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It’s not easy being green

5 May

Despite ridiculous debate about their wall climbing antics, Vancouver’s Green Men will be back in full force for Game 4 of the Canucks – Predators series. And their glass work will likely arouse more fanfare than usual seeing as they’ve become media sensations.

The Province reported yesterday that the pair had this week done CBC, ESPN, local Nashville print and radio, and even the Jim Rome Show and Pardon the Interruption. All that’s left for the boys is a spot on The View. Now that’d be a show!

Why American sports need to stay American

12 Mar

The Big Four sports leagues thank you for your support over the years  – you’ve been great!

But out of interest, have you got any wealthier, better looking, easily pleased friends – preferably with a cool foreign accent? Just a little routine check – the head honchos back at league HQ are putting out the feelers because while things are extremely good right now, well, you know, they can always be better.

Contrary to what you might think, multiple revenue streams in the billions, enormous fan bases, mass cultural appeal, and the general economic influence that comes with being one of the primary entertainment products in North America, just isn’t enough. No way. Not in this restless, attention splintered era of BlackBerry and Twitter.

For the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL there’s always the prospect of more. They suffer from a serious George Clooney Complex: there’s a leggy Italian brunette in the bed (the current fan base), but she’ll never be wife material. After all, nbody’s wife material when your always dreaming about the next conquest (the potential global fan base).

Like our pal George, the Mega Sports Brands have another customer around the corner, up the street, across the border or over the ocean, in somebody else’s bed. As far as they’re concerned, people around the world are so dissatisfied with their own local sports entertainment that they’d be crazy not to fork out money for a piece of the American sports pantheon. It’s this arrogance and sense of entitlement from pro sports big cheeses that threatens to ruin the very thing that makes American sports leagues so great…they’re American!

The perpetual journey of major sports leagues in the United States reminds me of the early settlers who were determined to expand, no matter the cost. Their desire not only built a prolific and powerful economy but redefined the term “superpower”, to the point that global competitors started looking meek.  This drive began to shape the nation’s psyche. It became in essence, what is to be American, and set apart a burgeoning nation from all others forever.

But let’s get some perspective: we’re not talking about a something as admirable as the birth of a nation. We’re talking about expanding pro basketball or football competitions, simply because capitalism calls for it.

It all begs the question, at what point does this hunger for sporting monopoly – to acquire more than your share, and to conquer the global market – start becoming, well, something akin to the mission statement of a Bond villain?

Sure, there’s always room to improve or tweak even the very best products. I mean Halle Berry didn’t really start flooring the greater male population – and I mean Johnny Gill type leveling – until the mid-Nineties. It only happened for Team Halle when she cropped the hair and leveraged the assets. It’s now safe to say that her level of market penetration has maxed out.

The Big Four aren’t far behind Halle. While they may not have reached global market saturation, they’re still world beaters. They’re the sports industry’s version of BMW, Apple and Coke. In other words, the benchmarks in their field.

So why risk such unparalleled success?

Come on. It doesn’t matter how many new types of Cokes you concoct, or whether you sell 53 different colors of the iPod, the original offering is still leaps and bounds ahead of anything else. The product at its height, is like Halle in Swordfish – it doesn’t get any better.

But sports commissioners always stare beyond the horizon, don’t they. Forget steady growth and maintaining customer satisfaction; they view sports administration with a sort of Starbuckian principle of multiplication. More locations = more customers = greater market share = another house in the Hamptons.

But how do we the fans see it?

Two ways:

1. We don’t want more teams or more games

The trouble  is, many of the Big Four’s potential fans – the ones they’re targeting in places like London, Mexico and Beijing – simply aren’t interested. They’re just not. You only needed to see the ho-hum Nets – Raptors extravaganza that recently played out in London’s O2 arena to realize that. And when it comes to more games, the reasons have been covered ad nauseam – chief among them the risk of increased injuries and therefore a weakened on-field product.

