Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Underappreciated Tony Romo

Antonio Ramiro Romo. The name brings up mostly negative reactions from sports fans and critics alike. Why do people dislike Tony Romo so much? If you resent the Dallas Cowboys because they receive too much attention (usually undeserved), I can understand that sentiment. But what I consistently observe from Cowboys "haters" is that they take pleasure when Romo plays bad (which is rare) or when he's hurt. Even Cowboys "fans" were ready to discard him for Johnny Manziel, and make him the scapegoat for every loss. Why does Romo bring out these emotions in people?

Tony Romo is not without his faults as a player, but he's an elite quarterback. I can say that with confidence because there is not a measurement for quarterbacks in which he does not rank well in. He hasn't had the playoff success you'd like, but that's a team achievement. Tony Romo has spent much of his career on Cowboys teams that have constantly been in salary cap trouble and have compounded that by constantly giving out bad contracts. The tide seems to be changing recently, but as a result, Romo has spent much of his career playing on very flawed teams. There has been several seasons (Top-5 worst defense in league history last year), where his play has kept the Cowboys from being a bottom-feeder.

Tony Romo represents everything that is good about sports. Small town kid, with humble beginnings. Allegedly, as a youth he rode his bike in the snow in Wisconsin to sporting events (He was a 4-sport star). From there he went to Eastern Illinois, where he won the Walter Payton Award for best player in 1-AA. Despite his outstanding collegiate career, Romo went undrafted and signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Take a quick look at the quarterbacks drafted over him. For 3 years he was on the verge of washing out the league as Quincy Carter, Drew Henson, Chad Hutchinson, and older versions of Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe kept him at the bottom of the depth chart. Romo worked on his craft, and received a couple of breaks (he probably would have been the odd man out if Quincy Carter didn't fail a drug test), and ultimately rose to the top of the depth chart. The rest is history. As a player he has been given absolutely nothing. In an era of entitlement in sports, that speaks volumes.

You aren't interested in another underdog story, you say? Well what about the fact that Romo has never been in any type of trouble. His toughness can never be questioned as he's played through an assortment of injuries. I've never seen an interview where he has thrown his teammates or coaches "under the bus" despite having several reasons to over the years. Despite media backlash, he has always been cordial and respectful. He's never disrespected the game of football or a fellow opponent. He's never taken the opportunity to take shots at people who have taken shots at him. He has always been accountable for his play, and has taken accountability for teammates errors as well. If you told me to combine everything I wanted in an athlete, that guy might end up being similar to Tony Romo.

So why doesn't Romo receive the dues that his production warrants. I don't know the answer to that question. In many ways, Romo is more of an underdog than even Tom Brady. Brady was highly recruited, and played at powerhouse Michigan before an unimpressive combine dropped him into the 6th round of the draft. He gets credit for being a classic underdog and deservedly so, but why doesn't Romo. Can he not be a successful story as long as he plays for "America's Team"? Once again, I don't know the answer to that, but what I do know is that Romo is having an MVP caliber year. Casual fans probably would not have known because I don't recall if any mainstream media outlets have even mentioned him for the award. Right now his quarterback rating is 111.4, which is second only to Aaron Rodgers. Improved offensive line play and large doses of  DeMarco Murray has helped his play. Of course it has, but Romo also put up quarterback ratings over 100 running for his life behind makeshift o-lines and with no running support either. Romo suffers from confirmation bias of the fans and media. People formed their opinion of him a long time ago, and never objectively changed it. So they wait for him to make a mistake or play a bad game. Although it rarely happens, when it does that's when they come out of hiding, joyously shouting, "Look, I told you Romo wasn't really all that good"(Stephen A. Smith, I'm looking directly at you). They cling to his lowlights, despite the fact that his highlights drastically outnumber the former.

Wrapping this up, Tony Romo has been a great player throughout his career. He hasn't been perfect, but he's definitely a quarterback you should be excited to go to battle with. At the very least, Dallas Cowboys fans should at least appreciate him. Or maybe we've taken him for granted and have forgotten that Tony Romo saved us from mediocrity. I remember Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner, Hutchinson, Henson, Carter, and Ryan Leaf. Without Romo, we may have toiled in a dark place for a decade much like the 49ers did before Harbaugh. Tony Romo does not have to be your favorite quarterback, but enough is enough. Start giving the man the respect that he has earned. Keep on hating the Dallas Cowboys. As a fan of another team, that is your right, but when it comes to Antonio Ramiro Romo there should be some appreciation.

