Saturday, August 30, 2014

Basketball's World Cup

Today marked the beginning of the World Cup.  If you're confused and saying to yourself, "I thought Germany already won the World Cup," you'd be right.  Today marked the start of the Basketball World Cup.  It's the artist formerly known as the World Championships, but renamed the "World Cup" for this edition in Spain.

Basketball is the world's second-most popular sport, trailing only soccer.  As such, FIBA wants their marquee event to be as big as FIFA's World Cup.  Right now it's not.  Hence the name change, which, to be honest, only adds to the confusion because it doesn't distinguish the two at all. 

One of the reasons why soccer's World Cup is bigger than basketball's, FIBA concluded, is because they're both held in the same year.  So they decided to make a change.  Instead of four years from now, the next one will be in 2019.  With the field expanded from 24 teams to 32, matching the size of the soccer tournament.  To be honest, I'm not a fan of the new cycle.

The World Cup being held in the even year between Olympics is the perfect cycle.  It means that one of the two biggest events in the sport is held every other year.  By moving the World Cup to the year before the Olympics, it means that there will now be a major event two years in a row, then nothing for three years.  And for the players who'll be playing in those events, asking them to give up back-to-back summers for an international tournament isn't particularly fair.

USA Basketball has enough trouble getting players to take part in the World Cup (and it's probably going to get even worse after Paul George's injury).  But at least this way they can, theoretically, play in the Olympics, take a summer off, play in the World Cup, take the next summer off, then repeat the cycle.  By moving the World Cup to the summer before the Olympics, though, you're now theoretically asking players to play an entire 82-game NBA season, roughly 20-25 playoff games, then a whole training camp and tournament for their national team, then doing it all again after just a couple weeks off.  That's almost 200 games virtually non-stop in a two-year period!  I won't be able to blame guys for wanting to take a pass on the World Cup, especially since the Olympic gold medal is the one everybody really wants.

This new schedule creates all other kinds of problems, too.  The most obvious of which is Olympic qualifying.  The current schedule with the two major events staggered works perfectly for qualifying, as well.  Qualifying takes place in the odd-numbered summer preceding the championship.  But by moving the World Cup to the year before the Olympics, that throws off the qualifying cycle.  Now you're looking at Olympic qualifying and the World Cup in the same summer (that's one long summer) or possibly having qualifying for the two events running concurrently.  At least both of those are better than having Olympic qualifying take place only a few weeks before the Olympics themselves.

Or, the fourth option, which is the worst of them all, doing it soccer style where qualifying is staggered throughout the year.  Except in this situation, a majority of the teams attempting to qualify won't be doing so with their best players, who'll be in the midst of their NBA seasons.  How is that in the game's best interest?  Likewise, how is it fair that some nations won't be able to use their best players (NBA guys) while other, lesser nations will?  The chances of producing an upset in qualifying would be much greater, which is exactly the opposite of what you want happening.

My solution would've involved a schedule change, but not in the same way FIBA did it.  The tournament's held way too late in the summer.  That's the problem.  It's the end of August.  Americans are preoccupied with baseball's pennant races heating up and the start of the college football and NFL seasons, while all of the major European soccer leagues just started their seasons, as well.  People simply don't care enough about this tournament at this time of the year.

That's why the soccer World Cup is so popular, even in countries (like the U.S.) that don't particularly care about soccer.  But in the middle of the summer, with nothing else going on, FIFA's got a captive audience.  And it shows.  People get so into this thing, it's crazy.  The few games a day everyday for a month thing certainly helps, too.

But for the basketball World Cup, that passion isn't there.  And I think the time of the year when the tournament is held is one of the reasons why.  If it were held a little earlier in the summer, that could make all the difference.  The World Cup wouldn't get swallowed up by all these other events in other sports going on at the same time.  You'd also probably get less backlash from the NBA and NBPA.  Because these guys would get more than just a couple weeks off between the end of Worlds and the start of the season.

So what's my proposal?  Keep it in the non-Olympic even years, but move the dates up a couple weeks.  I'd suggest late July-early August.  That gives enough of a break between the end of the NBA Finals, the World Cup and the start of the next NBA season.  You might get more NBA players that are willing to play (and owners that are willing to let them) that way.  Because playing for your country is supposed to be an honor that too many of these players consider more of a burden.  And I think this new schedule is only going to make matters worse in that regard.

