Thursday, March 19, 2020

You don't know what you have until it's gone: Life with sports during the Coronavirus Pandemic

When I wrote about Kobe Bryant's death in January, I wondered aloud why even though his impact on me personally wasn't great, the emptiness I felt that day was nothing like I've experienced before. I concluded that it was because he was an ever present constant beyond basketball; his presence was taken for granted. His story was the prime example of "you don't know what you have until it's gone".

In the last week, the sports world across the globe went from looking nervously at the coronavirus pandemic to being almost entirely shut down with a Thanos snap. There may be a few stragglers, but on the whole, professional and amateur sports are shut down as the world tries to fight back against this pandemic. Even at the lightest time in the sports calendar, there is more than enough going on to keep your attention. "You don't know what you have until it's gone" couldn't be a more perfect phrase to describe what sports means to us as a society; never thinking that they could ever go away like this, perhaps for months. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone. But without them, not have we gained a better appreciation for what they mean to us, but what they've done to get us through these difficult times.

Sports are a cultural meeting ground, an exchange of ideas, beliefs and experiences where disparate people come together to laugh, cry and scream. What happens when that meeting ground is closed? Do those people get to come together anymore? Can they come together in another way? Do these people have another outlet with their time now that their primary love has vanished? What about those people whose lives depend on sports indirectly, like those arena and stadium workers who aren't going to get their paychecks, or the bar owner down by the stadium who overnight has no business? Perhaps until now, no one ever fully grasped how wide the sports net is cast not just in this country but across the globe and how many peoples lives depend on the machine continuing to hum.

But morbidly, sports meant so little so recently. As the pandemic began to spread rapidly across North America and Europe, watching sports felt so empty. Sean Farnham of ESPN said this during halftime of a ACC tournament game after the news broke that Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19: "does any of this really matter?". In one fell swoop, sports went from considering playing in empty arenas to almost entirely going silent in a matter of hours. As much as us the collective misses sports, having them go on right now would be entirely pointless. Out collective energies need to be spent fighting this pandemic, not yelling at a referee for a bad call.

A week without games of any kind should have felt emptier, lonelier and worse than it actually has. Perhaps that's the gravity of the global situation hitting home after too long of not taking it seriously. Perhaps that's the realization that sports of any kind like we took for granted for so long might not return until Memorial Day, perhaps even later, and that this week is the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps its knowing that the tangled web of those affected by this virus, from Gobert to Kevin Durant to a CAA Tournament referee would eventually affect almost everyone sooner rather than later, playing in empty stadiums or not. Could we as sports fans and human beings collectively hold that guilt that we endangered people because of our own blind devotion to "normal"?

But without sports, who knows if the world, particularly the United States, takes this as seriously as they needed to. Without Rudy Gobert testing positive, the dominoes that knocked all sports out might not have reached the corridors of power, which forced them to activate every tool in their arsenal to deal with a public health crisis like none of us have ever seen. When the history of this pandemic is written, sports will play an incalculable roll in that history. Without Rudy Gobert, sports might still be playing in full arenas and stadiums, and how many people would have been infected, hospitalized and killed because of that?

Our nation's first PSA about safe practice during the pandemic even came from a football coach:
When this pandemic is finally under control, sports will play an outsized role in bringing society back to normal. Coming together is something that puts so many people in danger during the pandemic, but when it's safe to put 19,000 people in an arena and 70,000 in a stadium, it will be a celebration of not just sports, but what life was like before social distancing and flattening the curve. That first sporting event in a full stadium will be a cathartic release for everyone, like when the Mets and Braves played at Shea Stadium right after 9/11. It will be a sign that the normal we took for granted is coming back, and that we can come together again. Our partisan allegiances will be put aside because even through the worst most bitter rivalries in sports, we're all there because we love these games, and what these games mean to us.

