Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crime in a Small Town: State College and a Clash of Narratives

Walk into a bookstore, any bookstore (if Amazon still has left any in your town), and go to the mystery section. Pick up a book, any book. Flip it over. Read the back. See if the words "small town" and "secrets" or "crime" are on the back. I bet you find it in about 10 books or less. The theme is well-known. What usually then happens is the story evolves down two paths.
Path 1: The Hidden Mastermind. The town is terrorized by a hidden mastermind, who delights in tormenting the innocent townspeople. The police are powerless to apprehend him/her, even perhaps seeing them at the scene of the crime but still not able to comprehend that such an icon of the community (or quiet member) is the criminal.

Path 2: The Cover-up. Several people in town know who the criminal is, but the criminal is protected by corrupt small-town politics and judges. Those few who know struggle to turn the tide and get justice, trying to force the town to face the evil within.

A few weeks ago, all we knew is that crime had occurred in State College. A man, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested for horrific crimes against young boys. It was not clear exactly who knew what and when, but it was clear the crimes had been taking place for years without true punishment being carried out.

Over time, public opinion quickly consolidated on The Cover-up explanation. The grand jury recommended that two of Jerry's former bosses be indicted, after all. A wave of outrage led to the school coach and president being ousted. Information emerged to support our choice of The Cover-up. Jerry Sandusky's bizarre interview with Bob Costas made him look like a bumbling fool, the type of dumb criminal who all but wrote "ASK JERRY WHAT HE KNOWS" at the crime scene. Joe Paterno apparently tried to cover up other crimes within the program, or at least limit punishment. We got it right! High-five for Encyclopedia Brown!

Or...did we? Because what I see is that when this story first broke, Path 1 was just as viable. Jerry Sandusky had an airtight alibi. His parents were involved in charity work for children. He started his own charity when he was 33, an age where some of us are still trying to figure out how to be adults, let alone think about children. He had adopted six children of his own. He then subsequently quit football to focus on his charity. There was every reason to see Jerry Sandusky as the type of warped mastermind who could indeed fool everyone. Penn State officials knew Jerry when he was a vibrant, talented young man, not Jerry the tired, slow-witted old pervert (allegedly). Such a Jerry could indeed make one showering incident sound like the warped imagination of a tired, impressionable graduate assistant. Yet that narrative of Jerry Sandusky as Criminal Mastermind never made it into the stories I read. Why not?

In the end, we (writers, commenters, etc.) got it right. I'm pretty sure about that, even given our ability to create new stories to confirm our existing biases and choices. And yet, I still am a bit afraid. I see how quickly we, supposed critical thinkers, settled on one narrative or possibility without even considering the possibility of another. I see the cost if we were wrong, and it concerns me. "We" were right when we flip to the back of the book for the answer...but I don't think it's anything to crow about to Encyclopedia Brown.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bloggolalia: Is it the "Favre Penis Story" or "Favre Sexual Harassment Story"?

During Blogs with Balls, there was an amusing exchange about Deadspin's predilection for publishing penis photos. I laughed as much as anyone and enjoyed watching some editorial squirming. But in retrospect, there's something not so funny about the entire exchange.

We certainly have some sports blogs that thrive on getting scoops to stories that mainstream media won't print. Like many of you, I question why it matters that a 23 year-old athlete went on a date with a 17 year-old, or that a no-name Division III volleyball player may or may not be the girl in some risque photos. There's certainly plenty of room for criticism.

However, at times sports blogs that publish such stories get too much criticism. Is the Brett Favre-Jenn Sterger story really about publishing photos? Is this really a right-to-privacy story? Or is this more accurately a sexual harassment story that involved abuse of power, attempted adultery, and an age gap that might even make a Hollywood actor think twice? A story where few would take any notice or believe it was true until transcripts and photos were provided?

There seems in some circles to be a steadfast refusal to give sports blogs any credit for publishing such stories. But don't such stories help protect women who work in close contact with athletes? Don't sports blogs, as puny as their power may be, give harassed workers and minor athletes a rare outlet against their often powerful harassers? Especially in situations where local media has been all but bought and paid for by the harassers themselves, such as in smaller college towns or Boston (nice Red Sox coverage lately)?

Yes, I don't expect to see Brooks to be sharing the Nobel Peace Prize in five years, or Daulerio to be receiving certificates of appreciation from NOW. But to balance out some past criticism they've received, the existence of their blogs provides some sort of opportunity for quirky justice. Sometimes sports blogs have gotten it wrong (widespread mistrust of Big Ben's first accuser comes to mind), but other times their existence has helped balance power, just a little bit. It is possible to combine mega-hit blogs with doing the right thing, and I do appreciate the times it has happened. I hope it happens even more often.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Too Many Bloggers? Not Enough Bloggers (Video)

While attending the Blogs with Balls conference, I was even more aware how crowded the sports blogosphere is. Panelist after panelist referred to the difficulty of standing out in a crowded market. The room was filled with talent, and I knew many more talented bloggers who were not present. While developments such as the emergence of Grantland validate bloggers, it also signals that bigger, more powerful competition looms. Paradoxically, receiving the very legitimacy bloggers crave could be the end of sports blogging as we know it.

At and since the conference, small fracases have broken out about the need for more female and minority bloggers. There was a early-morning panel at the conference about women in blogging, but I was strangely dissatisfied with it. If I were the head of a blogging network, why would I want to hire a female blogger? In my opinion, I felt the panel missed an opportunity to confront this question head-on. I was also shocked to learn via Punte just how few women had attended previous Blogs with Balls conferences. For a reference point, I tried to coax two NYC female sports bloggers to go to Blogs with Balls 1 a few years ago. Had they attended, if I understand Punte's numbers correctly, the number of female bloggers in attendance would have nearly doubled.

