Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ratings Don't Need Your Validation

While the NHL was off last Saturday night, the events of that evening had to make Gary Bettman and a few NBC executives shudder. Golden State beat back Oklahoma City to force a Game 7 that wouldn't just go against their Stanley Cup Final Game 1 broadcast on NBC, it took out most of a captive Bay Area audience that would now watch the Warriors instead of the Sharks. And the early numbers are not promising: hockey scored a 2.8 rating on NBC (not terrible by any stretch, only series with the Blackhawks did better), but Thunder/Warriors did 11.2 on TNT, which is coincidentally the highest ever NBA rating on cable.

Hockey fans, as defensive as any group of fans this side of soccer, are naturally scrambling to find explanations for this. From talking about NBC's total ownership of hockey coverage in the US to demographics and everywhere in-between, hockey fans are trying to ascertain why such a massive disparity exists between two sports that were once about dead equal in popularity. Something this stark only elucidates a gap that has been well known, but hasn't really been able to be seen in this clear detail.

Part of this difference has to do with the way the sport is marketed in this country. The focus is put on rivalries, which isn't a bad decision because the NHL is filled with great rivalries. But often times those rivalries are focused on to a point of over-exposure, even if those games and series are worth the wait. Adam Silver's NBA on the other hand doesn't need teams or markets in the Finals, because his league only needs certain players in the big show to succeed. A decade ago, Golden State and Cleveland were both basketball wastelands, but thanks to clever marketing and jaw-dropping performances, not anymore. There would be panic in some circles if Memphis and Toronto played in the NBA Finals, but once a new force builds in the league, they quickly find a way to market it to the public and make sure they find something to latch onto in case they get big.

Gary Bettman's NHL has hitched their wagon so tightly to rivalries and certain teams (also by extension, certain markets), that if those markets are gone, so too go the ratings. While the early and mid-2000's were a wasteland of small-market American teams against smaller market Canadian teams, or series like New Jersey-Anaheim, the ratings on ABC were better on average than they are now on NBC. During the dead-puck era, and when the Finals were almost exclusively blowouts, FOX did better, though not by much. The best NBC average for the Final is 3.3 when the Blackhawks played the Bruins in 2013. ABC's worst since they picked up the Finals in 2003 was a 6.2 in 2007. The NHL has always been playing catch-up, and will continue to do so.

Hockey's relative struggles in the US can also be attributed to demographics, and of course the sheer ease with which anyone can play basketball that's not even close to present in hockey, but that doesn't translate entirely to TV ratings. While this Stanley Cup Final is full of stars on both sides, the series is still pushed as Sharks-Penguins, not Thornton-Crosby, etc. Golden State-Cleveland is still that, but it's more Steph-Lebron, and there you have a winner. The NHL's small cadre of superstars all exist in major markets, and beyond that it seems like the stars on the other teams across the league are left in the cold. If the Raptors made the NBA Finals, NBA executives wouldn't be hugely pleased, but they'd still find a way to market DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to make up for it.

But the NHL's biggest problem is keeping fans of teams who aren't in the Final (and the rest of the playoffs) to stick with it after their team is eliminated. Thunder fans, though by in large probably angry with basketball, will still watch Cavs-Dubs, as will fans in New York, LA, Boston, etc. NHL teams have such tribal fanbases that it has become accepted that some fans like their team well beyond like the league and the sport of hockey. Sharks-Penguins is a hockey purist's dream Stanley Cup Final, with storylines everywhere, fast paced up and down play and engrossing action from start to finish, but yet it seems that many in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, New York, etc. are missing out. How does the NHL fix this problem? It's a riddle they've yet to come close to solving. Once they crack it, maybe then the NHL's ratings will finally show some upward growth.

While there is concern in the corridors of the NHL's New York offices about the ratings dilemma, they're certainly not complaining about the money they're making. Safe to say, the NHL has never made a financial windfall like they're currently stuffing into their coffers, indifferent TV ratings aside. Hockey as a sport has always been outstripped in popularity by baseball, basketball and football, and some of that stems from the days when it was basically impossible to watch the Stanley Cup Final on TV. But the NHL has yet to capitalize on the momentum it has seen from big market teams becoming dominant of late and using that to market not only the markets, but the stars everywhere else too. It's only upward momentum of late was the John Scott controversy they created themselves and tried desperately to kaibosh not knowing what they had.

Maybe NBC and NBCSN's ratings will go up as Sharks-Penguins continue because of the teams involved and the style of play, but everyone has a feeling as to what the ceiling is going to be. No amount of griping from hockey's die-hards is going to change what already was inevitable.