2. International fans don’t need more sports

The mere assumption that foreign fans are desperate for more American sports, or at least should be, only deters them further. It’s the Krispy Kreme Donuts effect: it doesn’t matter how many dozens of stores you open in North America, the desire for heavily glazed donuts doesn’t necessarily translate outside of the country. That’s why you’re seeing stores close up shop in other regions.

The same thing goes for NBA basketball. Many foreigners are intrigued – even in awe of the NBA and its many talented stars. But they won’t return to the game with the same commitment as American fans because they don’t have an appetite for it. They already have soccer, rugby, cricket, handball, motor racing, golf, tennis, table tennis, surfing, field hockey, their own versions of football and yes, even their own basketball, hockey and baseball leagues.

Where does it end? Does it end?

The entrepreneurial egos of pro sports tycoons won’t relent. In true corporate fashion, they see more jersey sales, bigger stadiums and whopping TV deals in their futures. They won’t be satisfied until every last suburban duplex, high-rise one-bedder or island retreat around the globe has the tube locked into their games and the Twitter screen ticking over with news from their leagues.

Planetary sports dominations is not unique to the US of course. England’s been flogging its Premier League overseas for years. As such, the EPL has registered and succeeded in all corners of the globe. The major difference, however, is that we’re talking about soccer, a sport that appeals to, and is played by all levels of society on just about every continent. It already has a ground swell in the allies of Naples or the ghettos of Argentina. And perhaps more to the point, soccer doesn’t face the issue of teaching new fans the merits of going for it on fourth and one with the game on the line. Nor does it depend on specialized facilities like basketball courts or ice rinks. Soccer broke down borders, overcame language barriers and thrived without infrastructure a long, long time ago.

More simply, I want the big sports leagues to stay North American because globalization is watering down cultural independence. Case in point: when I was growing up I loved watching Magic and the Lakers, despite living outside of the US. He was perpetual motion – freewheeling and thrilling. Watching a Lakers – Bulls game was about the best thing I could imagine taking place in the sports world at that time. Heck, at any time.

But what made it so attractive to my ten-year old eyes, thousands of miles away from the Great Western Forum, was that Magic was a Hollywood basketballer. He was an untouchable American superstar, like Arnie or Sly diving from a giant explosion across the silver screen. It was, and still is, the best reality TV ever. Magic belonged on my crappy 16-inch NEC  or recorded to on one of my dusty VHS tapes – a sporting fantasy, a legend. That’s what made him so appealing to me as an outsider. He wasn’t in my backyard and thus, I had even greater appreciation for his hardwood exploits.

Listen, international fans are well-versed on US pro sports. We read Sports Illustrated, we watch Stuart Scott. We know what “booy-yah” means. We don’t need to be pandered to by the respective league commissioners with their grandiose ideas about expanding brands abroad. We don’t want the NBA to include a London Rain, or a Shanghai Surprise. Why should it? It’s the National Basketball Association. If I want to watch international basketball, with its plodding pace, inordinate amount of perimeter shooting and remarkably flat inside play, then I’ll tune into the Olympics.

Further, why would I want to watch NFL football, which is so intrinsically American, being played by Germans? Or Brits? Or in Britain, even? If I’m a Packers or Niners or Chiefs fan, why do I want my club to travel over an ocean for a single game, turning up bleary-eyed, uninterested and struggling to digest a duck confit, in front of a vaguely interested group of foreigners – most with no emotional connection to the team?

I don’t.

Americans don’t want it either. And any well-informed, self-respecting fan abroad is okay with that. Give us the Seattle Seahawks against the Oakland Raiders at Quest Field, snow falling like it’s the apocalypse, Collinsworth riffing about perfect routs and some crazy local flashing his frozen belly to the nearest camera and onto my cable-burdened flatscreen, any day of the week.

That’s the product. That’s what makes it work. Leave it the way it is – and where it is – and stop trying to mix in vanilla flavoring and shipping crates of it to places and people who are too busy absorbing a five-day cricket match.