Extra Thought: I used to dislike Romo seemingly nonchalant attitude, but I've come to respect him as someone who has a great sense of priority and what's important in life as I've gotten older. The following quote is well-stated.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Is Dirk Nowitzki the Greatest Offensive Player Ever?

The answer to my title is more debatable than I imagined when I conceived of it. Is Dirk Nowitzki the most dominant offensive player or the best individual scorer? I would answer no to both of those questions. There are also several players whose absolute peak you could debate was more effective, but I think Nowitzki's body of work speaks for itself. I don't know if there has ever been a player that has had a greater consistently positive effect on his team's offense and win total (his team defense has been underrated over the years as well). I think it's easier to gauge Dirk's effect and value because he has always been his teams best AND most effective offensive player.

Long paragraph form doesn't really get my point across, so I'll give you season to season analysis and let you form your own opinion. I avoided the playoffs because it leaves too much up to variation and chance. With that said, Dirk's impressive playoff resume can be placed next to anyone. I don't believe in any one stat providing an accurate portrayal, so I used a combination of advanced stats, traditional stats, context, and team win output to paint my picture of Dirk's offensive greatness.

Rookie Season 1998-1999 (Lockout Season)
Dallas goes 19-31 in a lockout year and finishes 15th in Offensive Rating. A 20-year old Nowitzki averaged 8.2 points per game (PPG), on 41% shooting from the field and 21% from the 3-point line.  Leading Scorer is Michael Finley at 20.2 PPG.

Year-2 1999-2000
Dallas finishes 40-42 and ranks 7th in Offensive Rating. Leading the jump from 15 to 7 was Nowitzki who averaged 17.5 PPG on 46/38/83 (FG%/3pt%/FT%) splits. Finley increased his average to 22.6 PPG but his efficiency numbers were almost identical to the year before, and was instead boosted by shooting almost 3 more shots per game than the previous year. A 25-year old Steve Nash averaged 9 PPG & 5 assist per game primarily off the bench.

Year-3 2000-2001
Dallas finished the regular season 53-29 and 4th in Offensive Rating. Dirk Nowitzki lead the team in scoring at 21.8 PPG and with 47/39/84 splits. His PER (Player Efficiency Rating) skyrocketed to 22.8 and his offensive win-shares to 10.3 which was the 4th best in the league. For context about 8 total win-shares (offensive and defensive) is considered all-star level, although other factors need to be considered as well. Finley finished a close 2nd with 21.5 PPG but experienced a slight drop in efficiency and took over 300 more shots from the field than Dirk. Nash who finally broke out of his time-share averaged a very efficient 15.6 points. Howard Eisley and Shawn Bradley rounded out the top-5 in minutes per game.

Year-4 2001-2002
Dallas finished with a record of 57-25 and ranked 1st in Offensive Rating. Dirk averaged 23.4 PPG on 48/40/85 and finished 2nd in the league in offensive win-shares despite still averaging less attempts per game than Finley. Finley Averaged 20.6 PPG and Nash 17.9 PPG giving Dallas their 1st true Big-3. Dirk had a PER of 24.1, Nash was 2nd with 20.1, Finley was 3rd at 17.6 and no other member of the team finished above 15 (which according to the formula is the amount of a league average player). 1st in Offensive efficiency and having 57 wins with only 3 players considered above league average in efficiency. That's impressive.

Year-5 2002-2003
Dallas finished with a record of 60-22 and once again finished 1st in Offensive Rating.  Dirk Averaged 25.1 PPG on 46/38/88 splits. Finley and Nash chipped in with 19.3 and 17.7 PPG. Nowitzki averaged a career high 10.8 offensive win-shares and a 25.6 PER.

Year-6 2003-2004
Dallas finished 52-30 and 1st in Offensive Rating again. Dirk experience a decrease in his numbers playing mostly as a Center next to Antoine Walker. Nowitzki averaged 21.8 PPG on 46/34/88 splits. Being ranked 1st on offense while playing 3 stretch 4's simultaneously (Dirk, Walker, Jamison) was impressive. Dallas soon shipped Walker and Jamison out after 1 up & down year.  

