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

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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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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Realignment Has Killed the Soul of College Basketball

On Feb. 16, Kansas visited West Virginia for a Top 25 matchup that came down to the final seconds. It was played before thousands of empty seats.

On Feb. 23, Kansas visited 13-15 Kansas State in a game that did not come down to the final seconds. The sold-out crowd stormed the court so viciously that the cops turned to Twitter to hunt down students.

The former game is a symptom of the sport’s problem. The latter was a reminder of the sport’s greatness. As the Kansas/Kansas State game tipped off, announcer Brent Musberger told those watching at home to appreciate the atmosphere and soak it in.

college basketball crossroadsCollege basketball is at a crossroads. Interest wanes more than ever during conference season. A sport already overshadowed by its postseason has become overwhelmed and defined by it. The 2014-15 season has been dominated by Kentucky’s quest for perfection and a lack of other storylines.

There are plenty of theories being thrown around. However, the solutions to these periphery issues do not address why the sport is missing something.

Yes, scoring is way down and the 35-second shot clock is too long. But addressing those issues won’t make Tulane/UConn any more interesting to the common fan.

Yes, the talent pool has been diluted by one-and-done freshmen or high school stars jumping straight to pro leagues overseas. But addressing those issues will not make anyone in Washington, D.C. give a crap when Xavier comes to the Verizon Center.

Yes, adding four more teams to the NCAA Tournament was a bad idea and expanded the bubble to include more undeserving teams. But reducing the field back to 64 teams is not going to make a Syracuse fan get pumped up by a mid-February trip to Clemson.

It’s time for college basketball to address those issues. It’s also time for the sport to realize the underlying problem – the conference rivalries have been destroyed.

College basketball, far more than college football, relied on those rivalries to get fans excited during these harsh winter months. College football rivalries are great but there are so easily replaced – when your team plays 12 games a year, the opponent rarely matters. Sure, Texas A&M should play Texas but playing LSU on Thanksgiving night is a reasonable facsimile.

In college basketball, things are simply different. Syracuse and Georgetown didn’t play once a year. Neither did Kansas and Missouri, or Duke and Maryland. Instead, they played twice a year and sometimes three times. Heck, in 2001, Duke and Maryland played four of the best college basketball games I have ever seen in my life in the span of three months.

Without these rivalries, the sport suffers to a point that the casual fan simply tunes out until March. Even for schools who didn’t switch conferences, their rivals visit less frequently. It was not even 10 years ago that nearly ever basketball school played its main rivals twice a year – with the 16-team Big East being an outlier. Today, every conference is an outlier.

College basketball can barely support 12-team leagues – it cannot and does not support 14-, 15- or 16-team leagues. The only reason the Big East thrived was due to the overwhelming superiority of those teams. You have a league with 11 tournament teams and good things happen. That is the exception, not the rule.

kevin ollie frustrated
Now, the good teams are spread out among a dozen conferences. Gonzaga and Wichita State and the like are mid-majors expected to run through lesser opponents. This year, thanks to imbalanced schedules, we see Power Five teams like Kentucky, Arizona and Wisconsin go weeks at a time without playing a ranked opponent. It makes the big games bigger but – again, due to March Madness – they mean so little in the grand scheme of things. It also makes the non-descript games all the more non-descript.

It hurts because there is an outrageous amount of college basketball on every single night. Cable networks like NBCSN, Fox Sports, conference networks and myriad ESPN channels scrape for live content. There may be 10 games on a time and you would trade eight of them for one good one.

For the hardcore college basketball fan, the preceding 700 words mean little. And I applaud them.

But I’m not a hardcore college basketball fan. I love UConn. I love my alma mater George Washington. And I love watching big games. There are fewer of those and that means there is less time I’m watching the sport. If you’ve read this blog, you should get an idea about how much I love sports. If you can’t engage me, you’ve lost the general public.

Ironically, the most exciting part of the regular season is now November and December and it’s only going to get worse as old rivals play in the non-conference. UConn played Boston College last November in MSG and it had more atmosphere than most conference games. Do you remember when Villanova played Syracuse in a packed arena? Does Villanova get that atmosphere this year when Creighton showed up?

Last year, I wrote about ways to make the college basketball season mean more. Even if those changes were all instituted – along with a shortened shot clock, less timeouts and players staying for 2+ years – it wouldn’t fix the root of the problem.

I wish I had a positive note to end this piece. I don’t. But it’s okay – March arrives on Sunday.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Incompetent DC Media Coverage of Incompetent DC Metro Must End

Update 2/23, 3:40 p.m.: In response to fires going up 21 percent in 2014 & five fires this weekend, the WMATA response to NBC Washington was "harsher winter," as if that explains the whole year. Notwithstanding, last year's winter featured a Polar Vortex in DC while this year has not. Did NBC Washington interview anyone else? Of course not. That sort of non-reporting is why I wrote this blog post. Please share. We need appropriate coverage of WMATA, and we need it now.