For most of us, sports were an ever present constant in our lives that we are all desperately yearning for in these trying times. As much as we miss them, think of this even through the horrible news of the pandemic: they might be the reason we beat it in the first place, they will be one of the first places where society can let out a collective sigh of relief when we do beat it, and our love of them will grow exponentially when they come back because we now know what life is like without them. The small collective sacrifice we made when it was needed the most will save lives, and will help us get back to the normal we all crave.

Even in their shocking absence, sports have taught us so much about the world that we didn't know or appreciate before. That might help us save lives during the pandemic, and be even better fans and people when it's done. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone, but even through the dark times without them, I can't wait to see what life is like with them again.

Friday, February 28, 2020

2020 MLS Predictions

With MLS' 25th season about to get underway, here's a prediction column with my likely to be wrong thoughts about the new season. If you want more detailed analysis of certain aspects of the new season, you can find it here. With that said, here are conference predictions and more for 2020:

Eastern Conference:
1. NYCFC
2. Atlanta United
3. Toronto FC
4. Columbus 
5. Philadelphia
6. New England Revolution
7. DC United
8. Inter Miami
9. New York Red Bulls
10. Orlando City
11. Montreal Impact
12. Chicago Fire
13. FC Cincinnati

Almost every team in the East has the potential to be something greater than what they were, or what their predictions say they could be. One could argue that almost every team in the East can make a playoff push. In reality, about nine teams have a realistic playoff argument, and only three or four can be guaranteed a spot. Inter Miami as an expansion team is closer to LAFC and Atlanta United than Minnesota or FC Cincinnati, but there are quite a few unknowns that keep them from being a playoff team at this time. The most surprising non-playoff team is probably the New York Red Bulls, who are at the bottom of the league in payroll, and constantly punch above their weight. But this season, with this deep a table, that doesn't seem feasible anymore.

Western Conference:
1. Seattle
2. LAFC
3. LA Galaxy
4. Portland
5. FC Dallas
6. Sporting KC
7. Minnesota
8. San Jose
9. Real Salt Lake
10. Colorado
11. Houston
12. Nashville
13. Vancouver

With Seattle's shocking CCL exit, they now have more time to focus on MLS exploits, and they will be angry. They're going to be really angry. They often stumble in the early parts of MLS seasons and that could happen again, but it's more likely that their focus is sharpened even further now. LAFC will have more CCL exploits which will affect their league form, and winning a trophy is more important than another points record. Sporting Kansas City is one playoff team that didn't make it a season ago because the standards they have will allow them to improve defensively after a horrific season last year. RSL are a team that have intriguing roster questions to answer, and their preseason hasn't answered them in a cogent way. Nashville SC is much more like FC Cincinnati and Minnesota compared to their other expansion bretheren.

Supporter's Shield Winner: NYCFC
East Champ: NYCFC
West Champ: LAFC 
MLS Cup 2020 Winner: LAFC

MLS MVP: Nico Lodeiro (SEA)
Golden Boot: Josef Martinez (ATL)
Newcomer: Chicharito Hernandez (LAG)
Comeback: Milton Valenzuela (CLB)
Rookie: Henry Kessler (NE)
Defender: Eddie Segura (LAFC)
Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (SEA)
Coach: Ronny Delia (NYCFC)

Last year, my predictions were fairly disastrous. That's why there's never a bad time to try again. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The NFL, London, the Jacksonville Jaguars and fandom

Sports fandom is inherently irrational. Why would anyone invest so much emotional energy, time and money into something they cannot control as so many do? The euphoria and catharsis of watching your team win is one aspect of the phenomenon, but mostly, it's about the shared experience of being a part of something larger than yourself. For whatever reason someone is fan, there's someone else someone that shares your feelings, experiences and ideas and that makes this human experience a little less lonely.

So many sports stories are tied to civic pride, the pride in a community that has been passed down from generation to generation like a right of passage. That pride is tapped into and mined for all its worth, for better and for worse, by the sports leagues that use it to make the billions of dollars they make. Sports teams are considered integral parts of their communities, part of a cultural fabric that not only defines a team for its own community, but shines a light on that community elsewhere. Nothing else in the human experience is quite like sports fandom.

