Saturday, July 28, 2012

Passing the torch

I mentioned in a blog two years ago an issue about the Olympics that I should cover at some point down the road. We've reached that point, now that the Games of London are underway as proclaimed by the skydiving monarch of the United Kingdom.

I understand the interest in the Olympics as a concept. It's downright romantic. The entire world's best athletes gather together in one place every four years for peaceful sporting competition. The storylines are usually remarkable. Everyone once in a while, someone from your hometown makes it to the national team, adding to the drama. The flag, the oath, the torch, the flame.

And we watch them. The television ratings are truly huge, especially when applied to a global scale.

Here's the question, then: Where is the carryover effect for Olympic sports? Why don't we care much unless there are Olympic rings involved?

You want examples? I've got a bunch of high-profile ones.

Michael Phelps is by any definition a great, great athlete. He certainly is one of the best swimmers ever, if not the best. Winning eight gold medals in one Olympics in 2008 was remarkable, squared.

Did anyone pay much attention to what he's been doing in the last four years? (Note: This doesn't not include out-of-the-water activities.) Seen much swimming on television lately? Didn't think so.

Usain Bolt is a marketer's dream. He's as dynamic a performer as we've had in track and field in a long time, a sprinter you'd pay to see. Throw in the fact that he's a big kid at heart with a great personality, and a name that's just made for his sport, and we should be drowning in him in person or on television.

Nope. You've got to look hard to just find track on TV or staged at a high level in this country.

I would think gymnastics probably fits into the same class. We've been paying attention to women's gymnastics since Olga Korbut in 1972. A few break through into the public eye for a while after the game, but not many. If the Americans do well, they make some money right after the Games on a tour at an arena near you, and then we spectators get ready for the next NFL game.

Swimming, track and gymnastics -- those are three of the biggest attractions in the summer games. There's not much carryover in attention.

Some sports that use professional stars do well in the Olympics, but it's the stars that are driving the attention. LeBron James, Roger Federer and Serena Williams were superstars before they got to London this week. They will leave the same way, no matter what happens. (Tangent: The NHL's best players are in the same class for hockey, but the Olympics have become a world championship for all concerned, drawing attention to the game. The NHL still can't figure out a way to make this work out for it.)

Admittedly, NBC is trying to change that a bit. Now that is has its own sports network in NBCSN, it has some space on the electromagnetic spectrum to promote some of Olympic events. Track and swimming popped up quite a bit earlier this year when the Trials were held. It's a natural first step.

But changing habits in the sporting world by viewers and spectators isn't easy. It's a crowded schedule, and we're well trained to think that the Olympics, and only the Olympics, belong on the personal calendar for watching some sports. Keep an eye out for breakthroughs in the next 16 days, but don't hold your breath.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

High cost of travel

I know that cities love it when conventions come to their city limits. They bring people with money to spend, usually their company's money. Political conventions are particularly good ones, since they draw delegates, media members, and lobbyists. The city can get a little crowded that way.

But for those of us who aren't on expense accounts ... whew.

I had planned to take a trip to Tampa in late August on personal business. Then I was reminded that the Republican National Convention was going to be there at the same time. OK, I wasn't planning on staying in a downtown hotel, so how much of a soaking could I take?

I checked the plane fares first, and there were seats available at respectable prices ... especially if I left on a Saturday with most people going home from the convention on a Friday. Then I moved on to rental car rates. Ouch. 

For a six-day rental, the lowest rate I could find for a car was about $490. The others were around $550. And I didn't check Hertz and Avis, who traditionally are more expensive than the other companies.

For comparison's sake, I rented a car in Tampa for the same time period earlier in the year. It was $211. You'll be stunned to know that none of the coupons in the books worked this time either. OK, maybe you won't.

I wondered what hotel prices had hit for that week, but it was difficult to find a decent one that had a room available. There wasn't an available spot at a Holiday Inn throughout the Tampa Bay area. There were some rooms in fine Motel 6's in Clearwater available, though.

It reminds me of the time a friend of mine went to the Super Bowl in Dallas about 18 months ago. When he checked out of the hotel, he was afraid to look at the bill. Someone else said the Hampton Inn was charging something like $250 a night.

I can hear my friend Glenn reading this and saying, "Gouging tourists at a convention? I'm shocked. SHOCKED." Still, it's fun to see the numbers.

