Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why UFC Is Winning

White On Whiter Crime
Last Saturday night, one of the regulars in my poker game hosted his own tournament in a brand-new basement space, and invited me over. The night at the tables went well, but that's not really the point. And yes, this will get back to marketing and advertising soon enough. Anyway...

My man has a fine new big screen TV, and had also splurged on the Ultimate Fighting Championship pay per view. I've been moderately familiar with the sport from just general cultural awareness, but had never seen an event up close. And while I'm long past the event horizon for becoming a fan, it's clear from just one viewing as to why the sport has made such inroads in certain demographics. Let's get into it.

* * * * *

1) It delivers what it promises.

In 11 fights, there were definitive winners (knock out or submission) in six events, with clear decisions (unanimous judging) in four others. If what works for you in sports is a clear winner and a clear loser, there really isn't anything more definitive than the end of an average MMA contest.

2) There's no "slow" play.

There doesn't seem to be such a thing as pointing your opponent to defeat, a la Floyd Mayweather, in a long and boring event where only the most discerning eye seems to acquire any worth from the contest. With so many offensive disciplines on the table, defense in UFC seems to be a case of ending your opponent's efforts before they end yours. Waiting them out, not so much. Which makes for a far more compelling spectacle.

3) There's a set schedule.

UFC events are numbered for a reason, and that reason is that the people who are watching this one seem absolutely locked into watching the next one. Which will be in three weeks, and the one after that is already on the calendar as well. Unlike boxing, where fans have to sometimes wait for years to see the fight they want, UFC fans know when their next fix is coming, and can plan accordingly.

4) It's pretty much impossible to not watch.

As noted above, I'm not a fight guy. I was in the room to play poker. But when the fight was live, the game was not, because that's just the nature of two people who might, well, fundamentally alter the course of the life of the other, in front of you. There's a reason why this sort of thing goes back eons, and why the competitors who seem more skilled at drawing the ire of the crowd get even more attention than anyone else. You can call it a train wreck if you like, but you're still watching.

5) There's no learning curve to new viewers.

Football, basketball, baseball: all have fairly arcane rules that can cause a new viewer to, well, ruin it for experts in the room by asking basic questions. As advanced mathematics come into play for player evaluations, the barrier to entry increases, because no one wants to explain all of that as well. UFC has more strategy and statistics than a casual observer might imagine, but you really don't need to know any of them to understand what's going on. Two people are trying to do massive and sudden violence to each other. You can ignore the statistics if you like.

6) It's (cheerfully) niche and exclusionary.

If you find this kind of sport to be morally repugnant, or the human equivalent of cockfighting, or something that just shows the worst of human behavior glorified and made fiscally lucrative... well, you aren't going to be watching it. Ever. Which means that the people who are watching it don't ever have to hear from you, as football fans have to during the run-up to the Super Bowl, or baseball fans have to with people who think their game is dull during the World Series, or basketball fans, or hockey fans, or soccer fans, and so on, and so on. There's big money in MMA (UFC is said to be worth $2 billion now, or 100X what it sold for in 2001), and yet it still has the feel of a shared secret, without watered down fantasy league fans or office pools.

7) It's going to get bigger, and probably better, with international scalability.

Like big special effects movies, you don't have to show massive artistic worth to make this product cross borders (or, likely, even a translation). There's a reason why boxers used to be worldwide celebrities. MMA fighters may not have the same level of appeal or career length, but so long as the events come out routinely and avoid high impropriety, there's no reason whatsoever to think the top of the wave is in sight.

Is there a gating element on the horizon? Well, sure. The nature of the sport is primal and exclusionary, and at some point, a fatality might occur in a high visibility event. (Some Web research tells me that there have been a handful so far in lesser leagues, but so far, the incidents have been less than boxing, which isn't exactly the highest of praise.) That potential might keep mainstream advertising away, though there's certainly a lot of big brands already on the telecast. The history of combat sports is one of inevitable corruption, because gamblers only need to get to one person to create fraud. That's probably going to happen here, if it hasn't already.

But in terms of what I saw in the room? Mainstream sports wish they had this level of attachment from their audiences. Which means it's also a DVR-free experience, and a high value marketing and advertising opportunity for targeted demographics.

