THE FIVE TYPES OF US FANS RUINING SOCCER FOR EVERYONE ELSE

Photo by Jia Wertz

Photo by Jia Wertz

I’ve always been curious why American sports fans have been so slow to love soccer with the same passion as the rest of the world. The most common explanations for our soccer apathy – Americans grow up playing other sports, have a saturated sports market, and until fairly recently didn’t have a competitive national team-are all true but don’t feel like a complete explanation for why so many Americans still look at this World Cup as just a pleasant way to pass the time before the start of “real” football season in the fall.

The answer seemed so elusive until I spent a few weeks talking soccer with American friends and fans ahead of my trip to Rio de Janeiro and then it suddenly became obvious as Cristiano Ronaldo’s contempt for his teammates:

Hardcore  American soccer fans are incredibly irritating and the last type of people  new fans of the game would  ever want to sit next to at a bar.

Now hold on, before all you soccer people start throwing Robben-style temper tantrums as if you’ve been bitten by Luis Suarez (awesome name drops by me), pay to attention to what I am NOT saying:

  1. I am NOT implying that American fans don’t know the game. In fact, the opposite is true,which is kind of part of the problem.
  2. I am NOT arguing that American fans lack passion. The level of passion is again also part of the problem
  3. I am NOT saying that soccer isn’t a great game beloved by billions. It is. I acknowledge that so save all your World Cup vs Super Bowl stats
  4. I am NOT speaking as a person who doesn’t like soccer. True, I’ll probably always prefer hoops and football but I appreciate all the things that make soccer a great game.

So calm down, spare me your “soccer is so much better than [insert any human activity]” messages, and see if you are among the:

 FIVE TYPES OF US FANS RUINING SOCCER FOR EVERYONE ELSE

1. The Defeatist.

The Defeatist in Action. Photo by Jia Wertz

The Defeatist in action.
Photo by Jia Wertz

These are the world futbol sycophants who think the quality of even the worst team in Europe is better than every single team the US has ever had. The Defeatist attaches a conversational asterisk to every American success with “wait till we play The Netherlands or Germany then you’ll see real futbol (they also pronounce football as “futbol” as if they weren’t from Connecticut).

Enough.

The truth is there was not a single team in the World Cup that the US could have defeated that would have be a bigger surprise than a collection of college and minor league hockey players defeating one of the most powerful teams ever as the US did when it beat the Soviets at Lake Placid.  I watched every second of Germany v USA at Copacabana in Rio among tons of German fans sweating bullets that we were going to win.

We are not far off so stop measuring progress by the quality of our losses and taking moral victories from noble defeats.

Photo by Jia Wertz

Photo by Jia Wertz

2. Superiority Complex Fans: Soccer players run more than any other athletes. Soccer is the most sophisticated sport. The Super Bowl is only big in the USA but the rest of the world doesn’t care. Soccer is so beautiful to watch because its just like life.  I could go on though I imagine that if you’re like me then you’re probably ready to hurl your computer out the window.

If soccer is so free from blemish then why do Superiority Complex Fans feel the need to be such obnoxious pests in reminding us all the time? I think soccer is great but imagine if Zoe Saldana spent your entire conversation explaining why she is so beautiful? You’d barely be able to tolerate your next ten dates with her. These people are the bastard siblings of…

3. Inferiority Complex Fans: Here is the thing that confuses me the most about American soccer fans: why do they care so much about who else likes soccer? What is it about rooting for soccer in America that makes its fans so damn insecure? Talk to any of these fans for more than thirty seconds and you get hit over the head about how soccer is the biggest sport in the world, and more kids play soccer than football and three times more people watch the World Cup than the Super Bowl etc. etc. etc.

Photo by Jia Wertz

Photo by Jia Wertz

So what?

If you like soccer, then just like soccer and stop lecturing the rest of us. When you meet an American football fan, even a stupid one like an SEC fan, and tell them you don’t like football, you don’t get a speech about why you should. Tell an American soccer fan you don’t like soccer though then pull up a chair and get ready for conversation more painful than talking to someone who loves kale.
4. Bob Dylan Soccer Fans: I once told a friend that I never really got into Dylan’s music because his singing too often sounded like unintelligible warbling. After recoiling in horror that I would ever voice a criticism of “Bob” my friend actually said, “if you don’t like Bob Dylan its because you don’t understand the complexity and nuance and artistry.” This person was so emotionally invested in the sanctity of Dylan that they interpreted any criticism at all as a problem of ignorance without considering the validity of the argument.

