Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Believeland was Another Disappointment for Cleveland, and ESPN

If I watch a documentary and don’t learn any new information, I get angry. What was the point?

Those were my feelings after finally watching ESPN’s much-hyped Believeland documentary on the history of sports teams losing in Cleveland. Instead of revealing more about the city, it revealed how far ESPN’s sports documentaries had fallen since the 30 for 30 series began.

the fumble reaction
When Bill Simmons initially floated the 30 for 30 concept, it was a direct response to the formulaic nature of sports documentaries, particularly coming from HBO. Yes, the irony is dripping everywhere as Simmons begins his new partnership with HBO.

At the time, HBO’s docs had fallen into a usual formula, with talking heads reflecting on past moments, spliced with archive footage. Sometimes, the source material was so compelling – such as the Miracle on Ice or the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry – that it didn’t matter about the format. However, duds like the boring doc on the UNC/Duke rivalry showed that HBO was stuck in a rut.

It’s the same rut that ESPN now finds itself in. Recent docs have all followed the same formula, with fans, media and participants reflecting on what happened. Believeland felt no different in structure than Trojan War, ESPN’s look at the rise and fall of USC’s football dynasty under Pete Carroll.

Believeland, like Trojan War and others before it, was so disappointing because we never delved beneath the surface. Going into Believeland, you knew that Cleveland had tough losses. Leaving Believeland, you knew that Cleveland had tough losses.

Believeland, though, was extra frustrating because it came annoyingly close to uncovering interesting and unexplored aspects of the city and its psyche.

For example, one talking head makes the claim that Cleveland has a bad reputation nationally because of the losing, while Pittsburgh is buoyed by all of its championships. While that may be true now, the time frame discussed was the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the 90’s, Pittsburgh was a national laughingstock – the Pirates couldn’t afford its players and the Penguins ended up in financial ruin. There was more there, but it was never explored.

Similarly, Art Modell’s move to Baltimore was presented in two ways. His son said Art had given so much money to Cleveland that he was broke, and the fact the city build new arenas for the Cavaliers and Indians but not him was a slap in the face. City leaders, though, said Art was lying and he had plenty of money.

This is a massive part of the Browns’ departure – who was telling the truth? Instead of spending any time investigating this, the documentary moved quickly from this opposing viewpoints to the standard “I was sad when they left” sound bites.

This particular sequence was infuriating because the Browns leaving Cleveland is a seminal sports story. If you’re not able to do it justice, why even broach the subject? It was the most basic way to approach a story. It made me think of the NFL Network’s amazing Football Life documentary “Cleveland ‘95” where they told that story through the coaching staff and front office employees. That was unique and enthralling.

As ESPN pushes its latest project, “OJ Made in America,” they put an original 30 for 30 doc on-demand – June 17, 1994. That title is one of my favorites 30 for 30 entries because of its daring uniqueness. There are no talking heads or voiceovers – it’s 60 minutes of edited live footage from that day in the world of sports. It’s fascinating. It’s engaging. It’s eye-opening.

The initial 30 for 30 series was filled with unique takes and approaches to subjects. They didn’t all work but I always appreciated the chances. The documentary on Ricky Williams, filled with mostly home videos, was tremendous. The saga of Marcus Dupree was essentially a talking head documentary, but seeing the current Marcus Dupree going back to his childhood home or his old high school added a layer to the proceedings unmatched by Believeland or Trojan War.

Part of the problem is that ESPN is trying to tackle broad subjects that have mass appeal to audiences, like USC football or the Duke lacrosse rape hoax. The problem is that sports fans already know the key notes – those documentaries only work if we learn more.

At the end of the day, ESPN’s success will not be determined by the quality of its documentaries. But after building so much brand equity with a stunning first 30 films, the quality of its documentaries have noticeably declined.

The early reviews on the next OJ film have been overwhelmingly positive, so let’s hope the company continues to take the road less travelled on documentaries as opposed to walking the same streets we’ve walked for years.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Jared Goff is the Next Ryan Leaf and the Rams are Doomed

He even looks like Ryan Leaf.

When the Rams made the trade to acquire the #1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, I was convinced they were taking North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. There was no way, I thought, that the Rams were going to mortgage their future on a guy who wasn’t even the best QB in his league.

I was wrong. And the Rams were wrong too.

jared goff shaving
While Goff clearly has the arm strength and ability to be an NFL quarterback, he has given zero indication that he’s ready to be a franchise quarterback. The fact that he’s going to be the franchise QB for a team moving to Los Angeles and will now be featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks just adds to the unrelenting pressure that is going to break him.

