Thursday, May 31, 2012

The WWE: Example 1a Why A Monopoly Is Bad

It’s not easy being a wrestling fan in 2012, unless you’re a 14-year old girl with an undying devotion to John Cena.

We are now more than a decade from pro wrestling’s last “boom” period – the WWF’s Attitude era, which was bolstered by the Monday Night Wars against WCW and the overwhelming influence of Paul Heyman’s ECW. Since March 2001, the only game in town has been the WWF, now the WWE. TNA – aka the wrestling promotion with the worst name in history – tried to make itself a legit contender by going head to head versus the WWE in January 2010 and promptly got squashed, but that’s a story for a different time.

vince mcmahon monopoly
Over the past 11 years, the WWE has become pro wrestling. Only, as we all know, the WWE doesn’t like to call itself wrestling or use the word “wrestling” or describes its performers as “wrestlers.” In essence, professional wrestling in the United States is dead because the #1 pro wrestling company thinks it’s an entertainment company.

And boy, is it brutal. Every week, wrestling fans are treated to an endless array of garbage spewed out from the WWE trying to convince the fans that they aren’t watching wrestling – they are watching entertainers perform, as if this was Broadway and you were watching Jim Parsons in Harvey.

The backstage skits. The long promos. The contrived,over-produced segments. The constant pandering to Twitter. The insane “Did You Know?” segments that are almost always factually inaccurate. It’s painful.

Even the biggest WWE feud in recent memory between John Cena and the Rock had absolutely nothing to do with who was going win the match. For a full year, John Cena & the Rock traded verbal insults – via taped promo, via Twitter, via Facebook and sometimes actually face-to-face – about how who was the biggest star, who had the most fans and who was the best entertainer.
Somewhere, Steve Austin was drinking beer and smashing something.

However, it doesn’t matter what I write here. It doesn’t matter what the thousands of pro wrestling fans write every day on blogs, message boards and social media every second of every day. There is no alternative. If you’re a fan of wrestling, you have to watch the WWE.

Take myself for an example. I like pro wrestling. I don’t like the current state of the WWE at all. Yet, I have nowhere else to go. If I want to watch wrestling on my television, I have to watch the WWE. If I want to watch classic matches from the past, then I’m going to have to buy DVDs from the WWE, which also owns the footage of just about every former promotion in history. It is a monopoly.

And the only ones that are truly hurt are the fans. The WWE makes money hand over fist – even if their stock plummets and the company’s value is half of what it was 3 years ago. They are still making money, just less of it. And they will always make money simply by existing and improving its corporate infrastructure. 

As for the weekly television shows and monthly pay-per-views? They continue to fall deeper and deeper into the morass. Whenever a glimmer of hope arises, it’s snuffed out quicker than you can say “monopoly.” In 2010, the Nexus appeared out of nowhere and seemed to be the next big thing – they were rendered meaningless in months.

Last June, CM Punk appeared to be the savior of professional wrestling with his now famous semi-shoot on Vince McMahon and instant classic main event against John Cena at Money In The Bank. Punk is the still the WWE champion – but has failed to main event a show in 2012.

Just 2 short months ago, Brock Lesnar – yes, THE BrockLesnar – returned the night after WrestleMania and shook wrestling fans across the world up. Finally, the thought was, we can get a break from John Cena, a break from the terrible acting, a break from the awful soap opera storylines and a return to when pro wrestling was merely about two guys trying to prove who was the best at their craft. Cena promptly won the match. Lesnar “quit” the WWE and has been moved into an already dreadful feud with Triple H over legalese and contracts.

If you hadn’t watched the WWE since 2006 and turned it on this week, just about everything would be the same, though some of the faces have changed. John Cena is still the man the show revolves around. The storylines are still ill-conceived. The word “wrestling” is still not uttered by anyone. The Raw set looks exactly the same. The WWE style of wrestling is still prevalent – meaning everybody looks, acts, talks and wrestles in a similar manner. Frankly, the main difference would be the constant, nonstop, counter-productive pimping of Twitter hashtags like a Glee episode gone bad.

