Thursday, December 31, 2015

Holiday Bowl Game

Look whose playing!

"UMass has little to show after leaping into big-time football" by Bob Hohler Globe Staff  December 24, 2015

On a brilliant day for football, as the marching band’s silver and brass glistened in early November’s glow, the University of Massachusetts team sprinted into action at Gillette Stadium, the school’s home away from home.

With a capacity of 66,829, the stadium was too small to accommodate even a quarter of the 22,000 undergraduates at the school’s Amherst campus and the 400,000 alumni of the state’s flagship university who live in Massachusetts.

Yet by the time the last ticket-holders were scanned through the gates on Nov. 7, the Minutemen were playing the University of Akron in an echoing canyon of concrete and steel where more than nine of every 10 seats remained empty.

The crowd of 6,228 cast in sharp relief the financial risks of the school’s multimillion-dollar gambit.

Four years into the new era, UMass has fielded one of the worst teams in big-time college football, at 8-40 overall. The school has split from the Mid-American Conference, opting to operate as an independent team with no promise of big-time television money or bowl revenue.

They are at the bottom of the pile?

Attendance has all but bottomed out, and the university has fallen short of meeting its projections for reducing millions of dollars of public support the team receives from students and taxpayers.

But they can't find the money for contractually negotiated raises.

Hard-core fans remain, but for many longtime supporters, hope has yielded to resignation.

“I’m afraid the [upgraded] program might be running its course,’’ said Susan Whitbourne, a psychology professor whose long history as a Minutemen fan includes traveling to Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1998 to watch them win a national championship in the lower division.

In June, two weeks before Martin T. Meehan assumed the presidency of the state’s public university system, he told more than a dozen members of the UMass Intercampus Faculty Council that the Minutemen’s jump to the elite ranks of collegiate competition was “the dumbest idea,’’ according to attendees.

Meehan, through a spokesman, denied making the comment. In his previous role as chancellor of UMass Lowell, Meehan elevated that school’s sports teams to the highest level of competition. But UMass Lowell had no football program, which would have considerably increased the transition’s costs.

Meehan insists he stands by UMass Amherst’s upgraded football program, along with chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and athletic director Ryan Bamford.

“I have total confidence in Chancellor Subbaswamy’s leadership of our flagship campus and in Ryan Bamford’s ability to guide UMass Amherst’s athletics program to great success,’’ Meehan said in a statement. “I know many people are working hard to build the football program in Amherst, and I am sure this team effort will bear fruit in the years ahead.’’

Students and taxpayers subsidize nearly $5 million of the Minutemen’s estimated $8 million budget, and the annual subsidy has increased by about $2 million since UMass moved from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (previously Division 1-A) in 2012.

UMass initially projected that the football program’s public subsidy would begin decreasing this year. But the school has missed the target, largely because of waning interest. 

Field goal wide right, huh?

Subbaswamy struck an optimistic chord as UMass prepares to join Notre Dame, Army, and Brigham Young among the nation’s largest independent football teams.

“We will continue to manage our football program in a responsible manner, always keeping the best interests of the entire campus in mind,’’ he said in a statement. “Our athletics leadership is focused on improving our competitiveness on the field, finding a good fit with a conference, and building enthusiasm for the football program.’’

These guys are delu$ional!

Bamford vowed to turn around the program’s fortunes. He arrived at UMass in March from Georgia Tech, a Football Bowl Subdivision school, where he was a senior associate athletic director.

“I’m not here to fail,’’ Bamford said.

Gillette vs. McGuirk

Amid the growing pains, the Amherst campus is divided. Sionan Barrett, president of the UMass Amherst Student Government Association, said the debate pits those who consider fielding a major football team essential for the state’s flagship university against those who believe scarce public dollars should be dedicated to strengthening the research institution and improving its aging infrastructure.


Barrett advocated a full-time return for the football team to its traditional home at McGuirk Stadium on campus.

“I think there will continue to be low attendance until all the home games are moved to McGuirk instead of being two hours away in Foxborough,’’ she said. “We need to recreate a football culture on campus.’’

Of which the military is a big part.

