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Archive for Omnibus

Apr. 9, 2017 — Teamwork meets a different enemy

The U.S. women’s ice hockey team has had one major rival over the last 27 years: Canada. This year, the women added another entity to unify against: USA Hockey.

Last week, the United States took its newfound togetherness after a player strike in order to beat their Canadian rivals 3-2 in overtime of the final of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship. It was the States’ third championship in a row.

But I think there’s much, much more to this title than any other. The win was a vindication for the U.S. women as a labor union, and I also think it is going to put a burr in the saddle of the current group of owners of the nine professional women’s hockey teams in the United States and Canada. I think there will be a flow of cash from sponsors interested in not only an expansion of the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League, but perhaps a merger with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

I believe a merger is a more important priority for women’s hockey than professionalization. One unified league, one pay scale, one set of rules, and one great pro league.

I hope it doesn’t take more labor action to make this happen.

 

Apr. 6, 2017 — (Some) labor peace

I didn’t want to go too long without acknowledging what it took for the U.S. women’s national soccer and women’s ice hockey teams to get collective bargaining agreements with the national governing bodies of their sports.

For both teams, the labor situations they were in previously were products of decisions made years before. But what has happened in the last 10 years is a movement towards professionalism in their respective sports for elite women.

Yes, women’s soccer is now in its third iteration of a USSF-sanctioned Division I women’s professional league. But it’s only now, during the National Women’s Soccer League era, that the rest of the world — and FIFA — have begun to catch up. These days, you can’t go through a conversation about women’s soccer without discussing a FIFA transfer window or one of the many fine American players who are now plying their trade in Europe.

What that has done for the women’s elite player pool is give them leverage not only over U.S. Soccer, but over individual NWSL team owners. I think, in the published reports which have been written the last few days, that this is reflected in the promised “improved NWSL standards.” I believe it’s more than just a pledge to not move a game at the last minute to play on a baseball diamond (which happened in Rochester last year). But I think it’s a pledge to get NWSL teams out of public parks and high-school football grounds.

The long-term aim of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team is, at first blush, a lot different. Instead of seeking a partnership and backing for the flagging National Women’s Hockey League, the women sought a committee and representation within USA Hockey specifically geared towards women.

It’s going to be, I believe, up to that committee to help save the NWHL, which had a foreboding salary cut in mid-season.

Apr. 1, 2017 — SportsCenter to begin broadcasting actual sports news and highlights, but with a twist

After years of declining ratings and consumers cutting the cable cord, ESPN has gone to a radical idea when it comes to broadcasting, TopOfTheCircle.com has learned.

It will be changing the focus of its signature show, SportsCenter, to focus on sports news, scores, and highlights rather than focusing on made-up lists, filler material, and interviews with Hollywood actors.

Since the disastrous experimentation in late 2015 with ESPN anchor Robert Flores (which has led to his ouster and hiring by MLB Network), ESPN has also tried to brand SportsCenter with anchors Scott Van Pelt, Hannah Storm, Jemele Hill, and Michael Smith.

But the personality-driven sports shows have not only driven down the amount of highlights and sports news broadcast, but it has also nearly zeroed out the highlights of women’s sports. It has been estimated that in recent years, the percentage of highlights of women’s sporting events has dwindled to about four percent, and even fewer on the personality-driven versions of SportsCenter.

Through terms of a deal yet to be publicized, Disney, the parent company of ESPN will be partnering with Amazon Prime to stream SportsCenter on the premium service. What this means is that ESPN will receiving full use of the artificial intelligence properties of Amazon, leading to the creation of the new SportsCenter Alexa. The show will mix highlights and scores, all read by a custom-programmed version of the Amazon home speaker.

“It makes perfect sense,” said one high-placed source at ESPN. “The most-used command to Alexa devices is to read the sports scores from last evening.”

Early test broadcasts have left a lot to be desired, say insiders. “We got the first harmonizer out of the box, and it sounded something like the robot voice used to give airline flight information, except it treated the sports scores as math problems. This was especially acute in college volleyball and pro tennis scores.”

Consulting on the project will be comedian and voice impersonator Frank Caliendo, who will be providing soundbites to help Alexa sound like a number of ESPN personalities such as Stephen A. Smith, Ron Jaworski, and Jon Gruden.

“We tried to get a good imitation of Gonzalo ‘Papi’ LeBatard,” said one source within Amazon. “But that dude defies imitation.”

The target opening for the new SportsCenter Alexa show is 6 a.m. on April 1, 2018.

Mar. 29, 2017 — Winning, but leaving a legacy

The job action of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team is going to end this week with an agreement for better pay and for the U.S. team to hit the ice on Friday to open the 2017 IIHF World Championship.

According to some scant information (since neither side has been willing to disclose full financial details), the agreement will bolster the pay of the average U.S. player to upwards of $70,000 to $120,000 per year depending on whether the team wins an Olympics or IIHF World Championship.

That’s a lot better than the $1,000 per month pre-Olympic stipend, needless to say.

