Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The World Series Isn't Dying

Last week on the off day between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series, there was an article in the New York Times lamenting the "death" of baseball.  They do this every year, using the declining ratings for the World Series as their evidence.  "Only" 12.2 million people watched Game 1.  And you know what?  MLB and FOX don't really care.

We're long past the days where the World Series is going to pull in a 20-plus rating simply for being on.  That's true of all TV.  Especially broadcast TV.  Besides, ratings don't tell the whole story anymore.  You can watch the game on any number of mobile devices, and this year was the first time that MLB.tv subscribers were able to watch the World Series on their computers.  These viewers aren't taken into account.  Neither are the ones who find some sort of pirated stream and watch illegally.

People have a lot more options.  FOX knows this.  Yet they just paid more (by a significant amount) for rights to the World Series until 2021 than in their previous contract that expired last season.  Why do you think they willingly moved pretty much all of their Division Series and LCS games to the fledgling Fox Sports 1?  Because they'd love to get a 12.2 rating on Fox Sports 1.  And if they got that rating on cable, nobody would be saying anything about it.  (It also gave them a chance to double-dip and avoid pissing off the fans of their primetime shows that would otherwise have been preempted by baseball.)

These same critics say the same thing about the All*Star Game, which FOX and MLB make a point to put on the broadcast network even in this new cable-heavy contract.  I also think it's important to point out that the MLB All*Star Game is the only one of the four that isn't on cable, and that it's still one of the highest-rated events of the summer.

But the critics are quick to note that World Series ratings have been on the decline since the last time the Royals were there, when an average of 34.5 million viewers watched in 1985.  (The all-time high was 44 million for Dodgers-Yankees in 1978, when there were about three viewing options for the American public in primetime.)  They're also quick to point out that the past nine years have produced the eight least-watched World Series in history.  Ironically, MLB moved from a Saturday start to a midweek start in 2007 because they thought more people would watch during the week, so they got rid of that second weekend.

Well, in the five years from 2004-08, the World Series never lasted longer than five games.  This is only the fourth time since 2003 that there's even been a Game 6, and Cardinals-Rangers in 2011 was the only seven-game series in that span.  Ratings generally get better as the series goes on, as evidence by the 25 million viewers for Game 7 in 2011.  If the series isn't competitive, there's little reason to watch.

And, this might not be a fair point to make, but this World Series involves the Kansas City Royals.  They're a great story, and America has certainly adopted the Royals.  But that doesn't change the fact that Kansas City isn't a major market.  In fact, it's the second-smallest in the Majors.  The World Series ratings are phenomenal in Kansas City, but 60 percent of the TVs in Kansas City is nowhere close to 60 percent of the TVs in LA.  (Why do you think the only World Series in the last nine years not in the bottom eight all-time was Yankees-Phillies in 2009?)  Bigger markets drive ratings, and, no offense to the Royals, but casual fans are more likely to tune in when one of the marquee teams is playing.

It's also unfair to compare the World Series ratings to the behemoth that is the NFL.  NBC's Sunday Night Football is the highest-rated "show" in all of primetime.  Football took over as America's favorite sport to watch on TV a long time ago.  Everyone knows this.  So comparing baseball's ratings to football's is apples and oranges.  It's not like comparing two TV shows that air at the same time.  The World Series isn't in danger of being cancelled by FOX because more people watched the football game on Sunday night.

Sunday night was the only time in the entire series that the World Series was scheduled to go head-to-head against the NFL.  They moved the start from Wednesday to Tuesday so that Thursday would be the off day and they wouldn't have to go against Thursday Night Football.  There are two reasons for this.  First, they know they're not going to compete with football.  But that also meant people wouldn't have to choose between the two.

Another comparison made in the New York Times article was to the World Cup this past summer.  The rating for the USA-Portugal game was roughly 25 million, or, twice the rating for Game 1 of the World Series.  Again, it's apples and oranges.  That game aired against very little competition on a Sunday afternoon in the summer.  (Why do you think NBC's Olympic ratings are always so high?)  The World Series airs in primetime against first-run scripted programming on weeknights in October.

I also hate it when people blame the 8:00 start times for the World Series' ratings.  "How are kids supposed to watch when the games end at midnight?," is the argument.  Well, how early do you want them to start?  Keep in mind, the West Coast is three hours behind, so it's 5:00 there.  And FOX has responded to that criticism.  They used to come on the air at 8 and start the game at 8:30.  Now they come on at 7:30 and the game starts at 8.  That means it's over at 11:15-11:30.  Too late?  I don't think so.

For those people that want an afternoon game, I've got news for you.  It ain't gonna happen!  You're not having an afternoon game during the week when people are at work, you can't do Sunday afternoon because of the NFL, and Saturday afternoons are college football.  In fact, until this year, FOX always had an NFL doubleheader on the Sunday of the World Series, so that game has to start later than the others because they have to wait until football is over.  (It wasn't even a FOX doubleheader this week and Eagles-Cardinals still ran until 7:45, with postgame going right into baseball coverage.)

