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How Olympic sports are fighting for survival at the collegiate level

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How Olympic sports are fighting for survival at the collegiate level

Before the first event, a set of cameras and computers are checked. Penn State is the home team and will compete at Rec Hall in State College. But the Nittany Lions technically aren’t hosting anyone.

Minnesota will be competing at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis, more than 970 miles away.

And the judges? They’re at home, watching competitors via live stream.

The dual meet has gone virtual.

This potential cost-saving strategy is less than ideal, but it’s a sensible competition option for men’s gymnastics, one of many Olympic sports trying to survive the financial crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic. Programs are being cut almost every week, as desperate athletic directors try to find solutions despite grim financial forecasts. These programs have long been budgetary drains on athletic departments, and many believe the pandemic has accelerated a reckoning.

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But this unprecedented time also brings opportunities for Olympic sports to reinvent themselves and find creative solutions to save money — particularly costs around travel, staff and facilities — and survive. The pandemic is bluntly showing that the old model is no longer sustainable.

“If anyone’s talked about, ‘Oh, I can’t wait until we get back to normal,'” Minnesota men’s gymnastics coach Mike Burns said. “What are you talking about? It’s never going to be back to normal. That was a comfort zone we lived in, and moving forward, we’re going to have a new comfort zone.”

Jump to: Ways to stay afloat | Cutting sports and travel
What does the future hold?

Virtual competitions, alumni gifts and TV deals: How to save money

While the pandemic has caused widespread panic, it has forced sport groups to get creative about their future.

Swimming and diving teams could still travel for winter training if they fundraise for the trips on their own. Utah men’s swimming and diving coach Joe Dykstra said that’s what happened at North Texas when he coached there.

Pools are expensive to operate, so programs that share their pools with the university’s student recreation department don’t incur such heavy costs.

“East Carolina just cut their men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, which were highly successful, multiyear conference champion teams, and cited the fact that the pool was old,” Dykstra said. “Rebuilding a new pool was going to cost millions of dollars that they didn’t have, so they chose to put those resources into other sports that had facilities that were a little more up-to-date.”

Like every other head coach at Minnesota, Burns was instructed to cut 15% of his operating budget. He postponed buying new foam for the team’s loose-foam pit (a $6,000 expense), sought lower officiating costs for meets and purchased new competition jerseys ($60 to $70 each) for only incoming gymnasts.

As for the virtual competitions, there are concerns, especially around technology and its reliability for the remote judges. But they have already occurred at the club level, and they are being explored for Division I.

“It’s not something you want to do all the time, because part of sports is, ‘Hey, we’re going to the away meet. We’re going into the lion’s den at Penn State,'” Burns said. “It’s that battle you have in sports, and that’s a big part of it. However, unlike football or basketball or wrestling, where you need the other guys on the field with you, we could challenge our people to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to save $20,000 to $30,000 on our travel budget this year because we’re going to do a couple meets virtually.'”

Florida women’s tennis coach Roland Thornqvist knows college tennis has to find a way to improve its exposure in order to improve its relevance and save programs. Steve Nowland/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Television is another potential solution. Florida women’s tennis coach Roland Thornqvist has watched the elimination of tennis programs with great concern, and he believes he has one possible fix to save the sport for the long term: TV. Thornqvist, who also serves on the Intercollegiate Tennis Association board of directors, knows college tennis has to find a way to improve its exposure in order to improve its relevance and save programs.

In the way televised gymnastics, softball and women’s volleyball have improved exposure for their respective sports, Thornqvist believes the same can happen for women’s tennis. He points out that nearly everybody in the country has seen Serena Williams play, and professional women’s tennis draws the best ratings in women’s televised sports.

There’s also the option of looking more to those most invested in an athletic program to give back to it.

Almost as soon as Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger announced that the school would be cutting its baseball program, his phone started buzzing with former teammates, alumni and boosters wanting answers.

There was anger and denial. And then, when they finally acknowledged that, no, they would not like to see a different program cut instead of baseball, came the bargaining.

“What’s the number?” they asked.

Moosbrugger, who played baseball at BGSU from 1991 to 1994 and took over as AD in 2016, expected this type of response. So he met with university president Rodney Rogers, and they came up with the proverbial number: a five-year commitment of $750,000 per year.

Moosbrugger didn’t think it was realistic they could come up with the money.

But then a group comprised mostly of former baseball players went out and raised $1 million. Rogers then acknowledged that since they already had committed to honoring the existing scholarships, they could adjust the figure to $500,000 per year.

On June 2 — two weeks after the announcement to cut baseball — the program was reinstated. Albeit, Moosbrugger added, “With the understanding that we’re still working toward a five-year commitment, and with the understanding that the model of college athletics may change.”

Moosbrugger knows there will be skepticism. All the financial commitments they’ve received still need to convert to actual dollars, he said. And while he certainly hopes that the larger gifts will continue in the future, he acknowledged that’s “probably not” going to happen.

Baseball, especially at the mid-major level, is already reliant on fundraising. Besides, not every school has the tradition of BGSU — and the alumni base that comes with it.

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Tony Brown, son of former Bears DE Alex Brown, expresses how sad he is about Furman shutting down its baseball program due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“You don’t want that to be how you survive,” Ball State baseball coach Rich Maloney said. “You want that to be how you thrive.”

That give-and-take was already playing out before the coronavirus hit, Moosbrugger said, and now it’s only amplifying the need for systemic change.

“We’re all trying to figure it out,” Florida State softball coach Lonni Alameda said. “We’re all in a bunch of buoys out there floating around in the water, trying to figure out which way we’re going to go.”

‘I think you’ll see some drastic cuts if football isn’t allowed to go off’

While using creativity to save money is a start, in many cases, the pandemic has exacerbated existing budget shortfalls.

