February 8, 2011
On Speculation

Yesterday, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote a column in which he made out offseason report cards for every team in the AL Central. The Indians placed last in Crasnick’s list, with a ‘D’ grade. His reasoning was simple: Chris Antonetti made no moves other than signing Austin Kearns—not exactly an impact contract—whereas every other team in the division made at least one banner-headline trade or signing.

These grades are the sports journalism equivalent of white bread—completely empty calories that satisfy hunger for only the minimum possible time period.

And yet, I can’t even be upset about them because I am one of the hordes of people who is demanding to be fed at staggering pace.

Let me explain.

With rare exceptions, writers making grandiose statements about the future of entire teams based on current moves (or lack thereof) are all but useless. Yes, occasionally, someone like Peter King will correctly predict the Super Bowl match-up in the pre-season, but for every one of those hits there is a colossal collection of misses.

For another quick home-town example, consider that Mel Kiper Jr did a column a few weeks ago in which he regraded every NFL team’s 2010 draft. In that column, most teams’ choices ended up looking considerably better or much worse to Kiper after the rookies in question actually played a full season than they did when they’d just put on a hat with their new team’s logo. (The Browns, for instance, were raised from a C to a B+.)

This shouldn’t be surprising, with hindsight being 20/20 and all that. Almost inevitably, the writers who compile these columns will admit that they’re barely ever right. (King, to his credit, has repeatedly made the point that his correct Super Bowl prediction was possibly a once-in-a-career anomaly.) In many cases the preseason picks become recurring sources of good-natured ridicule among writers’ colleagues and fans.

All of this begs the question: Why do they write these columns in the first place?

Easy: because there’s demand for information, and the writers have to fill space.

When tasked with writing about sports in a dead zone like the MLB offseason, you’re forced to manufacture stories. Aside from minor deals like Vlad Guerrero signing with the Orioles last week, the “breaking news” portion of MLB offseason activity is over. Spring training hasn’t started yet. And it’ll take til at least July before anyone really has any idea which teams are legitimately good and which aren’t. 

As Mike noted yesterday, this is true of a certain period in all sports. Right now is almost indisputably the worst segment of the sports calendar year. The only major league working is the NBA, and they haven’t even entered into the stretch playoff run yet. (Not that it will make much of a difference if you’re a Cavs fan.)

This entire situation is made worse by the fact that there’s a high probability that both the NFL and NBA will go through lock-outs in 2011. If that happens, we’re all going to be seeing speculative sports journalism taken to a whole new level between now and 2012.

I don’t begrudge any writers this—it’s the machine that we as sports fans/consumers have created. Every day we log onto various sites demanding new information to help us whittle away time. The writers need to say SOMETHING, so they create predictions, then re-evaluate those predictions mid-season, then re-re-evaluate them at the end of the season. If they don’t, websites go dead, TV shows go dark, and people lose jobs. It’s self-preservation, really.

In fact, this post itself is a perfect example. What the hell is going on in the world of Cleveland sports that REALLY needs to be discussed right now? Not much, as far as I can tell. And based on his comments from yesterday, Mike agrees with me. So for the purpose of creating a post, I dug out an article about the Tribe just so I could spend time writing about how useless the article was because, in theory, there are people who are going to come to this website at some point today looking for content. Ironic, right?

It will be an interesting experiment to see if there’s actually a lower quantity of sports news out there if a double-lock-out happens. My guess is that there won’t be. There’s too much demand for information, at least from the major providers, for them to just allow the cycle to lapse. So my guess is we’re all going to have to get used to the idea that a greater and greater quantity of the stories available to readers will be based on rumors and predictions rather than actual facts or performance. And I as a writer am going to have to get used to the idea that the same will be true of the “stories” I generate.

In short, Jerry Crasnick, I ain’t mad at you. We’re all playing the same game.

-T

January 26, 2011
Competition and the Popularity of Pro Sports

In yesterday’s post, Tim wrote some things that I didn’t wholeheartedly agree with (it happens from time to time). I’m overgeneralizing a bit, but his argument was essentially that, of the three major professional sports,  the NFL is the most friendly to small market teams, citing competitive balance as his measuring stick. 

There are, of course, different ways to gauge competitive balance. The easiest way - which doesn’t necessarily make it the best way - is to look at the number of different teams that have won championships over an extended period of time.

In the past thirty years then (since 1980), here is the breakdown: 

NBA: 8 champions
NFL: 15 champions
MLB: 19 champions

As you can see, Major League Baseball - despite Tim’s assertion that its system is “out of whack”  - has produced the most different champions of any of the three professional sports.

Admittedly, MLB, NBA, and NFL have gone through multiple collective bargaining agreements over this time period. MLB’s revenue sharing system has been in place since the year 2000. In those 11 years, there have been 9 different World Series Champions. 

Not bad. 

In relation to this, I thought it was worth looking at some poll numbers CNBC’s sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted earlier today. Here are the favorite sports amongst US fans, according to SportsBusiness Journal and Daily

NFL: 31%
MLB: 17%
College Football: 12%
Auto Racing: 7%
NBA: 6%

These numbers suggest that competitive balance - as measured by percentage chance your favorite team has of winning the championship - probably has some significance when it comes to the favorite sports of Americans. 

