Saturday, May 31, 2014

Good Sports - Bad Sports

Growing up we were taught to be good sports; to put your heart into the game, but always compete fairly and if you lost to take it as a good sport and not get upset about it: It’s just a game, you do it for fun.
Hopefully it still works that way when playing informally, but unfortunately sports today have become so commercialized and such big moneymaking machines that the term ‘good sport’ barely registers anymore. If there are big bucks involved a player will try to bend the rules if he thinks he can get away with it; anything to get the advantage.
In America club owners demand huge subsidies from local government and players demand huge salaries, but there’s no loyalty whatever to the fans or the city they’ve extracted so much from. The American system of sports is especially pernicious as it leaves all major decisions to the club owners who have exemption from anti-trust rules. They essentially function as a cartel and decide amongst themselves who can buy a team, which city is privileged to have one and how many teams make up the league. The latter is especially important for franchise value: the fewer the teams the more each is worth.
In every case but one - the Green Bay Packers (American) football club - the owners are rich people whose primary motive is income. They may like or even love the sport they possess a part of,  but that’s secondary to the cash flow. You don’t own a franchise worth upwards of half billion dollars without insisting that it pay off. This is exemplified in the case of Paul Allen, described in a recent article, Pity the Poor Billionaire, who though he had $20 billion in the bank, demanded a new $500 million stadium for his Seattle team or else he’d be glad to move it to a more grateful city. The city balked, refused his demand, so he financed an initiative with $5 mil of is own money and got the people of the state of Washington to buy it for him. At the time, $500 mil was a mere 2.5% of his fortune. As such he could’ve gifted the stadium to the people with the equivalent of pocket change and been known for generations as a great benefactor, instead he felt he had to extort every penny he could from the citizenry. The word Seattle is in the team’s name, but that doesn’t mean much, it’s obviously only a temporary arrangement. That’s the kind of people who own major league teams.
Sometimes an owner will make business decisions which pad his wallet while lessening his team’s chances of winning in the playoffs. The fans be damned. Or take the case of Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, who was outed recently as a racist… and that in a league in which 80% of the players are black. Recent articles I’ve seen in the leftist blogosphere suggest the team should be owned by the city or the people in some form. Great idea except the owners’ cartel would never allow it since it would completely change the mercenary aspect of the game and threaten their profits. Only one team is community owned, the aforementioned Packers. Only congress can end the power of the owners’ cartels.
Green Bay, Wisconsin is a small city of about 100,000 people and yet they support a competitive team in all aspects. Its team is the only one in all American professional sports that is community owned and by far has the smallest economic base. Yet it has won more championships than any other team in its sport, the last only a couple years ago. It was grandfathered in when the current ownership rules were adopted in 1980. All rules in all American sports today prohibit this type of ownership and for good reason; for the fans and city, public or community ownership is far preferred.
The way that football – soccer to Americans – is organized in the UK offers a superior alternative that could break the monopoly that the owners have over sports in the US. They have a premier league and secondary leagues. Each has eight teams. Each year the two worst performing teams in the premier league get relegated down to the next lower league and the two best from the lower move up. Instead of the owners’ cartel deciding how many teams there are in the league and which cities can have them, there would be no limit to the number of cities who could have teams or even how many teams a city could have – New York once supported three baseball teams. Any person, entity, community or city could organize a team from scratch, start at the bottom league and work their way up, though I personally prefer all teams be community owned.
There are quite a few mid-sized cities in America which could support professional sports teams but are shut out of the possibility by the limited number of franchises and unwillingness to put up the hundreds of millions necessary to secure a franchise. Portland, Oregon is a case in point. With a metro area of two million it could easily support football and baseball teams, but today has only basketball. There’s no way the people of Portland are going to take money out of schools, infrastructure and services and hand it to billionaire club owners, so they’ll never get to enjoy those sports in today’s setup. For me it rankles so much to see the great rip-off I’ve lost nearly all interest in professional sports.
The Olympics is another case of a great sports idea turned on its head by the vast sums of money necessary to be a host city and the widespread disruption and dislocation that precedes the games. One of the reasons suggested for contributing to Greece’s financial problems was the cost of the 2004 Olympics, the most expensive to that point at $11b. In 2008, Beijing put on its extravaganza at a cost of about $42b and forced the dislocation of half million people. The London games in 2012 cost $16b. Prime Minister David Cameron famously said it was worth it for the great publicity it got for the city. Sixteen billion dollars for a publicity campaign? For a city that’s already one of the most touristed cities in the world? Of course we know politicians will say anything to try to justify their poor decisions. There are a lot of good things the city could’ve done with that money better than a one time publicity stunt.
