Thursday, April 23, 2009

How bout them Bruins

I am in the vestibule to the post office reviewing the mail that has arrived in my post office box. A man whisks past me positively beaming. The woman at the counter greets him with similar enthusiasm.

"How 'bout those Bruins?" she says to him.
"How 'bout those Bruins," he shakes his head and responds not as a question, but as if to say, "Can you beat that?"

Last night the Boston Bruins swept the Montreal Canadiens in their best of seven hockey playoff series. Superficial acquaintances and strangers have bonded in Boston over this news. They are enjoying the day partly because the Canadiens and the Bruins are rivals, and partly because it is a relief to have cleared the initial hurdle in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. My dear friend Barry Poppel who is referred to in the epilogue to March Madness: Bonding and Betting with the Boys is similarly, but not completely, relieved. His Rangers are up 3-1 in their series with the Washington Capitals. They need one more victory and their fans are sufficiently knowledgeable to be aware that the series is not over before the rotund lady is crooning. But still, 3-1, is better than 1-3 and how 'bout them Rangers.

Throughout Boston, New York, and other cities the hockey and playoff fever is co-mingling with the beginnings of baseball season. Last night I heard a distressed sports talk show host worrying about--of all things--whether the prospects of a rainout would throw the Red Sox pitching rotation into disarray. The season is only fifteen games old. On ESPN a fellow who seems to hibernate from May until March, has been omnipresent predicting who will be selected in this year's NFL football draft. The draft will be held on Saturday in New York and this event is a reflection if there ever was one of fan culture. People stand in line for hours to attend the draft. The draft is televised annually and it consists of nothing more than teams identifying the players from the college ranks that they have chosen to hire to play for their respective teams. Imagine a national network televising Xerox, Toyota, Dow-Chemical, and thirty other executives sitting around and picking the best college graduates for their companies--and there being a crazed audience waiting to hear the selections identified.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Boston/Patriots Day/fans

My friend Kenny annually travels from his home in Hyde Park, New York to Boston for Patriots Day. Even for those from Boston, the day is almost always refreshingly exciting, but for those outside of the area it is difficult to describe the energy in the city--and how it reflects the pervasive interest in sport in contemporary society.

We drove to Fenway Park for the 11 a.m. Red Sox game via a circuitous route because the normal route to the ball park is blocked off. The normal route was blocked off because at the same time the Red Sox play their annual Patriots Day morning game, thousands of marathon runners begin the 26.2 mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston. We arrived at the game and were up in what are called "the monster seats"--seats apparently built into the left field wall at the park. There, despite the 40 degree weather--Red Sox zealots discussed the plight of the team, the slump of David Ortiz, the injuries to "Dice-K" and all sorts of other travails as the Red Sox pummelled the Orioles 12-1. Down from the stands we wanted to stop into a restaurant for lunch. The lines to get into the several establishments near the park were enormous with potential patrons shivering in an array of Red Sox jackets, caps, knit hats, sweatshirts, and all sorts of fandom paraphernalia. We discovered a place about a mile away with no waiting, but soon were crammed in with Red Sox fans discussing the victory. Outside, less than a hundred yards away, the marathoners are streaming down Boylston street finishing the last half mile of the journey. Inside the restaurant is a woman draped in an aluminum blanket. She is with her clan and tells us that she finished the race in 2 hours and 38 minutes--an outstanding time--and now is in the tavern to, as she put it, "hydrate".

We travel downtown by subway and see two women in the car wearing Celtics jerseys. They are going to the Boston Garden to watch the Celtics play in their first round playoff game against the Chicago Bulls. A rider gets on and discusses the nuances of the series with the women. He gets off one stop later and wishes the fans well. At another stop, a gentleman wearing a Bruins jacket hops on the train. I asked if the Bruins are playing tonight. He tells me that they are. They're up in Montreal he tells me. And then proceeds as he holds onto the strap above my head to explain how a Bruins player has been suspended for the contest. He shakes his head and makes a face to say, "Tough to win when your star is out." He is worried. I wish him well and he says, earnestly, "thanks" like someone grateful for the good wishes toward a speedy recovery of some illness.

We walk into a tavern called The Black Rose. There we meet a runner who claims to have completed his twentieth consecutive marathon today. I congratulate him on this feat and then he offers as modestly as one can about such a thing, that one year he ran the marathon twice in one day. In response to my astonishment he tells me that on the eventful day he began in the early morning at the finish line, ran out to the starting line, and then returned back with the thousands during the race. He explains that he is an "ultra marathoner".

