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.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Comparisons Aren't Just Odious, They Can Be Downright Dangerous

Heaven knows what it could've been, but at some point out there at Eastern Illinois, Jimmy Garoppolo must've done something perfectly horrid to Ben Volin or to one of Volin's superiors in the Globe's sports department. Revenge is the only motive sufficient to explain why Volin and the Globe tied a can full of nitroglycerin to Garoppolo's one week old NFL career in this morning's paper.

I can think of no dirtier trick to pull on a rookie quarterback for any team than publishing a front page lead story on all of his resemblances as a player to Tom Brady. If said QB is a rookie Patriot, we're moving into war crime territory.

The Pats wouldn't have drafted Garoppolo in the second round if Bill Belichick hadn't thought he could be an NFL quarterback someday. Barring catastrophe, that day will not come until after the presidential election. In the meantime, the common assumption he's Brady's heir apparent will be burden enough on the poor guy. To state he reminds anyone of the young Brady is piling on the expectations to a point where Garoppolo's first exhibition game incompletion will become as much of a news event as the preseason allows.

Make that a controversial news event. If the "young Brady" meme takes hold, Garoppolo's stumbles as a rookie, and there will be some, will be judged not against his peers, but against the non-rookie performances of one of the historic greats at his position. That ought to help keep the kid chock-full of confidence.

Being the heir apparent quarterback sucks. Ask Steve Young. It made him an unhappy man even after the got the job. That's a Hall of Famer. Garoppolo hasn't even begun his audition for that tragic part. Hyping his chances of landing the role is cruelty disguised as praise.

Nobody remembers Tom Brady's rookie season. That's because nobody saw it. Brady never played in 2000. Belichick allowed himto grow from an awkward rook into the guy he trusted to replace an injured Drew Bledsoe in the decent privacy of practices and meetings.

I'm convinced that privacy is one reason Brady became the player nobody should be compared to now.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Nothing Personal, Just Business -- Really Stupid Business by Bad Businessmen

Took a quick run-through of this morning's A section of the New York Times, not to read the world news, not on Saturday, but to take a gander at the display ads.

On pages two and three, there were ads for Gucci, Dior, Chanel and Tiffany and Co. The first full page ad was for Thermador kitchen appliances.

Class, what class of people use, purchase, or influence the purchase of the products of these fine companies. You there in the back, did you say women? Very good. Who said rich and well-to-do women? Extra credit! Somebody said middle-aged or older well-to-do women? I'm putting you in for a fellowship!!

We covered advertising positioning last semester. Advertisers put their ads where they think their customers are. We can therefore deduce that these very successful sellers of luxury products think many readers of the Times are middle-aged or older women of affluence, as well as men married to them. We can also deduce that those advertisers spent time and money verifying that assumption.

OK, now for the final question of the pop quiz. We know advertising revenue is essential for the Times. One former editor noted that the money off advertising from one of its fashion Sunday supplements paid the nut for all foreign news coverage for a year. So if you were a stockholder in the New York Times Co., what would be your reaction to the news the paper had fired in the most public and humiliating way possible the first woman executive editor in its history in what appears to be pique over said woman questioning gender discrimination in salary and an open and shut case of wrongful termination. Moreover, said woman is an exact match of the demographic all those advertisers are looking for.

I love to hear students shout the right answer in unison. Say it again "SELL,.SELL, SELL!"

OK, enough with the schoolroom conceit. The dismissal of Jill Abramson by Times publisher Pinch Sulzberger is that paper's worst move since it bought the Globe for $1 billion only to sell it for almost nothing. Or was the worst when they turned down the chance to get in on Google at the start? I can never decide.

Abramson's firing can be condemned on social grounds, as evidence that an institution known for its progressive editorial views remains as grounded in sexism as it was when it got sued for the same in the 1970s. It has been.

It can be condemned as a matter of journalism. In its damage control leaks to itself and other media, the Times let it be known Abramson was brusque and demanding with subordinates and superiors alike.