Also, a debate has since broken out about the need for more minority bloggers, spurred by AJ Daulerio's reply to being asked why Deadspin had no black bloggers*. (For more on that, see Bomani Jones's essay). I understand that if you make your living through blogging, it can't be fun to be accused of being racist and/or sexist. But if you will, please watch this short video clip of Deadspin's Emma Carmichael, the first full-time female hire at Deadspin, giving her thoughts on how blogging could be changed:

I think she makes good points on the need for greater interactivity, points that perhaps the traditional male perspective on blogging has missed. The reason we need more bloggers, not less, is there are still many more ways to blog and things to say that we aren't covering. Bloggers who are underrepresented in blogging offer us a chance to rethink and learn from others. There's no inherent magic about being a female or minority, but there is a tendency to bring up a different perspective to blogging that we need. (I've written about that in the past as far back as 2007). This doesn't have to be complicated...right? I personally pledge to do my best to bring at least one new female blogger and one new minority blogger to Blogs With Balls 5, should I attend. And I hope you all will join me in doing so, and that if you have hiring power at a blog network, that you'll consider looking for such bloggers.

*I think it's also fair to point out that AJ did a lot to promote the success of Katie Baker (now at Grantland) and Emma Carmichael (still at Deadspin). I saw him personally getting in arguments on Twitter to defend one of them when other bloggers tried to tell him they weren't good enough. But Bomani and Jemele Hill were also fair to point out the poor track record with attracting minority talent.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Balls Bloggers Juggle: Bloggers Need Partners

After attending the Blogs With Balls conference, I realized just how many skills bloggers need nowadays to be competitive. I was impressed by the talent in the room, but also noticed how much the job of a good blogger has expanded. In the past, bloggers either learned those skills themselves or joined a blog network. Bu some skills are just too important, and bloggers may need to pursue partnerships or hire part-time help. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Bloggers can use college students, trade favors with friends, or even enlist faithful fans of the site. Five potential partnerships follow below.

Business people. Traditionally, sports blogging has been a bit at odds with business. For example, an oft-heard criticism of ESPN used to be that it was too much of a business. However, the conference panels spent a lot of time on topics such as innovation, advertising, platform choice, and branding. I felt that many bloggers could benefit by just sitting down with a business-minded friend for two hours and learning some basics. Or, browse sites/magazines like Fast Company, INC, and others to better understand the business perspective. Thinking of blogging in terms of niche, demographics, networking, and visibility may seem boring. But being able to understand what exactly you offer readers and advertisers, and how to better position your blog in the marketplace, could help your blog grow rapidly. The Big Lead is making strides in this area with their Amare partnership and sponsored posts, but there is so much more to be done.

Graphic designers. In a technology world where tablets and Tumblr continue to grow rapidly, design has become more and more important. As I sit here, I am reading yet another business magazine that is trumpeting the rise of design in the market. Nike and Apple may not have the most durable products (glances mournfully at iPhone screen), but design is their major edge in the market. Deadspin’s use of Jim Cooke as a graphic designer is a clever start in this direction. There is still so much more to be done, though. A panelist in the innovation session all but begged for a fantasy sports site that took design and form seriously. Sports blogs may be losing the Tumblr generation, because most sports blog content does not lend itself easily to the copy-and-paste generation. That should change soon.

Video content producers. Yes, you know all the arguments about not using video in your blog. Your readers are at work, and it’s harder for them to get away with watching a video on their blog rather than reading text. Videos are difficult to produce and edit. You have a face for radio, or for Star Wars re-enactments. Podcasts are easier to produce.

However, look around you at the trends on the web. I felt like the “Blogging is Dead” session was a start in the right direction, but could go much further. I wince a bit as I cite this example, but recall, for example, the visibility Barstool Sports got by partnering with Jenna Marbles. My female friends who would never watch a sports game raved about her viral video in their blogs. We bloggers often find ourselves mocking would-be Youtube sports announcers or mining Youtube to feed the content beast, but what about actually partnering with Youtube? For the most part, bloggers don’t understand video, and I am concerned that this will cost the industry as the field involves. We can all continue to stalk jose3030’s twitter feed during live sports events, and may LSUfreek never stop making animated gifs, but I am surprised that so few bloggers seem to have followed in their footsteps.

Lawyers and subject matter experts. It is not as if they aren’t already jabbering away in your comment sections while racking up billable hours. Day after sports day becomes nothing more than idle chatter about contracts and crime. But what if you would use your lawyer friend on Facebook to occasionally add some educated expert opinion to some of the stories of today? Subject-specific experts is one easy way to garner links and make your story stand out on the hot topic of the day. Not just lawyers could help: fields as diverse as fashion and accountants can make a difference.

Tastemakers and Innovators. How does blogging stay cool? There was a certain buzz around sports blogging in 2005 that drew me to it. I felt that sports blogging was right in line with where the web as a whole as going. Of course, with time blogging has become experienced and lost some of its novelty. But overall, I feel that perhaps bloggers are out of touch with where the web is going. Trust me, I would love to be wrong about this.

But what about trends such as gamification, or freemium business models, or the visual web, or applications for Facebook, Android, and Apple…are we involved in these trends? I think that journalism schools are better training writers about these fields, but I worry that we are behind other fields at the moment. Reading Techcrunch or Gizmodo or even looking at concepts like Threadless and Etsy, I am not so sure that we are influencing what’s cool. In some ways blogging itself may be in crisis, taken over by Facebook and Google Plus. That’s a bigger problem than you or I can solve, but perhaps a good technologist can help your blog better fit into trends.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Problem with Predictionitis (Circular Rant)

A few weeks ago, I took a shot at predicting the value of Terrelle Pryor in the NFL supplemental draft. I put my guess as to what round he would end up with, threw out a lot of half-baked ideas to support it, and plopped my view on the Internet. It was an easy column to write, and it took me about 45 minutes. I wrote it to contest Don Banks' column on Terrelle Pryor, which I'm sure took much longer than mine to write and cited scouts and professionals. Turns out I was right. So what? Does anyone really care?