It was obvious on draft night that the Rams made the wrong choice. On Draft Day, I watched ESPN on my lunch break and watched Goff give an interview as he was being shaved, to help promote Gillette. Throughout the night, his Twitter feed was a #brand special, as he apparently sold his name to anyone willing to give him money. It was not a good look.

It provided a pretty clear window into the head of a guy already indulging in the fame of playing NFL football, before even playing NFL football. Now Goff isn’t the first first-round pick to exploit his notoriety for money before playing a down – particularly since Deion Sanders set the template three decades ago. But rarely, if ever, has a QB managed to do that and been successful.

In fact, if you look at the NFL’s top QBs, there is almost always a story of triumph over adversity. Tom Brady and Tony Romo were not #1 picks. Drew Brees was thought to be done a decade ago. Joe Flacco had to drop down to the FCS level to play. Russell Wilson was too short. Even top picks who made it were not flashy – Peyton Maning and Andrew Luck entered the league as sure-fire stars, but were not exploiting their #brand from day 1.

The parallels between Goff and Leaf will hopefully only remain confined to the field – Goff has not given an indication yet that he’s a moronic hothead ready to pop off at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, he has given an indication that he shares Leaf’s characteristics on the field.

I’ve been wrong before, because I would’ve taken Leaf over Peyton in a heartbeat in 1998. Of course, I was 16 and not a good evaluator of men. But in terms of talent, I didn’t even think it was close. Leaf had carried an extremely average Washington State team to the Rose Bowl and nearly knocked off eventual national champs Michigan. The Cougars had zero right to be in that game, but Leaf was a difference maker. Seriously, the dude threw for 331 yards against that Michigan defense!

Leaf played a brand of high-velocity, wide-open West Coast football that was the antithesis of the NFL, and he couldn’t  adjust. While the NFL is more like college football today than in 1998, the Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense is still nothing like what you’ll see on Sundays.

todd gurley rams
Even more confounding about the whole thing is that Jeff Fisher coaches the Rams and Jeff Fisher is going to run the ball 40 times a game. Hell, if you had Todd Gurley, you would too.

This is where I pre-emptively blame Jeff Fisher for Goff’s failure, similar to how Fisher’s tenure ending up derailing the career of Vince Young. Let’s be honest – Jeff Fisher is a very mediocre coach who has somehow parlayed one Super Bowl appearance into a never-ending NFL coaching career.

This is where I pre-emptively blame Rams’ management for Goff’s failure, because why did they need a QB? The franchise is going to be Todd Gurley and they already have him. They need a better offensive line. They need better receivers. They need to boost the back-end of the defense. The QB pick was one for show, to try to sell tickets and move the needle in a city that doesn’t give a shit about the Rams.

Even then, I still don’t know why they didn’t draft Wentz! He played in a pro-style offense in college. He has the perfect temperament to be the starting QB, yet defer to Todd Gurley. Why couldn’t they sell tickets on the back of the game’s best running back?

Instead, the Rams are stuck with a walking advertisement who has yet to win a big game in his career. Do the Rams think he’s going to suddenly step up and knock off top teams as a pro?

Even worse, there will be no time for Goff to develop. He must produce in year 1, because Jeff Fisher needs to start producing or he’s shown the door. They share a division with two bona fide Super Bowl contenders in the Seahawks and Cardinals, and a total wild card in the Chip Kelly-led 49ers.

I’m not rooting for Jared Goff to fail. It’s just that he will. And I feel bad, because it’s not his fault the Rams made a terrible trade, compounded by a terrible draft pick.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The American Pharoah Effect is Real, and It’s Spectacular

It’s hard to quantify a feeling. It’s easy to quantify cold, hard cash.

This February, the money bet on horse racing nationwide increased 6.4% compared to 2015 despite a reduction in the number of race days and races. In March, total money bet rose only slightly, but overcame dramatic decreases of 9% in race days and 8.5% in races.

american pharoah wins derby
While numbers jumped across the board in 2015, it was widely presumed that the American Pharoah effect would follow the equine star to the breeding shed and 2016 would mark a return to the status quo.

Instead, all the hard work performed by the thoroughbred industry over the past decade formed the foundation for a springboard in 2016. As Nyquist blistered down the stretch at Churchill Downs, the sport was actually prepared to take advantage.

It’s been a remarkable decade for the sport, which reached its nadir in 2006 following the death of Barbaro and a string of high-profile injuries and drug controversies.

The depths horse racing had plummeted were revealed this past Friday afternoon, as NBCSN replayed the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. That race, won by Rachel Alexandra in breathtaking fashion, aired on Bravo. Yes, that Bravo. And no, I don’t think they’ve aired a horse race since. It was almost an after-thought; a hastily scheduled show that likely produced a viewership measured in five digits.

