Monday, May 30, 2016

Whose Cup Runneth Over--Pittsburgh's or San Jose's?

NBC's broadcast strategy for the Stanley Cup Final is interesting, and it's also kinda brilliant.  Going back to the days when it was a separate entity, two games of the Final have always been in NBCSN's contract.  In recent years, they've put Games 3 and 4 on cable, with the other five on the main network.  This year, it'll definitely be Game 2, with the second game determined by who wins that game.  If it's 2-0 when the teams leave Pittsburgh, Game 3 is on cable.  If it's 1-1, the first game in San Jose is on NBC, with Game 4 shifting over to NBCSN instead.

While the Final being on two different networks certainly isn't ideal, the fact that NBC and NBCSN are essentially the same thing certainly makes it easier.  And with the two Stanley Cup Final games worked into the cable contract, there's very little they can do about it.  Game 1 has to be on NBC, and all potential Cup-clinching games should.  When NBCSN had Games 3 and 4 guaranteed, it was possible the Cup would be awarded on cable.  This way, fans are guaranteed to see the Cup handed out on broadcast TV.  Ideally, NBCSN would have Games 2 and 3, with NBC showing the opener and all potential clinchers.  But I understand that scheduling these things isn't exactly easy, so I guess this will have to do.  At least people who don't get NBCSN will get to see who wins the series.

But which team will that be?  I said prior to the Penguins-Capitals series that whoever won that one would win the Cup, but Pittsburgh had a much tougher time putting away Tampa Bay than I thought.  San Jose, meanwhile, has finally exorcised the demons of playoffs past, and Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Co. are finally making that first Final appearance.  Can the Sharks finish the job and lift the Cup for the first time in franchise history?

San Jose is loaded with talent.  That's why the Sharks' playoff struggles in the past have been so frustrating.  For everyone.  This year, they've finally put it all together.  And that offense is clicking.  All four lines are getting in on the act, and even the defensemen are scoring!  Meanwhile, Martin Jones has done exactly what he's needed to in goal.  And I think past his Final experience as Jonathan Quick's backup in 2014 could be important.  He's been here before, so he shouldn't be as nervous in the big spots.  That's more than I can say about the rest of the team.  Jones and Dainis Zubrus are the only players on the Sharks roster to have previously played in the Final.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has plenty of players with Stanley Cup experience.  Five Penguins (Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Letang, Kunitz) were on the roster when they won the Cup seven years ago, and two others (Matt Cullen, Carl Hagelin) have been in the Final with other teams.  That might not seem like a lot, but, with the exception of Cullen, those are all key players for the Penguins.

They've been the best team in the NHL since the calendar flipped to 2016, and they've certainly been the best team in the playoffs, too.  Matt Murray has done the job in goal, which means Mike Sullivan's gonna have a tough decision on his hands.  Does he stick with Murray or go back to Marc-Andre Fluery if he's healthy?  That decision could either win him or lose him the series.

Regarding the series schedule, the NHL made a very smart decision.  The Stanley Cup Final usually follows a Monday-Wednesday-Saturday format.  But with the cross-country travel this year, they've made a slight adjustment.  There are two days off before each game where there's travel required.  So, Game 5 will be on Thursday, Game 6 is on Sunday and Game 7 is back on Wednesday.  That extends the series over 17 days, but it was a smart move to not make them potentially fly cross-country and play the next day four times.  I'm sure the Rangers and Kings would've liked it if they'd done that two years ago.

That schedule will probably benefit the Penguins more than the Sharks.  The West Coast teams are used to that travel.  The Sharks' last two series were against Nashville and St. Louis, which are both in the Central time zone.  Meanwhile, the Penguins' travel this postseason has featured trips to New York, Washington and Tampa.  Even counting that series against the Kings, the Sharks have logged many more miles than the Penguins during the playoffs, as they always do during the regular season.

If they'd kept the series schedule the same, it might not have made a difference.  It might've affected both teams the same way.  Maybe we'd see tired legs all the way around.  And who's to say the travel won't be a factor even with the change?  The Sharks are used to it.  The Penguins aren't.  I think San Jose is much better-equipped to handle the back-and-forth.