Top 10 reasons why the NBA didn't give Dwight Howard an ejection for his Game Four flagrant foul

Yeah, Kinda Flagrant
10) Andrew Bogut is big, and hence, someone you can swing an elbow at with abandon

9) Howard is still enough of a star to get away with this, because the NBA kind of needs him to be

8) Better story for when he snaps and cheap shots someone while down 20 in Game Five

7) Someone told Rod Thorn that Throwback Tuesday was a thing

6) Didn't want to give the Rockets any kind of motivation to get to Game Six

5) Mark Jackson called in one last Screw Bogut favor

4) Everybody knows that the closer you get to a suspension for technicals, the more leeway you get in earning one

3) No one wants to see just how much the Warriors would intentionally foul Clint Capela

2) It's not as if Howard is a terrible human being who has boned multiple franchises, unlike that J.R. Smith monster

1) As Howard wasn't competent enough to actually hurt Bogut, he needs to be back in there to get a second chance

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Brief and Obvious Point About MLB Players Wearing Camouflage Gear on Memorial Day

Camo Ching
I'm sure that the following is going to be misun- derstood, but so be it.

MLB is donating $30 million to veterans' related causes, so that makes the sale of all of this camouflage gear OK, right? 

Um, no. Sorry.

If you want to honor the sacrifices of the service members, you don't make it a "yes and" moment. You just make the donation, and if you are truly charitable about it, you make it more than a one-time check writing greenwash moment.

You make a continued stink about the scandal that is the VA's inability to upgrade their services and get coverage faster.

You make a political stink for the long haul, and don't just back away behind your merch sales. You also don't try to make back your check through the sale of merch that, in all likelihood, is priced at 10X your cost, or maybe more, given how much stuff is made overseas.

If you, personally, want to honor the troops on your day off today, that's fine. Go to a hospital and volunteer. Start a continuing commitment to causes like Wounded Warrior. Tell the vets in your life how much they mean to you.

Or, better yet, support any and all efforts, now or in the future, to prosecute anyone that ever participates or encourages putting our people in harm's way, especially when it turns out to be in the service of corporate interests, or in the support of a base lie.

You say you love our veterans?

Then let's work to make sure we don't have so goddamned many of them.

And if you are MLB?

You use your political clout to do something more than pinkwashing with camouflage.

Because veterans, more so than the general public or your media enablers... are smart enough to see through this BS...

The Tyranny Of King James

Horford's Exit
Tonight in Cleveland, Atlanta played with the kind of desperation and energy that a coach can only dream of. Bench guys came in and made big shots on the road. They stood in the face of the fire of Prime LeBron and came back in the fourth quarter. They shook off end of clock threes and despairing dunks. They even held a lead late in the fourth and in overtime, with PG Jeff Teague finally showing the pure aggro that they'd need, especially with Kyrie Irving out with injury.

But at the end of all things, the Cavs had LeBron James, who threw down a ridiculous triple double (37/18/13). The Hawks missed a couple of missed open threes that could have sent it to double overtime. The Cavs now lead 3-0, and no one in the NBA has ever come back from down 3-0.

It's James' 12th career playoff triple double, which makes him second on that list, behind only Jason Kidd, who would usually only get 37 in 3 games. No one has ever had a game like that in the playoffs, and oh by the way, James started 0-for-10 and scoreless in the first quarter. Games like this are why I think James might be the best player in NBA history, simply because he does this kind of thing with less help. If James is off the floor, I don't think this Cavs team gets home court in the West. James is a game away from his fifth straight chance to win it all, and he's doing it with starting teammates who were part of the worst teams in the NBA in Denver and New York. As good as his numbers are, what he allows his teammates to do might be even bigger.

It's hard, honestly, to overstate James' contribution tonight. Had the Hawks won this game, it's 2-1 with the Cavs looking wounded, with Irving down and James, at some point, likely to lose tread with various cramps and knee issues. If the Cavs can close out the Hawks in Game Four -- and that's not a given, seeing how hard the Hawks tried tonight, down multiple starters -- they'll get a week and change off before the Finals, and no one will remember just how close this was to being an actual series.

