Sports Today

February 23, 2020

I wrote the last piece ten years ago this month, and I stick by what I wrote. However, my own sports intake has changed radically in the last ten years due to the wide availability of sports of all kinds on the internet.

First, I watch almost no sports on TV these days. I did watch the Superbowl this year but it was probably the first American football game I have watched in several years. I don’t watch hockey or NASCAR any more, I’ve never followed baseball, and the Final Four of March Madness is the limit to my basketball viewing.  I don’t even watch a lot of soccer — the occasional Chelsea game is about it.

But the availability of multiple channels (some legal, some perhaps less so) on the net allows me to follow cricket, rugby, road race cycling, and sumo all year round.  I have become a devotee of biathlon and ocean racing, and I can indulge long time favourites such as lawn bowling and curling.  My favourite online sports channel this afternoon is offering me live streaming events in tennis, billiards, sevens rugby, softball, bandy, and sports car racing, along with all the soccer, football, hockey, baseball, and basketball from around the world.  Earlier today, there were winter sports from Europe, athletics from several counties, shooting from Italy, and table tennis from the Far East.

It is a bizarre feast.

Not All Sports Are Created Equal

February 23, 2020

I admit it, I am a TV jock.  I like to watch sports on TV.  I’ll watch almost any kind of sport instead of a blank screen.  You might think that one team sport is essentially much like any other team sport, but that isn’t so.  Watching such a variety of sports has allowed me to isolate a large number of differences between team sports in North America and team sports in the rest of the world.  And, so we are clear, I am talking here about major team sports — soccer, American/Canadian football, cricket, rugby, baseball, ice hockey, basketball.

1.  Sports as Business Risk

Virtually all team sports outside North America are played in a series of hierarchical leagues where a team’s position in the series of leagues is dependent solely on their success or failure in the previous season.  To use British soccer as the exemplar, there is the Premier League at the top of the heap.  Below that is the Championship League, followed by League Division 1, League Division 2 etc.  If you finish in the bottom three of the Premier League in one season, the following season you will be relegated to the Championship League.  Your position in the Premier League is taken by one of the teams that finished in the top three of the Championship League in the previous season and were therefore promoted.  Three or four bad years in a row and you can quickly find yourself several levels below the top flight. This system, or something very similar, is the case for soccer, rugby, cricket leagues all over the world.  Even the ancient Japanese sport of sumo operates in the same way.

To be clear in the basest North American manner, the level your team plays in determines everything to do with money.  A soccer team in the English Premier League will make tens of millions of dollars a year more than will a team in the Championship; and the diffference is similar between the Championship teams and those in lower leagues.  There are genuine financial incentives for doing well, and significant financial penalties for doing badly.

In North America, there are financial incentives in doing better than the next team, but there are NO penalties for bad play:  you can play really badly for decade after decade and still be in the major leagues.  There is no chance of a Triple-A team being promoted, and no chance of a major league team being demoted. The entire business risk based on sporting chance has disappeared.  Every part of the system — from TV-revenue sharing to bottom-up drafts — is designed to bring equality.  It is an oddly non-free enterprise system, socialist in its implications.

2.  Always a Winner

In all of the North American major league team sports there must always be a winner in every game.  If one team cannot win in the regulation time, then you keep playing in some form or another until someone DOES win:  extra time, shoot outs, etc.

In team sports outside of North America, a draw or tie is a perfectly acceptable result for all but a tiny proportion of matches.   In fact, where a weak team is playing a stronger, their tactics may well be to aim for a draw and thus secure something rather than lose everything in a winner-take-all scenario.  This is a legitimate management option.

3.  Armour

In the contact sports — American/Canadian football, hockey — the trend in North America is to increase and improve body armour. Steroids help too.

In the contact sports — rugby, soccer — the trend in the rest of the world is to minimize equipment to free up the athlete.  Looking at a moderrn professional rugby player in his kit is to imagine that he put on the team shirt and then stood in some vacuum packing device so that the uniform is almost moulded to the player’s body.  Muscles are what you see, not padding and straps and metal.

4.  The Viewing Experience

There are a number of cosmetic differences in watching these team sports.  For example, in the rest of world, in every kind of team sport (including baseball, football, basketball and hockey) the home team is listed first, the game clock shows how much of the game has gone, and the teams keep the same uniforms wherever they play (with a few minor exceptions).  In North America, the visiting team is always listed first, the game clock always shows how much time is left to play, and the home team is always in the darker uniforms.

None of these things are, perhaps of any importance by themselves.  However, together they change how a game is watched and experienced, especially on television.  Why these particular small things are reversed is a mystery to me.  Is it psychology? marketing? chance?

5.  The International Perspective

Finally, North American major league team sports are entirely insular at the club level.  They play all of their games and competitions against one another, no outsiders are wanted.  This leads to the embarrassing situation where, say, a team in Ohio plays a team in Georgia for a “World” series or a “World” championship.

