Who really won the NBA lockout?

January 15, 2012

Would Harrison Barnes have been one-and-done?

As the final fourteen seconds ticked down in Donald L. Tucker Collessium in Talahasee Florida, on Saturday afternoon, UNC star Harrison Barnes walked with most of his team to the locker room.  He may have thought ‘I could be losing in the NBA right now.’  He’s right, of course; he could be losing in the NBA.  If he had declared for the draft and left North Carolina after last season, Barnes would likely have been a top three picks, perhaps going 2nd to the Timberwolves, who need a player like Barnes more than another power forward, which is who they got in Derrick Williams.  If that had happened, the Seminoles would still have beaten the Tar Heels.  We wouldn’t all have been as amazed though.  It would have been our loss.

As it turned out, Barnes and a slew of other NBA prospects returned to college for another season rather than enter the draft, get picked in the lottery, and risk what turned into a messy ‘labour’ dispute which ate one fifth of the season.  That gave us the best hoops moment of the weekend, pros included.  It gave us Barnes and his Heels being topped by 1 by #1 Kentucky, who’s Sophomore Terrence Jones went 14 and 7.  In a normal NBA offseason, he too is likely drafted, and currently toiling for a big league lottery team.  He was there though, contributing to a classic.  A week later Jones had four points and six turnovers in another thriller; this time a one point loss at Indiana.

The NCAA hoops fan is the clear winner of the NBA lockout.  This early list of contenders for Player of the Year includes only two players who would likely have gone in the lottery, and therefore would just as likely have gone professional before this season, if it were a normal one.  However,that’s assuming that Jeremy Lamb was always coming back.  Jared Sullinger is first on the list, and his intentions always seemed to be to return to Ohio State, but players have often reversed enthusiastic public positions to become lottery picks; especially number one, which Sullinger could have been.

In the top ten picks of last year’s NBA draft, there were a combined 12 years of NCAA experience, and 1/3 of them belonged to #10 pick Jimmer Freddette.  This year projections have the top ten leaving with about 18 years of experience.  That 50% increase is likely to hold, or even increase slightly when the season is complete and draft intentions are declared.   In short, a handful of top players remained in the NCAA for a year longer than they normally would have.  Will this extra year at the college level help those players develop?  Perhaps.  Already this fortunate fallout of the NBA lockout has contributed to an entertaining year, which promises to finish with a tournament which will be exciting as it always is.  This year though, it will have a little more star power.


So you want to watch rugby, but you’re a wimpy North American…

November 6, 2011

The field looks chaotic.  Carry the ball across the line to score 5 points, kick the ball through the uprights for 2 or 3 points; but where is the ball?  It is under the bodies.  The whistle sounds; why?  It is often difficult to tell, and not just for novices.  Learning rugby can be confusing and even overwhelming, although it seems as simple as most sports when broken down.  The biggest difference between rugby and North American sports is that you pass the ball backwards not forwards.  Canadian comedian Rick Mercer recently spent some time with that country’s team just back from the world cup and nicely explained and demonstrated the basics.

The Rugby World Cup began in 1987, though the Six Nations Championship, centered in the United Kingdom, started back in 1883.  The World Cup is one of the largest sporting events in the world, and the tournament lasts about two months. The first month is pool play and the second month is the playoffs.  20 teams make it to the World Cup of the 93 teams around the world with an official ranking.  This year both the United States and Canada made it, though Argentina was the only South American team (they made it to the first round of the playoffs before being beaten by New Zealand). There are many teams from Europe, some from Africa and many from Oceana. Canada has only once made it to playoff round in 1991.

When they land, you find out what the helmets and ear-wraps are for.

The Rugby World Cup tournament is organized into 4 pools with 5 teams in each. The first two teams in each pool advance to playoffs. However, there are also advantages to coming third in the pool. This had been the Canadian goal, which they were not able to meet, in part due to Tonga’s upset win against France (the French advanced anyway to finish second in the tournament). Both Canada, ranked 13th,  and the United States, 17th, are expected to make it to the next world cup. There should also be a chance for some north American players to get more experience on the world stage with the introduction of sevens rugby into the Olympics set for 2016.

