Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sympathy for the Tanker

I Want This On A Shirt
So the NBA has been running things in one way -- a modified draft lottery for teams that don't qualify for the playoffs -- for decades now. The act of building an NBA title contender is one of the hardest things to do in American sports, with teams spending generations just puttering around, with no real whiff at contention. Unless you get your hands on some truly breakout talent, either through lottery magic or a great dice roll of an international or unheralded player, or have a warm-weather mecca for free agents, or a historic big market franchise, you are, well, mostly damned.

Sixers GM Sam Hinkie is blessed with several advantages, and many crushing disadvantages, in his pursuit of a contending team in town. The former include patient owners who either see the advantage in taking the long view on franchise building, or just want to slash and burn for equity building. The latter include a cold-weather taxed city and state, with a notoriously difficult fan base and media (honestly, there is no worse town in America when it comes to trollish douchebag sports radio and TV). So he has, with a clear eye towards building something actually special, chosen to go all-in for the distant future, as the rules have allowed for, well, decades. The only difference here is that he's got a long enough leash to do it for more than one year, and has been relatively open about his methods.

Now, I get that it's not exactly a healthy thing for a league to have teams that aren't trying to win, and that the commissioner and league are well within their bounds to change the rules. And that's exactly what they are doing, with proposals abounding to change the lottery so that teams can't "win" too often. (We'll leave aside how the league has clearly done everything possible to favor Cleveland. How people aren't rooting against that team yet, I'll never know.) Personally, I suspect this will just turn into the same thing but with Extra Tricksiness; it's one thing to make sure the Sixers' pick isn't solid gold, but quite another to make sure the Pelicans and Magic (to name two teams that have moved picks to the Sixers for marginal benefits) can't have their moved assets come up a winner.

But the real point to make here is the how and when of a rule change. When I run my fantasy leagues, and an owner finds some innovative loophole to gain an edge (and hey, sometimes that's me, too), I do what every commish should do: I applaud, sincerely and without rancor. It's hard work to find an out after so many years and minds firing away at a puzzle, and innovation comes from the margins, always. We also then finish out the year and allow the loopholer his or her full run of benefit. Only after the year is over, and before the following draft, are rule changes discussed that can close the barn door.

By discussing lottery changes now, with the Sixers clearly drafting for the long term and treating the 2015 draft as if it were the same as the 2014 one, the NBA is, well, unfair. They are changing the rules after the game has started, and whether or not you agree with their goals in doing this, it's wrong.

And, well, they're going to get away with it, because no one else in the Association is going down this path, and playing Hinkie's long game. Perhaps no team should, since revenue is shared and the people choosing to go to Sixers games before 2015 at the earliest are clearly just doing it for future cred points, but that's neither here nor there.

The simple fact of the matter is that Hinkie and the Sixers are trying to build a true championship contender, and are so committed to the prospect that they are suffering through years without hope. (Their fan base is actually OK with it, maybe for no other reason than to prank Ruben Amaro Jr., but honestly, the Sixer fans in my world are happier than the Phillies and Flyers people.) And the NBA is saying nope, you can't be honest about what you are doing, you have to either do stuff that doesn't work as well, or lie.

If you seriously want to make sure that teams do not tank, you need to have a second league and promote and relegate teams. Otherwise, this is all just protecting the status quo... in a league that really, seriously, doesn't need to do that.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I've Seen The Future And It Works... For A Really Long Time

Coming Soon
Going to get esoteric today. Hell, it's late July and talking about baseball is no way to stay awake for either of us, so y'all should forgive me for this.

I've recently been reading about a couple of concepts. The first is what techno-futurists refer to as The Singularity, or that inevitable moment when Moore's Law (computing power doubles every 18 months) runs into the limits of artificial intelligence to create actionable, better than human intuition to go with the processing power. When that happens, so the story goes, the AI becomes sentient and either enables a secular version of heaven or hell on Earth, because everything will have been digitized and actionable for the AI to either cure or cause.

The second is what happens when that level of computing power is tied into the mapping of the human genome. Where this all winds up to is greater human physical potential, either through the strengthening of peak performance, or more effective maintenance of that peak period, so that guys in their decline years, well, won't.

In effect, this is the steroid problem all over again, but with greater range and impact. Because while steroids have clear and potent side effects that make the use of them potentially a strategic mistake (in addition to, well, a crime), v2 will be more positives with less side effects, and something that will be impossible to keep out of the game. (Why? Because, like with Lasix or better surgeries and rehab, this will be technology enhancement without obvious drawback, and an option that well-heeled individuals will be taking to right away.)

Now, all of this involves some rather optimistic views of the future -- that we avoid some hellish new plague, that climate change is manageable, reversible, or something we can geo-engineer to put the toothpaste back into the tube, and that the sports that we care about here are still viable and interesting in the future. But as that's the only future we can truly hope for, let's live in that potential. What do sports look like then?

