Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anti-Tank Sportsfare

        Tanking is still the topic du jour in the hockey world? Not the remarkable season the Calgary Flames have been having, not the LA Kings being in true danger of missing the playoffs, not the Hart candidacy of Devan Dubnyk, tanking? Again? Now, the discussion is how to eliminate blatant tanking from occurring ever again. The answer is complicated yet simple at the same time: to stop tanking the concept of an entry draft has to be eliminated. And good luck with that. 

      There are many different ideas of how to "fix" the lottery to prevent tanking. Sean McIndoe, better known as Down Goes Brown, gives several ideas that are worth considering. But, all of them in the end will be futile. No matter how the lottery is weighted to prevent tanking, whether the lottery is scrapped entirely, or whether the lottery is handed over to a wheel that decides the 30 year order of number 1 overall picks, the root of tanking is the concept of the entry draft altogether, and unless that goes, the possibility of tanking stays. 

     However fascinating the idea of "the Wheel" might be, it certainly would remove tanking from the equation, but equally gone is parity, and the American sports league loves it some parity. It's so random... too random in fact, and could lead a Stanley Cup Champion to get Connor McDavid when the next year the basement dweller gets Alexander Daigle part deux. Or maybe another great team gets Patrik Stefan part deux, but the leagues dregs would still not get a legitimate chance to improve. The bad teams may well stay bad and the good teams could easily load up and stay that way even with a salary cap, with only luck pushing the pendulum back and forth. And kiss parity goodbye too. 

Side Note: If there is ever a wheel to decide the next 30 years of the draft, I'd like Pat Sajak to host and when the 30th pick is spun the 'Bankrupt' slide whistle to play. Vanna, can we pick 4th in 2018?

    The "Gold Plan", which would weight the draft order based on how many points you earn after you are officially eliminated from the playoffs, is an intriguing idea in its own right, but as McIndoe points out, "Gold's idea wouldn't eliminate tanking, but rather shift it earlier in the season." Sure it would make games like the recent Coyotes/Sabres "tussles" interesting, but that plan too would incentivize bad teams at the beginning of the year to be as bad as possible and then try to win when it wouldn't matter (for the playoffs that is). The more opportunities to get points post elimination, the better off you'd be. It still wouldn't fix the problem of tanking, it would just slide it to October instead of March. The Sabres would still be as terrible as they have been this season. 

   No matter how many "groundbreaking" presentations the internet infatuates itself with every time the tanking discussion is brought up, there is only way to eliminate the practice for good: Eliminate the draft. Most sports leagues around the world don't have a draft, in fact in the EU it's illegal. Imagine the scramble for the would be draft-eligible players on the day they become free agents, it would be a sight to behold. The NHL could still impose entry-level contracts on these players to mitigate the amount of money teams could throw at them, but then again, if you were Connor McDavid in this situation this season, would you go to Buffalo? Arizona? Edmonton? Probably not. Even with monetary limits, the rich would get richer, and that flies in the face of parity: what every American sports league strives for. 

   Anything that diminishes parity would never make it pass the concept stage at a Board of Governors meeting, and small market teams have every reason to be completely against the idea of the draft going away. The NHL had to be dragged by their fingernails to making slight lottery tweaks, so World War III might break out if someone even thinks about eliminating the draft. If sports teams don't make money (and they don't), then why get in to tread water knowing your team never has a chance to get the big fish in the pond that could alter your franchise's history for good? 

   But the main issue with tanking isn't the draft, or incentivizing losing. It's Connor McDavid. McDavid and Jack Eichel are franchise altering players that come around once in a generation. Nobody was talking about tanking for Taylor Hall, or Nail Yakupov, or even any of the celebrated 2003 draft class. No one will talk about tanking (unless its in jest) for Auston Matthews next season, or whoever is the gleaming star in 2020 (unless he's Connor McDavid light). Very few times does anyone know whether a player is a surefire superstar, and this is one of them. Next year? 

   Tanking is a problem that comes and goes when the almost certain superstars come and go. No matter what anyone wants to do the draft, tanking will not go away unless the draft goes away, and there's a better chance of it snowing in hell tomorrow than that ever crossing the mind of Gary Bettman, or Adam Silver, or anyone else. 

