Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Titles make great players, not the other way round

Blip?

I was at the ATP Finals at the O2 on Sunday, for the excellent Goffin – Dimitrov final. As good as the match was, there was a feeling that the understudies were taking centre stage. No Rafa, no Roger. No Murray or Djokovic.

The lack of “Big 4” players at the end of year finale was acute, made real by their selling power. Djokovic was omnipresent at North Greenwich tube, fronting a Lacoste ad. Inside the 02, the merchandise stall was selling flags – but only the Swiss and Spanish. No Belgium or Bulgaria, the nationalities of the finalists.


Men’s tennis has become complacent. In the year-end tour finals, six of the last 10 years have been exclusively between the Big 4. Their dominance in the Grand Slams is well documented, but as a reminder, since 2006, it’s been only Wawrinka (x3), Cilic and Del Potro that have broken through the hegemony.

Perhaps complacency is harsh – the men’s game has been lucky, blessed even. So when injury and upset take out the big guns, it’s hardly the fault of the men left that they lack gravitas. As several people pointed out, it was the first ATP tour final between two non-grand slam winners.


Ironically, that had become more likely by the dominance of a few players in the slams. What did we expect? Federer and Nadal to go on for ever?

We have entered an unprecedented stage in tennis. With Federer and Nadal on 19 and 16 majors respectively, and Djokovic on 12, they have transcended the prestige of the events themselves. A final without any of the big 4 (or 5 if you want to count Wawrinka) is somehow diminished. It’s easy to be dismissive. The 2014 US Open final between Cilic and Nishikori? A blip. The ATP Finals with Goffin and Dimitrov? Interesting, but so what?

If Dimitrov lands a major or two in the next few years, it will be tempting to post-rationalise the final just gone as a watershed moment; equally, if he doesn’t, it’s just another of the occasional outliers.

As fans and writers, we need to remind ourselves that it is the title that confers greatness on the players, not the other way around. We do get one-off winners of major titles, and it is legitimate to say that they are not a truly great player until they deliver on the big stage again. But we should be careful not to diminish the achievements of yet-to-be-great players along the way. As much fun as 2017’s greatest hits has been with Federer and Nadal ruling the roost, I would love to see the majors go to a few new winners.

Sport Geek #82: punting, kickoffs and pomnishambles

 

No tennis for now – I’m going to the O2 tennis later this week and might share a few thoughts. For now, some great reading.

NFL

The brain damage story just gets scarier

Colin, GQs person of the year.

Also – could the best player in the league be a punter?

RUGBY

Georgia – stuck in rugby’s equivalent of the middle income trap.

FOOTBALL

Iceland – how did a country of only 330,000 people get to the World Cup?

Why are kickoffs so predictable and poorly executed?

Why sacking the manager is pointless (again).

Plus – an unknown English manager working miracles in Sweden

CRICKET

Ellyse Perry is no ordinary cricketer

Afghanistan – Test status, but now what?

Plus the inside story of the Ashes pomnishambles.

BASEBALL

How the Astros tanked their way to the top.

And the strange tale of how a girl posed as a disgusting man to get ahead in baseball journalism.

 

Cheers

Sport Geek #81: booze, Bills, and the curse of brilliance

Been a few weeks, so here’s a focus on less-timely-but-nontheless-interesting things you should/could read about sport. Crack on.

FOOTBALL

No Russia trip for you! What’s gone wrong with US football? The Economist puts it well – the sporting equivalent of the Middle Income Trap.

The most exciting football team on the planet.

NBA

Quartz on how data analytics have transformed the NBA – and not necessarily for the better.

How LeBron James gets punished for being too brilliant.

CRICKET

Does cricket have a drinking problem? Or is it just simply, nearly, utterly dead?

TRUMP & NFL

Perhaps my favourite headline of the moment: “Inside Donald Trump’s Shady Scheme to Keep Jon Bon Jovi from Buying the Buffalo Bills

F1

A piece full of stats about Lewis Hamilton to prove that he’s more than just statistically great? OK then.

