Saturday, May 31, 2014

Classic YouTube: 2002 World Cup, USA vs. Mexico

Every Saturday morning at 11am, this post looks at a Classic YouTube video. Enjoy! 

The 2002 World Cup was like a little secret that only a select few were privy to. And I was one of the lucky few.

While soccer has clearly gone mainstream in the past decade, that wasn't the case in 2002. Fox Soccer was in its infancy. There was no Bein Sport. The English Premier League was not featured nationally on ESPN or the NBC Sports Network, which didn't even exist yet. Soccer was certainly growing in the United States but it hadn't really caught on. Following the successful 1994 World Cup, the Americans spectacular flame out in the 1998 World Cup hadn't helped matters.

It didn't help that the 2002 World Cup took place in Korea and Japan, which meant many of the games kicked off overnight, at like 2 or 3 in the morning. It was tough for a casual fan to get caught up. But even though I was a very, very casual fan at that point, I had an advantage.

I had just turned 20 years old. It was the summer before my senior year of college. My summer job was a database internship for a non-profit that paid me $10 per hour, which felt like $100.

The routine was simple and perfect. Party all night until the bars close. Come back to the house I lived in with two friends, invite some friends back, have a keg ready and the after-party would include World Cup soccer. I don't think I've ever enjoyed soccer more in my life.

That is why at 2:30 a.m. on a June morning, 10 days after my birthday, my house was packed with drunken idiots ready to watch the U.S. take on Mexico in the Round of 16. It's still the only knockout stage victory in my lifetime. It was over our main rival. It was the original Dos a Cero. It featured some guy named Landon Donovan scoring a big goal.

What a game. What a moment. What a night. The first video shows the two goals and the second is the whole game from a rebroadcast from ESPN Classic with the immortal Jack Edwards on the call.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Jürgen Klinsmann needlessly turned the pressure way up for World Cup 2014

Jürgen Klinsmann did something that no other figure in American soccer has been able to do – he got soccer fans in the United States really, really angry.

Jurgen Klinsmann 2014 donovan
Americans care about soccer. They have gone through a wide range of emotions over the past 25 years. Anger never came into the equation.

There was surprise in 1989 when they qualified for their first World Cup in ages. There was giddiness after 1994 and 2002. There was sheer joy in 2010. There has been disgust, following flameouts in 1998 and 2006. There has been wistfulness about coming so close, following the 2009 Confederations Cup.

But through it all, there had rarely, if ever, been a disconnect between the fans and the team. Some fans weren’t thrilled with Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, but they never drew out ruthless venom from a portion of the fanbase.

Klinsmann, with one stroke of egotism, pulled it off.

Let’s be honest – Landon Donovan should be going to Brazil. Even the soccer hipsters – the ones who take the least popular opinion and defend it to death – have been proven a fraud. Why? Because their arguments have pitted Landon Donovan in 2014 against Landon Donovan in 2010. Is that who Landon was left off for? I have yet to have anyone convince me that Julian Green or John Brooks – right now – are better players than Landon Donovan.

But I’m not here to discuss or dissect that decision. It’s been made. And now we have to deal with the aftermath and that’s the real problem for Klinsmann. He may have a contract through the 2018 World Cup but that doesn’t mean he’ll be coaching the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2018 World Cup.

Let’s go back to the World Cup draw and relive the moment when the U.S. was put in the Group of Death. I’m sure we were not the only country who sighed and shook their head after the announcement. Ghana and Portugal – two other knockout stage participants from 2010 – had to be disappointed as well. The Germans, well, I’m sure they just kept training and hardly noticed.

The World Cup is not supposed to be easy. The fact the U.S. got a tough draw was not ideal, to say the least, but it felt like the entire U.S. Soccer program accepted that they would be eliminated in the Group stage.

How else to explain the inexplicable contract extension for Klinsmann? They wanted to ensure that a terrible World Cup result didn’t derail his program.

How else to explain the inclusion of youngsters, like the aforementioned Green, to the roster? Klinsmann can say he’s not thinking of 2018, but it sure feels that way.

In sports, perception carries the day. Whether or not Landon Donovan was slipping as precipitously as Klinsmann implied, the perception remained that Landon Donovan is American soccer.

Before Landon Donovan was left off the team, I would best describe the feeling toward the World Cup for the U.S. as realistic. Not many thought they could advance, but we’d seen the National Team pull off miracles before so the faith and hope remained.

After Landon Donovan was left off the team, that mood changed to pessimistic. A fairly innocuous 2-0 win over Azerbaijan in unfavorable, windy conditions was cause for concern and panic. It feels like the walls are closing in on the team, especially with news of Clint Dempsey’s sore groin worrying fans further.

Klinsmann and soccer analysts are trying as hard as they can to ensure this World Cup is not about the guy who isn’t there, but that ship has sailed. Has Klinsmann not watched ESPN for the past five years? When they find a story that captivates audiences – Tim Tebow, anyone? – they are going to pound it into the ground. So is the rest of the sports media.

