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March 22, 2019 — A change in the sporting fabric in the Western Hemisphere?

Four days ago, the union representing men’s and women’s professional soccer teams was able to forge an agreement with the Argentina Football Association to begin a level of professionalism with the nation’s women’s soccer teams.

Argentina, for all of its excellence on the men’s side, has been little more than an afterthought on the women’s side. The Albicelestes have only played in two World Cups thus far, in 2003 and 2007. Argentina is winless in six matches, scoring two goals and conceding 33.

The inequality gulf between men’s and women’s soccer in Argentina was laid bare two years ago when the women’s national team called a players’ strike when their $10 stipend went unpaid.

But now, players in the Argentina first division will be guaranteed a minimum salary of 15,000 Argentine pesos per month.

Taken by itself, this is part of a trend in world soccer where nations like France, Mexico, Germany, Spain, and England have started to professionalize women’s club sides, and have even gotten clubs like Paris, Lyon, America, Arsenal, and Barcelona to sponsor women’s teams.

But I also wonder what is going to happen 10, 20 years down the line when young girls are provided choices of sports to play. How many of them will chase down salaries in women’s soccer and forego the largely amateur world of club field hockey?

Argentina, mind you, has been the dominant force in women’s field hockey in the Pan American Hockey Federation since the mid-1980s, even though the population of the country is about 1/7th of the United States.

I think this changes once Argentina’s women’s population generates its first Messi, not its latest Aymar.

 

March 21, 2019 — 50-49, such a long time ago

Thirty years ago this week, the order of men’s college basketball was nearly turned upside down when a group of smart young men from Princeton University, led by a madcap head coach with well-traveled ideas and tactics, nearly upset Georgetown University in the NCAA Division I Tournament.

It was a result which cemented phrases like “Field of 64,” “bracket buster,” and “mid-major” in basketball phraseology forever. Today, the Division I men’s basketball tournament is one of the largest annual sports-betting events on the calendar, even as the product has been steadily enervated with the advent of the “one and done” player, or even 18-year-olds choosing to play professionally overseas or in the NBA’s G-League.

How much has changed in three decades? Last night, an Ivy League team beat Georgetown in basketball. But this was Harvard, and the tournament was the NIT.

And the basketball world didn’t bat an eyelash.

March 20, 2019 — Selling its soul

Today, a press release came out detailing the possible rules changes for the game of lacrosse to be included in a future Olympic Games.

The new draft playing rules were developed by the Blue Skies Working Group, a consortium of people within the lacrosse community, one which includes Dana Dobbie, one of the finest draw-takers in the history of the women’s game.

As such, it’s curious to see that her specialty — the draw — is being marginalized in the new rules.

Under the Blue Skies rules, women’s draws and men’s faceoffs only occur to start off a period of play, whether in regulation or overtime.

And that’s just the beginning.

The pitch will be 70 by 36 meters, about the size of a Texas six-man football field. There are only 10 players on a roster, six players a side.

But what I think is a shame about the proposed Olympic rules is the fact that a shot that goes out of bounds goes to the team that didn’t touch it last, rather than it being awarded to the team that gets to the endline first. That’s a unique part about the game of lacrosse, one which symbolizes the endless roads and fields of the Northeast and Midwest where baggataway was played 500 years ago.

Instead, the Blue Skies group has bastardized the sport into a small space, following rugby (and quite possibly field hockey) into a Faustian bargain, selling the very essence of the sport in order to get into the Olympics.

March 19, 2019 — A widening promotion

Yesterday, the group of leagues forming Minor League Baseball announced that it had gotten 72 of its teams — about a quarter of teams with a professional development agreement with a major league team — to go along with targeted marketing to Latinx peoples in the United States.

The Copa de la Diversion involves the rebranding of these 72 teams into Spanish-language names from Bradenton, Fla. to Eugene, Ore. Some are direct translations of their English monikers, such as the Kane County Cougars and the Trenton Thunder (or, in Spanish, El Trueno).

The uniforms and nicknames are colorful and could be slightly controversial. There’s the appropriation of imagery from Mexican culture, like the sugar skull, and there’s the outright rebranding of one team, the Lansing Lugnuts, as “The Crazies.”

I also find it interesting that two of the teams — the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs and the Florida Fire Frogs — have adopted the Puerto Rican tree frog, the Coqui, as their mascots.