Hopefully there will be some time devoted to showing the games on North American television. TSN did a good job with coverage this world cup in Canada, playing not just Canadian games and the playoffs but many of the regular pool play games as well.  In the small little pre and post game shows the commentators were optimistic about the future of rugby in this part of the world. In a culture where sport does seem to flourish hopefully there is room for one more.  After all, big league rugby has never had a ‘work stoppage.’  That’s for whiny, sniveling . . . well; not rugby players.

Kira Burt is a working towards a Masters Degree in History and a full-contact pick-up game.

Sports in Books: Moneyball

October 23, 2011

Bill James by Paul Hoppe

When a book changes its subject, that book becomes a messy subject for review, particularly as time and influence pile on.  With that, and sportsvssports substitution of tangent for style in mind, this post will attempt to disregard Moneyball as historical artifact.  It is the pivotal document in which a sabermetric approach to baseball management was introduced to the public.  This post is about whether or not you want to read it.

Moneyball is a drama in four parts.  The first is a compelling tragedy of failed promise.  Billy Beane is tragically too smart for his own good.  Later plot twists reveal that this was never actually the case, and the exposure of the real reason unfolds like a darkly comic mystery.  The characters tend to be fairly funny on their own, so author Michael Lewis lets them speak for themselves to positive effect.  The rest of the writing is good; even by the standards of non-sports books.

“James was forever moaning about the paucity of information kept by major league baseball teams.” (82)

When the topic turns to the development of new statistics by amateurs, Moneyball does not become either slower or dryer, again due to the deft technical construction of Lewis, and because he knows when to let Bill James, a sort of ‘enfant terrible’ of fantasy sports nerds, do the talking.  While the outcomes are known all along by the reader, Moneyball maintains its dramatic tension by making a character of the idea; Billy Beane and Bill James are presented as basically mentor and champion, the Merlin and Lancelot of the true King.  In this way the relation between the idea and the myriad baseball people influenced by it holds the reader to the travails of Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford.  When a memorable scene unfolds between Ron Washington, Ray Durham and Thad Bosley, the idea looms like another physical presence which ads irony to the scene.

“Ray’s now engaged.  He’s like an American tourist who has just discovered the German on the train next to him is a long-lost cousin.  ‘It’s different here, huh?’ he says.” (265)

It is the growth of the character which Lewis makes of the idea which gives Moneyball its appeal.  While Billy Beane sometimes has the appearance of an outsider taking on the world, he is the heir to a playoff team, while the idea is heir to nothing.  Moneyball is unusual for a non-fiction book, in that it takes place in a short space of time, involving people all in one country, while being about the survival of an idea.

People who can’t deal with baseball, and who know and care nothing for its mythology will not care.  People who can’t watch a baseball game will not have the patience for what is after all a baseball book.  People who play fantasy sports, or baseball, or ever wished they were a GM, and still haven’t read it, should.  Moneyball is still enlightening, still interesting, and most importantly, still fun to read.

Basketbrawl VIII: Rockets Red Menace

September 21, 2011

An uncomfortable incident occurred on Chinese hardwood recently, and I’m not talking about the ping-pong trick.  A friendly between the Bayi Rockets of the Chinese professional basketball league and the Georgetown Hoyas erupted into a melee.  It is was much worse than the ‘Malice at the Palace’ in terms of punches landed and players attacking each other, and the same in terms of crowd reaction and on-court official reaction.  The event was covered in the news cycle, but seems to have been lost, possibly dropped behind the great firewall by those engaging bumblers at the Washington Post.

One month later, unanswered questions linger like the disappointed memories of a goodwill trip turned borderline international incident.  The most interesting pair are: When is the next goodwill tour of China by an NCAA basketball team (surely other sports are more civilized)?  What were the ramifications for the players and officials involved?