Year-7 2004-2005
Dallas finished the regular season at 58-24 despite losing Steve Nash in free agency and long-time coach Don Nelson "stepping-down" during the middle of the season. The Mavericks finished 4th in Offensive Rating led by a resurgent Nowitzki that scored twice as many points as 2nd place on the team and averaged a career high 26.1 PPG on 46/40/87 splits. The 2nd leading scorer was a declining and banged up Michael Finley at 15.7 PPG, who was experiencing the effects of leading the NBA in minutes 3 out of 4 times from 1997-2001. Dirk finished 3rd in MVP, and 3rd in offensive win-shares. He couldn't possibly be any better, or so it was thought until the next season rolled around.

Year-8 2005-2006
Dallas finished 60-22 and reclaimed the number 1 spot in Offensive Rating (Over the 7 seconds or less Suns). Dirk led the team in scoring at 26.6 PPG on 48/41/90 splits, and Jason Terry replaced an amnestied Finley as the 2nd leading scorer at 17.1 PPG. Probably more impressive was the fact that no one on the team averaged more than 3.8 assists per game. This team was simply a product of Dirk's greatness. He led the NBA with 13.5 offensive win-shares along with a 28.1 PER and once again finished 3rd in MVP (probably should have been his 1st).

Year-9 2006-2007
Dallas finished 67-15 and 2nd in offensive rating. Dirk averaged 24.6 PPG (drop had more to do with the fact the Mavs played at the 3rd slowest pace in the league) on 50/42/90 splits. That is absurd, especially for a jump-shooter playing on a slow paced, iso heavy team (24th in assists). Josh Howard averaged 18.9 PPG and Terry was 3rd at 16.7 PPG. Dirk definitely had help but wasn't exactly playing with world-beaters either. Dirk once again finished 1st in offensive win-shares at 11.8 and won the MVP award. This season is remembered for the upset that really wasn't an upset in the 1st round (a shrewd deadline trade had given the Warriors more talent than the Mavericks), but it doesn't get appreciated for how great Dirk was this year.

Year-10 2007-2008
Dallas Finished 51-31 and 8th in Offensive Rating, which was the lowest since Dirk's rookie year. Dirk averaged 23.6 PPG on 48/36/88 splits. His 8.9 offensive Win-Shares ranked 9th in league and his 24.6 PER ranked 5th. Josh Howard peaked this year at 19.9 PPG but had almost as many shot attempts as Dirk.

Year-11 2008-2009
Dallas finished 50-32 and 5th in Offensive Rating in Rick Carlisle's first season replacing Avery Johnson as Head Coach. Dirk averaged 25.9 PPG on 48/36/89 splits. Jason Terry averaged 19.6 PPG. This season was the start of Josh Howard's injury woes as he played in only 52 games. Without him for large chunks of the season and postseason the lineup was mainly Jason Kidd, Terry, Antoine Wright, Dirk and Erick Dampier. Dirk's offensive win-shares dropped to 7.5 which was good enough for 8th best in the league.

Year-12 2009-2010
Dallas finished 55-27 and 10th in Offensive Rating. This team probably overachieved a bit, led by Dirk's super efficient 25 PPG on 48/42/92 splits. Terry was 2nd on the team at 16.6 PPG and trade deadline addition Caron Butler was 3rd at 15.2 PPG. Dirk's 8.4 Offensive Win-Shares ranked 5th in the league.

Year-13 2010-2011
Dallas finished 57-25 and 8th in Offensive Rating. Dirk once again was the leading scorer at 23 PPG and on another ridiculous split line of 52/39/89. Terry at 15.8 was the 2nd leading scorer and the number 3 scorer, Caron Butler, was lost for the season after only 29 games. Dirk somehow only finished 6th in MVP voting, but finally snagged the prestigious NBA Finals MVP after leading Dallas to its 1st Championship over the Big-3 Heat. This is another season where I think Dirk's presence was undervalued. He missed 9 games and the team went 2-7 in his absence despite playing some of the weakest teams in the league. This team had very effective high-end role players, but this was another example of Dirk's greatness. This is a team that isn't a playoff team without him, and that's a very rare thing to say about a championship team.