In other words, if you want casual fans to watch, pray for overtime and a long series, which has been the formula for the Stanley Cup Final forever.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ads on Jerseys! Cue Moral Outrage!

Now that the Philadelphia 76ers have officially become the first "Big Four" American sports team to have an ad on their jersey, the fears of so many sports fans have come home to roost. "Jerseys are sacred, and shouldn't be defiled by sponsorships", they cry. "Ads are everywhere else around us, why should they be on jerseys?" they ask. Not only was this coming for years, especially under the stewardship of the more progressive Adam Silver, ads on jerseys aren't as sacrilegious as everyone might have expected.

First, let's take a look at the new StubHub patch adorned on the Sixers classic look:
The patch is as small as advertised, and actually blends in quite nicely with the color scheme of the jersey. Unlike with soccer kits, where the sponsor is the most noticeable logo, on these jerseys they are an accessory, adornment to what you actually want to see, which is the team name and number. After long enough, most fans will either accept that the patch is there, or not even consciously notice the ad because it's become part of the uniform.

StubHub is paying the Sixers $5 million per season for this ad patch, which is quite a lot of money for an incredibly small rectangle most fans won't notice unless the broadcasts do a close-up on any given player. $5 million is not an insignificant amount of money, even in an NBA where the salary cap is going to explode because of an influx of TV revenue. While the ad money will probably help the bottom line look a bit nicer, this new money could easily be used to spend more on players and coaches, lower ticket and concession prices and spend on arena upgrades without fleecing taxpayers for it.

There are complains that some teams will be able to goose even more money out of sponsors for this patch because certain teams are bigger names than other. The Lakers will be able to charge more for an ad than say the Hornets, for example, and that's not surprising. That's been the case in soccer for years, but unlike in soccer, where teams sell almost everything individually, in the NBA, most revenue is still collected and pooled together and distributed evenly, which combined with the soft cap, is supposed to level the playing field. Ad revenue from a jersey patch isn't going to put the Lakers or Knicks over the top because they already are swimming Scrooge McDuck style in a vat of gold, where the ad revenue could make a significant difference for a team like Indiana, Milwaukee or Utah.

American sports were always outliers when it came to ads on jerseys, as the rest of the world certainly lapped our big four in that regard. It was always a race against time as to when Pandora's Box would have to be opened, because even with the "sanctity of the jersey", money always talks. The concept angers more people than how the ads have actually been executed, especially since future leagues will go the NBA's route with the patch rather than the full adornment common in soccer because in business, copycats rule all.

So the day has finally come when ads have spoiled the protected surface of the American sports jersey. Society is ruined and the sports-industrial complex in this country is crumbling beneath our feet. Or, by December of 2017, no one will even notice the ads and many will wonder why it took so long for this "dipping a toe in the pool" to come around in the first place.

Change is inevitable, and with the amount of changes that come to sports uniforms anyway, why shouldn't we be surprised that ads come with it? Any way to make money is a good way to make money and stay ahead.

If the abject terror that are the Philadelphia 76ers see it, why shouldn't everyone else?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Watch a non-Hockey fan Discover the game during a Game 7

The post you're about to read is different than what you'll usually see on this site. Normally, I like to traffic in posts where we can deep dive into topics and analyze them with a more critical set of eyes to try to answer pressing questions. This is not one of those posts, but is to me at least, one of the most amazing pieces I'll ever write.

Last night, the hockey world was subsumed by Blackhawks/Blues Game 7, as it should have been. Playoff hockey is at its best when it's played as that game was. The NHL is desperate to attract new audiences to watch these games because what league/business isn't eager and clamoring to do so? As "Hockey Twitter" found out last night, someone new was watching.

