LeBron’s Hated for Our Sins

I’m a Knicks fan. So I’m bummed about LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat (a team Knicks fans didn’t need any more reasons to dislike) and the two other top free agents. The reaction to LeBron’s decision, however, and particularly the way it was made and presented, has said a great deal more about sports media and fans it has about LeBron.

I’ve already read that the way the decision went down made being a sports fan feel stupid, showed LeBron James to be a selfish coward, and has Ohioans more likely to join the Tea Party. That even the way he decided, with various teams travelling to Ohio to make their pitch and then waiting for his word, has caused potentially irreparable damage to his brand. And we know that it caused a very rich man to write a letter in Comic Sans font.

But for writers and fans to complain about both LeBron’s decision and the manner in which it was made makes a complete hash of what we presumably believe as sports fans. And it directs anger at LeBron (not that he cares) for playing his part in a narrative we created for him.

The easy contradictions are about the basketball: We value team, but say it’s selfish for LeBron to want to join other elite players. We value championships, but demand that he win them the “right” way. We value selflessness, but have a conniption over a player taking less money to be on the team of his choice.

The more interesting contradiction is the media one. Somehow LeBron came to embody hubris in his free agent decision making process which, it’s worth noting, lasted all of eight days. He went from being a great teammate and the present and future of basketball to the embodiment of all-that-is-wrong. And it’s bunk. If LeBron did anything worth criticizing, it’s that he overly honored the story that we all spent the last several years writing him into. We created this narrative around him and then got angry when he tired of being just an actor in it, and became a producer as well.

LeBron’s impending free agency has been a front page NBA story for about the last three summers. Each July, the Knicks, and other teams, would tell their fans that, yeah, the team may stink this year, but wait until the summer of 2010 gets here! All those moves that make the team worse right now but free up funds for LeBron will finally pay off. Just wait and see!

Coming into this summer, six teams had a shot at signing him, and each had sold their fanbases on the idea that LeBron might be coming to their town. By meeting with all of the team, LeBron let each franchise feel like they had a shot. That the last couple of years of austerity weren’t a joke. And that’s selfish? LeBron was just providing additional chapters to the story that we were already demanding he tell. He took a meeting with the Clippers, the Michael Steele of the NBA, even. That smells more of benevolent patience than ego, to me.

And as to the selfishness of having the teams come to him, one after the other, to make their pitches? Imagine the response to the alternative. Would things have been better if LeBron spent a day in New York being feted by billionaires and celebrities, and then one in New Jersey with Jay-Z and the Nets’ Russian super-villain of an owner, and then taking South Beach, and then touring Chicago, and finally LA, with fans going crazy and throwing makeshift “We Love You” parades at each stop? What would Mitch Albom tell the children?

Not even his awkwardly produced “Decision” special said anything in particular about him. (Whether or not it said something about ESPN is a different matter.) After we demanded that he be the star in a reality show-type drama, how could anyone be upset that he decided to take some ownership over that process?

After the years of build up, and the expectations for sports salvation put on a 25 year old who hasn’t yet won anything, there was no way this story would end with anything but a backlash against LeBron. And, as is usually the case, the way we’ve backlashed says a great deal more about us than it does about him.

LeBron’s Hated for Our Sins

Why Tim Tebow’s Bad Throwing Motion Makes Me Feel Good about High School Sports

Tim Tebow is one the most celebrated college football quarterbacks of all time. He’s currently preparing for the NFL draft, and the only thing NFL teams are worried about is the fact that he can’t throw.

This makes me feel good about high school sports.

Tim Tebow can throw, of course. Well enough to lead a pretty pass-happy University of Florida team to 35 wins and just 6 loses in his starts.

The problem for pro teams has to do with how he throws. When he winds up, he takes the ball down to his hip, where it sits for a couple of beats, practically begging a defensive lineman to reach out and knock it away. Then, it starts to move forward in a loping windmill, again staying away from his body, before leaving his hand with a decided lack of zip.