Year-14 2011-2012 (Lockout Season)
Dallas finished a pedestrian 36-30 and bottom tier in Offensive Rating at 22nd, easily the worst of Dirk Nowitzki's career. Years of losing free agents, and aging finally caught up to the Mavericks roster (along with a Lamar Odom trade that completely backfired). After showing up out of shape and not regaining his form until after the All-Star break, Dirk still averaged a respectable 21.6 PPG on 46/37/90 shooting splits. Jason Terry averaged 15.1 PPG and Marion was 3rd at 10.6 PPG. This team advancing to the playoffs and pushing Western Conference Champion OKC was definitely an overachievement. This team wasn't very good on offense, and Dirk is the only thing that kept this team that depended on Kidd, Marion, Haywood, Mahinmi, and a terrible Lamar Odom (all offensive inept by this point) from being an offensive laughingstock.

Year-15 2012-2013
Dirk missed the first 29 games after undergoing off-season knee surgery and only appeared in 53 games. It was only the 2nd time in Dirk's career that he hadn't played at least 90% of his team's games (in the championship year he technically only played 89% by missing 9 games). The Mavericks finished 41-41 and 14th in Offensive Rating. Dirk still led the team at 17.3 PPG on 47/41/86 splits, despite wearing a bulky brace much of the season. It is important to note that the Mavericks were once 10 games under .500 and once Dirk rounded into form, he led the team of misfits (23 players appeared in games) into contention for the final playoff spot. It seemed Dirk's days as being the number 1 scorer on a playoff team were finished.

Year-16 2013-14
Dallas rebounded to finish 49-33 and tied for 2nd in Offensive Rating. New additions Calderon, and Ellis played a role in that, but a bulk of the credit for that turnaround has to be Dirk's resurgence. Nowitzki averaged 21.7 PPG on 50/40/90 splits. Dirk ranked 7th in Offensive Win-Shares despite only averaging 32.9 MPG. He also reclaimed top-10 status in PER, True Shooting Pct, and total points.  Accomplishing this at 35 in your 16th year is unheard of. More importantly he got the Mavericks back in the playoffs where they pushed the Champion Spurs to 7 games.

Year-17 2014-2015 (12 games so far)
Through 12 games Dallas is 9-3 and ranked 1st in Offensive Rating. Dirk is averaging 19.1 points on 13.5 shots in 27.5 MPG. His splits are 53/47/85. The season is young but early signs point to Dirk being a ridiculously efficient part of a great offense. The Mavs do have some interesting offensive pieces, but nothing that makes you say guaranteed Top-5 Offense. Dirk has readjusted his form and his role (shooting more three's), and is once again playing well with a new group of teammates.

What Does It All Mean?
I for one was shocked at how consistent Dirk has played while changing coaches, and teammates over the years. For a number of years, him just being on the court seemed to guarantee a top-5 Offensive Rating and 50 wins in a strong Western Conference. He has shared the court with talented players, but his two best teammates either declined or left the team before he turned 25, so the fact that he was able to continually rack up wins is underrated. He's shown he can play offensively with any group of teammates, and does a great job of empowering his teammates to be successful as well. That's evident by him only finishing in the top 10 in usage rate 4 times, and never finishing above 6th. From 2004-2007 when he was arguably the best offensive player in the league (at least the most effective) he never finished in the top-10 in usage rate and his team averaged over 60-wins. That shows that he gave up some of his game, in order for his teammates to be effective and find their spots as well. That's the sign of a team player, not only doing what is best for him, but for the entire team and being more efficient on less shots to allow his teammates to be less efficient on more shots. It isn't rocket science as to why his teams have always played up to their capabilities or overachieved. As team players Kevin Love, Melo, and a few others could learn a thing from that (empowering their teammates that is).

With all that said, if I had the first pick to choose an offensive player, it would probably be Jordan, but Dirk would be in my Top-5. As an offensive player, he brought everything to the table: points, shooting, shot creation, passing, and being clutch while taking none off of it (relatively low usage rate, 12th in career turnover rate). I also can't overlook his total games played, and the effect he always had on his team being successful. I will agree that there are other players you could make a strong case for, but none did it alone quite like Dirk. I'm not saying that fact makes him better, but it makes it more easy to attribute credit. This is all subjective, but I think it is common knowledge that Dirk is one of the most effective offensive players ever. I think it's hard to compare eras because of different rules, and strategies but from Dirk's era I would chose him. That's not a knock on Kobe, Duncan or anyone else. I just know for a fact what I'm getting with Dirk offensively and I'm getting that almost no matter what or who I put around him.

