Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Could 2015 Be The Best Sports Year Ever?

We should have known something was up on the first day of 2015.

For the first time in history, major college football gave us a playoff and the results far exceeded anything anyone could have expected. The Rose Bowl and Superdome crackled with life for hours. The Oregon destruction of Florida State was a history-making event. The Ohio State/Alabama Sugar Bowl was an all-time great game.

2015 sugar bowl
When Ezekiel Elliott sprinted for the game-clinching touchdown, the Superdome exploded – as did I hundreds of miles away in my living room. As a college football fan, it was what I always wanted. I wanted to see the best teams fighting it out to determine who was best. Not pollsters or coaches or commentators – it was players on the field leaving it all on the line.

It was the best New Year’s Day in two decades and rivaled many of them before that. Of course, the morons that run college football moved those games on New Year’s Eve for this year, but that’s a story for another day.

In short, the first college football playoff kicked off what has been the most thrilling six months on the sporting calendar that I can ever remember, rolling right through Dustin Johnson’s unforgettable three-putt on Sunday during a train wreck U.S. Open.

As you’re reading this, I’m sure you have your own moment running through your head. From every sport – save NASCAR, which has been completely awful – there have been indelible moments that will pop up in montages for decades.

What is your favorite?

The NFL provided multiple heart-stopping playoff games, culminating in a Super Bowl that concluded on the one-yard line with one of the most controversial play calls in history.

The NBA Finals gave us LeBron James putting forth the best statistical effort ever while the Warriors redefined how the sport was played. The first round series between the Clippers and Spurs gave us one of the best Game 7s ever, which just happened to take place after the Kentucky Derby and before the biggest prizefight in a generation.

Speaking of horse racing, that sport delivered the first Triple Crown in 37 years and American Pharoah looks to recalibrate the ceiling of an entire sport.

The Stanley Cup playoffs, well, I guess they did what they do every year. There were seemingly multiple overtime games on a nightly basis for weeks. The two conference finals were thrilling, particularly the battle between the Blackhawks and the Ducks. The Final series didn’t feature a two-goal lead until the bitter end.

rickie fowler win
The PGA Tour ushered in a much-needed new era of American golf with Jordan Spieth running away with the Masters and Rickie Fowler winning the Players Championship in the most exciting final round shootout in that tournament’s history. Even Tiger Woods’ decline has been fascinating in that rubber-necking, “I can’t look but I will” sort of way.

March Madness lived up to its billing but, unlike so many previous iterations, the excitement did not die once everyone’s brackets were torn up. It built to a glorious crescendo, with Kentucky escaping by a thread against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight and then losing their undefeated season to a motivated Wisconsin team in the Final Four. That Duke won the title in another thriller is almost irrelevant.

Even baseball, whose season is less than three months old, has given us a wide range of fascinating subplots, such as the resurgence of the Cubs and the emergence of Bryce Harper.

Personally, there have been more moments in the past six months where friends have texted, or the bar I was in exploded, or the party I was at stopped, than I can ever remember. It felt like every time there was a major sporting event – yeah, we’ll exclude Mayweather/Pacquiao – it lived up to the hype and then some.

That is made even more remarkable by the time we live in. Everything is hyped to the point of exhaustion. The Golf Channel does an hour-long pregame show for the Colonial. I think ESPN began its pre-game for the first college football title game on Saturday. It takes something extraordinary to make all that talk seem worthy and, time and time again, the sports world delivered.

We spend too much time analyzing and not enough time appreciating. In the past two weeks, I saw a Triple Crown, an incredible Stanley Cup Finals, a once-in-a-lifetime performance by LeBron James, the beginning of the Women’s World Cup and a fascinating golf major. It’s been an embarrassment of riches for the sports fan.

We still have six months to go. If they rival the first six, 2015 will cement its place as the greatest sports year ever.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

American Pharoah’s Belmont Stakes Win Will Echo Forever

“I can’t explain, but I wanna try.”