To begin answering the former question, we must acknowledge that the Bari Rockets are not just a team in the CBA, they are the team.  They feature first ever Chinese NBA player Wang Zhizhi, and they are the Yankees, the Man U, the Canadiens, of Chinese hoops.  They are also sponsored by the army, as in ‘Bayi’ refers to the army, rather than where they play.  This article contains an account of the full trip, including the incident, and in fact seems to be the most extensive account on the net, but it does not answer our question.  While it purports to deal with the question about future goodwill tours, it is written from the perspective of someone in the Georgetown delegation, writing in something called ‘the Diplomat,’ so the incentives are all pointing directly towards the conciliatory tone in which the author does not actually mention any players feelings about the event (bait-and-switching with the ‘overall trip’ and the reconciliation afterword to fake the impression that he has).

Those feelings, and the way they proliferate throughout the NCAA may affect the number of goodwill tours in the future.  Those who do not recognizing this may also not be realizing that as the exchange rate changes, and flight costs rise, destinations like South America, Eastern Europe or even Nigeria will become more attractive.  Those areas already offer more teams playing at an appropriate level, where Bayi are the Chinese hoops fans’ only hope for a victory over the visiting Americans.

The latter question, about the suspensions and fines which would have been assumed, delivered, and feverishly reported had it been an NBA altercation, is equally difficult to answer.  This article gives an interesting glimpse into the Chinese social and institutional reaction and method.  It does not, however, answer the question: did anybody get suspended?  Reports of Georgetown coach John Thompson being yelled at for unknown reasons, and even more so these two statements on the Georgetown website, suggest that the Hoya’s view the whole thing as some kind of inexplicable nightmare which is best simply forgotten.  The Chinese reaction may suggest that they view it the same way, but the lack of information allows any sort of wild speculation.

Time will answer the first question for us, but it may never be known if there was any punishment meted out to the Chinese players or not.  The punishment for the Hoyas involved, apparently, will be left at that delivered on the court during the incident itself.  In light, however, of any real news on the NBA labor front (unsubstantiated and obviously false Chris Sheridan rumors notwithstanding), why has there been so little in print about it?  Perhaps international politics, fistfights and basketball are not as exciting, even in combination, as Ron Artest’s name . . . nah!

What is the WNBA?

September 7, 2011

Part 3: I am a professional, but for my genitals!

Women are smaller than men.  I know; I always go for the throat right off the bat.  But stay with me now:  Dunks are exciting.  People who don’t like basketball might disagree, but an overwhelming majority of casual fans agree that, relative to, say, a well ordered pick and roll, a dunk is exciting.  For that reason, and possibly to draw more girls into sports participation, the WNBA should be folded.

There is no need to get bogged down in murky debates about ‘quality of play’ which will not help lead to fruitful conclusions.  The Spurs have been demonstrating the anesthetic quality of sound fundamentals for more than a decade now, so we don’t need to blame women for not dunking (Candice Parker excepted) or blame basketball fans for not ‘appreciating’ something something blahblahblah.  None of this is relevant.  What’s much more relevant is the lack of research to indicate what impact, if any, the league has had on participation.  Neither the WNBA or it’s big brother counterpart/financial backer is equipped to defend the WNBA on any grounds relating to social impact, or indeed anything at all other than hypothetical future profitability and current cash flow generation for stadium owners.  The former is fantasy, and as we saw when the Atlanta Thrashers moved, having an unviable team lease your arena isn’t necessarily any more profitable than monster trucks.

This moment sparked male conversation more than female participation.

The basic notion that women’s sport is enhanced by professional leagues is a claim which has been allowed as a sort of unspoken promise – the kind that never has to be delivered upon because it is never really made.  By supporting the WNBA, the NBA does not support women’s grassroots athletics.  It does not make girls healthier and better adjusted.  It does not balance societies’ inequities or create life opportunities.  Other sports have seen major increases in participation at different points in history, almost uniformly without any professional leagues being involved at all.  Women’s baseball, in gestation as it was in the AAGPBL, didn’t creep into the nation’s little leagues for more than a generation.  When my sister was an adolescent, she became able to choose between a softball league and a baseball league for girls.  I have literally never heard any argument that that choice came about because of the AAGPBL, nor (more importantly) that it could have happened sooner if helped by the presence of a women’s pro league.