The irony of the Oaks replay was when it was aired – during six hours of live NBCSN coverage of the 2016 Kentucky Oaks, featuring Rachel Alexandra’s daughter Rachel’s Valentina.

Horse racing had been steadily preparing for a return to the mainstream, driven by the confluence of cable television and online gambling. In particular, online betting is the future of the sport. While many states once had restrictions, those are slowly being reduced. On XpressBet.com, a popular site that gets wide promotion during nationally televised horse races, only 11 states completely restrict wagering.

But online gambling is only good if people can watch the races. While TVG exists to serve the railbird handicapper, the casual fan is not tuning in. For them, horse racing needs to be brought to them.

This is where cable television swoops in to further aid the sport. In recent years, Fox Sports 1 aired select races that helped. Most importantly, NBC has made a significant investment in the sport. This past Friday and Saturday, they aired more than 13 hours of live horse racing coverage. Even more importantly, they actually showed other horse races.

For years, it had been frustrating to watch NBC profile Derby hats as Grade 1 races went on, untelevised, in the background. This year, NBC showed every undercard race in its entirety and handicapped each race. Finally, NBC was treating the audience smartly – it was a welcome change from past years and the “Horse Racing 101” approach.  

Still, the sport needed a catalyst and American Pharoah was that and then some. If you were brought to horse racing in 2015 because of the Triple Crown winner, you were exposed to the absolute best that the sport had to offer.

Not only did you follow the exploits of a legendary star, you were exposed to the grand sport of horse racing. You were introduced to Monmouth Park, Saratoga and Keeneland. You learned about the Haskell, the Travers and the Breeders. You met Bob Baffert and Victor Esponiza.

The biggest obstacle for horse racing in attracting casual, mainstream fans is that the “big horse” doesn’t always win. For all of 2015, American Pharoah flipped that script, producing jaw-dropping performances. Even his loss only enhanced Saratoga’s reputation as the Graveyard of Favorites and added a layer of intrigue to his Breeders Cup coronation, which was a smashing ratings success.

American Pharoah didn’t just introduce horse racing to millions that used to ignore the sport after the Belmont Stakes ended, he introduced the very best version of horse racing to millions. That’s why the number of foals increased. That’s why yearling sales are up.

The sport of horse racing never died. In fact, it was improving. The problem was no one noticed. American Pharoah shone a bright spotlight at the perfect time because it was finally ready for a close up.

The possibilities for 2016 are unlimited. Beholder returned on Sunday and is the best mare in training since Zenyatta. California Chrome dominated the Dubai World Cup in March and is the best older horse in training since Curlin. Nyquist blew away the Kentucky Derby field and is the best Derby winner since, well, okay that wait hasn’t been as long.

The Breeders Cup Classic is very, very far away, but we already have three superstars identified for that race before the Preakness. In some years, there were no stars at all.

Conventional wisdom said a Triple Crown winner wouldn’t instantly thrust the sport back into the mainstream. Conventional wisdom was wrong. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Please Kevin Durant, Join Steph Curry in Golden State

In most sports, the best playing alongside the best is cause for celebration. In the NBA, it’s cause for consternation.

Barcelona is Barcelona because it trots out Neymar, Suarez and Messi. The Capitals were the NHL’s best team because it added T.J. Oshie to ridiculously loaded lineup and DC went nuts. The 2007 Patriots went 16-0 because it paired Randy Moss with Tom Brady. Every year, MLB teams work to sign as many stars as possible to put together a loaded lineup.

kevin durant warriors
But the NBA? The mere thought of Kevin Durant joining the Golden State Warriors has curmudgeons like Michael Wilbon clutching their pearls and begging for a return to the good ol’ days when players would never dare play with their top rivals.

The new narrative is that today’s top NBA players don’t want to beat their rivals; they want to join them. It started when LeBron left a crappy situation in Cleveland – seriously, look at the last roster he had to play with – for a fresh start in Miami with Wade and Bosh.

I always thought the goal of playing sports was to win. LeBron’s best chance to win a title was in Miami, not Cleveland. As Kevin Durant looks over his options for next season and beyond, it is clear as blue sky that Golden State is his best opportunity to win a title.

Speaking as a fan, the most exciting destination for Durant is Golden State. Sure, it’d be fun to see him try to revive the Knicks or the Lakers. It’d be equally interesting to see him in Boston, playing for Brad Stevens.

But Durant on the Warriors would be transcendent. The same way soccer fans lose their mind during a Neymar, Messi, Suarez fast break, how would basketball fans react to seeing Durant, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry setting up around the 3-point line. How would you guard them? How could you guard them?