Has any Klinsmann press conference been aired live on SportsCenter like the one last Friday where he was grilled and prodded by Donovan questions for 30-plus minutes?

sad landon donovan
The problem with Klinsmann’s decision has nothing to do with soccer – it has to do with the aftermath. Klinsmann was clearly irked by Donovan’s position as a “sacred cow” in American soccer and he wanted to make sure everyone knew he was in charge.

There have been many comparisons to Klinsmann’s handling of the 2006 German team, which included the demotion of Oliver Kahn from the #1 keeper spot. It’s an absurd comparison to say the least since the new goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, was one of the best in the world and Kahn wasn’t left off the team entirely. Also, the depth of the German soccer program is a tad better than the United States. Just a tad.

So ultimately, Klinsmann made his power move and now he has to suffer the consequences.

That means he burned up his free pass before the World Cup began. There was a large contingent of fans – and maybe there still are – prepared to accept a Group Stage exit. It was always a big ask to finish second in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. And if Donovan had been named to the team and they kept chugging along to Brazil, that would have been okay.

By eliminating Donovan, Klinsmann turned the pressure way up. He said he’s thinking of 2014, not 2018. He said Donovan isn’t one of the best 23. It’s time for Klinsmann to produce.

The last time the United States watched its team play in the World Cup, Landon Donovan provided the defining moment for soccer in this country.

The next time the United States watches its team play in the World Cup, Landon Donovan won’t be there.

That means all eyes will be on Jürgen Klinsmann. If the United States flames out, it will fall on Klinsmann and I doubt he will survive through the next World Cup. If the United States advances to the knockout round, Klinsmann will be correctly hailed as a hero.

The pressure is on, Jürgen. 

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Chase for the Cup is slowly but surely killing NASCAR

For me, the lasting image from the 2014 Coca-Cola 600 was an empty grandstand

nascar empty grandstand
Yep, in corner two of Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day Weekend during one of NASCAR's signature events, the grandstand in turn two was inhabited by no one. It was covered by a giant American flag and sponsor tarps. I could pontificate about how NASCAR, if it really cared about veterans could have donated those seats to military families instead of charging absurd prices no one paid.

But that would be too easy. And it would miss the point. NASCAR used to sell those seats and all other seats. However, the first half of the 2014 NASCAR season has been marked by declining ratings and poor attendance figures.

There is plenty of blame to go along. For me, I had pointed the finger at the mainstream attitude of NASCAR, which has surely soured some fans on the sport as the drivers have become pitchmen instead of the outlaw stars that helped the sport grow in the 1970's and 1980's.

Others have pointed the finger at cars that are simply too good, removing the "rubbin' is racin'" and "doorhandle to doorhandle" racing that defined the sport for so long. Indeed, on Sunday, the action at the Indy 500 was far superior to the action at the Coca-Cola 600. But IndyCar racing has been more exciting for about the past decade and that hasn't helped that sport at all – its ratings still lag laps behind NASCAR on a weekly basis

So what is behind the decline of attention? I figured it out as I watched the last 50 laps of Sunday's race. The battle between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson was ostensibly to win the race they were running but all the announcers could talk about was the Chase of the Cup.

That's when it dawned on me – the Chase for the Cup is killing NASCAR.

For the past decade, NASCAR has tried unsuccessfully to manufacture a late-season playoff to stem the rising tide of the NFL. Other sports cried, “Uncle!” The PGA instituted its playoffs, the FedEx Cup, to end its season by mid-September instead of November. The WNBA does so as well. IndyCar now wraps up by Labor Day.

Only baseball can exist in the fall and even that sport has had trouble, depending on which teams make the postseason, of attracting serious attention in October.

So NASCAR plows on, fidgeting annually with its point system and falling further and further behind. But in 2014, they struck a new low – the new points system is now dragging down the entire season.

NASCAR used to have one of the best ways to determine a champion. Every race mattered. You ran every race, collected the points and when the season was over, the man with the most points won. It was very similar to how European soccer crowns a champion with every team playing the same schedule and the team with the most points wins.

Of course, this is not ideal for late season drama. As this year's English Premier League season showed when it was clear that Manchester City would win going into the last week of the season. But it goes both ways – La Liga featured a last-weekend game between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona that determined the league champ. Just two years ago, the Premier League featured Manchester City winning the title in the stoppage time with two goals that provided drama that no playoff ever could.

That's the tradeoff. Sometimes, you can get a legendary finish. Sometimes, you just get a deserving champion. NASCAR knows this – or it should have known this. Heck, Fox Sports 1 just ran a documentary this past week highlighting the incredible finish to the 1992 season, which is the second such documentary, as its forerunner Speed did one as well.