You’ve already bedded the leggy brunette, isn’t that enough?

Outdoor hockey, on thin ice?

21 Feb

Outdoor hockey has taken a puck to the crotch following the Heritage Classic in Calgary.

Instead of praising the fun and tradition of the game, as has happened in past al fresco forays, several reporters are stuck on the cons – and probably still, to their frozen seats.

Look we understand: it’s difficult to be perky about outdoor hockey when freezing your butt off. Then again, when was the last time reporters sat in the bleachers, 1919?

Criticism covered the bitter cold winds, chipped ice and the tennis-ball like puck. Not to mention the Calgary Flames flamboyant vintage uniforms which offended more than a few. Hey, the fans seemed to enjoy it game in technicolor.

David Stubbs of The Vancouver Sun wrote:

“The temperatures were so cold, in fact, that the McMahon sheet was little better than playground quality, requiring monotonous work by repair crews and manual flooding between periods, Zamboni machines kept off for fear they’d crack the surface.”

Pierre LeBrun of ESPN wrote:

“Those 41,022 freezing fans at McMahon Stadium on Sunday may have attended the sporting event of their lives. The question now for the NHL: How many more towns will have that feeling before the thrill is gone?”

Randy Sportak of The Calgary Sun wrote:

“Was it a classic? Not really. The calibre of play was more akin to the level you’d see on ESPN Classic.”

Yes, ice conditions weren’t stellar, and okay, it was minus-8.6C at puck drop. But this was hardly premised as a hockey clinic. It was always a clever marketing activity – a brilliant way to pique the interest of new and fair-weather fans – no pun intended.

And come on, how good are those jerseys?

Tampa Bay goes vintage

15 Feb

New Lightning jersey

The Tampa Bay Lightning recently unveiled its new look to more mixed reviews than a Super Bowl anthem singing.

Numerous news sites and blogs have run fan polls about the new flash digs, with those in favor hardly overwhelming the detractors.

I find this strange because the new jersey is all class. I’m no Armani but I don’t know how you could conjure something better – even with Giorgio himself leading the design team. Some fans are tough to please I guess.

The two-tone uniforms with simplified lightning bolt logo hark back to another era. And that can only be a good thing. Let’s face it, the old jersey was caught in that early 90s design vortex that has hurt so many hockey team identities – as well as teen idols like Luke Perry and various R&B stars.

General Manager Steve Yzerman and the club consulted strategic brand development firm SME to develop the new brand, with an emphasis on a “classic” and “iconic” look.

And I think they succeeded. The blue and white incarnation is reminiscent of classic Maple Leafs uniforms, which hopefully for Tampa’s sake, inspires classic Leafs-like victories.

Flyers ambushing Hawks

6 Jun

Chris Pronger, FlyersIt wasn’t until the third period of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals that the Chicago Blackhawks woke up. And even then, it wasn’t until the final minutes they looked a chance of taking a 3-1 lead in this series. The Hawks were frustratingly flat, from a neutral spectator’s point of view anyway. Though I must admit, ever since Chicago put a few dents into my favorite NHL team, the Vancouver Canucks, I’ve grown to respect their tireless and disciplined defense, as well as their rollicking offense. The Hawks soar across the ice when their minds are on the job. They didn’t appear to be on Friday night.

To the Flyers credit, their defense, anchored by Goliath on skates, Chris Pronger, was in perpetual motion, quick to react and disruptive. Every time the Blackhawks looked like stringing a few passes together, one of the Flyers would barrel, slide, shove or spin into the path of the puck, and ruin what might have otherwise been a prime set-up for a sniper. Chicago’s infantry regularly stood half-cocked with no ammunition however. And even when shots were fired during the first two periods, they never threatened Philadelphia’s goal. It was mostly a one-sided battle.