While the Olympics are happening, local residents are faced with all kinds of inconveniences and after it’s all over a lot of the sports venues are demolished or left to deteriorate since most are built for one use… there’s no city in the world that needs or can utilize all those stadiums and sports venues.
Regardless of any long term benefits that might accrue to the host city it is a tremendous burden. The whole concept needs to be rethought. The ancient games were held on Mt. Olympus, why not return to the original location (or one similar) and hold the modern games there on a permanent basis? The games would be held in a rural setting and each venue built to last. There was a controversy recently over the Olympic committee’s decision to eliminate wrestling, one of the original sports, from the roster. In this new concept every sport would come up with the money to build its needed venue and as long as there was sufficient support from the community, it’d be difficult for a single committee to say which sport is allowed and which isn’t. Beach volleyball an Olympic sport but not wrestling? What kind of crap is that?
In a countryside setting there’d be space for visitors to camp out as well as hotels to stay in. That way even average people could afford to attend. What did a hotel room in London cost during the games? And since venues would be permanent and paid for by the sports themselves, the games would cost far less to hold and therefore ticket prices would also be far less. It would be a permanent sports center available for sports lovers everywhere and used between games for training or just enjoying.  
Finally a word about soccer - world football - my favorite sport, at least in theory. I played in school during a time when I’d quit smoking. After I returned to evil tobacco my chest hurt so much from all that running I had to make a choice: tobacco or sports. And since I couldn’t figure out how to quit smoking again, I gave up soccer. At the age of 40, after I’d quit smoking for the last time, I found a pick-up game and played every Sunday morning, rain or shine, cold or hot for four years until I hurt my back and could barely walk, let alone play. By the time I recovered, I figured my serious soccer days were over, besides over the four years I was always the oldest player on the field and thought I shouldn’t press my luck.
It’s energetic, uses lots of skills and allows everyone to compete, even a shorty like myself. Tall people have an advantage, but not like basketball where short people are almost totally locked out.
Unfortunately the way the game is designed it’s weighted so heavily towards defense that, when played professionally or with highly competitive teams, goals are few and far between. In what other sport can you witness a full 90 minutes of play without a single score? In championship games, after two overtimes without a single score, 0-0 (or 1-1, etc.) games are decided by a penalty kick. After the last World Cup, Sepp Blatter, long time head of FIFA, world football’s governing body, commented that it was a travesty for championship games to be decided by penalty kicks and he wanted to think of some way to improve on that method of deciding winners.
Penalty kicks are merely a symptom of the difficulty of scoring. With the rules and design of the game the way they are the better the teams get and more evenly matched they are the less likely they are of scoring. In the first round of the last World Cup, of a total of 48 games there were 6 nil-nil ties, 6 1-1 ties and 12 games decided by 1-0 scores. A total of only 24 goals scored in 24 games.
It’s boring and frustrating to watch a game for 90 minutes and not see one score. What’s more, when scoring is so difficult most goals are flukes or accidents and hardly indicative of better playing. Even if a game of 1-0 has a clear winner, it’s not at all clear that that was the best team, they were just lucky.
There are three factors that make scoring difficult. The first, and easiest to correct, is the size of the net: simply make the goal bigger. If you add one meter on either side and maybe 50 centimeters on top you will double or triple the number of goals scored.
Secondly, there are too many players on the pitch. It’s so crowded that players have no room to maneuver. As soon as one gets the ball he’s surrounded by the opposing team. It’s nearly impossible for a player possessing the ball, no matter how good he is, to make a run from the center of the field to the goal. They don’t get to show their stuff. I was taught to always pass the ball instead of kicking it far forward in the field, but players often feel so blockaded, that’s exactly what they do, even in professional games. In American football most plays involve small distances but occasionally, maybe once or twice in a game a player will get the ball and move it half way or all the way down the field. It’s very exciting and beautiful to watch. That cannot happen in soccer. I suggest a maximum 8 players on the field to give them room to maneuver. They’ll have to run more and cover more distance so it should be easy to substitute.
The third problem is the off-sides rule. This is designed to keep the players all bunched together, which again makes for a boring and low scoring game. It should be modified or eliminated altogether. Some combination of fewer players and a relaxed off-sides rule would leave a lot more space on the field and make for a much more exciting game.
Soccer has never taken off as a professional sport in America though enthusiasts are always trying to put a league together. Yet it’s the most popular sport in school. Easier scoring might make the difference, at least it would be a lot more fun to watch.

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