The administration initially projected drawing average crowds greater than 20,000 to Gillette. But four years into the school’s five-year lease at the stadium, the average attendance through 18 games is 13,616. The turnout dropped this year to an average of 9,717 over three games in Foxborough.

By most accounts, the two-hour commute from Amherst to Gillette, by far the longest to a home game in American college sports, has alienated much of the student body as well as many fans in Western Massachusetts. The large alumni base in Eastern Massachusetts also has yet to respond as the school had hoped.

I wasn't going anyway.

In an unexpected twist, the turnout at McGuirk this year topped the attendance at Gillette, bolstering arguments for UMass to play its entire home schedule at the 17,000-seat stadium in Amherst. In three games at McGuirk, the Minutemen played before average crowds of 12,527, 22 percent larger than at Gillette.

The administration took notice.

“College football is meant to be played on campus,’’ Bamford said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get our games back on campus.’’

NCAA rules call for sanctioning FBS teams that fail to meet minimum home attendance averages of 15,000 at least every other year, and UMass finished this year with a combined average of 11,124. Should the school fall below 15,000 again next year, it faces 10 years of probation. 


That scenario is unlikely to occur because UMass is scheduled to play Boston College next year in a home game at Gillette. Even though BC this year logged its lowest average home attendance (30,204) since 1991, the Eagles and Minutemen attracted a crowd of 30,479 when they last played at Gillette in 2014 and are likely to draw well again next year.

UMass is scheduled to play three other games at Gillette next fall, against Mississippi State, Tulane, and Louisiana Tech. Only two games are scheduled for McGuirk.

Changes possible

Yet changes may be looming after 2016, but Bamford said playing nearly full-time at McGuirk could require upgrading the amenities and adding as many as 8,000 seats. That alarms critics, who contend UMass already is spending $2.4 million a year more than the football team’s budget to pay debt service and operating costs on a new football performance facility, the centerpiece of a $34.5 million building and stadium renovation project completed in 2014.

Related: UMass Built Upon Debt

Bamford predicted that the school’s football subsidy will begin decreasing in the next year or two, regardless of where the games are played. He said the program will fare better financially in part because of so-called guarantee games the Minutemen have scheduled. Major college teams pay guaranteed fees to lesser opponents, often described as “cupcakes,’’ to fill out their schedules while reducing their chances of losing those contests.

Next year, UMass will receive $1.5 million to play at the University of South Carolina, $1.25 million to travel to the University of Florida, $400,000 to visit the University of Hawaii, and $250,000 to play Brigham Young in Utah.

After breaking ties to the MAC and committing to compete for at least three years as an independent program, UMass is free to schedule games against higher-visibility teams as well as negotiate its own media rights contracts. But Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who specializes in the financing of sports, said the barriers to FBS success for newcomers such as UMass are formidable and growing.

“At this point, they’re kind of stuck,’’ Zimbalist said. “Once schools like UMass get in the top division, they try to chase the holy grail of being able to compete with schools like Alabama and Ohio State, and they just can’t do it.’’

Bamford said the recipe for success is no secret: winning. The scope of the challenge will be evident when the Minutemen open the 2016 season with a David-vs.-Goliath contest at Florida, a perennial powerhouse.

In a similar matchup this past season, UMass absorbed a 62-27 drubbing at Notre Dame. But UMass officials estimated that the game, broadcast nationally on NBC, generated free media exposure that would have cost the school $11.3 million to achieve through advertising.

Sort of makes it all worth it, doesn't it?

Bamford considered that alone a kind of victory.


RelatedWhat UMaine can teach UMass

Their football team sucks!

Time to fill out your roster:

"Top fantasy sports player uses software, analytics to reap millions" by Curt Woodward Globe Staff  December 23, 2015

Every Sunday during football season, Saahil Sud is up with the sunrise.

While most fans relish a few more hours of sleep, Sud fires up a custom software program that crunches vast amounts of data in search of the ideal team to field in that day’s games.

By the first kickoff, he’s assembled hundreds of finely tuned rosters. Only then can he sit back and, from a sleek apartment 24 floors above downtown Boston, watch his football fantasies play out.