   Whether Joe Fan wants parity or the reincarnation of the Canadiens dynasty of the 50's, it doesn't matter. The leagues want parity, and as long as they do, the possibility of tanking to get the next superstar stays. Whether there are options or not is besides the point. To eliminate tanking the fundamental essence of American sports culture would have to change.

   To those who loathe European super soccer clubs for splashing oil bucks like sugar high kids on the Nickelodeon Super-Toy Run because they can and making league play almost irrelevant: The draft is here to prevent that. 

   Unless you want the rich to get richer, let the bad teams decide their own fate if they want to stay bad in order to get a chance at the next Sidney Crosby. It's their problem, not the league's. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Garbage Time"... I work for Dan Snyder's In-House Team "Network".

   Katie Nolan in her new show, "Garbage Time" has brought up an issue in sports media that barely gets touched on, let alone mentioned as one of the biggest challenges facing media today. I'm not talking about "being in bed with Chris Berman" (although that would be a serious problem), it's the new phenomenon of team-controlled media and relationships like that of the NFL and ESPN. Katie Nolan started the conversation, and now I will continue and further it.

   As an aspiring journalist and broadcaster, jobs are incredibly difficult to come by. Therefore, if I was offered a job to work for the Washington NFL Team's in-house productions or write for the team website, it would be a fantastic opportunity for me. However, if anyone looked at my website, they'd see I'm not totally in favor of that team name. Would that automatically exclude me from consideration because of my own personal biases? What if I wrote for NHL.com and wanted to write about how the Las Vegas ticket drive is a risky business decision... that would get shot down instantly. League of Denial was going to be a fantastically produced documentary by ESPN and HBO on the NFL's concussion crisis, and yet mysteriously (or not so mysteriously before it aired), ESPN dropped out. And the list goes on and on.

   The dilemma for journalists/broadcasters/media personalities is how to maintain impartiality to those we cover while also knowing the people that sign our paychecks often have vested interests in those same people we are covering. Sometimes cracks in the facade appear, such as with Adam Schefter's visual frustration at how the NFL was treating the Ray Rice situation, but for as many Keith Olbermann's and Sarah Spain's there were just as many who vouched for the league whose checks were signed by the same people. The relationship between the covered and the coverers is almost becoming incestuous.

   Those bringing us the news are also those often making the news, simply because of the vertical and horizontal integration in media empires like NBC, FOX, ESPN, and even places like Bleacher Report who are now owned by Turner. Making matters "worse", so to speak, is now team's are producing their own content with their own editorial oversight and bypassing the middle man, the few impartial news sources left. Conflict of interests are now commonplace, which mean I could easily regret this piece when someone sends me a LinkedIn request.

   So whether you're applying for a job at Monumental Network, the online production arm of Ted Leonis, or wanting to become the next Adam Schefter, maintaining your journalistic integrity and impartiality might have to be thrown out for the sight of a paycheck because there simply aren't that many available anymore. It's a question the next generation of journalists, reporters and broadcasters have to answer, and there is no clear answer in sight.

   Are we journalists in the truest sense; watchdogs of those we cover to keep them in line, or entertainers, those who perform for the public's pleasure and are nothing more than marketable products off a production line? Remember, everyone needs a good "brand".

   I've read entertainment "journalism"... and when I did TMZ became the biggest news breaker for sports news because they don't have any vested interests in them. I nearly had to check myself into a hospital for Whiplash.

Friday, March 20, 2015

He Didn't Go Out to Change the Game

    If you're not a hockey fan, or even a day-in, day-out hockey fan, the trending topic "Matthew Wuest" from twitter last night might have been slightly confusing. Wuest, who sadly passed away due to colon cancer, was the owner/founder/keeper of "CapGeek", a website that changed hockey forever.
   In the world of the salary cap, it became almost impossible for fans to track how close their team was to the cap, or how it was even allocated. Very few teams publicly disclosed salary information in their press releases, not understanding the value it has for the fans. CapGeek changed that. Not only did the site show how close (or far) a team was from the year's salary cap, but it did so in the most user-friendly way possible. And it went beyond even this... it possessed buyout calculators and allowed any fan to be the GM for their team and try out a number of wholly implausible scenarios and see how the numbers worked out. The NHL and the NHLPA would announce the salary cap limit, and NHL insiders would tell fans the length and AAV of a contract, but once the intricacies of the CBA came into play, so few could grasp the full picture. CapGeek did that, and changed the way hockey fans viewed the game.

