Friday, February 22, 2013

A Tribute to Bloated Excess

You have to hand it to the NFL. The annual meat market known as the Combine has started and it’s generating all the excitement that the NFL expected when it decided to invite noodnik reporters inside the ropes to watch anonymous-looking faux student athletes attempt to trade in on their three or four year commitment to do the minimum amount of academic work at various Division I schools while enhancing the athletic budgets of said schools so that they could then get on with their life’s work, a 3-4 year career in the NFL that starts with them getting drafted in the fifth or sixth round and ends with them as another Bill Belichick-inspired salary cap victim.

In a completely related story, the NFL revealed Thursday that it wants to overhaul the NFL’s offseason, essentially pushing everything back a month not because it is concerned about the players or safety or anything substantive like that but because it wants to ensure it has relevant events in each month of the offseason, part of the NFL’s quixotic quest to be as ubiquitous in March as it is in October. This is a problem of the NFL’s making, like most problems in the NFL, and as usual they are crafting their uniquely NFL resolution.
  
The problem with the NFL schedule right now, looking at it solely from the point of view of the branding experts the NFL hires to help run its business, is that the event the NFL manufactured out of the Combine now bumps into the event the NFL manufactured out of its once quaint championship game. Both events now dominate February and March is now a sleepy, dead month where free agency begins and teams work behind the scenes in the run up to the event the NFL manufactured out of the draft, which takes place in April.
 
You can well see the problem, right? It’s not just that free agency, which starts in March, doesn’t generate constant coverage, though ESPN tries its damndest to make it so. It’s more that it’s not a visual event. Local television crews are reduced to tracking incoming flights to see who might be visiting Berea and where they might be having dinner but that’s good for about 30 seconds, at best, and it’s all local. The NFL gets little buzz. And for good measure, if you think it’s boring to listen to Joe Banner drone on and on about renovations to the Berea complex, wait until you hear him drone on and on in March about free agents the team won’t actually sign and draft prospects that the team has no intention of pursuing. If you’re the aforesaid NFL branding expert, is that how you really want fans in Cleveland to view your product during March? How about New England where Belichick would rather have a colonoscopy than talk to the press, be it March or December?

Step one of course was to move the Super Bowl into February. If you think it seems nutsy to play football in February in New Orleans, wait until you get the unique thrill it is to play football outdoors in February in New Jersey. But pushing the Super Bowl into February helped distance the NFL’s annual tribute to excess from the more mundane and generally more compelling playoff games that serve as the preliminaries.

Nothing and I mean absolutely nothing can beat the Super Bowl as the most uniquely American event ever. It’s the reason the Taliban hate us. It’s a Las Vegas hotel buffet on steroids shoving pancakes deep fried in lard and coated in chocolate and powered sugar down our throats. There isn’t a story too small, too insignificant to merit a 10 minute piece on Sportscenter. It’s a place where Martha Stewart mingles breezily with Snoop Dog and the rest of us act like it’s normal despite the fact that in any other context Martha Stewart wouldn’t get within two states of bumping into Snoop Dog as he entertains sycophantic white kids from the ‘burbs with his clich├ęd admixture of marijuana and misogyny.

The Super Bowl is a celebration of almost everything the NFL aspires to be, assuming it aspires only to be a money printing operation. By the time the game is actually played, most people are tuned in not for the action on the field but for the commercials in between.

The Super Bowl may have grown somewhat organically from humble roots to bloated excess but don’t think for a moment that the NFL would change a thing about it, from the staid entertainment (Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band serving as such a glaring exception that I no longer believe that they actually performed but that I imagined it, Bobby Ewing style, as the real entertainment, Styx, ran through an even more overwrought version of The Grand Illusion) to the 12 hour pre games, to the fireworks and the smoke and the National Anthem and the nip slips and, oh yea, the game. Even this year’s blackout actually seems to have been contrived to revitalize a game that was on life support at that very moment.