The 27-year-old Sud is a professional fantasy sports player — in fact, he’s considered the best in the world. He’s built a huge lead atop the leader board at RotoGrinders, a fantasy-sports website that publishes the rankings of players who win most often.

So far in 2015, Sud said, he’s made more than $3.5 million. Earlier this year he moved into a penthouse apartment once occupied by ex-Boston Celtics star Rajon Rondo.

“He’s one of the legendary players,” said Cal Spears, cofounder of RotoGrinders. “He’s on the Mount Rushmore.”

A former marketing analyst with a degree in math and economics, Sud eschews the idea of luck or gut instinct in favor of cold, hard data. It’s helped him dominate the field in fantasy sports, in which contestants build rosters of real-life athletes and score points based on those players’ on-field performance.

Professionals such as Sud play a high-volume game powered by software, using computers to find promising players and to submit hundreds of rosters for a single contest, eliminating what might have been hours of laborious work.

It's as if he bought up all the lottery combinations.

Sud’s home-built analytical program looks at a wide array of factors — for a baseball game, for example, he might look at statistics, the weather forecast, and the dimensions of each game’s ballpark.

“Once you have that data, you think that David Ortiz is going to hit 0.3 home runs today on 0.6 RBIs and 0.2 doubles, or whatever it is,” Sud said. “Using that information, I can know that he’s going to score 10 DraftKings points. ... Then, you have a list of every single player in the MLB, and you can use that data to construct your lineups.”

Playing under the screen name “maxdalury,” Sud had a memorable night in May when he won more than $221,000 submitting hundreds of baseball rosters on DraftKings Inc., according to a RotoGrinders analysis.

His ace that day? L.A. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who was in 884 of Sud’s 888 lineups. The tall lefty returned the confidence with a 10-strike out, no-run performance in an 8-0 win over the Atlanta Braves.

You need a big stake to play at this level. The May contest on DraftKings that Sud swept cost $27 to enter each roster, meaning he spent nearly $24,000 on that one day.

But such proficiency and notoriety comes at a price. Sud was called an “apex predator” and “shark” in a lawsuit filed in Florida by other fantasy players who alleged that he and another professional’s use of software tools gives them “an unfair advantage.”

And in his home state of Massachusetts, some of Sud’s methods are under threat by Attorney General Maura Healey, whose proposed fantasy-sports regulations would ban software that allows players to automatically enter hundreds of rosters.

The industry itself is under attack elsewhere, with New York’s attorney general suing to ban DraftKings and its top competitor, FanDuel Inc., as illegal gambling operations. 

States want their cut.

Far from being intimidated, Sud is going deeper into the fantasy sports business. On Wednesday, he will launch a startup that offers fantasy sports software to other players, giving less-experienced fans the opportunity to use some of the same tools he’s used to dominate the field.

After he's made his money!

His company, RotoQL , is the latest entry in a field of startups founded by professional fantasy players. “Don’t follow the herd,” RotoQL’s website teases. “Lead it.”

Sud grew up in northern New Jersey, a big Yankees fan. As a professional, though, his fandom is a liability. Sud is focused on finding patterns in data, and allowing a rooting interest to interfere would undoubtedly lead to junking up his rosters with Yankees who might not be the best selection.


“I’ve given up most of my fanhood, because you have the biases that you’re subconsciously always rooting for your players, your teams. And if you’re doing this at a high level, you can’t have those biases. Otherwise, it’ll affect who you choose,” Sud said.

A former squash player at Amherst College, Sud adopted the online pseudonym “maxdalury” after the real name of another squash player he knew in high school. He also liked the sound of it.

They still called the Lord Jeffs?

Sud had dabbled in fantasy sports for several years after college and eventually got good. After the Cambridge company where he was a data scientist was acquired, Sud decided to turn pro.

At first, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents he was a professional player. Now they’re fully on board, even if they couldn’t quite tell you what he does.

Software tools have been controversial, with some fantasy players questioning whether they give high-powered players an unfair edge. Sud declined to discuss the debate over software, citing pending lawsuits. His lawyer, Jordan D. Hershman of the firm Morgan Lewis, said Sud has become so good by working hard and building his skills.