WORLD SERIES

How do you possibly describe everything that happened in the Astro’s 7-6 win over the Dodgers? The NYTimes takes on the near-impossible task.

TENNIS

I love this stat – Nadal is the only player on tour who wins more games than he loses from serving at 15-40.

LASTLY / FFS

Pole dancing: could it one day become an Olympic sport?

Cheerio

Sport Geek #80: Trump vs Sport

Here are six thoughts on the Trump vs Sports saga.

Another day, another unbelievably offensive tweet. Trump just keeps on. The question is, at what point does this go from appealing to his core, to putting them off? Greg Popovich asked that question brilliantly. Love Greg.

If I was an NFL owner, and my team needed a QB backup, I’d sign Colin Kaepernick in a heartbeat. He’s got the tools. Half the league has gone down on one knee now, so surely his brand isn’t that toxic any more? It could be a tactical and marketing masterstroke.

Imagine this in the UK. You can’t. Why not? Well, we don’t ram the national anthem down everyone’s throats every match. Internationals, yes. Premiership games, no. (And our police don’t shoot black guys all the time.) America could do itself a favour by toning down the flag-patriotism-God-on-our-side rhetoric. But it won’t.

The NFL is in a bind. The players are mainly black. The fans are largely white, and right-leaning. The boos at the knee protests are awful. ‘Those uppity black guys disrespecting the flag!’ Owners have taken their players’ side for now, but for how long? If this gets ugly, with crowds staying away and ratings down, how could they reverse the tide? Fire the whole team, as Trump would prefer? That’s not going to work. Their only hope is that it blows over. That’s unlikely – this started over a year ago and is just getting a head of steam. In most sports, the fans and players have a bond; in the NFL, the bond seemed fairly weak in the first place. Now?

The NFL has bigger long term problems: head injuries, fewer kids playing at school, tactics that have made the game a bit dull (short passes in particular), the rise of soccer. This race row isn’t a sport in crisis. It will however distract the league from those other problems, none of which are going away.

At the heart of all this is the utter stupidity of America. A protest about racial injustice (equality and justice being core American ideals) has been morphed into disrespecting your country. I’m not sure if this is alt-right mendacity or just white blood dumbness. Either way, Americans have shown themselves up again. It makes Saudi Arabia look enlightened (hey, women can drive now!).

TRUMP: MORE

Trash talk – sports does it better than Trump.

This story was fading until Trump gave it a shot in the arm.

This might be mainly about the NFL, but LeBron James has been the most eloquent.

TENNIS

Not heard of the Laver Cup? Well, it’s how the Davis Cup should be.

Maria Sharapova’s feud with Serena Williams, explained.

Rafael Nadal is not just the king of clay.

Sloane et al – are we about to see a US revival?

BOXING

Obit of Raging Bull Jake LaMotta. Read.

BASEBALL

Who still likes Friends? Baseball players, that’s who.

FOOTBALL

The rebirth of Leeds United.

It’s raining penalties in the Champions League – but what’s behind the increase?

How professional number crunchers are giving football clubs a competitive advantage.

Bye!

Sport Geek #79: 9,000 yards, arm wrestling, and an Apple Watch

The US Open is underway, so nothing recommended here other than to stay tuned. FWIW I think it’s been a hugely interesting event, with the women’s draw wide open, and one half of the men’s reading like a minor ATP 250 event. Great story lines: CoCo, Venus, Kanepi, that DelPo match. Tennis has entered a weird period with ageless veterans and a unknown emerging pool.

I’ve not done a round up for a while (summer and all that) so here’s a few things recent and not quite so.

UGLY

Stealing signs in baseball with an Apple Watch? Yup.

The Guardian looks at how Bahrain uses sport to whitewash a legacy of torture and human rights abuses.