In my memory, the 90,000 screaming fans at Belmont Park aren’t making a sound. It’s only that horse, making that move, at that moment.

american pharoah belmont stakes
For the 2015 Belmont Stakes, our seats were at 1/8th pole. My Dad and I had sat near there every year since 1999. Most years, we saw horses struggling – extending themselves further than they ever had or ever will again. It was a battle merely to get to the finish line.

On June 6, 2015, it was different. American Pharoah didn’t run by us – he flew by us. That’s my memory. If you watch a replay of the race, the 1/8th pole is where Victor Espinoza finally urged American Pharoah to run and he took off like a 747. You can use any word you can find in the thesaurus. He exploded. He rocketed. He unleashed a super-charge burst that will ring through history.

There is no such thing as hyperbole when discussing American Pharoah’s Triple Crown. That, in short, is the beauty of it. His performance made all the wait worth it. His triumph proved the Triple Crown wasn’t broken. It was perfect.

The Belmont Stakes is my favorite day of the year, whether there’s a Triple Crown on the line or not. It is fitting that the Triple Crown came ten years after Afleet Alex, who himself ran all three legs, burst down the Belmont stretch with the most powerful, awe-inspiring move I had seen in my life. Like Pharoah, Alex coasted until Jeremy Rose said go and, as Tom Durkin famously said, he was “going, going, gone.”

In retrospect, the Triple Crown was won in a matter of seconds. As Gary Stevens astutely noted, the race was over after three strides. American Pharoah was so superior to his competition in every way that he simply toyed with them. A year after California Chrome couldn’t quite get the mile and a half; Espinoza rode an incredibly conservative race.

Why wouldn’t he? So many times, I arrived at Belmont Park believing this was the day. I knew for sure that Smarty Jones would not be denied. I knew that Big Brown’s inferior competition couldn’t beat him. I knew California Chrome’s acceleration would send him into history.

The failures added up year after year but the belief never wavered. That was never truer than this year.

Only Smarty Jones had instilled a confidence in the crowd at Belmont during a Triple Crown. On that day in 2004, the crowd truly believed they attending a coronation. I wrote about the “wall of sound” that engulfed Belmont that day, when Smarty opened up at the top of the stretch. When he lost, that wall turned into disgusting silence. It was the most gloriously painful sporting event I will ever attend.

When American Pharoah opened up around the far turn at Belmont this year, the crowd was excited but not ready to explode. My Dad yelled, “They’re not catching him!” and I told him to shut up.

But the most amazing thing happened – as Pharoah ran by you, you knew. The thought gives me goosebumps 17 days later, and will for the next 17 years.

The sound cascaded down the Belmont grandstands with the horse. When he ran by, looking the way he did, you knew you had just witnessed history. When he flew by the 1/8th pole, everyone in my section started high-fiving and hugging because it was all over by the shouting. When he crossed the finish line, the sound was so loud I didn’t hear a word of Larry Collmus’ now-famous call.

Many people have said that they cried when Pharoah crossed the finish line. I can’t say that happened to me but something else just as strange did – my Dad started hugging strangers. So I started hugging strangers. So did my 21 year-old cousin, who chose the most excellent Belmont Stakes to make his first. I hugged the guys in front of me. I hugged the guy across from me I hadn’t talked to. Hell, I even hugged the beer vendor!

belmont stakes crowd
There will never be another reaction at a sporting event that will ever compare. You never get 90,000 people cheering for the same team. There is always at least a pocket of fans rooting for the opposition. No one was rooting for Keen Ice – I gladly ripped up my win ticket on him and threw it around like confetti.

The noise was indescribable. I’ve been thinking for weeks how to explain it and I can’t. When Smarty Jones hit the lead, I explained it as a “747 taking off from inside your stomach.” But this was more. It was a roar mixed with joy mixed with screaming with a dash of the unthinkable. No one could really understand what they were feeling because we didn’t really know how to react. The vast majority of the crowd wasn’t even alive for the last Triple Crown.

The night before, I told a friend I thought this was the year. He then asked me what I would do if it happened. I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t. I had always thought about a horse winning the Triple Crown but never let myself imagine the reaction.