As for this year's event, we've got a U.S. B-team, but the U.S. B-team is still better than pretty much all of the A-teams in this tournament.  It'll depend on how the draw shakes out who I see posing the biggest challenge, but you've gotta think Spain's going to figure into this.  They're the second-best team in the world and they're playing at home.  If anyone is going to prevent the U.S. from taking the gold, Spain's a safe bet.  I don't see it happening, though.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Youth Olympics Need Fixing

Not that many of you were paying attention, but the second edition of the Youth Olympics just finished up in Nanjing, China.  I don't blame you for this.  I haven't really gotten on board with the Youth Olympics either.  I give the IOC credit for trying, and it was only the second edition to there's still plenty of room to grow, but they've got a lot of work ahead of them if they want the Youth Olympics to ever come anywhere close to the regular Olympics.  In any regard.

The Youth Olympics were the brainchild of former IOC President Jacques Rogge.  He noticed that the Olympics were losing their appeal among young people, and he saw a Youth edition of the Games as a way to keep them involved in sports, and the Olympic Movement in particular.  That was in 2007.  The first Youth Olympics were held three years later in Singapore to little fanfare, followed by the first Winter Youth Olympics in 2012.  (That's going to be the cycle moving forward...same year as the regular Olympics, but the opposite season.)

I get the whole idea behind it, and it's not a terrible concept.  Except I think this little pet project may end up costing the IOC millions of dollars.  In fact, if not for the IOC backing and the Olympic brand attached to it, I bet the Youth Olympics would probably be in a pretty dire financial situation.  But, since the IOC is committed to the Youth Olympics, and is smartly requiring its Olympic broadcasters to also broadcast the Youth Olympics, whether they want to or not.  That's why NBC and NBCSN had an hour or two of nightly coverage from Nanjing.  Because of this, I think the Youth Olympics still have some time to grow.

But there are still a number of problems that the Youth Olympics will need to tackle head-on to avoid irrelevance.  For starters, the sporting calendar, especially in Winter Olympic years, is already incredibly crowded.  This year's two biggest events, of course, were the Sochi Olympics in February and the World Cup in June-July.  But there was also the Commonwealth Games, the Basketball World Cup (which is moving off the same cycle as the soccer World Cup after this year), the World Junior Track & Field Championships (which feature many of the same athletes that compete at the Youth Olympics), and a whole slew of other international events that I didn't mention.  There's going to be a point of oversaturation (if we're not there already), and the Youth Olympics seem unlikely to displace any of these others in the pecking order.

Then there's the name.  They've got to do something about the name.  The "Youth" Olympics?  What does that mean?  It's for athletes between the ages of 14 and 18.  Athletes that are called "juniors" in many, if not all, of the sports in which they compete.  Of course, "Junior Olympics" is already taken, so that would've been a) confusing and b) met with trademark complications, but the "Youth Olympics" tag is equally confusing to the general viewing public.  Plus, there's no vested interest in watching any of these athletes.  They aren't famous yet.  And some of them never will be.  You can't draw on their star power to get people to watch.

Don't get me wrong, though, there are some things about the Youth Olympics that I like.  For one, a city like Singapore or Nanjing or Buenos Aires (which is the next host in 2018) probably couldn't host a whole-scale Olympics.  Hosting the Youth Olympics is perfect for these smaller cities and countries.  In fact, among the rules are that you can't build any new venues and all venues must be within the city limits.  As a result, the costs of hosting are considerably lower.

One of the IOC's favorite things about the Youth Olympics is that they're able to play around with the sports program, putting in different types of events that you wouldn't see in the regular Olympics.  Case in point--the basketball tournament is a 3-on-3 halfcourt game.  There's also a dunk contest (men) and three-point shootout (women), which both count as medal events.  Or track & field, which had this crazy 8x100 meter relay with teams chosen at random from all the athletes in the competition.  The winning team featured a German shot putter and a distance runner from Cameroon that finished last in his heat.

If there's anything that can be considered a "legacy" in the young life of the Youth Olympics, it's probably events like the 8x100 meter relay.  While the Olympics includes very few mixed gender events, the Youth Olympics is full of them.  The Youth Olympics also has mixed team events, which are some of the most fun.  And these mixed team events are unique to the Youth Olympics.  They can't be featured in the regular Olympics.