Compared to model NFL throwers like Troy Aikmen and Dan Marino, who look like they’re cocking back and firing a slingshot when they throw, Tebow’s motion might as well be an Edsel on the Autobahn.

Leaving his politics aside, I’m rooting for him.

I’m fascinated by professional quarterbacks who have some serious flaw in their throwing motion. Besides making me feel good about sports in general, their existence seems to run counter to the idea of how people respond to incentives and in doing so gets at what makes sports unknowable and compelling.

Tim Tebow provides just the latest example of this type. For years, one of my favorite quarterbacks was Byron Leftwich, probably because of the iconic game in which he broke his shin and still led his team (Marshall University) to a near comeback, his teammates having to carry him to the huddle after each completed pass.

After being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003, Leftwich spent several seasons as their starting quarterback. During that time, and still, the book on him never changed. Great leader, tough as nails, physically huge, big arm (unlike Tebow), but with an overlong throwing motion that makes him vulnerable to being sacked.

As it was, Leftwich got very well paid for being a quarterback, but if he had a release that was just a bit faster he could have made a hugely higher amount of money. Also, he would have been hit less by giant men with who wished him harm.

Either of those seems like a good reason to learn to throw a bit faster, and yet, quarterbacks almost never change their mechanics once in the NFL, and Leftwich certainly hasn’t. There are plenty of could-have-been former NFL quarterbacks out there who could just never effectively change their throwing motion. Tebow’s currently trying and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Of course, it’s impossible to know if Tim Tebow with a different throwing motion is a winner. Or even what going to happen to him now that he’s trying.

All pro athletes, and quarterbacks in particular, rely on their confidence to such an extent that even if someone learned a faster delivery, a lack of confidence in it might be more disastrous than no change at all. Tebow spent his whole life throwing a football in a particular way and now, as he moves to highest possible level of competition, he’s going to change that?

(Which, oddly enough, gives us a reason to be awe of Tiger Woods, who, despite being wildly successful and only 24, totally rebuilt his swing in a effort to be better still.)

All of which, oddly enough, says good things about high school and, to a lesser extent, college sports.

When Tim Tebow first became a quarterback, a coach took a look at his athletic gifts and thought, “I can win with that,” instead of, “I bet I can tighten up his throwing motion to the point that pro scouts won’t be perturbed by it.” (Tebow’s college coach did the same thing.)

This is exactly as it should be. The odds of a high school football player becoming an NFL player as so small as to be basically zero, so the idea of preparing a great high school player for what will almost always be an imaginary pro career would detract from what high school sports are about.

That it didn’t happen in Leftwich’s or Tebow’s case makes me feel good about the innumerable high schoolers we’ll never hear about to whom it likely didn’t happen to either.

Why Tim Tebow’s Bad Throwing Motion Makes Me Feel Good about High School Sports

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]

ESPN’s Bill Simmons is the most popular sportswriter in America. He’s arguably the only one that really matters anymore. He’s enough of a common denominator that if you end up in a semi-decent conversation about sports with a stranger under 45, that both of you read his column is a very safe assumption.

His popularity is such that his 700 page book about basketball went to number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List in its first week. His book signings have attracted fans in the high hundreds. His columns’ page views are measured in millions. He’s unquestionably a star.

And his ascension represents ESPN’s biggest new media failure.

Simmons was something of a phenomenon. Hired by ESPN in 2001 to write for their web site, first as the “Boston Sports Guy” and soon as just the “Sports Guy,” his was the first voice on a major sports site to write from a fan’s point of view. And a funny fan, at that. Simmons wrote about sports the way fans actually talk about sports and he did so with a looseness of style, not to mention column length, that was unique among big-platform sports writers.

It didn’t take long before word about him spread. I know I was a early evangelist, sending some of his earlier columns to more a few friends under subject headings like, “You’ve got to check this guy out!”

Upon seeing the success that came from have a columnist torpedo the idea that sports media was about “insiders” writing for “outsiders,” ESPN decided that there was no lesson to be learned there, and gingerly stepped away from that door. Instead of introducing a “New York Sports Guy” or “LA Sports Gal” or others, and seeing if they connected with readers like Simmons had, ESPN decided that, while Simmons would continue to do his thing, his situation would be unique.