In the rest of the world, major team sports find every excuse to play different leagues, to challenge clubs from all over the globe.  These international leagues and competitions sit on top of the national leagues and become a further incentive to good play.  T o use English soccer as the example once again, the top four teams in the Premier League get to play in the following year’s Champions League against similarly successful clubs from all over Europe.  The teams that come fifth to eighth in the English Premier League qualify for the Europa Cup.  It is estimated that winning the Champions League is worth $100 million to a club, while winning the Europe Cup might be 20% of that.  Similar high value competitions exist in rugby and cricket, and for soccer in other continents.

Major league sports teams outside North America do very well, thank you very much, both in terms of money and quality without any of the protected Trust-like setup that North American leagues feel the need to erect.  They operate in a completely free market, where talent rises to its own level against peers from every corner of the globe.  They are the true capitalists, while the Major League owners are more like a Stalin-era Politbureau stamping out competition.


A Masterpiece

August 25, 2019

There are a few moments in time when sport reaches the level of poetry and art, when grown men shed tears of pure emotion, when the heart beats fiercely, and words are hard to come by.  One of those moments in time happened today at the Ashes Test match at Headingley.

It is hard to describe for anyone not familiar with cricket but, essentially the Old Enemy Australia set England what seemed like an almost impossible task but which with luck and guile and the skills of one man in particular, England won at the very last minute.  Almost the entire country seemed to be watching and, when the final stroke had secured the improbable victory, the whole country exploded with utter joy, an outburst of raptuous emotion that England has needed for a while,

What must it feel like to be Ben Stokes, England’s hero of the day?  Almost single-handed he blasted the last sixty or seventy runs needed, and saved the match and the Ashes for England.  Even the oft-depressed Sir Geoffrey Boycott was exuberant:  “I’ve seen some remarkable cricket moments in my life but that is the best I’ve seen in over 50 years. Ben Stokes  saved the Ashes and gave a magical inspirational innings.”

Now, we go forward to the fourth match of the series, with the scores one win each, with one draw.  England already seems happy with its bowlers and now, with this magnificent batting effort in the second innings eclipsing our disastrous first innings outing, we can look forward with confidence to the final two matches.

Baseball’s Background

March 28, 2019

When I was a young lad in London, many evenings I used to lie under the blankets in the dark listening to American Forces radio. I heard about the 1960 Presidential elections, I heard the News in Special English (what I assume was the basis for Bob & Ray’s wonderful “Slow Talkers of America” skit), and I am pretty sure that was where I first heard Bob Newhart. But mostly I enjoyed the word pictures conjured up by the wonderful commentators on boxing and baseball.

I was aware of baseball in a general way because, in those Cold War days, there was a US Air Force base nearby and they occasionally allowed us to visit to watch inter-service games. For a boy brought up on cricket and rugby and soccer, this game — so much like rounders which in England was only played by young girls — seemed tame, slow, and frankly boring.  For good or ill, I have never grown out of that opinion, even as I recognise that this view is not shared by the millions of the game’s supporters.

All this is to introduce a review of Davis Block’s “Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball.” 

“David Block’s 2005 book Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game … persuasively argues that an early form of baseball (known by that name) was well-established in England by the mid-eighteenth century. In his new book, Pastime Lost, published just in time for the opening of the 2019 Major League Baseball season, Block reports on his research in the intervening years, adding a good deal of new evidence …

Baseball in those early days did not include bats. The ball was soft and was struck by hand … Beyond the bare bones of the game—that it included running to bases and returning “home”—we still know very little. But I think any fair-minded reader of Block’s book will conclude that he’s made his case.”

Whether the sport was developed in England or invented by Abner Doubleday, both Brock’s history and the reviewer note that baseball has been subject to constant change. I happen to believe it has changed these days into little more than a way in which vast and unseemly wealth is lavished on a few lucky players.  I am astonished that professional cricketers can now make a million or more a year but that pales into insignificance when compared to the $10 million, $20 million, $30 million a year contracts that are becoming commonplace in Major Baseball.

I remain unconvinced that this change is good for this or any sport.

We Are The Champions!

March 16, 2019

Today, Wales Rugby won the 6 Nations Championship; more than that, they scored a Grand Slam by beating each of the other five countries. In today’s final game, we crushed Ireland who, before the Championships, were clear favourites. It is a glorious day!

I have followed Welsh rugby for 60 years, and I was privileged to have grown up with heroes such as Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, and so many other great players. But, seriously, I believe that today’s captain of Wales, Alun Wyn Jones, is probably the best player we have ever had.


Very much looking forward to the Rugby World Cup later this year.  Look out All Blacks!

A Busy Morning, So Far

February 9, 2019

This morning I watched a so-so game of rugby in which Ireland beat Scotland. Because I wasn’t transfixed by the game on the screen, I managed to finish doing the taxes for the Everloving and me.  This is definitely the earliest I have ever got them done.

I have to say that one of the benefits of being old and poor (along with bus passes, free drugs, and grocery deliveries) is the lack of paperwork.  None of those complicated deduction and benefit schedules for us, oh no: just the basic form to fill out and enjoyment of the “zero balance payable” before licking the stamp and sending it off.

Now I can sit back and watch Wales rugby destroy Italy without a care in the world. Except … I am delaying having to deal with the major damage to our patio caused by the gale-force winds last night.  I have some confidence that Wales will put me in a mood sufficient to face that freezing ordeal.

In Memoriam: Manchester United 1958

February 6, 2019