Unfortunately, Matt Kenseth cruised to a yawn-inducing series crown in 2004 and NASCAR overreacted by fixing what wasn't the problem.

The problem with NASCAR by 2004 is that winning had become less important than accumulating points on a weekly basis. The problem here was with the points system, not the setup of the season. The sport needed a points system similar to Formula 1 where there was a clear and decided advantage to winning and one that made finishing 30th or 39th the same.

Instead, NASCAR created the Chase for the Cup, by doing so it created 26 "regular season" races and 10 "playoff" races. Whereas once every race meant exactly the same, there were now 10 races that meant more. Think about it – the October race in Charlotte meant more than the Coca-Cola 600 or the Daytona 500.

And yet, 10 races provided the same problems because it still gave enough time for a dominant driver, say Jimmie Johnson, to establish a big enough lead that he merely had to do okay in the finale. For all the pomp and circumstance, little had changed.

NASCAR kept tweaking. They added wild card spots. They added more points for winning. Nothing changed the fact that the playoff system did not work for NASCAR.

Last year, the sport hit what was then a new-low when Jeff Gordon was inexplicably added to the Chase lineup after not qualifying following some dubious actions in the regular season finale. Imagine if the NFL added the Patriots to the AFC field even though they didn't qualify just to get Tom Brady in there? It would be absurd and not accepted. However, the lack of interest in NASCAR merely meant people shrugged their shoulders and moved on.

This year, NASCAR finally killed the sport.

coca-cola 600 2014
There are now 16 drives in the Chase for the Cup, which is an insane number since there at most 20 teams that are serious championship contenders. The Chase is now no longer a 10-race mini-season, but a series of "segments" that will eliminate drivers until there are only four left in the season finale and oh my God it should not take this many words to explain how a championship is won.

The cherry on top of this awful sundae is that to qualify for the Chase, all you have to do is win a race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500. That meant with 25 races left in the regular season, he had clinched a playoff berth. Excuse me? Imagine if the Patriots beat my Jets in week 1 and clinched the AFC East. Why would they care about the next 15 games?

The very nature of NASCAR, and car racing in general, is to gain points each week. In 2014, it only matters if you win. Matt Kenseth finished second Sunday night and it basically meant nothing. So why would fans care?

Now that Jimmie Johnson has his win – what is his goal for the next four months before the Chase begins?

By placing all the emphasis on winning, NASCAR has removed the interest in the sport as a whole. They are telling you that these 26 races don't mean anything except to give out playoff spots. And as we sit here in late May, there are already about 10 guys who have clinched spots. If they have little motivation for driving, what is your motivation for watching?

That was all crystalized on Sunday night. Jimmie Johnson won one of the sport's signature events. What was the big takeaway?

Not that he won. But that he had clinched a playoff spot. Now that winning means everything, it also means nothing.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Tail Wag: Pool is Open email for Memorial Day weekend

Every Sunday morning at 11am, The Tail Wag examines something that made me happy in the past week.

I am one of the lucky ones. My apartment building in Washington, D.C. has a pool. When I lived in Hartford, my place there had a pool. When I first moved back to D.C. in late 2011, my apartment did not have a pool and the summer of 2012 is a dark period of my life.

Here’s a simple piece of advice to anyone – live in an apartment building that has a pool. It usually does not cost any more to live in such a place and it is the best decision you will ever make.

The pool always opens on Memorial Day weekend and that meant this Tuesday, I got quite possibly my favorite email of the year – the one from my apartment building letting me know that the pool is opening.

It is tough to describe how much I love the pool. As you can tell from this blog, I write a lot. Maybe it’s the newspaper reporter in me, but I thoroughly enjoying lying out by the pool, listening to Panic at the Disco and thinking about life. I love closing my eyes and running through blog posts, story ideas and ledes in my head.

Especially after the winter we just had – one so bad that it completely obliterated spring – the pool and sunshine is desperately needed. 

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Classic YouTube: 1970 Burger Chef Commercial

Every Saturday morning at 11am, this post looks at a Classic YouTube video. Enjoy!

mad men strategy
There has been some debate on the quality of Mad Men this season. A vocal minority has complained that things have moved too slowly and/or that we’re repeating the same stories over and over again. This was pretty much washed away with the episode that aired last Sunday.

Pressed against the agency’s need to create a commercial for Burger Chef – we don’t care about spoiler alerts here – we see how Peggy, Don and Pete have evolved through the series. When the episode ends with them at a Burger Chef, talking about what families are and what they have become through the 1960’s, we see that those three are their family. The ones that have been with them through the ups and downs, the divorces, the addictions, the breakups, and the bad decisions – everything.

It was a beautiful piece of television and, as Alan Sepinwall so aptly pointed out, that scene and the previous scene with Peggy and Don slow-dancing to Sinatra’s My Way would have made for acceptable series enders. Instead, we get another episode next week to end this half-season before it wraps up for good next year. I will miss Mad Men.