I know I won't get to see Mitt Romney in August (I know he can afford the rental car prices, even if the Bush tax cuts expire), but maybe we'll get together later.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Downhill rides

I've made a couple of field trips this month to sporting locations this month. Buffalo Raceway and Coca-Cola Field have something in common: they aren't what they used to be in terms of attendance.

The racetrack probably is the more interesting of the two places from an observer's standpoint. The issues surrounding horse racing have been quite well documented. The Sport of Kings, whatever that means, was big news back through the 1960's or so. Heck, the local sportscasters used to give the daily double on their late night television shows every night, even though there was no off-track betting and in theory the only people who would be interested were at the track and thus knew how it came out. I guess the key words there are "in theory."

But horse racing has had some problems since then. Other entertainment options have multiplied. The industry was ill-equipped to embrace television when it arrived in full force around that times. Racing officials thought opening the doors would always be enough, and it didn't take long to disprove that theory. For most people, horse racing devolved down to the Triple Crown races unless you lived near Saratoga in August, which had a unique county fair atmosphere that pulls in thousands of fans a day.

Around that time, governments decided to use other forms of gambling in an effort to raise money. The lotteries cane first, followed in many states by casinos filled with slot machines. Suddenly there were plenty of legal ways to bet and lose their money as racing lost its monopoly. Not only that, but it was much easier to make a wager on some numbers or on the pull of a handle as opposed to trying to figure out which horse might win a race. You had to think, and plenty of people don't want to do that. The result has been predictable. The pot is being split into too many piles so that even the casinos aren't doing as well as they used to do. Racing, at the bottom of the list, is really struggling. Locally, Fort Erie race track may close at the end of the year if it doesn't find a buyer.

A trip to Buffalo Raceway now is an odd experience. The grandstand is as big as it ever was, but it was almost completely empty. That always gives a "what are we doing here?" atmosphere. We hung out in the air conditioned clubhouse this hot summer night, and there were many rows of empty tables there as well. I suppose it could be argued that people had better things to do on July 4, but on the other hand virtually everyone wasn't working and thus had the opportunity to show up if they so chose. With so few people in the building -- it's hard to judge, but couldn't have been more than a couple of hundred -- I swear that a $2 show bet changed the betting odds significantly.

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, the plight of the Buffalo Bisons recently received some publicity through this article by Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. While no one expected attendance to stay at the million-per-year levels of the late 1980's when the team moved into the new ballpark, the numbers do keep dropping.

The Bisons put a lot of promotional muscle into their three big events of July - the annual July 3 show with the Buffalo Philharmonic, the AAA Home Run Derby and the AAA All-Star Game. It paid off with big crowds for all of them. But for the most part, the only time that crowds turn is when fireworks are part of the program. As I've said to Mike, the Bisons seem to be more in the fireworks business at times than the baseball business.

I went the other night to a Bisons' game. It was a perfect night for summer baseball. It had the added advantage of having a popular promotion, as the first 4,000 fans received replicas of City Hall. (I even showed up early to make sure I got one.) But there were fewer people than that who actually stuck around to watch the game; some people grabbed the model and then went home. It wasn't a particularly interesting game, but that's the luck of the draw -- the games the night before and the night after had plenty of excitement.

The problem in both cases is that there's no sure cure for either venue's problems. Better horses aren't exactly a lure these days, and the race tracks certainly don't have much money for promotions.

Meanwhile, it doesn't hurt a baseball team to win, but I can't say I've ever heard many people say, "I'm not going to see the Bisons play this week, because they aren't very good right now." A change in team affiliation comes up in such situations. But, it's tough to believe that many teams would be more popular than the Mets as a parent club. Yes, the Yankees are the most popular major-league team in town, but they aren't going anywhere. There is a lot of Mets' clothing that is worn by fans during Bisons' home games, more than I ever saw during the Cleveland and Pittsburgh days. Mets' games are shown on local television, so it's easy to follow ex-Bisons as they move up the ladder. It's difficult to think that a switch to the Blue Jays would do much good for attendance, even if the on-field product was better.

There's no great point to all this. It wouldn't be surprising to see Buffalo Raceway get out of the horse racing business and stick to slot machines. The Bisons aren't going away, but crowds averaging 10,000 a night aren't coming back soon either.Enjoy the present while you can, kids, because the future is more of an unknown that you could ever guess.

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Friday, July 13, 2012


It would have been so much easier in the old days.

The investigative report on Penn State athletics, so massive and so damning, would have landed on someone's desk with a giant thud. You would have realized that just by the trees felled for its contents.

Now we have to settle for a pdf file from the Internet. But once we open it ... sigh.

