Wednesday, July 30, 2008

More scandal in soccer

Anyone who thinks Sepp Blatter and FIFA have any integrity left needs to read Andrew Jennings' story today in the Daily Telegraph about how a Swiss court recently ruled that FIFA had made attempts to deceive detectives investigating the missing $45 million embezzled by ISL, FIFA's former marketing agency, and forced them to pay some $57,000 in court costs as a result.

As Jennings writes, "In an extraordinary decision, three judges in Zug hearing a fraud trial into the collapse of Fifa’s former marketing partner, ISL, ruled earlier this month that football’s governing body 'knew more than they told investigators', that their behaviour “was not always in good faith”, and some of their claims 'were not credible.'"

That's pretty significant. FIFA's defence in the whole ISL case was that they didn't find out about the missing money and the kickbacks to top officials until it was too late, even though there was compelling evidence to the contrary. With this ruling, it's shown pretty clearly that the court is certainly skeptical of those claims and that FIFA likely made efforts to impede the investigation. An excellent overview of the case is provided in Jennings' article, and more detail can be found in his great book, but basically, it comes down to ISL running World Cup marketing for decades and paying massive kickbacks to FIFA officials for the right to do so. A solid backgrounder with plenty of detail can be found on the Sport Journalists' Association newsblog, where they relate a speech Jennings gave on the topic to the Play The Game international journalism conference in 2007.

On the court case itself: as a related story from The Canadian Press shows, some of the charges against the ISL executives didn't stick. However, one key figure, Jean-Marie Weber, was convicted of embezzlement. Weber has close ties to FIFA head Sepp Blatter, as related in this article from German news magazine Der Spiegel.

"The investigators are convinced that the money was then transferred from these entities to corrupt officials. But the traces have been wiped clean. Prosecutors believe at least one man knows the names of the beneficiaries, but he's the principal defendant in the trial: 65-year-old Jean-Marie Weber, the former vice-president of the ISMM supervisory board.
During the hearings, Weber behaved like Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor and chairman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), when confronted with charges of illegal party contributions. He kept his secrets to himself. The payments, Weber said under oath, were "confidential" and he intended to respect this "principle of confidentiality." Weber mentioned "commissions" and "fees" which had been paid "in parallel to the purchase or sale of rights."
An attorney from the small Swiss city of Baar described to investigators how silently Weber operated. The attorney had managed the almost six million francs that had been transferred from the Sunbow Foundation to Sicuretta, one of the front companies, in eight separate payments. The attorney said that he had withdrawn the entire sum in cash each time and turned it over to Jean-Marie Weber -- without getting a receipt.
According to the attorney, the money had been earmarked "for the acquisition of rights." The attorney was part of the network. Weber had invited him to attend a match at the football World Cup in Paris in 1998, where he introduced him to the freshly elected FIFA president, Joseph Blatter.
Weber and Blatter have known each other since the 1970s, when both men worked closely with former Adidas CEO Horst Dassler at the German company's corporate branch in the Alsace region of France. Blatter was the technical director of FIFA, Weber was Dassler's personal assistant. Dassler recognized early on how much untapped marketing potential big sporting competitions had for his company. And because he had always enjoyed the best of relations with FIFA officials and the International Olympic Committee, Dassler founded the ISL agency in 1982. He was soon merchandising for both the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
his pioneering phase was probably the period when Jean-Marie Weber learned the art of bribery. The ISL agency's rapid rise to the position of global industry leader, followed by its bankruptcy after 20 years (which ended when ISMM acquired it), apparently went hand in hand with lavish bribery budgets from the very start. One defendant told investigators that since its founding ISL had been involved in the "preferential treatment of important personalities in sports to promote its sports policy and economic goals."
After the early death of Adidas' Horst Dassler in 1987, according to the documents, Jean-Marie Weber took over the job of "cultivating relationships." The Alsace native, who was working without a written employment contract and for whom, at the time of the ISMM bankruptcy, a "base annual salary" of 870,000 Swiss francs had been negotiated, became one of the most mysterious figures in the business of international sports. He was dubbed "the man with the black list" in the industry.
Weber emulated Dassler, his role model. He used Sports Holding AG as a hub for "all sorts of payments that were dangerous from a tax perspective." The investigators learned of this through an attorney who was familiar with the internal procedures."

Hmm... so Blatter's buddy has been sent up the river for embezzlement, and there's convincing testimony implicating Blatter himself from former FIFA finance director Urs Linsi and former FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen. Yet, this is barely drawing any attention in the press, and most of the articles that mention it just briefly talk about FIFA having to pay court costs, with no discussion of the damaging testimony or the implications of this whatsoever. We all know there's plenty of sports scandals, but in my mind, this is the most significant: even the Donaghy case [The Associated Press via The Globe and Mail] didn't directly implicate David Stern? Is it any surprise that Blatter's choosing this week to sound off about "modern slavery" [Matt Lawless, The Daily Telegraph], domestic player development and his ridiculous 6+5 rule [ ], Cristiano Ronaldo [Jack Bell, The New York Times], the Olympics [CBC Sports], and everything else? I see a smokescreen, and the sad thing is, it appears to be working: plenty of people are happy to report on Blatter's various verbal fumblings, but the deeper scandal is going without a lot of coverage.

And we're back!

Well, new posts on this site are back after a prolonged absence. Unfortunately, my work at the Langley Times, the Queen's Journal and Out of Left Field has kept me swamped lately, so I haven't been able to write anything here for quite a while. Hopefully, I'll be able to get back to an average of a post a day shortly, but we'll have to see how it goes. In the meantime, to prove I haven't just been slacking off, here's an edition of the Links of the Day focused on the other sports writing I've been doing (I've done plenty of news, business and entertainment for the Times as well, but this is a sports blog, so I went with some of the sports links):

- A story on Langley pitcher Scott Richmond, who got his first start for the Toronto Blue Jays today [Langley Times].
- A piece I wrote on the Whitecaps' official bid for MLS (and Steve Nash signing on as a co-owner) [Out of Left Field].
- A look at some of the Queen's teams new recruits [Queen's Journal].
- An opinion piece on how the Olympics have always been political [Queen's Journal].
- A story on Queen's appointing three full-time coaches [Queen's Journal].
- A piece I wrote last week on the Nutrilite Canadian Championships soccer series [Out of Left Field].

Some new, original content coming soon!