I'm going to finish this off with a scary thought, what if Dirk had a superstar teammate, or even a consistent all-star one? How many more wins would they have achieved and how much more efficient would Dirk have been (is that even possible?). The best thing about him winning a title is that we don't have to guess "what if" for Dirk's career. I have always felt it was kind of a backhanded compliment to call him the greatest European player, or the greatest 7ft shooter. I feel like that doesn't give him his full due as a player. Dirk Nowitzki can be known as those things, but more importantly with his name should be mentioned, Great Leader/Competitor/Winner, and one of the Greatest Players PERIOD.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

How the NCAA Won a Lawsuit That It Lost

Yesterdays ruling in the Ed O'Bannon case sent ripples throughout college athletics. Some people went as far as proclaiming it the death of college athletics. When the early news broke of the ruling against the NCAA, I was skeptical and rightfully so. The NCAA almost always loses lawsuits brought against them. I repeat, the NCAA almost always loses lawsuits brought against them. The real jewel in any litigation against the NCAA has NOT been the short verdict but the extensive judge rulings. That is where the real-world ramifications of lawsuits against the NCAA is found. The O'Bannon case isn't any different and its 99-page judge ruling was a substantial win for the NCAA.

To understand the ruling, I need to quickly address the basics of the case. O'Bannon and other plaintiffs were challenging the NCAA restraints on athletics-based compensation, the cap on total financial aid, and the prohibition on compensation from outside sources (such as endorsement deals or autograph signings). The O'Bannon trial wasn't really about pay for play or athletes being paid salaries, instead it was more about increasing the value of scholarships (which are estimated as high as several thousand dollars short each year) and giving the athletes an ability to capitalize on their own image and likeness. Think of it in terms of a drama major being on scholarship, and still being able to receive compensation for commercial or movie appearances (completely legal by the way).

The proposed solutions of the O'Bannon trial were to raise the limit on grant-in-aid funded by licensing revenue (not federal dollars), create a trust fund where schools could deposit a share of licensing revenue to be paid to student athletes after they graduate or leave school, and allow student athletes to be compensated for third-party endorsements. The judge ruled in favor of the first two propositions, but rejected the last one as a means of protecting student-athletes from "commercial exploitation" (very ironic statement). The third and final proposition is probably the most important one, in regards to money and power. It was the key proposition in deciding the true fate of the case. If athletes were given complete control, it probably would have ended college athletics; if athletes and the universities were both able to profit off of likeness, it would have been a real win for the athletes. Not being able to receive compensation for third-party endorsements clearly made the trial a win for the NCAA and member institutions.

I'm of the opinion that institutions should be able to profit off of a "student-athletes" likeness as sort of a compromise in return for a scholarship and the various perks that come with it, but they shouldn't hold complete control over an athlete's likeness. Take Johnny Manziel, who was probably the most famous teenager in America two years ago. How much could he have made off his likeness from corporations looking for a young spokesman for a product? I don't even know how to quantify the amount. Now he's a professional athlete and well-paid, but what if his career fizzles, what if he was at his peak brand value as a collegiate athlete? Is it fair to punish, or in this case make a player wait, to capitalize on their own brand despite knowing how fleeting brand value can be? I believe that limiting an athlete's ability to capitalize off of his own name and image is un-American, but apparently that is the new norm nowadays. Now I know some believe that since previous generations athletes weren't able to profit off of their image, that it is fine now too, but in past generations athletes weren't apart of a billion dollar industry run by Corporate America. If anyone is to "blame" here it is the universities that sold out on integrity to be pawns of Corporate America for the all-mighty dollar.