To this ex-newspaper hack, all that means was that the Times objected to Abramson because she acted like an editor. In a deadline driven trade, most instructions tend towards the brusque. If Abramson didn't suffer fools gladly, that's inherent in her job, too. Sussing out fact from nonsense IS editing. A good editor probably ought to have been fired at least once. Questioning authority is the second imperative of journalism, right after getting the facts. People good at questioning authority usually aren't good at being company drones.

Most of that also has already been said elsewhere. And journalist Abramson will do just fine, thank you. If she wants to work, she'll have offers. At worst, she'll get paid a goodly sum to sit atop the organizational chart of some journalism school. If not, well, unless her attorney was guilty of malpractice, her settlement of her termination with the Times had to be for serious fuck-you money.

No, to me what's most notable about Abramson getting fired and how it happened isn't social or moral, it's economic. It was a needless affront to a large number of the customers the Times, in case it hasn't noticed, could use more of these days. It was a wake-up call for whatever media buying service execs ponied up for the ads I scanned just an hour or so ago.

The newspaper business has structural problems that might be incurable. What happened the Times this week didn't have anything to do with those. It was about a structural problem with ALL of American business that's getting closer to incurable by the day..

The people, most but not all men, at the top of our companies are very, very good at amassing personal wealth, and very, very bad at everything else to do with business.

Defeat May Be an Orphan, But It Makes Everybody a Midwife

Even the bitter recriminations are all over for the Bruins now.

The deafening death metal riffs on the chords of shoula-coulda-woulda that were the local soundtrack Thursday everywhere from the semi-professional howlers on Felger and Mazz to the guy behind me in the checkout line at the Bedford Stop&Shop has gone diminuendo down to Fluto Shinzawa's column in this morning's Globe saying all Boston needs to get back the Stanley Cup NEXT spring are a few minor changes.

This is all good for our civic well-being. Endless rue of defeat, a local specialty in the 20th century, is tiresome at any time. In May, it seems an affront to Mother Nature herself. More prosaically, the decline in volume of second-guessing suggests an increase in regional wisdom. Maybe, just maybe, the Bruins' fans and commentators remembered just what team they'd been watching all season. Also what sport.

Start with the first. Emotional distress, be it the genuine distress of a fan on the wrong side of an upset, or the superficial distress of a commentator on the wrong side of a prediction, is not conducive to logic. But even by the low, low standards of  "taking a tough loss" the complaints about the Bruins I heard and read last week were noteworthy for their unreasonableness.

The Bruins need finishers!!! That cry was a common one. Leaving aside the assumption that Jarome Iginla is not, saying Boston's forwards need to display more skill at scoring ignores the team's entire identity and the praise many complainers gave those same forwards before the Canadiens series began.

The Bruins, like many other NHL teams, are coached by a man who sees defense as the game's most important element, defining defense as both preventing opponents from scoring and taking the puck away from them. Boston's three most important and best players are goalie Tuukka Rask, defenseman Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, one of if not the best defensive forward in the sport. Before the season started, the team, to applause from fans and media, traded away Tyler Seguin, a talent on offense but averse to Claude Julien's defensive requirements. This did not hurt Boston one bit during the season.

In sports, all strengths contain the seeds of a possible weakness. It stands to reason that if and when a team built on defense gets beat, the reason will likely be it didn't score enough runs, points or goals. It is foolishly unjust to praise the Bruins' front lines for their ability to wear out their opponents through relentless physical play and then rip them for an inability to also be dominant scorers. That's a pretty rare combination.  When I head the complaints, I heard the words "if Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand were both Gordie Howe, we'd have beaten Montreal."

The Bruins are who they are, a self that's worked damn well for them the past four or five seasons. Changing identities in midlife is almost never a good idea.

Hockey, the sport the Bruins play, remains what it is, too. And that, more than anything about the Bruins or even the Canadiens, explains how come summer is here at the Garden today.