So, yea, the Super Bowl gets February and all the post game analysis should spill into the few weeks thereafter, that’s the theory anyway. But when the NFL branding experts pushed the Super Bowl into February its glow, which by their calculations should linger for about 18 days thereafter, was getting snuffed out by the Combine, which those same branding experts advised should likewise become an event.

That’s the sole reason, I think, that the NFL Network was invented in the first place. In its early days it offered exactly nothing of any interest to any fan anywhere. That’s still mostly true, actually. But then the branding experts hit on an idea, a perfectly wonderful awful idea. Cover the Combine. And boy do they. From the 40 yard dash to the squat thrust to the cones and to whatever other activity some Torquemada wannabe NFL assistant devised to simultaneously test and embarrass a college kid. What I’m waiting for is for the NFL to broadcast the Wonderlic test administered verbally and with real-time scoring. “What did George Washington say when he crossed the Delaware?” “Poop poop pe doop, poop poop pe doop.”

And let’s just say it and get it over with. The Combine is stupid. If it once had some usefulness it doesn’t any longer. The best prospects shit all over it by refusing to participate, a small and final act of defiance before those prospects fall under the iron fist of the NFL and the increasing fines it administers for virtually any act of noncompliance. At best it serves only to confirm what each team’s scouting department already knows and if it didn’t exist it wouldn’t matter. Teams still bring in all the prospects they want after the Combine ends to do exactly the same thing, confirm what they already know.

But the Combine does serve a larger purpose. Its phony substantive bend, and the reporters who blindly follow the narrative, make it seem as though something is happening. That in turn generates column inches and video reports on every imaginable outlet in the service of the NFL’s ultimate goal, brand awareness. It literally dominates all football talk in February; I mean all football talk once the Super Bowl is in the rear view mirror. Because there’s no turning back on the Combine, mainly because the NFL never turns back on anything, ever, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, it was only a matter of time before it got a full month all to itself. And that will happen when the NFL gets its way, which eventually it will, with the union and revamp the calendar so that the Combine is in March and the draft moves to May. That will make April the dead month of free agency and prospect probing.

I’d like to think that the NFL would cede April to baseball as it’s season opens, but I know better. I’ve been covering this hapless group for far too long already. Somewhere in a conference room on Madison Avenue some branding expert is focus grouping an idea for a Free Agency Bazaar that runs from April 4th through April 21st on Miami’s South Beach. when it happens remember you heard it here first and that now I own the copyright.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Lingering Items--Ownership Edition


There’s no real playbook for how exactly one goes about the business of actually owning a professional sports team except, of course, the requirement that you have or have access to plenty of money.  But once secured, the day to day job of owning a team is mostly a blank canvas.  Jimmy Haslam, the now-conflicted owner of the Cleveland Browns, apparently is still early on in feeling his way through the process and fans here are worried.

As you’ll recall Haslam gave up the CEO job at His Pilot Flying J truck stop empire in favor of doing whatever it is that owners of professional sports teams do.  In the few months he’s actually owned the Browns, that included quite a bit of activity.  He finessed Mike Holmgren out of town, he fired a general manager and hired another, he fired a coach and hired another, he met with city leaders and then, for good measure, he secured a nice little annuity for his team by selling the naming rights to its stadium for a 20 year term.  It was certainly more than 6 days of work.

But having crossed off those tasks from the mental list of “to dos” that he keeps, Haslam started to realize that there wasn’t much left for him to do at the moment particularly if he was going to allow the people he hired to run his football business to actually do their jobs.

So Haslam decided to push out the executive he just hired from Pepsico to run Pilot Flying J by giving him a different role and took back his old job of CEO.  It was kind of a ballsy move, actually, the kind we’re not used to seeing here in Cleveland.  Holmgren for example couldn’t muster the courage to fire Eric Mangini and put himself in as head coach when that was all he really wanted to do.  Indeed the Holmgren example is instructive.

