Normally, the firing of a basketball coach — even one in Los Angeles — wouldn’t really be a Hollywood story. But UCLA has chosen to dump Ben Howland for a reason that has cost many a showbiz exec his or her job: Lousy boxoffice.
In the full-disclosure department, I write this as a UCLA alumnus, life-long fan and season-ticket holder. Yet the drumbeat surrounding Howland has been fueled not only by a disappointing record but a failure to put asses in seats, after the university raised and spent roughly $140 million to renovate its storied arena, Pauley Pavilion.
Setting aside Howland’s merits as a coach, the reason that’s noteworthy is because by that criteria, the deck was stacked against him from the get-go. Thanks to a new TV deal, a number of Pac-12 games started at 6 p.m. PT, making it difficult for the Bruin faithful to make tipoff. In one game, for example, the ESPN announcers referenced the poor crowd showing, without making any mention of their role in setting the time or the difficulties getting anywhere in L.A. around rush hour.
At the same time, practically every game is televised (although some were blacked out for DirecTV subscribers, since the satcaster didn’t pick up the Pac-12 Network), reducing the incentive to attend in person. Moreover, ticket prices were jacked up for the new arena, while unemployment in California continues to run ahead of the national average. Add those factors to the “Why not just watch at home” calculus.
Finally, Los Angeles offers far more distractions and alternatives for the entertainment buck than a number of the smaller markets that are home to traditional basketball powers. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to excite local fans if the team’s winning, but it does add to the sense UCLA or USC — unlike, say, Illinois or Kentucky — aren’t the only game in town, particularly with the Clippers suddenly looking like a playoff contender.
Like movie executives, nobody needs to shed any tears for Howland or host any bake sales on his behalf. He’ll leave with a fat buyout package, and these jobs — while high-profile and subject to intense scrutiny — tend to be a revolving door, either into other coaching positions or the broadcast booth.
Still, I can’t help but think about the movie “Network,” and the notion of Howard Beale getting killed over lousy ratings.
Like all of major sports now, UCLA danced to TV’s tune, then turned around and complained when the boxoffice results suffered because of those mercenary priorities — “mercenary” also being a fair description of the “one and done” players who fleetingly pass through programs en route to the NBA, seriously diluting the quality of the college game.
The next coach might find a way to gracefully navigate that daunting high-wire act, but all I can say is, “Good luck with that.”