Shortly after college sports shut down in March, ADs had to make difficult decisions about their finances. In some cases, they made the last-resort decision of cutting sports programs. To make it worse, they delivered the news in the most impersonal way possible: through video conferencing.

“I don’t wish that upon anyone,” said Central Michigan athletic director Michael Alford, who made the decision to cut the men’s indoor and outdoor track and field teams in May.

Central Michigan is not alone, as more than 10 Division I schools have eliminated programs since the pandemic began. The cuts speak to a system that has spiraled out of control over the past decade. While many athletic departments do not make money and most carry some form of debt, all are reliant on football and basketball revenues. When sports shut down, athletic directors saw their bottom lines shift in unprecedented ways. Nothing could have prepared them for a pandemic.

“We’re all in a bunch of buoys out there floating around in the water, trying to figure out which way we’re going to go.”

 

Florida State softball coach Lonni Alameda

As money poured into athletic departments over the past decade from nine-figure television rights contracts, spending ballooned on coaches’ salaries, support staffs, facilities and travel.

“When you’ve got coaches making more than the highest administrator at the school and more than the entire leadership in the government in the state, that’s a little crazy to me,” Houston track and field coach Leroy Burrell said. “Olympic sports are getting scapegoated, they’re bearing the brunt of it and oftentimes it’s the first thing that gets cut.”

As athletic directors assess budgets, Olympic sports are often pitted against each other and forced to state their cases for preservation, especially if program cuts are looming. Some football coaches are questioning why their programs should cut back at all, since their revenue sustains Olympic sports programs, one FBS coach said.

The most important thing, South Alabama baseball coach Mark Calvi explained, is that they get students back on campus and “we crank up football.”

“That’s the driving force,” he said. “I think you’ll see some drastic cuts if football isn’t allowed to go off.”

Still, some Olympic sport coaches want to see those cuts shared equally, no matter what happens with the football season.

“It’s really difficult to face your student-athletes and say this year we’re going to reduce our travel expenditures a little bit,” Burrell said. “We’re not going to make a normal trip we’d typically make yet (in other sports) — and I’m not saying this is necessarily the case here — you have a football staff that makes more than the whole track and field budget.”

Other than scholarships and staffing, team travel is the biggest budget line item for Olympic sports and the area hit hardest during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While traditional conference schedules are valuable for revenue-generating sports, Olympic sports programs are studying models that provide more financial flexibility. These could include more games against certain league opponents and less with others, based on proximity, or an independent model in which each program fills out its slate before reuniting with other league members for postseason tournaments.

“That independent model, basically everything’s nonconference until you have a conference championship,” Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen said. “That way, schools that want to compete nationally, if that means flying and going all over, then you do it. Schools that just want to have a good experience but are maybe more economically challenged, maybe a team doesn’t get on a plane all year.

“If I wanted to, I could fill up most of my sports and never go more than three hours away.”

Greater scheduling flexibility can even help stronger programs in the Group of 5. Tulane’s baseball team could still play other top-25 teams from the AAC like UCF and East Carolina, but its overall schedule would be more regionalized. In March, Tulane played a weekend series against Southern University: two games in New Orleans, one in Baton Rouge, and zero hotel rooms needed.

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco thinks an independent model — or potentially a hybrid model of some more regionalized league games, when possible — could work for Olympic sports. When Aresco first began programming college events for ESPN and later CBS, conferences were smaller and more regionalized. Realignment has increased the financial strain for Olympic sports programs already guaranteed to lose money.

“It would give an AD a lot more flexibility if cost savings were the emphasis,” Aresco said. “If RPI were important, that could be the emphasis. If travel time for the student-athletes was the emphasis, that could be a factor. It’s a new paradigm, the idea that you wouldn’t just have conference play when it came to Olympic sports.”

Sports such as baseball are examining which teams they play with, and when. Last month, coaches representing each Power 5 conference — Michigan’s Erik Bakich, Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell and UCLA’s John Savage — presented a 35-page proposal to move back the start of the season from mid-February to the third Friday in March. Previous proposals — pushed by coaches from northern schools and based on competitive equity — always failed.

The latest campaign is rooted in economics. Northern teams no longer would be required to take expensive trips to warm-weather states for early-season games or tournaments. Most southern teams project to add revenue with more home games in May and June. The proposal shows cold-weather teams spend an average of $232,728 on travel during the first month of the season, while just $88,864 on average during the final month of the season.

“The data says it doesn’t make any financial sense to start the college baseball season on Valentine’s Day,” Bakich said. “This not only looks to raise the ceiling of college baseball, but also raise the floor significantly. Baseball may not become a revenue sport among all teams, but it will create an opportunity where a lot of teams won’t be such a drain on their athletic departments.”

In the short term, though, it may be difficult for teams to play their upcoming schedules as they are currently configured. Alameda said she has already fielded multiple calls about schools that are unable to travel to Tallahassee for the 2021 season, and there is a possibility the Seminoles won’t play their 56 games for that reason.

“We’re a pretty resilient sport, and if we have the luxury of being able to travel all over the country and play, that’s awesome,” Alameda said. “If we’re within 30 miles, we will make it awesome.”

At many schools, flights are off the table for now. South Alabama baseball will drive the nine hours to Texas instead. Calvi said the move back to bus rides will save the program approximately $20,000 to $25,000 per flight.

Nebraska women’s volleyball coach John Cook said early-season matchups pairing the nation’s best programs won’t happen this season. Instead of seeing powerhouses such as Nebraska, Stanford, Texas and Wisconsin gather at one of those schools to play, they’ll all be competing against closer geographical competition if they have nonconference matches.

Stanford, which has won three of the past four NCAA women’s volleyball titles, must now play all its nonconference matches in California. But senior outside hitter Meghan McClure is looking on the bright side: The state generally has plenty of competitive volleyball teams. Plus, as a native Californian, she thinks her family will be able to attend all those matches.