   In an uncapped world, it was a matter of team budgets and what owners would be willing to spend to get their teams to the top. The cap brought in a level playing field for everyone, and fans wanted to see how GM's worked the cap and built the best team possible in those circumstances. As a consequence, fans then didn't just view player acquisition and movement from a purely hockey sense, now they viewed it also from a financial sense. Allocating $5.5 million in salary cap dollars for Dave Bolland for the next 6 seasons would have meant little without CapGeek, and the criticism Bolland has received for his production would also not be nearly as fierce if it wasn't for CapGeek.

   CapGeek made GM's responsible for the messes they made not only in the eyes of their owners, but now in the eyes of the fans too. They had the same picture that so many inside the game had possessed since the salary cap was instituted, but a fans perspective now put even more public pressure on GM's and players. The financials of the game became almost as important as the game on the ice.

   Wuest was a quiet and private man who, based on media accounts of him, was intensely proud of his creation, and had every reason to be. He didn't just earn the respect of all hockey fans and the media, but people inside the game trusted him not to editorialize this treasure trove of information he now possessed. And because of that, every bit of information on the site was correct, down to the smallest details such as the strength of a no-trade or no-movement clause. In a world where media and fans are tuned into opinions and "hot takes" more than ever, CapGeek managed to present the information to the fans and said "do with it what you will" and nothing more. The ease of use and the validation Wuest's site received from media, fans and hockey folk alike made it so revolutionary.

   Salary cap's are such an ingrained part of American sports now, that understanding them and their nuances is critical to fandom. The NBA's salary cap is a minefield of exceptions, contract limits and dead money while the NFL's is so vast and ungainly that the NFLPA has to release cap totals just to make sense of it all. And let's not even get started on the MLS salary cap, which fans know exist but that's about it (much like the NSA). So as CapGeek changed the way fans viewed hockey, it also changed the way fans viewed the salary cap. Wuest was even contemplating a CapGeek version for the NFL. No site that tries to track the salary caps of the NBA or NFL will even come close to being as user-friendly and game changing as CapGeek was.

   When Gary Bettman said recently that there was little to no public interest in an NHL O&O version of CapGeek, the response was almost unanimously, "what?" There are probably forces behind Bettman that made him make that statement, but coming in the clear influence of CapGeek, it made next to no sense. There is a hole in the NHL marketplace that CapGeek had and has not yet been filled. Whoever does will be viewed by so many as a hero. When ExtraSkater went offline last summer, many websites and people helped fill the void, but nothing has come up since CapGeek went offline due to Wuest's health problems in January.

   RIP Matthew Wuest. Sometimes the biggest revolutions come about out of nowhere. CapGeek certainly changed the game.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What would "perfect" mean?

       College basketball is not as popular as it once was. Even though March Madness still captivates a nation because it's the only legalized sports gambling this country has outside of Nevada, the regular season maybe aside from a Carolina-Duke game feels mainly meaningless. Except when a team is running the table like Kentucky did. They're 34-0, and a pretty safe bet to go 40-0 and win the National Championship. In the age of one and done and transiency, what would a perfect season mean for the sport? 

      Wichita State went undefeated until they were bounced by Kentucky in the third (second) round of the tournament last year, and almost no one thought they could actually win the national championship. The fact that Kentucky was their 8 seed proved that on Selection Sunday. This Kentucky team feels different. Yes, they've been scared by Ole Miss, Texas A&M and LSU but that means little since they throttled teams like Kansas, UCLA, Texas, Louisville and many others. But have they really been tested the way a Duke, Villanova, or even Wisconsin has been tested yet? That feels irrelevant, because the Wildcats are that good. They've made good teams look ordinary, and ordinary teams look like your local Y team. 
    Because of that, picking them to win the National Title seems like a mere formality. And when the subject of 40-0 and an undefeated season is brought, its importance feels lessened. When Indiana did the same trick in 1976 (with an also undefeated Rutgers reaching the Final 4), that team became one of the all time greats. Many of the other legendary teams of tournaments past such as the early 90's UNLV teams, John Wooden's UCLA dynasty, the 1992 Duke team of Hurley, Laettner and others all have a place on the pedestal that seemingly this Kentucky team will be denied if they go 40-0. Some might say its not even the best Kentucky team of all time. But for what it would signify, 40-0 would mean something entirely different today than it meant in 1972, 1974, or even last year.