Friday, July 18, 2008

The GBU: Setting the table

Well, I didn't get the chance to post the recap of last week's B.C. Lions - Winnipeg Blue Bombers game earlier in the week, so I figured I'd save it for now to properly set up tonight's rematch. Here's the GBU breakdown from last week's game in Winnipeg:

Final score: 42-24, B.C.

How I saw it: On TSN.

The Good:

Stefan Logan:
The pint-sized (5'7'', 185 pounds) running back not only filled in for the injured Joe Smith, he did an exceptional job of it, picking up 143 yards on only 18 carries in the CFL's second-best debut performance ever by a running back (the best was Larry Key, way back in 1978). He forced the Bombers to respect the ground attack, opening up passing lanes for the Lions' air attack.

Jarious Jackson: The Lions' quarterback had a fantastic game, going 19 for 24 to pick up 340 yards and 5 aerial touchdowns while only conceding one interception. He also ran twice for 18 yards. As a result, he picked up the CFL's offensive player of the week award. If he continues in this vein of form, the Lions will be formidable opponents this season.

Geroy Simon:
The Lions' star receiver lived up to his billing, making seven catches for an incredible 192 yards and two touchdowns, including one 76-yard catch. He could have padded his stats even further if he hadn't dropped a ball in the end zone.

Javy Glatt:
The B.C. middle linebacker (and SFU product) made six tackles and grabbed two interceptions, earning CFL defensive player of the week honours in the process.

The Bad:
Kevin Glenn:
Pretty much all of the Lions had strong games, but the opposite was true for Winnipeg's star quarterback. He was only 9 for 17 through the air for a meager 86 yards, and was picked off twice.

The Ugly:
Charles Roberts: If Glenn was bad through the air, Winnipeg's running game was even worse. The main culprit was Roberts, usually one of the better running backs in the CFL, who was held to a mere 23 yards rushing on eight attempts.

To watch tonight: Winnipeg will be fired up to get revenge, as well as their first win of the season. A key matchup will be Bombers' middle linebacker Barrin Simpson against Logan: he couldn't stop the ground attack last game, so he'll be fired up to do it now. Also, can Jarious Jackson repeat his virtuoso performance of last week, or will he return to the poor form he showed in the first couple of weeks? It should be a great game.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

CFL: Week IV Picks

Hopefully I'll be able to get/keep weekly CFL picks going here. Here's the first (brief) version: more detail to come in future weeks!

Tonight: Hamilton (1-2) at Calgary (2-1) (TSN, 9 p.m. ET):

Pick: Calgary

Rationale: Calgary's solid offence and quality defence should be enough to beat a Jesse Lumsden-less Tiger-Cats team.

Tomorrow: Winnipeg (0-3) at B.C. (1-2) (TSN, 10 p.m. ET)

Pick: B.C.

Rationale: B.C. and Jarious Jackson finally looked like they were supposed to last week on the road, where they demolished Winnipeg: this week should be round two.

Saturday: Montreal (2-1) at Saskatchewan (3-0)
(TSN, 7 p.m. ET)

Pick: Saskatchewan

No one's looked able to beat Saskatchewan yet, and I don't think the Alouettes will be able to break that streak.

Sunday: Edmonton (2-1) at Toronto (1-2)

Pick: Edmonton

: The Eskimos have looked much better than expected so far, and Ricky Ray should be able to pick apart an old and slow Argo defence that has underwhelmed.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The GBU: Whitecaps draw with TFC

Photo: The Vancouver Whitecaps take on Toronto FC at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium. [Andrew Bucholtz photo].

A bit late getting to this one due to the other work I've had to do, but I was at the Vancouver Whitecaps - Toronto FC match on Wednesday, so I figured I'd better write about it briefly here. This was of course the Whitecaps' final match of the Nutrilite Canadian Championships, and came on the heels of their stunning Canada Day victory [myself, Out of Left Field] over TFC at BMO Field [myself, this blog]. Unfortunately, the pair of eggs they laid against Montreal meant that they needed to win by a landslide to have any hope, and there wasn't much of a chance of that happening. There was plenty of pride on the line, though, and the Whitecaps played their hearts out, earning a draw in the end [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail]. Here's the breakdown, in classic GBU style:

Final score: Whitecaps 2, TFC 2

How I saw it: In person

The Good:

Eduardo Sebrango: Cuba's greatest export other than cigars or rum again proved his value to the Whitecaps, scoring two stunning goals. His 87th minute equalizer in particular was a thing of beauty, as he stole the ball, broke in on goal and beat a sliding tackle from Tyrone Marshall and a diving Greg Sutton before gently slotting a drive into the back of the net. He had plenty of other chances as well, including one in stoppage time that was called back for offside and a stellar opportunity just before his second goal where he stole the ball and was in prime shooting position, but took too long and was promptly dispossessed.

Jay Nolly: The Whitecaps' keeper, who stole the show on Canada Day, was again in fine form. He made several crucial saves, including a brilliant one in the 64th minute on the speedy Jeff Cunningham who was in all alone. Nolly dove headfirst for the ball right at Cunningham's feet, always a risky play and one that would have undoubtedly resulted in the award of a penalty if he had missed, but he pulled it off, hit the ball first, and left a bemused Cunningham flopping to the ground in vain and then sitting there for a minute awaiting a call that would never come. He also did superbly well to keep out an Amado Guevara blast on a 27th-minute rebound after TFC winger Rohan Ricketts drilled the ball off the underside of the Whitecaps' crossbar.

Justin Moose: The speedy little winger turned in another stellar performance and created several noticeable chances down the flank. Perhaps the best one was his blasted shot in the 44th minute, where he collected his own rebound off a superb diving save by Sutton and calmly set up Sebrango for the Whitecaps' first goal. Even more impressive, though, was the defensive job he did on Laurent Robert, who is usually one of TFC's strongest offensive players but was barely noticeable Wednesday night.

Omar Jarun: The tall American central defender hasn't featured too prominently for the Whitecaps this year, at least in the matches I've been to or watched, but he turned in a fantastic performance Wednesday and should be worthy of future consideration in manager Teitur Thordarson's future squad selections. He won countless battles in the air against TFC's shorter strikers, Jeff Cunningham and Amado Guevara, and made several key tackles on the ground as well. One of his strongest efforts of the night was his well-timed slide to block a dangerous cross from the speedy Marvell Wynne in the 22nd minute.

