Archive for the ‘American sport’ Category

Snowboarder’s “triple rodeo” and the YouTube-ification of sport

British snowboarder Billy Morgan landed what is believed to be the first “triple rodeo” in December while training in Colorado. At the time of writing, different edits of his stunt have attracted close to 1m views on YouTube. It is a reminder for many other sports of what it takes to get attention.

Morgan’s video was picked up initially by the extreme sports community on websites including Onboard but it soon reached the mainstream media via ESPN and, in recent days, The Sun and the BBC. Extreme sports participants have been filming each other doing tricks ever since the bulky camcorder was invented. With the improvements in technology and an awareness of the marketing potential of stunts, it’s highly likely that a spectacular move will be captured on camera. Red Bull is among the sponsors that have moved into this market (see, for example, street trials cyclist Danny MacAskill).

Spectacular moments or passages of play occur in virtually all sports but there will generally only be a couple of incidents in dozens of hours of competition that can generate significant interest on YouTube and its rivals. In the last couple of weeks clips doing the rounds have included Tim Howard’s goal for Everton from his own penalty box and Jerome Simpson’s front flip to score a touchdown for the Cincinnati Bengals.

While these types of incidents during competition are rare, there is no reason why athletes from individual or team sports can’t have a go at some types of tricks during training – not everything that succeeds on YouTube involves risking your life. Teams and sponsors have been in on the act for some time (see, for example, the All Blacks showing off their skills and quarterback Johnny McEntee of the University of Connecticut).

There is scope to do more, particularly among lower profile sports whose major competitions may not generate much TV coverage. Demonstrations of endurance, strength or flexibility can impress viewers in sports that don’t easily lend themselves to stunts. Video training diaries are now commonplace but it’s a bigger project to produce a high quality film with the potential to attract a sizeable internet audience, requiring a fair amount of planning and investment.

Coaches, athletes and fans who value tradition in sport sometimes feel that such stunts are trivial or a distraction from the main priority of preparing for competition, which is true. We might prefer it if all fans would watch the finals of the national champinoships live. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of 30 second clips available to watch which compete for our attention. For an audience used to dogs on skateboards, a “triple rodeo” is the least they expect.

Two countries divided by uncommon sports reporting

As newspapers increasingly look for online readers across national borders in their quest for advertising revenue, the challenge of catering to differing tastes in sport increases. The solution will presumably involve covering a wider range of sports and employing columnists from different countries but it’s still early days.

The Economist this week
mentions that the Daily Mail website, Mail Online had over 40m unique visitors in May 2011, up 60% on last year. Much of the increase comes from readers in America. Meanwhile, about one third of over 30m monthly visitors to the Guardian website come from the US.

Both papers are making concerted efforts to attract US readers through new overseas correspondents but the sports sections are still resolutely UK-focused. In common with other UK media, both the Guardian and Daily Mail provide a staple diet of football coverage all year round with seasonal coverage of rugby, cricket, Formula 1, golf, tennis, horse racing and others. Olympic sports such as athletics and cycling enjoy more prominence than would have been the case a few years ago due to the proximity of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The New York Times is the only newspaper which has more unique visitors to its website than the Mail Online, including many from outside the US, but its sports coverage clearly targets American readers. The top menu in the sports section lists baseball, NFL, college football, NBA, hockey, soccer, golf and tennis. The lead stories about Wimbledon in recent days are naturally about American players rather than the sole British player still in the competition, Andy Murray.

Any sports fan who has watched the global news channels such as CNN, BBC World or Al-Jazeera English will have noticed the inadequacy of their sports reports. In the first place they have to decide which sports to cover, which requires a compromise given the wide range of nationalities among the viewers. The second issue is that the global news channels frequently don’t have the necessary rights to show clips of sports events which would feature in national TV news broadcasts. As a result, the combination of match scores shown on screen and assorted clips satisfies few.

Web users who proactively seek out online newspapers from other countries probably have a particular interest in international news. There is no reason why this should not include sports news but it would require significant investment to provide adequate sports coverage to cater for readers in two or more countries.

International sports specialist news sites probably lead the way in this area. ESPN have both a US and UK version of their website with no apparent overlap in content and Eurosport maintains an impressive range of 15 national sports news websites alongside TV channels in numerous languages.

For the immediate future, newspaper sports reporting looks set to remain nationally focused. It’s a curious fact that while sport itself is inherently universal and global, sports reporting is carefully tailored to national audiences.