Likewise, the IOC is using the Youth Olympics as a testing ground for events and disciplines that might one day be featured on the Olympic program.  That's perhaps the most positive thing about them.  Try these events out at the Youth Olympics, see if they work, then maybe work them into the Olympic program.  Reviewing the program within each sport is one of current IOC President Thomas Bach's ideas on how to keep the Games fresh while maintaining the sport and athlete limits.  And if these newer events are going to draw in a younger TV audience, so much the better.

There are also sports that get exhibition status at the Youth Olympics.  This is great for the hopefuls that want to join the Olympics at some point, but haven't been able to break in.  This is their chance to showcase why they belong (or think they do).  And again, appealing to young people is a very big priority for the IOC.

Lastly, there are the athletes.  For many of them, the Youth Olympics are the biggest stage they'll ever compete on.  Beyond that, they get to represent their country and meet other athletes from all over the world.  It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And for some, it's just the beginning.  There's only been two editions of the Youth Olympics, but they've already been a springboard to Olympic stardom.  South African swimmer Chad le Clos won Youth Olympic gold in Singapore in 2010, then famously beat Michael Phelps for gold in London two years later.  Lithuania's Ruta Meliutyte also won gold in London...and she's still young enough to compete in the Youth Olympics, so she showed up in Nanjing and added some Youth Olympic gold.

Nobody's ever going to confuse the Youth Olympics with the Olympics themselves.  The IOC doesn't want them to.  The Youth Olympics are designed to be unique.  I'm hoping they can find their niche in the crowded international sports scene.  As long as they understand what they are and don't get ahead of themselves.  People aren't going to get all excited and drop everything for the Youth Olympics.  People won't make it a point to watch like they do the regular Olympics.  And that's OK.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NHL Expansion Rumors

I don't know how true this is (my guess is not completely accurate, but not completely inaccurate either), but yesterday a report came out that the NHL is going to grant four expansion franchises by 2017.  According to the report, Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City and Toronto will get expansion clubs, as the league will increase in size from 30 to 34 teams.

The NHL immediately shot down the rumors, which were evidently started on Twitter by Howard Bloom from Sports Business News and exacerbated by an article written by a man named Tony Gallagher in The Province.  From what Bill Daly and those actually in the know about the situation, who were "surprised" by the chatter, said, it sounds like this is nothing but a rumor either started by a journalist or heard by a journalist who decided to run with it.  However, we all know NHL expansion is likely in the not-too-distant future, so I wasn't completely surprised by the talk.

When they realigned the divisions last year, creating unbalanced conferences, it looked like the NHL was intentionally leaving themselves open to adding two teams and evening the conferences up at 16-16.  That's why I don't think there's that much credence to this report.  If they had said the NHL was going to expand by two teams, it would be much more believable.  But four?  Why would any league go to 34 teams?  It's such a strange number.  And it doesn't divide evenly into anything.  (There's a reason why three of the four settled on 30 teams and the NFL settled on 32.)

As for the cities mentioned, those weren't a complete surprise, either.  Now that the NHL is back in Winnipeg, getting a team back in Quebec seems to be the next logical step.  The problems that led to the Nordiques' move to Denver 20 years ago no longer exist.  After they moved, the NHL created the "Canadian Assistance Plan," which was designed to prevent the smaller-market Canadian teams from moving.  The Canadian dollar is also much stronger today than it was then.  Paying the players in American money when getting all of your revenue in Canadian funds would be much easier today, with a conversion rate of 91 cents on the dollar, than it was back in the mid-90s, when the conversion rate was something like 69 cents.

There's a reason why the NHL would like to get back to Quebec City.  It's no secret that the Canadian fan base is much larger and much more passionate than it is in even some of the American cities that currently have NHL teams (I'm talking to you, Miami).  Especially French Canada.  Sure, they've got the Canadiens, but they've got more than enough passion for hockey to support a reincarnated Quebec City team.  Why do you think that Quebec is the first city mentioned whenever an NHL team says it's thinking about relocating?  If not for the league finding owners that actually got an arena built in the Phoenix area, I was convinced the Coyotes were on their way to Quebec City.  Quebec City's in the process of building a new arena, too.