One of the reasons Holmgren ended up being a lousy whatever the hell he was stemmed from his inability to see himself as anything other than a coach.  He lacked the guts to take the job himself when that would have served both him and the fans far better than hiring Pat Shurmur.  Holmgren thus dithered in a role he was ill suited to play, grew bored quickly and mailed in his job performance, figuratively and literally.  In that sense and with that as a data point, maybe it is good that Haslam went back to what makes him happy.

But Haslam better become more sensitive to the fan base he serves.  Fans here don’t like finding out from the local newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee that he’s had a change of heart about how he spends his day.  They wanted to hear it first hand and didn’t.  Haslam owed this courtesy to the Cleveland fans he expects to support his now hobby and not to the citizens of Knoxville who were just getting to know the new guy at Pilot Flying J.

As to the move itself, Haslam is adamant that nothing has changed regarding his commitment to the team, telling the Plain Dealer that “I don’t think anyone would question our passion, effort, intensity or devotion to the Cleveland Browns and, candidly, to Northeast Ohio.  Our family has a tremendous investment, and we want to win as bad as anybody does up there and we’re going to do whatever it takes to win.”

Not a bad rejoinder to those who would question his commitment but it would have been more effective if he had not referred to the fans as “anybody..up there.”  It probably would have been the opportune time to start referencing the collective “we” and not remind everyone that depending on the route you take, there’s one possibly two states between where his team plays and where his real passion lies.

This is where we get into the whole “how exactly does one actually go about being an owner?” discussion.

In Cleveland the last two owners have had no other job beyond owning the team and I don’t think anyone would hold either up as a model owner or a model for Haslam to emulate.  Art Modell didn’t adapt to the idle time well so he tinkered and tinkered with the team, convinced himself that he knew as much about football as anyone on the planet, and set in motion a decades long course of losing everything he built because of it.  Randy Lerner on the other hand had an immense capacity for being bored perhaps the difference from Modell being the fact that at least Modell at one time in his life actually held a job.  Lerner was like the Hugh Grant character in About a Boy, dividing each day into increments of frivolity in order to make his spectacularly inane existence manageable.

I suspect that most owners in the NFL have some outside business interests that keep them busy during the down days of the NFL, meaning mid February through mid July, but on the other hand Haslam is now one of the very few owners in the NFL who has a completely separate full time job as CEO of a pretty good sized company.  That role requires him to satisfy a whole host of constituents, not the least of which are family members with sizeable stakes in said company.  In other words, Haslam as CEO requires a fair amount of attention to that task.

Does that mean Haslam is destined to become another crappy owner of the Browns?  Not necessarily but there is pause, isn’t there?  By default, Haslam won’t assimilate very quickly if at all in the local community.  In that regard, his “up there” comment is very telling.  Then there is the elephant in the room that no one is talking about—the management team he put in place to run the Browns in his absence.  Fans seem relatively sold on Joe Banner as, I guess, club president or whatever he’s calling himself, but are less so on Mike Lombardi who, whatever his title might be, is the guy populating the team with free agents and draft picks.

Haslam as absentee-owner (and a house in Bratenhal that he says he’ll occupy once or twice a week in season doesn’t make him resident) could work but at the very least the jump he made back to the family business was too soon.  Fans have not had an opportunity to get comfortable with the team Haslam put in place and given all of the other similar teams put in place before them there’s a pretty good chance that fans will never get comfortable with them.

I think Haslam owed it to the fans to stay the course he set out, basically promised, when he became owner.  It was a bit of a bait and switch and is now another reason for fans to think that this isn’t going to work out any better than anything else that’s been tried. The fans may not be right, indeed they usually aren't, but it's up to Haslam to prove them wrong and right now he hasn't made much of an effort to do that.

**

Speaking of owners, the Cleveland Indians’ Larry and Paul Dolan are putting together a nice little offseason for themselves.  When they set out to rectify the chief criticism of them it should be noted.  And so it is that the Dolans have pumped an additional $20+ million into the payroll and hired an actual, honest-to-gosh successful manager for this upcoming season in an effort to rebuild fan faith and recapture fan enthusiasm.

