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Archive for Omnibus

May 22, 2017 — An interesting career change

Georgie Parker has been a supernova of a field hockey player for the Australia Hockeyroos the last five years. In a career lasting a shade more than 100 appearances, she had 33 goals and gave many sleepless nights to opposing coaches and tacticians trying to find a way to stop her.

But for Parker and her career, the peak came in the summer of 2014 when Australia won the Commonwealth Games and placed second in the FIH World Cup only after a shootout win over the United States.

This week, it’s been announced that Parker, at the age of 28, would begin training to play with the Collingswood Magpies in the new Australia Football League for Women. Parker is one of a number of women who have been called “code switchers,” people who have certain skills from various other sports such as indoor cricket and Ultimate Frisbee.

Australian Rules Football has been played by women for more than 100 years, and there are roughly 300 women’s club sides across Australia. But only this year has the game become professionalized, with AFL Premiership clubs on the men’s side offering space and facilities to the women’s clubs which are playing in front of unexpected crowds. Indeed, there was one match recently held where the gates had to be locked, leaving nearly 2,000 willing supporters outside the ground.

What’s interesting about this endeavor is that the AFLW is not being held in a vacuum: there is an under-18 competition to provide the next generation of women’s footy stars.

It’s something that no professional women’s league in America has, and I think that bodes extremely well for the league’s future.

Perhaps the people running field hockey in Australia and worldwide need to take notice.

May 18, 2017 — The start of what could become a two-track system

This past week, Mallory Pugh, the 19-year-old wunderkind of the U.S. women’s Olympic soccer team, decided to forego her collegiate eligibility at UCLA and play professionally for the Washington Spirit of the NWSL.

It’s something that is done all the time on the men’s side of the equation, where players like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Freddy Adu, John O’Brien, and Jozy Altidore have turned professional without a sniff of a high-school or collegiate team.

But what has been happening is that U.S. Soccer has developed its own league, running outside the realm of what some might see is the expected road to the pros. The U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy is a nationwide league of 149 boys’ teams that started 10 years ago.

And the DA’s expected girls’ league of 74 teams could also alter the way that talented female soccer players play their way into the elite pool for the national team. Depending on word of mouth, or opportunity, or dumb luck, it will be, I think, difficult for a player choosing to play for a school team then to go to an NCAA college to get the same opportunities that athletes from the DA will have to either join the national team or to turn professional someday.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fervor by which MLS and NWSL teams are partnerning to form teams in the Development Academy. New York City FC, the Washington Spirit, and Sky Blue FC are amongst the partners thus far pulling together coaching staffs and other resources for the upcoming 10-month Development Academy season (yep, 10 months).

It’s going to take a while to see whether the DA is able to turn out ready-made pros like Pugh and Lindsey Horan, who left North Carolina to join Paris-Saint Germain before her eligibility expired. But I think it will also be interesting to see if the college player — especially those who have been tutored by the Anson Dorrances and Jerry Smiths of the world may have a different kind of football intelligence from players on Academy sides.

Sure, they may be fitter, but I wonder what kinds of decisionmaking the DA players will make when playing in a big world tournament or in a professional league.

That will be an interesting study.

 

Apr. 26, 2017 — The ESPN 100 and what it means for print journalism

In an era of high unemployment since the financial crisis of 2008, thousands of job cuts befell the likes of MCI-World Com, Enron, Bear Stearns, and other failing businesses. But the names of those cut from the rolls of these companies were made public.

Today, however, is seeing perhaps the most unusual public airing of job losses in history. Every news outlet has been waiting with bated breath for announcements surrounding about 100 layoffs at ESPN, the most valuable cable television network and the self-proclaimed “world-wide leader in sports.”

With a declining subscriber base and bills coming due on ESPN’s voracious rights fees for both college and professional football, ESPN has been cutting staff at a regular rate. Indeed, today’s announcement is only about a third of the size of cuts which were made in October 2015.

But today’s 100 layoffs — The ESPN 100 — come on the heels of a number of notable departures from the network over the last year or so. Nearly the entire Monday Night Countdown crew from two years ago — Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and Mike Ditka — are gone. This is the group that is the lead-in to Monday Night Football, the network’s highest-rated program.

Also gone in recent months were Keith Olbermann, Mike Tirico, Skip Bayless, and Bill Simmons. Simmons, a notable writer, put together a tremendous staff of writers to create an enterprise site called Grantland. But when Simmons was fired, Grantland was closed in October 2015.

And while tomorrow’s headlines will concentrate on some prominent on-air personalities as part of The ESPN 100, I think the biggest impact are the dozens of columnists and writers that ESPN is letting go. This goes all the way from award-winning Johnette Howard to ESPNW’s Melissa Isaacson to Jean-Jacques Taylor, who was with ESPNDallas, which was supposed to compete against the sports staff of The Dallas Morning News.

Indeed, I think today’s layoffs are a sign that ESPN’s experiment with trying to pull eyeballs away from stablished media organizations is meeting with abject failure. Columnists from Nashville to the West Coast have been let go. You may not know their names, but you might have seen their work on an ESPN web presence.

The ESPN experiment in print writing has compounded its initial colossal failure with cuts that could very well imperil the network’s ability to cover the beat adequately.

But The ESPN 100 also tips the network’s hand when it comes to its future priorities. The network’s most senior motorsports reporter, Dr. Jerry Punch, who worked at the network for three decades, was furloughed. Given the fact that the network shows exactly five automobile races a year, this is perhaps in a prelude to the dropping of all motorsports coverage.

The NHL division took huge cuts; the network does only a handful of ice hockey games a year. Golf commentator Dottie Pepper was also jettisoned, the sport having long since moved to NBC’s Golf Channel.

But that’s what happens when your “world-wide leader” forgets its core competency and goes off into these incredibly expensive flights of fancy. Anyone remember when “SportsCenter” showed actual sports highlights and delivered news?

Not a good long-term sign.

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.