However, my pick for the series is Pittsburgh.  I, like most of America, will be rooting for the Sharks.  But I think Pittsburgh is simply too good.  My concerns about the Penguins' goaltending have proven to be unfounded.  And that team has that never-say-die attitude that makes them very tough to beat.  They destroyed the Rangers.  They outplayed the President's Trophy winners.  They were down 3-2 to Tampa Bay and dominated the final two games to win the series.

This won't be a blowout by any stretch of the imagination.  This will be a very close series.  But Pittsburgh's got that killer instinct, and they've been there before.  The Penguins also have the two best players in the series, who are desperate to add another title.  Ultimately, I think the fact that Game 7's in Pittsburgh will be the biggest factor.  Because I don't see the Penguins losing that deciding game at home.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Indy 100

It seems like we've been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 for a few years now.  The track opened in 1909, so that was cause for a celebration.  Then we rightfully honored the 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911 two years later.  Now, we've reached another Indy 500 centennial.  After the breaks for World War I and World War II, we've finally gotten to the 100th race, so it's party time in Indianapolis once again.

Everything about the Indy 500 is awesome.  It's called the "Greatest Spectacle In Racing" for a reason.  The Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend is the greatest day in racing.  Formula 1 kicks it off in Monte Carlo, and NASCAR of course has the Coca-Cola 600 pretty much immediately after Indy is over.  I usually can't do all 1100 miles, but I always make it a point to watch Indy from white flag to checkered.  There's just something about it.  I just love the Indy 500 so much.

Part of the mystique of the Indy 500 is that long-standing belief (among both drivers and fans) that the track decides who wins.  Think that's just a myth?  Ask any member of the Andretti family, which is at 47 years since Mario's win in 1969.  Or Tony Kanaan, who led every year, but didn't kiss the bricks until his 12th try.  Or J.R. Hildebrand, who lost control on the final turn of the last lap and finished second to the late Dan Wheldon five years ago and hasn't come close since.

Then there are those that the Brickyard has smiled upon.  Helio Castroneves won each of his first two Indy 500s, then finished second in his third.  He's drunk the milk three times, finished in the top 10 all but twice in 15 career starts, and he has a chance to join Indy legends A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser as the only four-time winners.  Or defending champion Juan Pablo Montoya, whose tour de force last year was his second Indy win, 15 years after his first.  (Montoya spent most of that time in NASCAR and has only started at Indy three times, winning twice.)

So who will add his name to Indy lore have his face inscribed on the Borg-Warner Trophy?  Will Castroneves or Montoya continue his Indy brilliance?  Will Kanaan or Ryan Hunter-Reay or Scott Dixon win for a second time?  Will one of the rookies have beginner's luck?  Will Marco break the Andretti Curse, or Graham Rahal get a win on the 30th anniversary of his father's victory?

Or will someone else get to write his Indy story?  Maybe someone like Carlos Munoz, who was second and fourth in his first two races before finishing 20th last year.  Or Will Power, who I think is the best driver on the circuit yet to win at Indy.  Or how about pole sitter James Hinchcliffe?  His story is already a remarkable one.  Hinchcliffe almost died in a practice crash before last year's Indy 500, costing him the rest of the 2015 season.  Not only is he back at Indy a year later, he's sitting on the pole!

Also worth noting is the Indy 500 debut of rookie Stefan Wilson.  Wilson's brother, Justin, died from injuries he suffered during the Pocono race last season.  Stefan's car number?  Justin's 25.  What else?  I don't think Stefan Wilson will be a factor in the race, but it's a nice story nonetheless.  Although, I'm sure they planned on racing together at Indy this year and never got that chance.

Last year, Dixon looked poised to cap a dominant month at the Brickyard, leading for a race-high 84 laps before Montoya worked his way through the field to win going away at the end.  I don't think we'll see a repeat of that in 2016.  I have a feeling this year's race will be more like the ones we saw in 2013 (a record 64 lead changes) and 2014 (34 among 11 drivers).