Trying to appease people, they tried an early start for the Saturday game in 2010, which was Game 3.  Pregame started at 6:30 and first pitch was a little after 7.  And you know what?  The ratings were even worse!  So much for that idea.  The experiment lasted a total of one year.  In 2011, they moved to the 7:30 pregame/8:00 start for all games.  (The only exceptions are that Saturday night might be 7:00/7:30, and Sunday might be later because of football.)

Fewer people are watching baseball.  So what?  Those that want to still are.  And those millions have been seeing a pretty good series.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Rest of Week 8

Only the NFL would schedule a game at 9:30 in the morning and think it's a good idea.  Of course, that's because they decided to have three London games this year, and they decided that they wanted to start one in the afternoon their time and see how the 9:30 a.m. start would go over.  I'd imagine the World Series has something to do with it, too.  Because FOX usually has a doubleheader on the Sunday of the World Series, but this year they don't.  Falcons-Lions from London is their national game instead.

Thursday night: Denver (Win)

Lions (5-2) vs. Falcons (2-5): Detroit-This is technically an Atlanta home game, which doesn't really seem fair because they were away last week and they play two more road games after the bye.  The Falcons are a better team at home, but by "home" I mean Atlanta.  The trip across the pond might be difficult for them.  Especially since the Lions are on a roll.  They've won four out of five.  Make that five out of six.

Ravens (5-2) at Bengals (3-2-1): Baltimore-The battle for first place in the AFC North (although not really because that stupid tie will leave Cincinnati percentage points behind Baltimore even if the Ravens win).  Cincinnati's not the same team it was at the beginning of the season.  Of course the schedule has gotten meatier, but the Bengals need to put up a good showing in these games, which is something they haven't done.  I just don't have much confidence in them right now, so I think the Ravens go on the road and pick up a division win.

Texans (3-4) at Titans (2-5): Houston-Because the rules say the AFC South teams have to play each other twice a year.  Houston was 3-1.  Then they lost to Dallas, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.  It's not entirely their fault (the Cowboys and Colts are first-place teams after all), but it's certainly put them in a position of badly needing a win to avoid the division getting completely away from them.  Fortunately, this week they draw the Titans, who couldn't pull it out in Washington last week.

Rams (2-4) at Chiefs (3-3): Kansas City-Imagine, just for a second, that the Cardinals had won the National League pennant.  Had that happened, it'd be quite a sports day in the State of Missouri.  As it is, it's still a pretty good day for fans in Kansas City.  First the Chiefs, then home to watch the Royals.  Regardless of how the baseball game goes, those fans should be able to count on at least one win.

Bears (3-4) at Patriots (5-2): New England-I'm almost at the point of completely giving up on the Chicago Bears.  At least that's happening before December this year.  The game's not in Chicago, which improves the Bears' chances, but they're just 1-2 against the AFC East this year and the win was over the Jets, so that doesn't really count.  It also doesn't help that it looks like the Patriots have found their groove.

Bills (4-3) at Jets (1-6): Buffalo-The traveling circus that is Rex Ryan and the New York Jets heads home to the Meadowlands this week.  This actually seems like it's a pretty good chance for them to end this six-game losing streak.  Especially since they almost pulled off the upset last week against the Patriots.  They didn't, though, and the record says 1-6.  The Bills are the better team in this matchup, although I am a little concerned about their running back situation.

Vikings (2-5) at Buccaneers (1-5): Tampa Bay-Another interesting matchup between two bad teams.  It's not that either one is Raiders/Jaguars/Jets level of bad, but they've both fallen behind the eight ball in their respective division races.  Although, the Bucs aren't in as bad a shape as the Vikings, especially with how mediocre the NFC South has become.  Tampa Bay's played some competitive games against good teams this year, so Minnesota should be a win.

Seahawks (3-3) at Panthers (3-3-1): Seattle-CBS took this game away from FOX for some reason, yet they didn't make it the doubleheader.  I still don't quite understand why, but I'm willing to go with it if you are.  Anyway, it's crazy to think that one of these teams, the top two seeds in the NFC last year, will be below .500 after this game.  It's even crazier to think the Seahawks might lose their third in a row.  I just don't see that happening.  Seattle's the pick.

Dolphins (3-3) at Jaguars (1-6): Miami-This is what I get for actually having belief in Cleveland.  They go lay a total egg and push Jacksonville into the win column.  All that really does is move the Jaguars past the Raiders into 31st place in the power rankings.  They're still not a good team.  If the Dolphins do what the Browns failed to do and actually show up for the game, it shouldn't be a problem.