“We’re still going to be playing the majority of our matches away from Maples (Pavilion), which will help us prepare for the NCAA tournament and our Pac-12 road matches,” McClure said. “For our entire nonconference, we’re going to be traveling by bus, which will limit our chances of exposure to the virus.”

Schools also will work together to lower travel expenses for recruiting. Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker was surprised to learn that when international recruits in some Olympic sports take recruiting tours, their prospective schools share the travel cost.

Conferences are also eliminating or truncating league tournaments. In May, the MAC announced it was cancelling conference tournaments in eight Olympic sports, and reducing the number of days for tournaments in seven others.

Central Michigan’s Alford, who served on the committee that made the recommendations, said the process began well before the pandemic.

“It’s hard to predict,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “We laid out a four-year timeline with the caveat that as the economic situation improves, we’ll certainly go back and reanalyze what we’re doing.”

‘Do we need this? Do we have to have this? Or can we live without it?’

Texas executive senior associate athletic director Chris Plonsky thinks spending changes in college sports were inevitable.

“Things like volleyball teams taking spring training trips to Florida or Hawaii,” Plonsky said. “Tennis players missing 30 days of class while they play high-level satellite tournaments in the fall. Is this what was really intended for their offseason?

“Life as we know it has changed in the near term, but what we may learn from it are some applicable things that might make the lives of coaches and kids better.”

Plonsky attributes “bloat” in athletic departments to the budget creep of programs trying to give the best to their athletes, but also perhaps one-up each other.

“We are in the business of providing a plethora of services and benefits,” she said. “But this year, we’ll have about 570 student-athletes, and under very different constraints. We want to provide the best experience for them. But we have to ask, ‘Do we need this? Do we have to have this? Or can we live without it?'”

“It’s never going to be back to normal. That was a comfort zone we lived in, and moving forward, we’re going to have a new comfort zone.”

 

Minnesota men’s gymnastics coach Mike Burns

Said Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill: “The reality is this has accelerated history. I don’t know that it changed history. You have seen Division I moving to a program menu that is closer to the minimums than you would have seen in the past.”

Take Akron, for instance. AD Larry Williams was already looking at three- and five-year plans to address budget shortfalls due to a projected dip in enrollment. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said “carpet-bombed our runway” and led to the school eliminating three programs: men’s cross country, men’s golf and women’s tennis.

It was “heart-wrenching” to make those calls to the coaches and athletes involved, Williams said, but facing hard truths was necessary to move forward. That meant getting leaner and focusing on their strengths, like men’s soccer, which has won its regular-season conference title in three of the past five seasons.

East Carolina faced similar issues before the COVID-19 pandemic, too. The athletic department projected a $7.5 million operating deficit in January. After the pandemic shut everything down, the projected deficit climbed to between $10 million and $12 million. The Pirates fielded 20 teams but had one of the lowest budgets in the AAC.

Liberty baseball coach Scott Jackson thinks athletic directors are seizing upon an opportunity and using the pandemic as cover to cut nonrevenue sports they had their eye on all along.

“I think you’re looking at it like, ‘OK, here’s my opportunity to strip it back down,'” he said. “I know one school that just cut some sports was operating at a $5 million deficit before the coronavirus hit. … How is that possible?”

It’s sad, Jackson said, that coaching buyouts so prevalent in football and basketball and mismanaged funds so often lead to athletes in nonrevenue sports paying the price.

“We keep getting kicked around in all this,” he said.

Maybe it’s not even a conscious decision, said Texas Tech men’s golf coach Greg Sands.

“I think it’s more of, ‘Hey, this is a business we have to run more efficiently, and what are the ways we have to get that done?'”

Sport reductions may continue during the pandemic, but they are not guaranteed financial fixes. First, the NCAA requires a minimum of 16 sports to remain at the FBS level, and many Group of 5 schools are either at or near that threshold. Second, the large majority of Olympic sports athletes pay part or most of their tuition. If their programs are cut, why would they stick around?

Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen held the same role at Northern Iowa when the school cut its baseball program. Thirty of the 33 players transferred, resulting in a significant tuition loss.

But at some schools, there’s no more sports left to cut. And again, it all comes back to football revenue, because in order to compete at the FBS level, schools must also offer a minimum of 200 athletic grants-in-aid or a total of $4 million in grants-in-aid to student-athletes.

In April, commissioners from the Group of 5 sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert asking for temporary relief from financial aid requirements. The letter cited the impact of COVID-19, calling the fallout of the virus the “direst financial crisis for higher education since at least the Great Depression.”

That same month, the 22 Division I conferences outside of the Power 5 joined the Group of 5 in asking the NCAA to relax FBS requirements, including the 16-sport minimum.

In response, a group called the Intercollegiate Coach Association Coalition — made up of 21 organizations representing Olympic sports that include volleyball, wrestling, soccer and track — wrote their own letter to Emmert, saying that reducing the minimum sports sponsorship “should not be an option.”

The ICAC strengthened in opposition to the Group of 5’s petition for the blanket waiver.

“We just got together and said, ‘The Olympic sports have so much in common,’ and we started communicating more regularly,” said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “Working with the NCAA, many times it’s easier to get legislation passed — or successfully oppose it — if you can have a group of Olympic sports behind it.”

In this case, the NCAA denied the request to relax the 16-team requirement. Any athletic department that feels the dire need to dip below 16 teams must apply for a waiver. Central Michigan remains at the 16-team minimum.

But the elimination of the track teams dropped CMU to just five men’s sports, one below the minimum requirement of six men’s sports. Alford said the school applied to the NCAA for a waiver, which was granted. The school has two years to get back into compliance.

While schools continue to make cuts across the board to make up for lost revenue from the last fiscal year, unknowns remain, making it difficult to assess whether this is the worst of it, or if there is far worse to come.