The fans: It was a capacity crowd of over 5,600 that packed Swangard Stadium, the only time I've ever seen it quite that full. Perhaps more impressive was that the vast, vast majority of them were decked out in Whitecaps jerseys or colours: often, you see more European jerseys at Caps' games than local ones. There were a few Toronto fans in attendance as well, and the Vancouver fanbase treated them perfectly: they were given full respect on the concourse and in the stands, but their cheers were shouted down properly by the assemblage of West-Coasters. In fact, it was great having some visiting supporters along: their chants seemed to galvanize the crowd into further and louder support for the local side against the team from "The Centre of the Universe".

There's plenty of good reasons for Whitecaps fans to resent Toronto besides the typical stereotypes and East-West controversy: many still think it's a bit unfair that they got an MLS franchise and a largely publicly-funded "National Soccer Stadium" that's rarely used for national matches despite Toronto's historical lack of support for its soccer teams, while the Vancouver area's long history of passionate support for its soccer teams was seemingly overlooked. Now, granted, that probably has more to do with Vancouver city council making it difficult to build a soccer-specific stadium (that they wouldn't even have to pay for, by the way) than with any fanbase issues, but there are a lot of Vancouver fans who resent the way Toronto seemingly got a franchise on a silver platter, and they were out in force Wednesday night. Overall, that's probably a good thing, as those sentiments would help to create a fantastic rivalry if Vancouver ever gets into MLS.

The massive fan support also had one other significant impact: it was one of the best advertisements for the idea of an MLS franchise in Vancouver. It certainly demonstrated that the city's fans (and those from its outlying suburbs where I hang my hat) care about MLS-calibre games even when there's no Beckham [Dan Stinson, Vancouver Sun via] to be found, and it should demonstrate to the league that there's a bona fide rivalry here waiting to be exploited (there's actually two great rivalries ready and waiting if Vancouver gets into the league, as they've been warring with the Seattle Sounders since recorded history began, and there would be a third one if Montreal joins the party). Even one John Carver, who happened to be coaching their rivals on this day, is in the Vancouver-for-MLS camp: he told the Globe's Matthew Sekeres that the competition and Vancouver's fan support demonstrated that the city deserves an MLS team, along with Montreal.

"Over the two games between ourselves and Vancouver, it shows us how much this competition means to people," TFC head coach John Carver said.
Carver added that the tournament showed him that both Vancouver and Montreal belong in the more prestigious Major League Soccer loop, where TFC competes.
"That's the biggest thing that came out of this competition," he said. "It would be a great rivalry."

That ever-expanding camp also includes one Steve Nash, by the way, and possibly even MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who recently told Eric Koreen of the National Post that "the Canadian markets clearly would be successful for an MLS soccer team to come up here." Gazidis qualified his statement by talking about how the league can't promise anything yet as they're evaluating their expansion policy, but even that's hopeful for those who dream of an MLS Whitecaps franchise: it sounds like perhaps they aren't as firmly stuck on only adding two more teams as they had previously stated.

The Bad:

Steve Kindel: The Whitecaps' midfielder turned in a rather lacklustre performance Wednesday night: many of his passes missed the mark while others were intercepted, and he wasn't able to do much to shut down Toronto's attack. Granted, it's certainly difficult to deal with the likes of Carl Robinson (who has graced Swangard Stadium before, by the way: he was one of Sunderland AFC's prized new signings when they stopped by a few years ago for a friendly before their first recent trip up to the Premiership) and Maurice Edu, but Kindel's performance was still below average for him and the play in the middle of the park was probably the biggest difference between the sides, despite a strong performance from Kindel's fellow inside midfielder Martin Nash (brother of the aforementioned Steve).

Nicholas Addlery: Sebrango's Jamaican striking partner proved rather disappointing on this day. He had several good chances, but invariably squandered them, notably in the 50th minute where Sebrango set him up in the box and he elected to blast the ball wide from a sharp angle instead of sliding it over to Alfredo Valente, who had a wide-open net to shoot at. He was replaced by Jason Jordan in the 72nd minute, who was much more effective.

The Ugly:

Jeff Cunningham: No, this is not a comment on Cunningham's physical attractiveness or lack thereof, which I am singularly unqualified to judge. Rather, it's a comment on his diving, which he displayed so prominently that you'd think he was practicing for the 10-metre platform event at this summer's Olympics. Cunningham is a tremendously skilled forward and one of the fastest players in MLS, but he'd be much more likeable if he didn't fall over in pain every time someone breathed on him. I felt referee Carol Anne Chenard did a great job of calling the actual fouls while refraining on the more overdone performances (Cunningham's flying leap and subsequent sulking on the ground after losing the ball to Nolly on a breakaway come to mind), but Cunningham should have been booked for diving at least once in my mind. It's performances like that that make it tough to sell many North Americans on soccer.

Toronto's second goal: TFC's first goal was a thing of beauty, as Edu brilliantly volleyed a mishit shot from Robert past a surprised Nolly, who had no chance. Their second goal wasn't anywhere near as nice, though, and really shouldn't have happened. The Vancouver defence was asleep at the switch and left Ricketts all alone in the box near one side of the goal, and he made no mistake, firing the ball home from a sharp angle almost immediately after he received it and before Nolly could get across the goal.

FC references:
The Vancouver Province's Marc Weber, a skilled soccer writer on the Whitecaps beat, had his excellent article on the game almost ruined by an incompetent editor who clearly knows nothing about soccer and gave it the horrible title "Caps put pressure on FC". We saw this with the inital wave of articles about Toronto FC, but most journalists have learned by now that "FC" could refer to any one of a million clubs, as it simply stands for "Football Club" (indeed, the Whitecaps' full name is Vancouver Whitecaps FC). Weber clearly knows this, as his article refers to the Toronto side by the proper TFC acronym throughout. Unfortunately, whoever wrote that headline must have missed the memo.

Looking ahead: The draw eliminates Vancouver from contention for the championship, but it means that Montreal only needs a tie with TFC in the final game [BMO Field, July 22] to advance. It also shows that Vancouver's win on Canada Day wasn't just a one-off fluke, and demonstrates that the calibre of play between MLS and the USL isn't as vast a gulf as many MLS-centric fans would have you believe. Interestingly, many of these people will forever argue that MLS isn't that far below the EPL in the face of their own league's detractors (an assumption I support, by the way), but still believe that they have the right to dump all over any other pro soccer in North America. If you're sick of people bashing your own league, don't perpetuate the cycle of detraction by going after the guys below you on the totem pole. MLS fans and USL fans ultimately have the same goal: promoting soccer in North America, and many, like myself, enjoy both leagues. In any case, I still like TFC when they're competing in MLS, but I'll be firmly rooting for the normally-hated Montreal Impact to strike a further blow for the USL on July 22.