It didn’t matter. I could never have imagined that reaction. My Dad sat down during the celebration, shook his head and said, “I almost passed out.” That’s how intense it was. You saw people randomly sit down for a second and do the same thing. It was too much. It was overwhelming.

The buzz never subsided. For the weeks leading up to the race, the New York Racing Association had begged fans to not leave right after the race to allow crowds to leave in waves. They had no such problem this year. No one wanted to leave.

There are always two races after the Belmont Stakes, in part to keep the crowd from not leaving at once. Following Chrome’s failure in 2014, the place was completely vacated by the last race. This year, it felt like 75 percent stayed. How do you walk away from history?

I walked around the paddock area after the Belmont, striking conversations with random strangers about their experience. “I’ve been going since Charismatic,” I would say. “My first was Point Given,” said one man. “Been here since Funny Cide,” told me another. A woman said she had been every year since 1997 and brought her 16-year old niece for her first to see Pharoah. There were tears in her eyes.

Some two hours after the race, the Goo Goo Dolls began their post-race concert and the party kept going. Since we had a 2+ hour drive back to Connecticut, we couldn’t stay until Iris. We rode in silence, all three of us clearly playing the event over and over in our head. I couldn’t wait to go home and watch the replay to get a sense of how it played on TV.

Upon arriving back home, my Mom said it looked “incredible.” My phone, dead at the track, lit up with a string of texts from everyone I knew. I laid in bed for hours, checking Twitter, reading articles and never wanting the moment to fade.

When I went to work the following Monday, I was asked about the event. It was impossible to describe. The following Tuesday, my Dad emailed me: “I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t explain it.”

That’s why American Pharoah’s victory will echo forever. The unexplainable always does.


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Monday, June 22, 2015

The U.S. Open is on the Verge of Irrelevance

Our national golf tournament has an image problem. It’s now the tournament everyone hates.

The U.S. Open is one of golf’s majors but it received nothing but a mountain of negative publicity over the past week, from a course in unplayable condition to a new TV deal with Fox Sports that was an unmitigated disaster.

jason day us open
I love golf. I love the majors. I watch to be entertained. The other majors all have a defining, unique characteristic that draws in viewers.

The Masters is, well, the Masters, with the greatest back nine on Earth. The British Open is the history of golf sprung to life, where the conditions determine the score and you’ve traveled back in time. The PGA Championship is the professional major – a tournament that goes to America’s most entertaining courses and lets the pros make birdies to win. Even the Players Championship, the so-called Fifth Major, is the epitome of “modern” golf, with a stadium design, the island green and the ultimate in risk/reward golf.

The US Open? It’s the sadistic golf tournament, where the best players in the world struggle to make pars in a desperate attempt to win a major.

During an illuminating Golf Channel feature on the genesis of Chambers Bay, it explained that the course was awarded the 2015 U.S. Open because two historic courses – Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills – declined to host the event. That should not be a surprise. In 2004, the USGA destroyed Shinnecock Hills to the point that some holes were quite literally unplayable on Sunday without being watered. In 2006, Winged Foot was so hard that Geoff Ogilvy won at +5 as Phil Mickelson disintegrated down the stretch.

In fact, the overwhelming memories I have from the U.S. Open over the past 20 years is the USGA tricking up and ruining the best golf courses in our country. In 2010, the wonderful Par 5 14th hole at Pebble Beach was unfair. In 2013, Merion’s 18th green could not receive a ball and keep it. This year, the greens at Chambers Bay were compared to broccoli and “outdoor bingo” by pros.

The course management by the USGA in its bizarre quest to keep the winning score at level par results in golf courses that resemble paved highways and par fives becoming par fours. This year, the group took it to another extreme by switching the pars on #1 and #18 every day. It’s a joke and everyone but the USGA realizes this.

It’s a shame because our national open should be a celebration of golf in this country. Does anyone give a flying you-know-what if the winning score is 10-under or 2-over? Not only do the vast majority of golf fans not care, they would certainly prefer the former to the latter.