The simple fact of the matter where youth rates of sports participation are concerned, is that sedentary childhood lifestyles have increased coincident with increases in television time and decreases in gym class time.  One may trump the other, or even be the only actual factor, but the information available is scant, is focused on fatness, and belies any claim to real serious-minded concern on the part of the sports industry or government.  The factors which influence the decision to participate in sports, both what they are and how they work, is a subject for research in the fields of sports psychology and sports sociology.  There may have been some research thus far, but it is apparently not enough to win the day, and actually get kids playing physical games outside in increasing amounts.

In the meanwhile, my suggestions can be found below, offered humbly, meaning without assurances that any would work.  Sure, if I was a 6’1 (6’3 in NBA press guide units) woman who could almost dunk and actually liked to play defense, I could make a career, and maybe get the league some thirsted-for ink, by throwing unconscionable elbows, dying my hair five colours, and pulling down some other woman’s shorts in the middle of a game.  It might sell tickets, but would it help women’s sport?  If we don’t want girls to play sports so that they look a certain way in a bikini, then we do not want the WNBA to succeed by the real and actual standard.  We want it to fail, and go away, and be replaced by something that actually engages women.

Suggestions for alternate ways to get encourage women’s sport:

  1. Increase P.E. hours.
  2. Increase extra-curricular sports availability (number of teams).
  3. Take the top half of the WNBA, and make it a touring, barnstorming series of weekend tournaments.   Coaching and actually meeting girls on Friday night and Saturday day, and then a few games Saturday evening and Sunday.
  4. Give Mom a role, and maybe some pointers, in a public campaign to get girls into games.
  5. Focus on different sports.  Baseball and rugby are two sports which became available to girls in my hometown within the last twenty years, having literally never before been offered.  That means the first generation of girls whose moms played these sports is just beginning life.
  6. Turn off the tv.

What is the WNBA?

August 29, 2011

Part 2: Baseball skirts and Centrefolds

Commercially speaking, women’s sports are largely about men’s sexual fantasies.  While men watch a lot more sports than women in general, there is data to suggest that women are more likely than men to attend a WNBA game, and also that television viewership for ‘the’ pro women’s league is close to 50/50.  For most sports the viewership ratio is more like 67/33.  The WNBA consistently loses money, and has to be supported by the male league, despite the fact that the highest salary in the WNBA is 1/255th that of the equivalent male hoops star salary (in other words ‘league costs’ are lower).

What does make money, and sometimes can relate to women in sports, is sex.  The names of the highest grossing female athletes can be rolled off the tongue of the average ESPN clicker, including Anna Kournikova, who’s 3.6 million in career winnings contribute to her 50 million net worth, but not Stefi Graf, who’s 21.9 million in WTA earnings represent most of her 30 million net worth.  In case the point is not clear: you can buy a swimsuit calendar of one but not the other.  The ranks of the richest include a lot of people like Kournikova, Katarinna Wit, and Danica Patrick.  To sum up; the best women athletes only make it into the ranks of the best paid if they have appeared in ‘suggestive’ ads or playboy.

Anna Kournikova is about to go swimming.

Mrs. Kournikova in her swimming shoes.

In hockey their are two examples of female professionals: Manon Rheume and Haley Wickenheiser.  The former went the route of sensation, but avoided overt sexualization, while the latter played in one of the most competitive leagues in the world and at least in some sense seemed to fit in.  Manon Rheume was generally acknowledged not to be a big league prospect in any sense while she was playing in a couple of exhibition games for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team then as now in financial disarray.  Mrs. Rheume now runs a foundation named after herself supporting girl’s sporting ambitions.  There are a couple of relatively racy pictures of her on the internet, but relative to the big earners of women’s sport, the hockey pros come across as quite modest.

Baseball’s foray into female professionalism began during  WWII, and lasted a decade.  Women dressed in skirts played for money and played to an average of almost 1700 paying fans, just like the Marlins.  The AAGL played modified softball to begin with, and then shifted the ball and other rules towards baseball gradually.  It folded in 1954 after several years of declining revenues in a different social environment post-war.  The extent to which this league generated interest in ball amongst women and girls is difficult to assess, but as of 2004, fast-pitch softball was less popular by participation amongst high-school women than basketball, track and field, and volleyball.  We will return in the final installment to check in on the non-professional development of women’s soft and hardball.