“I could have quit my job and tried to do it, but I would have failed,” Hershman said. “He’s turned himself into the best player in the whole world by playing the game by the rules and winning fair and square.”

And flooding the system with rosters.

Justin Park, Sud’s close friend from college and a co-founder of RotoQL, said making a version of Sud’s software available to the average player could help combat the charge that only a handful of hot shot professionals can win at fantasy sports.

Oh, it's a $elf-$erving money-making enterpri$e!

“People don’t have the time and the know-how to build the software and do the research,” Sud said. “I think that’s one of the fundamental issues ... that plenty of people play when they have an hour. And a person like me, I can spend many hours a day.”

Most people only submit one team, too.



"Two-thirds of New York voters agree with state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that daily fantasy sports games constitute gambling and are illegal in the state, according to a poll released Monday."

Also see:

DraftKings and FanDuel sue to keep operating in Illinois

Fantasy sports put in limbo in Illinois

DraftKings delays launch in UK

What’s next? Here’s a look.

"Lottery looks for possible partners in digital, daily fantasy worlds" by Curt Woodward Globe Staff  December 31, 2015

The Massachusetts Lottery is looking for companies that could help it roll out daily fantasy sports and other digital games, hoping to reach young people who are more likely to tap on a smartphone screen than scratch off a paper ticket.

The Lottery is still in the early stages of studying the market for digital games and doesn’t plan any new contests without backing from elected state officials, Lottery director Michael Sweeney said.

But the Lottery, which supplies a key stream of revenue to Massachusetts cities and towns, needs to grapple with technological and demographic trends that could eat into its next generation of players, he said.

Some would call it preying on the kids and the poor, but you know.

“We’re trying to avoid getting so far behind the changes in technology and consumer preferences that revenues and sales start to get marginalized,” Sweeney said Wednesday. “I don’t see that happening now, but I could see that happening in five to six years.”

In an information request issued Tuesday, the Lottery sought interest from private vendors of software systems, payment processing, data management, and other services that could help it offer digital games with cash prizes.

No worries about hackers, notice that?

Daily fantasy sports games are among the specific games mentioned in the document, which is not a request for formal bids or business proposals.

The Lottery’s interest in daily fantasy sports reflects the sector’s fast growth in recent years into a multibillion-dollar industry backed by investors such as Google Ventures, Fox Sports, the NBA, and Wellington Financial Management.

They want their cut!

Two companies, Boston-based DraftKings Inc. and New York-based FanDuel Inc., account for more than 90 percent of the market. The daily fantasy sector is projected to collect about $3.1 billion in entry fees this year from a player base that is overwhelmingly male and largely between the ages of 18-35, according to estimates from Eilers Research LLC.

Meanwhile the Lottery is grappling with slow growth of its traditional drawings, and Sweeney is worried fantasy sports may be siphoning off customers. In a presentation to the state Lottery Commission in early November, he identified daily fantasy sports as “the biggest current challenge facing the Lottery.” Adding a competing product, the report said, could bring in new revenue without threatening its existing games.

What $cum!

The Lottery’s interest in daily fantasy also coincides with a period of intense legal scrutiny for the private daily fantasy sector.

The Lottery’s revenues topped $5 billion in the last fiscal year, which concluded in June. But sales grew at just 3.1 percent, which Sweeney said was part of a troubling trend of slow growth.

“If I was in private industry, that’s not a number that I’m going to bed at night feeling comfortable about,” he said....

Even though that was a record haul for the lottery.


And today's winner is....

"Man charged with scamming elderly residents out of $800,000" by Milton J. Valencia Globe Staff  December 24, 2015

It was described by police as a textbook scam of the elderly, the kind law enforcement officials repeatedly warn about. And still, authorities said, Vladimir Wilder Merelan was able to make off with more than $800,000.

Merelan, 28, originally from New York, was charged in a complaint unsealed this week in US District Court in Boston with mail and wire fraud for allegedly scamming elderly residents, ages 60 to 90, by telling them they had won millions of dollars in a lottery sweepstakes. All they had to do was pay the taxes on the winnings before the funds could be released.

But, “None of them have received any of their purported winnings,” officials said in court documents.