It's such a big story, it's difficult to wrap one's arms around it. After all, this was Penn State, where things supposedly were done differently. Yes, the Nittany Lions had their problems, but their eyes were always on the bigger picture. But it turned out that Penn State was just another big football program, an institution worried about itself over everything else. And I do mean everything else.

What I don't get is ... why?

In 1998, the first public evidence of Jerry Sandusky's abuses apparently came to light in the Penn State athletic department. Sandusky was a trusted assistant to legendary coach Joe Paterno for several years. I could understand it if Sandusky was eased out the door quietly in order to avoid embarrassment for all concerned. It would have been horrible and probably illegal, but I have seen first-hand horrible personal conduct go unpunished in organizations. Indeed, Sandusky did leave the team's coaching staff in 1999.

But he went off to work for a children's charity he had created called The Second Mile. These are smart men at Penn State, as otherwise they wouldn't be there. Can you think of a worse place for Sandusky than that? Not only did they not discreetly order that he get some help ... NOW ... and make sure he did, but they literally and figuratively gave him the keys to the athletic department kingdom.

Then in 2002, a Penn State graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, walked in on an incident between Sandusky and a young boy in the shower. McQueary reported the incident to Paterno in an action, in that atmosphere, comes across as heroic. From there, Paterno at best passed the story along and appeared to do almost nothing about it. Certainly Sandusky's status didn't change. Shouldn't alarm bells have gone off somewhere?

And, what happened after that? Sandusky was presumably visible in State College in the nine years after that. He was in a suite during home football games. What were Paterno and other administrators thinking when they saw him? That Sandusky had "solved" his problem? That they had protected a friend and saved the university embarrassment?

In other words, why?

The story finally broke, as it often does. The friend is in jail, and the university is beyond embarrassed. Penn State will be feeling the effects of this for years. The pending civil cases from the victims are coming, and the damages are going to be massive. Today's report can be exhibit A for all of those cases.

Meanwhile, a saint has turned into a sinner. I once talked to a Penn State athletic department employee about working with Paterno. His answer, way back when, was that he had heard so many good things about Paterno, he thought JoePa was too good for true. But, dealing with Paterno was even better than he expected, he said. Guess his initial reaction was correct.

Paterno did say when the story broke that he should have done more, something that applies to everyone involved. Too late now, gentlemen. The ones who remain will have to ponder "why?" every time they think about the sad story, as will the victims for the rest of their lives.

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Monday, July 09, 2012

From the beginning...

Bruce Springsteen gets a little help on a song from his first album from the Roots during a concert in Denmark:

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Peak performance in hockey

When I worked for the Buffalo Sabres from 1986 to 1992, one of my jobs was to look over statistics to see if I could come up with interesting facts for the team's media guide and press notes for each game. Since I had been reading baseball analyst Bill James for a few years at this point, my work went beyond traditional areas. In other words, I was concerned with more than how Phil Housley did in home games versus road games. In addition, general manager Gerry Meehan liked this sort of work and encouraged me to do it.

One of the basic pieces of information in evaluating hockey talent centers around age. In question form:, it's expressed as "When does a hockey player peak in terms of offensive production?" So, I tried to find out.

I took a bunch of active players who had played for at least six years in the NHL, and in some cases many more, and wrote down their points year by year. A player's best season got a score of 100, and his others were a percentage of that figure. So, if Dave Andreychuk scored 100 points at age 28 for a career high, age 28 received a score of 100. If he scored 50 points at age 22, that received a 50. Do that for about 80 players, average the numbers, and the classic bell curve emerges.

The averages peak around the age of 25 in hockey, which is younger than I thought it would be. I assigned that age a rating of 100, and expressed the other ages as a percentage of that. For example, a 24-year-old scores 96.5 percent as many points on average as he does at 25. (Ages were taken on January 1 of a given year.)

I redid the numbers a few years ago using the same system, and the results were close to identical. It's not a perfect bell curve, particularly at the extremes because of a small sample size, but close. Here are the numbers:

Age 18 - 53.9                                      Age 29 - 81.2
Age 19 - 70.1                                      Age 30 - 78.6
Age 20 - 78.1                                      Age 31 - 75.7
Age 21 - 92.8                                      Age 32 - 69.8
Age 22 - 93.6                                      Age 33 - 72.9
Age 23 - 89.5                                      Age 34 - 62.9
Age 24 - 96.5                                      Age 35 - 64.0
Age 25 - 100.0                                    Age 36 - 59.2
Age 26 - 98.3                                      Age 37 - 66.9
Age 27 - 87.2                                      Age 38 - 89.1
Age 28 - 85.8                                      Age 39 - 43.9

By the way, I only had one player-season for ages 38 and 39, and two for age 18, so don't take those numbers too seriously.