However, the most obvious reason that Quebec wouldn't really work as a relocation destination is because you'd have to put them in the same division as Montreal.  That would potentially mean moving a team from the West to the Eastern Conference.  Or, in other words, potentially making the split 17-13.  That doesn't work.  In that situation, they'd probably have to convince the Red Wings and Blue Jackets to suck it up and go back to the West.

Likewise, the idea of a second Toronto team doesn't make that much sense.  Sure, there are three teams in New York and two in LA.  And sure, Toronto is the biggest city in a hockey-mad country.  But everyone in Toronto is already a Leafs fan.  I'm not sure you're going to get them to abandon one of the most beloved teams in the game that easily.  And if you're trying to grow the game, why would you put another team in a market that already has a successful one?  You're not adding a TV market.  Plus, there's also a team in Buffalo, which is 90 minutes away.  I forget who, but somebody was talking about moving to Hamilton (which is between Buffalo and Toronto) a few years ago.  The question, "Why do you need a third team in that area?" was asked then, and it would be asked again.  I also highly doubt that if they wanted to add a second Toronto team, the Maple Leafs would just sit there and let it happen.

Of the four suggestions, Seattle and Las Vegas seem to make the most sense.  For one, they're actually both in the west, so they'd obviously be easy additions to the Western Conference.  I think Las Vegas is far from the "done deal" it was reported to be, though.  There's eventually going to be a league that takes the risk and puts a franchise in Las Vegas.  The clubhouse favorite in that area has always been the NBA.  But I'm sure Vegas doesn't care, and they're building an arena that meets both NBA and NHL specifications.  While I don't think it's actually going to happen, I wouldn't be completely surprised to see an NHL team in Las Vegas.  After all, they did move the annual NHL Awards there from Toronto a couple years ago.

Seattle, on the other hand, wants the NBA back more than anything.  I don't think they'd turn an NHL franchise down, especially since they're in a fertile hockey area and would have that built-in natural rivalry with Vancouver, but it's not their focus.  Although, from what I've heard, there are plenty of people who'd be willing to step up as the owner of a Seattle team, and getting the NHL team would only increase leverage to build that new arena that's probably needed for the Sonics to be resurrected.

My guess is that this report is untrue.  We're not going to see Gary Bettman call a press conference next week and congratulate two of these cities.  But they still remain viable expansion and relocation targets, and now that the chatter has started, it's going to be very difficult to quiet it down.  Especially with the obvious 16-14 problem and the seemingly equally obvious solution.

Ultimately, I do think the NHL is going to expand by two teams.  Probably soon.  My guess would be sometime around the next lockout (which I think is currently scheduled for 2020-21 if one side opts out of the CBA).  The owners in the Eastern Conference are going to get tired of the imbalance (which gives them inherently worse chances of making the playoffs), so they'll be OK with adding two teams and evening things up.  The players won't mind because that creates 50 more NHL jobs.  Most importantly, there's money to be had from expansion fees.  And both the owners and the players would want a piece of that pie.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rose Reinstatement

Should Pete Rose's lifetime ban from baseball be overturned?  Should he be in the Hall of Fame?  Those questions has been asked a lot in the past couple days, specifically yesterday, the 25th anniversary of Rose's banishment.  It's a complex question, and everyone you ask will have a different opinion on the subject, all of which would be perfectly valid.  Ultimately, though, it can only be answered by one man--Bud Selig

Selig holds Rose's fate in his hands, and you'd have to think this is something that, if it's going to be resolved, is something Bud would like to do himself.  Rob Manfred doesn't need that hanging over his head when he takes office in January.  And what Selig is going to do is anyone's guess.

Does it help his case that Rose finally admitted he was guilty of gambling on baseball while manager of the Reds?  It might.  I was actually surprised when he came out and said it.  Much like Lance Armstrong, Rose had been lying for so long that he was starting to believe those lies himself.  Coming clean was definitely a necessary step if Rose is ever going to receive contrition and, what he really wants, reinstatement.  Some view it as a good thing.  Now the truth is finally out there.  Others think it's further proof that his lifetime ban is justified.  "He knew what he was doing, lied about it and continued to lie about it.  Three strikes, you're out.  He got what he deserved."  And that viewpoint is completely justified.