TALL TENNIS

Are tall players the future? The NYTimes looks at the height thing. Plus the Economist looks at Zverev, who is both tall and possibly the Next Big Thing (pun intended).

LONG GOLF

Do we really need to lengthen golf courses? Golf Monthly asks the question. Some have already made their minds up – 9,000 yards?

NFL

Top read: Aaron Rodgers, unmasked.

FOOTBALL

Neymar: crunching the finances is Nick Harris in the Mail. Forget the shirt sales argument, for one.

Expected goals starts to move into the mainstream.

How do you quantify finishing skill?

Penalty-takers: pure luck?

ARM WRESTLING

Go on.

ATHLETICS

Usain Bolt in charts.

WOMEN’S SPORT

Can it break through to become self-sufficient?

Cheers

The Olympics needs a new hosting blueprint. Here’s one.

Paris Olympics, earlier

The latest round of Olympic bidding has highlighted what has been known for ages: that hosting the Games is a BAD IDEA.

Paris and LA have been awarded the 2024 and 2028 events. No other cities were in the running, after several, including Rome, Boston and Hamburg dropped out.

The Winter Games bidding for 2022 was a similarly feeble contest, with Almaty and Beijing the last two standing. Beijing – a city with no snow – won.

Why has the Olympics become so toxic?

The main reason is cost. Who can sell the idea of spending anything from $10bn – $50bn to a population that is feeling the pinch? Even populist dictators might baulk at the expense.

But costs are OK if there are benefits. Clearly, the benefits have been exposed as a bit of a con. Soft power? There are cheaper ways. Tourism? It actually drops. Infrastructure boost? Do it anyway, if it’s worth it. Happy population? Not necessarily.

So what would be a better way of hosting the Games? Here are a few ideas that are frequently put forward, and my thoughts on their strengths.

Idea #1: pare it down

The Olympics is too big as it is. If you want to make hosting affordable, get rid of sports that don’t need to be there. Football, tennis, golf – there are bigger prizes in those sports. Politically tricky, but doable.

Problem is, that still leaves a lot of events, and in any case, the main costs always seems to be the centrepiece athletics stadium, the athletes village, and the infrastructure. Cutting out a few events won’t help here.

Idea #2: joint cities

This has a certain appeal. Joint city hosting would spread the cost, surely? Not quite. The only example of joint hosting of a recent major event is the World Cup of 2002 between Korea and Japan. That was not a great success, with both countries building expensive stadiums and infrastructure. Rather than splitting the cost, it merely added to it.

For the Olympics, it would present a tricky branding challenge – every Games is “City year” eg London 2012. I guess you could have Rome-Madrid 2036 or whatever, but it’s less appealing. The city backdrop is part of the experience – think Rio’s beach or Sydney harbour. While the World Cup hops from stadium to stadium, an Olympics has a ‘village’ and a base. Two bases would be odd.

Further, where do you have the opening and closing ceremonies? The 100m final? It would be fine to divvy up some events, but the location of the showpiece athletics would naturally make the Games forever associated with that host, not the other.

Idea #3: spread far and wide

An Olympics with events around the globe sounds inclusive and idealistic, but it would have all the problems of idea #2 and more. One of the main ideas is that spectators can visit the city and see a range of sports, not just one. There would be no cohesive experience which would annoy lots of fans. Broadcasters would hate it – it would be far more expensive and hard to cover.

The experience of the Euro 2020 will be interesting in this regard – it’s taking part in 12 cities. If it somehow works (big if), spreading the Olympics *might* become an idea that takes off. Unlikely.

Idea #4: permanent hosts

Some have suggested a single permanent Summer and Winter host. I think that’s a bad idea, for several reasons. One, monotony. Two – it places quite a burden on the host city. Instead, the IOC should pick five cities that rotate the Games. Each would represent their continent, and the IOC would be have the extra incentive to invest some of the broadcast revenue in keeping the infrastructure maintained.