Picking the winner of the Indy 500 is such a crap shoot.  Everything can go right until the very end, when one little mistake (not even necessarily made by you) costs you dearly.  Likewise, you can make an early mistake and think you have no chance, only to battle back and end up in Victory Lane (Montoya had a pit issue very early in the race last year).  Then sometimes it comes down to a simple drag race or getting a draft off a final restart.  No wonder winning it is so hard.

You obviously can't count out Hinchcliffe.  He was obviously the fastest qualifier, which is why he's on the pole.  But I don't think he'll be the winner.  Simon Pagenaud is the series points leader, but he's never finished higher than eighth at Indy.  He could be a factor, but I also don't see Pagenaud in the mix at the end.  Rather, I think this will finally be Will Power's year.

All the usual suspects will be there, too, but I just have a feeling about Power.  He's come so close, and last year he almost got it, finishing second to Montoya.  With a decent starting position (No. 6) and good speeds throughout the month, Power looks primed to grab his first Indy win.  Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon have also regularly been putting up fast laps in practice and qualifying, but they've both won Indy before.  Power hasn't.  His luck will finally change, and he'll join them as an Indy 500 champion.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Count On Seeing Russia In Rio

I've been saying all along that I fully expect the Russian track & field team to be in Rio, and the actions/comments of the past few days have done nothing to make me change my mind.  In fact, I'm more certain than ever that the IAAF will lift Russia's ban in time for the Olympics.  And I'm not the only one.  Well-respected Olympic blogger Adam Abrahamson agrees with me, and he lays out a pretty convincing argument why in the great piece posted on his website today.

The IAAF and IOC aren't in an easy position here.  There's no question about that.  And whatever they do, somebody's going to end up being unhappy.  There's a large group that says there's no possible way they can allow Russia back in and still protect "clean" sport.  But the IOC has never banned an entire national team for non-political reasons, and doing so opens up a dangerous can of worms.

Yelena Isinbayeva, perhaps the most famous Russian track & field star, has threatened legal action of Russia's ban is upheld.  She should.  And she'd probably win, too.  Because Yelena Isinbayeva has done nothing wrong (she has plenty of negative drug tests to prove it), and depriving her of an opportunity to participate in the Olympics, which only happens once every four years to begin with, is definitely a violation of her rights.  Not to mention how much the blanket ban has been affecting her ability to make a living (no international meets=no prize money/appearance fees).

Isinbayeva isn't alone.  It's naive, wrong, and downright unfair to say that they're all guilty.  Even if the rumors are true and the retested samples from the Beijing Olympics do include a fair number of Russians, it's still a stretch to label them all as "cheaters."  And this guilt by association is unfair to all the clean ones, of which I'm sure there are plenty.

And Russia is doing its part, too.  Their federation president has put the odds on their participation in the Olympics at 50-60 percent, which might not sound that high, but is significantly higher than it would've been if you'd asked him that same question two months ago.  They made the necessary reforms to the doping program and taken the extra step of saying that anyone with a doping history will be excluded from the Russian Olympic team, provided there is one.  That includes 2012 gold medalist Anna Chicherova, who's evidently one of the ones from Beijing, where she won the bronze in the high jump.  It would also include the likes of Mariya Savinova, the 2012 gold medalist in the 1500, and Tatyana Chernova, a two-time World Championships medalist in the heptathlon.

Besides, it does seem like selective enforcement.  Russia's not the only nation embroiled in a doping controversy at the moment.  But are there calls for a blanket ban on all Ethiopians and Kenyans?  Was anyone pushing to keep all Americans out of meets immediately after the BALCO scandal?  So why now, and why just the Russians?

Not to mention the political ramifications.  Russia is one of the most politically significant and important nations in the entire Olympic movement.  Scratch that, in the entire sporting world.  Where were the Olympics two years ago?  Where's the World Cup in two years?  Alienating Vladimir Putin and such a vast sporting nation is not exactly high on anybody's agenda.  Not Seb Coe's.  And certainly not Thomas Bach's.

This is uncharted territory for the IOC, and I doubt this is the precedent they want to set.  The only countries ever to be banned from an Olympics were Germany and Japan in 1948 for their roles in World War II, as well as South Africa during apartheid.  Also, Afghanistan had to sit out Sydney because of the Taliban's treatment of women, but that's it.  Even when Iraq and India (and currently Kuwait) had their NOCs suspended because of political interference, their athletes were still allowed to compete under the Olympic flag.