So what exactly does the O'Bannon decision mean for the future of college athletics, specifically football and basketball? In the short term, nothing really, although some could argue that it is the "first cut" to the current model of college athletics since schools have now been put on notice that licensing dollars aren't completely their own. I don't think it is a coincidence that this decision was reached after the Power-5 Conferences (ACC,SEC,PAC-12,Big-10,Big-12) were granted autonomy over their own legislation the day before. The Power-5 conferences had previously already agreed to many of the concessions of this lawsuit, but were outvoted by the smaller conferences that didn't have the funds to increase their financial aid packages and feared being unable to recruit quality athletes because of it. Basically, all the changes the lawsuit brought about were inevitable, to make it even better for the NCAA the judge ruled that they could also cap those increases as well. The major powers (Texas, Ohio State, Florida, etc) can easily afford the new requirements with little consequence and still retain absolute power over the athletes.

Until The NCAA allows the players to actually profit off of their own likeness from third-parties, the players will still be nothing more than chess pieces, and will continue to be maneuvered as such. It also will continue to penalize athletes from poor backgrounds (the ones who would benefit the most from being able to make some cash off of their likeness), and did nothing to lessen the environment for scandal and improper benefits that still exist. My hope is that this is a step in the right direction, and the Power-5 Conferences will use their new autonomy to really address some of the fundamental issues of college athletics, not just monetary but academic as well. I'm very aware that college athletics and the NCAA aren't all bad (I'm a proud beneficiary of the system), so I hope positive changes continue so that the model will still exist in some form. I think it is safe to say that the college athletics Doomsday meter has been reset back a couple of years.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Capitalism" and The NBA

A major theme that has dominated sports media this summer has been a divisive debate about whether NBA players should take "pay cuts" for the greater good of their team. Proponents against this system argue that the owners have artificially limited players earnings through a salary cap that is seemingly based on arbitrary numbers. That isn't accurate at all, as the salary cap is based on splitting the amount of Basketball Related Income (BRI) 49-51, which is down from the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which insured a 57-43 split for the players. In short, that means that of however much money was generated the previous year in basketball related income, 49% of that number is guaranteed to the players for the next season. That is the soft cap number, and does not include the effect of teams over the cap and teams paying the luxury tax. While previous year numbers are generally expected to be lower, those are the most recent available numbers, and it would be dangerous for either side to make a salary cap off of projections. When you include over the cap and luxury tax teams, the BRI is pushed over the 50-50 threshold in favor of the players. Of course the owners seemingly benefit more because there are 30 of them vs about 450 players but you won't find a more generous split in any other industry period.

Now back to the debate on whether players should take "pay cuts" for the greater good of their team, and to me in depends on context, every situation isn't black or white. Dirk Nowitzki is able to take a pay cut because he has made over $200 Million for his career in a state with no state taxes. Other players, especially guys getting their first and only guaranteed big contract, should place more importance on the amount of money. A term in the NBA that is taken out of context is "pay cut". You've probably noticed by now that every time I've mentioned it, I've made sure to put the term in quotations. That is because there is a distinct difference between taking a real pay cut and taking a very substantial market level deal, which may not be to the highest bidder. It only takes one team to overbid and I don't blame the player for taking that offer ever, but you can't really say that that's the player's true value either.

What if I told you that the San Antonio Spurs have never emphasized "pay cuts". Instead, they do a great job of offering their players extensions early and offering them fair contracts for what they've done and what they might do. These contracts rarely ever take into account the player making a ridiculous jumps in play and production and if that happens (which is rare as well) they end up looking like bargain deals. A perfect example of this is Tony Parker's 4-year $50 million extension he signed in 2010-11. He was 28 years old and coming off a down year due to injury, and had been an all-star 3 times in 10 years. He probably would've ranked somewhere between 25-30 on top NBA Player's lists, with Rose, Nash, CP3, and Deron clearly considered better than him, and younger players such as Rondo, Westbrook and others challenging his superiority.  He had almost been traded, and was in a situation very similar to Kyle Lowry, who just signed a 4-year $48 million deal. Well no one would have guessed at the time that he would not only regain all-star status, but jump past superstar into legitimate MVP candidate (finished 5th and 6th in 2012 & 2013) and become arguably the best PG in what was the other players, excluding Steve Nash, prime. Well revisionist like to point out Parker taking a "pay cut" which simply wasn't the case. Has he outperformed his deal? Yes, he has but that wasn't a sure thing when it was signed. Look no further than the terms of the contract as proof. This year, which is the final year was only partially guaranteed for $3.5 million. No player with leverage accepts a "pay cut" and a partial guarantee in the final year.