In keeping with the soccer theme, Durant’s move to Golden State would be very similar to Gareth Bale’s move to Real Madrid. Ronaldo is Real’s Steph Curry as the undisputed star. Bale is the man who would be the top guy on 99% of the other clubs in the world, but plays second fiddle to Ronaldo. Do you think Bale cares? Do you think Bale’s career will somehow be judged as “less” because of his teammate?

It’s absurd because of course it’s not. Durant’s skills and superstardom would not be diminished by a move to Golden State, only enhanced. At the end of the day, all we do is count rings. Bill Walton is a two-time NBA Champion – not a one-time champion as the star and one-time champion as a supporting player for Larry Bird’s Celtics.

Let’s not forget that LeBron’s move to Miami that created the Heatles sent NBA ratings soaring to near-Jordan levels. Curry’s success has already moved the needle for the Warriors. Could you even imagine the hysteria and hoopla that would surround the team if Durant was factored in?

The NBA, probably more than any other sport, thrives on super teams. The 1980s and 1990s were defined by them. The Celtics, Lakers, Rockets and Bulls dominated for stretches with teams that featured multiple Hall of Famers. I don’t remember any complaints in 1997 that Scottie Pippen should try to beat Jordan instead of winning with them.

They don’t make documentaries about great teams. They make documentaries about once-in-a-lifetime teams. This year’s version of Golden State is just about there. Next year’s version with Kevin Durant would become the absolute biggest story in sports.

Kevin Durant, I know you’re not coming to DC. So I beg of you, please go to Golden State. I want to see how good you can be. I want to see how good Curry can be. I want to see the best play with the best.

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Monday, May 9, 2016

The Chase is Ruining NASCAR, but There's a Fix

NASCAR wanted to make the final 10 races mean something. Unfortunately, the end result has been 26 races that don’t mean squat.

nascar empty seats
Attendance, ratings and interest have tumbled across the board for NASCAR in recent years and there are many reasons why. The drivers are less interesting. The driving is less exciting. The rules are confusing. The sport’s leaders seem out of touch and out of tune.

The start to the 2016 season has put forth much of the same, with inane controversies popping up on a weekly basis. One week, it was the ridiculous fining of Tony Stewart for saying that tires shouldn’t be loose on race cars – he was right, by the way. The next week, it was concern over plate racing at Talladega.

In most sports, controversy drives ratings. In NASCAR, it has had the opposite effect. Since NASCAR moved to Fox in 2001, ratings have never been this low. There is a greater problem here.

That greater problem is the Chase for the Cup and NASCAR’s insistence on forcing the season ending races to combat the blunt force of the NFL. While other sports such as the PGA and IndyCar have vacated the premises in autumn, NASCAR presses on against America’s #1 spectator sport. It hasn’t been pretty.

The Chase for the Cup has rarely captured the public’s imagination. A new format that introduced more eliminations increased the intensity and quality of those races, but the fans have not flocked to televisions to watch them.

While the new format is working on the quality end, the quantity of drivers entered is too much. There are now 16 drivers who make the Chase and you guarantee a berth with a win. Yes, that means there are several drivers already locked into the playoffs months before it starts.

Imagine if the Patriots clinch a playoff berth with a victory in Week 1. Would a fan be inclined to pay much attention to next 15 games before the playoffs?

That’s exactly the scenario plaguing NASCAR, as the “regular season” drags on without pressure placed on the top drivers. We know who the top drivers are and we know they will battle for the Cup in October and November. What’s the point of the next six months?

The beauty of the pre-Chase setup of NASCAR is similar to the regular season interest in European soccer or college football – each race meant everything. For Jimmie Johnson, the rest of the 2016 regular season doesn’t mean much at all.

Interestingly, the PGA Tour, which institute a similar playoff system, has not faced this problem. For one, the major events still carry prestige that cannot be overcome by the FedEx Cup. Secondly, the sport didn’t radically alter its schedule – the Tour Championship always existed, they merely changed how players qualify for it.

The Chase, on the other hand, reconfigured the entire season and fans are rejecting it. The notion that 26 races are somehow less important than 10 other races run counter to  NASCAR’s heritage.

Are you really going to tell me that an October race in Chicago is more important than the Daytona 500 or Coca-Cola 600?

There is an easy fix that combats the biggest issue of a regular season that feels meaningless.

For starters, the number of people who make the Chase needs to be drastically reduced. I thought even 10 was pushing it, but that is far superior to 16. Ideally, 8 would be a perfect number to really crank up the pressure from the Daytona 500 through the fall.

The second part is to reduce the number of Chase races because 10 is too many. Instead, four or five is a perfect number. That way, the playoffs are condensed to a month and not dragged out the entire football season. A reduced playoff field will keep the intensity level high in early fall and the reduction of Chase races will ratchet up those races even further.

NASCAR is in a perilous situation. They need to do something, and they need to do something now.

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