With that decision, ESPN hasted the rise of the alternative sports blog scene, one that would bedevil them, by years; put itself in a more difficult situation in terms of talent negotiation; and made harder their current effort to generate revenue through locally-oriented content.

Make no mistake, Simmons is a talented writer and it’s admirable that, in an era when most sportswriters seems to view actually “writing” as a means to a radio show or regular television appearances, he takes it quite seriously. Simmons’ success, though, was also the result of his being the right kind of voice, at the right time, on the biggest platform imaginable.

A large part of the sports blog scene rose up in opposition to the relative stranglehold on sports media that ESPN had. Since the early 1990’s, The World Wide Leader (as it calls itself) decided what was newsworthy, what was interesting, and what was funny. And it presented a world where athletes didn’t swear; managers and coaches had to do something supremely dumb to be called mildly mistaken; and, for years, the only sports with steroid problems involved either the former Eastern Bloc or bike racing.

A roster of “outsider” writers, dealing with sports culture closer to the way normal humans do (though still without swears), would have seriously lessened the market’s hunger for sites in the vein of Deadspin, The Big Lead, and With Leather.

As it happens, one of that sports blog community’s favorite pastimes is reading the tea leaves about what Bill Simmons will do when his current contract with ESPN expires in 2010. He’s already, by my reckoning, more effectively monetized being a writer on the web than anyone else. There will be competition for his talents and who ever gets him will have to open up the piggy-bank. Meanwhile, ESPN hasn’t developed any voices that might be credibly able to take his place.

Another possibility, one that Simmons himself mentioned in an interview, is that he might start his own sports web site. The readership that he could take with him to such an enterprise would be significant, and with the low overhead of web journalism, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Finally, over the last year ESPN has launched several locally branded pages, such as ESPNBoston, to compete with local sports pages for readers and advertisers. If they’d used their experience Simmons as an example of how a local focus can be used as an incubator for talent, ESPN would already have writers with the experience and platform to bolster their local efforts. Instead, ESPN has to poach talent from the newspapers they’re competing with.

ESPN dealt with the success of Bill Simmons like an old media company.

When Bill Simmons succeeded, ESPN had discovered a new paradigm for sports media on the web, but was far more comfortable just deciding that they’d found a new star.

They’ll be paying for that mistake for quite some time.

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]

Why NBA Teams Should Think of Bloggers like they Think of Players

Can something as ephemeral as cultural footprint make something as concrete as a sports franchise more valuable?

The NBA season just started with the majority of its franchises struggling in this economic climate. Television ad revenue is down, season ticket sales have cratered, and the number of marquee teams that can reliably sell out arenas has gotten smaller. So how should NBA teams maximize their dwindling revenue sources?

They should start treating bloggers like they treat players.

By which I mean, when a team identifies a player that they think will help them win, they try to acquire that player. In the same way that all players aren’t created equal, bloggers aren’t either.

Let’s go to a case study.

In the 2004-2005 NBA season Washington Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas had a great season. He was among the league scoring leaders and the leader of an up-and-coming team. His jersey, however, was not among the league’s top 25 sellers. He was a good player, but not quite a star.

In the 2005-2006 season, however, his jersey did make the top 25. And the year after, it was in the top 10. Not only that, but Arenas had become the kind of player who put butts in seats and brought viewers to the television. One who increased a team’s connection to its surrounding community. His game hadn’t changed, so what had?

He got a nickname. More than that, he became a character. “Agent Zero.” (After his jersey number.) And that happened thanks to a very popular, Wizards-centric, blogger. Besides just coming up with the “Agent Zero” name, the blog The Wizznutzz, unaffiliated with the team, also popularized the fact that Arenas had started to shout “hibachi!” each time he made a shot, and that he’d set up a giant tent inside his house to simulate high-altitude conditions. Their coverage of him went a long way from turning him from a player into a happening.