(Note that there is some language in these tweets that I wouldn't normally include here, but it's not like Twitter gives me the option to edit these things)
A black sports fan from St. Louis discovered hockey in the middle of a Game 7. The NHL has struggled to bring in black audiences despite P.K Subban being amazing at everything and Don Waddell's feeble attempts to have most of the NHL's black players play on the Thrashers in their meek final days in Atlanta. Tony's timeline went viral in the best possible way as Game 7 worked to its apex.
Isn't that the way we all learned about hockey, through the Mighty Ducks? I can't wait until he finds out there was a team in the NHL named after that movie, and they play in a Game 7 tomorrow night! For learning on the fly though, he's done quite a decent job. Questionable language and racial connotations aside, Tony is letting the light of hockey into his life and having an epiphany before the internet's twitchy eyes, and it is wonderful in every way. He even found a way to endear himself to "Hockey Twitter" without even knowing it. Glean what you will from that on your own. So after the Blues won, fittingly, after giving this man the night of his life, Tony has been hooked. Although, someone does need to tell him about the whole fighting dying off thing. "Hockey Twitter" is normally not the most accepting and welcoming place in the world. Hardcore hockey fans are very protective of the game from the outside sports world, which means casual fans, general sports talk shows (and sadly women) are often left on the outside and alienated when they try to enter this world. Tony however, after letting the light of hockey into his life, wasn't just accepted, he was embraced and beloved by almost all hockey fans, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And now that the Rams have bolted for Los Angeles, Tony needs something to fill the void. The Blues will fill that void. Not only does everyone get to watch him live-tweet more playoff games down the stretch, but he's been accepted into a family that isn't usually willing to expand its embrace. It was a very good night for hockey and hockey fans, and hopefully Gary Bettman was looking at this whole phenomenon thinking about ways of capitalizing on it. Or, on second thought, maybe we should just let Twitter and Reddit deal with it. Bettman might not "get it".

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Moralizing About Fans

By now, the immediate outrage of what happened at Game 3 between the Caps and Flyers last night has probably subsided. What started with a dangerous and frankly disgusting hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on Dmitry Orlov devolved into Flyers fans throwing the light up bracelets attached to the seats at Wells Fargo Center to be used for the Ed Snider tribute onto the ice. Philadelphia sports fans are not know for their subtlety, or grace in defeat or anger, but last night felt like a new low. But is that because many of us at large spend so much time moralizing fandom and the conduct of fans, particularly in Philadelphia?

It's no secret that I grew up outside of Philadelphia obviously in a sea of Philly sports fans when I myself loathed most all Philly teams. When my elementary school held a pep rally for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX (I was in fifth grade), I wore my Byron Leftwich Jaguars jersey to school that day in protest (and was forced to go to the pep rally anyway even though I made it obvious I had no interest), and had beer dumped on me at a Phillies game when I wore a Mets shirt, so maybe my views here are slanted in one direction. Or maybe, after dealing with the Philadelphia sports scene ever since I started following sports, maybe my experiences can shed more light on the situation. The real answer here is: fans and media love to moralize fandom, particularly for dissident groups and vocal groups of fans outside their own hemisphere.

What happened last night was obviously heinous on the part of the Flyers fans who threw bracelets at Dmitry Orlov on the bench, and after that. Lou Nolan even said in essence, "what the hell are you people doing?" to the fans who wouldn't admit their team was outclassed. Having all of this boil over on the night the team honors Ed Snider punctuates the situation even more. The outrage that followed is not surprising, because this is another incident to throw on the pile of incidents that defines Philadelphia sports fandom which includes throwing D-Cell batteries at J.D Drew, snowballs at Santa, a courtroom inside the Vet, fighting Tie Domi in the penalty box, etc. One of the most popular Philly sports blogs is called "The 700 level", after the cheap seats at the Vet, so Philly fans know their history. But last night felt like the end of the rope for the town and its fans, even from those who accept this kind of behavior because "it's Philly". Even Ryan White showed complicity in "endorsing" what the few Flyers fans did at the end of Game 3. But moralizing fandom and condemning other groups of fans is nothing new, and with the internet the moral outrage is louder than ever.

Every group of fans has its bad seeds, though it seems Philly's bad seeds sprout bigger and uglier flowers. One of Twitter's favorite running jokes is about how St. Louis Cardinal fans proclaim themselves to be "the best in baseball", and then jump on them when some do stupid and insidious nonsense like calling now Cubs OF Jason Heyward the N-word. That rightfully deserves outrage, but not all Cardinals fans do that, just as not all Flyers fans would throw light-up bracelets at injured players from the opposing team. Hindsight is always 20/20, so saying that of course the Flyers marketing staff should have seen what occurred coming but they aren't cynical enough to actually believe anyone would do it, particularly on Ed Snider night. The media and other vocal fans can use that lens freely, while others can't. Whether it's #NotAllFlyersFans or #ItsJustBandwagoners, you could replace Flyers fans with any other group of fans across the world and name something stupid they've done. In Italy, fans of one soccer team threw flares at the head of the opposing goalie, and that's somehow common. It wasn't actually Canucks fans who incited the riots after losing Game 7 in 2011 to the Bruins, it was "anarchists in Canucks jerseys who aren't really fans". The emperor continues to find new clothes to wear, but still gets stoned every time.