I would hazard a guess that about 10% of the sports columns written are prediction columns. Fantasy sports "gurus" try to convince us that so-and-so is underrated, overrated, or unrated. Experts project into the future by telling us the exact game score and record of each team, sounding confident as they use statistics and gut feelings. Visionairies tell us about the future of this game or that. It all sounds so good and it's fun to argue about such things. It's also a total waste of time.

The beauty of sports is that it happens live and unscripted (mostly, Tim Donaghy moments excepted). In a DVR and spoiler-full age, sports is one of the few unscripted enjoyments we have. There are no leaks ahead of time, no columnists who truly have the inside scoop. And yet, we waste so much time trying to see into the future that we ruin sports of its present. The fun is in the moment. I find myself more and more turning to Twitter during games to read the fan's reaction as the game happens. The roar of the crowd can't be easily transcribed into a recap column, much less properly anticipated by a confident scribe as he types busily away at his local Starbucks or cubicle. We spend so much time analyzing and prescribing that we can't just let the balls fall where they may.

I have been reading some older sportswriting books, and I'm struck by how often sports columnists admit that most of their fellow writers had lost any sense of joy in the game itself. The game is just something they endure so they can rush back and write their columns about what happened. Have we really come to this, that predicting the game is more fun than the game itself? When was the last time you went back at the end of the year to check how well your favorite columnist predicted games during the preseason? It's an exercise in irrelevance and meaningless chestpounding, without a single useful trait and...


Um, on second thought, I predict that prediction columns aren't going anywhere.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Balls Bloggers Juggle: Losing Your Blogging Fastball

The fourth edition of the popular Blogs with Balls conference is coming up September 24th in New York City. In anticipation, I wanted to write some blogs discussing topics of debate within the sports blogosphere. Feel free to comment with your own take on the topic and suggest what you think is important.

Dontrelle Willis, in happier times.
The sixth anniversary of Deadspin recently came and went, and it caused me to reflect on sports blog writers. It amazes me how some elite bloggers have managed to keep writing for so long. The best comedians still find new angles, the best statisticians keep digging for new stats, and the best opinion column writers still move the needle on controversy.

But I find myself wondering what a blogger can do when you feel that your best stuff isn't good enough anymore. Most of us aren't those elite who make blogging look simple. If you're lucky, the audience hasn't caught on yet to your decline. They're still demanding more of your stories and filling your comment section or Twitter mentions column with praise. But you know better, and you know you can't throw change-ups indefinitely. So how do you change directions or refresh your blogs without losing your audience or putting up with reader complaints?

I'd be interested in hearing from people who have made the transition. Maybe you realize you want to write about something different. Sports jokes that you loved to make when you were a single 20-something don't amuse you as much now that you're a married father of two. Or you aren't so interested any more in basketball; now your passion lies in soccer, or tennis. How have you made the transition yourself?

The other category I'm interested in is bloggers who did burn out. They had no ideas for anything new to write, and still wanted to write the same type of blog. But it became work instead of fun, and eventually it all fell apart. How can a blogger stop blogger burn-out from happening? I've heard professional bloggers say that one year of blogging is like 3, no 5, no TWENTY years of writing in a more normal job. Have you been able to dodge blogger burnout, and if so, what's your secret? How do you get back your blogging fastball when it's late in the season and your radar gun numbers look more like highway speed numbers than baseball numbers?

Feel free to comment or to start an email conversation with me at talktomc (it's a google mail address). I'm intrigued to read what you have to say.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Balls Bloggers Juggle: Why Blog About Sports?

The fourth edition of the popular Blogs with Balls conference is coming up September 24th in New York City. In anticipation, I wanted to write some blogs discussing topics of debate within the sports blogosphere. Feel free to comment with your own take on the topic and suggest what you think is important.

Suppose that you have a friend who lives in Denver and just graduated from college in electrical engineering. He loves the Colorado Rockies, skis relentlessly, plays drums in a local band, and has an odd fascination with foreign films. Unfortunately, he can't find a job, and so he wants to write a blog to stay busy while looking for a job. What should he write about?

To be honest, if you look at the Technorati 100, a ranking of blogs, the answer seems to be "anything but sports." How many sports blogs do you think are on the top 25? top 100? Check, you may be surprised. The circumstantial evidence that writing about sports is a mistake is also rather substantial. Look, for example, at Brian Spaeth, no longer writing about the NBA (formerly yaysports, now brian23.com). I'd interview him about it, but I'd have to get in line behind all his new lady fans. Or Drew Magary, who, despite being a successful sports blogger with KSK, decided to write a non-sports book (The Postmortal) and admitted that sports books really don't sell well. Matt Ufford is writing about TV, while Will Leitch writes about movies. Is it me, or is there a brain drain occurring in the sports blog world?

Aside: It's also interesting to see an increase in non-sports content on blogs. To name a few quick examples within the last year or two, Grantland has pop culture, Deadspin has Drew's funbag and comedy, TheBiglead does movie reviews, and KSK does their sex mailbag. If you click on their sites, you might think Sports by Brooks, BlackSportsOnline, and MoondogSports would be more accurate to drop the "Sports" and say "Women" instead. All seem to have increased traffic by doing so. Which do you think got more traffic last month--a lesser known men's mag like fhm, or your favorite popular sports blog?

Second, there's the audience for sports blogging. I've done several types of blogging, and quite honestly, sports are the hardest audience to write for. Heaven help you if you get a fact wrong or dare opine that someone's favorite player may be over-rated. Oh, there's criticism in all sections of blogging, but it's surprising to me how much negativity can be inspired by one blog. It's interesting to watch some sports blogs do their best to control and manipulate their comment section. I used to be quite against this, and that's a topic for another time, but...I can see their viewpoint a little more than before. A comment section shouldn't be a whine section, given that everyone has a red X button they can use.

Finally, let's look at the benefits. If our friend from the Rockies blogs about gadgets, he has a much better shot of having a well-read blog. If he just blogs about his band or does his best low-budget men's mag/Tucker Max imitation, he might be able to get some female fans. If he blogs about skiing, he might be able to score some free ski passes from lodges or otherwise get free equipment to try. If he blogs about the Rockies? Most pro sports teams tend to see bloggers as a nuisance.