It is bizarre, but the USGA knows it has an image problem because it left a successful, two-decade partnership with NBC to pursue a new one with Fox. The only slight problem is that Fox had never, ever televised a golf tournament before.

There is no polite way to describe Fox’s coverage of the 2015 U.S. Open. Joe Buck was his usually snarky, unfunny self who appeared to be watching his first golf tournament. Curt Menefee was certainly watching his first golf tournament. They had Charles Davis – a college football announcer!! – handling post-round interviews. The camera routinely failed to follow the ball. The on-course reporters were awful, culminating in Corey Pavin blaming the trees – there is a grand total of 1 on Chambers Bay – for players not gauging the wind correctly. Holly Sonders second question to champion Jordan Spieth on Sunday was, “Did you bring a fifth outfit?” I could go on for another 400 words but you get the idea.

I understand the USGA’s desire to switch it up, but leaving NBC was made all the more head-scratching since NBC and the Golf Channel are the same company. In this newly-created void, the British Open swooped in and will receive far superior coverage from those two entities in the near future while the U.S. Open is covered by a group of novices.

Unfortunately, there is little impetus for change. By its status as a major, the U.S. Open will always draw an audience. Players like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlory may complain about the set-up but they know, ultimately, they need to play and win the tournament for their legacy. For the rank and file, the U.S. Open has proven to be the best way to sneak in a major on the resume, just ask Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson, Steve Jones or Michael Campbell. It is a tournament that has become far too dependent on luck and that opens up the cast of characters who can win.

I watched the U.S. Open this weekend, but it was different. In fact, I turned off Fox’s primetime coverage on Thursday and Friday because it was unwatchable. Between the clown’s mouth greens and the incessant banter of nonsense, it was too much. If not for an amazing finish over the last three holes, the tournament would have been remembered as one of the worst ever.

A half-century ago, golfers grew up wanting to win the U.S. Open – from Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus, our national open was the ultimate.

Today, golfers grow up dreading the U.S. Open. As kids, they are in the backyard making birdies to win the Masters or the British Open. No one dreams of making par to win a major. That’s why no one dreams of winning the U.S. Open anymore.

If that trend continues, the U.S. Open will continue its fade. It is clearly third on the major totem pole and the far more exciting Players’ and PGA Championships may soon overtake it.

The USGA needs to stop destroying our nation’s best golf courses and start showcasing our world’s best golfers.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Major League Soccer Needs Me, but They Can’t Have Me Yet

Soccer is popular in the United States. Major League Soccer is not. This is a problem.

I am the fan that MLS needs to thrive. I watch too much sports. I spend too much money on tickets. I love watching soccer. I hate when Liverpool’s season goes to hell. I love when working from home coincides with the Champions League. I cannot be bothered with MLS because it’s an inferior product. Why watch the minors when the majors are on?

mls sucks
Soccer cannot reach its potential here without the casual fan that ignores MLS. From the 20+ million who watched the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup to the 2 million that watched last year’s Champions League final to the 1+ million that routinely watch big Premier League matches on NBC and NBCSN, we know that casual fan exists.

Major League Soccer lags way behind. In 2014, the MLS Cup did not crack 1 million viewers on ESPN, though that was better than the mere 500k the country’s biggest domestic game did in 2013. This year, a move to Fox Sports 1 has not helped – a Real Salt Lake/Toronto FC match drew only 211,000 viewers on a Sunday night.

There are hotbeds of support for MLS. If you’re reading this in Seattle or Portland, you have a different view of the league than I do in Washington, D.C., where the team plays in an old football stadium that is literally crumbling. Still, the fundamental hurdle for MLS is the stubborn insistence is overlaying American-style sporting economics on a game that is ill-suited to serve it.

I was introduced to the league’s inability to truly grow the game in 2007 when I broke the story that a group in Hartford was denied an MLS team because Bob Kraft claimed Hartford as his territory.