This has a lot of appeal – theoretically no more white elephant stadiums, crumbling facilities or overspending.

There are downsides: with a gap of 20 years, it’s possible that things fall apart anyway. The Olympic roster changes, which means new facilities would always be needed; stadiums will still be unused (or underused) for two decades.

However, picking the right hosts would mitigate those downsides. Cities that are big enough to cope with the set-aside of facilities could easily be found – London, Tokyo, LA would be great candidates.

The downside is regional jealousy. China would want to be a permanent host, for sure. As would the US. That might annoy Canada or Japan. But given that there is a dearth of cities with the current system, it might be a better plan.

The other positives to a permanent city plan is that it would kill off the expensive bidding process, which also would stop the bribery and backhanders. The IOC would have to reform from a princely tour of spoilt delegates to a proper administrative commission – a far better outcome. Cities would have far longer to plan, meaning cost overruns should be a thing of the past, or at least less likely. Hosts wouldn’t have to cut corners to get the Games ready. In any case, it would be a question of upgrading facilities, not a rush job of building from scratch in 7 years.

The benefit of putting on an Olympics is pretty small. Tourism suffers, rather than getting a boost. Countries that want to boost their profile have any other number of ways to do it – host a world championships, finance a Grand Prix, host an expo or something. The Olympics is too big to be used as a political tool anyway.

The other upside of permanent hosts is that it is also closer to the original Olympic ethos, which was to have the Games in the same location each time. Evolving that into five Olympic hosts – one for each of the rings, which could be a nice marketing touch – makes sense.

Anyway. Don’t hold your breath.

 

Sport Geek #78: worst 20s, Venus rising, a breakdown breakdown

WIMBLEDON

It’s on, Murray is out, and there’s lots to talk about. What can we do about retirements? Here’s a good run down of all the options – and which might be least bad. Of all the 30-year-olds still at the top, the resurgence of Venus Williams is perhaps the most remarkable.

During the Nadal-Muller match, my wife remarked that it was surely a big advantage for Muller to be serving first in that marathon 5th set. So is it? Apparently not. Although that analysis is a few years old, it won’t have changed much. And lastly, does the Wimbledon seeding system work?

FOOTBALL

So how does a football transfer really work? Key feature: WhatsApp.

The worst 20 seconds of football ever? As several people pointed out, it’s hard to tell who’s actually attacking…

RUGBY

A fantastic anatomy of a rugby turnover – if you will, the breakdown of a breakdown – all the bits that lead up to it. The English isn’t perfect, but stick with it.

OLYMPICS

Why any city wants to host the Games is beyond me. Of course, dictators are usually up for it, but Paris and LA? They hardly need the exposure. Here we go again. This sums up many feelings.

BASEBALL

People really care how far home runs go. I don’t get why – it’s a home run, just enjoy it. Anyway, the stadium kinda gets in the way, leading to lots of clever maths.

CRICKET

T20 and data. T20 and data! Nerd heaven. And lastly, why are there so many South African cricketers in England?

Sport Geek #77: 15 from 1, 700th in the world, and nothingness

Good afternoon sports fans.

RUGBY / LIONS

As the Lions prepare for the second test, the greatest challenge in world rugby since last week, here are two questions to ponder. One, should the Lions pick 15 players from one team (via Economist)? In terms of results, it might be better; in terms of ethos, I say – what’s the point? The other is why the All Blacks are so good. The FT has a stab at answering.

GENDER TENNIS

Was McEnroe right to say that Serena would only be around 700 in the world on the men’s tour? To my mind, it’s a non-starter. Comparing across the sexes is pointless, and only gets people unnecessarily annoyed. Anyway, Vox has a good explainer here.

NFL ECONOMICS

How much is a quarterback really worth? Nobody actually knows, even with Derek Carr’s contract. Here’s a great rundown via the Ringer.

BASEBALL AND THE ABSENCE OF ACTION

What happens to a sport when nothing happens? Sports Illustrated gets existential.