But what did a Burger Chef commercial actually look like in 1970? Yep, it’s the total cheese that Peggy railed against.

Watch this one-minute of schlock and imagine McDonald’s or Burger King rolling this out during, say, the NFC Championship Game

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

BYU will join the AAC within 2 years

The most absurd news to come of the absurd college football scheduling debate is that the Mountain West Conference was re-evaluating whether it wanted to still play BYU.

I picture BYU administrators e-mailing that article with notes like “LOL” and “r u serious? Lmbo.” BYU, of course, has been smashing those Mountain West Conference teams for its entire existence. BYU had such little regard for them that they left the conference.

Now the jilted ex-lover is going to say goodbye? Please.

The most humorous part of the exchange was MWC commissioner Craig Thompson saying that they had to re-evaluate BYU due to “strength of schedule” reasons and, bam, right there, he was proven to be a fraud and an idiot.

byu footballThe SEC and ACC are not playing BYU because they are a cartel trying to keep the money to themselves. It has nothing to do with strength of schedule. I don’t need to repeat BYU’s recent record, link to their beat down of Texas or remind you of their Heisman and National Title to prove that.

You know how I can prove it? Because if BYU joined the Big 12 tomorrow – without having played one more game – they would suddenly fulfill the SEC and ACC’s requirements for a “Power Five” team.

The college football playoff has become a fiasco before it has even started because the sport now has little to do with the sport and everything to do with money.  The Big Ten Network is expanding into New York. The SEC Network is trying to take over the South. ESPN is forking over boatloads of cash for the four-team playoff.

Every administrator in college football right now is simply running an angle to maximize profits and revenues. It’s less a sport and more a Wall Street-type game of Risk. The four-team playoff is not going to last because it doesn’t maximize profits. Once they get a taste, the playoff will be expanded. Whether that is to eight teams, or the true 16-team playoff I want, it’s getting bigger.

Before that happens, there are  a lot of pieces in flux.

The Power Five conferences are trying to ensure it stays at five – that’s why ACC athletic directors would rather play each other than true non-conference games. That’s why SEC athletic directors are acting like they can only play 9 games against Power Five competition, instead of looking at 9 as the minimum.

The MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt conferences are content to get the scraps and collect paychecks by being the whipping boys of September.

The Mountain West Conference holds on to its false reality that it will somehow become a major conference even though three of its top four programs – BYU, TCU and Utah – are gone and Boise State is receding back into the abyss.

That leaves the BYU and the American Athletic Conference trying desperately to prove they belong with the Power Five. The AAC has already made clear it will match any stipend or pay-for-play increases the Power Five go with it. The salaries for Frank Haith and Kevin Ollie show the league’s members are ready to pay. BYU is a Power Five football program in all but name.

Why will BYU join? Here are 9 reasons:

1) They already have a scheduling alliance
When the AAC and BYU announced they would be playing each other in the first Miami Beach Bowl, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco described a “quasi-alliance” between the league and BYU for future schedules. In 2014 and 2015, BYU has three AAC teams on the docket.

While it is not formalized like the Notre Dame-ACC alliance, it important to note because it makes BYU’s eventual entrance into the league easier. BYU is very happy with its agreement with the West Coast Conference for other sports, particularly basketball, so they would only need to join the AAC for football. There would be no hesitation on the AAC’s part about adding BYU into the fold.

2) ESPN loves BYU, tolerates the AAC
BYU is believed to make between $800,000 and $1.2 million for every home game thanks to a deal with ESPN. That is a lot of money and shows why BYU is so far above the MWC. ESPN will pay $800k for San Jose State at BYU. How much do you think it would pay for San Jose State at Utah State? $8.

Even though the ESPN-AAC relationship got off to a bad start, they are partners for the near future. While the AAC’s goal is to score a better contract down the line, ESPN’s goal is get a return on investment. And considering it’s paying a relative pittance for the AAC right now, building the league up right now would be like found money.

Think about it – an East Carolina/UCF Thursday night game could draw about the same viewers as Virginia Tech/Georgia Tech, except it would set ESPN back about 1/1000th the cost.

BYU is a proven commodity to ESPN because of its national following. Right now, they control BYU home games. If they join the AAC, ESPN would also control most of BYU’s road games. We saw when it moved BYU at UConn to Friday night on Week 1 that ESPN would take advantage of that arrangement.

3) BYU needs good games in November
This November, BYU will play Middle Tennessee State, UNLV, Savannah State and Cal. I can’t imagine anyone who follows or roots for BYU finds that acceptable.

Regardless of the college football playoff, it was always going to be difficult for BYU to find good November opponents as the 2014 schedule was put together several years ago. Now, it is even more difficult. It’s ultimately the main reason why Notre Dame joined the ACC, as its 2010 season ended with Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Utah, Army and USC.