I know Bob. I know.  But your fans still you and the USMNT. Bottom photo by Jia Wertz

I know Bob. I know. But your fans still love you and the USMNT. Bottom photo by Jia Wertz

Bob Dylan soccer fans operate the same way: Think the game is too slow? Its because you’re too impatient. Too much flopping and diving? You don’t get the gamesmanship. Think the sport should be doing more to fight racism? It’s better than it was, you’re just new to the game. Match fixing is so endemic that it threatens the legitimacy of the sport? Crickets.

Just because soccer is adored doesn’t mean its beyond reproach and just because a guy in a KC Chiefs hat is saying that the concept of stoppage time is idiotic doesn’t make it any less true.
5. Indie  Band Soccer Fans:You know that person who takes special pride in saying that their favorite band (or worse yet favorite DJ) is some group that only they and the band’s family members know exist? The human earwig lecturing about how you shouldn’t listen to the radio and “corporate music” because its not real art like what’s’ being played by some guy on a Macbook in Prague? Then when that guy finally gets mainstream popularity their original fans resent the new fans for being too late in recognizing his greatness?

Photo by Jia Wertz

Photo by Jia Wertz

Congratulations, you’ve just met the Indie Band Soccer Fan. These are the guys who have been yammering incessantly about the greatness of soccer but are now angry at the supposed ignorance of all the people who decided to finally heed their advice and watch the  game albeit with a few thousand friends in a local park while expressing bewilderment at why offsides is a penalty instead of strategy.

Look, I get it. Soccer was your secret little underground indie band that instantly made you cool when everyone else was into football/U2 and basketball/Jay-Z. I understand, I was into Mos Def and MF Doom back in ’98 so I see where you’re coming from. But think of it this way: right now in some hipster bar in Brooklyn is a guy annoying the hell out of everyone about the time he saw My Morning Jacket play in front of 12 people. Don’t be that guy.

 

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WANT TO RID THE NBA OF TANKING? GET RID OF THE DRAFT

Tanking, the strategy of losing as many games as possible to improve draft position, has never sat well with me. Fundamentally, its contrary to my sense that every team should try to win every game it plays. So I’m pretty solidly in line with Herm Edwards on this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W42iiCcFbxE.

When the NBA combines teams that are purposefully non-competitive with too-often shaky officiating, it pushes the league perilously close to professional wresting, an athletic enterprise with no competitive value or genuine drama. That drama only exists when there is uncertainty of what will happen when competitive teams pursue the same objective.  If that uncertainty is undermined because some teams decide to simply not compete, then there is no drama and no reason to watch something that suddenly starts to feel less than legitimate. That threat to legitimacy is the true danger of tanking and no league can afford to have its authenticity called into question.

Beyond the damage to the league’s credibility, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that tanking for draft picks isn’t even an effective strategy to build a championship team. Seven different franchises have won the NBA championship since 2000 and none of them acquired the key pieces of their team by tanking to get high draft picks:

  • Los Angeles Lakers 2000-2002: Shaq and Kobe landed in Los Angeles via trade.
  • San Antonio Spurs 2003, 2005, 2007:  Tony Parker (28th pick) and Manu Ginobili (57th pick) were late selections well outside the lottery and though Tim Duncan was a No. 1 overall pick, contrary to revisionist history, the Spurs got him through blind luck rather than tanking.
  • Detroit Pistons 2004: Cobbled together a champion with Tayshaun Prince, drafted 23rd, as the only one of their five best players drafted by the team.
  • Miami Heat 2006: Led by Dwayne Wade (5th pick) with three starters acquired by trade and the fifth (Udonis Haslem) signed as an undrafted free agent.
  • Boston Celtics 2008: Aggressively tanked games to improve their lottery odds of getting Duncan in 1998. They didn’t win the top pick and suffered another decade of irrelevance before they won a championship with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, players they got in trades.
  • Los Angeles Lakers 2009, 2010:  The post- Shaq Lakers won another two championships with Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, all acquired through trade.
  • Dallas 2011:  Dirk Nowitzki (9th pick) was the only starter drafted by the team. The remaining four starters were acquired in the draft or free agency.
  • Miami Heat 2012, 2013: Our current champion the pulled of the most infamous coup in league history by signing both Lebron James and Chris Bosh in free agency.