Eagles (5-1) at Cardinals (5-1): Philadelphia-With the Cowboys playing on Monday night, the winner of this one will temporarily share the NFC's best record with Dallas.  I bet FOX wishes they did have their usual World Series doubleheader.  Because the way this season has gone so far makes this a pretty good national late game.  The Cardinals have played some of their best football this season against elite teams, and playing Philadelphia in Phoenix is a definite advantage.  I just have a feeling the Eagles are going to win, though.

Raiders (0-6) at Browns (3-3): Cleveland-Jacksonville and Oakland back-to-back.  Should be a couple easy wins, right?  Tell that to Cleveland.  The Browns had 6-2 staring them in the face.  Now they don't.  But what's the best way to recover from an absolutely miserable performance?  Getting the Raiders at home.  Back over .500 for Cleveland.

Colts (5-2) at Steelers (4-3): Indianapolis-I'll admit it.  I don't get the Pittsburgh Steelers.  They look completely hapless one week, then look elite the next.  It's not like they play to the level of their opponent, either.  The Colts, though, are rolling.  Five straight wins after starting 0-2, and a 27-0 thumping of the Bengals last week.  Indy's Peyton-era 12-4's might become a regular thing again.  They should be halfway to 12-4 after beating the Steelers.

Packers (5-2) at Saints (2-4): Green Bay-Will America watch Bumgarner vs. Shields or Rodgers vs. Brees?  That question was rhetorical.  I know the answer is the football game.  That's why NBC and the NFL picked this matchup to go against the World Series.  It should be an entertaining game, I'll say that much.  And maybe the baseball game will end early enough for me to watch some of it.  The Packers should be comfortably ahead by then.  New Orleans is just missing something.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but it's why a team as talented as many think the Saints are will drop to 2-5.

Redskins (2-5) at Cowboys (6-1): Dallas-Even though Washington sucks and Dallas is good for the first time in a couple years, there's something about a Cowboys-Redskins Monday night game that just seems right.  It's just like Packers-Bears.  It doesn't matter how good each team is, the rivalry brings out the best in both.  For Dallas to stay in the "best team in football" conversation, losing at home to lowly Washington simply isn't an option.  Although, a win would make the Redskins' season.

BYE: Giants (3-4), San Francisco (4-3)

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 9-6
Season: 71-35-1

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Where's the Love?

A few weeks ago, a group of women's soccer players from different countries combined forces to sue FIFA because of what they called "unfair playing conditions."  Their argument centers around next year's Women's World Cup in Canada, where five of the six venues will use FieldTurf rather than natural grass.  The only exception is Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

When I first saw this, I kind of scoffed at it.  After all, they used some of the same venues at this summer's Under-20 World Cup and no problems were reported.  (Sidebar about that tournament, when I was in Montreal, I actually stayed in the same hotel as the French and South Korean teams.)  But their main complaint wasn't about the FieldTurf.  It was about the fact that FIFA would never ask men's teams to play on FieldTurf during their World Cup, even if indoor venues are being used (I can still remember the grass pitch installed in the Silverdome during the 1994 World Cup).  So, basically, it's a gender discrimination suit.

Then I looked at things a little more closely and realized they have a point.  It might not seem like that big a deal, but they're right.  Men's players would be so up in arms about the prospect of playing a World Cup on turf that FIFA wouldn't even ask them to.  Yet, for the women, that's not a problem.  It does seem unfair.

The thing that pushed me over the edge, though, was watching the CONCACAF qualifying tournament that's been going on over the past two weeks.  That's right.  Two weeks.  In October.  This is what FIFA does for Women's World Cup qualifying.  For the men, it's a two-year process that culminates with the "Hex," a 10-game home-and-home double round robin between the top six teams in the region that begins in March and ends in September.  Yet the final round of women's qualifying is one two-week tournament.

I understand that there are far fewer women's teams.  In CONCACAF especially.  And that finances are a problem in many of them (the stories about the teams from Haiti and Trinidad/Tobago were well-publicized in the lead-up to the tournament).  So, it's much easier to hold a tournament rather than making these poorly-funded teams travel all over the region multiple times.  It's the structure of that tournament that I have a problem with, though, and it's what makes me think the female players named in the lawsuit are on to something.

For those of you who haven't been following it, the CONCACAF Women's Championship (which is the tournament's official name) is an eight-team event that has been playing doubleheaders in MLS stadiums for the past 10 days.  One group plays a doubleheader one day, the other group plays the next day, then everybody moves to a different city for the next game.  As for the rest between games, there isn't any.  Each team played its first game in Kansas City, then its second in Chicago two days later.  There's even only one day off between the semifinals and final!  That schedule is ridiculous and, again, it's something they would never ask a senior men's national team to do.

As you probably could've guessed, the attendance at the games not involving the U.S. has been (to put it nicely) minimal.  Although, I can't really blame people in Kansas City for not wanting to go to a Guatemala-Haiti women's soccer game on the same night the Royals were clinching the pennant.  But that doesn't change the fact it's not really fair to have two teams from the Caribbean playing outdoors at night in Chicago in October in front of 200 fans.