Yet, nothing will change. Without a competitor or impetus, Vince McMahon will continue to plod along with his painfully stale WWE. The quarterly shareholders calls have almost nothing to do with pro wrestling anymore. It’s about diversifying the portfolio, about making the movie division profitable, about improving merchandise, about finding new global markets and about a pipe dream of a television network. I don’t begrudge Vince McMahon as a businessman – he knows what he needs to do to make money. 

But what about the wrestling? No need to do anything there, because there are at least 4 million people each week that will watch no matter how terrible or how awful the product becomes. They like pro wrestling. This isn’t the NFL or NBA, where a terrible product means a sports fan can easily move onto another sport. There is no other pro wrestling.

So the 4 million of us tune in every week and we hate ourselves for it. I’d like to tell you I’ll stop watching Raw until it gets better but, I like wrestling, and I have no other options.

As a fan, I’m forced to watch garbage. I watch less now. But I still watch, even if I hate myself for it. And that’s why a monopoly is bad.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Won’t The “Horse Racing is Dead” Meme Die?

This year marks the 14th consecutive year I’ve headed to Belmont for the Belmont Stakes.

Coincidentally, it also marks the 14th consecutive year that horse racing is dead. It’s not easy being a fan of a “dead” sport.

Almost the second that I’ll Have Another ran down Bodemeister in the final, thrilling furlong of this year’s Preakness, the calls went up again. Horse racing is dead. Horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner to survive. Horse racing isn’t what it used to be. And so on and so forth.

ill have another derby
These are the same issues that came up in 2002, when War Emblem went for a Triple Crown in front of 100,000+. Ditto for Funny Cide in 2003. And who can forget Smarty Jones in 2004, the horse that graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and whose attempt at history was the most-watchedtelevision program – sports or otherwise – for the whole week.

There is an obvious mountain of evidence that shows that horse racing is not dead. I could point to the record crowd at this year’s Preakness. Or the increasing television ratings for the Kentucky Derby. Or the renewed focus on the sport from the NBC Sports Network, including recapturing the Breeders Cup, after ESPN basically drove that event into the ground.

Wasn’t it just 2 years ago that Zenyatta was a nationalsensation? How long ago was Curlin winning the Dubai World Cup & becoming the richest racehorse in North American history?

Nope, all of this gets forgotten when Belmont rolls along. Now this is not to paint the picture that horse racing is a gloriously thriving sport like the NFL or the NBA. There are problems. Look no further than the New York Racing Association, which has been effectively disbanded for the next 3 years as the state government takes over in the wake of corruption, a takeout fiasco and too many horses breaking down at Aqeuduct. It’s not all wine & roses.

But it’s not in the horrific state you’d think it was in if you read a few mainstream sports columnist, who are bothered to write or discuss horse racing once a year. These are the same people that brought you the “soccer is boring” and “hockey will never succeed” memes, along with the “Indy Car needs Danica Patrick” and “college football needs a playoff” ideas. At some point, the message got lost and all that’s left is what people think they are supposed to think.

If you wanted to point to a time when horse racing was much closer to death, look no further than the early 1990s. With nearly a decade between the Triple Crown tries of Sunday Silence in 1989 and Silver Charm in 1997, the series and, more specifically, the Belmont had fallen off the sports map. Despite the best efforts of Cigar, horse racing was rapidly losing its footing in the mainstream.

But in the past 15 years, there have been 7 Triple Crown tries and I’ll Have Another will make an 8th. The last 4 tries have averaged 100,000 people at Belmont, with Smarty Jones attracting a record 120,000. As someone who was there in 2004, I can tell you unequivocally that the Smarty Jones Belmont was the loudest, most exciting, most thrilling, most disappointing, most amazing and most memorable sport event I’ve ever attended. You haven’t lived until you hear 120,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs at the same time – it will take your breath away.