I've deliberately painted a rather bleak picture of our man in Denver, but take my bait here, if you will. If you could start over again, would you still blog about sports? What benefits are there to sports blogging that I am missing?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Blue Collar, White Collar, and No Collar Productivity (Response to Henry Abbott's Essay on Keith Richards)

A few weeks ago Henry Abbott wrote an essay on Keith Richards and public relations. He noted that Keith Richards did a lot of crazy things and is praised for it. However, NBA players tend to keep their struggles, partying, and addictions hidden, or are judged for it by fans. He hinted that perhaps there are also racial components to this dilemma.

Blue Collar Productivity

As I read the essay, I felt strongly that perhaps another perspective other than race might fit better. That perspective is blue collar productivity as advanced by Frederick Taylor and other management gurus at the turn of the century. Essentially, it is easy to break down many types of manual labor into steps. If I am tightening the lug nuts on car wheels for an assembly line, an analyst can come by and measure how long each step (reach for the screwdriver, twist each lug nut about 5 times, etc.) should take in seconds. It's then relatively easy to calculate how many lug nuts I should be able to tighten in one hour. Under this type of measurement, any breaks I take or any experimentation I do to try to change the way I work is lost time, and thus lost productivity. It's rather Puritanical in its strong belief that any idle time accrues to the devil's workshop rather than Factory, Inc., if you will.

Most NBA fans tend to see their stars in such a light. Consider the harsh condemnation of Vince Carter when he chose to attend his graduation rather than sit in his hotel room before the Sixers-Raptors game about a decade ago. Any time not spent practicing or preparing is lost time. If you're not in the gym, someone else is, and that player will be outdoing you in Game 7 when it matters. We also see this in how players such as Marcus Banks get attacked for having interests other than sports. But this is wildly unrealistic because it assumes that players are robots for whom more is better.

The process is not the results.

If I get a 30 minute lunch break instead of 15, I might be much more able to work hard for the last 4 hours at work. That extra 15 minutes is not wasted time. And maybe that harsh, malnourished upbringing an NBA player had is the fuel that leads him to have a greater desire to win, or that DUI was the wake-up call he needed rather than a sign of future disaster.

White Collar Productivity

However, I believe Henry went too far in portraying the Keith Richards story positively, because the other extreme is how white-collar productivity is measured. We still do a terrible job of assessing the productivity of engineers, sales people, and executives. I have spoken to experts in the field who merely shrug their shoulders and say it's not possible to assess it. We often only judge white-collar productivity on results, not process. But there is definitely a difference between the salesperson who goofs off most of the time and yet lands one 3 million dollar sale in the month compared to the salesperson who works hard and gets lots of little deals that add up to 3 million.

Bad process usually leads to bad results.

For every Keith Richards who makes it, there are 100 Amy Winehouses who don't. I suggest you look at Russell Brand's letter to Amy as an example of how easy it is for talent to nearly be lost due to bad life choices. We celebrate Keith because he metaphorically went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. But that's not to say that Keith needed the drugs and partying to become a great musician. The white-collar productivity legend that "I need my strippers on Sunday night to make the big stock market trades on Monday morning" can't stand up to any sort of real analysis. While I reject the Puritanical blue-collar productivity measures with no flexibility for individual style or breaks, I also think we must reject the hedonistic white-collar productivity measures that say "If her results turned out well, everything she did must have been right."

No Collar Productivity

At times, it bothers me that there is little analysis of the NBA by class or labor. I credit Tommy Craggs at Deadspin as one of the few to notice the labor-management struggles inherent within pro sports. And as such, I believe we need a new paradigm (buzz word alert!) to view our pro athletes. The narrative is part of the story, and we should respect the journey, but not idolize it. Perhaps one day fans, management, and players alike will properly respect both the process and the results. It's ok to say that maybe Keith Richards could have been an even better musician without the drugs, right? But it's also ok to say that if, say, Tracy McGrady decides to go to Africa with Dikembe Mutombo instead of working on his game all summer, he still respects the game, right?

In time, I hope more fans will see NBA players as artists and creative talents more than mere physical day laborers who must be shackled to their stations 24-7 in order to produce. But I also appreciate the tradition of sports as a field where hard work and dedication matters, and practice does make the perfect more perfect, if you will. The mingling of hard work and creative genius is what makes sports such a fascinating field to follow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Waiting for WPS: Photos from the Flash-Magic Jack Soccer Game

Full stands at Sahlen Stadium.

Women's sports have always been a part of this blog. When I first started out, I was looking for undercovered areas in the sports blogosphere. Seeing how little coverage there was for female athletes, I decided to try to fill the gap. It paid off, as I've been able to interview athletes in figure skating, basketball, and cycling. Thankfully, trends have changed; espnW and All White Kit, among others, have helped close the coverage gap.

With the increased interest in women's soccer due to the World Cup, I decided to cover the Western New York Flash - Magic Jack game. I came away realizing just how much waiting there is in a soccer game. If you watch a game on TV, there is little waiting; each break in action leads to a commercial break, or a talking head pops up to yammer about what "TEAM X MUST DO" before being hammered down by the start of play.

Flash players prepare to toss soccer balls into the stands.

But if you're at the game early enough and stay late, you get a much different perspective. Players wait for the game to begin and wait to be substituted in. Media members wait for interviews, while fans wait for autographs. And most of all, women's sports waits for its survival to be assured.

I'm trying something a little different for this set of posts and letting the photos I received tell the story. Hope you enjoy seeing parts of the game that you normally don't notice from your television viewing angle.