Immediacy begets sweeping generalizations, not just in sports but everywhere. One of my tenets of sports fandom, like fandom of bands, actors, etc., is that it's inherently irrational. No rational human being would stake happiness and well being to the performance of a team playing a child's game for insane amounts of money that we the fans have no control over. It's the Roman Gladitorial Arena for the modern generation. What fans will "endorse", or let slide in the name of their team, will often times be slammed in all other instances because fandom is irrational. While what Flyers fans, Cardinals fans, etc. did is disgusting, sweeping generalizations of an entire group of people based on the actions of a few is what in other terms would be called "racism" or "sexism" or any of a number of other synonyms. Why in a sports context is this acceptable?

My sentiments of distrust and anger towards Philly sports teams and their fans has cooled as I have grown older, which means my own reaction to last night is vastly different than it would have been if I was younger. Maybe that misplaced anger and those frayed nerves have shifted to other groups of fans, but I still regret what I used to do and how I used to color an entire group of people wrongly because of the actions of a few lone wolves. There are plenty of Philly fans who would have thrown bracelets onto the ice that weren't at Wells Fargo Center last night, and plenty of fans at the rink who walked out in despair because of what they witnessed. What we shouldn't do is moralize and condemn an entire group of people because of this, because fandom comes in all different shapes, sizes and forms and some people take it too far.

While it may be easy to judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a few, we need to attempt to act rationally to prevent that. It's no doubt difficult, just like it is for those who wore the same Ed Snider shirts as those who threw solid objects at an injured player to accept what they've seen. Fandom isn't rational, and trying to rationalize irrationality only bring about more irrationality.

Such is sports, such is fandom.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Time for the predictions that are sure to backfire, and every year they always seem to. Difference is this year my team is in it somehow. Rare is the time when the Florida Panthers are in the playoffs and I attempt to be unbiased in my picks. So let's see how 2016 goes...

Eastern Conference:

FLA over NYI in 6
TB over DET in 6
PIT over NYR in 5
WSH over PHI in 7

TB over FLA in 6 (I assume Stamkos and Stralman magically get healthy by the time this series comes around)
PIT over WSH in 7

Conference Finals:
PIT over TB in 6

Western Conference:

DAL over MIN in 4
CHI over STL in 6
LA over SJ in 6
ANA over NSH in 6

DAL over CHI in 6
LA over ANA in 6

Conference Finals:
LA over DAL in 5

2016 Stanley Cup Finals: Penguins over Kings in 6

Conn Smythe Winner: Sidney Crosby

Monday, April 11, 2016

2015-16 NHL Season Predictions in Review

I love when I get to look back at predictions I made six months ago and laugh at them, in most cases. God I was stupid and naive then, how could I have ever seen that happening? Was I mad? On magic mushrooms? Taking the day off? That's usually how it goes on posts like these.

Except this year, with my NHL predictions, most of them turned out to be broadly right. Does that mean I'm a genius? Hardly, as anyone who looked at my NCAA Tournament picks and NFL season predictions from last year will tell you. But at least my broken ego will be pieced together with chewed up gum and spit for these predictions, as my playoff ones percolate in my brain. Here comes the review:

My Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: WSH, PIT, NYR, NYI, TB, MTL, DET, FLA
Actual Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: WSH, PIT, NYR, NYI, FLA, TB, DET, PHI

One off. I even got the exact order of the Metro's Top 4 right, for what little consolation that brings. Most people suspected Philly wouldn't quite be ready for the playoffs this year, but thanks to the Habs falling off a cliff, there was an opening for a team like Philadelphia to sneak in. I won't take a victory lap for thinking the Panthers were postseason bound since they're my team, but it is nice to know that I could at least see the forest through the trees.

My Western Conference Playoff Teams: STL, DAL, CHI, NSH, ANA, SJ, LA, CGY
Actual Western Conference Playoff Teams: DAL, STL, CHI, MIN, ANA, LA, SJ, NSH

Seven of eight again, with only the Wild slightly undervalued. I expected the Flames to regress some, but not as much as they eventually did. The bounce back for LA and San Jose came as expected, and the Dallas Stars rose to the top of the West with their Texas firepower.

Now for the awards...

President's Trophy: Anaheim. Winner: Washington. The Ducks slow start doomed them here, but they still finished with the Pacific Division crown anyway. Amazing season in Anaheim.

Hart: Steven Stamkos. Will he win it? Doubtful. Probably going to be Alex Ovechkin for another 50 goal triumph, but Patrick Kane will be there too.

