Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Everybody Is Uninterested in a Star

Fewer people watched the 2014 All-Star Game on TV last night than did in 2013. I didn't say stop me if you heard this one because you have. Tweak the dates, and that sentence has been true since about 1989.

All-star games are becoming to sports television what Tuesday night at 10 p.m. is to ABC. It's where audiences go (or don't go) to disappear. Fewer people watch the NHL and NBA All-Star Games than they used to as well. Much fewer, in fact, roughly half of what the audiences were two decades ago. As for the Pro Bowl, well, if it was a moneymaker, Roger Goodell wouldn't have threatened to abolish it a few seasons back.

So there's hope for American sports after all. The normal fan is not yet so far gone as to have lost the uses of their five senses plus common sense. Each of those has a simple explanation as to why All-Star games are losing viewers in droves. All-Star games suck. They are cruel clumsy parodies of the team sports in which the All-Stars themselves excel.

Older sports commentators will tell you that baseball has the "best" of the four All-Star games. That may have been true when Ted Williams and Stan Musial were the annual fixtures on the American and National League teams but not anymore. Now it's a more of a game show than a game, a contest to maximize the number of participants and an exercise in internal marketing, such as Cardinals manager making Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright the NL starter, or John Farrell yanking Felix Hernandez after one inning to trot John Lester out there. I'll bet that really helped ratings in Seattle.

Oh, I almost forgot. There's external marketing, to. Baseball used one of the very few times it has the stage to itself anymore to hawk dry goods. What I'll remember of the 2014 All-Star Game isn't Derek Jeter, it's the ghastly fashion war crimes they made the players wear on their heads. Way to stress the tradition of the Game, gang. Give everybody a hideous new cap.

The other three sports all have the same basic All-Star game issue. Since there's no reason to care who wins (meet any diehard AFC or Western Conference fans lately when you hit the bars, the players don't either. They go have fun, which is nice for them, but kind of counter to the idea of pro sports, which is both far better and much worse than mere fun.

Fans, being sometimes foolish but rarely fools, know all this perfectly well. So they don't watch all-stars -- with a few significant exceptions.

Ratings for the just-completed World Cup were very strong. They were for the Olympic hockey tournament, too. Those competitions are exclusively composed of all-star teams. What else is a national sports team?

National sports teams, however, are All-Star teams with the one element most such teams lack -- rooting interest. Patriotism makes fans from Shanghai to Stoughton care what happens to them, so they take the time and trouble to watch 'em on TV.

This strongly suggests that if  Bud Selig's successor wants to gin up July ratings, he should drop the All-Star Game and move a compressed version of  World Baseball Classic to that month. If the All-Star break lasted two weeks instead of three days, it'd be no loss at all. A Europe vs. North America NHL or U.S. vs. World NBA All-Star Game would also be more of a crowd pleaser than battles between conferences whose makeup changes frequently anyhow.  Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it makes a dandy hideout for a desperate marketer.

The NFL lacks a significant foreign presence, so my thought won't help the Pro Bowl. Probably no amount of human imagination could.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ashes Are Not the Best of Building Materials

The Red Sox aren't doing so well lately, if we define lately as "ever since early April." It's now July, which means that Boston baseball commentators and all too many fans are plunging into their favorite part of the season -- trade deadline time. The blending of the above two sentences makes for considerable entertainment for lovers of dark comedy.

Driving home from vacation this morning, Andy Gresh and Scott Zolak issued a fervent hour-long duet on the need for the Red Sox to give up, blow up the team, and of course, "play the kids." Only in this way, they argued, could the Sox maintain fan interest in a lost season before everybody stops caring in September because it's football season (Class, to what local outdoor franchise does 98.5 hold the radio rights?).

Barring a seven-game win streak prior to the All-Star break, we'll all have to scramble to avoid hearing or reading similar sentiments. There's nothing the commentariat likes better than advising that a sports team be completely deconstructed in pursuit of victory at some unspecified future date. There's no doubt they're talking their book  Discussing the same guys day after day gets boring. New players equal new things to write or say. But I want to be fair, and I believe that the commentators also sincerely believe that "out with the old, in with the new" is actually a sound midseason plan.

Like everything else in sports, it depends. Trade deadline subtractions do work. Aggressive youth movements do succeed. Just not as often as they don't, not nearly as often, in fact.

As the radio kept reminding me, the Red Sox have a relatively large number of young players considered to be bright prospects. Good for them. Mobilizing them en masse as the bulk of a starting lineup for a team going nowhere is about the most efficient way I can think of to dim those prospects.