Well, first off, guys are playing longer and longer, recovering more often from surgery or injury, and setting all kinds of records. Maybe bio-engineering advances to the point where robotic tech gets incorporated into human tissue, so things like throwing a baseball no longer has a clear career innings limit. Or we get to the point where concussion prevention has real teeth, as medical technology gives personnel brain reset controls to get the synapses back in line. And so on, and so on.

And by the way, we're already kind of living in that dystopia. Many Hall of Fame pitchers don't historically last much past 30, due to the inability to overcome a serious injury. Now, everyone gets past at least one Tommy John procedure, and some seem to be looking forward to it for the MPH bump. Guys get paid enough to stick around in any role, whereas they use to go find Adult Work.

The world has already changed, and will do so again, with sports getting tossed in the wake of bigger boats.

And the most  bitter ex-jocks ever?

Will be the ones we just missed out on getting the new tech, and taking advantage of it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Careers That Aren't: TNA, And Another Youth Dream, Goes Boots Up

Lots Of That Going Around
So on the other spots of Blogfrica that I monitor, this news: the second-biggest pro wrestling / sports entertainment program (TNA on Spike, as if you or I know anything about it) is being canceled by its channel.

I don't want to get into the guts of why this happened, because I honestly don't know or much care. I didn't watch the show, and while I'm sure that they could have done things better to change that, that's true of everyone, really.

But what I do find kind of fascinating about all of this is the numbers. TNA drew over a million people a week to watch its show, and that's really not a small feat in today's wildly splintered media market. To put it into perspective, for a good chunk of its run, "Breaking Bad" on AMC only had a couple of million viewers, before it became a cultural phenomenon, eventually driving 10 million for the series finale. If the WNBA or Arena Football got a million people watching, you'd hear about it from the rooftops of how the minor league is on the rise after so many years on the periphery. The WWE has the biggest audiences on cable on Monday and Friday nights for its shows, and people watch this stuff all over the world, with rich histories in Japan and England, and tours all over Europe and elsewhere.

So why is the industry so sick and sad right now, and why is TNA cancelling a show that has to be among the biggest drivers of eyeballs on its network?

Well, the reasons are myriad. Big numbers aren't meaningful when you can't tell a good demographic story to advertisers, and no one has ever been able to make the case that the people who watch this stuff have buying power beyond junk food or youth toys. Since the industry is frequently trading in on train wreck moments and spectacle, you also need to have a strong stomach for possible PR nightmares; even though things are better than they used to be with fewer guys dying and/or getting arrested. The WWE in particular has been on a roller coaster, with the stock spiking and crashing, and the personnel getting crunched accordingly. And this isn't a cheap thing to staff or film. You need a couple of dozen performers, you have to fill an arena, pay the techs and the camera people and the writers, and so on, and so on.

But more than anything, what seems to be happening to me is that a pursuit that used to be easily attached to the strong creation of commerce -- which is to say, individual contracted performers, learning their craft at the local level, developing a fan base before they went national, and being able to drive pay per view purchasing decisions -- isn't happening any more. And that, to me, is the fascinating thing, because we've seen it before.

Twenty odd years ago, I was a singer in a rock and roll band. And so, seemingly, was everyone else. A friend started a music industry trade show, and asked me for help in doing the marketing and PR for the event... and we got something like 5,000 entries for a couple of hundred showcase slots. Despite an entry fee. It was a nice little business, really -- not the making of music, but the selling of opportunity to the people who made the music.

It was the dream we all dreamed of, and try as I might, there wasn't very much that I could do to separate my outfit from others. If you had a hit single, that was one thing, but having one of those was all kinds of magic, and building your own base of tens of thousands of fans without radio or label support was the point of entry that, well, no one could overcome.

And then the world changed, and making money from CD sales gradually became something that very few people did, and even the meager economics of being a starving musician got to the point where starving wasn't possible. There was, simply, not enough people willing to mark out for bands that were new, and all of those folks had to find other ways to make a living. The world didn't need 5,000 original bands, and never did... and even the couple of dozen of "star" acts, not so much as to leave your house and go to a store or venue and pay for it.

That's where people who want to be wrestlers are at now. There's one organization of note, run by one family of at best quirky people, and if you aren't what they are looking for, you aren't going to be in that business. And that organization, due to its history and PR issues and marketing challenges, and a fan base that ages out constantly and/or wants indie cred to show up to local shows or find foreign matches on YouTube, isn't going to increase their spend or time with the lead organization.

So, just like rock stars or porn stars or photographers or travel agents, technology is the enemy of employment, and a lottery-chance employment option for social mobility is being choked off. You don't have to like wrestling to not like that, but I'm not sure there's anything to be done about it.