Later on, we have dinner in a place called the Union Oyster House. We sit at the bar for our meal. To our right is a family from Chicago who has come to root on a son who finished the race in the top twenty. The kid looks fresh as a daisy, the parents are beaming. At the same time they discuss the son's race they are looking at the tv screen watching the Celtics/Chicago Bulls playoff game that the subway riders had been off to. On another screen members of the family are watching the Bruins hockey game. During our dinner several marathoners come and go telling us their tales of the race. The last of the group is a trio--two from Minneapolis one from Washington State. The three met in college in California. One of the three--the woman, a teacher from Washington, has just completed the race and the other two--now wed--have come to root her on. The runner is all smiles and looks like she could run another mile or two. All three talk of the sports energy in the city.

When the Celtics beat the Bulls on a last second shot the Union Oyster House explodes.

Red Sox win. Celtics win. Bruins win despite the suspension. Marathon runners are beaming.

A baseball game, marathon race, hockey and basketball game--the city shut down one day for the joy of sport.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

interview with Mike Schikman

One of the perks of writing The Madness of March: Bonding and Betting with the Boys in Las Vegas, is that I have gotten to meet and speak with sports talk hosts in various parts of the country. Last night I was on the air on WSVA 550 a.m. with Mike Schikman on his program Speaking Of. Mike is the voice of the James Madison University Dukes and had read an advance copy of the book when it first came out as an advance copy in January. He had contacted the University of Nebraska Press and we arranged to meet. I had an opportunity to see Mike face to face at the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Richmond last month. Not only do we share a common interest in sports, but we discovered in another example of "it's a small world" and only "six degrees of separation" that Mike went to high school with one of my first cousins.

Mike, as has been the case with nearly all the radio folks with whom I have spoken, was well prepared for the interview asking questions reflecting his familiarity with the book, insights on sports culture, and an awareness of his listeners' interests. I am not surprised that he has been successful on the air for thirty years.

One question that recurs in these interviews pertains to the pervasiveness of betting and the potential for insidious consequences because of betting. My comment during the interviews is the same as the one I make in the book. The people who travel to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the tournament are first and foremost, fans--not bettors. Yes, they wager on the games, but what draws them to las vegas is the desire to be with like minded zealots for four days watching games that they love to watch. Moreover, I believe that while there have been some negative consequences because of betting--and there are some people who bet too much--the idea that betting should be eliminated is not a well thought out one. It is analogous to prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages because some people abuse alcohol or do destructive things because of drinking excessively.

Mike Schikman and nearly all the other radio hosts have been gracious and very supportive of the book. Mike even mentioned last night that the book would be a great father's day gift. I am sure that the people at the University of Nebraska press would join me in endorsing this recommendation.

Friday, April 17, 2009

fan culture

When Bill Rasmussen, the pioneer for ESPN, first had the idea of a 24 hour sports network, he thought the idea was brilliant. He knew there were many zealots like himself who could not get enough watching and listening about games. Rasmussen presented his idea to executives and they all ridiculed the notion. Now ESPN is a staple of television viewing with ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN-News, ESPN360, as well as similar networks dedicated to all sports all the time.

Tomorrow, Saturday April 16th there will be four consecutive NBA playoff games broadcast. The same full slate with four different games will be televised on Sunday. The NHL playoffs is in full swing and baseball games are omnipresent on tv and radio as well.

As a kid my brother and I eagerly waited for the five minutes of radio sports news that came on at 445 and 545 on WOR in New York. 645-7 was a bonanza with 15 minutes of sports news.

The extent of appetite for broadcast news and play by play for games has been and will continue to be nearly insatiable.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

season change

Sports fans are aware of what summer and spring refer to but identify seasons in terms of the sports that are played during periods of time. College basketball season just ended with the Connecticut women's team making you wonder how they would do in the men's Patriot League as they pummeled everyone in their way en route to a championship.

We are now approaching the NHL/NBA playoff season and have begun baseball season.

