The End of the Sports World


I have long stated my thoughts on the popularity of the NFL. How it is not the game itself that the public is flocking to but rather fantasy sports and gambling that is driving the popularity. Now within the last week the courts have announced that gambling on professional sports will be allowed. I am not saying that legal gambling in itself  is wrong and will destroy professional sports. However, legal gambling most assuredly will change the landscape of professional sports and bring an end to sports as we know it.

How will legalized gambling ruin sports as we know it? Especially when it is already a billion dollar industry….illegally. Again it is not whether or not gambling is legal or illegal but rather the attention the leagues are putting on the world of gambling. League commissioners and owners are tripping over their Louboutin loafers to get contracts and laws passed that will allow the leagues to benefit and cash in on legal gambling. One needs look no further than the NFL to see what affects this can have on their sport.

The NFL has grown into a monster over the last decade. Why? Because of fantasy football and because football itself makes gambling easy to understand. More and more people were drawn to the NFL because of the ancillary aspects of the game instead of the actual game. Want proof? Take a look at the top news stories of the actual game of football since that time. Concussions, player health post-retirement, spousal abuse, drugs, cheating scandals, franchises moving, etc. All negative right? Well then how do you explain the continued popularity of the sport? Because of fantasy leagues and gambling. The growth of the NFL fan base is not due to the typical, classiclly defined sports fan. It is not the man or woman that bleeds their team colors and shells out money for season tickets. The new, modern sports fan is more focused on entertainment, from fantasy leagues to making money via gambling or even simply building social events around sports.

And that is where sports as we know it is bound to change with the news of legalized gambling. Leagues will be focused on catering to a new revenue stream instead of on their actual gameplay on the field or court. The true sports fan, the classic ones, will likely never stop following the sports they love. But they will be forgotten as telecasts go from telling background stories about the players to providing information that could change a betting line.

We have already seen how the sports world has lost some of its identity in recent years as the business mindset has taken over. The last few years has brought an influx of analytical people who have changed the game, all leagues, more drastically in a few short years than in the previous century. And now we have gambling, which will soon overtake the actual play on the field, court, or ice as the true entertainment the fans are interested in.

When I fell in love with sports it was because of the aura of the game. Seeing athletes out there giving their all, seeing who is better, who can run the fastest or hit the ball farther. Watching these almost mythical characters do the remarkable and seeing underdogs have a Cinderella season. That was what was entertaining to me. And it still is. But that is not the sports fan that I am seeing nowadays.

Go to a game now and how often do you see people on their phones? Does anyone even keep a scorecard anymore? Stadiums and broadcasts are showing more and more fantasy stats to keep the attention of the modern fan. And soon enough you will be seeing gambling lines. Even the construction of new stadiums has changed. More activities and special sections, unique food or drinks, concert areas. All of this is to fulfill the modern sports fan desire for more. The game is no longer the focus, it’s about being entertained. And the modern sports fan definition of entertainment has changed from what a sports fan wanted decades ago. The game is not enough. The modern sports fan needs more.

I watch sports to witness LeBron James put a team of misfits on his back night in and night out. I watch sports to see three of the best scorers in the NBA (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson) play together. I tune in to see moments like David Freese hitting a game-winning home run in his home town. I have been awed when teams like the St. Louis Rams become the best team in the league out of nowhere and win a championship like they did in the 1999-2000 season. I am awestruck when watching Sidney Crosby weave his way through traffic for a goal. I am a true sports fan. And much like the games I grew up watching, I am becoming rarer to find.

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Vegas’ Lucky Roll

As I write this the Las Vegas Knights are playing in the Western Conference finals of the NHL playoffs. This is after they won a division title, totaling over 50 wins and finishing with well over 100 points in the regular season. You ask so what? Well in case you didn’t know, they are an expansion team. Meaning they have accomplished all of this in their first year of existence. And this is where some NHL fans have a problem. They are unhappy with the fact that an expansion team has achieved so much so fast while other teams across the league are struggling to find success. 

It was a well known fact that the NHL put in more lax rules and regulations for their latest expansion (Vegas). They saw what happened in Atlanta and did not want a repeat of a franchise that could never find footing to build upon. Still it wasn’t the rules and regulations that led to Vegas’ success this season. They were still drafting from players buried on NHL depth charts, overpaid players, or veterans thought to be past their prime. 