And the TV coverage of this event has been virtually nonexistent.  One of FOX's first big gets for Fox Sports 1 was the FIFA rights.  The Women's World Cup will be the first tournament that's a part of that deal, so they've been the ones airing the qualifying tournament.  Except there's still no one that watches Fox Sports 1 (full disclosure, I only remembered the soccer was even happening because of a commercial during the NLCS).  Most people don't even know what channel it is.  The games that aren't on Fox Sports 1 (basically all the ones not involving the U.S.), are on Fox Sports 2, a channel whose existence I might be making some of you aware of for the first time right now.

Contrast that to the qualifying cycle for the recently-concluded men's World Cup.  ESPN didn't just show all of the American home games, they showed all of the Mexican home games, too.  USA Soccer made a separate deal for the road games, which aired on beIn Sport.  That caused an outrage, because I don't know of a single cable system that actually carried beIn Sport last summer (it was just added to mine a couple months ago, and I immediately questioned the timing, since qualifying for Russia doesn't even start until 2016).

Women's soccer is growing.  The 2011 World Cup in Germany was the best one yet, and the field for Canada has been expanded from 16 teams to 24.  Countries like Thailand, Cameroon and Switzerland have already qualified to make their Women's World Cup debuts.  But there's still plenty of room to grow, and as much as FIFA is helping the cause, it's also somewhat holding the game back.  Otherwise, they wouldn't be playing the World Cup on turf and they'd get more than one off day during the qualifying tournament.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Unlikely World Series

OK.  So...raise your hand if you thought this would be the World Series matchup at the start of the season.  I'll even give you the start of the playoffs.  If you said "Yes," you're either a liar or you should've gone to Vegas and cashed in.  But yet here we are.  The Giants and the Royals.  America's newest darlings against the team that never loses in October.  Well, one of them's got to lose.

One of these two is guaranteed to set a record with their 12th win of the postseason.  Of course, the Royals have already set a record by starting 8-0, and they've actually won 11 straight playoff games dating back to Game 5 of the 1985 World Series.  But that's nothing to the Giants.  They've never lost a playoff series under Bruce Bochy.  Nine postseason rounds and counting.  San Francisco hasn't lost a postseason round since 2003, while the Royals haven't dropped a postseason round in 30 years.  Something's obviously got to change.  Either the Royals will cap this remarkable run with an unlikely championship or the Giants will affirm their status as a modern baseball dynasty by winning their third title in five years.  (I actually went and did some research today and found that only eight Giants have been active for all three World Series--Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and six pitchers.)

Before I move on to the analysis and pick, some more fun facts.  This is the second all-wild card series, and the other one also involved the Giants (in 2002 against the Angels).  It's the first World Series in a full 162-game season in which neither participant won at least 90 games.  And, this one's obvious, but they're the first wild card teams to make the World Series since the Wild Card Games were added in 2012.

Anyway, on to the breakdown.  I'll start with this interminable wait we've had to endure since the matchup was locked in last Thursday.  We've been waiting so long that Madison Bumgarner, who started the Giants' last game, will be on regular rest for Game 1.  I can't remember there being this long of a wait between the end of the LCS and the start of the World Series since 2002...when we were rewarded with an entertaining seven-game classic. 

Frankly, I was a little worried about the wait.  If the Giants hadn't won Game 5, that would've been bad news for the Royals.  Because the team that has the long layoff after their LCS while the other one goes deep has traditionally not done well in the Series.  In 2012, the Giants and Cardinals played seven while the Tigers swept the Yankees.  Then the Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series.  The same thing happened in 2007 when the Red Sox beat the Rockies and 2006 when the Cardinals beat the Tigers.  Detroit and Colorado won a total of one game in those three Fall Classics.  However, with both teams getting a similar layoff, there's no advantage for San Francisco there.  Instead, I think it's more likely we see a series more like 2002.

San Francisco does have the advantage in Game 1, though.  Madison Bumgarner will be making his third career World Series start.  He's 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in his World Series career.  And both those starts came on the road.  James Shields did get the win in Game 2 in 2008, which was Tampa Bay's only victory over the Phillies, but the Giants certainly have the edge in the battle of the aces.  The fact that both of Bumgarner's previous World Series starts can't be overlooked, either.  He's also 2-0 on the road this postseason, with that shutout over the Pirates in the Wild Card Game.

There is an X factor I'm curious about, though.  The Giants, who went a combined 8-1 in 2010 and 2012, had home field advantage in both series.  They won both games in San Francisco each time.  This year they're starting on the road.  Will that make a difference?  I think it might.  Because going home tied 1-1 or down 0-2 is much different than going on the road up 2-0.