For true football fans, this is not baseball, basketball, or hockey season--but the off season. Football zealots tolerate the other sports as a sort of anesthetic or, at best, a way to pass the time until football season begins. Football fans, during the off season, count months before the first preseason game. For them, we are now 2.5 months into the ordeal and they must yet endure the remaining 3.5 months before training camp. Baseball and the playoffs will make the wait somewhat tolerable. The day before and after the AllStar game in July looms as the most difficult days ahead for the true sports fan.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

north carolina

Michigan State gave it up on Saturday night and just had nothing left to match the excellence of UNC last night. Had they faced an inferior team or one that was not coached as well, Michigan State might have been able to use the energy from their supporters and whatever reserves they had to mount a victory. But against Ty Lawson who is one of the better players I have seen play in some time, and the rest of the rarely missing UNC team, Michigan State just seemed spent most of the night.

For sports fans tonight's CT game against Louisville marks the end of the college basketball season. The next season will not be spring, but baseball season with professional basketball and hockey playoffs providing the cherries on top.

Monday, April 6, 2009

new york post

When I was a boy my dad brought home the New York Post each day when he returned from work. This was when New York had the Post, News, Mirror, Herald Tribune, New York Times, and Daily American. The Post at the time was in the top tier of prestigious papers then and only below the Times and the Tribune in terms of intellectual news content.

For me, however, the Post was the sports section. It was terrific with several articles each day on the major sports teams. There was one part of the Post, however, that I did not understand. It was a regular article written by someone who was suggesting wagers on games. Each day he would report in language that was not decipherable--at least by a ten year old--the results of his last night's effort, how much he was up for the season, and how much he attempted to plunk down that night on whoever. I could not follow it even after making serious attempts.

Now, I get it. I still do not understand the allure, and wonder if betting on games can reduce the excitement of a contest as much as enhance it. But I understand it.

And I understand how following your bets can become something of a contest with or without money. Betting can be something like a daily suduku ritual, bet on the game, follow the 2009 version of the Post article to which I refer, and see how you are doing for the year.

I will try to recall the language of the Post column with what I write below about this weekend's attempt at predicting the unpredictable.

"Good weekend for Z what with Connecticut women winning on the money line as projected and Louisville not only getting within 4 1/2 but taking the game altogether, also as forecast. And, anomaly of anomalies, another two for two correctly forecast on Saturday night with Michigan State taking the men from Storrs, and North Carolina waving goodbye to Philadelphia's V-men. Someone send a tweet to Ripley's to record this atypical wisdom. Tonight Z will try to make you forget the Hurricane. Place the tokens on the under. Don't like betting the under but 153 1/2? I don't think so. Word to the wise: the last time Z picked five in a row was during the early days of the Ford administration."

Something like that.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Louisville Connecticut

Tonight's women's basketball game between Stanford and Connecticut will be as exciting as any contest a fan is likely to see. It will be difficult to top last night's game between Michigan State and the men from Connecticut, but the women from Connecticut will do just that.

Connecticut will prevail over Stanford, but the 10 1/2 points of lumber is too much. I say take Connecticut on the money line. Louisville will get within the 4 1/2 point spread in their game against Oklahoma. Even the state of Oklahoma will have 64,000 reasons to root for Louisville since the star of the Sooner team has vowed to give back her scholarship money if her team is unsuccessful.

If I sound like I know what I am talking about, it is an illusion. I do know that anyone who doubts the athleticism of women basketball players will be disabused of that notion when watching the Connecticut women this evening. Nearly every man I met in Las Vegas would lose to the last woman on the Connecticut bench 15-0 in a game of one on one (this is before the beer).

I did notice this year a greater percentage of women at the sports books and that percentage is likely to increase as respect for women's sports continues to get the media coverage it has earned.

Emotion in Detroit

In the post game show last night, Coach Jim Calhoun of Connecticut commented that the team they played was not the same Michigan State team he observed when reviewing tapes prior to the contest. I have not studied or even seen those tapes, but it was obvious last night that Michigan State was playing with an intensity and energy that is rarely seen. I have not seen such intensity since John Wooden's last game as coach when a fellow named Andre McCarter zoomed around the court as if he was motorized in an attempt to ensure that Wooden would leave the game a champion (and he did).Coach Tom Izzo in his post game conference said that maybe what his team did last night might provide some joy to a region that has been ravaged during these economic times.

Emotion is such a large part of sports and life. It often trumps logic and can be a stimulus for exceeding what would appear to be logical capabilities. On paper Michigan State should lose to Connecticut. The game was played in Detroit however, not far from the Michigan State campus. Emotion does not always have such positive effects as it can trump logic in a way that can be unhealthy, but in sports emotion coupled with preparation can produce a Michigan State team that plays inspirationally and explains why there is factor in sports called, "home court advantage".

