Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sports, taking a knee...and bribery

Remember when sports was our getaway - our safe haven for a couple of uninterrupted hours in front of a TV or in a grandstand seat enjoying the emotional ups-and-downs of athletic competition? Remember when our sports bar discussions were about Romo versus Dak and not about Jerry Jone's locked arms with his players, kneeling on a sideline?

It's not been a good week for sports as our happy place, whether one's been caught up in the ceaseless back-and-forth on taking a knee during the national anthem or now with the revelation that a handful of college basketball coaches and adidas have been colluding to bribe and direct high school players to favored schools.

Yes, politics is not new to sports, whether it be Muhammad Ali's draft evasion in 1967, the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympics, Billie Jean King fighting for equal pay for female athletes or the many, many other examples I could cite.

And bribery? Well, sports and dollar bills go together like Black and Sox, with many examples since that baseball game fixing scandal in 1919.

This, though, feels different, bigger and more intrusive. The nation's most popular sports property is openly at odds with the President of the United States. And, when news broke of the newest scandal in college sports, the majority of sports journalists on my Twitter feed reacted with "this is just the tip of the iceberg" or other words to that effect.

Sports, as we know it, may never be the same. Will the NFL and college basketball survive? Probably...but the impact being felt will only exacerbate declining attendance and declining ratings that we are seeing across all of sports.

There aren't many brands in sports that are winning right now. And that makes me sad.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

R.I.P. Frank Deford

Where have all of the great sports journalists gone?

The death of Frank Deford is yet one more indicator that the era of great sports journalism practiced by the likes of Deford, Dan Jenkins, Curry Kirkpatrick, Roy Blount, Jr., Roger Angell, Dave Anderson and others has long since gone.

The loss of Deford hits close to home as his writing and presence in Sports Illustrated was why Thursday was always a great day - that's the day the magazine would show up in my mailbox each week. When he started The National, a daily sports tabloid newspaper, in 1990 I made sure that I went out of my way to find that publication.

What set Deford apart is that he was a storyteller - he had the uncanny ability to find "the story" and give it to us, his readers, in a way that held our attention through every word.

Deford was concerned about the loss of storytelling and had this to say in a 2008 interview: "I think there are more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before. But I also believe that the one thing that's largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory - the characters, the tales, the humor, the pain, what Hollywood calls 'the arc.' That is: stories. We have, all by ourselves, ceded that one neat thing about sport that we owned."

In 2013, Deford won the National Citation from the William Allen White Foundation at the University of Kansas School of Journalism & Mass Communications, the only sportswriter to win this prestigious award. At the acceptance ceremony, Deford said, "The wonderful thing about sports writing is that it's a great subject to write about. Sports is drama, sports is glamour, interesting characters. It gives you so much as a writer."

R.I.P Mr. Deford - we will miss you.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"The bonds of baseball..."

I've had a strange relationship with the sport of baseball. As a youngster, I probably spent more time on or around a baseball diamond than I did any other place than my home. As an adult, I evolved from fanatic follower of the 1970's and 1980's Kansas City Royals to apathetic, disenfranchised fan of a sport that seemed to delight in punishing my small market hometown team. (And, of course, those post-Ewing Kauffman years were pretty dark for my Royals until the wonder years of 2014 and 2015.)

Baseball, more than any other endeavor in my life, was the consistent thing that linked me to my father. I played other youth sports back in the day when one went from season-to-season during the year and back again. And, in all cases, my father was there blowing the whistle, holding the clipboard, and diplomatically dealing with parents whether it be for my football team, basketball team or baseball team.

It was baseball, though, that connected us more deeply than the other sports. If we weren't playing a game or practicing, chances were that my Dad would be hitting me ground balls at the local diamond. Or, we might have a game of catch in the backyard. When we weren't actually playing the game, we were listening to the game. My memories of summer included Sunday afternoons sitting on a lawn chair, likely by Dad's small orchard or garden, watching him weed or pick while we listened to the transistor tuned to the St. Louis Cardinals. (My father's favorite player was Stan Musial.) You can imagine how the tears flowed the first time I heard Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) ask his father, "Hey Dad...wanna have a catch?" in the ending scene of Field of Dreams. 