Merelan, who worked as a telemetry technician at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., made an initial appearance in the Boston court Wednesday. He was released on unsecured bond and must report to pretrial probation officials in his home state of New York.

Authorities said the arrest was the result of an investigation of a scam that dates back to 2012 and appears to have roots in Jamaica....


"Two men were shot Wednesday afternoon in the Bromley-Heath housing development in Jamaica Plain, police said, and a third person was shot hours later in the South End. All three victims are expected to survive."

They got lucky.


Time for a shift change:

"BU hockey player off team amid gambling claim" by Bob Hohler Globe Staff  December 21, 2015

For the first 18 games of its men’s hockey season, Boston University has competed without junior forward Nick Roberto, his absence described only as a “coach’s decision.’’ That decision, it was disclosed Monday, followed an investigation into allegations that a BU player was involved in gambling.

The school announced that Roberto, 21, a junior forward from Wakefield, will not return to the ice this season.

Beyond that, BU said, “federal privacy laws prevent us from discussing his status.’’

Several people familiar with the situation told the Globe that Roberto and a small number of former BU players bet on sports contests last season.

The Globe has not determined the amount of money involved nor confirmed the names of other players who allegedly bet on games. The National Collegiate Athletic Association bars athletes from gambling on any sports event, including fantasy sports leagues, sports pools, and March Madness brackets. Penalties range from a suspension to permanent ineligibility.

BU’s statement also described how, several months ago, the school “heard rumors that a BU hockey player had engaged in gambling.’’ The statement continued: “Although the rumors did not involve gambling on either college or professional hockey games, we nonetheless immediately conducted a thorough investigation and turned the results over to the appropriate authorities at the NCAA. Based on that investigation, the NCAA made its own findings and took remedial action, and we would refer you to that organization for further information.’’

The NCAA declined to comment.

BU’s statement was first published by the College Hockey News in a story that cited sources alleging Roberto and possibly others participated last season in gambling.

The Globe’s attempts to reach Roberto through the athletic department, his school e-mail address, and his family were not successful.

Roberto played for Malden Catholic and Kimball Union Academy before he entered BU in 2013.

The incident comes three years after allegations of sexual assault involving two BU hockey players rocked the campus. The charges against one player were dropped. The other player, Corey Trivino, pleaded guilty to two counts of battery and one count of trespassing. The hockey program’s longtime coach, Jack Parker, and the school’s athletic director, Mike Lynch, have since left the school, Parker retiring, Lynch resigning.

With Roberto in action last season, BU’s team, led by freshman phenom Jack Eichel, won the Beanpot Tournament and the Hockey East title before losing to Providence College, 4-3, at TD Garden in the NCAA championship game.

Eichel departed BU after the season and was selected second overall in the NHL draft. At 19, he is a rookie star for the Buffalo Sabres....


I'm sorry, wrong sport.

At least we know what he didn't bet on:

"Plainridge casino now slotted for disappointment" by Sean P. Murphy Globe Staff  December 27, 2015

PLAINVILLE — The band capped off a cover of a hit 1970s rock tune with a stylish guitar flourish, but nobody clapped, not one of the nine people glued to video poker screens at the bar, nor any of two dozen others arrayed in ones and twos at the nearby slot machines.

“Anyone for blackjack?” a woman’s voice called out, while the smiling likeness of a comely dealer looked out from the giant high-resolution screen of a gambling machine, in search of customers. But on this recent Thursday night at Plainridge Park Casino, none approached.

It was a far cry from the opening in June, when more than 10,000 people paraded through the state’s first casino, and Plainridge’s video blackjack dealers had all the customers they could handle.

Those now-lonely virtual dealers epitomize an apparent miscalculation made by the planners of Plainridge, who figured a smallish slots parlor would be enough to lure Massachusetts customers away from a larger casino with more offerings just over the border in Rhode Island. Massachusetts residents interviewed recently at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., said they found Plainridge too small, too focused on slot machines, or too stingy.

See: Tuesday's Turn of the Wheel

“Not enough variety,” in the slot machines at Plainridge, said Joseph Gagnon, a retiree from Uxbridge who along with his wife gambles at Twin River about once a week. “We tried Plainridge. We didn’t like it. Too small.”