The reason for Vegas’ remarkable season stems from three distinct reasons. First of all the old adage of hot goaltending. They Knights picked up Marc Andre Fleury in the expansion draft. Fleury, a former Stanley Cup winner, is 33-years old and had lost the starting job with the Pittsburgh Penguins to the younger Matt Murray. It’s is a move that you of ten see in every pro league, going with youth because you feel like you have gotten all you could from the veteran. Fortunately for the Knights Fleury still had some cards up his sleeve and has been stellar in net all year long, and the team even benefited from  good net minding from Malcolm Subban while Fleury missed time with an injury. The biggest factor for any NHL teams sustained success is found in between the pipes and the Knights hit on Fleury. 

The second reason ties into the city the Knights play in; Vegas. No matter how much the analytical believers scream against it, there is such a thing as luck in sports and the Knights have had their share this season. We have already mentioned the return to form for Fleury. But how about their “star” Willaim Karlsson; and star is used loosely. While Karlsson did net 43 goals this season, coming into the year he was a 25 year old winger that had played on three different teams in his three NHL seasons and had scored a grand total of 18 goals. I don’t care what the Knights GM or scouts say, or whether analytical people say his numbers looked goo, there is no way anyone, ANYONE, could have confidently predicted he would score 40 goals this season. They got lucky. 

They also have gotten lucky on defense, where their collection of journeyman and underperforming defenseman. But this ties into the third reason for the team’s success, strategy. With a GM in place well ahead of actually having a team he was able to watch how winning teams were playing in the  league and build his team from scratch with that in mind. The Knights play fast. They are aggressive, attacking, and put the pressure on their opponents. All of this means that their defenseman have less to shoulder. When you are putting other teams on their heels it allows you to control the game and easily build momentum. And since game one this season, when they rallied for a 2-1 win over one of the preseason cup favorites rge Dallas Stars, the Knights have kept that momentum going. 

For those fans complaining about the immediate success of the Knights, I say too bad. You are probably the same people that follow others around at the casino waiting for them to leave the slot machine and jump on right after hoping to win. The Knights planned out their team with a strategy in mind, received strong goaltending, and got some Vegas luck. To me the Vegas Knights story this season is all about what is great in sports. The unexpected. 

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The Real NBA Season

playoffs18-april-promo-art.jpgWe have finally arrived. After seven months of basically pointless basketball, the TRUE NBA season has arrived. Yes we saw some impressive moments over that time; the progression of Giannis Antekempo, the rise of the 76ers, and LeBron just being LeBron. But in the end all that really matters is the battle for a title. And the NBA, more than any other league, is predictable when it comes down to choosing the final four teams that will do battle.

This week the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, and Houston Rockets will take the court as the final four teams to chase the title. Want to know where those four teams were picked in the preseason. According to ESPN, these were the four teams they expected to be here. ESPN’s analytical arm, 538 ranked the teams in order. How close were they? They had the Warriors, Rockets, and Cavaliers all among the top four teams with only Boston being the outlier and coming in 10th in their rankings.

For comparison a look at last year’s baseball predictions from 538 finds outliers New York Yankees (13th) and Arizona Diamondbacks (21st) making the playoffs and the Yankees advancing to the American League Championship Series.

The NFL was even more drastic with the Philadelphia Eagles, picked 15th in the preseason, actually winning the Super Bowl. But to go along the shocking Eagles we also had the Carolina Panthers (12th), New Orleans Saints (21st), Minnesota Vikings (22nd), Buffalo Bills (24th), Tennessee Titans (25th), Los Angeles Rams (28th), and Jacksonville Jaguars (30th) making the playoffs!!!

The NHL even ran a prediction simulation on their website, predicting a finals between the Chicago Blackhawks (who finished last in the Central Division) and Pittsburgh Penguins. They also had the Edmonton Oilers, who did not make the playoffs, in the conference finals and the Ottawa Senators, who had the second fewest points in the league, making the playoffs.

All of this is to say, once again, the NBA while it has some thrilling performances during the season is pretty much decided before the season even begins. Whether it has been the absence of the NFL in St. Louis or my changing sport taste but I have been getting into the NBA more lately. However I find it kind of funny when fans get all worked up over the seven month-long NBA season when truly, we already know what the end results will be.

I think this has to be a concern for the NBA, and other leagues. The NBA started the “tanking” mindset and had numerous teams out of any contention well before the season even starts; has to take this seriously. MLB is seeing a similar issue come to the forefront.

Maybe I am alone but I don’t think so. I think fans want to watch competitive teams and exciting games. When teams determine that a season is a lost cause and clear their team out for a rebuild, is that beneficial? Or will it cause fans to lose their attachment to teams. Will they become more fair-weather fans? Coming back to their teams when they are good but losing interest when they are not? Fans will always be there for the big games or as leagues near championships. But you can already see attendance dwindling at regular season MLB games and mid-week NBA games.