The most difficult and dangerous stage in major league player development is the period when a player takes his first crack at being an everyday player. For Mike Trout, it was easy, but Top 20 of all time players are by definition rare. For most players, it's a daunting physical and psychological challenge. That goes for Hall of Famers, too. His first year as a starter, Mike Schmidt batted under .200. He subsequently got the hang of things, but for every Schmidt, or even every prospect who goes on to become a steady regular, there are two who fail the test. It's hard to be a major leaguer. That's why we admire them.

So when teams take the plunge of seeing if a prospect can be more than that, they try their best to set up situations which allow the prospect his best chance of success. Being part of four or five guys all undergoing the same traumatic horsehide med school boards almost surely is no prospect's best chance of success, especially if said prospects are being expected to do enough to partially transform a team already set in its losing ways for 2014.

Strikingly, neither Gresh nor Zo stated in my hearing that trading a few vets by July 31 and calling up the youth reserves would help the Sox win some more games. They didn't mention winning or losing at all. No, their contention was that a prospect-laden lineup would keep fans interested. Transposing their own business on the baseball business, they said in essence it'd be good for Red Sox ratings.

I cite the two Boston sports talk hosts not to single them out,  but as examples of a trend. Sports commentary now seems to run on the motto "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how many eyeballs you got while doing it."

In other words, sports is just like the media business. Generate public interest by any means possible, and you're a success. The U.S soccer team was a big story not because it made the elimination rounds of the World Cup, but because it got big TV numbers. The idea that the numbers resulted from the U.S. having a team good enough to care about got lost in the shuffle.

The "admit defeat-blow it up-play the kids" advice given struggling teams is a direct outgrowth of the audience uber alles mindset  It's a mindset that's not a product of foolishness, cynicism or cluelessness, but stems from plain old human nature.

Commentators would have to have rare insight and rarer self-confidence not to have their minds affected by their own professional experiences when discussing professional sports. And the professional experience of the 21st century media racket is not one conducive to taking the long point of view.

Is there a more blow it up and start over business than radio? Two down books in a row, and 98.5 could be broadcasting Korean pop. Is there a business more obsessed with attracting an audience by any means necessary than newspapers? I can testify that play the (cheaper) kids has been a newspaper personnel strategy for many, many years.

Transposing one's own business on the sports business is a major error. Team owners do it all the time, to their enormous regret and substantial revenue loss. I'm not a Red Sox fan, but it's my fervent wish that ownership and the front office don't much care if I watch or not, as long as they believe they're creating a product worth watching.

Because otherwise, they won't. Put the audience first, it usually gets smaller.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

If Not Now, When? We Don't Know!

Last year the Philadelphia 76ers traded their best player for the right to draft Nehlens Noel, who was injured and who they knew couldn't play in the 2013-2014 season. He didn't and the Sixers were very bad. That's how they wound up with the third and 10th picks in the 2014 draft.

So last week Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid, who's injured and might not be able to play, and also wound up with a European player who's still under contract and won't play in the U.S. next season. That's why I didn't look up his name right now. As far as the NBA goes, this guy doesn't exist yet.

Many commentators say that the Sixers had one of the best drafts of any NBA team. The thinking goes that they've insured they'll suck next season, too, and get still another high lottery pick. Then some fine come-and-get-it-day, maybe in 2015 but more likely after the next presidential election, Noel and Embiid will be healthy, the European will be an American, and that 2015 lottery pick will be a star, too. Presto! LeBron James will be sorry he didn't take his talents to Broad Street this summer.

Maybe so. Teams do need to bottom out to get better. Happens all the time in every sport. Perhaps Sixer fans actually are happy their team has a plan for victory, even if involves a couple of hundred defeats along the way.

But I'm sure glad I'm not making a living selling 2014-2015 76ers season tickets on commission.

Schedule Note

Posting has been sporadic on this blog even by its author's past slipshod standards. No apologies, a series of real-life events is responsible. There's one coming up in a few hours, too. I am headed for a vacation spot where except for hi-def TV, I'm off the grid. Back after the holiday, when another real-life event may lead to more regular posting.

In a Sport With Little Scoring, Some Americans Can't Keep Score.

Were you a sports troll this week? It's not a very nice thing to be, but apparently there's a good living in it. So if you were one of the nitwits who complained about how it just didn't feel right that the U.S. soccer team advanced in the World Cup after losing its game to Germany last Thursday, maybe you should compensate for being shunned by your more aware and decent peer group by filing that application to the Connecticut School of Broadcasting.

Not that the nitwits were confined to the lowbrow likes of semipro talk show callers. At the very snootiest level of sports commentary, Janet Macur of the New York Times wrote a snarky column about the U.S. advancing, too. Or it wanted to be snarky, but was held back by the essential humorlessness of the columnist.

The people who found the U.S. celebration after a loss confusing or disturbing must not have covered or watched much baseball in their lives -- like none, really. It is utterly commonplace for a pennant race for a division title or playoff berth to end with both contenders losing a single game, but one being eliminated through the harsh arithmetic of the sport. The winners celebrate the accomplishment of their season anyway, and they should. It's the victories of the past they're commemorating, not tonight's now meaningless loss.