Let’s be clear: Hartford is/was a perfect target for MLS expansion. Rentschler Field, opened in 2003, is an excellent soccer venue. It has hosted several U.S. men’s and women’s national team games, most notably Landon Donovan’s last USMNT game. It seats 40,000. Connecticut is a soccer-mad state – my high school won state titles in both boys and girls soccer when I was there yet didn’t even have a football team. Hartford is starving for pro sports, as you know when you hear a “Let’s Go Whalers!” chant break out during UConn games.

Regardless, Kraft blocked it by using language right out of the NFL manual – “my territory.” Hartford is 90 minutes from Boston. Kraft has his soccer team playing in an NFL stadium in front of 60,000 seats every time out.

This is where MLS is stunting the growth of American soccer. The owners – many of whom also own NFL teams or other pro teams – are borrowing from a playbook they can’t run yet. The stadium fiascoes in Minneapolis, Miami and here in DC are the most prominent examples.

But it goes beyond owners attempting a cash grab by overvaluing its product. The product, quite frankly, sucks.

Steven Gerrard coming to the LA Galaxy next year continues a legacy of older European stars coming to MLS to cash easy checks. Beckham was the first, but there will be more – Cristiano Ronaldo is rumored to be on his way in 2018. Acting a senior tour for older stars is not the way to build the league.

Even when American stars return, it is done through a secret process that no one understands. Sure, it’s great that Dempsey and Jones and Bradley are in MLS but it is way better for the U.S. Men’s National Team that DeAndre Yedlin is playing for Tottenham. Why do you think J├╝rgen Klinsmann has been so adamantly opposed to national team stars playing here?

In MLS, the salaries for the rank and file are a joke. How can the media say that MLS is a legit goal for young American players when so many make the same salary – less than $50,000 – as a newspaper reporter? Newspaper reporter is the worst job in America, by the way.

The Designated Player Rule, which exists only to save owner’s money, essentially prevents from the league’s overall talent level to rise or for dynasties to emerge. America needs its power clubs. Where would MLB be without the Yankees? The NFL without the Dallas Cowboys? College football without Alabama or Notre Dame?

Let’s look at Seattle – if they are successful enough to draw twice as much as anyone else in the league, they should be able to spend twice as much. Instead, MLS has a salary cap borrowed from the NFL with a fraction of the revenue.

We have to address the league’s setup, which eschews common sense and has 60 percent of the league making the playoffs. What’s even the point of watching the regular season? I guess that helps explain why no one does.

Did you know the Montreal Impact was playing the CONCACAF Champions League final last week? Doubtful, since it was on Fox Sports 2. Did you know the U.S. Open Cup is the American equivalent of the FA Cup? Doubtful, since the latter is on Fox proper and the former is never acknowledged by MLS.

These are issues that don’t need to exist. Pay the players. Pay players in their prime big money to play here. Promote the Champions League. Promote teams fighting to qualify for the Champions League. Promote the U.S. Open Cup. Make the regular season mean something.

Much of what I just wrote has been boiled down to a single issue facing American soccer: the lack of promotion/relegation. It’s too easy to say that would fix everything but it would clearly and obviously do something to change the staid culture of club football here. The growth of soccer has led to clubs with rabid support popping up in cities like Indianapolis and Jacksonville. They deserve a chance to play top-level soccer.

Think – would the Green Bay Packers exist if the NFL was doling out franchises today? Of course not. But could you imagine an NFL without the Green Bay Packers? Of course not!

Nothing will change because MLS has convinced the soccer media that the status quo is working, though the league has never made money. This attitude permeates throughout, particularly on the issue of promotion/relegation. It leads to this tweet, which properly sums up why MLS will always be minor league:

Can’t you feel the arrogance dripping from that tweet? It is this type of “love it or leave it” attitude that hurts MLS. They expect American soccer fans to blindly support the domestic league out of an obligation. That’s not how things work in this country. You have to earn our fandom, you have to earn our money and you have to earn our appreciation.

I do watch the Premier League. And it’s a really, really big loss for American soccer because I’m not the only one. Until that changes, our domestic league will never be the major league our country
deserves.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

UConn Desperately Needs to Win Football Games in 2015

No team in college football needs to win games in 2015 as much as UConn. Without hyperbole, the entire athletic department rests in the hands of an outfit that has eked out a mere five wins in two years.