- Duane's take on the game from a Toronto fan's perspective. [Out of Left Field].
- Simon Fudge's game recap. [].

Friday, July 11, 2008

Remembering Bob Ackles, the real water boy

Photo: The cover of Bob Ackles' memoirs.

It came as quite a shock last week to hear the news [Neate Sager, Out of Left Field] of Bob Ackles' death at 69 [Ian Austin and Marc Weber, The Vancouver Province]. Ackles was such an integral part of the B.C. Lions, the CFL and Canadian football as a whole that it seems weird to consider a future landscape of the game he loved so much without him in his prominent role. It's been a bad year for CFL icons: remember, we lost J.I. Albrecht [Stephen Brunt, The Globe and Mail] back [Neate Sager, Out of Left Field] in March [my piece], so Ackles' death takes away yet another of the characters who made this league great.

Today, as an appropriate intro to the Lions-Blue Bombers game, TSN spent a half-hour of their pre-game show relating the tributes [a collection of them from] to Ackles, a man who thoroughly deserved all of them. The collection of tributes they were able to put together on short notice was very impressive. They had the in-studio panel share their personal Ackles stories and had Brian Williams conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of Ackles' former teammates and colleagues, as well as famed ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman. The whole half-hour was effective and well-done, demonstrating the tremendous impact Ackles had on many different people, but the Berman piece was particularly interesting. It focused on Ackles' career in the U.S. and the respect he earned there, especially during the time he helped to turn the Dallas Cowboys from a 1-15 team into a franchise that would dominate much of the 1990s. He was the director of pro personnel from 1986-89 and the director of player personnel from 89-1992, and thus was heavily involved in the franchise's transactions during that period, including the Herschel Walker trade (which Page 2 ranked as the eighth-most lopsided trade of all time), the trades for Jay Novacek and Charles Haley, and the drafting of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Russell Maryland.

This was a neat perspective to hear from an American sportscaster: too often, we're told that the CFL is a minor league and anyone who earns success there would never have been able to do the same south of the border, but Ackles certainly showed that perception was wrong. He played key roles with the Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals and was also instrumental in the launch of the XFL: in fact, he was the only person to work as a senior executive in all three leagues. It wasn't just Berman, either: there's been a lot of coverage of Ackles' death south of the border, with prominent examples here [Chuck Carlton, The Dallas Morning News], here [Mickey Spagnola, columnist], here [Jim Morris, The Canadian Press via The Toronto Star (features quotes from former Cowboys and Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson and Dolphins president Bryan Wiedmeier)], here [Lombardi on Football, writer Michael Lombardi's personal blog] and here [Phin Phanatic, a Miami Dolphins blog].

Ackles certainly made his mark on football in B.C. over his career as well. He started at the bottom with the Lions, serving as water boy in their initial year in 1953 and working his way up to director of football management 13 years later, assistant general manager in 1971 and the full general manager's slot in 1975. In that role, he soon turned around a dismal team that hadn't recorded an above .500 season since their 1964 Grey Cup win, drafted and acquired key players like Lui Passaglia, Joe "The Throwin' Samoan" Paopao, Roy Dewalt and "Swervin' Mervin" Fernandez, gave Don Matthews his first gig as a head coach in 1983 and led the Lions to the 1985 Grey Cup. With Ackles' later success in the president's role, his capabilities as a general manager were sometimes overlooked, but the players and coaches he acquired and the success he brought speak for themselves: the man knew his football, whether three-down or four-down.

What was even more impressive about Ackles' career with the Lions was his work selling the game to the community. He was prominently involved in supporting amateur and university football in the province, and he believed in winning an audience "one fan at a time." I've had the privilege of speaking with several people who had the chance to meet Ackles personally, and the common denominator in all of their stories is how he genuinely cared about all of them and took the time to sit down and chat about football. He was at home in the corporate world, schmoozing with CEOs and wealthy types, but his real gift was that he never forgot his humble origins in the business as the team waterboy, and he took the time to reach out to average fans and journalists as well as the movers and shakers. He got results, as well: he was instrumental in the construction of B.C. Place in 1983 (and in a great example of value for money, it's still paying off for Vancouver sports: not many stadiums of that vintage can say that!) and improved the average attendance to a ridiculous 42,000 per game by the time he left town in 1985. Without him, the team went through two bankruptcies and dropped to an average gate of less than 20,000, so he came back and did it again in 2002: hiring Wally Buono as coach and G.M., leading the Lions back to the Grey Cup, and more importantly, making them relevant in Vancouver again. All those who bleed orange and black have Bob Ackles to thank for the franchise's past success and current prosperity, and so do fans of the CFL: he was a ceaseless promoter of the league, and when the threat of the NFL caused many to question the relevance of Canadian football in our modern age, he was one of the loudest voices to speak out[an op-ed he wrote for the National Post] for three-down football.

The impact of Ackles' life and work is also shown through the staggering tributes to him, many of which appeared from people and media outlets that don't always give the CFL a lot of play. Some of the best tributes are here [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail], here [Lowell Ulrich, The Vancouver Province], here [Perry Lefko,], here [Frank Bucholtz, The Langley Times], here [Jeff Paterson, The Georgia Straight] and here [a statement from B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell in The Vancouver Sun]. To wrap up, here's some excerpts from a piece by Vancouver Province columnist Ed Willes, who said everything I've been trying to, but much better:

"It is impossible to measure Bob Ackles' impact on the B.C. Lions.
Well, maybe not impossible. Maybe there are calipers that fit around Jupiter. Maybe there's a tape measure that stretches from here to the moon. But in terms the average person can understand? No, not really.
I mean, how do you put The Water Boy's career in perspective? He was in football longer than Churchill was in politics, starting as a teenager at the lowest rung of a made-up team. By his late 20s he was in that team's front office, and by his late 30s he was running the show. He would ultimately build the Lions into a champion and a monster at the gate before he decamped for the NFL. Then, almost 20 years later, he came back and did it again, just to prove the first time wasn't a fluke.
And now he's gone. Just like that. In his half-century in the game Ackles came to learn that everyone, whether it was Don Matthews with the Lions, Jimmy Johnson with the Cowboys or any one of the thousands of coaches and players he saw come and go, could be replaced. What he failed to grasp, however, is that he was the exception to that rule.
Funny, isn't it? He was such a little guy, but he leaves behind a void that will never be filled."