If football cannot play to full stadiums, or if the season gets interrupted or canceled, all schools will suffer. UCF athletic director Danny White said there is no way he can make his financial model work with an empty stadium or even a stadium filled at 25% capacity. At 50%, “there are probably some ways to get through it, but it will be painful.”

For schools already at the minimum 16 sports, finding ways to cut will be even more difficult.

“We are all being significantly affected because of COVID,” East Carolina AD Jon Gilbert said. “A lot of schools are anticipating enrollment could be down next year; that means lower student fees. There’s record unemployment, and so that means less people that are donating to the annual fund or buying football tickets. It in turn means less scholarship dollars to the institution; less fans in the stands means less concessions that are being bought.

“Some are going to be able to withstand it better than others based on what their reserve is, but others are going to be impacted more quickly.”

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Tennessee Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

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After years of struggling to be competitive as the SEC established itself as the toughest conference in college baseball and finally breaking through to a regional in 2019, Tennessee jumped back on the national stage in the sport by getting to the College World Series in 2021 for the first time since 2005.

That success will be tough to duplicate in 2022, as the Volunteers had a whole host of important players drafted over the summer. That’s not to say that the talent isn’t there for Tennessee to make a return trip to Omaha, because it absolutely is, but it will require some newcomers jumping into the deep end and succeeding right away.

These are five questions Tennessee will look to answer next season as it tries to keep the ball rolling in the program.

Who will join Blade Tidwell in the weekend rotation?

Whether he pitches on Friday or later in the weekend, righthander Blade Tidwell will go into the 2022 season expected to lead the Tennessee rotation after a freshman season that saw him put up a 3.74 ERA in 98.2 innings.

After a stint with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer took his 2021 workload to 105.2 innings for the year, Tidwell got a late start to the fall in the interest of giving him proper recovery time.

Joining him in also being brought along slowly in the fall are perhaps the two prime candidates to jump into the weekend rotation in fourth-year junior righthander Seth Halvorsen, a transfer from Missouri who chose to come to Tennessee rather than sign as a 19th-round pick, and sophomore righthander Chase Dollander, a transfer from Georgia Southern.

Both have excellent stuff. Halvorsen can touch triple digits with his fastball and both his breaking ball and changeup had 44% whiff rates last season. Throwing strikes was his issue at Mizzou, and that played a big role in his 6.00 ERA for the season, but if pitching coach Frank Anderson can help him get that straightened out, his stuff is frontline SEC stuff. His experience, having been a weekend guy for Missouri, also doesn’t hurt.

“Seth Halvorsen, he’s got a background to him,” teammate Evan Russell said of the new arrival. “He’s pitched on Friday nights in this league. He’s done the deal, and he’s been through it, so I think it has been an adjustment for him, but it’s been pretty easy to have him come in and he knows what his routines are, he’s kind of a professional in that aspect.”

Last season, Dollander had a 4.04 ERA in 49 innings with the Eagles, using a fastball that was up to 97 mph and a changeup that had a nearly 60% whiff rate in a somewhat small sample. The question for him will be how he adjusts in taking on a bigger workload than what he had as a freshman and how he handles SEC hitters, but like Halvorsen, stuff really isn’t a question.

One wild card for the rotation competition could be fourth-year junior righthander Camden Sewell. With a 2.54 ERA in 99.1 career innings, Sewell has been an effective pitcher for Tennessee over three years, but it’s come mostly as a reliever.

He may still end up in a relief or swing role come the 2022 season, but Sewell admits that he’s aiming a bit higher, at least for now.

“I think all of us, as competitors, you want to be in the rotation, so I think a big (goal) for me is trying to get in that rotation and do everything I can,” he said. “There’s also a lot of competition here. We’ve got a lot of great arms this year, so it’s fun to be a part of. In reality, it makes everyone better.”

Will Chase Burns make an impact right away?

Righthander Chase Burns, the No. 49 player on the BA 500 going into the 2021 draft, is one of the most talented freshmen on a college roster this fall.

With a fastball that has touched 100 mph in the past, a changeup and two distinct breaking balls, it’s easy to get caught up on Burns’ stuff, but he’s impressed early on for his feel for the finer points of the craft.

“His stuff has been very, very good, which is what’s hyped up, but his pitchability has been outstanding,” said Tennessee coach Tony Vitello. “I think he’s a much better pitcher, if you know what I’m talking about, than people give him credit for. It’s not a ‘I’m just going to try to blow your doors off for three outs.’ He’s got the ability to be a weekend starter at some point in his career, and I think he can not only throw good stuff at you but knows how to utilize it.”

His teammates have similar assessments at this early juncture.

“He’s elite in the category of coming in and having confidence and he’s a guy that can make adjustments throughout the outing,” Russell said. “If a certain pitch isn’t working, he’s okay to admit it and then going with something else. So being able to see him have the maturity that most guys don’t have at this age, it’s special.”

Given the relative surplus of options at Tennessee’s disposal when it comes to the rotation in 2022, the intersection point at which Burns is ready for a weekend starter spot and when one is available might not come in his first season, but it would be foolish to rule it out. Anyone with stuff that good who can also leave coaches and teammates raving about his maturity and feel for pitching is going to be evaluated for the most important spots on a pitching staff.

Beyond that, midweek starts can be a good place for a freshman pitcher to get his feet wet, and it will also be tempting to have an arm as good as Burns’ at the back of the bullpen. Suffice it to say that it seems safe to expect to see plenty of Chase Burns as a freshman for Tennessee one way or another.

Who will take over at catcher?

With veteran backstop Connor Pavolony drafted by the Orioles, Tennessee’s pitchers will be throwing to a different catcher this season.

The early favorite to be the new catcher is actually Russell, a fifth-year senior. In that case, Russell would really be a new old catcher, because while he has been mostly an outfielder for the Volunteers in his career, he came to Knoxville as a catcher out of high school.