It's also worth noting that we're talking about only the Russian track & field team here, not the entire Russian Olympic team.  The IOC hasn't suspended anyone.  It's the IAAF that imposed Russia's suspension.  In fact, the IOC has never suspended an entire nation for doping.  Once they do, there's no going back.  And that's a step they have to be 100 percent sure they want to take, which I'm not sure is the case here.

In 1984, the entire Soviet Olympic team was prevented from traveling to LA as a result of a political boycott.  Athletes were denied the opportunity to represent their country because of something that had nothing to do with them.  Thirty years later, we're in danger of that happening again.  And it would be equally unfair.  Especially if Russians who did absolutely nothing wrong are stuck at home watching their competitors (some of whom may have doping histories of their own) go for the Olympic glory that could've been theirs had they only been born in a different country.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Walk Is Four Balls, Not One

Evidently, the whole time of game "problem" in Major League Baseball is a problem once again.  After seeing the average time of games drop to 2:53 early last season, it's up seven minutes, back over the three-hour mark over the first seven weeks of this season.  That upward trend has disturbed Commissioner Rob Manfred enough that he's vowed there will be changes.

When Manfred said that, there were a number of possible changes going through people's minds.  There's the pitch clock, which they currently use in the Minors, but they assumed, probably correctly, that Major League pitchers wouldn't go for that.  Likewise, limiting mound visits or making relievers pitch to more than one batter were both suggested and dismissed.

Instead, the recommendations put forward by MLB's competition committee involve the strike zone and intentional walks.  I can get on board with one, but I'm vehemently opposed to the other.

The change with the strike zone isn't that drastic.  It basically just redefines bottom of the zone.  The current strike zone goes from the chest to the knees.  But umpires have been calling the low strike more and more, even though it's technically not a strike.  Well, the new interpretation would move that lower portion of the strike zone to the top of the knees.

Basically, they want more balls put in play, and the best way to do that is to make hitters swing at strikes.  Right now, that's not the case, which isn't their fault.  They think the low pitch is a ball, so they don't swing at it.  Then the umpire calls it a strike (even though it isn't), and suddenly they're down 0-1.  Now they have to start swinging at crap out of the zone and end up striking out.  Adding to their frustration, some umpires then call the high strike and/or the inside/outside pitch.

It's tough to hit when everything is called a strike, whether it's in the zone or not.  By making the strike zone smaller, they're making it easier on the hitters.  Pitchers probably won't like it, but if a smaller zone results in more swings, that's less pitches they'll have to throw.  Ultimately, this shouldn't have that much of an impact.  As long as the umpires call it right.

I do have a major problem with the other proposed change, though.  Eliminating the intentional walk is a stupid idea.  Why is it such a terrible thing that a pitcher has to lob four pitches in the other batter's box when a team decides to intentionally walk somebody?  Issuing an intentional walk isn't as simple as the competition committee would like you to believe.  It's something that you still need to execute.  And telling the batter just to go to first base without having to go through the act of actually pitching isn't the answer.

What can go wrong on an intentional walk, you ask?  Well, for starters, there could be a wild pitch or passed ball.  When that happens and the runners move up anyway, they might decide to take the intentional walk off.  It's like when teams decide to take the sacrifice off with two strikes because the guy can't get the bunt down (or there's a wild pitch/passed ball) and he ends up hitting a double.

Or, they could throw one a little too close to the plate and it gets hit.  Think that's far fetched?  I've definitely seen it in the Little League World Series, and I'm pretty sure Vladimir Guerrero did it at least once, too.  And let's not forget about the intentional walk that only comes about after they throw two balls and the guy on first steals second, so they decide to just put him on since they're already behind in the count.

My point is a lot of stuff can happen in a baseball game.  Situations aren't as clear-cut as some people might think.  They've been very cognizant of striking a balance between speeding up games without compromising the integrity of them.  Getting rid of the intentional walk would do just that.  It's as much a strategic element of the game as making a pitching change or dropping down a bunt or when to shift (talk about things in baseball you need to get rid of).