I also wonder who will DH for the Giants.  Travis Ishikawa's not an outfielder.  So, if it were up to me, Ishikawa would DH and Juan Perez would play left, even though Michael Morse seems like the obvious choice to DH.  Speaking of DHs, I'm so happy for all of the Royals, but Billy Butler especially.  He's been in Kansas City the longest.  There's no chance Butler will play the field in San Francisco (it would make absolutely no sense to have him play first and take Hosmer out of the lineup, and that's the only possible position Butler could play).  But the Royals only lose their No. 5 hitter in three of the seven games, and they get Butler back for Games 6 and 7.  That could be important.

But if there's anything we've learned over the last month, it's that Kansas City isn't reliant on Billy Butler's bat.  The Royals are a fun team to watch.  Because they can win games in any number of ways.  They hit the fewest home runs in the American League, but in the playoffs, they've used the long ball as a weapon.  And it hasn't just been one guy.  Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, Escobar, Cain, they've all gotten involved.  Then there's the element of speed, which is something the Royals have that few other teams do.  That's how they won the AL Wild Card Game, and they might be able to (literally) steal a run or two late in a close game.  With that unhittable bullpen, those manufactured runs could be the difference.

When it comes to manufacturing runs, though, no team does it better than the Giants.  This team is built for October, which is why they thrive this time of the year.  San Francisco was one out away from losing Game 2 against Washington, put together three straight hits to tie the game, then won it on Brandon Belt's home run in the 18th.  That was their last homer for six games (of which they won four) before finally breaking out for four, including Travis Ishikawa's pennant-clinching walk-off shot, in the NLCS Game 5 clincher.  Plus, they've got Bumgarner, the best pitcher in the series, and that experience can't be discounted.

Assuming Bumgarner wins Game 1, it's imperative the Royals take Game 2.  Because if they don't, the series won't be long, and the Giants will do something they didn't do in 2010 or 2012...clinch the championship on their home field.  If we have a deep series that goes back to Kansas City, though, that favors the Royals.  You know that crowd will be electric in Games 6 and 7, and having the last at-bat will prove vital for a team that simply refuses to lose.  It would also give the Royals a chance to clinch all four rounds at home.

Common sense says to pick the Giants.  But there's just something about this Royals team.  They don't know what the hell they're doing, and it's fantastic to watch.  There's only one way for this ride to end.  Kansas City in seven.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Rest of Week 7

What is it with the ties in the NFL?  We used to get one only once every couple years.  Now we've had one three years in a row...and not just because of the new rules!  As a result, we've got the Bengals and Panthers screwing up the playoff race in both conferences from now until the end of the season (although, a tie is what got the Eagles into the playoffs a couple years ago).

Thursday Night: New England (Win)

Vikings (2-4) at Bills (3-3): Buffalo-The Bills are a lot better than I originally thought they would be, last week notwithstanding.  It's worth noting, though, that their three losses are to New England, San Diego and Houston, none of whom are exactly slouches.  They're also 2-0 against the NFC North.  The Vikings aren't the same caliber as the two NFC North teams they've already beaten (Detroit and Chicago)...on the road.

Dolphins (2-3) at Bears (3-3): Chicago-This is a tough one.  I don't know what to make of the Bears week-to-week, and the Dolphins seem to be in every game before they end up losing.  What's even weirder about Chicago is that they haven't won at Soldier Field yet.  0-2 at home, 3-1 on the road.  I think that changes this week.

Saints (2-3) at Lions (4-2): Detroit-Another tough call.  New Orleans is getting close to "must-win" time.  They can't afford to get much more behind the 8-ball if they want to make the playoffs.  Ordinarily, you'd think a game in Detroit would be an easy Saints win.  But the Lions are probably the better team right now.  In fact, they're tied for first in the NFC North.  The Saints winning wouldn't be a surprise, but I'm taking Detroit.

Panthers (3-2-1) at Packers (4-2): Green Bay-Carolina's a confusing team.  They're 3-0 against the NFC and 0-2-1 against the AFC North (and that should really be 0-3).  And they looked downright bad in two of those three games.  The Packers, meanwhile, are fine after those early-season predictions of doom when they were 1-2.  Now they've won three straight and moved into a tie for first place.  If this game were in Charlotte, I might feel differently.  But at Lambeau, I like the Packers.

Bengals (3-1-1) at Colts (4-2): Indianapolis-It seems like it's been an awful long time since Cincinnati was the last undefeated team in football.  Then they get smoked by the Patriots and end up with a tie in a game they should've won.  Things don't get any easier this week against the Colts.  Indy's won four straight after starting the season 0-2.  Three of those wins were division games, but they also beat Baltimore at home.  The Bengals are a mess right now.  As a result, I'm going with the Colts.