Professional sport leagues need to start re-focusing on their fans and stop worrying about growing their profit margins. Teams need to start treating the fans like fans and not consumers. Because as we all know consumers only buy into products that work and are enjoyable. And if teams continue to tank and ignore the issue of competitiveness, the consumers (fans) will walk away and spend their money elsewhere.

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0fd5809b02469076e4a5fb8653184b07--have-fun-say-toFirst let me get this off my chest, yes I still watch wrestling. What can I say, I find it entertaining. I wanted to be upfront and admit that because a couple of weeks ago me, my brother, and some friends went to a WWE event. Anyone that watches wrestling, they knows that Roman Reigns, one of the wrestlers, is jeered and booed each and every week. While at the event I noticed that many of these jeers were not because they dislike the guy perse but rather because it is just the thing to do.

Over the past weekend this occurred in another realm of athletics and is one that occurs on a daily basis for Cardinal fans…the constant jeering (or blaming) of St. Louis Cardinal manager Mike Matheny. The latest instance came after the Cardinals loss last Friday to the Pirates. A game that the Cardinals led 5-0 and eventually lost in the 11th inning when former All-Star and big-name free-agent acquisition Greg Holland blew the game in the 9th inning. The calls and social media were ready to storm the Cardinals locker room and personally remove Matheny from his position. Why? Because it is the thing to do.

Both of the instances, in different realms (one professional sports and one sports entertainment) have something in common. The fans have latched onto an idea and continue to prop that agenda up whether it is correct or not.

I am not here to defend Matheny. I am not here to claim Reigns is the best wrestler ever. What I am here to talk about is the trend that is happening in sports where fan bases take hold of a topic or issue and make that the forefront of everything.

Does Mike Matheny make some head scratching decisions? Absolutely. Is it annoying when he double switches in the 6th inning. Of course. But is he the reason for the Cardinals losses? Not usually. By the way, entering the game last Friday the Cardinals were actually in first-place in the Central Division and six games above .500. But that doesn’t matter right Cardinal Nation? What matters is that Mike Matheny is the worst manager ever in baseball, despite a .560 winning percentage; a mark that is actually the highest of Cardinals manager since 1950.

Could the Cardinals bigger issue be that they have just one .300 hitter and that Matt Carpenter (.170), Dexter Fowler (.165), and Kolten Wong (.203) are not living up to expectations and weighing down the offense right now? The Cardinals went out and signed Holland after the fan base clamored for him all off-season. Now when he is brought into game it is the wrong move? You can’t have it both ways. Mike Matheny does make some odd choices but again I will always go back to that we are not privy to all of the information he has; whether a player is available or not feeling well. The bigger concern I have with Matheny is does he still have the locker room under his leadership. That was the reason he was given his chance as a major league manager, for his leadership qualities, and at times last year it appeared that he may have lost some of the team. So if he is failing at the reason he got the job, now THAT is a concern.

And let’s not forget about Mr. Roman Reigns. He was propped up as the next big wrestler by the WWE and the fans did not like that. They didn’t think he “paid his dues” as wrestlers like to say. Was that his fault? No. If you are to watch him perform, he gives his all each and every week. He does not just go through the motions or overact like some wrestlers. However he is not given an opportunity by the fans because the cool thing to do is to boo him. I feel sorry for him because he obviously loves what he does and wants to entertain but isn’t given the chance.

I wish sport fans were able to just watch something for the joy of it. There doesn’t always need to be a “hot take” and you don’t have to join the crowd because it is the cool thing to do and hate on something or someone. So all I have to say to Mike Matheny and Roman Reigns is…keep doing your thing. Keep walking out there and giving it your all because haters are gonna hate.

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NCAA Commission Takes Their Shot

ncaaThis week the NCAA Commission on College Basketball stepped to the line and took their shot at laying out guidelines to improve NCAA Division I basketball. The top story from the 2017-18 college basketball season wasn’t high school players like Marvin Bagley III or Jontay Porter reclassifying, Trae Young doing his best Russell Westbrook impersonation, or even the historic UMBC upset over Virginia…no the top story this year was the FBI probe.

The FBI released a report that stated numerous college basketball stars and coaches had committed various violations including payments. From Arizona to Kansas, blue chip basketball programs were waiting for the other shoe to fall. While the final buzzer of the FBI probe has yet go off the NCAA put together a commission to look at the issues that surround college basketball and change the perception of the game.