Add in the uncertainty of high draft picks morphing into superstars while playing with the team that drafted them and its fair to think that teams would be better served by trying to be competitive while improving their team through free agency, solid player selection regardless of draft position, and team continuity.

And oh yeah, at least attempting to be competitive serves the clearly less important (in the minds of tanking GMs) goal of not antagonizing and alienating your fan base.

So what to do? How can we remove the incentive to pursue the dubious tanking strategy without damning teams to mediocrity while also maximizing the season’s drama?

Through two easy steps.

First, adopt Bill Simmons’ idea of the Entertaining as Hell tournament. I won’t do a deep dive into the tournament concept since you can read about it at http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6749669/if-ruled-nba-world.   The gist of the idea is to hold a single elimination tournament among all the teams that finish below the seventh seed. The winner of the tournament gets the eighth seed. Having a chance to jump into the playoffs at the end of season will infuse the NBA with March Madness style excitement and discourage tanking since every team will have a chance to sneak into the playoffs right until the end.

The second and more revolutionary step?

ELIMINATE THE NBA DRAFT

Here’s what we’ll do: eliminate the draft and replace it with a three week signing period after the Finals during which any team can sign any player not in the NBA who agrees to play on their squad. Each team will be allowed a hard salary capped pot of money that it can use on players over a two-year period. The new-player cap would be renewed after the two-year period and have no an impact on the existing salary cap structure for players already on the team.  Roster sizes would also remain the same.

So if the Heat choose to spend 60% percent of their new player budget on Wiggins, and he agrees to play there, both parties are free to make it happen. However, that would leave the Heat with only 40 % of their new-player budget to spend on other non-NBA players during the current and next signing period. The cap will prevent attractive big city teams from cornering all the talent and allow players to have the same right of self-determination that every other job seeker enjoys.

Shedding the draft will also place a premium on smart, effective, management, which is the real key to building a contender. Most importantly, it aligns the incentives of the game with the most desirable outcome of the sport, which should be maximum competitiveness on and off the court.  With no carrot attached to accruing losses, teams will focus on being competitive enough to either make the playoffs as a top seven team or navigate the play-in tournament for the final playoff spot.

I know what you’re thinking.  Won’t eliminating the sacrosanct draft, the presumptive ladder to success, relegate poor, small market teams to be steamrolled year after miserable year?

Nonsense.

The draft has been in place for the entirety of the existence of the Wizards, Raptors, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors, and Bobcats who have a collective lifetime winning percentage of just .411, which amounts to 34 wins per season. In other words, a quarter of the league has been consistently horrible so lets divorce ourselves from the myth that the draft uplifts bad teams.

Bad teams get better when management gets smart enough to capitalize on opportunities provided either by luck or savvy. However, smart management is de-emphasized by a disjointed, lottery-based draft system. Besides, why should crappy mismanaged teams get rewarded for ineffective management with high lottery picks that they can then continue to mismanage? Teams should be rewarded for success not ineptitude.

While we’re here, lets not forget that the draft is just downright un-American. In no other segment of society are businesses allowed to conscript employees into their company regardless of the desire of the recruit. Why should Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker have to begin their professional careers in Charlotte or New Orleans simply because those teams won a lottery? Would we ever tolerate Goldman Sachs controlling the vocational rights of a business school grad simply because the company won a lottery based on weighted degrees of incompetence?

The NBA game is best when its inventive, bold, and aggressive and the same approach should be applied to getting rid of the draft and getting rid of tanking.

WHY UNIVERSITIES SHOULD NOT PAY COLLEGE ATHLETES

Last Friday Houston Texans running back Arian Foster admitted to accepting money as a player at the University of Tennessee in violation of NCAA rules. This admission came after an offseason of hand wringing about Johnny Manziel allegedly getting paid to sign autographs at Texas A&M and Time Magazine’s Sept. 16 cover story arguing in favor of paying college athletes. Each story reflects a growing consensus that college athletes-particularly football players- should be paid.  At first glance, that thinking makes sense considering the millions of dollars generated by football behemoths like Florida and Ohio St. on the backs of players who not only don’t get to share in the revenue they generate, but are in many cases struggling to pay rent. Toss in the hypocritical and byzantine rule structure of the NCAA and it seems pretty clear that college athletes should be paid right?