Why am I starting a piece about the NFL's London games with this screed on sports fandom? Because when the Jaguars announced they'd be playing two home games in London and not just one, the veneer, the appearance and the image of fandom the NFL is trying so desperately to market, cultivate and produce is shattered. If fandom is a matter of civic pride, how can anyone take pride in a team that plays one quarter of its meaningful games in "its" city somewhere else? How can these teams make so much money off of selling something they themselves can't even sell anymore? And how can this league claim it is about the fans, even when the veneer of that is so easily thrown away for uncertain propositions and unanswerable questions?

The NFL has wanted a team in London ever since it started playing games there in 2007. A team in London means an untapped revenue source is now tapped for all its worth, and the NFL can expand its reach beyond North American shores in a way that other leagues do that they haven't. They believe what they're selling that has made them so much money in North America is going to make them even more in Europe. That's the short of it. 

Every business wants to make as much money as possible, and some do a better job of it than others. Some businesses also hide their inherent greed behind a message that's easily digestable and marketable. For the NFL, that's the fandom story from earlier. Trying to move a team to London is an attempt to build that narrative in a new market, but is at the same taking it away from a place where they had already built it up: in Jacksonville. Take away the logistical hurdles a team would have in being in London, even if they're primarily based in the United States, the labor laws, the currency conversion, the collective bargaining issues, take that all away for a second. 

If the NFL's core business is getting people to spend all this money on their product in season tickets, concessions, merchandise and in time, and its based largely in civic pride, how does moving two of those critical money making dates to another city help a team do that? How does that build a long term fanbase in that city based on said marketing plan when one quarter of those dates are somewhere else, even if the team is branding itself based on the city they're supposedly based in? In other words: how does playing two home games in London make the Jacksonville Jaguars more likely to stay in Jacksonville? How does it help them win a Super Bowl, which is the ascribed goal of every NFL team?

The Jaguars have talked so often about "local revenue", which is marketing speak for ticket sales, sponsorships, things of this nature. The Jaguars are low in this regard not just because their market is small compared to other teams, but under Shad Khan's ownership, the Jaguars are 38-90. Most people in Jacksonville and the surrounding area have decided to not spend bad money on a team that hasn't proven it can win, which is the entire point of running a sports team and the entire point of following a team in the first place. The London games are basically an accounting trick for the Jaguars to increase their local revenue to be "competitive" with other teams, allowing them to invest more money into the region, the team, etc. But there are multiple problems with this line of thinking.

If winning brings in revenue, and moving two home games to London doesn't help the Jaguars in any way get closer to winning a Super Bowl (they're 3-4 in London since 2013), how do these two things line up? They don't. And there is another issue: NFL teams don't need local revenue to make money, certainly not in the way they have become multi billion dollar business on their own, let alone the league as whole. In the Jaguars example, Shad Khan paid $875 million for the team in 2011. It's now worth, according to Forbes, $2.325 billion. His team, though it has a winning percentage of less than .300 since Shad Khan bought the team, and has so many local revenue issues it must play two games in London to cover that shortfall, is now worth $1.5 billion more than Khan paid for it at the very least. This is before the NFL signs new TV deals that could be worth $10 billion combined or more per season all predicated on TV ratings in the United States that forms the backbone of the league's advertising behemoth. How does that improve with a team playing two games in London, especially a team in a market where every game is so crucial? Other small market teams like the Packers, Bills, Bengals, etc. do not seem to have this problem. When it was clear the NFL's Toronto experiment with the Bills failed, they stopped it.

The Jaguars are not any more popular a team in London than they were when they started playing games there, which was supposed to be the entire reason the NFL played games there in the first place. If you weren't a football fan to begin with, why would your entry point to the sport be a team that is this bad no matter where they play? And if you're already a fan of a team, you're not giving up your allegiance just because a team started playing games a little closer to you. If your team is not playing in those games against the Jaguars Jacksonville or London, you're not going. The NFL even gave money to Tottenham Hotspur to retrofit their billion dollar new stadium for NFL games and the Jaguars won't even play there because Shad Khan owns a different London soccer team!