In a way, the situation with Pete Rose is similar to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the other "culprits" of the Steroid Era.  The morality questions and Hall of Fame debates will go on forever about each of them, even if by some miracle Bonds, Clemens and crew do eventually get plaques in Cooperstown.

Except there's also a big difference between Rose and Bonds, Clemens, etc.  While they might be presumed guilty and some will never forgive them for their suspected offenses, most of the stars of the 90s and early 2000s are merely suspected of doing something.  Rose is definitely guilty.  Furthermore, the steroid guys weren't technically breaking any baseball rules, while Rose committed the cardinal sin.  If you think that's enough to justify Bonds, Clemens and the rest languishing on the Hall of Fame ballot and Rose being permanently barred, you're not alone.  Again, there isn't really a wrong opinion on any of this.

Personally, I'd like to see Pete Rose reinstated.  Whether or not I think he necessarily "deserves" reinstatement is a different question (I go back and forth on that one), but do I think baseball is setting a double-standard.  "How is what he did worse than what the Steroid Era guys did?," the Rose supporters argue.  And, frankly, I see their point, too.

The other reason I'm in favor of reinstatement is because I believe I second chances.  If he'd never made his admission, Rose would have no leg to stand on.  But he has.  He's owned up to his crime.  Must he keep being punished for it?  Pete Rose wants to be allowed inside a Major League ballpark without having to request permission.  The All-Star Game is in Cincinnati next year.  Cincinnati's the one place Rose is still beloved.  Let him be honored with his Big Red Machine teammates at the All-Star Game.  Let the Reds retire No. 14.  (They haven't given it out since Rose "retired" as their manager, but are technically not allowed to retire it in his honor.)

Mostly, though, I'd like to see Rose reinstated because it's unfathomable that the man with more hits than anyone in history can only get into the Hall of Fame if he buys a ticket.  I'm not suggesting that Rose should just automatically be put in the Hall of Fame.  I would like it to be a possibility, though.  Especially because I'm curious to see what kind of reception Pete Rose's name would get if it ever did appear on the ballot.

I'd imagine Rose would have just as hard a time crossing that threshold as the Steroid Era players have.  Of course, Rose wouldn't have to deal with the writers, who've made it pretty clear how they feel about the likes of Bonds, Clemens and many others.  He'd be placed in his appropriate era by the Veterans' Committee.  Although, getting in via that route has proven to be just as tricky.  I do think his chances would be a little better that way, though, especially if Johnny Bench or Tony Perez or Joe Morgan is in his corner and ends up on the committee.  (The Hall of Famers might be just as torn about Rose as the rest of us, though.)

My stance on Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame is the same as it is with Barry Bonds and Co.  It's not the Morality Hall of Fame (that fine, upstanding citizen Ty Cobb was its first ever member).  It's the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It's supposed to be a place where the game's all-time greats are honored.  And you'll never be able to convince me that Pete Rose isn't one of the all-time greats.  He's much more than just the all-time hits leader.  Baseball's last player-manager, he's the all-time leader in games played, won three World Series and made the All-Star team 17 times.  At five different positions!

A hundred years from now, when our grandchildren's children visit the Hall of Fame, they're going to wonder why the all-time hits leader, the all-time home run leader and one of the greatest right-handed pitchers of his generation aren't honored.  They'll ask their parents why, and their parents will have no idea.  They'll say something about gambling and steroids, but not really know any of the details.  Pete Rose and Barry Bonds will be just a distant memory by then.

Maybe the wounds are still a little too fresh.  But I think 25 years has been enough.  Reinstate Pete Rose.  He's served his time.  Let's move on.  And let's do it while he's still alive.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 US Open Preview

It's that time of the year again.  Final week in August.  That means the US Open is here.  And this year's US Open marks the end of an era.  Because this is the last time that the US Open will be on CBS, which has been there from the start (OK, 47 years, but you get the point).  But, as they did with Wimbledon, ESPN signed a deal for exclusive rights starting in 2015.  The good news about that, though, is that the men's final will move back to Sunday afternoon.  As for this year, we've got one final go on CBS, with the women's final after football on Sunday and the men's final taking place on Monday for the sixth consecutive year (and scheduled to do so for the second straight time).