The Spurs have done a good job of avoiding free agency in general, which is smart as it is a seller's market. Shorter contracts, and increasing caps have only added to that. Smart general managers in any sport, mostly avoid free agency because you are overpaying players for their actual value (for the most part). There's no surprise that the Spurs feature a deep team and none of their players were considered prized off-season free agent additions (Marco Belinelli, who finished 2nd on the team in regular season minutes, only received a portion of the Mid-level Exception).

Admittedly the Spurs example is a hard example to follow, and it should come as no surprise that majority of their players grew up outside the continental United States. This isn't a Black VS. White thing, but a culture aspect. America's culture of "Capitalism" tells its citizens that the best deal is the highest one and to maximize your revenue as much as possible, even if that is going from $3.5 Billion to $3.7 Billion. The flaw in that is that there is a finite amount of wealth being distributed, while capitalism assumes there is an infinite amount of wealth. Obviously money is important to every culture, but in other cultures receiving a fair deal is considered a good deal. The only good deal in America is the one-sided deal in your favor. You have to look no further than America's domestic and international policies.

Enough about politics, but it does affect the NBA. Owners and players alike are playing a tug of war for who can rip off the others more and obtain the most power. American players almost always avoid a fair extension and instead are determined to make it to free agency where they hold the leverage and command more money than their play is valued at. Look at Gordon Hayward, who declined a 4-year $48-$50 million extension and parlayed restricted free agency into a max contract offer at 4-years $63 million. At his current level and assuming reasonable increases, that original contract is more than fair and in no way could constitute a "pay cut". It's just that players know they can enter free agency and all it takes is one team with money and no hope of obtaining a true star (a topic for another day) to offer them a max contract. Once again, I don't think you can blame the players, but I also don't think it is absurd for management to try to offer them extensions before free agency closer to their  true values. This leads to two different and important cases this off-season, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.

I had more to write about Carmelo and LeBron than I originally thought. So I decided to break this post into 2-parts. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Is Track and Field Really a Professional Sport?

I read a recent article in the Indianapolis Star that posed this same question. The article went on to mention how for Usain Bolt it is as he racked in over $23 million, but that more than 50% of athletes ranked in the World's Top-10 make less than $15,000. I was stuck on that line for a while, "World's Top-10 make less than $15,000". I don't think the Top-10 in any occupation in the world makes as little as that. The Top-10 ranked fry cooks at McDonald's make more than $15,000 a year.

So in that sense I would have to say that track and field isn't a professional sport, not for most at least. The whole basis of being a professional athlete is being someone who is paid for play, simple as that. There's actually ranked track and field athletes that lose money on being a "professional". So how did such a long-lasting and proud sport find its way into a predicament where many of the top athletes are forgoing the professional route because they can't afford it. I will explore a few possible reasons for this.

1. Nike's Monopolistic Power Has Stagnated The Sport. Without Nike there is no professional track and field, so it's hard to blame the apparel giant for the sport's dire situation. Nike wields almost absolute power in the sport in America. United States Track and Field even receives a significant portion of their funding directly from Nike. Most athletes strive for a Nike contract in order to compete, so simple supply and demand tells us that Nike can offer (lowball) athletes any amount and they're almost forced to accept it. You can see how this has stagnated the earnings of the athletes. Detailed market analysis might say an athlete is worth $50K to Nike, but there is nothing stopping Nike from offering them $20K or even less.

This is where it gets complicated, because Nike is first and foremost an apparel company before anything else. Imagine the value of the advertising they are getting by having elite level athletes wearing their gear for cheap. Casual runners (a very significant portion of the population) see what the elite athletes are wearing and buys all the Nike merchandise they can find. I believe for the most part that track and field athletes are only being used as "cheap models" of Nike gear and equipment. Everyone is familiar with the term "track body". Consumers see these fit athletes and their gear, which is usually Nike, and makes a correlation between the two. These consumers then spend hundreds of dollars emulating the athletes. Nike wins, the small payouts they give to most track and field athletes are a small expense compared to the return on investment.