By joining the AAC, that problem is gone. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that November visits from Houston, UCF or Cincinnati are more appealing than UNLV or Savannah State.

4) Both need better bowl games
The bowl system should be dead. We should have a real playoff. But we don’t. And the bowl system is still broken.

byu stadiumWhen the realignment wheel stopped spinning – and the first indication of the Power Five’s cartel plans – the bowl games were largely Power Five versus Power Five team. BYU and the AAC were left with so few options that they are now playing each other in 2014. BYU is a good bowl team. So is Navy. The combination of BYU, and Navy, and the other AAC teams will help when the bowls are realigned again after the current cycle, which lasts between 3 to 6 years.

Just as with the AAC’s television contract, every move is about the future – the AAC needs to be positioned for better bowl games and so does BYU.

5) Access to the New Year’s Six
Under the current arrangement, BYU’s chances of playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game are practically zero. If they join the AAC, those chances skyrocket exponentially as one non-Power Five conference team is guaranteed a berth every year. If BYU won the AAC, they’d have a very good chance of playing in the Cotton or Fiesta Bowl. That’s better than the Poinsettia Bowl.

6) AAC can provide BYU the national schedule it craves
One of the reasons BYU went independent is because, like Notre Dame, it has national interests thanks to its affiliation with the Mormon Church. Playing 90% of their games west of the Mississippi does them no good.

The AAC has very few things going for it but one is that it features a lot of teams in major markets across the country. If they join the AAC, BYU could play in Dallas, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Tampa, Orlando and Cincinnati in the span of four years.

That helps recruiting. That helps engage alumni. That helps the program.

7) Strength of schedule improves for all
BYU is a high quality team. The AAC is fighting for respect. By adding BYU to the fold, the entire conference gets a bump, as does BYU from having a more fully-formed schedule as opposed to a diet of below-average MWC teams through November.

8) Army may need a landing spot too
No one has been talking about Army because the football program has been so miserable lately. It’s not like anyone asked Mike Slive if Army counted as a Power Five-worthy team. However, it may reach a point where Army has to join a conference to remain a viable FBS team.

Like BYU, Army would only join the AAC for football and has been a target for the AAC/old Big East for close to a decade now.

While Army would add little in the way of football prowess, it would bring a ton of clout in terms of awareness and political clout. If the Power Five tried to break away and left the conference with Army and Navy in the dust? Something tells me that wouldn’t go over well in Washington.

9) They cannot crack the Power Five without each other
BYU is not a Power Five conference team right now. The AAC is not a Power Five conference right now.

Together, they may not be either. But they’d have a chance. We know for a fact that, separately, they do not.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The L.A. response to SportsNet LA is so perfect

We may look back at Time Warner’s SportsNet LA as the moment when the sports cable boom finally crashed.

Or at the very least, we’ll view it as the moment when it finally slowed down.

sportsnet la
Time Warner signed the L.A. Dodgers to a seemingly unthinkable 25-year, $8.35 billion dollar deal to create the new network – think YES for the Yankees – to show Dodger games to the nation’s second-largest media market. To make the money back, Time Warner had to charge cable operators an insane sum per month, like at ESPN levels, to carry the network.

As they have many times before, cable operators pushed back. We saw it with the NFL Network. We saw it with the Big Ten Network. We saw it with the fledgling Pac-12 Network, which is still not available even on a sports tier here in Washington, D.C. We will certainly see it with the forthcoming SEC Network. Even the Yankees had trouble getting on cable in New York City at first.

This fight appeared to be similar, with Time Warner going with a strong #IneedmyDodgers campaign that is ever-present on SportsCenter highlights. The company, and the team, was banking on Dodgers fans complaining en masse to get their network on cable. With Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw and a World Series contender, this seemed to be a solid battle plan.

But something odd has happened in the first two months of the season – the fans don’t seem to care that much. Oh sure, there are diehards that are plenty upset and should be. However, the majority of L.A. fans have resigned themselves to the fact that the Dodgers aren’t on. And they’re okay with that.

For the first time in the past decade, the consumer is not upset with the cable companies refusing to carry the live sports – they are pointing their anger, or apathy, at the new station.

In short, the cable sports racket has finally been revealed and consumers, at large, are rejecting it. ESPN doesn’t make its money from the small sliver of people that actually watch the channel – it revels in the 60+ million who don’t but still fork over $5 a month. Fox Sports 1 was created to exploit this same racket but poor ratings and low monthly rates have proven it to be fruitless so far.

The ploy from networks, such as YES or the SEC Network, has always been a curious one – rile up sports fans to get them to beg cable companies to carry more sports and make everyone pay more.

When people say, “I want the SEC Network,” they are really saying, “I want everyone to pay more money!” It’s insane but it’s been worked.

Not in Los Angeles. Who knew the glorious city that wouldn’t support an NFL team would balk on paying more money for a baseball team?