So it is with the World Cup. I will be kind and assume that only unfamiliarity with soccer rather than the desire to get ahead through trolling was the source of the confusion here, but the opening rounds of the World Cup aren't really a tournament in the commonly understood U.S. sense of the word. They're a weird little three game regular season for 32 teams in eight divisions. The idea is to make the real playoffs. If you do, which is hard to do, then hip-hip-hooray and who cares how it looked. Or, as was once said by a coach of a sport Americans claim to understand, survive and advance.

Fans who cheered at the end of the Germany game are blessedly normal. Making the knockout round of the World Cup is an accomplishment worth shouting about. It means the U.S. team has reached the place where the big, fast kids play, and although it might not play there long next week, inevitable loss will be disappointing, but it shouldn't mean as much as the fact of the competition itself.

In my adult life, U.S. soccer has gone from an international bad joke to a respectable mid-major. We are Butler or Boise State. That's a phenomenal change, one of the most noteworthy sports events of said adult life. The cheerers have history on their side as well as patriotism and common sense.

The fretters need some regrooving, not that they'll get it. What I don't get is what becomes clearer and clearer to me day by ever more dismayed day.

The best path to the top in my former trade of sports commentary seems to be to deny that sports can provide anyone any happiness at all.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Great Seats, Huh, Buddy!

Business columnist Shirley Leung of the Globe took some time off from talking up real estate development this morning to wistfully wonder why there isn't more enthusiasm in these parts for making a bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games. Makes one wonder just how long she's lived here. Is some civic event possibly fun for large numbers of people? Boston's against it!

The front page of the paper informed us Boston is on the "short list" of candidate host cities of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Left out of the headline was the fact the list got shorter due to a lack of volunteers, New York and Philadelphia having recently withdrawn their applications. Those fine burgs were acting prudently. An Olympics is years and years of hard work and extraordinary costs for no tangible economic reward and more likely very tangible debt interest payments for eons afterwards.

Leung stressed the "where is our civic pride?" angle in her column. Without meaning to be cruel, it must be said she could not have chosen a more pathetic and futile argument. Our city's chronic naysaying stems from an excess of civic pride, not a deficit. By and large, we think we're fine and dandy just the ways things are.

But I have come not to mock Leung, but to add a timid voice stating there are benefits to an Olympics. They're just not ones that turn up on a balance sheet.

Economics research is clear on this point. As many citizens of Brazil are kind of upset about, there are no trickle-down effects to the public good of hosting big time sports events. The biggest sports event in the U.S., the Super Bowl, offers one weekend where hotel owners make more money than usual, and that's it. Otherwise, it comes and goes in a city with no impact whatsoever.

 One thing's for sure. The average resident isn't getting a ticket. He or she will watch the game on TV just as if it was taking place 3000 miles away. That's pretty much the way it goes for the World Cup, too. A nosebleed seat in Brazil goes for about a month's pay for the average worker. It WAS possible to get tickets when the 1994 Cup came to Foxboro, but FIFA has added many extra layers of greed on the tournament since then.

But the Olympics are different, because there are so much of them. This is the one big sports event,where the average host city sports fan CAN get a ticket and participate in the fun. No, you won't get into the opening ceremonies, the basketball and women's gymnastics finals or track and field the night of the 100 meter dash. But that leaves more events than I feel like mentioning where a small amount of foresight will get a fan into what is, after all, a world championship of whatever sport he or she is watching.

Think archery, badminton and field hockey are silly? You just haven't gotten around enough. Anybody who goes to a Games and checks them out ought to realize that there are countless fans in Seoul, Bangkok and Karachi who'd do anything to change places with them.

The fan will never watch of those sports again. That's the whole point. The Olympics are a once in a lifetime sports experience that it's actually possible to experience. Ask the good people of Atlanta. There were many issues with the 1996 Games, but by God those Southerners turned out in droves for every sport on the card and had a damn good time doing it.

I wouldn't bet a Confederate war bond on Boston ever getting a Games. That's because of geography, not civic spirit or the lack thereof. A Games would require the construction of large sports venues, and there's just enough space to build new stuff in our metropolitan area -- at least stuff that's not another luxury tower for rich people to live in.

But if perchance a series of miracles longer than Cal Ripken's games played streak came to pass and the 2024 Games were to be held in Boston, it'd be a miracle Bostonians could look at in person.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

All Those Pucks Go Off the Ice And None Ever Hits Him? There Is No God

The most devout hockey fan on the planet couldn't be that unhappy if the Kings close the Rangers out tonight. No more Pierre McGuire until the leaves turn.