This year has a chance to be a unique one.  There's been six different champions in the Grand Slam events this year, and we know that Li Na (the women's Aussie champ) and Rafael Nadal (because no one else is allowed to win the French Open) can't grab a second.  They're both injured, which also means Nadal can't defend his title and can even theoretically drop to No. 3 in the world if Roger makes a run.  If Roger wins, it'll be his first Grand Slam title since 2012 Wimbledon.  That's not even the weird part, though.  The weird part is that defending women's champion Serena Williams hasn't even been to the quarters at a Slam this year.  So, it's up to the US Open to save her season once again.

We at least know that the women's final is going to be different this year.  Serena has beaten Vika Azarenka in each of the last two US Open finals, but can't this year.  Those two are on the same side of the draw.  But in order for a fourth consecutive Serena-Vika US Open meeting to even happen, Azarenka needs to get by this year's most consistent Grand Slam performer--Eugenie Bouchard.  Bouchard has gone semis, semis, final in the other three tournaments, and has a great shot to make it a perfect 4-for-4 in Flushing.  That's also assuming the 16th-seeded Azarenka gets by Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova the round before facing Bouchard (and former champ Svetlana Kuznetsova the round before that).

The other big names are in the bottom half of the draw.  That's where Maria Sharapova, Aggie Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams reside.  As well as the likes of No. 2 seed and French Open finalist Simona Halep, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, American Sloane Stephens, and Angelique Kerber, who always plays well at the US Open and is seeded sixth.  Meanwhile, Sabine Lisicki is also hanging around as the No. 26 seed, and Daniela Hantuchova is unseeded.  If there's going to be an upset on the women's side, it'll likely come in the bottom half.  With all that star power, I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few big names that make deep runs (and maybe one or two that goes down early).

As for Serena, she won the US Open Series (by a lot) and is playing some great tennis.  That was also the case a year ago, when she won the title.  Luck hasn't been on her side in the Grand Slams so far this year, but she always cranks it up when the pressure's on her in New York, and I expect this year to be no different.

I expect to see Serena Williams reach the semifinals fairly easily.  The second quarter of the draw is the interesting one with Kvitova, Azarenka, Bouchard and Dominika Cibulkova.  I see Bouchard getting out of there, though.  This year's breakout performer has proven that she's a big-time player.  This is the first time she'll have the lights of Broadway on her with people actually knowing who she is.  At Wimbledon, that clearly got to her in the final.  Maybe things will be different at the US Open.  Because Serena vs. Bouchard has the potential to be a great semifinal match.

On the bottom half, Kerber and Radwanska are on a quarterfinal collision course.  They finished second and third in the US Open series, so it's clear they're both playing well coming into the Open.  I see that quarterfinal matchup happening, and for some reason, I like Kerber to win it. 

Then we've got the loaded quarter with Sharapova, Lisicki, Wozniacki, Venus and Halep.  Venus making the final in Montreal was a nice story, but she doesn't have it in her to win seven matches at a Grand Slam anymore.  Along with Bouchard, Halep has been this year's breakout performer.  But she's never done anything of significance at the US Open, and I'm not sure she can beat all of these proven US Open winners in a row.  I also don't like the Sharapova-Lisicki matchup.  That's a tough one for Maria.  That leaves us with Caroline Wozniacki.  The breakup clearly affected her during Wimbledon.  Six weeks later, she's a different player.  She's once again playing like she did when she got to No. 1 in the world and made the finals here.  I've got a hunch that we're going to see a run from her.

In the semis, I think Serena knocks off Bouchard.  Meanwhile, Kerber and Wozniacki has the potential to be a classic.  Like I said, though, I've got this feeling about Woz.  I think we see her against Serena in the final.  But Serena Williams on a mission is a scary proposition for the other players.  Serena Williams is on a mission.  Back-to-back-to-back US Open titles is that mission.

With Nadal and Del Potro both out, the men's tournament is wide open.  Although, it likely will come down to one of two guys once again.  Each of the last 10 US Open finals has featured either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic (or both in 2007).  Djokovic has been in the last four, but he's only won one, but Roger hasn't been to the US Open final since his loss to Del Po in 2009.  After the classic these two played at Wimbledon, is it too much to ask for a US Open rematch?