Such is the way of the world, and man alive... isn't there anything we, as a nation and people, can do to increase the number of jobs that pay decent coin? Or even just to give some kid a dream?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Roger Goodell Is An A Spectacular Idiot

Everyone Loves The Rice Decision
By now, I'm sure you've heard about how the NFL decided that beating your woman on camera is a far less suspendable offense than drugging yourself to gain an advantage (either by mistake or on purposes), stepping on an opponent once, partaking in a recreational drug that's legal in an ever-increasing number of states, getting a DUI or a host of other offenses.

Basically, as the Ray Rice resolution shows, domestic abuse is a false start flag, while everything else is 15 and a loss of down.

First, to the man in question. It's hard for me to really crack down on Rice here, in that he's a RB with serious tread on the tires, and this could easily be a manifestation of early onset worries from the rigors of the role. His wife has seemingly turned the page, and reportedly was asking the most overpaid man in American sports (that's NFL commish Roger Goodell) to go easy on her husband. Rice is likely to be out of the NFL in a year or two, assuming last year was a prelude to the end, rather than some false sunset. And after this little experience, he's not even getting the courtesy cup of coffee in some other odd looking uniform, because no one is going to want the PR hit.

Rather, I want to touch on Goodell's move here, and the legs it has had. The Shooter Wife doesn't really watch sports and isn't likely to be up on a story before me, but Keith Olbermann's pitch-perfect rant made her social media feed from other people, and it's a spark that has hit a dry forest floor. The low suspension length has led to calls for a boycott, a fresh examination of the league's involvement with the pink-washing entity that is the Susan Kommen breast cancer organization, and so on. The idea that a huge group of people who consume NFL product can be so carelessly disregarded stings, especially when these are the folks that were latest to the party, and most likely to leave.

Oh, and if you are of the fringe belief that if a guy avoids hail time, he should also avoid a suspension? Please. The NFL isn't the broken system that the US justice system has become. If you are rich and famous here, you don't get off, mostly because you are going to be costing the other teams money. And when you do that, you're getting suspended. Even if the money is borderline theoretical. That's a given, really.

I don't know how the Ravens are going to handle Rice's return in Week 3. (Oh, and Tony Dungy? This is what a real distraction looks like. Note the absence of Gayness.) Rice has been a stalwart for this franchise for a while, and they've won Super Bowls with him. If his first touch from scrimmage is a tough run with yards after contact, people will cheer. The laundry is that reflexive, and the identity with the team is that total.

But I do know this. The NFL is at a saturation point, and the only incremental revenue comes from foreign markets, gouging the current base, or getting more from the casuals.

The foreign market has their own sports, and no native players of the game, and no history beyond the annual games in London. It's not an empty cupboard, but it's not exactly cup overflow, either.

The current base has been gouged for a very long time, and can probably stand a little more now that the economy has perked up, but maybe not. And in marketing and advertising circles, a stadium sponsorship is becoming something of a bad joke in terms of the intellect of the purchase.

Which leaves just the casuals. They were already shaky, given the head injury problems, the natural fracturing of popular culture, and the plain and simple fact that bloodsport is never going to appeal to everyone. The NFL has been doing everything it can to limit that, knowing that the current base is locked no matter what, but there's only so far it can go, or, at least, so quickly.

So, back to the meat of the matter.

A two game suspension, in a news dead cycle, to a guy that isn't even that much of a star any more.

Beyond whether or not you agree with the call, this.

How more idiotic could they have been, really?

Friday, July 25, 2014

I Love Tony Romo

So it's NFL training camp season, and everyone's favorite 34 year old QB (um, yes, that's Tony Romo), who is severely limited due to two back surgeries, who is coming off an absurd number of 8-8 years where his team loses the win and in playoff game, and is known to an almost comical degree for being the guy who always loses the game that matters, and takes the blame when his team goes boots up more often than a hooker whose speciality is that there are no limits... is honestly saying this.

"I feel personally like I've just started to come into the player that (I) wanted to be six, seven years ago... it's going to be better."

Now, some might listen to this and hear the nonsensical ramblings of a wildly delusional man, one who might be in need of significant medication. Others might wonder if he wasn't already in thrall to severe medication.

Me, I just say this.

I love me some Tony Romo.

Without condition, without irony, and without limit.

And it's a pure love, people. I've never owned him in a fantasy league, haven't ridden his tendencies to big wins at the sportsbook, aren't related to him, and know no one on his payroll. I've never personally benefited from his actions, other than through one clear and obvious way.

I root for the Eagles.

And just as Jerry Jones is my favorite all-time Cowboys owner, and Daniel Snyder is my favorite all-time owner of the Washington franchise...

So is Romo the bestus Cowboys QB ever.

So, Tony? You keep on believing, buddy. Gambling and mobile QBs always get better in their mid '30s, when their physical limits start to betray them. Back injuries are never chronic. Players with turnover issues use them all up and enter a golden time when all of that dratted bad luck that has crushed their teams in the past magically reverse. And owners who take on GM responsibilities, and show themselves to be criminally incompetent at tasks like building a non-turnstile offensive line, always figure it out late in life.

Seriously, don't you just have to love him?