Indeed. Rest in peace, Bob. You'll always have a place in the hearts of all Lions' fans, and many more hearts of those who care about football.

A great excerpt from Ackles' fantastic 2007 memoirs, The Water Boy: From The Sidelines To The Owner's Box: Inside The CFL, The XFL, And The NFL about how he brought Wally Buono to town. Highly recommended reading. [The Vancouver Sun].

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The GBU: Saskatchewan rides down B.C.

Photo: Saskatchewan knocked off B.C. 26-16 Friday night. (Photo from Luongo)

First, a quick disclaimer. There was plenty that happened in the sports I'm interested in over the weekend, but unfortunately, I didn't have a lot of time to write about it. Thus, I started several posts but didn't get them finished: they should go up later tonight or early tomorrow. Here's the first one.

I'm going to try to start doing some analysis of the various games I go to or watch on here. There's usually plenty of other outlets handling the game stories, so I'll focus more on the analytical side, with perhaps a bit of humour here and there. My preferred method for these is from the Clint Eastwood classic "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," breaking down the best performances, the worst performances and the just plain awful stuff that happened (a previous example is here). I'll file these under "The GBU". As always, post thoughts on the series or ideas for new ones here or e-mail them to me. "Good" or "bad" is relative to which team I'm following. Without further ado, the breakdown of Friday night's B.C. Lions - Saskatchewan Roughriders CFL match (game story here from Matthew Sekeres of The Globe and Mail, stats from

Final score: 26-16 Saskatchewan

How I saw it: In person.

The Good:

The Lions' defence:

The B.C. defence was effective for most of the night, putting a ton of pressure on Saskatchewan's succession of quarterbacks (Marcus Crandell got hurt early on). Crandell and his successors Darian Durant and Stephen Jyles were held to 13 completions on 24 attempts for 129 yards with one TD and 2 interceptions, a pretty strong pass defensive effort. The rushing defence wasn't as strong overall, but they did hold Wes Cates to 83 yards (that was more to do with forcing Saskatchewan to take to the air, as he did average 5.2 a carry when he ran), and only 28 yards in the first half. Overall, the 26 points B.C. conceded are a reasonable total that they certainly still could have won with if the offence was in gear: that becomes more impressive when you consider that half of those points were given up in the fourth quarter when Saskatchewan started to run away with the game. Their most impressive performance of the night came when the Riders had a first-and-goal situation on the Lions' 2-yard line in the first quarter, but the defence stopped them twice and held them to a field goal.

Cameron Wake:
The Lions' defensive end was their best player all game, recording four of the team's six sacks. For his efforts, he was named the CFL's defensive player of the week [The Canadian Press via]. Wake was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise grim night for the Lions.

Ian Smart: Last year's recipient of the John Agro Special Teams Award as the CFL's top special-teams player seems to be in fine form again. Smart led the CFL in all-purpose yards (2,440), punt-return yards (912) and kick-return yards (1,228) last season, and is having a good statistical year again. Against the Roughriders, he put up seven kickoff returns for 176 yards and six punt returns for 49 yards.

The Bad:

Joe Smith:
A horrible, horrible game for the mainstay of the Lions' ground attack. He rushed 13 times for 27 yards, a pitiful average of 2.1 yards per carry (and almost half of those yards came off one 12-yard run). In fact, he wasn't even B.C.'s leading rusher: quarterback Jarious Jackson picked up 29 yards on only six carries, a much better average of 4.8 yards per carry. Smith did pick up two touchdowns on short runs, and he did have that one great 12-yard carry, but he was utterly ineffective for the rest of the night. The Lions need much more from him if they're going to compete this year. According to the Vancouver Province's excellent football writer Lowell Ullrich, Smith apparently suffered a shoulder injury early on in the game but kept playing, which could explain his low numbers. I wouldn't mind seeing Ian Smart used more in regular-game situations: his slashing speed would be a nice complement to Smith's straight-ahead power, and the two of them together in the backfield might throw off the defence.

Jarious Jackson:

The Lions' starting quarterback showed brief flashes of brilliance, but prolonged spans of mediocrity. He put up one amazing touchdown drive with under a minute left in the first half, but only went 16 for 30 on the night for 164 yards, with no passing touchdowns and one interception. He also fumbled twice at key moments, and Saskatchewan took full advantage: they scored 13 points off his turnovers. At times, he'd throw perfect bullet passes to his receivers: at other times, he'd chuck up prayers that had a higher chance of causing rain inside the B.C. Place dome than being caught by his recievers. He needs to regain the consistency he showed for most of last year as the team's primary starter while Dave Dickenson and Buck Pierce were injured.

The crowd:

Yes, there were 33,815 people [Jim Morris, The Canadian Press via] there, but that really isn't that impressive for a Friday night home opener against the Leos' biggest rival. What was worse than the numbers, though, was the utter apathy shown by many in attendance. The intimidation and noise usually in full evidence at B.C. Place was missing in action (Saskatchewan only went offside on offence once by my count, very low for a game in the usually-raucous Dome), and the groups of Riders' fans present seemed more involved in the game than the hometown crowd. There were also way too many obnoxiously drunken fans of both teams: I have no problem with drinking at games (or any other time), but alcohol doesn't make you funny or give you the right to annoy others.

The lack of Rob Bagg:
One of the few things that would have made a Saskatchewan victory mildly palatable would have been if former Queen's star Rob Bagg was playing. Sadly, that wasn't the case, as he didn't even dress. Fortunately, another Gael, Matt Kirk, did see limited action for the Lions.

The Ugly:

The TV timeouts:

It's been a while since I've been to a CFL game in person, but I was shocked by how brutally long the TV timeouts have gotten and how many of them there are now: there seemed to be a break after almost every play. What made it worse was the lack of compelling distractions offered during the timeout: this was partly due to our seat location (see next item), but there really was little going on apart from the "Catch a launched football competition", which didn't even finish due to a streaker's intervention. Also, the CFL has red-shirted guys who come onto the field during the timeouts and wave to the refs when they can start play again, which I found somewhat ridiculous: TV broadcasters of hockey or baseball have to guess when they can come back from commercial breaks (which is why you sometimes miss the puck drop or the first pitch), so what gives TSN the right to tell the CFL to hold the game off until they're done the commercial break?