Now to be fair, the Dodgers have a bigger problem – namely they employ the greatest living broadcaster as their radio voice. Vin Scully has certainly helped to contribute to the marked increase in radio ratings, as Dodgers broadcasts are up 78% this year.

Even Dodger Stadium is benefitting as the team is averaging more than 46,000 per home game and leads the majors in attendance. In fact, on average, there are more Dodgers fans in the park than watching at home.

Of course, it’s only May and the Clippers and Kings in the playoffs may have deflected some attention. Things will likely heat up over the summer, especially if the Dodgers remain World Series contenders.

For now, the city of Los Angeles is doing the consumer nation at large a solid. They’re taking a stand against cable companies raking people over the coals, the same tactics that have led to the cord-cutting phenomenon.

Besides, what would you rather do – sit in the bleachers at Chavez Ravine, listen to the dulcet tones of Vin Scully as you lie on the beach or fork over $5 a month to watch baseball from your living room?

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Revisiting Smarty Jones and the 2004 Belmont Stakes

The wall of sound. I will never forget that wall of sound.

2004 belmont stakes
When Smarty Jones extended his lead at the top of the Belmont stretch – a move that many believe was premature by jockey Stewart Elliot – there was a wall of sound that engulfed the track. It felt like a 747 was taking off from inside my stomach. The noise consumed you. It was so loud that I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I couldn’t hear my own voice.

Less than 30 seconds later, you could hear a pin drop. Birdstone, a great horse in his own right, had caught up to Smarty Jones and passed him the final, testing quarter-mile that separates the Belmont Stakes from the Kentucky Derby.

It was by far the most exhilarating sporting event I have ever been to in my life. Yet there is a very good chance that California Chrome will do it one better in the biggest Belmont Stakes ever. I believe a decade is enough time to recover.

If you want an indication of just how big Smarty Jones was, look at this chart of Preakness ratings over the past 10 years. You’ll see that gigantic spike for Smarty in 2004, off of only a Derby win. With a Triple Crown on the line, Smarty Jones changed the calibration for an entire sport.

When Secretariat won the Belmont 31 years before Smarty, 63,000 people showed up. There were twice as many stuffed into Belmont Park in 2004. When Smarty Jones left the gate, there were some 22 million people watching.

Smarty’s story, like Chrome’s this year, was one of a fairy tale. Smarty nearly died early in his training when he hit his head against a gate – his career was almost over before it started. He raced at tiny Philadelphia Park to begin his career. He prepped for the Derby at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, which just happened to institute a one-time-only $5 million bonus to commemorate its 100th anniversary for any horse that could win Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.  

My dad and I have been to every Belmont Stakes since 1999. The event is fun each and every year, whether it’s Palace Malice winning me money or Big Brown pulling up on a 100-degree day during which they ran out of water and the toilets broke.

As we approached Belmont on that morning, everything felt different. There was a massive backup on the parkway just to get there some two hours before the first race even went off.

The track still allowed coolers but, in a post-9/11 world, every cooler had to be inspected. That meant a line of 100 people with coolers waiting to be inspected. They were all from Philadelphia, which meant we were surrounded by Flyers jerseys and McNabb jerseys.

“That’s not a good sign,” my dad said, pointing at four bro’s drinking beer in Eagles jerseys. “They don’t win anything.”

In fact, just this weekend, he brought that up again. “At least there won’t be any McNabb jerseys this year.” I believe he blames McNabb more than Stewart Elliot.

That whole day featured a buzz that is difficult to describe but you know when you feel it. The hop in everyone’s step. The excitement in every conversation. The shared feeling that you were about to witness history.

What makes Belmont different than Churchill Downs or Pimlico is that there is no infield crowd. Whereas those two get 120,000+ crowds with 80 percent in the infield, Belmont has all the crowd one side. It features more seats. It’s bigger. It’s expansive. It’s New York through and through.

As the horses made their way to the track, I got goosebumps. I am getting them right now thinking about it. Everything was building to this moment – you could feel an entire nation’s eyes descended on this track and these animals.

As the race began, Jerry Bailey on Eddington and Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten engaged in what is politely described as race riding and more accurately described as sabotage. They ganged up on Smarty and wore out their horses trying to tire him out. We saw something similar on Saturday when Social Inclusion moved early and forced California Chrome to dispatch him before the top of the stretch.

As that played out at the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Smarty was ahead by daylight as he came from home. But the premature move from Elliot and the extra energy expended on the backstretch conspired to do in Smarty Jones. Birdstone, giving a perfect trip with no resistance, was able to eventually charge past the tiring Smarty.

sad smarty jones
What I’ll never forget is the moment when Smarty Jones, passed for the first time in his life, gamely fought back but he had nothing left. When they crossed the wire, it was devastating. There was no joy in Belmont. It was frightening. It was sad. It was quiet. It was over.