BOXING

Remember when Mike Tyson took a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear? the Guardian goes back in time.

Cheers

Sport Geek #76: meta-doc; clay GOATS; and living Gods

RUGBY (LIONS! LIONS!)

Not every sport makes a great documentary. Not every documentary is SO good that it is the subject of its own documentary. Living with Lions is that documentary.

NFL

The league just isn’t set up to cope with tanking. But that’s what’s going on. (BBC)

BOXING

I have yet to see an article that thinks the McGregor-Mayweather fight is a good idea. Here are two very different styles on saying why it’s very bad: dogshit (Deadspin) or idiocy (The Guardian).

NBA

How the Warriors duped the NBA (FiveThirtyEight). Or, put another way (via the Economist) how they have broken basketball.

Also: the truth about the hot hand. (ESPN)

TENNIS

The greatest clay-courter ever? A great piece comparing the achievements of Evert and Nadal on the red stuff. (Tennis.com)

BASEBALL

What does it feel like to get hit by a pitch? (ESPN)

FOOTBALL

How Iran’s success reflects the failures of Asian football. (Economist)

ICYMI

The Age of the Living God: Superstars are staying superstars for longer than ever. (The Ringer)

Numbers, racism, terrorism and the media: why we can’t get it right

Was the man who drove a van into the public in Finsbury last night (June 18) a terrorist? The question isn’t meant to be a racially-motivated one (we’ll come to that), but a question of numbers.

If three people plan an attack using a van and knives, that’s clearly terror. A lone man drives a car onto a pavement? Is that terror or just murder?

If terror requires an ideological target, then the car attack on Westminster Bridge was terror, and so was the attack on Muslims gathered after prayer. In fact, in both cases the attacker was shouting their motives out loud, so we don’t have to dig too deeply to ascribe a motive. But calling both men terrorists is deeply unhelpful.

The problem here is that if every racially-motivated attack is terror, where do we stop? We are in a constant reporting of a terror war, which only serves to inspire the extremists on both sides. Yet to call it (merely?) a hate crime is a big step, especially if the authorities are calling it terror.

To try and take terror out of the equation for lone attackers now is also a problem of the sequence of incidents. Muslim attacker (Westminster Bridge) = terrorist; White attacker (Finsbury) = hate crime. That’s not acceptable.

(Manchester was terror, no question – there was a network involved. Jo Cox’s murderer? He was tried for murder, but it was clear it was treated as a terrorist murder – this article explains the nuance.)

It’s also a question of race. Politicians are already striving for equivalence – look at Theresa May’s line that this attack was “every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life” as previous ones. That entire expression ‘every bit’ implies that you’ve already thought it – that Muslims are somehow fair game, as opposed to the people (more white, though not exclusively) in Borough Market. And that you need to check your racism at the door. This is the language of white privilege talking to an ethnic minority, and well-intentioned though it is, there is a code here. Saying ‘we care just as much’ is to assume that somewhere, there’s an assumption of less care, whether it’s you thinking it or me.

The problem that underpins all this is the breathless coverage. We need to move to a media environment where we think more along the lines of suicide reporting – more coverage is NOT a good thing.

It’s worth noting Simon Jenkins on the Westminster attack – his words are just as relevant today:

The actions of the authorities and the media in response to Wednesday have ramped up the hysteria of terror. This was ostensibly a random act by a lone player without access even to a gun. To over-publicise and exaggerate such crimes is to be an accomplice after the act. London’s response to the Westminster attack is an open invitation to every crazed malcontent to try it again.

There have been lots of calls to change our terror reporting. Looking at the coverage today, it’s clear no one is paying attention.

We are stuck in a cycle of labelling every attack as terror, unleashing 24-7 coverage and endless articles, and then wondering why it happens so often. I’d like to think there’s a way out of this dystopian mayhem, but if it starts with relying on the media to tone it down, don’t expect any progress.

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