There are obviously other factors to consider, as well. Tim commented on the notion that MLB and its season, which consists of 162 3 hour games, doesn’t fit with the speed of life in the 21st century. I would agree. That may be why, according to Rovell via Harris Interactive, MLB has had the greatest drop in popularity over the past 25 years (a 6% decline). 

On the contrary, America’s most popular sport, the NFL, has only 16 games in its regular season, all of which are played on the same two days of the week, each weekend, for 17 weeks (minus the odd Thursday night games). This implies that the NFL necessitates a time commitment that is right in line with what the country is willing to give. Needless to say, the NBA and its 82 game season full of 2 and a half hour games isn’t much better than baseball … except for the fact, maybe, that a large portion of the NBA season occurs during the winter when there is less to do outside in most parts of the country. 

Race, I would argue, is another factor in all of this, albeit one that is less spoken about. There is certainly a school of thought that says black, tattooed basketball players - the most visible of all the pro athletes - project an image that not all white sports fans are comfortable with. 

And we can’t forget the games themselves. Football has a lot of dead space, maybe as much as baseball. Possibly more. Definitely more than basketball. But when the action starts it is typically fast, violent, and unpredictable. The bar culture - and NFL Sunday Ticket - which allows people to go to one place and watch all of the games … and all of the players on their fantasy teams … simultaneously is another boon to pro football. 

Side note: college football would be smart to emulate this program by allowing fantasy football, which to my knowledge, they do not. 

Ultimately, I think we have to acknowledge that winning championships - and the notion of competitive balance - may not be the be all end all for the majority of sports fans in America. An easy to watch sport, without an excruciating time commitment - event programming, if you will - may be the biggest advantage of all, especially since the NFL can have an equally simplistic fantasy component that allows some of that competitive spirit to be transferred directly to the fan.

After all, might it be more compelling to see if YOU will beat your friends in fantasy football than to see if some guys you don’t know but root for anyway beat some other guys you don’t know but choose to root against?  

I think it might. 

October 20, 2010
Ghosts of Sports History

Of the four teams remaining in the MLB playoffs as of today, by far the most important to Cleveland is the New York Yankees.

However, the issue has only a little do with the fact that the Yanks were dominated by former Tribe ace Cliff Lee on Monday night. Current Yankee Carston Charles Sabathia plays some role as well. But in both cases, those players are relevant in only a very abstract way. 

Let me explain.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, as of last night around 11 PM ET, the Texas Rangers are now on the verge of pushing the Yankees off a cliff, 3 games to 1, with only a single game remaining to be played in Yankee Stadium.

For the past seven days, though, I have been hearing one pundit after another hand the series to the Yankees. Many of their arguments are laughable. For instance, I went on a minor Twitter diatribe on Monday afternoon when PTI’s Mike Wilbon chose Andy Pettite to “clearly” dominate Cliff in game 2 because, somehow, Pettite’s post-season success was repeatable and Cliff’s was not.

But even as the Rangers have thrown shovelful after shovelful of dirt on the Yankees since Friday, I’ve heard one argument rise above the others: the Yankees will ultimately win the series because…they are the Yankees.

The history. The 27 World Series championships. The pinstripes. 

Somehow, it all adds up to the notion that as soon as a player puts on a Yankee uniform, he gains some arcane knowledge about how to win in the post-season that he never would have had otherwise.

Don’t believe me? Watch some ESPN programming in the hours between now and the start of game 5. Watch the TBS pre-game show. And listen for how many times one of the analysts says something to the effect of, “Yeah, they may be down 3-1, but you have to remember, this is a team that has won 27 championships.”

Any time someone spouts this ludicrously inaccurate idea, it makes me want to jump through the TV and re-enact this scene from Airplane on the offending party.

This is a very simple logical exercise. The Yankees roster and coaching staff in the 2010 ALCS has never won a single championship, let alone 26 additional. Don’t believe me? Then what team was current Yankee relief pitcher Kerry Wood throwing for at this time last year? Therefore, by definition, this year’s team is different from last years and every other before it.

Yes, some of the players on the current team have won a title. Some, like Derek Jeter, have even won multiple titles. But this team as presently constituted is not the team that has fought its way to the top of Major League Baseball 27 times.

To make the opposite argument is to assert that the city of New York, or the borough of the Bronx, or the Yankee uniform—SOMETHING about the team has an intrinsic property that equates to winning, when the real answer is that they can just drop insane amounts of cash on the best free agents in the game year after year.

If you haven’t figured out the correlation to Cleveland by now, here it is: just as so many people irrationally believe in this Yankee winning spirit, so many others believe in a Cleveland losing spirit. The Yankees are the team appointed by God to win against all odds; any team from Cleveland is somehow appointed by God to lose against all odds.

In both cases, the result somehow transcends the players’ skill, the manager’s abilities, the GM’s resources, the team’s health, and every other conceivable factor. It just is.

And yet, despite all the belief and mythology surrounding the Yankees, they are one game away from being drowned by the Texas Rangers—ironically, a team who has been doubted to date because the Rangers as a franchise had never won a playoff series or a home playoff game going into this year’s postseason. Weird how different players, including for my money the nastiest active starting pitcher in the game, will lead to different results.

Assuming the Rangers win one of the next three games, the Yankees’ loss will serve as a reminder that just as their supposed winning spirit can be blown apart, so can Cleveland’s supposed losing spirit. All it takes is the right combination of people. If you have that, then no amount of history or mythology matters.

On the other hand, if Texas blows this lead, forget I ever wrote this column.

-T