2. The Shadow of Football and Basketball. Those two sports specifically cast such a big shadow over the rest of American sports. ESPN and other sport networks would much rather run a detailed story of what LeBron ate for breakfast, or whether a professional franchise is cursed opposed to covering great track and field meets. Texas Relays, every NCAA Regional, and even select conference meets could be shown on television. What I found out over the years is there are a lot of track and field fans, but the coverage for track and field is lacking. It makes being a fan more of a chore than an enjoyment as you have to "find" results, articles, etc. We're told that viewers aren't into certain sports but how will we know unless we actually showcase them a bit. I think networks would be surprised. I love watching football and basketball, but I would much rather watch a track meet or hear track analysis and coverage than whether Carmelo is going to opt in to his contract or will Johnny Football stop partying long enough to learn his playbook.

I also think the current model of trumping up the Olympics every four years isn't really helping the sport. It has created this ideology that if it is not the Olympics than it is not significant. Lolo Jones no matter how you feel about her, career is constantly being overlooked because she didn't win an Olympic title despite her numerous other accolades. There's nothing comparable to winning a gold medal in team sports, so comparing an Olympic gold medal to team championships is flawed. It's just not a good recipe for success. I'm two classes and a thesis away from my Master's in Sport Management, and I can tell you that when you want to sell a sport and increase people on the usage escalator into high usage people, you do not focus only on the pinnacle moments. Anyone will purchase a well-priced Super Bowl ticket, but can you get them to the games in mid-October? The Olympics are the pinnacle of athletics, but you don't want to undersell the non-Olympic events in order to promote the grandness of the Olympics. In short, you want people paying attention more than every 4 years, especially if you want to increase income since corporate sponsors rake in the Olympic dollars. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Corporate Sponsors. Every sport has corporate sponsors that benefit, they would have no reason to be a sponsor if that weren't the case, but in no other "professional sport" is the split so unequal. There are rumors about track and field athletes unionizing and making a Collective Bargaining Agreement and I'm not sure exactly how this would work with a sport like track and field. Would the corporate sponsors be considered the owners? What I do know is that CBA's normally guarantee the athletes a certain percentage of the revenue generated, usually between 40-55 percent. The current structure of track and field right now is probably about 90-10 and that is being generous. Then you have the spectacle which is the Olympics, that the athletes make nothing off of, while corporate sponsors make hundreds of millions. Not proposing Olympic athletes get paid for making the team but maybe there should be a purse for events. In the ancient Olympics, the athletes competed for prizes that were very valuable, plus we've already eliminated the sham of amateurism in the Olympics. I know for many this would hurt the perception of the Olympics, but I'm not focused on perception right now, just throwing out possible ideas to rectify a flawed system. Plus, I don't think making a bit of money changes the pride in competing for one's country. Maybe instead of getting paid directly athletes could receive a certain amount of funding up until the next Olympics. I competed for UNC on a full track and field scholarship and I can assure you that I had pride in competing for my school. It didn't make me a mercenary and it won't make these professional athletes receiving a stipend or funding less prideful in their country. 

4. Track and Field Runners/Meet Directors and Fans. Simply put, track and field athletes have to do more to grow their own sport. Some of that is simply showing more support for your sport outside of competing. In college, I had teammates that would complain about having to arrive at track meets early, but would spend a whole day at a football game and related activities. I'm not saying that track athletes can't promote other sports, but I am saying that you can't complain if you aren't doing more to support your sport either. Show up at local middle school and high school meets, I'm willing to bet that the parents and kids would return the support as well. We fill up several 100,000 capacity stadiums each Saturday, and then fill up 70,000 stadiums the next day during football season, we can do a much better job of attending other track and field meets.

The big money is in television contracts, but more spectators increase brand value which can help get more T.V. money in the future. Also track and field needs to do something to make meets more watchable. Implement more scored meets, not offer certain long distance races at every meet, limit the amount of jumps at some competitions, etc. I'm a track and field enthusiast, so I don't mind watching a steeplechase or 3K (the 10k does get a bit unwatchable) or watching triple jumpers get all 6 jumps or pole vaulters and high jumpers slow incremental progressions. To an outside viewer, it seems too slow paced. Some of those events extend for hours and it appears that the jumpers are merely jumping into the same place or the same height unless you have a keen eye for track and field. I'm not proposing changing everything about the sport to make it more watchable, but over the years football, basketball, and baseball were all willing to make changes to keep their sport spectator friendly. If track wants to be a professional sport it has to do the same.