Wrong. Here are the four most important reasons college athletes should not be paid.

1. Only 19% of college athletic programs are profitable; Just 56% of D-1 football programs make money

When people think of big-time college athletics, they picture 100,000-plus people in football stadiums at places like Texas where the nation’s wealthiest athletic program routinely turns a profit of approximately $30 million. However, profits at that level are much more the exception than the rule. According to the NCAA’s 2004-2012 report on intercollegiate finances, 81% of all college athletic programs had operating deficits.

Not only do college athletic programs not pull their own weight financially, they divert university resources while trying; 71% of college athletic programs received some level of subsidy from their university. At the top level, 20% of FBS (formerly known as Division I) athletic program revenue is subsidized by the university. The subsidy reaches 71% in FCS athletics (formerly Division II).  Why does this matter? Paying college football and basketball players would mean that all university athletes would have to receive compensation. This includes the women’s golf team and the men’s polo squad. Where would universities get the money to pay, for example, female athletes when in 2012 not a single Division I one women’s athletic program generated a profit and the median deficit for women sports was $7.3 million?

Since paying college athletes so often devolves into a discussion of major program men’s football and basketball players, what is the capacity of those programs to pay players?  In 2012, only 56% of Division I football programs generated a profit. Of the 44% that didn’t, the median deficit was $3.3 million. Only 53% of men’s basketball programs made a profit with a median deficit of $1.1 million among the 47% that didn’t.

2. College athletes are already compensated

In 2013, college students will graduate with an average student loan debt of approximately $25,000. That burden will influence their job choices, when they choose to get married, and when or if they can buy a house. One subset of students-scholarship athletes- won’t be saddled with any of those challenges. The all-in cost of attending school at a Top 25 football program is about $100,000 for in-state tuition and nearly $150,000 for those paying out of state costs. Add to that the value of future earnings a degree will enable the student to earn and its not as though anyone can make the argument that college athletes are not compensated.

The only remaining question is are they fairly compensated? Quick: who is the second string right guard at Texas A&M? Don’t feel bad, I had to look it up too (congratulations Garrett Gramling). The indelicate point is that even though he and the other mostly anonymous players of college football work just as hard as Johnny Manziel and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, no one other than their friends and family is coming to see them play. Fans at big time programs pack the stadium to see the stars. Universities shouldn’t pay even more money to players who are not individually responsible for generating revenue.

But what about those stars? Should the university pay revenue-generating players? I don’t think there is anything wrong with any player making money off his own skill or fame. If someone wants to pay Manziel to write his name on photo then he should be allowed to take advantage. After all, he should own his own likeness (as the O’Bannon case will make clear) but schools shouldn’t be in the business of negotiating salary schedules with so-called amateur athletes. This is because….

3. College athletics has nothing to do with college should be abandoned

Full disclosure: If Syracuse University turns their season around and miraculously makes it to a BCS game, I’ll be among the first to organize a viewing party with my fellow alums. But I’ll do so fully cognizant of the fact that college athletics has nothing to do with college.

The University of Alabama has won consecutive national championships and is the number 1 ranked football team in the country. This is the university’s mission statement: “To advance the intellectual and social condition of the people of the State through quality programs of teaching, research, and service.”  Nowhere in that mission statement does it mention football, basketball, soccer or baseball.

In 1939, the University of Chicago abandoned college football because the school president believed that the pursuit of college football would distract the university from education and research. Given the exponential growth of college sports over the last 74 years, it’s unlikely that big-time sports is any less distracting to education now than it was in 1939.  For what its worth, U.S. News and World report ranks the University of Chicago as the fifth best university in the country. Alabama? 86th.  Among the top ten universities in the ranking, only two  -Stanford and Duke- play major college football and basketball.

4. Paying players just worsens a larger inequity: colleges are subsidizing the NFL’s minor leagues

The NFL is a multi-billion business whose monstrous profitability is enhanced by being the only major professional sports league with a free minor league player development system. College athletics are already largely unprofitable and irrelevant to the purpose of school. Why should we promote deeper inefficiency and inequity by having cash strapped athletic programs pay even more money to develop the labor force of the most profitable sports league in the nation? If amateur football players are to be paid, it should be within the structure of an NFL operated minor league system.