The move back to catcher for Russell happened for a few different reasons. For one, a successful move would improve Russell’s standing as a prospect at the next level, as his play in the outfield and at the plate has not yet been enough to entice evaluators to draft him. Tennessee also obviously wants his bat in the lineup as a guy coming off of a 14-home run season with more than 600 career plate appearances to his name.

But as much as anything else, Tennessee simply had a need and Russell wanted to help out. In addition to Pavolony moving on to pro baseball, incoming transfer Matt McCormick from West Virginia decided this fall to step away from the sport. That left the Volunteers with quite literally zero experience at the position.

“I came to Coach V and was like ‘Hey man, I know that you don’t have many catchers coming back. I’d like to give it a try,’ ” Russell recalls. “And he was like ‘You know, we’d be open to giving you an opportunity, but it’s not going to be easy’ and (that) he’d be lying to me if he thought that I was going to get to play much. I’ve put in a lot of work, me and Coach (Josh) Elander. We’ve really been on the same page, and I’ve been grinding to try to get to the point of being able to handle the big dogs on the mound, so I think it’s going well.”

There’s more work to be done for Russell to sew up the starting job, but so far, he’s done nothing but put himself in position to succeed there.

“When he asks you a question or you present information to him, he’s a sponge, and he’s very humble in the whole deal and realizes there’s competition at that position, too,” Vitello said. “I think it would be a shocker if he’s not in our Opening Day lineup, but by no means has he wrapped up the catching position (for) Opening Day.”

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Missouri Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

Coming off of a tough 2021 season, Missouri has hit the reset button.

Who will lead the offense?

Russell, coming off of a career-best season in many ways, will be one of the leaders, regardless of position, but he won’t be alone.

The two primary catalysts are likely to be third-year sophomore outfielders Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert.

Beck hit .271/.336/.523 with 15 homers and a team-leading 64 RBIs in 2021 and followed that up in the Cape Cod League over the summer by hitting .267/.377/.400. He’s a good athlete who could play center field if forced into duty, but he profiles better in right field, where he can make the most of his plus arm strength. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Beck looks the part of a first-round talent, and with another big year in Knoxville, he very well could be.

Gilbert hit .274/.341/.437 with 10 home runs and 62 RBIs last season, which helped earn him a place alongside Tidwell on the Collegiate National Team. He’s a good runner, a steady defender in center field and he packs more punch than you would think based on his 5-foot-9 frame.

Also back is sixth-year senior Luc Lipcius, who is locked in as the team’s everyday first baseman for all intents and purposes. Lipcius has dealt with ups and downs in performance in his six years on campus, both individually and from a team standpoint, but he had a breakout season in 2021, slugging 15 home runs, which tied Beck for the team lead.

Two other veterans who could be poised for breakouts like the one Lipcius enjoyed in 2021 are fourth-year juniors Trey Lipscomb and Christian Scott, who also happen to be good friends who co-host a web series on the Tennessee baseball Twitter account.

Lipscomb, who is primarily in the competition at third base, has had fewer than 100 plate appearances, but went 9-for-29 with three doubles and a home run last season. Scott, an outfielder, has never had more than 42 at-bats in any single season, but he’s been an effective hitter when he’s had chances. He’s a .298 hitter with a .425 on-base percentage, and Vitello sees things coming together for him.

“I think he sees himself getting better,” Vitello said of Scott. “While the stats might not be there online, there’s no question (that) he’s gotten better each year in and out, and now I think he’s smelling blood a little bit. I think without Covid, maybe a little more action last year. Without an injury freshman year, maybe more. Maybe it’s his time. I definitely feel like it’s Trey Lipscomb’s time and those two are buddies. So maybe it’s time for both of those guys.”

With several key departures, including Pavolony, third baseman Jake Rucker, second baseman Max Ferguson and shortstop Liam Spence, there are holes to fill, but just taking into consideration the veterans back in the mix, Tennessee still has the makings of a deep, quality lineup.

Which freshmen have stood out among position players?

Given the opportunities for playing time that exist on the infield, it’s worked out well for Tennessee that two freshmen who have stood out so far are Christian Moore, a potential two-way player originally from Brooklyn, and 6-foot-3, 235-pound California native Blake Burke.

Moore is right in the thick of things in the competition at second base. He generates impressive bat speed, which provides good raw power at the plate, and while second base might be where he finds immediate playing time, he showed the ability to handle the left side of the infield during his prep days.

Burke passes the eyeball test, and he has the power to match the physicality apparent in his frame. He’s a first baseman by trade who is also listed as an outfielder on the roster. He worked to get into better shape ahead of his senior season in high school, and that work paid off in allowing his natural athleticism to shine through. Given the relatively crowded outfield picture and the presence of Lipcius at first base, Burke’s playing time might be more situational than Moore’s, but both have done enough to prove they’re deserving.

“You can tell they want to be here every day, and so with that, they’re anxious to learn, to work, to show what they can do, but also they’re not scared,” Vitello said. “That may sound simple to someone who’s listening at home, but when you’re a freshman on campus here and it’s SEC and there’s media around and things like that, you can tend to get a little timid or doubt yourself at times, and while neither one has been perfect, especially with the nuances of college baseball, baserunning is so important, defense becomes highlighted, they’ve been far from perfect, but they’ve been good because I don’t think either one of them are scared.”

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Dune Shows WB Learned Nothing From Zack Snyder’s DCEU

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Dune Shows WB Learned Nothing From Zack Snyder's DCEU

The handling of Dune and its necessary sequel shows Warner Bros. failed to learn its lesson from Justice League and their original DCEU plans with Zack Snyder. Despite the fallout of Snyder’s departure from the DC franchise, the studio handed another epic, bug budget sci-fi project to an auteur director without fully committing to the creative vision.