One of the most beautiful things about baseball is the fact there isn't a clock.  I, for one, have never found the times of games to be that big of an issue (and I watch the Yankees, who are notorious for playing long games, on a regular basis).  It's more pace of game, and it always has been.  That's why the endless pitching changes and throws to first and defensive shifts are, in my opinion, a bigger problem than the two intentional walks you might have in a game.

Of course, none of this has been approved yet.  It still has to go to the rules committee, and you can bet it'll be discussed during the negotiations for a new CBA in December (although, they don't need the players union's approval to do it).  From what it sounds like, though, the Commissioner wants this to happen.  So, we'll probably see something change next season.  Even though we don't need it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tennis I Can't Watch

I'm probably not going to watch that much of the French Open this year.  It's got nothing to do with Roger and Maria not being there, although that's weird enough.  No, it's because the TV coverage of the French Open will be virtually nonexistent.  The reason why?  ESPN won't be covering the tournament this year.

ESPN is the exclusive broadcaster of Wimbledon and the US Open, but isn't for the French Open, where NBC is the longtime rights-holder, and Tennis Channel is the primary cable carrier.  As a result, ESPN was third in line, meaning they got whatever matches and time slots the other two didn't want.  And ESPN didn't like that, so they decided to give up their French Open contract.  Which would be fine if NBC's coverage wasn't limited to weekends and/or people actually got Tennis Channel.

It's hard to believe that in 2016, TV coverage of a Grand Slam tennis tournament will be so limited.  Hopefully it's just a one-year thing (why not use NBCSN for the matches no longer on ESPN?).  So, instead of watching on TV, I'll have to rely on online streams (hopefully they're in English!) and live scores in order to have any sort of a clue about what's going on during the first week in Paris.

The only time I've ever been to Europe, I was in Germany during the French Open, so that year I probably saw more of the tournament than I ever have before (or since).  Except it was all in German (obviously)!  And watching the French Open in the middle of the afternoon instead of early in the morning was strange, too.  At least I was able to watch it, though.

Regardless of my ability to watch the tournament, this year's second Grand Slam will go on as scheduled (I think it's a week earlier this year, too).  And Novak Djokovic will once again try to get the only thing that he's missing (he'll get his chance at that Olympic gold in August).  Last year, he beat Rafael Nadal in that brilliant quarterfinal, only to play his worst match of the year against Stan Wawrinka in the final.

For all the talk about Serena Williams going for the Grand Slam last year, it was Djokovic that ended up one bad match against Wawrinka away from doing it himself.  And let's not forget, he's won Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open since then.  So, if he does finally lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the first time this year, he'll have done something neither of his two rivals has ever done, and something no men's player has done period since Rod Laver in 1969--have all four titles at once.  What do you like better, the "Nole Slam" or the "Djoker Slam?"

With no Federer in the field, the fifth-ranked Nadal moved up to the No. 4 seed, which means his matchup with Djokovic will come a round later in the semifinals.  And I find it hard to believe the winner of that match won't be the champion.  Although, I also said that last year and we all know what happened.  Last year's final only added fuel to Djokovic's fire, though, so I don't think we're in store for a repeat of 2015.  If he beats Clay Boy, he'll finish the deal this time.

As for who he'd meet in the final, I wouldn't be surprised to see a rematch against Wawrinka.  Andy Murray is the designated runner-up when Djokovic wins Grand Slam tournaments, but clay is his worst surface, as evidence by the fact he's never been to the final here.  He has been to the semis three times, though, including the last two years, so a breakthrough isn't totally out of the question.  Murray would have to be at the top of his game and get a little lucky, though.  I'm not saying that can't happen.  I just don't think it's likely.

Before I move on to the women, a note about someone who's absence will definitely be felt.  For all of his records, Roger Federer's streak of 65 consecutive Grand Slam appearances might be his most remarkable.  He went 16 years without missing a Grand Slam, and you know this isn't the only time he's been injured during that span.  I just hope Roger's back in time for Wimbledon, which is his best chance at adding to his record haul of Grand Slam titles (that Djokovic might surpass within the next couple years).