The NCAA Commission released several suggestions for improving and “fixing” college basketball. They include:

  • Removing the one-and-done rule
  • Allowing players to return to school if they go undrafted, as long as they do not sign with an agent and receive money
  • Emphasizing more interaction with professional and approved agents
  • Harder penalties for coaches that commit major violations
  • Greater transparency from apparel and sneaker companies
  • Working with high school athletes and providing more certified exposure events

So what does all of that mean and what are the chances that this will help correct the image of college basketball. First of all it must be acknowledged that several of the guidelines technically fall outside of the NCAA legislature. The big one, the one-and-done rule is instituted by the NBA, exposure events are run by USA Basketball, and apparel and sneaker companies are obviously outside the NCAA realm.

Since Adam Silver took over the NBA he has been looking at ways to improve the league and talk of removing the one-and-done has gained some traction. Another comment made by Silver could tie into both the NCAA and USA Basketball, the camps. All three could work together to better train high school players and prepare them for their future. This means not just skills camps but life and business classes. More involved skills camps would also remove the slime of AAU basketball and give prep athletes a better idea of whether to go pro or get more development in college.

The more difficult step is with apparel and sneaker companies. Clearly they are businesses and we know that businesses are in to make money. Will they be willing to be more open with their business dealings with players? They could take the high ground and promise to help fix the image of college basketball but will they stand by that if there is a chance at losing a star athlete?

It only makes sense that the NCAA would work with agents, registering them and allowing players to have greater interaction with them. Again, this is conducive on not receiving any money from the agents, but players could benefit from assessments and again this could be tied in with skills camps that both the NCAA and NBA have mentioned.

The one guideline that the NCAA does have control over is the sanctions placed on coaches caught in violating rules. The NCAA has taken some hard hits recently over their presumed lack of consistency with recruiting violations. The commission suggested using impartial and neutral investigators while pushing for five-year bans for coaches committing Level I violations and the loss of all revenue sharing for the postseason. If a change is to be made the NCAA and school officials need to take responsibility and action. They can no longer use the phrase that they did not know or go light on coaches, especially repeat offenders. If you want to clean up the game, you have to punish the offenders. They know the rules, it is time to abide by them.

Even though the NCAA wants to implement these guidelines beginning this fall, it may take a while to fully flush out the guidelines and correct the course. There is no doubt however that if the NCAA, and other tangent organizations, take these suggestions seriously and work together that they will be able to shine the lights back on the basketball courts instead of on under the table bags of money and wiretaps.

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Braggin’ Rights Back

Image_uploaded_from_iOS_8_.jpgAfter a few years being relegated to the back of people’s minds in the Midwest, the Mizzou-Illini Braggin’ Rights series is back in full swing. The series received a boost of energy last spring when both schools announced the hiring of two new coaches (Missouri bringing on Cuonzo Marin and Illinois welcoming in Brad Underwood). The energy went up another notch when Mizzou “stole” Jeremiah Tilmon from Illinois and the intensity only deepened with the news this week that Mark Smith would be transferring to Mizzou.

For a little more information let’s go back to last summer when Tilmon, the #6 center in his high school class, had originally committed to Illinois but recended his committment when Illinois parted ways with John Groce. Tilmon then did the unthinkable according to Illinois fans, he swapped the Blue and Orange for Black and Gold and signed with Mizzou.

At the same time Mizzou was late in the recruiting for Mark Smith, Illinois’ Mr. Basketball his senior season. Smith ended up decided to stay at-home and head to Illinois. Fans were ecstatic, claiming they had the prize that Mizzou really wanted; a high scoring guard and would the gem of Underwood’s first recruiting class. Now, less than one year later, Smith is following Tilmon to Columbia, Mo.

And thus with his announcement the Twitter-verse has exploded. Fans from Illinois are claiming that Smith was selfish and is not a player that can help their program; just as they did when Tilmon decided to switch alliances. I am not saying this is only an Illinois fan base problem, this occurs with all fan bases including Mizzou. But it really is just annoying that fans have to go to these lengths and bombard social media, including the student-athletes accounts, with vulgar and low-brow messages.