After Man of Steel, Warner Bros. announced a slate of director-driven DCEU projects surrounding Zack Snyder’s planned Justice League arc, seemingly committing to Snyder’s vision for the DC universe, but after a rocky start, the Snyderverse was abandoned, leaving the future of the DCEU in the lurch. While there was a specific plan in place for a grand culmination of Snyder’s 5-part Justice League story, including a number of spin-offs from other directors, Warner Bros. says there’s no plans to see this original plan to completion, meaning the story set up by the original slate of DCEU films will never be fully realized.


Related: The Snyder Cut Proves WB Killed Their Best Chance to Compete With Marvel

While WB gave auteur director Denis Villeneuve $165 million to adapt the first half of the epic sci-fi novel Dune, the studio decided not to approve the sequel until after they could see how the initial installment, only half the story, performed at the box office. This continues WB’s history of embarking on big director-driven projects without fully committing to the vision, an approach that is virtually guaranteed to ensure the resulting product will be less than its original conception, even if a Dune sequel still happens.

WB’s Failed Director-Driven DCEU Plan

Justice League Snyder cut snyderverse

After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros. had Nolan develop a modern adaptation for Superman, and Nolan selected Zack Snyder as the director due to his approach with his adaptation of Watchmen. Man of Steel became the highest-grossing Superman movie, so Warner Bros. had Snyder develop a larger DCEU plan, which became Snyder’s 5-part Justice League saga. The story would center on Superman but would bring in the rest of the Justice League members, and a full slate of movies was planned, including Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern Corps., and a solo Batman movie. Warner Bros.’original DCEU plan was to follow the model established by Nolan with The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel by bringing in directors with distinct styles to head each project, including David Ayer, Patty Jenkins, Rick Famuyiwa, James Wan, and Ben Affleck.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were among 2016’s top-grossing movies, but their polarizing reviews resulted in notoriously low Rotten Tomatoes scores, resulting in Warners taking drastic action to change plans for the rest of the franchise. The changes immediately impacted Justice League the most even though it was already in production, resulting in conflict with Snyder that eventually resulted in him exiting the project following a family tragedy, allowing WB to bring in Joss Whedon to drastically reshape the project in reshoots, abandoning most of the sequel set-up and erasing as much of Snyder’s distinctive style as possible. The fallout impacted almost all the remaining movies in the slate. Aquaman was already in production, but both Famuyiwa and Affleck left their respective movies. Versions of The Flash and The Batman are coming out next year, but both are drastically different versions than originally planned (and The Batman isn’t even part of DCEU canon)

Snyder’s plan was very clearly leading to a big culmination, with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teasing a post-apocalyptic “Knightmare” future that had been conquered by Superman who was under the control of DC ultra-baddie, Darkseid. Snyder would eventually get the chance to release his intended version of the movie, the 4-hour long Zack Snyder’s Justice League, spurring excitement for what would have been, but with no plans for Snyder to return and the current slate servicing a different plan, Warner Bros. seems content to leave this epic set-up forever unresolved.

Related: The Latest Restore The SnyderVerse Trend Proves It’s Not Going Away

The odd part is Warner Bros.’ biggest successes with DC movies have always come from the bold visions of distinct directors like Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, and even Zack Snyder, while attempts to make more broadly appealing crowd-pleasers didn’t work, like Batman & Robin, Superman Returns, and Green Lantern. As if to double down on the point, Snyder’s Watchmen, Batman v Superman, and Justice League saw significant changes for their theatrical releases, only for Snyder’s director’s cuts to be nearly universally regarded as the superior product. Despite the problems caused by their decision to abandon the original DCEU plans, Warner Bros. didn’t learn their lesson and made similar decisions with Villeneuve’s Dune.

Warner Bros. Repeated Their DCEU Mistakes With Dune

Why WB betting big on Dune Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 was lauded by critics, but bombed at the box office, bringing in less than $260 million from a $150 million budget, failing to hit the typical twice-budget break-even point. Blade Runner 2049 was Villeneuve’s highest-grossing movie, despite its box office failure, but his ability to adapt stunning high-concept sci-fi convinced Warner Bros. to hand him the reins to Dune, although they didn’t opt to film it back-to-back with a sequel, or even greenlight a sequel at all, despite knowing Villeneuve was only adapting half the book in the first movie.

While WB’s caution is understandable due to Villeneuve’s box office history, the willingness to begin work on the $165 Dune part 1 without committing to part 2 upfront immediately shortchanges the franchise’s potential. Under this strategy, the absolute best-case scenario was Villeneuve produces a monster hit with an incomplete story and WB has to start the sequel from scratch and can’t capitalize on Dune‘s performance for three years. In addition to the time delay, they also miss out on the massive cost savings of shooting back-to-back, reducing the overall profitability of both movies. The worst-case scenario would be the movie flops and the whole thing looks like a massive, ill-conceived blunder on the part of WB, who would have a massive bomb on their hands after entrusting a big-budget sci-fi epic to an auteur director whose last big-budget sci-fi epic also flopped. While Villeneuve and WB escaped harsh criticism for Blade Runner 2049 due to the movie’s quality, that likely wouldn’t be the case if Dune flopped, since the movie is only half the story of the Dune book, and adapting it would likely burn a chance for another director to take a swing at the property in the near future.

Meanwhile, committing to the whole vision up-front would have been better all-around, even if WB’s concerns came true and Dune flopped.  The cost-savings of back-to-back production would at least partially offset box office losses, audiences wouldn’t be deprived of the second half of the story, and there’s always the chance the sequel could be a bigger hit, salvaging the hypothetical losses from part 1. Like with Blade Runner 2049, the quality of the film would offset a lot of the criticism over the box office losses.

Dune had a solid box office opening and seems to have fair chances of getting a sequel, but it won’t be soon enough for audiences hungry for a sequel and may see a reduced budget, ironically missing out on the cost savings that could have accompanied a back-to-back sequel production. If Warner Bros. was willing to take the risk of the first installment, why not commit to the whole vision?