A woman took the DC Metro home from work and died.

The woman did not die because of an accident, or a fire, or an Act of God. She died because the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was incompetent. The conductor did not begin a basic evacuation plan, causing passengers to inhale smoke for 30 minutes. The fans in the tunnel – only two of which were working – were blowing smoke into the cars. When fire personnel arrived, their radios did not work underground and they were uninformed about how to proceed.

wmata delay
Let me repeat: a woman died because WMATA is incompetent. 

This week, in response to an ongoing Congressional hearing into their incompetence, The Washington Post’s editorial board had the nerve to call for WMATA to receive more funding. As a matter of reference, WMATA receives more money than the Chicago Transit Agency for a smaller transit system. No one is dying on subway cars in Chicago. (photo source) 

Think about this – The Washington Post reported that Metro knew about the issues that led to a woman’s death, yet the next day argued for WMATA to receive more money. It’s asinine and it’s dangerous.

This weekend, there were at least five reported instances of fire and/or smoke on WMATA.

The Washington Post, again, did little reporting of these possible life-threatening instances, except to pass along WMATA statements. An Associated Press story featured this headline: “Light smoke reported at DC Metro station.” Who said it was “light smoke?” A WMATA representative. It is always a WMATA representative. The Post did not feel that this incident, which was the third of five for the weekend, warranted a story.

Dr. Gridlock, the Post’s transportation blog, posted a grand total of zero items about five fires.

WAMU, a local radio station, reported on the weekend’s incidents. They did so incorrectly. They cite three smoke issues, when there were five.

Apparently, passing along WMATA statements after five fires in two days passes for sufficient media coverage.

Guess what? It is not sufficient.

The coverage of WMATA from the local media has been as disgraceful as the organization itself. As a daily rider of the system, I know all too well how terrible the service has become and how it has become dramatically worse over the past six months.

There are constant delays without explanation. There are always escalators and elevators out of service. There are incompetent station managers without answers. There is never any accountability.

While Twitter features a daily barrage of #wmata horror stories, it never rises above or beyond because the mainstream media fails to cover them properly. It only reaches that level if a death or accident occurs. The daily disasters are ignored.

I fully understand that news organizations may look at WMATA issues as “a dog bites man” story but that is exactly the point – it happens so often that it doesn’t feel newsworthy.

Yet, it’s dangerous. By not covering WMATA properly, it gives them a pass. They are able to paint incidents as “isolated” when they are not. They are able to feed statements without answering questions. They are able to insert the word “residual” in front of delay and lessen its impact. When a train is late by 20 minutes, it is a delay. It is not a residual delay. It is just a delay.

Think about the outrage in Boston when the T failed to keep full operations during a historic stretch of snow. As an outsider, one would think they would get a pass but the local media has not obliged – there has been action forced upon the T to ensure it works and failure, quite simply, is not an option.
Meanwhile, a woman dies on the Yellow Line and there are no consequences, beyond an impending settlement and the Washington Post begging for more money.

It’s a problem in the fundamental way the agency is covered. Every morning at 7:25 a.m., I tune into NBC Washington to get the weather. They also do the traffic report and every single traffic jam is shared. The Metro is never addressed. Well imagine if every morning, they presented every single WMATA delay. Don’t you think that would change non-riders opinion, if they were confronted with it on a daily basis?

Instead, an outlet like NBC Washington is there for the opening of the Silver Line and absent for delays. If you only watched the local television news, the good for WMATA far outweighs the bad. It makes sense that the woman’s death would be an isolated incident, since you wouldn’t have heard about the non-stop string of delays and malfunctioning trains that led up to it.

On the Beltway, you expect traffic and you know there’s traffic. On the Metro, the local news gives the impression – by ignoring daily delays – that it’s running on time.

I have resisted driving to work but it’s now time to re-evaluate that position. It will be more expensive to drive and pay for parking. It’s reached the point where I will not mind the added hit to my wallet.

Here’s the worst part about The Washington Post and other outlets acting as the Metro’s megaphone – the people hurt the most by WMATA’s incompetence are those in lower income brackets. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I have a car and extra money every week will not hurt me.

The ridership for WMATA is declining because there are more people like me deciding that it’s not worth it anymore. They’re tired of being late. They’re tired of being stuck. They’re tired of the bullshit.

For those without a choice, they suffer. When WMATA threatens to raise fares and/or decrease service to make up for self-made budget shortages, they are the ones whose lives become harder. WMATA is now a regressive tax.

WMATA is a disgrace. The agency has crumbled further into decline with faulty equipment and outdated technology. The money-wasting is absurd. The staggering amount of incompetence from the top down is hard to fathom.