Even with his entertaining idiosyncrasies, Arenas was a high scoring guard who’d never won anything on a team that had more or less been moribund for years. His becoming one of the most popular players in a league with quite a few compelling characters was no sure thing and, without the blog’s help, may not have happened.

Think about what that means. NBA teams make money from every ticket and jersey sold, of course, but their value is also tied to the community they create. When the owners of the team think about selling, how much is having a player who’s become a local hero worth?

If the cultural capital generated by a great blogger moves the needle even 1%, the team will have realized millions of dollars in new value.

And what about when it’s time for a referendum on a new arena? What would a 2% swing in the vote because residents feel a real and deep connection to the team be worth? (Putting aside the issue of public money going for sports-related projects.)

If teams are trying to create value wherever they can, hiring a great blogger is a whole lot easier than putting together a winning team.

Why NBA Teams Should Think of Bloggers like they Think of Players

With News Worth Less, is Less News is Worth More?

Newspapers are dying all over the country. Television news, on both the local and national levels, is cutting back. We live in a news environment that has more commentary than ever but less and less original reporting.

For reporters and media professionals, this is an opportunity.

Original, investigative, reporting was once fairly standard in newsrooms and, unless the scoop was Watergate big, unremarkable in itself. The relative absence of original information in today’s market, however, and the increase in the number of outlets hungry for news about which to opine, has turned the discovery of new information into an opportunity for a multimedia platform.

Two fairly recent sports books brought this notion to mind. When Selena Roberts learned that Alex Rodriguez, one of baseball’s biggest stars, had used performance enhancing drugs, it turned her about to be released book into an event. She gave interview after interview, in print, on television, on the radio, to blogs, and had an excerpt of the book run in Sports Illustrated (where she is a Senior Writer), all based around what was essentially one fact. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams had a similar experience with their book, Game of Shadows, about Barry Bonds and his steroid supplier.

During the relative frenzy around their books, the authors seemed to me, at times, to be like a student with a particularly great science fair project who’s asked to show it to all the other classes. “Take a look at my fact. I found it myself.”

In both cases the author(s) already had a strong platform, Sports Illustrated and the San Francisco Chronicle, respectively,  from which to promote their discoveries And in years past the outcome of their work might have been a great magazine article or a series of hard hitting newspaper stories, not a multimedia blitz.

The opportunity then, is in the increased potency of new information that might not otherwise have been discovered. While such nuggets once created a news story or drove it forward, now they’re a book deal and a tour up and down the television dial.

With News Worth Less, is Less News is Worth More?

The NBA Draft and the Power of Empty Vessels

The NBA Draft is just about my favorite sports event of the year. I prepare for it like I have a stake in the outcome. I’ve got seriously considered opinions on dozens of basketball players, many who I’d not even heard of 12 months ago. When the Knicks make their pick, I will be elated or crushed based on the thinnest of evidence.

I will judge within seconds if teams did well or poorly which, considering we won’t know for years how things will turn out, is ridiculous. I will not be alone in this mania.

The Draft is intoxicating because it is hope manifest.

A not yet used draft pick is the purest vessel in sports for dreams. Even though all involved know a great deal about the players involved (excepting the Clippers) and their strengths and weaknesses, those things remain pleasantly abstract up to the moment of selection.

Yesterday there was a fantastic example of this phenomenon. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded two pretty decent players, one a borderline blue-chipper, for the 5th pick in a weak draft. Would they have traded that same package for the player they would have taken with the 5th pick, the day after the draft? I suspect not.

The hope a pick represents is far more valuable when it’s just hope. Once the pick becomes a very real player who, say, has a suspect jump shot or can’t go to his left, the possibilities for excitement are greatly reduced.

I’d argue that the most successful NBA franchises are the ones that take hope largely out of their draft analysis. That view their draft picks not as empty vessels, but as stand-ins for the flawed players they will become. And while that view might make for a better basketball team, it feels too hardhearted for me and antithetical to the reasons I love sports.

I love falling into the trap of hope during the NBA Draft.

Go Rubio.

The NBA Draft and the Power of Empty Vessels