But, given the fact that you’re seeing an entire generation of young people not taking up baseball, especially Latinx kids taking up soccer, this is something that was bound to happen.

March 18, 2019 — Not reinventing the wheel

Last weekend, the second annual USA Field Hockey Summit occurred in Baltimore. One of the key points of the agenda was a Saturday morning presentation called, “Introducing the USA Field Hockey American Development Model.”

Now, over the last decade or so, a number of development initiatives have come — and, regretfully, gone from USA Field Hockey. They all had one thing in common: these came out of USA Field Hockey’s periodic meetings.

But the American Developent Model is a different construct. Already adopted by a number of national governing bodies of sport in the U.S., the ADM is a turnkey solution developed by the United States Olympic Committee back in 2015 to address lower sports participation rates among young people and to fight childhood obesity.

According to U.S. Olympic Committee documentation, the ADM is a blueprint for athletes, coaches, national governing bodies, and club teams in order to give participants lifetime opportunities to not only become exposed to the sport, but to find an outlet to succeed, find the natural end to their careers, and then find a way to give back to the sport.

USA Field Hockey has, in the past, tried to market the game as “a game for life.” But since those words were composed, we’ve noticed fewer and fewer athletes remaining with the sport, either as coaches, umpires, or adult players.

The ADM proposes a five-part development plan:

  1. Universal access. The key here is to remove obstacles to participation, something which, in these days of pay-to-play club field hockey, is going to be a major change.
  2. Developing age-appropriate skills. This aspect seems to discourage the “rushing” of prodigies into avenues of competition that could make them feel lost or uncompetitive.
  3. Encourage, not discourage, multi-sport participation. The ADM attempts to discourage players from specializing in one sport for the years leading into college. That parallels what you are hearing from many college coaches who would like better well-rounded athletes for their teams.
  4. A fun, challenging, and creative atmosphere. Keeping the game “fun” instead of doing drills, and emphasizing positive coaching.
  5. Quality coaching at all levels. This emphasizes the hiring of licensed coaches at all levels of a particular sport, and having mechanisms by which coaches continue their training in mid-career.

The ADM is geared towards the following four outcomes:

  1. Grow both the general athlete population and the pool of high-performance players from which future national-team members are selected
  2. Develop fundamental skills that transfer between athletic endeavors
  3. Provide appropriate avenues to fulfill an individual’s athletic needs
  4. Create a generation that loves a particular sport, and transfers that passion to the next generation

I invite you to take a look at the PDF we linked to earlier in this blog entry. This could be an interesting blueprint for the future survival of the sport in a highly competitive marketplace. Or it could wind up on the heap of idea which were trotted out, but found not to work.

March 17, 2019 — A cannonball the size of a bus

As is usual this time of year, a number of girls’ high-school lacrosse teams have been playing games in Florida, taking advantage of good weather and the rapidly-improving culture of the game in the deep South.

A number of interstate games involving Florida and Georgia teams have been taking place, some with more implications than others. One game yesterday, however, was a loud warning shot over the bow of the ship representing the U.S. girls’ lacrosse community.

Yesterday morning, last year’s No. 1 team in the TopOfTheCircle.com Top 10, Towson Notre Dame Prep (Md.) was defeated by the No. 1 team in the 2019 TopOfTheCircle.com preseason Top 10, Delray American Heritage (Fla.).

The score: 20-10.

This is not a misprint.

American Heritage, featuring junior Caitlyn Wurzburger, has been running roughshod over its opponents in the young 2019 season. The Stallions are 8-0, and have wins over Bradenton IMG Academy (Fla.), Lassiter (Ga.), and now, a win over NDP. The team has averaged 16 goals per game, and has yielded an average of only about four per game.

Tomorrow, the Stallions face the ultimate test: an Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) side from the strongest league in the country which has won 200 out of its last 201 games. In addition, the Eagles have been spurred by a close win in their opener against Severn Archbishop Spalding (Md.) which was only decided in the final minute of play.

We’ll have more on this tomorrow.

 

March 16, 2019 — The Final Third

Join me live at noon for whiparound coverage of three Division I games on what we like to call The Final Third. It will be on our Facebook Live presence at http://www.facebook.com/topofthecircle