For me, there was a slight consolation. Smarty Jones was the most bet-on horse in the history of horse racing. So much so that the odds for other horses were completely out of whack. About four hours prior, an update of the odds showed that Birdstone was 80-1. I put $5 on him to win. Even though he went off at 35-1, that was still a nice $160 payout.

I would have gladly paid that $160 back to see history.

The following year, Afleet Alex won the 2005 Belmont Stakes with the most impressive move I’ve ever seen from a horse. It was breathtaking. It was the first Belmont that didn’t feature a Triple Crown try in four years. It felt good to see the favorite won.

“We needed that,” my dad said as we left the track that night.

The memories of Smarty Jones never fade. When I tell people I go to the Belmont every year, they invariably ask about 2004. When people ask me about the best sporting event I’ve been to, I will invariably talk about 2004.

Smarty Jones’ close loss took place just a few months before the Red Sox won their first World Series title and just months after Phil Mickelson won his first Masters. It seems as if the past 10 years have seen many title droughts go by the wayside, whether it’s for the New Orleans Saints, the Chicago White Sox, the Seattle Seahawks or LeBron.

The Triple Crown, though, remains as elusive as ever. That’s why me and 120,000 of my closest friends will pour into Belmont on June 7 – a date that doubles as my birthday – as millions more watch at home to witness history.

Horse racing is dead? Hardly

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Tail Wag: The Bruins Lost Game 7

Every Sunday morning at 11am, The Tail Wag examines something that made me happy in the past week.

I cannot stand the Boston Bruins. I grew up in Connecticut as a New York Islanders fan thanks to my Grandmother having season tickets. So the Islanders were always tops. But the NHL was much different back then and the divisions were more pronounced. Yes, they have returned but in 1990, there was zero chance, basically, that the Patrick Division Islanders and Adams Division Whalers would play.

lucic bitch
That is a long-winded way of saying I was okay with rooting for the Whalers. And yeah, they sucked most of the time. But they were our bunch of sucks. It's there's always one "Let's Go Whalers" chant at every UConn football game and why Brass Bonaza gives me goosebumps.

However, there was one aspect of the Whalers that made me angry. There was a large contingent of Connecticut hockey fans that rooted for the Bruins. And whenever the Bruins took the Mass Pike to 84 for a road game, the Civic Center would be filled with annoying, loud and obnoxious Bruins fans.

And people wonder why the Whalers left?

The big, bad Bruins have returned thanks to a Stanley Cup win in 2011. As with most things Boston, the Bruins fans have been annoying, loud and obnoxious as their team returned to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, only to lose in the most glorious way possible.

This year, the cheapshot artists in black and gold had to face their long-time rivals in the Montreal Canadiens. As a fan of the NHL, I tend to root for big-market teams in the playoffs or star players because I want to see big ratings for the league. That's why I love the Blackhawks.

However, I wanted to see the Bruins lose. I loved how Montreal mocked Lucic. I loved how P.K. Subban was taking such glee in beating the Bruins. I loved this quote from him after Game 6, "It’s going to be great. I can’t wait for the crowd, the noise, the energy in the building. I can’t wait to take that all away from them,"

The best part?

They did it! They won Game 7 in Boston and made those annoying, loud and obnoxious Bruins fans walk out quietly, with their head hung low and making excuses for their season.

Lucic, the fakest bully in sports, threatened Dale Weise in the handshake line like a classless coward. It was the most satisfying ending I could have possibly imagined.

Bye-bye B's.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Classic YouTube: Bobby Vee's The Night Has A Thousand Eyes

Every Saturday morning at 11am, this post looks at a Classic YouTube video. Enjoy! 

How has no one covered this song recently?

bobby vee
The title is right there. A song about being watched when you go out at night? And this was written 50 years ago when it was literally just eyes out there. Now, as evidenced by Jay-Z and Solange, there are 1,000 types of eyes watching you at all times.

It is also a perfect pop song. If you listen to it once, you will listen to at least three more times. The hook is so catchy that it borders on unfair. You could put two decent rap verses around the hook and you have yourself a gold record.

But I'm not writing because of Bobby Vee's voice or the song's sonic beauty. Now, I'm here because of the video.

When it starts, as the music kicks in, and you see cars on a freeway, you start think this is going to be a pretty cool video. It quickly moves to a closeup of Bobby Vee on a motorcycle. Yes, it's fake and he's in front of a screen, but it's the 1960's and you're willing to forgive that. For the first 30 seconds, you're on board and you want to know where he's...

Oh my God, where is going? It is the beach party of Don Draper's hallucinations after he smokes too pot. I can't describe it because you need to see it for yourself. Then decide if your favorite is the seaweed girl, the kicking girl or the dancing handstand man.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

Was that a successful season for the Wizards?

“Who knows what their ceiling could be?”