Speaking of setting records for Grand Slam wins, Serena Williams can't match Margaret Court at Roland Garros.  In fact, this will be her third attempt at tying Steffi Graf for second all-time.  After that stunning loss in the US Open semifinals, she was simply outplayed by Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final.  And, as fate would have it, guess who Serena's matched up with in the semifinals?

For the first time in a while, we go into a Grand Slam without Serena being the prohibitive favorite.  In fact, she's got a pretty tough draw, with fellow former champions Francesca Schiavone and Ana Ivanovic back-to-back in the third and fourth rounds.  And, if we've learned anything throughout the course of Serena Williams' career, it's that she's especially vulnerable in the earlier rounds.  And this is just to get to a potential matchup with Vika Azarenka in the quarters, then a semi against Kerber.

On the bottom half, last year's Wimbledon finalist and Nadal's new mixed doubles partner Garbine Muguruza (who beat Serena in the second round at the French two years ago) appears to be on a crash course with either Lucie Safarova, the finalist here last year, or 2014 finalist Simona Halep (who, interestingly, has lost in either the first or second round in each of her other five French Open appearances).  You've also got world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska, who's had a very good year, and Sabine Lisicki, the former Wimbledon finalist (when she beat Serena), who's somehow unseeded here.

What I do know is that, like the Blackhawks-Kings Stanley Cup rotation, the Maria Sharapova-Serena Williams French Open rotation is probably over.  Maria, of course, is waiting to find out how long she'll be suspended for her positive drug test, while Serena, despite winning in Madrid two weeks ago, appears vulnerable.

Knowing Serena Williams, it would be stupid to count her out completely, but I'm not just automatically putting her in the final, either.  I've got Serena reaching the semis, where she loses to Kerber, just like she did in Melbourne.  Then Halep defeats Kerber for her first Grand Slam title.  As for that Djokovic-Wawrinka rematch I'm predicting, give me Novak and the "Djoker Slam."

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Changing Citizenship

Athletes change their national allegiances for any number of reasons.  Bernard Lagat and Meb Keflezighi are naturalized Americans who started representing the United States once they became citizens.  Becky Hammon was offered the chance to play for Russia after being told she wouldn't make the U.S. team, so she took it.  Same thing for Viktor Ahn, who was cut from the South Korean national team, so he moved to Russia.  American snowboarder Vic Wild married his Russian girlfriend and changed his citizenship in order to continue his career after USA Snowboarding stopped funding his event.

Those reasons are all legitimate.  Becky Hammon took a tremendous amount of slack for representing Russia in London, but I had no problem with her decision.  She took advantage of an opportunity that she otherwise wouldn't have had.  Like it or not, there was nothing that prevented her from doing that, so she did it.  I view that kind of like transferring colleges.  How many players leave a school after one year because they're unhappy about playing time or homesick or the coach left or whatever?  How is that any different?

Hammon's not the only athlete to jump at the opportunity to be an Olympian, even if that meant representing another country.  Dual citizens have their choice (and sometimes change their minds), and they have their reasons for choosing one country over the other.  Sometimes it's as simple as picking the one where it'll be easier to make an Olympic team.  Or maybe it's to honor a parent/grandparent.  Or (like in Keflezighi's case), it's going with the country you grew up and live in over the one you were born in.

Citizenship rules vary by country, but some are very lax.  For example, the Greek baseball team at the Athens Olympics consisted entirely of Greek-Americans.  If you're Jewish or have a Jewish family member, you're eligible to compete for Israel.  A lot of nations have rules similar to that.  If you have a parent or grandparent was born in the country, you can declare your allegiance.  There are a couple athletes who I've worked with who represent Ireland because of their Irish heritage.  That's also why Alexi Pappas, who went to the University of Oregon, will run for Greece in Rio, and another Duck, sprinter Hannah Cunliffe, may very well be there representing Italy.

