of our apartment (which was becoming too small for us and was being increasingly mismanaged by the complex's new owners) and into our own home shortly after our wedding in 2020. However, the housing market during and immediately following the Coronavirus pandemic was simply too hot for us to attempt to enter. We decided to wait for the local real estate market to cool, even though it meant that we would be dealing with higher interest rates. 

We met with our realtor, a longtime acquaintance of mine, the day after Christmas to begin the search in earnest. Right after the new year we started looking at houses, focusing on areas such as Shady Acres, Garden Oaks, the Washington Avenue corridor, Montrose, Midtown, the Museum District, and even EaDo. We wanted to live inside the 610 Loop, if possible; the suburbs held no attraction for us. We were also fine with a townhome because we didn't want a big yard to take care of.

Over the course of January and February, Corinne and I probably toured forty different properties, trying to find the one that held the right balance of cost, location and amenities. 

It was an eye-opening experience. 

Even through the housing market was calmer than it was in 2021 and 2022, we quickly realized that we would be paying much more for a house in any of our preferred areas than we originally anticipated. We found it a little perplexing and more than a little frustrating that, even though we are both professionals in our late 40s making decent incomes, our options in terms of what was affordable to us turned out to be so limited. 

We weren't alone; housing prices are a source of anxiety for many Houstonians, according to the 2023 Kinder Houston Area Survey

Buying a home remains a goal that is out of reach for many people in southeast Texas. The median price for a home in Texas has tripled over the last 10 years while wages have remained relatively flat, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The cost of housing is now top of mind, despite never appearing as a concern in previous surveys - registering at less than 1% of respondents as recently as 2021, then spiking to one in five this year.

After many nerve-wracking weeks, we were finally able to find our home: a townhouse on the eastern edge of Midtown that met our requirements and was within our price range. It has a small yard, is about ten minutes away from my parents, and is (almost) within walking distance of Discovery Green and Minute Maid Park. However, in settling upon it we both had to give up some desired amenities: I would have liked a roof deck with a view of the downtown skyline, Corinne would have liked more cabinet and drawer space in the main bathroom (in all bathrooms, really), and both of us would have liked a larger kitchen. It's also on a corner lot and close to the freeway trench that separates Midtown from Third Ward, so traffic noise is always in the background. But it's ours. (Even if it is one of those stucco monstrosities that so many Houstonians love to hate!)

A quarter-century of aggressive townhome construction inside the loop is, in fact, perhaps the only reason we were able to find anything affordable at all:

Houston famously has no zoning. Developers have quite a bit of latitude to build what they want, where they want. But Houston still has certain restrictions on housing construction, like parking minimums and setback requirements. For years, the city had a minimum lot size of 5,000 square-feet in most neighborhoods—the standard in your typical postwar suburb. But in 1998, the city changed that rule to 1,400 square feet, unleashing a transformative wave of townhouse development.

Today, these townhouses are ubiquitous inside the 610 Loop that marks the central part of the city. A detailed study from the Kinder Institute at Rice University explored the impacts of this development pattern. Between 2005 and 2018, the Inner Loop saw 75,000 new housing units completed, nearly half of which were townhouse units. That’s more housing than San Francisco and Oakland produced, combined, over the same period. The Inner Loop also outperformed the rest of the Houston region in housing production. The area comprises 5% of the total land area of Harris County, but accounted for 19% of new housing built between 2005 and 2018.

While we do not expect to be looking for a house again anytime soon - with any luck, we'll be here for a long time - there are some lessons that we learned from this experience: 

Be patient and don't panic. It took us about two months of constant searching for us to finally find the house we purchased. This was a bit longer than we anticipated, and it was a source of angst for both of us. Homes that looked great on the website would turn out to have fatal flaws once we visited them in person. Homes that we visited and really liked would go under contract before we had an opportunity to make an offer ourselves. We especially began to get antsy as the end-of-lease date at our apartment complex approached. There were times when we considered simply abandoning the home search and signing a new lease, as we weren't sure that we would ever be able to find a suitable house in our affordability range.

In the end, there was no need to panic. Houston is a big city with a vibrant housing market and the right home at the right price will eventually come along, as it did for us.

You can't anticipate everything. We put an offer on this house with the knowledge that it would not come with a refrigerator; the sellers were taking it with them. That was not a problem for us because Corinne had a refrigerator that she had purchased several years ago and kept stored. It was a larger refrigerator, so we made certain that the refrigerator alcove in the second-story kitchen was wide enough, tall enough, and deep enough to accommodate it.

It didn't even cross our minds that Corinne's refrigerator was so large that it wouldn't be able to make it up the stairs. The movers simply couldn't maneuver it up the steps, even with the handles and doors removed, without tearing up the banister or knocking light fixtures off the stairwell. It would have to stay in the garage, and we would have to buy a new, shallower refrigerator that could make it up the stairs. That cost us about two thousand dollars. 

Corinne was able to sell her old refrigerator to an acquaintance, thereby making back at least some of the money we spent on the new one. But the expense - and the days we had to keep a cooler full of ice handy while we waited for the new appliance to be delivered - were not something we even remotely expected.

My knees hate me. Like most of Houston's townhomes, ours has three stories, with the garage and a guest bedroom on the first floor, the kitchen and living area on the second floor, and the main bedroom and another guest bedroom (that we use as an office) on the third floor. This means I'm climbing the stairs a lot, which is something I didn't have to do at our apartment (which we accessed by elevator) or at my previous one-story rental in Bellaire. 