Those were the words of Bill Simmons during NBA Countdown prior to Game 6 between the Wizards and the Pacers. It encapsulated why this now-concluded Wizards season seems like a big question.

What could have been?                                                      

beal game 6
On the one hand, it was obviously a success. They won their second playoff series in the past three decades. They won a second-round game for the first time since 1982. They have arguably the best young backcourt in the league. Bradley Beal, in particular, took a giant leap forward and did not shy away from any big moment.

Judged against the prism of the Wizards franchise, the title of this blog post is stupid and it was one of the most successful seasons ever.

Judged against this particular NBA season, it is not the success it appears to be.

The team struggled to remain above .500 in the worst Eastern Conference anyone can remember, with multiple teams tanking from day 1. They dominated a short-handed Bulls team. The Pacers, the subject of so much scrutiny over the past three weeks, dispatched them in only 6 games. The Hawks, with a losing record, took the Pacers to 7.

Most damning is that they blew two games at home against the Pacers. In Game 4, they blew a 19-point second half lead. In Game 6, they succumb to a 17-2 run in the fourth quarter after taking the lead.

That is not good. I read this excellent piece on the 2002 Kings/Lakers series and how the Kings’ window evaporated in a heartbeat when Chris Webber got hurt.

What if this was the Wizards’ big chance? The Pacers were a mess. The Heat are LeBron James and that’s it. The Western Conference is spending April and May slugging it out.

Watching the Wizards season end is so frustrating because the potential was unlimited. They should’ve beaten the Pacers. If they don’t blow Game 4. If they don’t crumble in Game 6. I’m on record picking the Pacers over the Heat because of how badly LeBron’s teammates are playing.

No one in the DC area is going to look at it like that because they can’t. The Wizards have been so bad for so long that you are expected to be content and happy with this poor performance. Why should we be easy on the Wizards in 2014 because they were so bad in 2004 or 1994?

Here’s a fact that will not be discussed in dissecting the Wizards’ playoff loss – the Wizards had better players. That should hurt! The Pacers couldn’t stay in front of Wall and they couldn’t stay close enough to Beal. Gortat and Nene, at times, brutalized the Pacers on the boards. With the exception of the Roy Hibbert Game, the Wizards were superior. And they lost.

randy wittman
This leads us to Randy Wittman, who will be back next year, and that’s not good. With Beal and Wall, the Wizards have a backcourt capable of winning an NBA title. With Randy Wittman, they have a coach who is incapable of winning an NBA title.

I was spoiled watching Kevin Ollie lead UConn to a national title in March by perfecting two of the most important aspects of coaching basketball – juggling lineups to exploit matchups and drawing up good dead-ball plays.

Wittman can’t do either.

In Game 4, the veteran trio of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Al Harrington helped build the big lead. As the game slowly slipped away, Wittman stubbornly kept leaning on them until it was too late. It reached the absurdity of Harrington taking – and missing – a ridiculous layup attempt with 15 seconds left. The Thunder are killed when All-Star Russell Westbrook takes a late shot – what about Harrington shooting instead of Wall…or Beal…or Nene…or Ariza…or…

In Game 6, Wittman stood there like a deer in the headlights as the Wizards chucked up bad three after bad three during the 17-2 run. By the time he finally called timeout, the Wizards were down 11 and the game was over.

Lastly, the lack of adjustments Wittman made in Game 6 – and all season – have been mind-boggling. The Wizards made David West look like Karl Malone by giving him open jumper after open jumper. Yes, you can live with West making a few jumpers. But then you guard him. Instead, West kept getting open looks at the corner of the free throw line and kept pouring them in. Did it ever occur to anyone on the Wizards coaching staff to prevent that from happening?

Wittman’s continued employment will be a continued reminder that Wizards fans, well, they don’t really exist. A team with a real fanbase – say, the Pacers or the Thunder – would be calling for their coach’s head after performances like that. Instead, the majority of DC fans will shrug and go read about RG3 and DeSean Jackson.

I was at the game when the Wizards clinched their playoff spot against the Celtics. It was a Wednesday night and the place was half-full, if that. There were a lot of Celtics fans. There were a family of 7 in front of me, no joke, decked out in all Kentucky gear, presumably to watch Wall and Rajan Rondo.

Fast-forward to Game 4 of the Bulls series, and suddenly instead of the 200 section, I’m in the first row of 415 and the place is jumping. The Verizon Center was live. It felt like a real NBA building.

By Game 6 of the Pacers series, there were hundreds upon hundreds of empty seats. Despite winning Game 5 by a historic margin, no one believed. Despite having an unimaginable ceiling, everyone on the ESPN pregame set picked the Pacers.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to judge the 2013-14 Wizards season as anything other than a success. Wall and Beal are too good. The team proved it could win in the playoffs. There is potential.

Alas, that p-word won’t go away. The season was a success. But it could have been so much better. 

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