If the NFL's entire marketing empire was built on capitalizing on the irrationality of fandom, the house of cards falls apart when a team is splitting its time between two cities where it cannot plausibly claim to be one or the another. This was the issue with the Chargers, Rams and Raiders in their disastrous moves to their new cities. When it became clear the league and the teams were not operating in good faith with the fans and their cities, people opted out. The Chargers are a lame duck in Los Angeles without a fanbase in the place they left or they place they went to, so much so that their new shared stadium with the Rams is becoming a financial drain on both because PSL's for the Chargers aren't selling even at dramatically cut prices. 40% of Raiders PSL's in their new Las Vegas stadium come from outside Nevada, showing the Raider brand is far stronger than the city they play in, but how long can that last? 

Shad Khan and Mark Lamping have talked all the time about being invested in Jacksonville, but how can they be when the biggest civic asset, its football team, isn't playing 25% of its meaningful games there? Does playing games in London bring any key business to the city of Jacksonville that would help the Jaguars and the city be more successful? Does it show a commitment to the civic and business community that investing in the team is worthwhile with advertising dollars, building projects and down the line a new stadium? The Jaguars seem to think so, but do the other stakeholders, including the fans? Based on the anger coming out of Jacksonville with the news, even though it was expected, it doesn't look like it. It's made worse by Khan somehow expecting a positive reaction from the news, which is the height of tone-deafness. 

So are these London games a not-so-subtle push from the Jaguars ownership to get tax payer dollars invested into new projects designed to make the Jaguars money and will probably not return their investment to the city proper, using the threat of relocation as a specter to get those deals? Is the NFL using the Jaguars as a guinea pig to test the overall viability of a permanent franchise in London with eyes to eventually move them there as they greased the wheels for it? Are both entirely clueless as to how to market themselves locally and abroad? It's not entirely clear. The NFL's history of moving teams from city to city is lurid, and its history of coaxing cities out of taxpayer money for stadium projects that don't create any appreciable benefit is even more lurid. What the league has been really good at for a long time is hiding that greed behind the veneer of fandom, civic pride, love of the game, etc. 

But in recent years, that veneer has been shattered, and this episode with the Jaguars and London is breaking it even further. Good fans and a vulnerable city are being used and abused by people who have far less to lose than they do, and the NFL is complicit in forcing the situation deteriorate to a point where the fans in the city the Jaguars claim to represent don't want them and the place they want to go doesn't want them either. And if the NFL's entire money making empire is built on the irrationality of fandom, then the house of cards quickly falls apart with no way to put it back together again. 

The worst feeling for a fan is apathy. If they're happy or angry, they're invested. Apathy is the opposite of that. When apathy seeps in, the money making machine doesn't work so smoothly anymore. Fandom shouldn't feel like a job, it shouldn't feel like the travails of every day life. Watching a team chronically lose is bad enough, but when the central reasons for being a fan are slowly sucked away, apathy becomes the only way to cope and eventually move on.

Every move the Jaguars have made under Shad Khan has replaced intensity with apathy, love with anger and hope with despair. And what for, a move to London that may never materialize or never work, all for a few more dollars out of a city to build projects that should have been built ages ago? What is the point of that? Fans want to talk about wins and losses, players and coaches, not about tax payer dollars going to a building project that should have been done already because if it is finished, it might keep the team around

Shad Khan and the NFL better be careful. They are acting like everything they have, they've made and earned is a given; a rite of life. During the Great Recession, many business acted like that, hence the term "too big to fail". Is the NFL too big to fail? It might not seem it, but based on the way this league and this franchise is treating the London question, they're acting like it. Jacksonville can eventually move on, but can the league?

The NFL can be successful internationally and its Jacksonville franchise can be successful locally without this policy of mutually assured destruction. They don't seem interested in trying. And it is costing the league money, but more than anything else, trust. With that, the entire empire begins to crumble. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

What does it mean to always be there?