That backdrop of emotion came flooding back when I read Lee Siegel's column, "The Bonds of Baseball, From My Dad to My Son," which recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Siegel elegantly wrote, "Any sport that has accompanied you through life acquires a certain metaphorical power. When I stand behind my son to teach him to bat, draping myself over his small body and holding the bat along with him, I feel that I'm embracing my past and my future, even as we practice together how to handle whatever the present wants to pitch at us...One function of sports is to organize familiar rituals of play that also pass - with their own stories and feats - from one generation to the next."

I cried when I read those words. I cried because I remember my father holding his hands over mine, showing me how to hit. I remember his hands on a baseball, showing me how to throw. And, I remember that September afternoon in 1964 when he and I stayed in the car while Mom went into the grocery store. You see, he and I couldn't miss the call of Harry Caray that day as our Cardinals blanked the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5-0. The Cardinals were in the midst of their improbable National League title run when they overtook Philadelphia, who led the league by 6.5 games with 12 left to play in the season. The Cardinals went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series that fall. And, yes, I smuggled a transistor radio into grade school to listen to my then favorite team - it was my favorite because it was my Dad's favorite.

Like fathers before me and after, I taught my son the game as well. As Seigel wrote, that's part of this bond that baseball seems to have on fathers and sons. "Watching my own son play baseball, or playing with him, gives me the necessary illusion that he will do the same with his child, and that his child will continue with his or her own child, and on and on, the bonds between father and child becoming even stronger, into the same changeless dusk."

My father left us in June 2015. And, I miss him every day. I think of him most frequently now that it's baseball season. I know that if he were still here and I'd call to check in, his first question would be "What are we going to do with our Royals!?"


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A tradition unlike any other...and many tuned out


The Masters is billed by CBS as "a tradition unlike any other." And, those of us who watched literally every hour of the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament were constantly subjected to the languid piano music bed and beauty shots of Augusta National Golf Club as the network promoted the April 8-9 telecast.

This year the final day of the tournament had all of the makings for appointment viewing - many of the best golfers in the world were on the leaderboard, Jordan Spieth was trying to overcome his Sunday meltdown at last year's Masters, and the weather - and golf course scenery - was spectacular for the final day of action. Except...the television ratings declined dramatically.

The final round of The Masters drew a 7.6 overnight rating - a number that's 11% lower than last year and a 21% drop from 2015. It was the lowest television rating for the tournament's final day since 2004.

It also wasn't just a Sunday phenomenon - third round coverage was down 19% year over year and Friday's broadcast had an 18% drop.

So, why the paltry numbers?

- Even though the leaderboard was littered with big names, they were big names to those of us who are avid golfers and golf viewers. Casual fans did not tune in.

- And, casual fans who may have tuned in likely quickly tuned out once it became apparent that neither Jordan Spieth nor Rickie Fowler were going to make a charge on Sunday.

- No other American produced any drama on Sunday other than the hole-in-one on 16 from Matt Kuchar. (By the way, find the clip of Kuchar signing that golf ball and giving it to a young fan along the ropes on 16 green - it's classic, melt-your-heart stuff.)

- For all of the feel good drama about Sergio Garcia's first major victory, he's not the type of golfer who's going to attract huge viewership. Neither is Justin Rose. Dustin Johnson had to scratch and did not play; others like Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and the aforementioned Spieth and Fowler didn't factor into the final day drama.

The Masters also happens to fall on a weekend every spring that sometimes can have iffy weather and sometimes have spectacular weather. There was more of the latter around the U.S. this past weekend meaning that many were out tending their own shrubs and flowers in hopes of re-creating the horticultural magnificence of Augusta National.

CBS and the green coaters at Augusta National can take heart, however - this year's tournament ratings still outdrew the 3.4 rating of the U.S. Open last summer.



Tuesday, April 4, 2017

It was ugly...

If you tuned in for the full 2.5 hours of game action last night, you were treated to two teams trying very hard...but with mixed results.