It's not like I don't need the exercise, but it does leave me out of breath at times. And my middle-aged knees can only take so many steps before they tell me I need to stop climbing for awhile.

I can be loud again. Several years of living in an apartment have trained me to tread lightly, carefully lower heavy items like boxes, and not drag furniture across the floor so as not to disturb the neighbors below. I felt horrible anytime I accidentally dropped a spoon in the kitchen or knocked a book off my desk because I knew that the neighbors beneath us could hear it. After I moved into this house, it actually took me a surprisingly long time to un-learn that behavior. I can hop down the stairs or drop heavy boxes onto the floors and I don't have to worry about upsetting anybody beneath us, because nobody lives beneath us anymore!

I'm going to be poor for awhile. Between the down payment, inspection fees, closing costs, moving costs, the new refrigerator and other expenses associated with buying a home, we have exhausted much of our savings. There are still repairs and upgrades the home inspector identified that we have to do, and at some point our hodgepodge of furniture will need to be replaced with actual living room and bedroom sets. The end result is that I'm carrying debt on my credit cards again, which I hate, and am having to be more frugal with my day-to-day purchases. We knew we would probably be "house poor" for awhile after buying this house, but it's still a bit of an eye-opener. 

With all that said, I wouldn't trade any of it to not be a homeowner again. Now if we could just finish unpacking.

Thanks to Ryan Monceaux for navigating us through the homebuying process and helping us find for we were looking for.

Remembering Lahaina

A week and a half ago, the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century incinerated the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina. The town, on Maui's western coast, was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1820 to 1845 and was the royal residence of King Kamehameha, who was the first ruler of a unified Hawaii. The city, with its shop-lined streets and historic buildings, was a mandatory stop for any visitor to Maui. 

The wildfires, which were initially fed by tinder-dry grasses on the drought-stricken island and fanned by the winds of an offshore hurricane, wrought unspeakable devastation. 2,200 structures have been destroyed and 114 people have been confirmed dead so far. The death toll will climb as search and rescue crews continue to scour the ruins. It may be weeks before the true extent of the devastation is known, but we already know that so many heirlooms of Lahaina's - and Hawaii's - history and culture are gone forever

I visited Lahaina with my parents about a dozen years ago. I never got around to writing about that trip on this blog, but I did take plenty of pictures. I always expected to return to Lahaina at some point; in fact, Corinne and I originally planned to go to Maui for our honeymoon (unfortunately, COVID forced us to change our plans.) 

Now, there's nothing to return to; these pictures from that 2011 trip can only provide a sense of all that has been lost.

Front Street, as its name suggests, is the street closest to Lahaina's waterfront. It was lined with shops, cafés, art galleries and other attractions. The street was designated by the American Planning Association as one of the Great Places in America. Its wooden buildings were no match for the rapidly-moving wildfire.

Lahaina's iconic banyan tree is the largest such tree in the United States. It was imported from India and planted in front of the Lahaina Courthouse in 1873. In the 150 years since it was planted, its aerial roots have dropped to the ground and become accessory trunks, allowing the tree to sprawl across the city's courthouse square. It provided shade for people to sit, gather, listen to music and sell arts and crafts. 

The tree was badly scorched by the wildfire, but is still standing. Efforts are underway to save the tree, but as of now it is unknown if it will survive the trauma of the fire.

The Old Lahaina Courthouse was originally built in 1859 and restored in 1925 and again in 1990. It housed the Lahaina Heritage Museum. Now, only the masonry exterior shell of the building remains.

A view of Banyan Tree Park from the second story of the Old Lahaina Courthouse. With everything else destroyed, Lahaina residents and business owners are using the tree as a navigation reference to find their burnt-out properties.

The Lahaina Heritage Museum exhibited artifacts from the whaling industry, which was critical to Lahaina's economy in the 1800s. Harpoons, flensing tools and other implements were among the items on display, along with whale teeth scrimshaw and old photographs. These have probably all been destroyed.  

The Pioneer Inn was built in 1901 and was the oldest hotel on Maui as well as the oldest continuously-operating hotel in the state of Hawaii. The Best Western - branded hotel had 34 rooms. It was completely destroyed by the fire. 

The Baldwin House was built in 1834 and was the oldest standing residence on Maui, It is named after the Reverend Dwight Baldwin, a missionary and doctor who moved into the house with his family in 1836. It later became a museum. It was also completely destroyed.

Antique furniture, china and other artifacts of Hawaii's missionary history were on display in the interior rooms of the Baldwin House. It is unlikely that much of it survived the fire.

Another view of Front Street, where it faces the Pacific Ocean. Part of the island of Moloka'i is visible in the distance. The stores on the right side of the photograph all burned to the ground.

The Lahaina Jodo Mission was a Buddhist temple established in 1912 for Maui's migrant Japanese community. It featured a shoro with a bell, seen here with a statue of Buddha in the background. The shoro's bell and the copper Buddha statue survived; the rest of the mission went up in flames.

There was a three-story pagoda at the Lahaina Jodo Mission as well. It no longer exists.

Other sites of historic and cultural importance that were lost in the conflagration included the Waiola Church, the Wo Hing Temple Museum, and the Na 'Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, which contained an archive of Native Hawaiian history and artifacts. 

Lahaina faces a long and expensive rebuilding process, and the effort to salvage the city's surviving artifacts will be painful and tedious. Needless to say, the town and its residents will never be the same. The toll of these wildfires, in terms of lives as well as history lost, is absolutely catastrophic and utterly heartbreaking.

If you want to help, multiple relief organizations are accepting donations.