Index of Posts:
Alex Morgan and the Waiting Game
Family Time at the Game
The Wait for Fans, Part I (Ali Krieger)
The Wait for Fans, Part II (Ali Krieger)

Waiting 5 Hours for 20 Minutes of Play: Alex Morgan and WNY Flash Pre-Game

Click on any photo to see a bigger version. Photos are my own: all rights reserved.
I would have preferred to do a post on Marta or Abby instead, but most of the cell-phone photos I got were extremely blurry. I think, though, most of you will be fine with an Alex post. By now you've probably heard of Alex Morgan, the young star whose brilliant World Cup Finals performance nearly won the Cup for the US Women's National Team. What you may not know is that she is not a regular starter for her club team, either. Christine Sinclair, who is having an amazing year and is the star of the Canadian Women's National Team, starts ahead of her. Alex got 20 minutes of playing time in the game. I tried to document all the waiting that goes on as athletes prepare for the precious few game-time moments. Here are some photos of Alex and her team.

Coaches try to convince their young stars that there's not much difference between starting and not starting. That's a lie. There are many small privileges that starters get that a substitute does not get. Alex may be better comparatively than any of the non-forwards on the team. But she's still not in this photo.

I somehow never got a very good photo of Marta (#10, on the right). She always seemed to be in motion or just out of camera view. I found it oddly symbolic, given her speed and elusiveness on the pitch.
Kaley Fountain (#17, left) would not play in this game. Like Alex Morgan, she's a 5'7" dark-haired substitute with a pink headband, who mainly gets in a substitute. But she will not see any playing time in this game. The life of a substitute player can be frustrating, holding the ball out to others while waiting for your own chance to get in.
McCall Zerboni is a skilled forward/midfielder, but she also seems to be the biggest clown on the team (her or Caroline Seger, who sat out the game). She's in the top-right corner of the photo, laughing it up with a staff member. Meanwhile, Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan intensely wait for some last-minute instructions. Part of being an athlete is listening to your coach talk over and over and over again. Is it any wonder that athletes tune coaches out?
Notice "Hill" on bottom left. Interesting how many of us wear our own reminders that we were once athletes to games.
Players boot some balls into the stands as a gift to fans.
More Alex Morgan
I find it interesting how all the little spread-out groups start to knot together as it gets closer to gametime. Players that prefer being alone start massing together at the end and becoming a team before they go on the field.
After the game, Christine Sinclair was interviewed for her two-goal night. Alex eventually came on for Christine late in the game. Until Alex can score nearly a goal a game like Christine has done, she's likely to continue waiting. But it's obvious that Alex will not be waiting much longer, given her being the #1 draft pick in the league.
I apologize for the low quality, but that's Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. One thing I like about the WPS is that it is a close-knit league. Players from opposing teams talk freely after the game.
Some security guards came up and talked to Alex Morgan while she was waiting. The added attention of being a well-known athlete is a double-edged sword. It exists for male athletes too. Not all female groupies are 22 and 24-36-24. But now Alex gets to experience what it's like being called the USA's World Cup Crush ...while still waiting to become a regular starter. I saw (but did not get a good photo of) a college guy who made his homemade "I love Alex Morgan" t-shirt. Of course, one wonders what Alex Morgan's boyfriend, a professional soccer player himself, thinks of all this. However, the occasional over-enthusiastic security guard and college guy (and blog post, admittedly) may be a welcome price to pay if it means consistent paychecks and respect for the league. I hope the WPS gets to struggle with this "problem" of fan enthusiasm and popularity in the near future.

Waiting for WPS: Family Time

The Women's Professional Soccer league does tend to attract a lot of young kids and their families. The question for me has always been if these young fans will grow to become regular fans. Many of us are baseball fans because our fathers and mothers took us out to the game when we were young and impressionable. Will these daughters and fathers be at WPS games five years from now? 10? 20? Who knows, but I enjoyed the family interaction in these two photos, and decided to make it a post.

Note the pink Abby Wambach jersey the little girl is wearing.

The Wait for Fans I: (Ali Krieger)

(Click any photo to see a larger version). While waiting around the game to dodge traffic, I noticed that several fans were running toward the second-level suites. Turns out that Ali Krieger, who did not play in the game, was there, and someone told the fans who she was. One aspect of women's soccer I find interesting is that unless you are told, you often don't know who is a fan or trainer, and who is a player. On the one hand, it encourages fans to think of players as real people. On the other hand, it means that there's not the natural aura one gets from staring, at, say, a Dwight Howard or Peyton Manning.

Fans look up at Ali while waiting for autographs.

I forgot just how excited young fans become when interacting with a star. Even with the blurriness of the photo, you can see the fan's smile as Ali Krieger signs her shirt.

I liked this photo for two reasons. You can see a little boy has also joined the girls in wanting an autograph (more on this later). Also, note the little girl with the soccer ball, apparently admiring an autograph she just received. Who knows if she herself will be a player some day?
Note the fan in the black top on the left. It's tough not to be nervous in waiting for an autograph. What if this adult athlete shuns you or has to go?
This might be my favorite photo in this blog. Ali was getting a bit tired at this point, but you can also see that the sweet request of the fan is endearing. I think at some point in our lives we've all been that fan holding up the slip of paper asking for an autograph.
I unfortunately did not get a photo of the fan as she left, but she and her friend were glowing. Click here for Part 2, in which Ali gets some unexpected (but needed) visitors in the autograph line...

The Wait for Fans II: (Ali Krieger)

Part I is here. As I was taking photos of Ali signing autographs, I noticed how typical the crowd was. Many young girls and their parents were trying to get an autograph. I once waited in an autograph line after a women's sports event and regretted it. Being the only male between 20 and 40, surrounded by screaming little girls and their parents, made me feel out of place. However, as I kept clicking away, something interesting caught my eye...
Two young guys ran up the steps to go get an autograph from Ali.

They started taking photos of her as they waited for their own autographs. You can also see a little boy at bottom left reaching up for an autograph, just as the girls are doing.

What is different about this photo than the others? It's dominated by men and boys. These guy fans wore pink headbands in honor of Alex Morgan, and I saw another guy who had his own handmade Alex Morgan t-shirt. In my opinion, the WPS needs to have this happen more and more often in order to survive. A cynic might note the rather crestfallen little girls waiting for their turn. But overall, I think a more diverse crowd will legitimize the WPS and keep it financially healthy.