Then there are the nations that buy elite athletes, which I don't agree with.  I don't even know how many, but rest assured it's a lot, native Kenyans represent nations in the Middle East.  Why?  Because they're not good enough to make the Kenyan team, but still world-class, so these oil-rich countries offer them citizenship and a salary with the only condition being they're now suddenly from Qatar or Bahrain instead of Kenya, even though they've possibly never even been to the country.  It's a win-win for both.

While that's a highly questionable/borderline shady practice , there's no rule against it.  And, again, you can understand why they do it, both the athletes and the nations involved.  However, it seems to have gotten more and more prevalent in recent years.  Prevalent enough for people to take notice.

IAAF President Seb Coe, who was the head of the organizing committee for the London Olympics four years ago, is one of those people who's noticed the trend, and he doesn't like it.  Coe has gone on record saying that he thinks athletes should only be allowed to represent one country during their careers.  Now, it's not that black-and-white (if you become a naturalized citizen of a country, you should have every right to represent the nation you voluntarily choose to live in).  But his point remains a valid one.

FIFA makes you choose a country and stick with it.  There are a lot set of rules regarding dual citizenship and eligibility, but, they've purposefully made it very difficult to switch national allegiances.  You can change if you've never played internationally, as long as you live in the country you want to represent.  And they're a little more lenient on changing nationalities moving up from the junior level to the senior level.  But even then, you need to meet a certain set of requirements.

Of course, FIFA needs strict citizenship rules.  Otherwise, Spain and England and Germany would naturalize every top player in La Liga and the Premier League and the Bundesliga, which would, obviously, significantly weaken world football.

It's far-fetched and ridiculous to envision that scenario in soccer, and track & field is a completely different sport.  But there are parallels, and the the FIFA method is a reasonable one to draw from when coming up with rules to deal with the citizenship "problem."

I have no issue with representing one country at the youth/junior level and another at the senior level.  Likewise, if you are granted citizenship in a country by whatever that nation's legal means are (it's not easy to become an American if you weren't born here), you shouldn't be prevented from representing your adopted homeland internationally.  And, regarding the use of familial ties, as long as you've never competed internationally before, if you meet a country's eligibility criteria and want to represent that nation, go ahead.

Does Sebastian Coe have a point?  Yes.  It's certainly disturbing to see African distance runners representing every country on the globe, but I'm not sure there's much that can be done about it.  The discussion is definitely a worthwhile one, though.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Happy Anniversary

It's hard to believe, but 2016 marks two important 20th anniversaries in the North American sports landscape.  The WNBA is celebrating its 20th season of play, while we're actually in year number 21 of MLS, which began play in 1996.  Neither one will ever reach the level of the Big Four leagues, but the fact that they've both reached the 20-year mark is significant.

How many leagues have tried to catch on and failed?  Arena football?  It's down to eight teams.  The USFL?  Three seasons.  And, for all the success of the U.S. women's national soccer team, where on what number attempt at a professional women's soccer league?  Yet these two have survived.  At times they've even thrived.  And it doesn't look like either one is going anywhere anytime soon.

Let's start with the WNBA.  It was founded on the heels of UConn's first undefeated championship and the dominant 1996 U.S. Olympic team.  There were actually two women's basketball leagues that kicked off at the same time, but the WNBA had a couple things the ABL didn't: the NBA's backing, NBA arenas in major cities, and the big names.  At the beginning the quality of play in the ABL might've been a little bit bitter, but that league folded in 1998 and the WNBA is still going strong.

The WNBA will never be on the same level as the NBA or any of the other men's leagues.  They know that and they accept that.  But the WNBA has also filled an important gap that had been missing for entirely too long.  The top players in women's college basketball don't have to go to Europe anymore (although, most still do since the money's better there and they play a different season).  And, more importantly, girls in this country who want to be professional athletes have something to strive for.

Sure, there have been some bumps in the road.  Of the eight original teams, only three are still in existence in their original market (the New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury).  They've folded a couple franchises, including a Houston Comets team that won the first four WNBA championships, and moved some others.  But they've found a business model that works, and they've enjoyed a reasonable amount of success.