Seahawks (3-2) at Rams (1-4): Seattle-The Seahawks finally lost a home game.  To a very good Dallas team.  And that 49ers-Rams game on Monday night was closer than the 31-17 score indicated.  Unfortunately, though, it ended the same way Rams division games usually end.  Seattle's going to bounce back fine.

Titans (2-4) at Redskins (1-5): Tennessee-Everyone's picking Washington in this game.  I don't know why.  Their only win was at home against Jacksonville, one of the few teams in the NFL that might actually be worse than the Redskins!  Sure, the Titans barely beat Jacksonville last week, but they're still better than Washington.  The Redskins simply aren't a good football team.

Browns (3-2) at Jaguars (0-6): Cleveland-I wasn't overly surprised by the Browns beating Pittsburgh last week, but the degree to which they beat them was certainly a shock.  The Browns are definitely for real.  And now they really get a chance to pad their record.  Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa Bay in the next three weeks.  I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Cleveland at 6-2 when they play Cincinnati in that Week 10 Thursday night game.

Falcons (2-4) at Ravens (4-2): Baltimore-Incredibly, after the tumultuous start to the season, the Ravens could in first place by the end of the day.  They've certainly recovered from the Ray Rice scandal.  And beating Atlanta at home shouldn't be an issue.  I still think the Falcons are better than they've shown, but their third straight road game looks like a third straight loss before they head across the pond for a "home" game in London.

Chiefs (2-3) at Chargers (5-1): San Diego-There's some debate over who the best team in football is, but the Chargers are making a serious case that it might be them.  And with the Eagles off and the Cowboys starting 20 minutes later, they could also become the first six-win team heading into that showdown Thursday night in Denver.

Giants (3-3) at Cowboys (5-1): Giants-The best team in football debate really became a much bigger topic of conversation after the Cowboys beat the Seahawks in Seattle last week.  It was a phenomenal effort by a Dallas team that's now won five in a row, and absolutely belongs in that discussion.  The Giants, meanwhile, got their butts kicked in Philadelphia on Sunday night.  So why am I picking the Giants?  Well, they've only once all-time at AT&T Stadium.  They know how to play in Dallas better than anybody.  I understand that as a straight-up pick this might be a loss, but they're definitely going to cover the spread at the very least.

Cardinals (4-1) at Raiders (0-5): Arizona-How come no one's talking about Arizona as one of the best teams?  All you hear about the NFC West is San Francisco this and Seattle that.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals are in first place after winning 10 games last year.  This week they play the Raiders.  I really wish the Raiders played the Jaguars this year.  Then we'd actually know which one is worse.

49ers (4-2) at Broncos (4-1): Denver-Fun fact: three teams in the NFC have only one loss this season.  Dallas and Philadelphia lost to San Francisco.  Arizona's loss was to Denver.  So, what I'm saying here is that we've got two pretty good teams facing each other on Sunday night.  There's, of course, another storyline that we'll be keeping an eye on.  Peyton Manning needs just three touchdown passes to break Brett Favre's all-time record.  If he doesn't get it this week (which seems unlikely), he's got another chance to do it on national TV Thursday night against the Chargers.  That'll be for first place.  Because they'll both only have one loss coming into it.

Texans (3-3) at Steelers (3-3): Pittsburgh-It sounds weird to say it, but, despite being 3-3, Pittsburgh's currently in last place.  The AFC North has had three good teams for the last couple years.  Now there are four.  Which means winning non-division games is paramount if Pittsburgh wants to have any shot at the playoffs.  Houston is also 3-3, but in the much weaker AFC South, that's OK.  Even after losing that first place showdown in Indianapolis last week, the Texans are just one game behind the Colts.  Basically, what I'm saying here is that Pittsburgh needs to win this game more.

BYE: Philadelphia (5-1), Tampa Bay (1-5)

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 11-3-1
Season: 62-29-1

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Olympics Nobody Wants

It might not be quite that dramatic, but that's certainly the way it seems.  Now that Oslo, the presumed favorite, has pulled out, the race for the 2022 Winter Olympics is down to two cities--Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing.  Neither choice is ultra-desirable, but they're all the IOC is left with after seeing city after city fall by the wayside.  At least there's still going to be a vote, because neither of the remaining candidates is going anywhere.

The IOC is clearly unhappy about these developments, and they've made that stance known.  The reason Oslo withdrew its bid was because it couldn't get the necessary governmental support, an IOC requirement.  Although, in the IOC's opinion, that problem could've been avoided if their had been better communication between the bid organizers and the government, which would've resulted in a clearer understanding of the actual costs and how that money would've been spent.

Governments, especially in Western nations, are scared off by the cost associated with hosting an Olympics.  They look at that $51 billion price tag for the Sochi Games and decide "Thanks, but No Thanks" without considering why the Russians spent that much.  In Sochi, they built a winter sports resort from scratch.  That costs money.  And that's what accounted for a majority of that $51 billion.  Oslo's already got most of that stuff in place.  As a result, their projected budget was only $5 billion, which was still too much for the government.