In 2004, myself, my father and four of my friends purchased UConn football season tickets. Game after game, year after year, for close to a decade. Then Randy Edsall left. Then Paul Pasqualoni took a blowtorch to the program. Now, that season ticket number has dwindled to three.

Believe that my friends are not the only people that have jumped off the UConn football ship. I have repeated over and over that Paul Pasqualoni’s hire was the worst in recent college football history. In 2010, UConn played in the Fiesta Bowl and in front of routinely sold-out home crowds. By 2014, UConn was one of the worst teams in the sport and no one showed up to the games.

Last spring, there was a wave of optimism thanks to Bob Diaco’s hire and that the program had finally been freed from Pasqualoni. But no one could have anticipated just how deeply the program had been gutted. By October, it became painfully clear that UConn lacked the talent and depth to win games – their goal appeared to try to merely compete. They didn’t compete in many games.

bob diaco 2015
This spring, there is only worrying uncertainty. To Diaco’s credit, he has moved past the
“regime change” phase of his head coaching career and the talk has focused mainly on football. That is good. The problem is that you can’t restock a football roster overnight like John Calipari can. It takes multiple recruiting classes. It takes work. It takes buy-in from players. It takes support from fans.

It takes time. UConn does not have time.

UConn is an elite athletic program in every sport except for the only sport that actually matters. Basketball, soccer, softball, baseball, even hockey – you name it and UConn is competitive at the absolute highest level. In football? From the helmets to the losses, UConn has become a national punchline.

On paper, it looks like UConn is in for another extremely long year. Their first four road games are against Missouri, BYU, UCF and Cincinnati – four teams that have been in or near the Top 25 for the past two years. UConn hasn’t sniffed the Top 25 for five years.

The worst thing about the disastrous 2014 season for UConn was the lack of any signs of life. Usually when a new coach comes in, there is at least something you can hang your hat on as a fan and say, “Yeah, next year, that’ll do.”

For UConn, their best performance of the season – by miles – came early at home against a Boise State team that would eventually win the Fiesta Bowl. The game was a one-possession game going into the fourth quarter and hope sprung eternal. That was the last time hope made an appearance at Rentschler Field last season.

By the time they face planted in a pathetic season-ending loss to SMU, everyone was gone. That’s not hyperbole – I believe the Rent was completely void of fans. My father – God bless that stubborn man – stayed to the end of multiple blowouts last year. But in the cold December rain, he couldn’t do it. He had to leave.

The current state of UConn football is so damn depressing. Not that it was ever Alabama but they made four bowl games in a row, they played in big games, they beat Notre Dame and they played on New Year’s Day. Rutgers has never played on New Year’s Day. Syracuse hasn’t in over 15 years. Pitt, Boston College and Louisville have done so only once in the past 25 years. Those schools all found lifelines in power conferences while UConn plays Temple on Thanksgiving weekend.

At this point, UConn football feels like a Sigma Chi bro entering his seventh year at school – we’re here talking about the good ol’ days while everyone got on with their lives.

This year might be a make or break season for UConn football. Let’s be realistic – if UConn continues losing, the ACC or Big Ten is never, ever calling.

For all the shade UConn fans love to throw at Rutgers, they’ve made a bowl game nine times in the past decade. I understand that making a bowl game is an incredibly low bar to hurdle in today’s environment, but UConn has missed four in a row and was eliminated from contention in mid-season for two straight years.
Here’s all that matters moving forward – UConn needs to win football games. Winning cures
everything. It’s been too long since UConn football fans experienced that.

I guarantee you, if the wins return, so will the fans. And they will bring the energy back to the Rent. And that will encourage potential recruits. And that will show the ACC and/or Big Ten that UConn is a fully functioning football program. And that will change everything.

It all starts with winning. I don’t know how it’s going to happen but Bob Diaco needs to figure out how to win six games this year.

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