Hurricane would have been proud of me last night. I picked the over on the 133 Ct game, and that North Carolina would beat the spread. Both were winners. Unlike Hurricane, however, I know these successes were aberrations.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Predictions 143

I commented in an earlier post that a fellow named Hurricane called in on a talk show and announced that he was a prognosticator. I had said--and maintain--that betting on college basketball games is like betting on the flip of a coin. He contended that someone with wisdom might be able to predict well. He was not convincing to me. The appeal of las vegas during sporting events is less due to the prospects of a large payday, but more because of the ride of being with like minded cheering individuals during contests.

It was with great embarrassment that I listened to my podcast with Howard Schwartz recorded on the Wednesday before the tournament. The podcast was,for the most part, great and Howard Schwartz and his bookshop is nothing short of a jewel for any sports fan--regardless of your enthusiasm for betting. Howard is not only an extraordinary raconteur who is a joy to listen to and be with, but his store is a gold mine for the sports enthusiast. Nevertheless, I listened to my response to Howard's inquiry about my predictions and rationale for them. I made three predictions because--of course--I knew that you can't predict them all. I explained why I made these predictions. Hurricane will be delighted to read that I was wrong on all three counts.

Despite this--and despite my claim that you can not win betting on college basketball--I continue to be asked by those who know I wrote this book about my predictions. So, with all the preceding as a caveat, for those who may be interested: Bet the over on the Connecticut game. It is at 133. It will come in at 143. I like that number. Also, take North Carolina and give the points against Villanova and run.

tournament and media

Al McGuire the late Marquette coach once called the semi finals of the NCAA tournament the most exciting day in college basketball. His comment resonated with me then probably because that is precisely the way I felt. I can remember setting aside this day and making sure I had no plans for the five or six hours when the games would be played.

Now, I feel differently and I don't believe I am an aberration. The excitement of the tournament for me now is not the end of it, but the beginning. At this point each year the teams that have survived are from a group that everyone expected to survive. With the rare exception of George Mason University a few years ago, the final four matchups create enthusiasm mostly in Chapel Hill, Connecticut, East Lansing, and Philadelphia--sites of the survivors who had been among the pretournament elite.

The change in fandom significance of the final four is based on a number of factors. A major factor is the tournament exposure on television. When Al McGuire made his comment, few games from the preliminary rounds were broadcast. It was not until the late 1970s when then espn decided to televise all the tournament games. Now, CBS owns the rights to do so and, while not to the same extent that ESPN did, broadcasts nearly all of the games. (ESPN did not take dinner breaks and you could turn on the tube at 2 a.m. and see the replay of a game played between eastern kentucky and say northern iowa in case you missed a minute earlier when you were watching Miami of Ohio play against say Long Beach State).

By this time in 2009, fans could have watched 60 games so the last five are of relatively little import to someone outside of the regions where the contests are played. Sure there is interest, but it is not like it was in the 1970s. Someone who previously would never consider a movie and dinner on the night of the final four, may figure they will catch the highlights on espn when they return from the restaurant since they have already watched forty to sixty games in the tournament.

To be sure, televising games has done much more to enhance the visibility of the tournament than it has in eroding fandom. Seth Davis's book that, alas, is selling better than mine, makes the claim that what made march madness was the Bird-Johnson game in 1979. He is incorrect. That game was great (partly because Bird's Indiana State was such a sleeper and underdog). However, what made march madness was not any championship game, but the decision (and available technology) to telecast the first 48 games. The access to sports created fans and excited existing fans.

Friday, April 3, 2009


I had a radio interview with a fellow from NPR in Las Vegas yesterday. In the course of the conversation he told me that Ballys would be temporarily closing its sports book for a few months. Later I went on line and saw a story about the closing. The reason given was that business was down due to the turbulence with the economy.

There was no evidence of any downturn at Ballys when I was in Las Vegas in mid March for the first few days of the tournament. Ballys, always a popular venue, was packed very early on Thursday morning and nearly every time I went to view the games there during the weekend.

Along with the Venetian, the Imperial Palace, Paris, and Caesars, Ballys was a regular stop for me in 2007 while I watched the games and the people for the Madness of March: Bonding and Betting with the Boys in Las Vegas. I bonded and betted with many of the boys in Ballys as readers may remember.

Bettors, no doubt, are shaking their heads sadly at this news. The odds are very good that Ballys will be back. The prediction is that it will reopen in the Fall. I think it is wise, in this instance, to take the under.