Eladio Sanchez of Taunton concurred. At Twin River, he said, “you can get up and walk around. At Plainridge, there’s no place to go.”

Gambling marketing consultants hired before the gala opening predicted as much as almost $300 million in Plainridge’s first year. Even under a “worst case” scenario, Plainridge would take in upward of $210 million a year, they said. Last month, the Massachusetts state budget office cut back that figure to $160 million, as Rhode Island’s counterpart increased its estimates of casino revenue by $35 million in that state.

Plainridge owners declined to comment for this story. They have previously said the holiday season is historically a slow period for all casinos and said they expect business to pick up in the late winter. The owners have also acknowledged that they have moved out some of their video blackjack machines because gamblers aren’t using them.

But outside observers say Plainridge, limited by Massachusetts law to 1,250 slot machines and no table games, might have fallen behind the curve in gambling tastes between the time it was conceived four years ago and its opening in June.

Like whole thing, but at least horse tracks got loot.

“A slots parlor — that just doesn’t cut it anymore,” said Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor and gambling specialist. “Plainridge is going after 60-year-olds, 70-year-olds, 80-year-olds. It’s a nice little crowd to go after, but it’s certainly limited.”

Back in 2011, lawmakers mapping out the state’s entrance into legalized gambling considered a slots parlor a relatively inexpensive and fast way to generate tens of millions of dollars in new taxes, while awaiting the much bigger payoff of resort casinos that would take much more time and money to build.

At the time, more than half of Twin River’s patrons came from Massachusetts, and state officials figured that Plainridge would become a “last line of defense” to keep gamblers at home, said Clyde W. Barrow, a University of Texas professor who has studied the New England casino market.

But Twin River saw it coming and evolved from a gritty slot parlor at an aging horse track into a modern complex that includes 4,000 slot machines, table games, a steakhouse, and a 3,000-seat arena, all surrounded by acres of parking. Last month, it introduced poker tables, considered the current hottest draw for younger adults.

“Plainridge got outflanked by Twin River,” Barrow said.

On that recent Thursday evening at Plainridge, only a couple hundred people spread out across the cavernous casino, which has a fire-department-imposed capacity of 3,750. Hundreds of slot machines blinked and blustered and beckoned, but mostly to no avail. The looping, prerecorded entreaties of the video blackjack dealers blathered on, mostly unheeded.

In the food court, three people sat amid scores of empty tables and chairs. Servers at the two restaurants stood with arms crossed. Cocktail waitresses walked the carpeted aisles asking, “Beverages?”

The band struck up another tune, still stuck in the 1970s.

“It’s a little dead here,” Carl Smith of Stoughton said as he arrived at Plainridge. “A bit too quiet.”

Smith said he enjoys staying at casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere for a few days to gamble and go to shows.

“But there just ain’t much here,” he said.

Slot machines at one time were so lucrative that Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun were in a constant state of expansion, adding about 6,250 machines to their existing stock of about 8,500 in one 10-year period, the equivalent of five Plainridges.

But the heyday of the slot machine might be over.


Since 2009, slot revenue at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun has plummeted by about $500 million, which casino specialists attribute in part to a growing preference for other forms of gambling, including with daily fantasy sports companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel.

OMG (is gambling despite awaiting a ruling).

Plainridge’s performance has caught the attention of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who pushed in 2011 for a slot parlor along with the three resort casinos favored by former Governor Deval Patrick. It is “something the House is watching closely,” a spokesman said.

The state Gaming Commission released a statement that it “will continue to closely monitor and evaluate the performance” of Plainridge. “At this point, it is unclear if there is any one reason as to why revenue is currently lower than expected.”

John E. Taylor Jr., chairman of Twin River Management, thinks he has the answer.

“Plainridge is a nice place, but we have a lot more to offer,” he said.


Also see:

Plainridge low numbers could be start of a state codependency

Plainridge casino is ‘long term play,’ gaming commissioner says

Looks like we have reached a tiverton point

So who won the game?

UMass awarded $320,000 in grants

Plainridge operators, don’t ask for tax reductions