This obviously has implications for player decisions. We might think that a team is getting a "young player" when a newcomer trades for a 25-year-old. Yet, statistically, the numbers tell us that his level of scoring at that point is about as high as it ever will be. It's a young man's game.

Think about free agency. Any player who is eligible for unrestricted free agency is going to be over the age of 25. Therefore, he should not be expected to produce as much as he did in the previous year. A slightly lower scoring total might be considered "disappointing" by fans, but you can't fight Father Time.

Admittedly, this is just the average number. Some players might peak later in their careers, perhaps because they are in a better situation (more ice time, better linemates, better team, etc.). This also doesn't judge intangibles. A hockey player might be a better all-around performer at 28 than at 25 because he's had more experience, but it might not be reflected in points.

I once exchanged letters with another hockey fans who tried to answer the same question in a different way. I forget his method, but his conclusion about when a player peaked was the same one that I drew -- which we both considered a sign that we were on the right track.

Therefore, don't expect Zach Parise, who will be 28 later this month, to pick up his game several notches when he joins the Minnesota Wild in the fall. The odds say his production will drop from what he did in New Jersey.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

I know what you were thinking

Here's the best part of the aftermath of last week's Supreme Court decision: commentators have become mind-readers.

As you know if you have been paying attention (and according to the polls, almost half of the population isn't), the Court ruled that the individual mandate for President Obama's health care package was indeed Constitutional. This has forced every commentator and most politicians in the country to talk about Chief Justice John Roberts' surprising vote to allow the legislation to survive when his almost-equally conservative side of the court voted to throw it in the trash can.

The commentary was pretty predictable, breaking down by the usual partisan lines that often spoil any sort of worthwhile debate in this country. The ever-bizarre Glenn Beck called Roberts a "coward," even selling t-shirts to that effect. No, Glenn, you're wrong as usual. The cowardly thing to do would have been to vote as he always did, with the right wing of the court, even if he didn't agree with the logic involved. Then there's Senator Paul of Kentucky, who said famously that just because the Supreme Court says an act is constitutional doesn't make it constitutional. Um, send that man a high school social studies book. That's exactly the Supreme Court's job. Come to think of it, the junior Senator could use a lot of high school text books based on his public remarks.

Commentators have guessed that Roberts was somehow worried about his legacy as Chief Justice. That he wanted the people through Congress to decide the issue rather than have the Court strike it down unilaterally. That he was hoping to prove that he didn't march in lockstep with Justice Scalia (see Clarence Thomas).

All's I could think about was something Justice Roberts said in Buffalo some time ago during a public appearance. When asked about a ruling, he essentially said, that's why we write opinions. The justics explain what their thinking is when voting that way. Why is this so difficult to understand?

The health care mandate was an odd way of approaching the subject. Instead of simply putting on a tax to cover the costs, the writers of the bill applied a penalty for not joining the health care plan. It places the costs on the back end instead of the front end, essentially. That's a unique approach, which is why it was part of the debate. The "taxing power" concept was not the primary argument for allowing the bill to stand, but it did come up.

Roberts ruled that while the mandate wasn't constitutional through the commerce clause of the Constitution, it was legal because of the taxing authority given to Congress. Period. And that's a defensible position as I read it. You can argue the opposite point, and that's what makes Supreme Court cases and horse racing wagering -- differences of opinion.

Naturally, the Republican leadership jumped all over the "tax" word by claiming the health care program was a new tax. Since taxes seem to be all the GOP leaders seem to care about at times, we could see that coming. The Democrats pointed out that just because the penalties come from the authority to tax doesn't make itself a tax. We're really splitting rhetorical hairs here.

The government tells us to do all sorts of things, from paying taxes to stopping at red lights. I don't see this as a huge strike against our liberties. We all had a form of health insurance before, since anyone who shows up at a hospital door with an emergency has had to be treated thanks to laws passed in every state in the land. However, it's an incredibly inefficient system on every level. We'll have to see if President Obama's plan fulfills its promises, but the goals of covering those with preexisting conditions and those without access to basic, preventative care seem worthwhile.

In the meantime, Justice Roberts wasn't asked to rule on any of that. He just did what he thought was right. I think that's the idea.

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