“Rain stops play” but should we let it?

The weather forecast for the start of the Wimbledon Championships on Monday 20 June is unsettled. Rain delays seem inevitable, much to the disappointment of spectators and TV viewers. Surely in this day and age something can be done?

Several of the outdoor sports have to suspend play when it rains, including cricket, baseball and tennis on some surfaces. Golf, football, rugby, Formula 1, road cycling, sailing and others are also disrupted by very bad weather.

Although there have been rain delays at sports events in the UK in recent days, such as the cricket Test Match between England and Sri Lanka and horse racing at Royal Ascot, overall significant progress has been made in the last few years.

The Centre Court at Wimbledon has had a retractable roof since 2009 which allows play to continue at least in one court in the event of rain or darkness. Drainage and covers at the leading cricket grounds are now so good that play can resume rapidly even after heavy rain that would have wiped out the rest of the day in years gone by. Meanwhile, horse racing has some all-weather artificial courses, field hockey is played on artificial turf and a handful of venues around the world can house football, rugby or American Football in a wholly enclosed space.

For sponsors and broadcasters, the threat of disruption due to bad weather is an occupational hazard which contrasts with the virtual certainty of indoor sport. You would think that it would be in their interests to focus more on events that are unlikely to be delayed or cancelled. However, sport’s original settings are more often outdoor than indoor and only basketball and ice hockey among leading spectator sports are always held indoors.

So what does the future hold? Research into artificial turf surfaces will no doubt continue with the eventual result that all sports played on grass will have an artificial option which is as good as grass. A few more venues like the Louisiana Superdome will be built to house team sports indoors, although the high cost will prevent more widespread adoption.

I think rain delays will continue to feature in sport because the institutions and fans enjoy belonging to a tradition. Part of the enjoyment of Wimbledon or attending a cricket match on a fine day stems from appreciating the sunshine in the knowledge that winter will arrive one day.

In any case the supporters of summer sports have it easy. Winter sport is the most vulnerable of all to the vagaries of the weather, as any ski fans will testify.

NFL lockout: what about the fans?

Now that negotiations between the National Football League (NFL) franchise owners and the players’ union in the USA have broken down, resulting in a lockout that threatens the 2011 season, only the lawyers seem sure to win.

In a move which is bewildering to outsiders, the players’ union has disbanded, become a trade association and filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against their employers.  Players are asking for more money, a reduction in training days (to reduce the risk of injury) and more compensation in the event of serious injury.  It is effectively an old-fashioned industrial dispute relating to pay and conditions between employees and management.

In common with other industrial disputes, both sides claim the moral high ground. The NFL claims that “the union left a very good deal on the table”. Meanwhile the players accuse the 32 NFL teams of “a unilaterally imposed set of anticompetitive restrictions on player movement, free agency and competitive market freedom”.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake at the moment but if the 2011 season does not take place the NFL’s $9bn in annual revenue could be lost.

One of the reasons that club owners are willing to risk a cancelled season is because the value of their profitable franchises has been rising year on year. The players stand to lose their season’s wages but they seem prepared to hold out in the hope of a better agreement. The biggest losers would be the fans and the young players who will miss the chance of getting signed. TV broadcasters and the economic activity linked to match days would also be adversely affected.

Considering that about half of the American public watched Super Bowl XLV on 6 February, it is unfortunate that the fans don’t have any direct say in the dispute. ESPN writer Howard Bryant makes the point that the world could carry on without the NFL and “the only message sports leagues understand is the message that the public will pay to watch something else”.

Both sides are willing to gamble that the public will forgive them when the dispute is finally settled. Judging from the evidence of previous lockouts in American sports (including the whole NHL season in 2004-5), fans tend to apportion more blame to players than owners. While the sport involved is damaged, recovery follows fairly quickly afterwards.

It is still possible that the NFL and players will reach a settlement in time for the pre-season preparations to take place. Until that happens it is the lawyers who look best placed to benefit.

Drug-testers catching up?

Are the drug-testers catching up? In the last two weeks French tennis player Richard Gasquet has tested positive for cocaine, LA Dodgers baseball player Manny Ramirez has tested positive for a women’s fertility drug, and the test of a frozen sample from Olympic 1500m champion Rashid Ramzi proved positive for blood-boosting drug CERA.