   With the NCAA bandying about a proposal to make freshman ineligible for football and men's basketball again (mainly to stop the one-and-done players that have made this Kentucky team so dominant), a super team of would-be NBA players like Kentucky's current iteration would be impossible. Yes, it would probably mean college basketball as a whole is a more level playing field, and that top teams like Duke and Kentucky are being used as a 1 year D-League, but assemblages of talent like Kentucky's would never be seen again. And what they are doing defies description and expectation, even if they were expected to be a transcendent team this year. 

  Wisconsin, Arizona, Duke, Villanova, or maybe some other team could be able to beat them at their best, or when the Wildcats are on an off day. But that seems unlikely. In an age when college basketball is sometimes slow, plodding, too transient, and often dull, Kentucky has changed that. Watching them is satisfying, because a group of immensely talented players has come together to play incredible team basketball, and they all feel a duty to win it together, not just themselves. No team of one-and-done players has ever felt like this.

  This team is a Haley's Comet type of phenomenon. It goes past you in the blink of an eye, and you may only have one chance to see it in your lifetime. If the NCAA has its way, there will never be a team like this years Wildcats ever again. And while the sport may benefit from it, it benefits from one team being so hard to stop, and one that can do something that so many thought would be impossible. 

   40-0 and "perfect" would mean Kentucky and John Calipari have best used college basketball's current system to absolute perfection. "Perfect" would also mean the case of scenarios that lead to this team's formation, and how the college basketball world may never see it again.

Friday, March 6, 2015

2015 MLS Season Predictions

MLS narrowly avoided disaster by agreeing to a new CBA with its players a shade less than 48 hours before the new season was scheduled to kick off. This piece is not to look at the ins and outs of the deal, but now to talk about MLS' 20th season, quite possibly the most important in its history. So its time for the sure to be wrong season predictions!

Eastern Conference:

1. New England Revolution
2. Columbus Crew
3. Toronto FC
4. DC United
5. Chicago Fire
6. Orlando City
7. New York City FC
8. New York Red Bulls
9. Montreal Impact
10. Philadelphia Union

Western Conference:

1. Seattle Sounders
2. LA Galaxy
3. FC Dallas
4. Portland Timbers
5. Real Salt Lake
6. Vancouver Whitecaps
7. Houston Dynamo
8. Sporting Kansas City
9. San Jose Earthquakes
10. Colorado Rapids

Awards Predictions:

Supporters Shield: Seattle Sounders
MVP: Obafemi Martins
Golden Boot: Dom Dwyer
Rookie of the Year: Cyle Larin
Coach of the Year: Gregg Berhalter
Newcomer of the Year: Kaka
MLS Cup Champion: Seattle Sounders (It's finally their year. They've waited so long to break through and win MLS Cup, and this finally seems like their year)
And just because... US Open Cup Champion: New England Revolution

As last year's were hilariously wrong, expect this year's to be equally bad. Them's the breaks.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Echo Chamber

         Phil Kessel railed against the Toronto media's treatment of Dion Phaneuf today, which is likely the culmination of many little tirades against the media from Leafs players who have not only had a bad season to deal with but the media backlash that comes with it. It's not surprising the Toronto media are putting undo pressure on players like the now departed David Clarkson, but the backlash is a result of a symptom of modern sports media: the echo chamber.

        In the past, stories were allowed to grow organically and came about from natural everyday situations. Now, because the insatiable demand for stories is still there, but combined with competition from other media outlets and social media's demand for immediacy, now the media can create a story of their own and run with it, without much to do about anything. When the echo chamber is put under fire, usually it's ESPN's echo chamber that gets torched. But Toronto media has an echo chamber of its own, and in some cases is just as bad.

      Take for example the "Wendel Clarkson" newspaper cover from the Toronto Sun the day that David Clarkson signed with the Maple Leafs. David Clarkson was already going to be put under undo pressure because of the size of his contract, but invoking Wendel Clark did nothing to alleviate that pressure. Now, Clarkson has to live up to the legacy of a Leaf legend as well as the contract he signed, while also hearing about it every day on sports talk radio, TV and reading about it in the paper. Some of the expectations placed on David Clarkson came about entirely because of the Toronto media echo chamber, and meant that his failure hit harder than it would have normally, even in a  similar Toronto media frenzy.