By now you know the story - poor shooting, a ton of fouls, questionable calls, and a sixth national title for North Carolina. There was also the oddity of seeing Kris Jenkins, last year's hero from Villanova, sitting squarely behind the North Carolina bench, sporting a Tarheel t-shirt as he cheered on his brother, Nate Britt. I wonder how often Roy Williams turned around, saw Jenkins, and thought it was some sort of cruel joke.

But we digress...the question in the afterglow of yet another "One Shining Moment" montage is, "Is this truly the BEST that college basketball has to offer?"

The answers are varied. My hypothesis was that the poor shooting could be attributed to my personal pet peeve - games played in a dome venue with the floor set smack dab in the middle of the stadium floor. Yet, upon further review, I don't know if that suggestion holds water.

I went back and looked at the box scores of the past five national championship games, all played in giant dome stadiums with floor set mid-venue - Georgia Dome, Atlanta (2013); AT&T Stadium, Dallas (2014); Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis (2015); NRG Stadium, Houston (2016); and last night in University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ. Here are the comparisons:

2017/University of Phoenix Stadium: North Carolina = 35.6% FG/14.8% 3PT; Gonzaga = 33.9%FG/42.1% 3PT.

2016/NRG Stadium: Villanova = 58.3% FG/57.1% 3PT; North Carolina = 42.9% FG/64.7% 3PT.

2015/Lucas Oil Stadium: Duke = 47.1% FG/36.4% 3PT; Wisconsin = 41.0% FG/33.3% 3PT.

2014/AT&T Stadium: UConn = 41.5% FG/31.6% 3PT; Kentucky = 39.1% FG/31.3% 3PT.

2013/Georgia Dome: Louisville = 45.9% FG/50.0% 3PT; Michigan = 52.1% FG/44.0% 3PT.

The statistic that does stand out among these five games is the number of free throws attempted.

2013 = 48 total free throws
2014 = 34 total free throws
2015 = 30 total free throws
2016 = 30 total free throws

And, drum roll please...

2017 = 52 total free throws!

Yes, not surprisingly, the stops in action - especially in the second half - had a definite impact on the quality of play. Basketball is very much a game of rhythm and there was absolutely no rhythm last night until late when the refs, thankfully, swallowed their whistles (except for the missed call where North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks had his hand on the end line when he had possession of a loose ball.)

Last night had the spectacle that the NCAA so craves given their infatuation with putting 70,000 at a basketball game. Unfortunately, the quality of officiating let us down and it became a spectacle of a different sort.

Let's face it - the college game, for all of the drama that it can produce, is in need of some changes in order to ensure the quality of the product on the court during the season and into the postseason. Here are some ideas for consideration.

Go from five fouls to six fouls for player disqualification. Naysayers will suggest that this will not clean up play but will only embolden a physical player to be even more so, knowing that he has an "extra" foul to give each game. I disagree. A sixth foul ensures that the best players are on the floor for longer periods of time. One, it removes the likelihood of the "two fouls in the first half and you sit out the entire half" approach of most coaches and, two, it means less spreading of fouls among multiple players on one team during the course of a game.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know - all of the skeptics out there are saying "You're just suggesting this because Josh Jackson got two quick fouls in Kansas' loss to Oregon." And, you'd be partially right. However, let me point to last night's game and the horrid 4th foul call on Zach Collins of Gonzaga. In both cases, wouldn't you rather watch Jackson or Collins on the floor versus seeing them on the bench?

The game is faster, the players are bigger and more athletic, yet college basketball persists in staying with the five foul rule. It's time to move on and implement a sixth foul.

Play four quarters versus two halves. The 10-minute quarters means a TV timeout at the 5:00 minute mark of each quarter with a longer commercial pod at the end of the quarter.

The college women's game has already moved to this approach and its maximum number of stoppages is 15 during a game. Currently, the college men's game can be stopped as many as 17 times during a game - eight media timeouts, the halftime break, and eight other team-managed timeouts.

Adopt the NBA continuation rule. Don't reward a defensive player who has fouled when a player is driving to the basket only to have the foul called as "on the floor." This new/NBA rule would reward the offensive player's skill at getting into the lane and to the rim.

Widen the lane. Adopt the FIBA lane which widens closer to basket and baseline. This will clean up the game even more and also provides more drama on missed free throws.