The Scoreboard:
This wouldn't have been a problem for most of the fans there, but it turned out that there's only one video scoreboard in B.C. Place, and rather than being mounted high in the middle like in many arenas, it's mounted at the top of one of the endzones. We were sitting in the second deck of that endzone, so the third deck floor prevented us from seeing any replays on the scoreboard. This was the first time in probably about 10 years that I'd watched a game without instant replay of one sort or another, and let me tell you, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." It's much less enjoyable to watch a game when you can't easily see where penalty violations occured or can't enjoy a highlight-reel catch over and over.

The Injuries:

Some of the game's injuries were just brutal, especially D.J. Flick breaking his leg [], which was right up there with Eduardo [YouTube] in terms of horrible injuries that you can't stop watching. According to Greg Harder's story in the National Post, even Flick had to watch the tape of his injury. The Riders won the game, but at a cost so high that the victory may be Pyrrhic: in addition to losing Flick (fractured left fibula and torn ankle ligaments) and Crandell (strained hamstring), they also lost defensive back Leron Mitchell in the first quarter (broken right fibula). Crandell should be back soon, but Flick and Mitchell are expected to miss much of the year. That's good for the Lions, but I can't be happy about players getting so badly hurt, regardless of the colour of their jersey.

The SkyTrain lineups:
To really put a damper on the evening, we got stuck in a massive jam-up at the SkyTrain station afterwards (despite already having pre-purchased tickets). This was despite many people leaving the game early. In the end, we waited about 10 minutes on a packed platform with maybe 10 people getting into each train that came along (as they were already packed to the rafters) and then decided it would be faster to grab a train going the opposite direction, ride it to the end of the line and then back. This strategy worked surprisingly well: as we passed the Stadium station platform on the way back about 15 minutes later, we saw several people who had been waiting in line next to us. I forgot how terrible Vancouver transit is compared to the systems in Montreal or Toronto. Last summer, I was with a crowd of almost 60,000 at the "Big Owe" in Montreal to watch a U-20 World Cup doubleheader, and was able to get on the subway within 10 minutes of the game's conclusion. There's a similar lack of logjams riding the Rocket after Blue Jays' games. SkyTrain is all right, but it clearly can't handle large volumes of people at once: it backs up badly enough after Canucks' games, and the Lions' games are even worse due to the larger crowds.

Next Lions' game
: Friday night at Winnipeg (0-2), 8:00 P.M. ET (TSN)

Friday, July 04, 2008

Jagr bomb: a Hull of a contract

Photo: Jaromir Jagr, with mullet [Photo from James Mirtle's blog].

Perhaps the NHL can only tolerate one mullet at a time these days. In seriousness, Jaromir Jagr's decision[Eric Duhatschek,The Globe and Mail]to sign with Avangard Omsk of the Continental Hockey League (KHL, to use the Russian acroynm) is only partially surprising, but it should serve as a wake-up call to the NHL that they aren't the only league in town any more. We've heard this song somewhere before: a new league pops into existence, featuring plenty of wealthy businessmen with money to burn on their clubs, and they suddenly make a large contract offer to an aging NHL star to give their league instant respectability. That Bobby Hull contract was the key factor that launched the WHA off the ground: with him on board, the league was taken seriously and became a viable alternative for NHL players looking for a bigger payday.

Interestingly though, few media sources are making the suggestion that this could actually spell a serious challenge to the NHL, and there certainly haven't been too many comparisons to the Hull contract. Much of the coverage I've read has Jagr painted as someone looking to play out the remnants of his career closer to home in a backwater league, which doesn't seem to me to be the whole story of what's going on.* Especially considering the Russian oligarch involved
and his past spending habits on players, I wouldn't be too surprised if Jagr is merely the first big name to join the KHL.

*Aside: Would people care more if Jagr was a Canadian guy? I bet there would be lots of outrage, waving of the flag, segments on Coach's Corner and all the rest, but because he's a European, it's passed off as just a typically eccentric move. Yes, Omsk is closer to home for Jagr, but it's still quite a ways from the Czech Republic. In my mind, this is about more than just playing out his career at home.

Let's examine the stats of Jagr and Hull here using Hockey-Reference's numbers (note: Hull did make a brief NHL comeback at age 41 with the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers after they jumped into that league, but only played 27 games in that stint. His stats from that comeback are not included in the numbers below.)

Age when they jumped leagues:
Bobby Hull: 33
Jaromir Jagr: 35

Points in last NHL season before leaving:
Hull: 93 (50 goals, 43 assists) in 78 games
Jagr: 71 (25 goals, 46 assists) in 82 games

Points over last three NHL seasons before leaving:
Hull: 256 (132 goals, 124 assists) in 217 games (1.18 points per game)
Jagr: 290 (109 goals, 181 assists) in 246 games (1.18 points per game)

NHL career regular-season points when they left
Hull: 1153 (604 goals, 549 assists) in 1036 games
Jagr: 1599 (646 goals, 953 assists) in 1273 games

Regular-season points per game career average when they left
Hull: 1.11
Jagr: 1.26

Just off that quick comparison, it looks like their stats are in the same realm. Hull was slightly younger than Jagr when he left and had a better final NHL season, but Jagr's had the better career and his recent numbers are still pretty good. I found the three-season comparison particularly interesting: yes, it's somewhat arbitrary, but I wanted to get an idea of how they'd contributed over a slightly longer period of time than just one year, as everyone has down years (and Jagr's last year was definitely a down year). The stats are very similar (except Hull's include more goals), and the points-per-game figures are identical to two decimal places.

In many ways, that's the real question with this move. If Jagr plays in Russia like he did last year (a respectable 71 points in 82 games, 35th in the NHL on a pure points basis), then the overarching portrait that has been painted of a guy who could still play in the NHL but wouldn't have been in the real upper echelon of superstars would be correct. If, however, he returns to his eye-popping 2005-06 numbers (54 goals, 69 assists, 123 points, 1.50 points per game and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the players' MVP selection) or even his 2006-07 numbers (30 goals, 66 assists, 96 points, 1.17 points per game), then the NHL really has lost a talent similar to the calibre of Bobby Hull when he left the league.

In either case, this move may not compare to landing Evgeni Malkin, but it still means a lot. Regardless of what Jagr does, the fact remains that a Russian team has snatched a player who not only still could have played in the NHL, but would have received substantial cash to do so. They've also likely outbid the NHL. Duhatschek relates that Edmonton offered Jagr more money outright ($8 million U.S., one year), but Jagr's $7 million contract in Russia is actually the equivalent of a $10 million NHL contract when you factor in that the team pays the income tax.