All are facing significant penalties. Both Gasquet and Ramzi could receive a two year ban and Ramzi is likely to lose his gold medal. Ramirez has been given a 50 game suspension which sounds a lot but amounts to only two months. 

The stories have attracted considerable media interest and a certain degree of resignation: Athletics Weekly points out that Ramzi’s behaviour was regarded as suspicious because he raced only infrequently; comment in the New York Times concludes that Ramirez’s record will forever be tarnished; and, for Le Figaro, Gasquet had recently been failing to meet the high expectations raised by his early success.

Of the three, the positive test probably matters least to Ramirez who is 36 and has already made a large amount of money. Nevertheless, there will be an asterisk beside his name in the record books. Ramzi’s name will be removed from the 2008 Olympic results and it is perhaps unlikely that he will return to top-level competition. In contrast, the 23 year-old Gasquet should be able to make a comeback but he could face a long battle to climb back up the rankings.

For the last 20 years or more it has often been assumed that most of the athletes taking drugs were one step ahead of the testers. Quite simply, out of competition testing was sufficiently rare that those inclined to cheat could restrict their drug regime to the off-season and gaps between events. But gradually the net has been closing. The much-maligned “whereabouts” rule, which requires athletes to provide their location for one hour every day of the year, makes it much harder to evade tests.

Ramzi’s positive test is particularly significant because it was one of a batch of tests carried out on frozen samples produced during the Beijing Olympic Games. Samples can now be kept for a number of years and further analysis carried out when a new test for a banned substance becomes available.

The motivations for taking recreational drugs, as Gasquet seems to have done, are obviously different from those who seek to boost their performance unfairly but the punishment is the same. Ultimately, all elite athletes have to agree to abide by the rules of competition when they participate, which include avoiding  substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency Probibited List.

Positive drugs tests are damaging because fans become disaffected, sponsors get scared off, and parents worry about the risks of pushing their children into sport. However, when there are a handful of positive tests it serves as warning for those athletes who may be considering cheating and it may reassure those who are clean that the guilty will be caught. 

Cynical, world-weary sports fans will take some persuading but the drug-testers may just be catching up.

Super Bowl Timezone Trauma

Every year in the UK there is talk of Super Bowl parties at which American expats host a few friends for a through-the-night beer and TV session. Due to the Obama factor, interest is probably as high this year as for a long time but there is a catch. The broadcast starts at 11pm. 

A few hardy souls will make it through to 3am to see the end of the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals but the number of viewers, beyond those watching 30 second news clips, cannot be large. For most other European Union countries, the broadcast is either one or two hours later than in the UK. From China through to New Zealand the Super Bowl takes place on a Monday morning. In short, it takes a lot of effort watch the Super Bowl live for anybody living outside of North and South America.

The timing is impossible for morning newspapers in Europe but it works well online. It’s noticeable that some sports journalists will be reporting from Tampa on newspaper blogs, such as the Guardian and L’Equipe

The major American sports have all made efforts, to a greater or lesser extent, to develop beyond the US market in recent years. By far the most successful is basketball, which has long had a loyal fan base in numerous European countries such as Italy and Spain (the current world champions). The influx of overseas players into the NBA from countries as diverse as Argentina and China has produced a natural news hook to drive interest.

As ice hockey is popular in north and central Europe, the NHL tried hosting early season  games in Sweden and the Czech Republic, and with some success. Baseball, which has lost its Olympic status after the Beijing Games, seems likely to remain very much a minority pursuit outside of North and Central America, Japan and South Korea. 

Despite major investment, a professional European competition in American Football has never quite worked out but NFL games held in London for the last two years have been a big hit.  As the International Herald Tribune reported, 70,000 tickets for the game in October 2009 have already sold out.

So how could the NFL really build its market around the world? In contrast to basketball, it is difficult to
recruit many overseas players because the sport is not widely played outside the US.

I have the solution. The NFL could double the global viewing audience for the Super Bowl and increase interest in the sport dramatically with one simple tactic: stage matches in the middle of the day in the US so that they are live in the evening in Europe. And I would love to be in the meeting where a TV executive suggests it.

Ultimately the very success of the American sports in their home market makes them difficult to export. Owners, TV companies and all the other companies that make money from the fans have too much to lose to risk repackaging the sports for international markets.

Tonight’s Super Bowl will be a great spectacle but unfortunately audiences in Europe, Africa and Asia won’t see it.