Kobe Bryant's tragic death left so many people shocked, heartbroken and empty. I spent all of yesterday trying to parse out why I felt as empty as I have ever felt in my life before. Kobe Bryant was a generation defining athlete, but he never played for a team I supported. He is a Delaware Valley native, as am I, and I know people who had a much closer relationship to him than I did. I never even saw him play in person. I had no idea why I felt as I did; bereft of thought, ideas and even a concept of reality.

After an entire day of retrospectives, tributes and unvarnished pain from so many across the world, I think I figured out why I felt the way I did and still do: Kobe Bryant's presence was so outsized that it felt like he would always be around; he was so ubiquitous and influential that it felt like he was a fact of life. He wasn't just immortal, he was a constant like gravity or the earth's axial tilt. To see him go, so fast, so suddenly and so young is not something any of us were and are able to understand.

Kobe Bryant was always there. Even if he wasn't playing, he was a constant presence over everything in sports. You could see him at any given NBA game, or on the sidelines for a US Women's National Team game, or giving a bear hug to PK Subban or Alex Ovechkin because he was that ubiquitous. Athletes the world over have cited him as inspiration for what they do and why they are who they are, even if some of them can't make a shot if they yell "mamba". He wasn't just a generation defining athlete, he took that and expanded upon it after he was done playing, the likes of which no one had done before. Nothing would ever deny him in anything he ever did, and that included being a presence absolutely everywhere.

In his best moments, he was always there. In his worst moments, he was always there. When he wasn't his best self, a good teammate or even a good person, he was there. Whether he learned from his mistakes on or off the court, he was just there. Whether you personally believed he repented for his actions and learned from them, he made us ask questions no one else could. Such is a man who earned the right to be an outsized presence in our collective lives that his every move was important somewhere to someone, for better or for worse.

Perhaps some of that intense and insatiable competitive fire that drove him to his greatest successes and also dragged him to his lowest moments had flickered in retirement, but he was still a constant presence because he earned that right to be one. It wasn't just in basketball; he was announcing a major sponsorship deal for his sports drink Body Armor in MLS a week or two earlier, for instance. But even when he wasn't directly there, doing something that reminded you of the five time NBA champion and to-be Hall of Famer, he was still there because his impact, his influence and his legacy transcended his otherwordly skill set.

What he did, what he started and what he meant will not go anywhere though he himself is no longer with us. Such is a human being with such a giant impact in so many places that his untimely death may have physically registered on the Richter Scale. Our fundamental understanding of what is, what was and what will be feels irreparably shaken because Kobe Bryant is no longer physically here, even if so much about him always will be.

Every human being is there for a small group of family, friends, colleagues, etc. Some manage to create a larger impact than just that, and there are a select few who rise to the level of what Kobe Bryant became; someone whose death took away so much from so many who he touched, because his presence became so large, so great and so impactful that he himself felt like a fact of life; a constant and something in a world so divided that everyone agreed on without hesitation.

My prevailing emotions weren't so much sadness and despair as they were confusion, emptiness and bewilderment when I saw those tweets scroll by. I couldn't process how or why something like this could happen, because someone like Kobe Bryant is more than just an athlete, a father, or even a human being. He had become something more than even a superhero. He felt like a fact of life because he was always there. He was going to do something that made you go "yep, that's the Mamba", even if not as often as he once did because that's what he was and what he was always going to be.

That's gone now. It can't make sense to so many because a fundamental aspect of our lives and our understanding of it is gone now. It may never make sense.

How long will it take for us to feel whole again? For some, perhaps never again. His legacy, his impact and his name are eternal, and so too might his presence even after death, but that might not even be enough because he is no longer here. He was going to do something that re-enforced to us all that he was still the Mamba because he is, was and will be, and now he can't.

Perhaps that's why I and so many others felt so empty and drained. Life will go on, and there will be a new normal without Kobe Bryant around, but it won't be the same without him being there, because he always was, and we figured he'd always be.

But he's not anymore. That doesn't make sense. It may never make sense.