The Runner-Up Runners-Up

The Golf Channel isn't so bad with the sound off. On the graphics crawl line this evening, I was actually taught something.

Many golf fans know, and God knows ESPN will try to make sure everyone knows this weekend, that Phil Mickelson holds a painful record of having been second more times in the U.S. Open than any golfer in history, having earned place money six times. Less well-known, I'm betting, are the identities of the other multiple second bananas in Open history.

It's a tie. There are four Peyton Manning-type can't win the big one losers who Phil has eclipsed for being just good enough to have the haters' tongues wagging. We all know there's only first place and the rest is Failureville right? Talk radio philosophy is sports' true philosophy. Sycophancy for the winners, spite and scorn for the rest.

The four losers in question are, in chronological order: Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

I'll faint dead away if Mickelson wins the 2014 Open. He's got putting issues, the worst fate a golfer of any level of ability can endure. But if by chance he finishes second, don't dare call it losing.

He'll just have extended his lead on one hell of a list to be atop.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Zim

Don Zimmer died today at the age of 83. He will be remembered in these parts as the manager of a Red Sox team that should have won some titles and didn't, which sort of ignores the role of the New York Yankees in the transaction.

Zimmer was a good manager with a flaw, a huge flaw. He had problems related to pitchers. This is absolutely understandable as pitchers almost killed him. Twice. Beanings turned him from baseball's hottest prospect in the early 1950s to a career utility player.

First, a personal note. I first met Zimmer in 1980, when I was George Kimball's successor at the Phoenix. Zimmer and Kimball were sworn enemies due to sociocultural events of the mid 20th century and because Kimball and pitcher Bill Lee were friends. I was their friend, too. Zimmer knew all that. He could not have been more pleasant, gracious and open to me, at a time when the Boston media was roasting him over a print and electronic spit. He had a strong and austere code of life. And he lived it.

Now for the macro. When I think of Don Zimmer, I remember he got his first job as a teenager, and died on the job as an octogenarian, and never, ever, made a nickel outside of baseball. He spent his whole life doing what he loved doing, in the place he was meant to be.

As obits go, I can't top that.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

You Gotta Play Hurt -- Also Lawyered Up

The above the fold headline of the Wall Street Journal on my doorstep this morning read "Stock Probe Eyes Icahn, Gambler, Top Golfer."

Without reading further, I knew immediately that the golfer in question was Phil Mickelson, as would anyone else who's followed the sport for more than an hour and a half. Even throwing out the word "Gambler," it's hard to imagine the likes of Jason Dufner or Justin Rose plunging in the stock market or rubbing shoulders with one of America's most prominent financiers. Most pros take the sensible view that their careers contain all the risk a human being could want, thank you.

Not Phil. Mickelson's past sports gambling exploits are the stuff of clubhouse legend. His penchant for attempting the impossible on the golf course are why he's adored by fans, all of whom try the same thing when THEY play. So it's cost him about four U.S. Opens. Never up, never in!

Mickelson is also a bright and intellectually curious person who would find the company of persons accomplished in other fields a major benefit of his fame and fortune. He works hard, but he's not gonna be out there beating balls in the dark like Vijay Singh. Life's got more to offer Mickelson than that.

Then I read the story. As is often the case, the headline was the best part. The text informed me that the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Bureau of Investigation have questioned Phil and Las Vegas course owner Billy Walters, the world's greatest sports bettor, just ask him, on what Icahn may have told them prior to their 2011 trades in the stock of Clorox, because maybe Icahn told them something that would make his own trades and by extension theirs, illegal insider trading.

The story also noted there's been no evidence of wrongdoing found -- yet. Insider trading is a very hard crime to prove when it's based on first-hand information. For second-hand information of the sort Mickelson's supposed to have gotten, it's damn near impossible. So Phil's gallery at the Open in Pinehurst in a few weeks probably won't contain any Feds.

That, however, is not what interested me most about this affair. What got me was learning that Mickelson was questioned after finishing his first round of the Memorial tournament Thursday afternoon.

In a classic Mickelsonian implosion, Phil went from five under par to even by finishing the round double bogey-bogey-double bogey.  The average lousy golfer would be distressed. A Hall of Fame pro is beyond distressed. Now imagine walking off the course not to a mob of autograph seekers, but to some polite FBI agents seeking to link you to a federal crime.

Now there's a distraction! Rory McIlroy could break up with a girlfriend a week and it wouldn't match what happened to Mickelson.

On Friday, Phil went out and shot a quiet two-under 70 to make the cut. Whatever else may be said about Mickelson the golfer, don't say he's not mentally tough. Maybe not always all there, but what is there is sure tough.

The next time I or any other of the millions of amateur (golf's exquisite synonym for "incompetent") golfers out there hit a bad shot or two, we ought to think of Phil in the second round of the Memorial and stifle our excuses.