There is nothing that I can say or write that will sway the non-believers that horse racing is doing just fine, even in spite of itself. There’s a mountain of evidence that say horse racing is at least heading in the right direction, though no doubt work needs to be done on the injury front and the drug testing. But change is happening, slowly, but surely. It’s a sport that is in a better place than it was 15 years – there’s no really denying that.

Alas, the meme continues. Horse racing may not be as popular is it was 35 years ago but what is? With the exception of the NFL, almost nothing is more popular than it was a generation ago thanks to more channels, more modes of communication and that lousy Internet taking up too much of people’s time.

There is nothing, however, that compares with being at the track on a big day. We have become an event-driven society, especially when it comes to sports. We don’t care about tennis, but we have to watch Wimbledon. We may not always talk about golf, but we have to watch the Masters. Auto racing is just cars turning left, but we must watch the Indy 500. Horse racing is the exact same way – and this is not a bad thing. Not when the events have become as big as they have. On June 9, I’ll Have Another is likely to run in front of his 3rd straight 100,000+ crowd. Can any other athlete say that?

And there’s this fun tidbit that has been in my head since Smarty Jones drew more than 120,000 people to Belmont in 2004. In 1978, Affirmed beat Alydar in the climax of their amazing Triple Crown duel. The attendance that day? Just about 65,000 – or half the number that showed up for Smarty.

I don’t know what I’ll Have Another will draw, but it will be more than 65,000. How do I know this? Because in 2000, Commendable drew more than Affirmed. And if you know who Commendable is, you must’ve had a winning ticket on him like I did.

100,000+ people in stands. Millions of people watching at home. Hundreds of millions bet nationwide. Maybe this “horse racing is dead” thing is working out after all.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Five Reasons Why Soccer Is Finally Poised To Take Over America

Stop me if you’ve heard this before – soccer is going to become popular in the United States. I know, right? First it was Pele. Then it was the Youth Soccer movement of the 1980s. Then it was the 1994 World Cup. Then it was Landon Donovan’s “Go-Go-USA” goal in the 2010 World Cup. Every so often, it is declared that soccer is about to explode in popularity in America.

That of course, is missing the point. American soccer will never be on the same level of the NFL, NBA or MLB – it’s just too big of a hill to climb. There’s also this minor, yet crucial point, which is that the best soccer isn’t being played in America or by Americans – and it never will be.
I guess my title was a tad misleading. It’s not soccer that is poised to take over America – it’s European soccer.

I’m writing this just a few hours removed from one of the most exciting sporting events I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness as Manchester City ripped victory from the jaws of defeat with 2 goals in stoppage time against Queens Park Rangers, a lowly team fighting just to avoid relegation. It’s hard to put the magnitude of what happened into words of an exasperated Ian Darke, calling the game on ESPN2.

“Who is writing this stuff?!?”

In an unprecedented move, Fox Sports & ESPN teamed up to show each of the last 10 English Premier League games live across a variety of channels (FX, FSN, ESPN2, Fox Soccer, Speed, Fuel, etc.) and produce a Mother’s Day morning unlike any other in recent memory. Couple the coverage with the thrilling finale and we may look back at May 13, 2012, as the day soccer finally began its march to the American mainstream. 

1. Simplicity
It doesn’t take long for a newcomer to European soccer to understand how it works. Everyone plays each other twice, home and away. You get 3 points for a win. You get 1 point for a tie. The team with the most points at the end of the year is the champion. Simple, easy and brilliant. College football is grappling to keep the regular season meaningful while instituting a playoff – hint you can’t – while Major League Soccer tries to get people to pay attention when more than half the teams make the playoffs.

The beauty of the soccer table is how accessible it is. You know where you stand. Everyone plays the exact same schedule. There’s no home-field advantage. There’s no seeding. There’s no luck involved. The best team is rewarded. Likewise, the worst teams are not…

2. Relegation
If there is anything more devastating than a team being relegated from the top flight, I haven’t found it yet. It’s been written a thousand times across the Internet so I won’t rehash the details but just imagine if relegation existed in American sports? QPR played like their lives were on the line today against Manchester City. You know why? Because their lives were on the line today.