As a terrific article I read about the Oslo situation noted, the Norwegian media was also against hosting the Olympics, which turned the public against the bid, which in turn soured the government on the idea.  Having read some of those articles myself, I agree with that point completely.  The Norwegian media took things out of IOC manuals that were designed as suggestions for all potential Olympic hosts and ran with them as "demands" that made the IOC look like privileged prima donnas. 

One example noted in the article was that the IOC members asked for five-star hotels and 24-hour room service.  The fact that the IOC would pay for this themselves was conveniently ignored.  They also jumped on the IOC because of the suggestion that there should be a cocktail party with IOC members and the host country's head of state following the Opening Ceremony, as if that was an unreasonable idea.  (If I was an Olympic organizer, that's something I'd want to do regardless.)

There's no question that the 2022 bid "race" has been a black mark for the IOC.  Before Norway, bids from Switzerland, Germany, Sweden and Poland were either considered and not submitted or submitted and withdrawn for mostly the same reasons.  (The Ukranian city of Lviv also withdrew as a candidate, but the political situation between Ukraine and Russia also played a big part in that.)  As a result, the Olympics will be in Asia for the third consecutive time and, outside of Rio 2016, won't have been further West than Sochi for an entire decade.  It's also guaranteed that there will be at least a 12-year gap between Olympics in Western Europe (and a 10-year gap between Olympics in Europe period), and that's assuming the 2024 Games go to a European city, which is by no means a guarantee.

I haven't even mentioned the World Cup problem yet, either.  Since FIFA was stupid enough to give the World Cup to Qatar, a country where it's too hot to play soccer in the summer, they're going to have to move the World Cup.  Rather than playing it in November/December, some soccer people have said that the World Cup should be played in February instead.  So, even though FIFA's the ones that screwed up, the Winter Olympics, which are always in February, should be held at a different time?  That makes a lot of sense.

Anyway, IOC President Thomas Bach knows the IOC looks bad, and reforming the bidding process is one of the big things that will be discussed as a part of his "Olympic Agenda 2020."  Something needs to change.  Because nobody wants to host the Olympics right now.  At least not any of the Western democracies that traditionally do the best.  (The ironic part here is that the IOC doesn't want the U.S. right now, which is why there was no American bid for 2018, 2020 or 2022.)  And it's difficult to spread the Olympic Movement if the Games end up going back to the same country over and over again because they're the only ones willing to host them.

To his credit, Bach has remained steadfast.  Even though we're down to just two candidates, he's not reopening the bid process.  For one, that would be unfair to Almaty and Beijing.  For another, who's to say any new candidates would suddenly emerge.  So, for better or worse and whether we like it or not, the 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in either Almaty or Beijing.

Ultimately, I think the Almaty bid is much stronger, and a Games in Almaty makes much more sense (there are no mountains in Beijing).  I also think the IOC is highly unlikely to go to Korea, then Japan, then China for three straight Olympics.  Lastly, giving the same city two Olympics 14 years apart, let alone one Summer Games and one Winter Games, isn't exactly spreading the Olympic Movement.

Central Asia, however, is an untapped market.  The Olympics have never been in Kazakhstan (or any of the former Soviet republics other than Russia).  It might not be the most desirable bid, but it's definitely the lesser of two evils.  And let's not forget, Rio was rated fourth of the four finalists for 2016, but ended up winning the Games.  We don't yet know how the Rio Games will go, but I think we can all agree it was good for the Olympic Movement to have its first South American host. 

Almaty 2022 can do the same thing for Central Asia.  And if those Games are successful, nobody will be talking about all the cities that dropped out during the bidding process.  Just like no one cares that LA was the only bidder for the 1984 Summer Games.  That one worked out OK, and I have a feeling this will to.  Even if it doesn't seem like that right now.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Yankee Moves I'd Like to See

Now that Brian Cashman has been re-upped as general manager and hitting coach Kevin Long has been fired (which we all knew was going to happen), the Yankees can start planning their 2014-15 offseason moves.  And A-Rod returning doesn't count as an offseason move.  That already happened.  It's not like they're going out of their way to get him.  For all intents and purposes, he's more like a guy who missed the 2014 season with an injury.

However, I do disagree with the way the Yankees plan on using A-Rod next season.  He's going to be 40 years old and has played a total of 50 games in the past two seasons combined!  I think the year off was a good thing to a certain extent in that it let him fully recover from his hip injury.  The chances of him staying healthy are small to begin with, but they're a little better without him trying to play on a hip that isn't fully healed.

It's silly to think A-Rod will be able to be an everyday third baseman, though.  And the suggestion of moving him to shortstop, a position he hasn't played regularly in 10 years, is simply ridiculous.  (This coming from some of the same people who didn't want a 40-year-old Derek Jeter playing shortstop.)  Cashman and Joe Girardi seem to understand this to an extent, which I think is why they've told him that he's going to learn first base during Spring Training.  I'm not completely sold on that idea, either, though.  Because I think the solution is much simpler.