The tax advantage is one huge trump card for the KHL. The location in Russia is another. With the global nature of the NHL these days, there are plenty of players who call Sweden, Finland, Russia, or other European countries home, and you can bet it's easier to pop in for a visit when you're on the same continent. You probably won't see too many North Americans going over at the moment, but that may change if the money and the calibre of the competition go up enough. The league also has ambitions to expand to Finland, the Ukraine and Sweden, which you can bet would entice even more players.

The NHL may be playing the CHL down as a fringe league at the moment, but that's what they consistently did with the WHA, and look at the players that it wound up pulling in. It's going to be worth watching what continues to happen with the CHL. As Duhatschek writes, "Jagr's contract could, in some ways, be compared to the $1-million that the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association gave Bobby Hull in 1972. He adds a box-office attraction to a league that represents little immediate threat to the NHL but, like the WHA, will require monitoring in the months and years to come."

- James Mirtle has a quality tribute to Jagr, as well as an excellent primer on the KHL.
- Neate weighs in on the impact of Jagr's career [Out of Left Field].
- Greg Wyshynski's thoughts on the matter [Puck Daddy].
- Sean Zandberg on the downside of Jagr (and yes, there certainly was one, but he's seemingly been able to play like he cares during his New York stint, so I expect that to continue) [Waiting For Stanley].
- Mike Halford thinks Jagr will be back [Orland Kurtenblog].
- Mike Woods, the biggest Jaromir Jagr fan around (the man has a personalized Ottawa Senators jersey with Jagr's name and number, for crying out loud), will likely have a post on the matter whenever he finishes recuperating from hearing the news [The view from the Woods].

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Sonics reaction: the morning round-up

As I wrote in my Out of Left Field post on the Sonics settlement earlier this morning, there are only two scenarios by which this abrupt reversal on the city's part makes sense in my mind. The first is that they've actually obtained a more substantial guarantee of a replacement team than was indicated in the settlement deal: the second is that they were hornswoggled into accepting a bunch of cash and a number of vague promises for the future in return for their franchise.

This second, more depressing scenario, which I picked as seeming more likely at the moment, seems to be the predominant belief in Seattle for the present. As columnist Steve Kelley of The Seattle Times wrote today:

"Basketball died in Seattle Wednesday afternoon. It died because too many people who should have cared didn't. It died of neglect. It died because all of the powers-that-be stopped paying attention. ... Basketball is dead, and don't look for any miracle resurrections. Chances are good that an entire generation will grow up in this town without the NBA to watch."

Jim Moore of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who generously took the time to speak with me earlier in the day, relates a great interview with writer Sherman Alexie in his column:

"I can't believe this is even happening."
Neither can Sherman Alexie, the author and Stranger contributor and witness who testified during the Sonics trial on the fans' behalf. The longtime season-ticket holder likened the players to Greek gods, and now they're gone.
"There's death and divorce, No. 1 and 2 in terms of stress and grief, and this is No. 3," Alexie said.
A year and a half ago in his Death Watch series of Stranger columns about the Sonics, Alexie said he cried 20 times since the sale of the team to Clay Bennett and the Oklahoma City group. Many more tears were shed Wednesday night.
"The Sonics were indigenous to the city," he said. "They were created here, their entire history existed here, and now they've died."
Alexie recognizes that the settlement made economic sense, but said: "I didn't realize that was our fight. The court case was never about that. The city decided to put a monetary figure on the love of the game and love of the Sonics. I didn't expect that to be an issue."

Moore's Post-Intelligencer colleague Art Thiel is also unhappy:

"Now we know the price of possession.
Now we learn the cost of neglect.
The 'man possessed,' Clay Bennett, showed that he will do just about anything to gratify himself and his fellow Oklahomans by offering another silly payment for NBA ball, yet one the Seattle political leadership lacked the guts to refuse.
Obliterated for cash is 41 years of sports and civic history. So much for the city's passionate courtroom argument that the pro basketball team was of irreplaceable value.
New York, if you fancy the Space Needle, bring your checkbook and a really big hacksaw. We'll deal. As with the Sonics, it's privately owned and not used by a majority of voters, and its structure is a World Fair relic that maybe could use an upgrade.
To paraphrase a famous punch line by Winston Churchill, we know what we are. We're just quibbling over price. ... As for the additional $30 million due in 2013 if Bennett hasn't helped get another franchise for Seattle -- please. Bennett being forced to help Seattle scrounge a team is like hiring Yosemite Sam to be an anger-management counselor.
Besides, as Bennett has proven throughout this sordid affair, $30 million to him and his petrol pals is like $100 to the rest of us. They'll make that in the next month's gas-price gouges, and won't have to pay it for five years. And how about that five-year wait? In today's economy, is anyone betting on anything five years out?
The notion that the NBA will create an expansion team -- probably in tandem with a second city, for a scheduling- friendly 32-team league -- is based on two wafer-thin assumptions: That the national domestic market will be flush, and that the 2009 Legislature in a declining economy will authorize tax money to trick up KeyArena on spec, as opposed to the three other times it said no when the economy was good and Seattle had a team. Good luck with that."

Seth Kolloen of Sports Northwest Magazine and Enjoy the Enjoyment, who generously took the time to do an interview with me the other day, weighs in on the NBA's illusory promises:

"This thing about how "the NBA agrees that a renovated KeyArena is an acceptable facility" is silly. It doesn't matter what the NBA says--it matters what an owner says. An NBA owner could play in the Ingraham High gym if he felt like it (ok, not really, but you get the idea)."

Constable Echelon over at Hotdog & Friends discusses both the despair in Seattle and the league-wide implications of this decision (language warning, if you care about that).

"I’m currently studying a little revolutionary era France. I’ll admit it’s always been a little hard to wrap my head around the idea of a society so unjust that the only recourse for the common man was to take to the streets, round up those responsible, and cut off their heads. I imagine that insatiable bloodlust started with those people feeling like I feel right now.
Obviously I’m being dramatic. It’s just a basketball team. In theory I’ll get over this.
I know that professional sports owners don’t care about me. I’m poor. I have maybe a couple hundred bucks a year to give them. My chief benefit is the ambience I help provide for the people in the suites. They only care about me when I’m the only exploitable revenue stream, and if a team is counting on regular fans to keep it profitable they are fucked.
The current NBA business model requires a massive amount of public money to keep teams profitable. Someone has to pay for Kenny Thomas’s contract, after all. Now Seattle has provided a delightful example for the league to scare the shit out of other markets with. We’re a nicely above average region replete with affluent demographics that’s out of the way enough that people don’t get too outraged at how we’ve been treated. If the league doesn’t care about our 41 years of rock solid fan support and consistently winning basketball teams, what hope does anyone have?"