For what it’s worth, it’s hard to tell really whether either of the Dolans are otherwise gainfully employed outside of their duties as owners.  They have investments certainly and other businesses but neither are acting as CEOs of other on-going concerns.  Has that helped or hurt the Indians, hard to say.  But I think the fact that they live locally assuage any concerns about their commitment to the town or team.  The concern with them has always been their financial wherewithal and their generally self-fulfilling prophesy way of running a team they purposely labeled small market so that they could justify running it in small market ways.

The Dolans haven’t become the Steinbrenners but no one expected them to.  But for the first time in years they have decided that reinvestment was needed, the growing number of empty seats around Progressive Field being a serious clue.

There’s no way of knowing at the moment whether the Terry Francono, Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher moves will bear fruit except in the Cleveland-curse sort of way that we know nothing ever works out like it should.  But rightful credit is due to the Dolans and to general manager Chris Antonetti for doing something.  They had to.  If the offseason had consisted simply of bringing in a washed up Jason Giambi and a weak armed Daisuke Matsuzaka, and we’ve had exactly those kinds of offseason in each of the last 10 years, then fans would have blown their brains out.  To put a sharper point on it, fans would have stayed away in even bigger numbers than last season and the Dolans would find themselves struggling to meet the modest attendance totals of the Indians circa any year prior to the move to what is now Progressive Field.

At this point there isn’t any question that the Indians are an improved team from the mess that was last season but just how improved is the real question.  Perhaps the biggest question though is whether this is a one year cash infusion or part of a multi year plan to actually reinvest in the franchise and get it back to where it can actually compete.

Where the Dolans have failed the fans in the past has been in not building on a previous season’s success.  That they have finally reinvested in the team is great and is applauded but it must be part of an overall attitude change and not a one time event or the alienation from the fans they feared for this year will simply be delayed by a year.

**

This all brings us to the last owner in town, Dan Gilbert.  He’s closest, perhaps, to the model that Haslam seems to be adopting.  Gilbert is a Detroit person through and through but what he’s done to overcome the perception as an out of towner has been to move some of his business operations to Cleveland.  Jimmy, are you listening?

The other thing though is that Gilbert, in the various enterprises he has going including the new casino, is perhaps the most distracted owner in town.  Has that negatively impacted the Cavaliers?  Hard to say and the reason it’s hard to say is that the NBA is by far the toughest league in which to build a team back up from the bottom.

The NBA’s history is irrefutable at this point.  Once a team sinks to the bottom it’s at least a decade before it’s competitive again and that’s assuming competent management.  You can try to accelerate the timetable but it’s rarely been done.  The salary cap and the draft lottery combine in a unique way to keep bad teams down for as long as possible.  The Cavs seem on track in that regard.

The reason Gilbert seethed when LeBron James left had everything to do with the financial impact it would have on Gilbert’s empire knowing this history.  With James out of the mix, the Cavs overnight became a bottom tier team with all of the bottom tier  perks that come with that status such as empty seats and decreasing revenues.  If the Cavs were a stand alone enterprise that would be one thing.  But the residual impact of those empty seats spills over to concessions and, more particularly, to a difficulty attracting casual gamblers to the Horseshoe Casino.  A full Quickens Loan Arena for 40+ winter nights a year translates to a lot of lost money at the gaming tables and slots.

Would the Cavs be further along if Gilbert were focused entirely on the Cavs?  Again, hard to say.  Gilbert, like Haslam, believes in hiring professionals to run the business while providing oversight that hardly requires a 24/7 level of concentration.  So Gilbert’s success, like Haslam’s, will depend fully on whether the general managers they have on hand are up to the challenge.

**
A popular question floating around this past week, given the Indians' moves, has been which local team is closest to the playoffs? The better question and this week's question to ponder is which local team is the furthest?





Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Lingering Items--Losers Edition


As compelling as Sunday’s Super Bowl ended up being, I never lost the sense, not even for a moment, that I'd be conflicted No matter who ever would end up winning. Would it be Baltimore, the city that played a desperate doddering old man like Art Modell like a Spanish guitar as they stole what wasn’t theirs because someone stole what was, or the San Francisco 49ers a team led by a former Michigan quarterback?
In the end, I rooted, and hard, for the 49ers because the Ohio State connections outweighed or at least cancelled out the Michigan influence. Mostly, though I rooted for San Francisco because Ray Lewis is a douche.
Let’s be clear on this point. I didn’t actually care who won and I wasn’t even so much rooting against Lewis and his team winning as much as I was just so sick of everything Ray Lewis that as usual he made it easy to pick against his team.
The convenient lazy postscript is that Lewis ended up being one of a handful of players who compiled a storied career and ended up going out on top. Know this much. Lewis had a storied career and Lewis' last game resulted in a Super Bowl victory for his team. But that will never mean that Lewis leaves as a winner. If there was one shining moment in an otherwise dismal outcome for the team I wanted it was watching Lewis get pushed around like the paperweight he’d become. Believe me when I tell you this, there isn’t one person in the Baltimore Ravens organization, from owner Steve Bisciotti to Ozzie Newsome to the ball boys (who may or may not be led by Eric Mangini as he tries to resurrect a career he sabotaged) who if you got a few Scotches in them wouldn’t admit that he’s glad Lewis and the circus are leaving town.
At best Lewis a distraction. At most he’s a shadow presence who played long past his expiration date. The problem is that the team couldn’t afford to bench Lewis because as the self-appointed heart and soul of the team Lewis put himself (cleverly, I’ll give him that) in a no-touch position. So now John Harbaugh and company no longer have to concern themselves with the Ray Lewis problem. They can actually put someone in there that is competent.
Lewis evokes that visceral reaction in everyone not associated with the Baltimore franchise. Watching the game and all its festivities made me realize once again what an insufferable prick Lewis really is. From the bizarre pre-game interview he gave to Shannon Sharpe, and interview in which he said that he can't be the guy people think (i.e. an accessory to double murder) because God wouldn't allow him to do so much good if he was such a bad guy, to the heavy eye black makeup that passed useful about two exits ago, Lewis is not the embodiment of what the NFL should be pushing forward but a sad, pathetic example of what the NFL has become, a sport that rails against bad actors publicly but rewards them privately.
Lewis is a poser and there are a whole generation of posers just in the NFL that got their start because they saw Mr. Ray act like an asshole while the cameras rolled during the pre-game huddle that essentially featured Lewis chanting incoherently while seemingly whipping himself into a reality-camera induced frenzy. It was always just an act.
But being a poser is hardly an egregious sin these days. In his case, save it for the abject phoniness that is all things Lewis. In his later years he became a self-described man of Christ who seems to have missed a few of the lessons along the way, busy as he was siring six illegitimate children with four different women. Then there was that whole little incident Lewis tries to so blithely shush away involving a double murder. There are plenty of articles around the internets about it so no need to recap it except to note that Lewis eventually plea bargained his involvement down to obstruction of justice, weirdly escaping prison, and then paid hefty private settlements to the families of the two slain men. No one accused Lewis of actually sticking the knife in the two victims with whom he and his posse fought but he was there, his white blood stained suit mysteriously disappeared and there was blood in his limousine. No wonder he settled.
Lewis is likely a Hall of Famer, probably first ballot. He certainly has an impressive playing resume from his early days and he’s been living off that for at least the last 5 years, probably longer. But he probably did enough in his first 10 years to warrant his enshrinement mainly because when it comes to getting elected to the Hall of Fame it’s one thing to be involved in double murder and obstruction of justice aren't nearly the barriers to entry as moving a franchise has proven to be.