In the end, you can see that the fans and player alike have joy from the interaction. Is it tedious? Did Ali Krieger's wrist hurt from signing so many autographs? Yes. But this is how leagues are built, unfortunately; one interaction at a time, multiplied over and over again until grassroots enthusiasm meets polished product and sophisticated marketing. Hopefully the wait will be rewarded for the WPS.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mark Jackson and the Value of a Name

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

When I heard that Mark Jackson was hired by the Warriors, I had to hide my disbelief. The point guard who ran some of the slowest offenses in the league would be now in charge of the fun-and-gun Warriors? The folks at ESPN agreed with me, as writer after writer tore into the Warriors for choosing Mark Jackson.

However, looking back at the records of star ex-players who became coaches, and TV analysts who became coaches, I'm surprised by how good those coaches became. The optimistic example for Mark is Doc Rivers, who only three years after his retirement was coaching the Magic. Kevin McHale and Larry Bird had zero assistant coach experience and still stepped in and did a halfway decent job. Also, analysts such as Hubie Brown and Doug Collins stepped in and got instant respect from their players. Honestly, I couldn't think of one analyst or player that was truly poor except for Magic Johnson. (I would have liked to see how Isiah Thomas would have done if Eddy Curry was healthy instead of hungry.)

The average NBA player would rather be coached by some guy that he's seen on TV rather than a guy who has been a no-name assistant for 20 years. The head coach doesn't need to be a star X's and O's guy himself. Being able to demand instant respect from the players the moment you walk in the door makes it much easier to wait out the inevitable player conflicts early on. It's why the NBA rarely works out for college coaches; they can't demand the same level of credibility. If Mark Jackson could handle the demands of Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing, I think he'll be able to keep Monta Ellis under control. With a guard-heavy offense in Golden State and a strong compliment of assistants, I think Mark Jackson will be a shrewd hire.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

NBA Draft Preview: Beware of Kahn Bearing Draft Picks

Much like a loyal fan of a mediocre small-market franchise, I hunt draft articles voraciously for Derrick Williams speculation. It's rare that an NBA team with a top 3 draft pick so obviously invites trade offers. And even more tempting, the Timberwolves GM is supposedly one of the weakest in the NBA. The temptation of trading overrated big-name veterans for Williams must be overwhelming. But that's not as safe a bet as you may think.

However, before you become convinced that your team needs Derrick, the NBA draft of 25 years ago offers a sobering reminder of how such trades can pan out. And no, I don't mean Len Bias. The 76'ers thought they were giving Julius Erving one last chance at a championship by acquiring Roy Hinson from the Cavaliers in exchange for the #1 pick. Please do read this 1986 article on the deal. Cleveland was in total disarray, and had a part-time scout (Gregory) playing general manager because the GM had been fired. Half the NBA was trying to fool Cleveland into giving away Hinson. Gregory was so out of his league, he freely admits to the paper that "It was like when a sergeant gets killed in a war, and the private takes over." His reasoning about why he traded Hinson is extremely simplistic, as he randomly babbles about Daughtery's hands as a major reason for acquiring Brad Daughtery.

Hinson as well sounds like the perfect opportunity for the 76'ers to reload and take down Boston. He was willing to defer to the established stars on the Sixers. Imagine the pairing that Hinson (20 and 8 in Cleveland the year before) could have been with Barkley. George Karl, Roy Hinson's former coach, was so sure of Hinson's skill that he said
"Someday, he will play in an All-Star game. I've been wrong about other things in the past, but I don't think I'm wrong about that."

That said, I still think a team we haven't heard of yet will swoop in and trade for Derrick Williams at the last moment. Also, what kind of draft piece is this if I'm leaving out baseless, uninformed speculation? I apologize. The opportunity to balance out a team that has its best players all at about the same age is too tempting to pass up. It's complicated because many of the teams with depth have it at the point guard spot (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, etc.). However, I thought of a few candidates.

Think, for example, of the Memphis Grizzlies, who have the Conley-Gay-Mayo-Gasol group all closely linked together in terms of resign dates. Memphis has steadfastly promised they would not trade Gay, but how can they avoid doing so if they want to keep Gasol? Or even, believe it or not, the Dallas Mavericks, although they have very few real assets under their control long-term other than Dirk. Mark Cuban does adore his veterans, but there's a sort of simple logic in one of the oldest teams in the league making a deal with one of the youngest teams in the league. I think the Lakers are a terrible fit, but what about (wince) the Los Angeles Clippers? The Clippers offer of Kaman for Beasley and Flynn was rejected, but I wonder if Eric Gordon could be available. (He would have to be signed to an extension, however). The matchup problems that a Williams-Griffin combination would present are quite tempting. Finally, I realized that the New York Knicks are...oh please don't tell me you thought I was serious. Your thoughts?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Is Terrelle Pryor's Value Too Low?

I read an article on Sports Illustrated web-site that ripped Terrelle Pryor's QB abilities. Don Banks, a good writer, valued Pryor as only being worth a 5th or 6th round draft pick in the upcoming supplemental draft. I might agree with Don if Terrelle had come out for the regular NFL draft. But I think that actually, some team will bid a low 3rd round or high 4th round pick for Pryor, due to some exceptional circumstances Don may have not considered.

Leverage in dealing for Kevin Kolb. Teams like the Cardinals are desperate for a quarterback, and are forced to wait until the lockout ends to try to deal for a new quarterback. If such a team can acquire Pryor, it creates the illusion of more depth at the quarterback spot. Such a team can then claim that they can get by with a veteran retread for a few years while waiting for Pryor to develop. This forces the Eagles to lower their price. If acquiring Pryor for a 4 means that a team need only offer the Eagles two second-round draft picks instead of including a first-round draft pick, it's well-worth it.