I know that we are still seven months away from when teams take the hardwood again and still eight months from the 2018 Braggin Rights game. But I am excited for the return to glory for this series. Illinois has won the last five meetings, with those games being decided by an average of 4.8 points per game including a pair under three points. The series lost its luster when both programs went into a funk. Attendance for the 2015 and 2016 games was a combined 26,000. Last year saw a bump back up to 21,000 and during the prime of the series crowds were nearly 23,000. It is hard to blame the fans for their lack of interest. Both programs struggled mightily. The last season when BOTH teams made the NCAA Tournament was 2012-13 and while Mizzou made their first trip to the Big Dance in four years Illinois did not and has not made back to back trips since and eight year run that ended in the 2006-07 seasons

With new coaches, both teams showing promise on the court, and players swapping schools now is the time for Braggin Rights to once again be among the annual holiday tradition in St. Louis; right along with skating at Steinberg and seeing Christmas lights at Anheuser-Busch. I know where I will be on Saturday, December 23rd of this year. At ScottTrade Center, sporting my Black and Gold and yelling M…I…Z…

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Steroids Are Back In MLB

An abstract blue pattern with numbersJust when you think the game is cleaned up and returned to its 100 plus year glory, the ugly issue has risen once again. That is right. Steroids are back in baseball. Except this time it’s not such a dirty little secret. No this time it is upfront and openly talked about. So why have you not seen any stories about this news? Because this time it is not the strength and speed of the players that are being affected. No this time it is the brains and philosophy which are changing the game. The latest brand of steroids…analytics.

Steroids drastically changed the game, allowing players to stay healthy or recover quicker while giving them enough muscle to send a warning track ball over the fence for a home run. And now, analytics are changing the game (and not in a good way).

Analytics has brought some good things into the game. Pitchers better understand what pitches work against certain hitters. Defensively teams are now able to determine the likelihood of where a hitter may put the ball in play. And hitters themselves have benefited from the ‘launch angle’ craze to hit home runs at record rates. It has also led to some weird things, such as these odd defensive shifts for pull hitters. But analytics has also brought to light some bad qualities of the game.

There is no denying the connection of analytics to the increase in home runs. Teams are now hitting home runs at record rates. In fact last season there was a 47% increase in home runs from just three years earlier. Last year teams hit 6,105 home runs; breaking the previous mark of 5,694 set in the middle of the steroid era. This is good right? To paraphrase the old adage used during the home steroid era, people dig the long ball.

Except it is not all a ‘home run’. Sure home runs are exciting but the route the teams have gone about getting them, embracing the ‘launch angle’. Do not be fooled launch angle is just the 21st century term related to a long known baseball term, uppercut swing. And any little league player from before the turn of the century understands what having an uppercut swing means. It means more strikeouts.

Along with the record-setting home runs thanks to analytics, are coming record shattering strikeouts. Last season nearly 22% of hitters struck out, a major league record. Already this season that percentage is over 22%, which would mark the 11th straight season the strikeout rate has increased. When hitters are selling out for the fences they are less likely to make contact. It is as simple as that. But teams in all of their analytical wisdom have decided that home runs are worth more than contact hits.

Analytics is not only changing hitters but also changing pitchers for the worse. Analytics has “revealed” that pitchers struggle going through a lineup for a third time. So what does this mean? It means starters are now not expected to even last six innings. That is the best cast scenario for analytics. If a pitcher sets hitters down in order, the ideal spot according to analytics, would mean the pitcher comes out in the 7th inning; prior to facing the hitters for the third time. This came to the forefront on opening week when Philadelphia Phillies manager, and analytics lover, Gabe Kapler pulled his young ace Aaron Nola in the 6th inning after just 68 pitches and having given up only three hits while leading 5-0. By the way, the Phillies ended up losing that game.

Analytics is not just simply removing the starters innings but conversely putting those innings on an increased workload for bullpen pitchers. Teams are burning through their bullpen pitchers at an alarming rate. The game was already becoming more specialized with bullpen pitchers but now teams have gone all in on using their bullpen to the max. So much so that many teams are figuring their minor league call-ups into the make up of their major league teams, knowing they will shuffle pitchers back and forth all season long.

Analytics can be a great tool. But like many thought processes it should never be the end-all. While the study of baseball by the numbers has brought some useful things, it has also quickly deteriorated the game itself. This isn’t just a baseball thing either. Look at basketball, which has fallen in love with the three-point shot, or football, where teams are increasingly reducing length of passes and using short five-yard throws to move the ball.

Baseball games have become increasingly boring with fewer and fewer balls being put in play. Who wants to watch a game when the result of an at-bat will more than likely be either a walk, strikeout, or home run? What kind of game is it when starting pitchers are only asked to go barely over half of the game? MLB may have thought they were bringing the game into the 21st century but instead they have opened Pandora’s Box.

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