I've tried to find somebody I think can halt a Djokovic-Federer crash course, but I'm not sure I do.  Milos Raonic maybe, but I'm not sure he beats Djokovic if they meet in the semis.  Raonic might need Djokovic to lose earlier, either to the Isner-Kohlschreiber winner (get ready for a three-and-a-half-hour five-set night match that ends at 2:30 in the morning over Labor Day weekend) or the Tsonga-Murray winner.  Speaking of Andy Murray, the US Open has always been a place that's kind to him.  It's where he made that Grand Slam breakthrough in 2012.  But he's struggled this year and drawing Djokovic in the quarters was bad luck.

Give me a Djokovic-Raonic semi.  Djokovic is No. 1 in the world for a reason, and he hasn't lost before the semis at the US Open since 2006.  In fact, he's got a 21-tournament Grand Slam quarterfinal streak going (he's also played either Federer, Nadal or Murray in 13 of his 14 career Grand Slam finals).  Basically, what I'm saying is that Novak Djokovic is turning into Ivan Lendl.  No matter what, you can pencil him in the US Open final every year.

As for Federer, his road was made much easier with the withdrawals of Nadal and Del Potro.  While Roger is no longer the dominant force he was in his prime, it says an awful lot that he's no longer "elite" but it's still a shock when he loses early.  This US Open is a great example.  All the stars are aligned for him.  Just like they were at Wimbledon (and Wimbledon 2012, when he won his last Grand Slam title).  Sure, Mr. Sharapova could give him a challenge in the quarters and potential semifinal opponent Tomas Berdych has always been Federer's Grand Slam foil, but they're really the only ones standing between Roger and his first US Open final in five years.

Djokovic and Federer are head and shoulders above the rest of the field.  It would be a shock to not see them squaring off with each other on Monday afternoon.  The day off that was put in place last year would certainly help Federer more (since he's not going to win back-to-back best-of-fives on consecutive days), but Djokovic is the best hardcourt player in the game today.  A Federer win gives us eight different Grand Slam champions this year, but I think we're more likely to see Djokovic do what he did the last time he won Wimbledon.  Follow it up with a US Open title.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Some Highlights From Montreal

I just spent a week in Montreal.  Other than the inevitable issues that arose from only speaking English (with a few French sentences here and there thrown in) in a primarily francophone city (fortunately, virtually everyone in Montreal is bilingual), it was a pretty cool experience.  I also got a chance to check out some of the city's sporting history, the most obvious of which is the team that has won more Stanly Cups than any other. 

My hotel was just down the street from the Bell Centre, so it was to my great excitement when I found out the Canadiens Hall of Fame is located inside the arena.  Now, I'm not a Canadiens fan.  But as a hockey fan, I can certainly appreciate their history.  They have more than twice as many championships as anyone else, and some of the greatest players ever to play the game wore Canadiens sweaters.  The opportunity to check out their Hall of Fame was simply too good to pass up.

The Bell Centre

As soon as you walk in, there's a wall with every captain
in Canadiens history.  Bill Durnan is significant because
he was the last goalie to be a captain before the NHL made
a rules change prohibiting it.

The great Jean Beliveau was Montreal's longest-serving
captain and won 10 Stanley Cups in 18 seasons.

Jose Theodore's touque from the 2003 Heritage Classic, the
NHL's first outdoor game.

When the Forum closed and the Canadiens moved to the Bell Centre,
every living team captain participated in a historic "passing of the
torch" from one building to the other.

The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 24 times, the most
championships by any team in North America other than the Yankees.
The great Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the greatest player in Canadiens
history and the NHL's first real superstar.

The main entrance of the Forum, the Canadiens' home from 1924-96.

Montreal's most recent championship was in 1992-93.

Yes, the street the Bell Centre is located on is called "Montreal Canadiens Street."

I also got to go on the field at Percival Molson Stadium, which is where the CFL's Montreal Alouettes play.

The view from centre field (the 55-yard-line).

My last stop was Olympic Stadium, site of the 1976 Olympics and former home of the late, great Montreal Expos.  Most of Olympic Park was closed for construction, and the stadium itself was closed because it's hosting the finals of the FIFA Women's Under-20 World Cup this weekend.  The world's largest inclined tower, the Stadium's most distinctive feature, was also closed.  None of that stopped me from getting pictures of what I was able to access.