Added buzz for ticket sales for a dull team. After the lockout ends, teams may struggle selling tickets, especially if that team already had a bad reputation. The Bills, for example, had a smart draft where they avoided taking a QB and decided to stick with Ryan Fitzpatrick for now. However, Bills fans are very impatient with the team's losing style and lack of playmakers. Or, take Cincinnati, a team that had to blackout games last year. Think that such a team won't be tempted to take Pryor to boost ticket sales and lure in a few Buckeyes fans? It will also help create more competition for Dalton at a relatively cheap price.

Added playmaker for unconventional offenses. If the Dolphins were willing to spend a second-round pick on Pat White, why not spend a fourth-round pick on Pryor? For run-first teams with immobile, strong-armed QB's, why not bring in Pryor as an additional weapon? Yes, it's not exactly clear where Pryor best fits, whether QB or wide-out. But it's clear he has above-average skills. And that's enough to intrigue talent evaluators, who foam at the mouth at transition talents like Tebow, Matt Jones, Pat White, and others. Somewhere, there's a GM or coach who thinks they can use Pryor as a secret weapon, and they'll see him as a bargain.

The deceitfulness of scarcity. Imagine you are an NFL GM. The draft is over. You can't sign any undrafted free agents. You have next to nothing to do. There is literally ONE player in all of football that you can acquire. Don't you think some bored GM is talking himself into Terrelle Pryor as we speak, cackling as he thinks he will get an edge on the rest of the league? We all become bargain hunters when we think we got the last item on the shelf. Expect that instinct to persuade at least one GM to pay big for Terrelle Pryor.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blogger Bias and The Curious Case of Deadspin's SportsWriting Fixation

Many bloggers justifiably complain about the way journalists treat us like children stuck in our mother's basement. But bloggers turn around and commit their own crime against sportswriters by insisting that every column sportswriters write must contain nothing but sports content. Heaven help the sportswriter who tries to write about something that doesn't involve a ball. Sportswriters are single-minded idiot-savants who are only capable of game recaps and sports cliches. Don't believe me about this bias? Let's take some Deadspin columns as an example.

Yesterday's debut of Tom Scocca at Deadspin.com contained the usual blogger initiation ritual of painstakingly proving why yet another writer is not bloggerly enough. (Naturally, I intend to follow him through the looking glass. Hypocrisy duly noted.) He dragged out Deadspin's Barbaro, err, favorite dead horse for yet another beating.

Tom decided to lecture us all on the dastardly sin of a writer not writing about sports. He assumes that we are all on Deadspin to read about sports, not his life. Tom clearly underestimates my desire to waste time by any means that won't get me fired, but I appreciate his high estimation of my principles. I'm also totally taking that yoga class just to improve my health. It's strange that as Deadspin contains less and less sports content (and higher and higher pageviews), they still fail to realize the trend elsewhere. Yes, I'll read about a sportswriter's life, if it's interesting and the alternative is a derivative game recap I've read elsewhere. Why wouldn't I?

Tom then asks us "In the week when the Mavericks were putting together the most unexpected Finals triumph since the Billups-Wallace-Wallace Pistons beat the Lakers, who needed an essay telling the story of how Wright Thompson dreamed of growing up to be a Writer and drinking in the Big City?" For Tom, Wright Thompson's major crime appears to be that he has not joined the herd of sportswriters using second-rate psychology and thinly disguised stereotypes to write the 10000th column about the NBA Finals. Wright Thompson is not writing about sports. Thus Wright Thompson must be lectured by Deadspin to be more sports-focused. Why?

I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but at some time Deadspin decided to kindly mentor confused writers and keep them focused on sportswriting. They are not alone in this, but I've noticed it so often that I started keeping track. A brief history of Deadspin's odd fixation with not allowing sportwriters to have any non-sports fun follows. I'll allow much of it to stand alone without commentary, and eagerly await your explanation as to why this tendency exists.

One of my favorite examples is this article by Jack Dickey admonishing writers for mentioning their own Japan experiences in articles. A sportswriter writes about the Japan disaster and mentions that she once lived in Tokyo as the reason for her interest in the story. But the defense of a writer wondering if her friends died isn't enough to dissuade Jack from bringing this non-sports writing monster to justice. He writes "But she is exploiting the disaster for her own ends just as surely as Pondexter was, even if their means of expression differ." Exploiting! As everyone knows, mentioning a hot news story on a low-traffic sports site is the ultimate SEO bait. There's no way such an article would get buried under 126234 CNN news stories. So Dickey's main problem is that a sportswriter writing about a non-sports topic would get more pageviews than usual? Interesting.

"Mitch Albom Is The Greatest Writer Who Occasionally Writes About Sports" (Title)
"He abandoned the art of lyrical game stories and statistical sidebars to write nu-religion feel-good-about-feeling-bad fiction and there's no reason that anyone else shouldn't follow him." --Dashiell Bennett

"Big Ben’s Woman Problems The Result Of Stunted Psychosexual Development, Says Guy Who Writes About Sports" --Tommy Craggs

"You might have noticed that this is more accurately a list of things that distract Bill Plaschke. Distract him, a sports writer, from having to come up with actual sports things to write about. Lamar Odom won't play poorly because he went on TV, and he won't overcome the adversity of said TV show to play well." "Barry Petchesky"

"Yes, Gladwell is an effortless writer who manages to only occasionally sound like a PowerPoint slide. And yes, he clearly knows his sports. But to say he might be our best sportswriter is to suggest he is, in fact, writing about sports, which he most definitely isn't. Sports are incidental to him, just the front end of another in a long series of tedious analogies, as often as not to management culture (basketball is batch processing!). As it is, we're up to our bow ties in slumming dilettantes seeking out tiny epiphanies in sports. The last thing we need is to start anointing another." --Tommy Craggs

So why are bloggers, particularly Deadspin, so angry when sportswriters fail to stick to sports? I thought Barry's words about Page 2 well-described why I like it when sportswriters do not stick to sports. I look forward to your comments as to why bloggers keep insisting sportswriters only talk about sports.
"But to do it with humor, to give talented writers a sandbox where they wouldn't be beholden to typical rules was something new. Remember, at this point, a web site was seen as a newspaper on a computer. It's not a stretch to say Page 2 was a muse for a generation of sports bloggers, unconstrained by the need to write a nutgraph, or even about sports at all. It was a template of irreverence." --Barry Petchesky