For our present purposes the above survey is sufficient.  Women’s sport primarily makes money as a platform from which to use sex to advertise.  Would Kournikova have made 350 million in total if she had the same tournament earnings as Graf?  Of course not, the tennis has almost nothing to do with it.  None of this is should be shocking or even particularly new to sports fans, but the conclusions I would draw from it are probably new to many.

Because women’s team sports do not occasion sex symbols, they do not generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining.  Therefore they should not exist as a commercial product.  Because the profit from women’s participation in individual sports is so heavily tied to sex, promoting those sports promotes sexual objectification and inequality.  Those who support women in sport, therefore, should discourage and ignore women’s pro sports, in general, if not altogether.

Recommended further reading:

Demographics of sports fans on social networks.

WNBA tv ratings and how much they kill NHL ratings by.

Book on women in baseball.

What is the WNBA?

August 23, 2011

Part 1:  Equality in Sports?


Summertime Pro Hoops

This post was originally titled, ‘Should We Encourage Women to Play Sports?’  This title was scrapped because the question is too facetious: obviously I think everyone should play more sports.  The question is not interesting in itself, but the answer starts the inquisitive ball rolling down a path that leads quickly to territory usually ignored.  That territory will be surveyed , and a scouting report delivered, sportsvssports style, right here over the next couple of weeks.

The question obviously begged by any reasonable answer to my initial question is ‘How should we do so?’  From the first to the second question, the answers become contentious.  Children have been enrolling in sports at a declining rate, although the decline is less for young girls than it is for older children or similar aged boys.  Enrollment in Olympic sport clubs tends to rise and fall in relation to how recent Olympics were, and the rise in popularity of basketball among women certainly suggests that media exposure and ‘big league’ treatment influence children’s choices.

It would seem then that encouraging girls to participate in school can be done through mass media marketing.  Another method is by offering tax incentives for sports participation, which is likely an effective remedy of one barrier, but does not affect the child’s interest.  Without getting sidetracked with a debate about the tax incentive’s effectiveness, we can all agree that motivation to participate in sport is what we want to encourage, and where the biggest gains in actual participation can be made.  School seems like a natural place to be exposed to different sports, and given basic instruction in them.  For many if not most of us, school is where we first played the majority of sports, with only ‘big league’ team sports being played at the neighbourhood park, or on the road.

The largest body of data ever accumulated around the participation of women in sports was gathered about women in NCAA sports.  It showed that when the US college system applied ‘Title IX’ rules, around 1972, female participation grew and continued to grow through 2000, when the number of women participating in American college sports surpassed 150,000, a 372% increase from the year before Title IX was put in place.  Title IX is a set of rules attached to federal college funding (meager though it is, compared with state post-secondary funding throughout the rest of the developed world), set up to deal with academic gender discrimination, but which also stipulates essentially that colleges must provide and fund women’s teams for each sport in which they have a men’s team (excepting football).

Not surprisingly, the sport which benefits the most from this situation is the NCAA’s other big money sport, basketball.  In other words, it is reasonable to suggest, if not quite obviously fact that, NCAA gender-equality rules allowed basketball to grow amongst women.  The rules allowed that growth to continue within a certain institution, and therefore age group, for decades, and eventually this growth led to a women’s big-league.  Has the popularization of women’s hoops culminated in the WNBA?  Was said popularization better developed along different lines, with the WNBA a male-centric road-block?  Has the WNBA made basketball more popular among girls, or did girls’ interest in basketball (encouraged by Title IX) force the NBA to speculatively create its female counterpart?

Feel free to answer those questions for me in the comments section, or ask others, while I prepare part 2 of this series.  Part 2 will focus on other sports, where there is precedent for women’s pro leagues, women in men’s pro leagues, and all sorts of dangerously explosive fodder.  Picture of a young woman in skimpy clothing guaranteed.