They've also found a league size that works well, as they've been holding strong at 12 teams for the last couple years and I haven't heard any talk of expansion.  They're smart about where they play, too.  No longer are WNBA franchises the sister teams of their NBA counterparts.  There's a team in Connecticut, which obviously draws a lot of support from the preexisting UConn fan base.  When the Sonics went to Oklahoma City, the Storm stayed in Seattle.  (Although, I think they're missing out on a golden opportunity by not having a team in Nashville.)

Another stroke of genius was to move out of the NBA arenas.  WNBA attendance will never approach NBA-type levels, so playing in those half-empty 20,000-seat arenas doesn't look good and doesn't make much sense.  So why not go to smaller venues?  Fill an arena that sits 8,000-10,000.  You've still got the Liberty playing in Madison Square Garden and the Sparks playing at the Staples Center, but that's balanced out by the Chicago Sky and Dallas Wings playing at local colleges, or the Connecticut Sun being the main show in town at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

You can point to attendance figures and TV ratings all you want (the WNBA does need a better TV deal), but you can't argue that the WNBA hasn't been a rousing success.  The NBA's backing certainly has helped, but the WNBA hasn't lasted two decades on that alone.

And, like I said, the WNBA isn't going anywhere.  The biggest names from the best college programs stay at home, and they're also the ones that make up the U.S. national team.  You get to see them play past college other than once every four years in the Olympics.

I don't think there's a person out there who wouldn't argue that the WNBA has made the game of women's basketball better as a whole, either.  It's not the richest women's basketball league out there, but the quality of play is absolutely top-notch.  And the best players in the world come to play in the WNBA, simply because of the competition.  Lauren Jackson is the biggest name that comes to mind, but there are plenty of others.

As for MLS, it's never been stronger than it is right now.  They're sitting at 20 teams, with plans to expand to 24 within the next few years.  There are even teams in the three biggest cities in Canada!  MLS, too, endured its growing pains, but it's in a good place right now.  They've got a great TV contract with ESPN and Fox Sports.  They've got soccer-specific stadiums that get filled.  Most importantly, they're no longer considered a joke or a passing fad.  Not by the fans, not by the players, and not by the soccer world.

David Beckham and Thierry Henry and David Villa certainly helped bring credibility to MLS, which will never rival the Premier League or Bundesliga or any of those top leagues in Europe.  But the quality isn't poor in comparison, either.  More importantly, the U.S. National Team, for the most part, has improved as MLS has improved.  These guys get a chance to play competitive professional soccer at home, and they don't have to travel great distances for national team duty.  Sure, some of the top Americans still play in Europe, where the money is better.  But, you've also seen how many Americans leave their European team for MLS (and more playing time)?

There are things about MLS that FIFA and the rest of the soccer world are never going to like/accept, but they're also things that would be difficult, if not impossible, to change.  The second league's not comparable enough to have promotion and relegation (which is one of the many reasons that wouldn't work here).  We use playoffs to determine our champions here (sorry Europe, I know you don't want to hear this, but the Champions League is playoffs, too).  We can't play in Toronto and Seattle and Colorado in December and January (there's also less going on in the summer, when MLS doesn't have to compete with the NFL and college football).

Considering how nuts people get during the World Cup, it was probably inevitable that MLS would build a reasonably strong fan base.  And I still find it funny that MLS is still nowhere near as popular as the Premier League, which NBC shells out millions a year to televise, or the Champions League.  I'm not sure that'll ever change, though, and I think MLS accepts that.  As long as people are watching and coming to games, it really doesn't matter.

Will MLS ever get to the level as the Big Four?  Probably not.  But this country has finally gotten the memo about soccer that the rest of the world has already had for a while.  It makes sense that MLS eventually caught on, even if it did take a while.

FIFA might've made USA Soccer start MLS as a condition for getting the 1994 World Cup, but the league has succeeded on its own merits.  Once they stopped trying the gimmicks that simply didn't work and just played the game pure, MLS has helped America figure out why the Brazilians call soccer the "beautiful game."

Maybe the timing was right.  Maybe the U.S. national team's rise coinciding with the rise of MLS is purely coincidence.  Or maybe it's because the players are better and there are more of them.  But whatever it is, MLS isn't destined to end up like the NASL.  The league has never been stronger.  And, like the WNBA, MLS is here to stay.