But what has also changed is that there is now equal insurance and equal travel allowances. No longer will the women have to fly coach and get less per-diem expense money than their male counterparts.

The biggest thing that came out of this agreement, however, could have effects 15, 30, and even 50 years onward. USA Hockey is now tasked with maintaining a women’s high performance advisory group to plan out a future for girls’ and women’s hockey in the United States.

With an advisory committee, there is an opportunity for some actual power and influence, in the form of strategic planning, fundraising, and perhaps post-collegiate infrastructure.

This tells me that there is going to be an eventual buy-in by USA Hockey for the National Women’s Hockey League, the troubled two-year-old league that had to slash pay in mid-season because of budgetary shortfalls.

Let’s see what happens after the dust settles on this wage kerfuffle. I think there will be some interesting opportunities for women ice hockey players coming soon.

 

Mar. 26, 2017 — The ugliness spreads

We’re less than a week out from the scheduled start of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship.

But the host nation, the United States, may not be able to field a team for the opening game against Canada.

Members of the U.S. women’s elite pool are boycotting the tournament in a search for equitable pay, but there is an entrenched group of members of the USA Hockey Board of Directors who voted down a proposal at a meeting last week that would have significantly increased pay and benefits.

As a result, USA Hockey has reportedly been contemplating a team of strikebreakers. These would include Division III athletes, other college and high-school players, and postgraduates.

Yet, according to numerous sources, these players have rejected the initial overtures of the USA Hockey selectors. While many of the potential strikebreakers have expressed an unwillingness to get in the middle of this dispute, and others have talked about their relative inexperience at this level, there’s one easy reason why USA Hockey doesn’t have a wisp of a chance to recruit replacement players: no incentive.

Think about it: if the U.S. team is only paid $1,000 a month in the six months leading into an Olympics and nothing at any other time, strikebreakers wouldn’t be getting any more than the striking players — which is nothing.

The U.S. women’s national hockey team is also getting some interesting and powerful allies in their boycott: elite U.S. men’s national team players and members of the United States Senate.

Stay tuned. This could get interesting.

 

 

Mar. 17, 2017 — Where’s the accountability?

Yesterday afternoon, Steve Penny tendered his resignation as the president of USA Gymnastics.

The resignation came after months of investigative reports on the part of the Indianapolis Star, focusing on lax policies that allowed a team doctor named Larry Naser to have access to hundreds of young women in his job with USA Gymnastics as well as with Michigan State University.

The numbers, as reported by the Indy Star, are staggering.

But the ramifications could be even greater.

Just look at what happened this week in the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. If you remember, the first drips of the scandal occurred in November 2011, when charges were leveled against PSU athletic director Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz, the school’s senior vice president for finance and business. Curley and Schultz, just this week, took a plea deal for their part in the scandal. And next Monday, the president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, is to go on trial for his part in the abuse.

Penn State, in the intervening 5 1/2 years, undergone a lot of fraught changes. Football coach Joe Paterno was made to resign, and died only a few months later. A statue of him was removed from the area around the football stadium. Some 112 coaching wins were stripped, then reinstated just two years ago.

I have a feeling that the affairs surrounding Larry Naser are only beginning. The gymnastics are just a sideshow; what did people at his other employers — Twistars, the City of Holt., Mich., and MSU’s athletic department — know, and when did they know it?

This is a powerful question, one which we’ll be following with some interest.

 

Mar. 16, 2017 — A third front in an inequality war

The United States Olympic Committee, and, by proxy, national governing bodies of sport, are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis when it comes to gender equity.

There’s been a silent war raged on social media when it comes to men’s field hockey, but the figures bandied about are pretty much spot on. While the women’s national team enjoys a budget of some $2.5 million, men’s field hockey receives a total budget of less than $350,000. Granted, the number of men’s members of USA Field Hockey and participant figures are dwarfed by their female counterparts, but a team of 11 is still a team 11, no matter how the team is assembled.

Since the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the disparity between men’s and women’s pay by U.S. Soccer has been revealed, and it’s just as dire a situation for the successful U.S. women. The women make only $15,000 for getting selected to a World Cup roster, while the men are awarded $50,000. For each game, the U.S. women make less than $2,000 per game if they win, while the U.S. men are paid a minimum of $5,000, win or lose.

Now, the women who represent the United States in women’s ice hockey are close to their own version of the nuclear option. Citing a stipend as low as $6,000 for making the Olympic roster, as well as the $3.5 million for a young men’s national team development program (there is nothing for young women) the U.S. women’s national hockey team said yesterday that it was considering sitting out the IIHF World Championship this year. And given the fact that tournament is being held in the United States, a strike would be of particular embarrassment to USA Hockey.

In a desperate move, USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean hit back in the media, indicating that the national governing body might hire replacement players.

That might open its own can of worms, especially if the replacement team does reasonably well. It might be an example of how the two-year-old National Women’s Hockey League stands as a player development tool, one which receives some support from USA Hockey.

But the embarrassment of having the host team strike for a living wage? I think it’s a bridge too far, and requires negotiations. Post haste.