**
Speaking of vainglorious jackasses that moved franchises, it was good to see that the Hall of Fame electors chose to kick Art Modell’s candidacy to the curb once again. I suspect you won’t see Art reconsidered until the senior committee lets him in a decade or two from now as an overlooked great of the game.
As with Lewis there’s no need to recount all of Art’s transgressions to make the point about why he doesn’t deserve football’s ultimate honor, not now not ever. That’s what the internets are for. But the fact that the Baltimore media keep pushing his candidacy is both appalling and a marker for why sports journalism has become a nearly worthless endeavor.
Bill Simmons, writing on his Grantland website, gave a startling confessional about the dichotomy between writing what he really feels and writing what is politically correct. It’s what’s kept him from calling out in more forceful terms the cheaters that overwhelm all our sports and instead marveling in their artificially enhanced endeavors. And as Simmons notes, he’s not alone. There’s a whole profession dedicated to doing pretty much the same thing so as to not risk its access.
It’s that same mentality that pushes the sycophantic writers in Baltimore to keep pushing Modell for the Hall of Fame. It keeps them on the inside. That they have to change facts isn't even an issue. Fox News has built an entire network on the concept that facts are debatable. Besides, they don’t want to deal in facts so much as appease an audience that doesn’t want to hear anything negative about the scumbag that screwed an entire city. I have no doubt that these same hacks using the exact same motivation would lead the charge to deny Bob Irsay enshrinement into the Hall of Fame if he was ever a serious candidate. Irsay bad, Modell good.
Guys like Modell don’t deserve to be held up as paragons of virtue. He was anything but. His life at best was a set of competing narratives. There was the good/funny Art, the guy who supported charities and such when the cameras rolled and there was a fundraiser to attend. There was the bad/deceitful Art that lied about moving the Browns and screwed his business partners. The Hall of Fame isn’t for the good/funny kind who donate to charity. Ray Lewis can lay claim to charitable works but I can guarantee you that no one will feel a need to base the decision to put him in the Hall of Fame simply because he found a way to shield income by establishing a Foundation that gave some money to some kids in need. It’s what Lewis accomplished on the field that will make or break his candidacy and so it is with Modell as well. Modell was a loser of the first order in Cleveland. All he did was run off good coaches, make one bad football decision after another, screw the city that flowed millions his way, robbed the fans of a team they blindly supported his follies, all while compiling a record that never did result in a Super Bowl victory until he moved the franchise and for once put it in the hands of those far more competent. The day that qualifies for a bust in the main wing of the Hall of Fame is the day they should shut it down permanently.
**
As it does every year about this time, well, for the last 42 years anyway, the Browns latest bunch of brass is regrouping and trying to figure out how to close the gap between themselves and this year’s Super Bowl champ.
They have their work cut out for them.
On defense I hesitate to say but say anyway that the teams aren’t all that far apart. The Browns have no one who could quite match Ngata, either in temperament or accomplishment, or Ed Reed. And while those are two are a very big presence, the rest of Baltimore’s defense was shaky at best. You could see that on Sunday, particularly when Haloti Ngata left the game.
It’s offense where the Browns have miles to go before they sleep, miles to go before they sleep. Joe Flacco was shaky this past season and then suddenly the switch went on. He played well the last month of the season but really you could actually see the difference starting with the second half of the New England playoff game. Flacco was struggling and so were the Ravens. Then Flacco put it together, his passes suddenly got crisp and he became a real leader. That carried into the Super Bowl. It helps that the Ravens offensive line is solid as are their running backs and receivers but ultimately Flaccos was the difference.
Contrast that with the Browns and you can easily understand why owner Jimmy Haslam already announced that Brandon Wheeden will face competition. Haslam learned early on that this is a quarterback-centric league and the sooner the Browns find a good one who isn't a 30-year-old sophomore the sooner they'll really begin to close the gap.
**
With the news this past week that Travis Hafner wrestled a million or so dollars out of the Yankees despite an irrefutable track record that says he won't play in even half of the games, this week's question to ponder is who will have a better record at season's end, the Indians or the Yankees.