       What Phil Kessel was attacking today was the echo chamber that allowed stories like the Dion Phaneuf one to continue to percolate and simmer until a point comes when columnists and talk show hosts need something to talk about, so they revive an old tried and true narrative driven story to beat to death. And it's not only Toronto media that propagates these self-generated stories, because they end up driving the discussion around the world of hockey. The stories become inescapable, even when the Leafs are playing in Sunrise, Florida.

      What can be done? Like with ESPN's echo chamber, there isn't much that anyone can do, since the stories are self-generated and self-spawned. It's a hurricane that traps up everyone inside of it, and they can do nothing about it. Whether Kessel's latest outburst spawned because of a tweet that TSN showed on their bottomline on Tradecentre yesterday is besides the point, even if it was horrible. Whether Dion Phaneuf is the rightful captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is also besides the point too.

      The Toronto media machine can make a story out of anything, whether it be a Steve Simmons column, a misplaced tweet, or even a "no comment" from players every single day. Unfortunately, playing in Toronto brings about different responsibilities and challenges, and Leafs players know that and understand that, even if they can barely speak about it.

     Sports media in 2015 is in itself a large echo chamber, and to avoid it is one of the biggest challenges a fan, media member or player can undertake. Even as this column has sucked itself into the echo chamber, avoiding it is the goal.

    Lashing out at it is the fight or flight response that comes when the hurricane sweeps you up, and you can do nothing about it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

True Religion

      To experience true love, you must first experience true heartbreak. This is not news to anybody that has been in a committed relationship of any sort, but it's not just those personal relationships that this sentence applies to.

      Sports are a completely emotional, irrational investment when logic is applied. We as sports fans spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to watch our teams play, buy their gear, not to mention the countless hours of emotional investment we put into watching our team play and hopefully watching them win. This includes all of the people we piss off along the way, and the wars we fight over this seemingly trivial exercise. Sports, in the grand scheme of things, are completely and totally trivial. There are many better, and more efficient things to put our time and money into.

    But no sports fan will ever say that their love and devotion is trivial. There may be no rational reason for the baseless superstitions of a die-hard fan on gameday. There may be no rational explanation for why someone has hooked their physical and emotional well being to a game happening miles away that he or she has no control over. But to them, it's life. They couldn't think of their life without these traditions, customs, beliefs, etc.

     Many people have compared sports to religion. Many more have equated sports to religion. All of them are right.

     We go to the temples of our many different faiths to pray to our own gods, continue on the customs of those that have come before us and pass down those traditions to our kids. We look for an escape from the problems of our daily lives, and we try to find comfort in those who are like minded, those who share our beliefs in the hope that they can help us find guidance. We sing the same songs, chant the same chants, have the same idols, read from the same books, and we share the same pains. We follow the same rules, have the same taboos, and preach the same phrases of belief.

   I could be talking about being Catholic, or being a New York Giants fan. Without the specifics, I could easily be talking about either or. We go to those temples and houses of faith, whether they be churches, synagogues, mosques or stadiums to pray and look for that catharsis that only our faith can bring. Maybe in some cases we'll brag about it. we'll probably argue about it no doubt and it may separate great friends in the end, but the catharsis that is really impossible to explain is the ultimate goal, and the process of finding it is the religion. The longer we all wait, the crazier we all become.

   Religion and sports are never painless. True heartbreak is part of the implicit contract signed when following the works of St. Peter or Peter Bondra. It's hard to explain why so many sign those individual contracts and stick with them, but then again, when is true love rational?

    So when your team loses a heartbreak final, championship, misses the playoffs by a tiebreaker to your greatest rival and you become inconsolable for a week, remember that finding true love comes with experiencing true heartbreak. Know that so many share your pain, and want the same thing you do. And know that come next week, you'll all reconvene to try to grasp that elusive pleasure that only your devotion can bring you.

    Or if it is lost on you, and the pain of irrational love for illusions, dreams and hopes that you can't control is too much to take, religion and sports both come with something wonderful: You won't be judged for drinking at the temple!