Warner Bros. Needs To Follow Through On Director Driven Visions

New Warner Bros. Logo

Warner Bros. has a history of being a studio that takes big swings on grand director visions, but changes in leadership in recent years, such as the departure of former Warner Bros. Pictures Group president Jeff Robinov (who brought iconic directors like Nolan, Affleck, Snyder, the Wachowskis, and others to the studio) has seen a rise in situations like Justice League and Dune. As if to punctuate the severity of the decline, Nolan decided to make his next movie at Universal after working with Warner Bros. exclusively for nearly 20 years.

Related: Nolan’s Massive Universal Deal Could Reinvent Blockbusters Post-Pandemic

The problem isn’t that the days of bold director-driven projects are in the rearview mirror at Warner Bros., those still exist, there’s even a new Matrix movie coming out December, but there is a concerning pattern of self-sabotage of big projects brought on by a lack of trust in their directors. Situations like Justice League and Dune make the studio’s decision-making suspect and erode consumer confidence in their projects, particularly for big IP adaptations.

The whole thing is also incredibly short-sighted. It’s common for a franchise to overcome early stumbles only for those movies to be well regarded after the franchise finds its footing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had several films in Phase 1 that were considered underwhelming at the time and Fast and Furious powered through several films with a mediocre reception to become one of the biggest franchises in film. Even films like the original Blade Runner got poor reviews and underperformed at the box office and are now considered required viewing. In the case of the DCEU, Warner Bros. was scared away from Zack Snyder’s plan because of reviews for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but that movie was so impactful in the zeitgeist that WB’s attempts to pivot away from Snyder couldn’t outpace their momentum, and they eventually had to cave to demands for the Snyder Cut when simply committing to the plan and finishing the plan they started would have seen Zack Snyder’s arc completed by now, allowing them to start fresh without having to deal with the unending reminders of the incomplete Snyderverse.

Fortunately, Dune is well received and performing well at the box office, which bodes well for sequel potential, but the lost time, momentum, and wasted money will ultimately hold back the complete vision from what it could have been if they’d produced the movies back-to-back. If WB wants to retain (or regain) its reputation for being the studio that produces this kind of movie, they need to gain some confidence and stop with the half measures and deliver on the director visions they sell to audiences.

Next: Why Warner Bros Losing Christopher Nolan Is Such A Big Deal

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Fashion Briefing: Fashion’s emerging founder-investors are mega-influencers – Glossy

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Fashion Briefing: Fashion’s emerging founder-investors are mega-influencers – Glossy

Fashion’s OG Instagrammers are building empires and, at the same time, growing their influence beyond the industry.

After being schooled for years on the workings of the fashion industry, mega-influencers including Danielle Bernstein (2.7 million Instagram followers) and Rocky Barnes (2.5 million Instagram followers) are graduating to careers less reliant on brands. To take it to the next level, they’re leveraging their prowess and communities, driving deals with effective business partners, and evolving their focus, based on the industry’s direction and their own passions. The emerging results, for both Bernstein and Barnes, are personally-backed brands and investment portfolios set to expand based on early successes.

“The plan is to grow, in a big way,” said Bernstein. “I’m a serial entrepreneur, so I’ll always want to introduce new businesses and categories to my brand. And I’m angel investing and joining the board of advisors for so many companies. That’s the future of the creator economy: harnessing and creating community around your existing followers and then figuring out how to monetize that.”

In 2019, upon inking a licensing deal with New York-based clothing company Onia, Bernstein launched the Shop We Wore What e-commerce site, populated with her expanding We Wore What fashion collection. The collection has been at the center of much recent controversy, due to allegedly including copycat designs. According to Bernstein, she turns to vintage pieces, editorials and travel for inspiration. Bernstein’s also become an investor and advisor for hair supplement company Wellbel and CBD brand Highline Wellness. In May, she became active on Patreon, offering exclusive video content to paying members of her community.

In addition, Bernstein heads up We Gave What, a charitable arm of her company. In 2019, she launched tech company Moe Assist with a project management tool for influencers, though its social accounts have been inactive for two-plus months. When asked for comment, a spokesperson said Moe Assist is in a new fundraising stage and “should have news to share shortly.”

Barnes, meanwhile, partnered with Reunited Clothing to come out with her apparel company, The Bright Side, in December. And she recently became a first-time investor-advisor, for 6-month-old SMS shopping platform Qatch. She announced the partnership in an Instagram post on Monday.

“I feel like a grown-up,” she told me, before confirming that she’s interested in investing in more companies. “Diversifying my business has been a really big [focus] for me. I interact with so many different brands and companies on a daily basis. Using my market knowledge in ways that can help other people is fulfilling and exciting for me. And I especially love when I can be involved with a company from the beginning.”

Building on their content creator role in fashion is a natural progression, both said. And it plays into many industry shifts: On its way out is fashion’s DTC era, largely fueled by Harvard Business School and Wharton graduates using a plug-and-play, marketing-heavy business model to launch brands. More consumers are prioritizing quality, differentiated products, making industry experience and style expertise greater virtues among insiders. At the same time, consumers are increasingly taking shopping cues from relatable, platform-native celebrities, moving on from authoritative editors and more closed-off celebrities.

The school of collaborations
The collaborator-to-founder shift isn’t the newest thing. Other longtime influencers that have made the pivot include Arielle Charnas, with Something Navy; Aimee Song, with Song of Style; Rumi Neely, with Are You Am I; the list goes on. Most often, the names behind these brands don’t have formal design and business training — for her part, Bernstein said she “went to FIT for two years, but didn’t study design and production.” But, for years, they’ve worked hand-in-hand with companies to bring their visions to life. And along the way, they’ve come to know what resonates best with their vast communities, from marketing to merchandising to product.

“My most successful collaborations have led to the largest share of my business,” said Bernstein.