If I were running the Yankees and had a say in personnel decisions, there are two free agents I'd prioritize before anyone else.  Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley.  More on McCarthy in a second, but I think re-signing Headley is a no-brainer.  He provided as much of a spark as he could after he was acquired at midseason, and I'd love to see what Headley can do with a full season in the Bronx.  And defensively, he's a significant upgrade over Rodriguez at third.  Headley also proved capable at first base, as well, so he can be Teixeira's backup instead of sticking A-Rod over there where he's never played before.  Headley's value is increased by the fact that you can't rely on A-Rod, Teixeira and Carlos Beltran all staying healthy.  Having Headley on the roster provides some flexibility if one of the presumed 3-4-5 hitters is out of the lineup.

My ideal alignment has Headley at third and A-Rod DHing.  If you want to DH Teixeira, you can always put Headley at first and A-Rod at third.  It seems too obvious.

Another move I'd make would be to lock up Ichiro for another year as an insurance policy for Beltran.  Ichiro will probably look for somewhere he can play everyday, and if he finds it, I'd fully expect him to leave the Bronx.  But he seems happy with the Yankees and OK with his role.  If he's willing to come back in that same fourth outfielder role he was supposed to fill this season, I don't think that would be a bad move.  Yes, it's another 40-year-old (backing up the 38-year-old Beltran), but Ichiro can still be a productive hitter, as he proved last season, and there's no question about his defense.

Martin Prado is already under contract for next season, and the argument is probably that Prado can technically be the extra outfielder.  But he's probably going to be penciled in as the everyday second baseman (and possible No. 2 hitter), so you can't really rely on him being the extra outfielder.  We're not talking about Ben Zobrist here.  There isn't really another option at second base besides Prado (assuming Stephen Drew is shipped back to wherever he came from).

With Prado at second, Headley at third and A-Rod at DH, that's eight of the nine positions covered.  The only one that's left is shortstop.  Who's going to get those incredibly large shoes to fill?  It's probably safe to say it won't be Stephen Drew.  And it certainly won't be Brendan Ryan, who'll be back as the backup utility infielder.  J.J. Hardy's not an option, either, after re-signing with Baltimore.  So who does that leave?  If the Yankees go the free agent route, it could be somebody like Asdrubal Cabrera. 

I'd prefer a trade, though.  And I know exactly who I want.  Troy Tulowitzki.  Tulo wants out of Colorado, and he's exactly the type that looks like he'll thrive in New York.  His injury history is probably a concern for some (and rightfully so), but he's arguably the best shortstop in the game when healthy.  And he's the perfect guy to fill that unenviable role of replacing Jeter.  The Yankees have about six Major League-ready catchers in the Minors.  Brian McCann isn't going anywhere, so I'd trade one of the catchers (probably John Ryan Murphy) and a young starter (Shane Greene?), as well as a draft pick or two to the Rockies for Tulowitzki.

Back to Brandon McCarthy now.  The Yankees learned this year that you can never have too much starting pitching.  After the entire rotation (minus Kuroda) got hurt, then the guys who replaced them got hurt, McCarthy came over for Arizona and was arguably the ace of the staff in August and September.  With Kuroda likely retiring and Nova not returning from Tommy John surgery until the All-Star Break at the earliest, McCarthy fits right into the No. 3 spot in that rotation behind Sabathia and Tanaka (figuring Pineda and Phelps/Greene/Nova rounding out the rotation).  He's earned the opportunity to come back, and I think the Yankees will make him an offer to return.  They know how valuable he was to their pitching staff, and it's worth seeing if he can continue that success in 2015.

Then there's the elephant in the room.  What to do about David Robertson?  He seamlessly moved into the closer role while Dellin Betances emerged as a lights-out setup man.  Some will argue that the Yankees can afford to let Robertson walk and simply slide Betances over to closer.  If only it were that simple.  Robertson's going to get his money somewhere.  There's no question about that. 

But my question is this: Why shouldn't he get it from the Yankees?  Why rush Betances into the closer role before you need to?  Betances is still locked up for another couple years under his rookie contract, so the Yankees don't have to worry about losing him for a while.  And if Robertson were to leave, they'd have to shell out money on a reliever anyway, so why not just give it to him?  I'd give Robertson $45 million over three years, then make Betances the closer after that.

Who's to say any of my suggestions are good ones?  You probably have some ideas of your own.  (Sorry, having A-Rod not come back isn't an option.  And, frankly, I'd love for his bat to join the middle of that anemic lineup.)  I honestly don't really care what they end up doing.  As long as I'm watching the Yankees at this time next year, it makes absolutely no difference to me who's on the team.