There will be side chatter about Matthew Delevedova getting into his third incident in two weeks -- Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, and now, Al Horford -- and some kind words for Kent Bazemore and Tristan Thompson. But you can save yourself a lot of time and worry here. The Cavs have the best player on the planet, in a conference where only three of the top 15 players in the NBA play. The second of those guys is James' teammate. He's a bully in a small playground, and the lEast might have been won on the day he chose to stay in conference.

Finally, this. There's been a lot of one-note attack on what Sixers' GM Sam Hinkie has been doing for the past couple of years, or how teams in the East have just been unwilling to step up their game to combat James. Then you see games like tonight, and on some level, you just understand it. The only opponent that's strong enough to defeat James in the East is the one that gets all great players in the end -- age. And that might come sooner than you think.

James is 30 now, and will be 31 in December. He's already played over 43,000 minutes when you add in the playoff minutes. By comparison, he'll have played as much as Michael Jordan did when he was 34 and walking away from the game in Chicago for the second time. He's already played more combined minutes than Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Wait, there's more. The full list of active players with more regular season minutes than James reads like a graveyard. Antawn Jamison (he's active?), Joe Johnson, Jason Terry, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. He's 12th in all-time playoff minutes, with the only actives ahead being Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

Which makes tonight's Cavs win... bigger than even Game Five and Six when they turned the tide against the Bulls. This can't continue forever, even in games like this one, when it looks like it will.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Growing Up Dubs: The Warriors Go Up 3-0

Curry, Inside, With The Testes
Coming into tonight's game, it was clear what was going to happen. After two close losses on the road, the Rockets were going to come back home and get their obvious win over the happy to be ahead Warriors. Houston had played too well, the home crowd would be too amped up, and most importantly, the Warriors would be satisfied enough to be up, rather than come out with clear fire in their eyes and go for the kill shot to the series.

So what happened? The game was over by halftime... for the road club. In a series where big early advantages have melted faster than ice cream on a hot day, there was no great run and challenge. The Warriors switched defensive adjustments on James Harden, Stephen Curry came out and crushed the weak Rocket point guards, and the Warriors won by a shocking 35 points.

How bad was it? The Warriors took their first lead four minutes into the game, took their second lead at five minutes, and never trailed again. They didn't turn the ball over in the first quarter, and when the Dubs aren't turning the ball over, they are terrifying. The bench looked better than the Rocket starters, and the Dubs scored dunks after Rocket made baskets, which really should not ever happen. Harden was turned into a low efficiency scorer, and Curry out-bumped Howard and took away an o-board away from him in a sequence that was more emasculating than any dunk facial you have ever seen. Rockets coach Kevin McHale called his team's effort into question, and the vast majority of this one could be called garbage time.

And sure, the Rockets are prone to falling apart against anyone at any time, because when your second and third best players are Howard and Josh Smith, you can fall apart at any time... but to me, this had much more to say about the Warriors than the Rockets. In the past, under Mark Jackson, they were far too content to just get back home with any kind of lead, knowing that their home court was such a strong advantage. In these playoffs, they are now 5-1 on the road. In the past, under Jackson, they'd keep the same defensive matchups, with Jackson going for motivational speeches over switches. In these playoffs, under head coach Steve Kerr, they make adjustments, and they've been unfailingly accurate. In the past, Curry would wear down and get exploited on defense. Now, Curry gets quasi-rest minutes on offense when Shaun Livingston comes in, because Livingston is long and defensively active, whereas past Dub bench guards were sieves.

With both conference finals looking to be the minimum, we're looking at up to nine days off, a ridiculous amount of time, before Game 1 of Dubs-Cavs on Thursday, June 4. The layoff is likely to hurt the Warriors more, since they will start at home, and a weak game at home is more destructive than a weak game on the road. And it seems odd to throw dirt on the Rockets a week after they came back from 3-1 to run the Clippers out of the playoffs... but the Dubs are better than the Clippers, deeper, and smarter. This was the game they were supposed to lose, and they wiped the floor with the home team. They really don't look like they are losing again in May, or interested in giving the world a minute more of basketball than they need to. We'll see if they are that ruthless on Monday.

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