Bernstein’s partnership with Onia came out of her swimwear collaboration with its Onia brand, in May 2019. On the collab’s launch day, it drove $2 million in sales, and an included style was the brand’s best-selling swimsuit of the summer. Also in 2019, Bernstein collaborated with Joe’s Jeans on multiple denim collections. The launch day of the first, in March 2019, marked Joe Jeans’ best sales day to date, said Jennifer Hawkins, the brand’s svp of marketing and innovation on a Glossy Podcast in October.

Both served as learning opportunities for Bernstein, who said — as with all of her collaborations — she took full advantage: “It was never just [uploading] a post, and then I went away,” she said. “I always wanted to know how the performance was, in terms of sales, and asked questions: ‘Can you share the analytics?’ ‘What did you see on your end?’ ‘What worked and what didn’t work?’”

She added, “They provided a ton of data, in terms of what I could sell and what the market was missing.”

Likewise, she said, she always followed and shared with partner brands the Instagram Insights and Google Analytics numbers around her corresponding posts. Doing so gave all parties a 360-degree view of a collaboration’s success.

“I’ve learned what works for brands so they get the largest return on their investment,” she said.

For example, she’s learned to lean on her audience’s tastes, versus rely on her own, by allowing them to offer feedback throughout the design process through Instagram. That’s included the selection of fabrics and colors and the fit sessions with models. She only spotlights her favorite styles and what she wears in her own social posts, as a play for authenticity.

According to Bernstein, the collaborations with brands allowing her to play an advisor role — by guiding them on influencer partnerships, marketing and messaging — are always more successful. And they often turn into longer-term investment or advising partnerships.

Bernstein chose to work with Onia on the We Wore What collection based on its prioritization of quality and fit, and ability to keep to affordable retail prices. Currently, prices on the We Wore What site range from $20, for a scrunchie, to $228, for a vegan leather jumpsuit.

Barnes was also ready to go out on her own after finding the right partners. Her Reunited Clothing partnership came after working with the company to create her Express product collaboration, in early 2019. On its first-quarter 2019 earnings call, interim CEO Matthew C. Moullering said the company had seen “a strong start to [the] collection both in-stores and online and [believed] it [was] helping to introduce the brand to a new audience.”

“Having your own brand is terrifying,” Barnes said. “But I like that I’m in control and not so dependent on doing the day-to-day posts promoting other companies.”

But, she added, “One of the huge benefits of working with all these different brands on all these different projects is that we’re constantly getting introduced to new people and seeing who we like working with.”

Barnes’ internal team consists of her husband, who’s the “business brains” of the company, she said, and an assistant.

Like Bernstein, Barnes stressed the need for outside support in the production process: “I love such quirky, crazy things, but I also understand what is realistic for a buyer and a normal girl buying clothes,” she said. “The experience of taking ideas and making them work for a bigger group of people was my learning curve going into a business. It’s important to have a good, diverse team around you who can make your idea something that’s marketable.”

For its part, We Wore What has seen “200x growth in the last year,” as it’s expanded to new categories, Bernstein said. Its ready-to-wear, swimwear, resort wear, and activewear are now sold in “dozens and dozens of retailers around the world,” many of which offer style exclusives; they include Revolve, Bloomingdale’s and Intermix.

“Launching my own brand was putting the proof in the pudding for the power of influencers, when it comes to selling product,” she said.

As with her Joe’s and Onia collaborations, Bernstein sees a rush-to-buy with We Wore What product drops. “The first 10 minutes is when we see the biggest portion of our sales for the entire collection,” she said.

To build buzz, Shop We Wore What’s Instagram account (213,000 followers) features in its Stories the line sheets of the soon-to-launch styles, allowing customers to thoughtfully plan their buy. Doing so has led to lower return rates, Bernstein said. The company’s marketing mix also includes text messages and emails, VIP discounts and user-generated content.

Bernstein has a staff of four people, which include a chief operating officer and a brand coordinator. She said she prioritizes establishing partners with skills and expertise she doesn’t have, so she can learn from them along the way. Ideally, she’d have learned about tech packs, fittings and production logistics in school, but she’s training as she goes.

Moving forward, Bernstein said she plans to extend the size range of We What What styles, which are currently available in sizes XS-XXL, and launch collections with collaborators to sell exclusively on her brand’s DTC site. In addition, she aims to eventually open “experimental” physical retail, starting with pop-ups.

As for her investment-advisor portfolio, she’s currently in talks with companies centered on the concepts of “being able to sell your closet and even rent your closet.”

As for Barnes’ Bright Side, she said it will hit “a bunch of new retailers this year.”

Moving beyond fashion
Up next for Shop We Wore What is a new product category that will hit before the holiday season. Considering her passion for home furnishings and decor — based on her @homeworewhat Instagram account (7,500 followers) and recent press coverage of her new SoHo loft — it’s a safe bet that a home-related category is in the cards.

Likewise, Barnes hinted at a future Bright Side home collection, following her recent, two-year home remodel, which she’s getting set to debut on social media.

Lifestyle brands are the clear goal.

“I would love to be a combination of Rachel Zoe and Martha Stewart, just having my hands in everything and creating this really beautiful lifestyle where you can entertain and be fashionable,” Barnes said. “That’s kind of the dream.”

She added, “Fashion is where my heart has always been, but I’m growing as a person and there’s so much more in my life right now: my family, my home — and I’m getting older, so beauty [and skin care] makes sense now. Sharing all of that with everyone seems so natural; it would be weird if I only did fashion.”

As for future investments, though Quatch fits perfectly into Barnes’ world, with its fashion-tech focus, she said she’s open to investing in any company where she sees opportunity.

What’s more, she has no plans to retire from social media, though she has yet to tackle TikTok.

“People’s need for content has only increased, so I’m posting and creating content more than ever,” Barnes said. “But I’ve learned to become more of a hard-ass with brands. The companies that are willing to work with me and [facilitate] the most like authentic relationship possible are the ones I move forward with.” Reunited can attest.

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