By contrast, the Flyers played on their toes with urgency and purpose, which was additionally fueled by the 20,000 orange-colored fans in attendance. They were first to loose pucks, were eager to fore-check and never cowered from the rough stuff. Dustin Byfuglien may as well have stayed home because he’s just not frightening Philly the way he terrified Vancouver and San Jose.

Chicago fought back in those furious last few minutes, with Dave Bolland’s deftly placed missile from the right circle freezing Philadelphia, both on the ice and in the stands. But the Hawks’ revival was too late really, forcing them to play with an empty net and against a Flyers squad reluctant to hand over a win they clearly deserved. More of the same in Chicago, and Philadelphia might just ambush the bookmakers, as well as the Hawks.

Flyers v Habs – buckle up!

15 May

Mike CammalleriOn Sunday night the No.7 seed of the NHL’s Eastern Conference, Philadelphia, will battle the No.8 seed, Montreal. There’ll be no Sidney Crosby, no Alex Ovechkin and no Ryan Miller. Just two hard-working, underdog clubs, playing thrilling hockey.

The Flyers weren’t even meant to be in the playoffs were they? Now they’re overcoming goal deficits, series deficits and even a talent deficit to earn a spot in the final four. If there’s one thing the Canadiens should know heading into this series, it’s that Philadelphia don’t go down easy. Like Rocky Balboa, they keep swinging until the final bell. And in that vein, the Bell – as in Centre – won’t intimidate them either.

For the Habs, it’s all about control. This team isn’t fancy. It’s disciplined. Precise. Determined. Humble. And these qualities are best exemplified in their ascending winger, Mike Cammalleri. The Ontario native has 12 goals these playoffs, with the promise of more to come, and maybe a shot at breaking the post-season record of 19.

As The Toronto Star wrote this week, Cammalleri plays hockey “the Toronto way”, meaning he doesn’t jump around after a goal, showboat or disrespect his opponent. No, Montreal’s No.13 plays with coolness and class, which makes it tough to bet against him and his surprising team.

Jets flying home to Winnipeg?

12 May

winnipeg jets logoIt’s true – the Winnipeg Jets are being wished back into existence, remarkably after being exported to Arizona as a potential “cash cow” (or, er, coyote).

So much for that idea. How much was the Phoenix Coyotes’ bankruptcy price, $140 million? And according to The Toronto Star, the club is now a further $20 million in the hole after this season. We give you Gary Bettman ladies and gentlemen – a man with a dream.

Incredibly, the idea that Canuck teams are too small time to make good money, is now being shunned by pundits because Canadian locales are surely better off than struggling post-GFC American cities, as Randy Turner explained in The National Post this week.

And there’s the moral of the story. How can anyone, in any pro sport, seriously contemplate relocating a popular team again for the sake of a few bucks? It’s nuts. It doesn’t matter which way you slice it – fancy new TV deal, the promise of more bobble head sales, or potentially robust attendance figures – loyal fans always deserve to keep their team, and in the end, will stand by them.

When the chips are down, do the ambitious movers and shakers of business really believe fans in the desert, on the beach or cruising the bayou will really be enamored with hockey – on ice? These people have football, basketball and baseball. They prefer ice in their lemonade to ice in their arenas. It’s just common sense.

Hey, nobody’s disrespecting the fans that do support the Phoenix Coyotes, or the Nashville Predators for that matter. In fact, we tip our inflatable hockey hats to you. But the way in which the Winnipeg-Phoenix saga has played out needs to be a lesson for all: tradition and passion count for more than the bottom line (at least in Any Town, North America). As long as us – the fans – are happy, who cares about the league’s desire for expanding markets?

Following a sports team isn’t a game for us, as it is for many owners. It’s an emotional relationship, in which nobody wants their heart broken – especially not for a few dudes wanting a better lining in their pockets.

Hopefully the potential re-relocation of the Jets reinforces this message. And while we’re at it, maybe there’ll be some recognition that you don’t mess with a classic sports brand. The Jets logo, after all,  was – and maybe is – one of the best to ever grace a rink.