Friday, February 25, 2011

NBA Trades and Traps

Yesterday's trading deadline led to a lot of last-minute excitement, and I've been devouring blogs ever since trying to read all the analysis. Here are a few points that stood out to me:

Welcome to 2011, NBA offices! Believe it or not, in this day and age, the NBA still requires teams to call in trades, and only has one line for them to do so. Naturally, several teams are calling at 3PM, which led to this amazing paragraph from the Indianapolis Star about the voided trade for OJ Mayo:
"Sources told The Star, though, that the Pacers called the league at 3 p.m. to notify them of the three-team deal, and were on hold, waiting to get into the league's queue, when the deadline passed at 3:01 p.m. While the Pacers were waiting, New Orleans apparently backed out of the deal -- which wouldn't have been consummated anyway, since the league insisted it was 3:01."
You're telling us that the fate of multi-million dollar trades are in the hands of...a phone queue? NBA teams can't email in trades before 3:00 PM? Really? The office can't do a little verification to make sure that Bird324236@aol.com is really Larry Bird and then let him email in a trade?

I had hoped, in an age of more voices and choices, that people would stop pretending that Mark Cuban is a voice of reason in the NBA wilderness. He somehow managed to convince many writers that his having to pay the prorated salary of Carl Landry was "wrong every which way" according to this ESPN article. But let's run the numbers on how much personally comes out of Mark Cuban's pocket for this deal. The difference in salary is 2,240,000 million, pro-rated. Given that most teams have already played about 59 games, that means that the Hornets must only pay 23/82 of Carl Landry's salary. Now, Mark Cuban is personally responsible for 1/29 of that. Roughly, that means that Mark Cuban is shelling out 1% of 2.24 million, which is...are you ready? $21,655. I would bet many of you make more than that each year. THAT is the amount Mark Cuban is complaining about paying. Seems like Cuban's generosity has died out quite a bit since hosting "The Benefactor"-and since no one remembers what that is, here's a link.

Finally, a quick note about an underrated winner of draft day deals. By trading Billups and Anthony, Denver has eliminated two of its slowest, most methodical players from the lineup. The point guards are now Felton (taught in D'Antoni's offense) and Lawson, well-known for his quickness. A quicker team with a deep bench, playing in the high air of Denver, coached by a guy who has struggles with stars but gets a lot out of deep teams. I'm not quite crazy enough to predict a play-off upset, but might this Denver team be able to wear out the older Lakers, Spurs, and/or Mavs in a first-round series and push a series to 6-7 games? And what would that mean for the Thunder, if given the opportunity to play an already weary veteran team in Round 2? Let me know how crazy this idea is in the comments.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Making the Playoffs in the NBA West...Without Trades

In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, a few games can make difference between having home-court advantage and being out of the play-offs. GM's will be jockeying to collect that needed backup point guard that will hopefully make a two to three win difference. Most NBA analysts tend to overvalue the effect of trading deadline deals in helping a team. (This is why I think the Magic's decision to make moves far ahead of time will eventually pay dividends in the playoffs). But what about players who may make a substantial leap before the play-offs?

Let's take a closer look at West teams who are at .500 or above but who do not seem to be locks to make the play-offs. What young player's improvement could fuel a second-half surge?
1. Marcin Gortat, Suns.
Key Game: Boston, January 28. 19 points, 17 rebounds in a Phoenix win.
Signs of Life: As detailed by Valley of the Suns, Marcin went on a recent tear where he scored in double figures in 8 of 9 games. While Phoenix is still hanging around .500, if Gortat can average a double-double nightly (10.3 ppg and 7.9 rebounds at present), Phoenix could make the play-offs again.
2. Sam Young, Grizzlies.
Key Game: Los Angeles Lakers, February 7. 22 points in a 9-point Grizzlies loss.
Signs of Life: Like Gortat, Sam put together a recent string of good games, scoring 10 or more points in seven of the eight Grizzlies games from January 28 to February 8. The Grizzlies have not coincidentally gone 7-3 in their last 10 games to climb above .500. While the Thabeet Experience may yet hang over the franchise, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate Memphis' grade on drafting and developing young talent.
3. Wesley Matthews, Blazers.
Key Game: None.
Signs of Life: Have a friend who considers himself or herself a die-hard NBA fan? Ask him/her how many 30-point games Wesley Matthews has had this season. It's four, surprisingly. Once supposedly signed for defense, Matthews has had some impressive games. However, the problem for the Blazers is that Matthews has yet to show an ability to take over against good teams. Of course, it's a small sample size so far. If Matthews can find a way to have some great games against the best in the West, Portland may yet avoid the Spurs in Round 1.
4. No one, Jazz.
Key Game: The one in which the Jazz trailed after the first quarter.
Signs of Death: I went through the Utah Jazz roster in hopes of finding some hidden gem or prospects for improvement for this season. I see why Jerry Sloan retired. CJ Miles and Ronnie Price have been around the league for too long to be still considered works in progress, and Gordon Hayward is still a rookie getting used to the league. I would hate to see it, as I grew up loving Stockton and Malone. But don't be surprised if Utah falls out of the play-offs. Even the vaunted home-court advantage is nearly gone, as Utah has already lost 11 games at home this year (17-11).
5. Arron Affalo, Denver.
Key Game: Dallas Mavericks, February 10, 24 points and game-winning shot.
Signs of Life: After not even averaging double-figures last season, Arron went on a tear throughout the pre-season and first few games. Since then, Arron has seemingly cooled off. He reminds me a lot of Wesley Matthews in that before this season, he was considered as more of a defender than scorer. But as Ball Don't Lie pointed out, Affalo has been consistently improving over time. I doubt Carmelo will give this team a second chance. But the future backcourt of Affalo and Lawson makes me think that this Denver team may have a larger window to contend than previously thought.