Repeat after me. There are no upsets in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The President's Trophy is about as relevant to the Cup as the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The balance between winning and losing is just too narrow in hockey to be otherwise. Look at the contortions the NHL has gone through to deal with how many regular season games end in regulation ties? Sudden-death overtime, which ends playoff ties, is so thrilling precisely because all fans of both teams in a game know how supremely random it is.

There are four teams left in the playoffs. All four have played at least one of their two playoff series against a foe who had home ice advantage. The Canadiens and Kings have yet to get home ice advantage, although Montreal will against the Rangers. It's hard to call the Bruins' loss an upset if the evidence suggests that victories by favorites are the real disruptions in the status quo.

Hockey's unpredictability, its constant and often unfair chaos, is an inescapable and large part of its glory as a sport. It's part of, I dare say, what makes it fun. I feel for the Bruins' fans caught on the sharp end of that glory last week. But deep down, I think, they understand what happened.

As for commentators with bruised pride, there's always the next prediction. They can dive right into the sports with real chalk postseasons, the NBA and NFL.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Business of Basketball Is Business

The wealthy are often infatuated with the power and privileges of wealth. But their one true abiding, unshakable love is of wealth itself.

That's why Donald Sterling can't get into the Staples Center this evening. That's why he'll soon be a former owner of a National Basketball Association team. The belief among his fellow NBA owners, intelligently expressed by their most intelligent member Mark Cuban, that the wealthy should not be accountable for their words and beliefs, was overridden by the threat Sterling posed to the NBA income of those owners.

Never think for a nanosecond rich people shrug off costs. Nobody worries more about them. And Sterling posed a real and dangerous threat to the revenue streams of his soon to be former peers -- several threats.

Threat the first and most obvious. Avowed racism throws a wrench the size of Montana into the spokes of the NBA business model. It has two segmented markets. The older more affluent white guys who buy the tickets, and the mostly younger people of all races, ethnic groups, etc. who watch the games on TV and buy the league's crap.

The genius of David Stern was that he recognized the relationship between these two groups. The older white guys liked the NBA because it is a way of not feeling like they're older. Back in the day, covering 76er- Celtics games around the turn of the century, I used to howl (internally) with laughter at the site of short, balding stockbrokers dressed in Alan Iverson jerseys and gold chains high-fiving each other. Stern, smarter than me by far, saw profit in those poor clucks.

Sterling threatened both customer bases. The immediate loss of Clipper corporate sponsors following the revelation of his remarks (BTW, just how much of a loser must one be to reach a situation where one's estranged wife is suing one's estranged mistress?) was a signal that the older white guys were aware that Sterling had harshed their fantasy to a lethal extent. The younger guys had figured it out on their own. That it involved a team in LA, the frontrunners capital of the universe (sorry, Manhattan) only made the boil grow to critical size more quickly/

Threat the second was less obvious but more dangerous in the long run. NBA players were evidently prepared to boycott all playoff games against the Clippers for the duration. That would have, among other things, made the Clippers champs by default if they hadn't joined the boycott. But mostly, it would have cost many teams much gate revenue, all the teams TV revenue and worst of all created the first sports work stoppage where fan opinion would have been on the side of the players, not the owners.

THAT precedent was something too horrible for the owners to contemplate. On top of immediate and significant revenue losses, they would be deprived of their second-most potent weapon in labor disputes. Capital hates unpredictability, and it should.

Accordingly, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver got the green light to ban Sterling and ask the owners to throw him out of the league. We're all grown-ups here, right? We know Silver would never have lifted a finger without the owners giving him the OK? I thought so. Donald Sterling is no longer a threat to NBA peace and prosperity. He may generate a bunch more billable hours for the NBA's attorneys, but that's just petty cash.

Sterling's destiny is to become a landmark case in California probate courts both before and after his death. The NBA's destiny is to quickly return to the hawking of replica jerseys.

The Los Angeles Clippers destiny? I hope the rumors are right and Oprah buys the team. That way if they crap out in the playoffs, maybe season ticket holders will get a free car.