In American sports, we get what the Sports Guy Bill Simmons has dubbed “tankapalooza” where the worst teams in a given league actively tank in order to get the best player in the next draft. Yes, only in America, can a franchise actually be rewarded for being absolutely terrible. The Charlotte Bobcats were the worst team in the history of pro basketball this year – for this, they are likely to receive a possibly once-in-a-lifetime center in Anthony Davis. Somehow, this doesn’t seem right.

3. Parity Does Not Exist
Is there a worst scourge on American sports than the idea of parity? The NFL has actively sought parity for 20 years and we are left with a league void of great teams, in which 9-7 Wild Cards routinely get hot and win the championship. Thankfully, the NFL thrives due to gambling and fantasy football, so they need parity to drive those two. Think about that the next time two .500 teams are playing a dreadful 17-14 game in Week 14 – why are you watching? I bet gambling and fantasy football are the answer. 

But is parity a good thing? Of course it’s not. College football has risen up to become our nation’s 2nd most popular sport precisely because there is no parity. Where the best teams in other sports can change from year to year, college football provides year after year with the same “behemoth” programs like Alabama, Ohio State and USC dominating their conferences.  Look at the NBA – is there any wonder ratings skyrocketed last year thanks to the emergence of the Miami Heat as a Goliath?

European soccer has this down to a science. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal – everyone knows these teams. If you root for Fulham, Newcastle or Everton – that is where you want to be. Who is the best team in Major League Soccer? Who’s the flagship team in the NHL? 

4. A Superior Television Product
My father got on the soccer bandwagon years before I did. Why? He needed something to watch on Sunday mornings before the NFL other than the endless talking head shows. He found Fox Soccer and he’s been hooked ever since. And how can you not be? For 2 hours, you get sports. No commercials. No beer commercials over and over again. No sideline reporters interviewing the star of NBC’s latest failed sitcom. No fluff pieces during the action about where Tom Brady gets his hair done.

It’s sports. The action doesn’t stop. Sure, there are ads all over the pitch and on the screen but that’s okay – the game is still going on. In today’s “two second attention span” era, it’s nice to simply watch a sporting event for 45 minutes straight without having to change the channel to avoid that awful Bud Light commercial where they torture Wego, the poor rescue dog. Yes, I fully understand I’m a 29 year old writing like a 59 year old but dammit, sometimes it’s really nice to just sit back, relax and not deal with too many commercials. Of course, it’s more than relaxing….

5. Epicness
So often, the epicness of our sporting events is forced. ESPN tries every day to build up what they are showing that night in an effort to put it on par with the great events of the past. It very rarely works. But, Lord, they try. It just usually doesn’t hit the mark.

Soccer, on the other hand, is epic by definition. Every goal could mean victory for one side or defeat for the other. Take a quick look at the Manchester City game as an example. For 40 minutes, Man City pushed and attacked and pushed for that first goal and couldn’t pull it off. Even on their first goal, the crowd groans as one as the goalie gets his fingertips then joins in delirium as it falls behind him into the net.

Fast forward through QPR’s two goals – it was as if every single Manchester City fan had been punched in the gut. As Man City fought valiantly toward the end, the crowd moved to the edge of their seat and viciously implored their side. When they scored to tie it up, you felt the energy and nervousness seep through the air as they willed for another goal. When it happened, the 44-year title drought was finally over and the celebration was unlike any I’ve seen in an American sporting event, with the exception of some college football games. Pure pandemonium. Tears of joy. Grown men ripping their shirts off. Children hugging their parents. It was the personification of why sports are universal and why the thrill of victory can be one of the most uplifting human emotions.

It’s been just about five hours since Manchester City & QPR gave the sports world its game of the year. Sadly, I already miss soccer. Watching the Clippers and Grizzlies play to advance to the 2nd round of a 16-team tournament suddenly seems so unimportant.

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