Don't allow a bailout timeout in the backcourt. If a team is getting trapped in the backcourt and they want to call a timeout to avoid a 10-second call, that's fine. But, don't give them a fresh 10 seconds once they inbound the ball again. In other words, a team has 10 seconds - cumulative time - to get across midcourt.

Get rid of the possession arrow. I know, I know - this one is tough because it slows down the game and requires a jump ball. And, I've heard suggestions that this should only happen in the final three minutes of the game. But, doesn't that suggest that the great defensive stand that ended up in a held ball during the first half has some sort of secondary importance? This one may not be do-able...but it needs to be considered.

Many of the above suggestions are not new - others have been lobbying for similar changes. And, there are also a couple of common suggestions that aren't on this list that I'd like to address:

Three point line. Do NOT move the line back to the NBA length. However, DO make the line equal to international rules of play - in FIBA and WNBA games, the three point line is 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches from the basket on the arc part and 21 feet, 8 inches on the straight parts on the side; in the current college game, the three point line and arc is 20 feet 9 inches from the basket. This simple adjustment will help U.S. players ready themselves for the international game and will also provide even a bit more spreading of the floor. And, it leaves in place the great equalizer - teams who have good shooters from outside who can thus spread the floor and create mismatches.

Advancing the ball. For the life of me, I cannot understand the fascination with the NBA rule of a late game timeout that rewards that team with the ball at half court. Why!? Advancing the ball is a key part of the game and thus I have no understanding as to why a team should be rewarded with approximately 45 feet of court by simply calling a timeout.

There you have it - six suggested rules changes, a minor revision on the three point line, and a "please don't do it" request. Oh, and one more thing - put the Final Four back into the prior floor configuration in domes and not in the middle of the stadium!

Only seven months until we tip it off again...




Monday, April 3, 2017

It's Masters week...and I miss Arnie already

In honor of Arnold Palmer - one of the greatest golfers ever and a hero to many.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8COnE1S7zo

The Masters won't feel the same without him.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Downsize the Final Four, please

The NCAA Tournament Final Four was played in a dome for the first time in 1971 at the Houston Astrodome. And, in 1982 the event returned to a dome (the New Orleans Superdome) and has been in a dome ever since 1997.

Jason Gay, in today's Wall Street Journal, urged the NCAA to go back to an arena setting for these final three games versus dome venues. His rationale is that basketball is meant to be played in an arena - an intimate setting designed for the game versus a stadium designed for Monster Truck pulls.

While I get Gay's point, the economics and logistics of trying to configure an arena for fans, media, sponsors, coaches (the coaches association convention takes place during Final Four weekend) and the general public is impossible given the demand for tickets. You're not going to put that genie back into the bottle. What needs to change isn't the dome locations but rather the configuration of how the dome is used for the Final Four.

The 2009 Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit was the first where the floor was placed in the middle of the stadium, thus providing additional seating. In the process, the number of quality seats declined dramatically and the number of restricted view seats increased even more dramatically.

The solution is to return to the prior dome configuration where the court was situated at one end of the stadium floor and temporary bleachers supplemented the natural arena seating on the other three sides of the playing surface. This approach, which was in place from 1997-2008, required a minimum of 40,000 seats, based upon the NCAA's venue selection criteria at the time. Last year's attendance of 73,340 for the national championship game in NRG Stadium, Houston, means that the NCAA would lose about 40% or so of the seats that it could sell if returning to that configuration.

The downside of this downsizing is that there is obvious demand for tickets and the experience of being "in the building." The upside is that the fan and student-athlete (you see what I did there) experience would more than make up for the lost revenue - those who do have tickets would be more likely to have good sight lines; the players on the floor would have a less cavernous space in which to suddenly adjust with their shots.

It's a conundrum that is a good one to have if you're the NCAA. Having experienced both the smaller set-up in a dome and the larger configuration, there is no comparison as to my preference - my "good" seats as defined by the NCAA in 2012 in New Orleans were horrid in comparison to my same section in 2008 in San Antonio. And, the spectacle would still be a spectacle on TV.

Let's downsize, shall we?