Calder: Connor McDavid. Will he win it? Probably not, thanks to Artemi Panarin, though he will be top three. He has been the most impressive rookie in his time on ice, though it was curtailed by a terrible injury.

Vezina: Braden Holtby. Will he win it? You bet. He tied Marty Brodeur's single-season wins record on the best team in hockey, there's not even a question, even though Roberto Luongo and Ben Bishop have a case.

Norris: P.K Subban. Will he win it? Nope. Going to be Drew Doughty because he doesn't have one over Erik Karlsson who should win it with his amazing offensive season on a mediocre team.

Selke: Anze Kopitar. Will he win it? Probably.

Jack Adams: Lindy Ruff. Will he win it? Nope, despite the fact that his team had a great season. Going to be Mike Sullivan for saving the Penguins from the brink, Gerard Gallant for taking a team that was decent last year and turning them into a division winner, or Bruce Boudreau for the amazing save of the Ducks he did.

So that's the predictions gone over. Let's get to the playoffs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Thoughts on Crying Jordan and the Cultural Bandwagon

Anyone on the internet last night after the end of the National Championship Game between Villanova and North Carolina knew what was coming after Kris Jenkins sunk one of the most famous shots in NCAA Tournament history. After the palpable shock and awe passed, the logical next step was clear... Crying Jordan. The meme that has a lifespan all to its own; a meme that seems as ever-present as death and taxes. Naturally, since the internet was awash with new interpretations of an old classic, there was quite a bit of blowback. Aren't all bizarre cultural phenomenon met with the same reaction? 

The internet has a way of responding to those who don't agree with its chosen consensus though, and that is exemplified in the dissidents to the meme becoming the meme itself. That's a much too fancy way of saying "don't set your picture as your Twitter avatar and then hate on Crying Jordan, because you know what's next". What the puff pieces about Crying MJ don't realize, and probably will never understand, is that the lifespan of this joke and cultural fad sustains itself on precisely that kind of hate and misunderstanding. 

Whether or not this is relevant to the discussion, I'll say it anyway: I don't find the meme funny anymore. I think it jumped the shark long ago. But, the internet doesn't really care for dissenting opinions. And I don't hate Crying MJ's preeminence after major events as the communal way of laughing at the loser, even if the joke itself is tired. Cultural phenomenon like this one thrive and survive in this pool of frustration. 

In 2000, "Who Let the Dogs Out" became the most ubiquitous song of the year, even becoming a theme song for the 2000 New York Mets. I love that team, but absolutely loathe the song. Most Americans loathed the song, but that didn't matter because during that year you still heard it everywhere you went, no matter whether you thought your own personal hate could put a dent in the barrage. Remember "Gangnam Style"? I know that's an episode in pop culture most people are trying to scrub from their memory with heavy duty bleach, but once again, whether you hated that song/internet meme or not, it didn't matter, because there were more people who wanted to ride the coattails of a runaway bandwagon. Crying Jordan, while its lifespan is longer than those two examples, isn't much different at all.

Whether Crying Jordan is now part of an internet vernacular, as Robert Silverman of Vocativ argues, feels besides the point. Crying MJ expresses a sentiment that's as old as the human experience itself: winners love laughing at losers. That will never change, as this is just a modern manifestation of that. Scholarly interpretations of memes also completely miss the point, too, not in their point, but in their method. It doesn't even really matter that making a Crying MJ meme doesn't actually take much thought or effort either. In a moment of intense emotional catharsis, either way, seeing something like that meme evokes a visceral reaction that makes even the stony-hearted smirk and chuckle, because what else can you do? We're human. Crying MJ is crude in such a basic way, but is no different than any other cultural appropriation of "laughing at the loser" that is such an indelible part of the human experience.

Crying out against Crying Jordan is worthless, because the meme itself is a cycle within a cycle. One day, it will be replaced by another meme performing the same cultural duty, and history will look on Crying Jordan with the same slanted gaze we look at other cultural phenomenon that seemed ubiquitous for a time then wilted away and now seem horribly dated. Complaining about disco in the 70's seemed worthless for a time, until one day disco wasn't worth hating on anymore. That day will come for Crying Jordan, and it may be soon. 

But remember, the cultural bandwagon and the tendency to hitch on to that trailer as it zooms past you is nothing new. Crying MJ is just another manifestation of that aspect of the human experience.

So the next time someone writes a "think piece" about how they are mad because the greatest basketball player of all time has been reduced to a meme used to laugh at losers, remember that human culture does this all the time, this is just another phase. 

It ain't worth getting Crying MJ'ed over.