It’s time for a change. The media is the voice of the people. In DC, they need to start acting like it. If – when? – more people die, the local media’s incompetence will be as culpable as WMATA’s.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

I was a Young Republican but the GOP Pushed Me Away

The very first vote I cast in my life as an 18-year old was for George W. Bush. Four years later, I did it again.

For the past decade, the Republican Party has veered so far to the right that I have come to loathe their positions. This is not the party I grew up with. This is not the party I supported. This is not the party that is fit to lead this country.

As a political science major at The George Washington University at the turn of the millennium, I took great pride in being one of the few outspoken Republicans in my classes. Before and after 9/11, which took place during my junior year, I leaned conservative on matters of foreign policy and terrorism.

Despite the economy humming due to the boom, I still believed government was too big and taxes were too high. While I still firmly hold to both of those beliefs, I wrongly believed that conservative fiscal policies were aimed at addressing those issues.

The final three years of Bush’s presidency served as an unmasking, like Wizard of Oz’s revealing. We never found those WMDs in Iraq. The war dragged on for far too long, took too many lives and cost too much money. Our entire economic struggle crumbled in such a spectacular way that it has taken nearly a decade to recover.

Yet I still supported John McCain in 2008. Seven years later, I am so thankful John McCain lost.

Following Barack Obama’s election, the Republicans lost their way. The strategy to be anti-Obama in every possible way made the obstructionist party. It worked on a very local scale, so it now wields power in Congress and on the state level. It also worked to grind our government to a halt.

I wrote during the last government shutdown how the GOP desperately needed a new public relations strategy. Saying “no” to everything is an awful, terrible, infantile way to lead. This week, John Boehner has againthreatened a shutdown – this time for the Department of Homeland Security. It is the equivalent of a 12 year-old throwing a temper tantrum. It’s embarrassing and unbecoming.

Instead of extending their hands across the aisle, the party turned Fox News into its megaphone to shout out its propaganda and, at times, outright lie about the state of affairs.

On almost every front, the GOP has been out of step with the general public and my viewpoints. I am the stereotypical American voter – fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

The most frustrating aspect of the conservative’s social positions is the reliance on religion to motivate policy. I was raised Roman Catholic. I was taught that homosexuality was a sin and, to be honest, I believed it for a while. But eventually, I grew up, I became educated and I changed my positions.

When Connecticut passed a Civil Union law, I interviewed several gay couples in eastern Connecticut for a series on what it meant. It remains one of the more amazing moments of my journalistic career, with grown men and women crying as they thanked me for telling their story. It struck me as so profoundly sad – in particular, two women from Coventry who were raising a child and were subject to constant harassment. That struck me as wrong.

The opposition to gay marriage annoyed me to no end since I have been a firm believer of the separation of church and state. You know, like it says in the Constitution that conservatives like to tout while raising guns above their heads.

In the past several years, the GOP has been diametrically opposite to me on too many issues. After Newtown and countless other mass shooting, I believed we need to find a way to improve gun control in this country – the GOP opposed. I believe we need a better way to deal with immigration, so while President Obama comes forward with a plan, the GOP stomps its feet.

I am for legalizing marijuana, the GOP is not. In fact, I live in DC and our district’s vote seemed to matter little to Republicans who don’t even represent me.

I am for providing health care to all citizens, the GOP is not.

I am strongly opposed to the current status of military-style policing, while the GOP seems to think nothing is wrong.

But undoubtedly, the final straw is when the GOP takes a position against the truth.
Global warming – now commonly referred to as climate change – is not a theory. Just because Al Gore made so much hay with it does not change the fact it exists. Yet, every now and then, a GOP moron like Donald Trump will let us know one day of cold weather disproves it.  

Evolution is also not a theory. Yet a presumed Republican front-runner for the most powerful position in the free world “punted” when asked about it.

The most damning part for the GOP is that for all their bluster on the economy, it finally started to truly recover and may start to thrive. I don’t believe the government has that much power to improve the economy as there are quite literally a million variables in play. But I do believe a government’s policy can easily hurt the economy. President Bush left it in ruins. At the very least, you must admit Obama’s economic policy has not had a negative effect.

In the end, I am disappointed. The party that I supported so fiercely for my first quarter-century on this planet abandoned me. It got run over by the extreme, to answer to Tea Party activists and shine a light on “leaders” like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz who are unfit for national political office.

It blew my mind during the 2014 mid-term election season when the GOP ran so hard on an anti-Obama stance and the Democrats, apparently not familiar with branding, distanced themselves for Obama without a clear distinction of their direction. They lost badly, which seems insane now as the economy cranks up while the approval rating for Obama and Obamacare shoot past 50 percent.

The Republican Party, as it stands right now, has zero chance to win the Presidency in 2016. There is only one way back – to swallow their pride, to stop obstructing government and to start leading again.

Action is better than inaction. Since they haven’t figured that out in 6+ years, I doubt they will in the next 20 months.

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