The Olympic pool is located inside the base of the Tower, and I was
able to find this view of it from the Stadium lobby.

The former Olympic practice track is now Stade Saputo, home
of the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer.

This is actually from inside the Olympic Park subway station.
So, there you have it.  Sorry that this got kinda lengthy, but as you can see, I had a pretty good week in Montreal.  It's good to be home, though.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Super Bowl Halftime Options

Yesterday's news that the NFL wants this year's potential Super Bowl halftime performers to contribute to some sort of NFL charity definitely seemed a little weird.  I get what they were trying to say: "You're getting all this free publicity from doing the halftime show, why not pay it forward?"  But their execution was obviously way off, and it's making the NFL look incredibly bad as a result.

I'm sure what they were trying to do was see if any of the performers would be willing to do that.  Whoever said yes, if any, was likely going to be the NFL's choice.  But, and I'm not sure if this was their intention or not, it never should've been made public.  Bring this up in your negotiations with the artists and see if they'd be willing.  Then nobody would've ever known if the answer was "No."  By doing it this way, the NFL looks bad for asking and the artists look somewhat bad for saying no, although, in fairness, why would anybody expect them to agree?

Now, there's a common misconception about the Super Bowl Halftime Show.  The NFL doesn't pay the artists that perform at halftime.  They pick up the travel costs, but the artists themselves aren't financially compensated for performing.  And this isn't a problem for anybody, since most artists use the publicity from the Super Bowl to launch a new album or tour.  So, it's not as if the NFL is suddenly getting cheap and going from paying the artists to asking them to pay for the privilege.

And I'd bet whoever the NFL ultimately chooses might make a goodwill gesture and make a donation to charity anyway.  It could've been a great PR move.  The problem is that it backfired.  The NFL shouldn't have asked ahead of time.

What's being somewhat lost in this outrage, too, are the three artists that the NFL has reached out to.  Whether or not these are the only performers being considered, who knows, but I wouldn't be surprised if they really have narrowed down the list to just these three.  Especially since two would be excellent selections who've been considered in the past and have the type of wide-reaching appeal and following that would be appropriate for the millions of people who watch the game. 

Nothing against Coldplay, but they don't have the cache of either Katy Perry or Rihanna.  They're not the type of group that has the "Wow" factor we've grown to expect for the Super Bowl Halftime Show.  Both Katy Perry and Rihanna do.  Likewise, Katy Perry and Rihanna both have legions of fans, but are also relevant enough that they and their songs will be familiar to casual viewers.  And they're upbeat performers who lend to the type of show the NFL would want (I've heard that Katy Perry is awesome live).  I may be wrong, but I don't see Coldplay as that type of artist.  People aren't going to get anywhere near as excited for Coldplay as they would for Katy Perry or Rihanna.

Between the girls, though, I don't think they could go wrong either way.  They're both all over the radio, with tons of songs that everyone knows, whether they want to admit it or not.  They've got different types of songs too, which isn't as relevant for halftime as it would be for a full concert, but is important nonetheless (Taylor Swift or Adele wouldn't be appropriate because all of their songs are the same).  They've both got their fans who might not care at all about the game, but will tune in to see either one perform at halftime.  And, most importantly, they're big enough headliners that people won't turn the game off or go do something else at halftime.  The fact that they're both attractive women doesn't hurt, either.

Personally, as long as it is either Katy Perry or Rihanna, I really don't care which.  I'm kind of leaning towards Katy Perry because I've heard how good a performer she is and I'm not sure about Rihanna live, but I'm pretty sure she's amazing as well, so it really is a toss-up.  Ultimately, though, either one would be a great choice.  In fact, why not have both?  One this year, the other next year.  (I've got a feeling the NFL's got something special planned for Super Bowl 50, though.)

Super Bowl halftime has taken on a life of its own in recent years.  I'm sure we'll find out the ultimate choice soon (Bruno Mars was on the set of FOX's pregame show in Week 1 last season), but I'm excited about the possibilities (at least, two of the three).  And I'm sure the charitable donation thing will sort itself out, too.

That's being blown out of proportion, though.  The NFL didn't mean to come off as bad as it did.  It was just an unfortunate consequence of poor timing.  And it's a mistake that probably wouldn't be made again if the NFL had the chance to do it over.