Mr. Baker at SonicsCentral blames the political leadership for selling out.

"No team for the fans, cash for the city, an IOU from Clay Bennett if we cash the IOU from the State of Washington, nothing for the fans.
We were screwed. That offer was not going to get worse with time, and with a court win, they took money from somebody that has money, but the mayor, Mayor Nickels, said it wasn’t about the money in his testimony; it was about enforcing the lease, and retaining NBA basketball in Seattle; neither happened.
Thanks for almost rising to the challenge Mayor Nickels.
I hate Clay Bennett, I watched him lie, and now I watched Mayor Nickels let him get away with it."

And now, some reaction from the rest of the league:

Henry Abbott of TrueHoop talks about how this case affects the fans.

"It was never, in my mind, an Oklahoma City vs. Seattle thing.
It's an owner vs. fans thing.
Sports operate in a bizarre realm. The fans, who are the paying customers, provide the revenue, passion, and love that make any league worthwhile. But those same fans who are such an essential part of the franchise have no legal standing at all. They have no signed agreements. The team has no obligation to them at all.
So fans are, legally, vulnerable. And although everyone acknowledges they are central to the enterprise, they can be trampled by owners, who pay for the right to do what they would like with a team.
I'm from the school of thought that says just because you have the tiger by the tail doesn't mean you must yank. I'm for respecting the people involved, even if you can get away with hurting them. That's character.
Instead we have something that's something like the worst marriage ever, back in the days before women had rights at all. Both partners play key roles, but one can lie, cheat, hit, and all the rest of it, while the other can only be stoic."

John DeShazier of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who understands how close his own city came to losing their team to Oklahoma, despises the way Seattle fans were treated.

"It's business, so it doesn't have to be nice, neat and topped by a ribbon.
It's business, so it can be packed full of half-truths and outright lies, with passions strewn throughout a city and region and fans left to feel used and ignored.
It's business. But that doesn't mean it's not heartless, disingenuous and undeserving what Clay Bennett and his Oklahoma City ownership group did to Seattle. It doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye and thank the heavens it wasn't New Orleans that was preyed upon by a group of men who attempted to deceive so often and so poorly, they comfortably would have fit on the witness stand for the BALCO grand jury. ... But in the history of moves -- from the Colts sneaking out of Baltimore in the dead of night, to Art Modell dragging his Cleveland Browns franchise to Baltimore, to the Grizzlies moving from Vancover to Memphis and the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans -- few have been more littered by deception from an ownership group.
It's business, so at the end there's no guarantee everyone will be holding hands and singing.
But that doesn't mean anyone should feel comfortable with how this deal came about, doesn't mean anyone deserves what Seattle got, the way Seattle got it."

By contrast, Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman (a paper owned by Clay Bennett's inlaws), is gloating and encouraging Oklahomans to feel no shame.

"When the Sonics come to Oklahoma City, most everyone west of Spokane and lots of folks east of there will look at OKC and quote Gomer Pyle.
Shame, shame, shame!
Shame on Oklahoma City for swiping the Sonics from the loving arms of Seattle. Shame on Oklahoma City for not waiting on an expansion team.
Don't buy it. Don't listen to it. Don't let anyone spoil your celebration. Don't let anyone make you feel guilty.
Because here's what major-league ballteams do.
They move. Always have, always will. ...
If the NFL can leave Greater Los Angeles, where's the calamity in the NBA leaving Seattle?
The Seattle crowd likes to warn Oklahoma City that if Clay Bennett can put the screws to Seattle, he will do the same thing to his hometown.
Maybe. Maybe not. Frankly, I'm not all that interested in a history lesson from a city that built a new palace for the Seahawks and a new palace for the Mariners and then wants to start lecturing other cities, warning them about the dangers of giving into disgruntled franchise owners."

There are still a few voices with a bit of optimism, suggesting they believe in the first scenario or at least think settlement was a better option than continuing to fight it out. Among them is Kelley's Times colleague Jerry Brewer, even though he still casts severe doubts on the success of this strategy in today's column:

From M-V-P chants to M-O-U rants. Oh, how the Sonics have fallen. The city, after exhibiting a chest-poking resolve to keep the Raiders in their KeyArena lease, folded. Once intent on letting the Sonics go only with a guarantee that NBA basketball would return to Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels settled for a tub of cash and a promise from the NBA to be nice. David Stern won't shoot spitballs at Nickels anymore. Stern will keep the mayor updated on relocation or expansion opportunities ("Um, sorry, mayor, nothing yet. Call back next century, OK?"), and he won't curse after hanging up the phone. ... Perhaps if all parties had negotiated with sincerity and purpose from the beginning, this predicament could've been avoided. In the end, the city stopped playing hardball because it couldn't win with that approach. Not with Czar Stern leading the NBA. So will diplomacy yield better results? Who knows? Right now, it's just awkward seeing the combatants refraining from sticking their tongues out at each other.

By contrast, John McGrath of the Tacoma News-Tribune appears to be a confirmed believer in the first scenario, and he's sure the city will get another team in the near future:

"But once you have concluded the grieving process, understand this: The NBA is coming back to Seattle, coming back to KeyArena, coming back in green and, yes, in gold.
A franchise owned by Oklahomans who envision the dour, robotically efficient San Antonio Spurs as the model of pro-basketball success is leaving, to be replaced by a franchise owned by Seattle businessmen who’ve got this intriguing notion that the winning and consistently entertaining Sonics teams of the George Karl era might be a more pertinent blueprint.
The Sonics will return because the city of Seattle backed out of a fight that would’ve rendered the “winners” as bloodied and battered as the 1950s middleweight boxer who prevailed over Jake LaMotta in a split decision.
Beyond draining tens of millions of dollars – pocket change – from the bottomless bank account of Bennett and his buddies, forcing the Oklahoma owners to fulfill the final two years of their team’s KeyArena lease accomplishes precisely what?
It sours fans, further poisoning pro basketball’s already toxic climate in Seattle. Two seasons of Spurs Lite was tough enough. Can you imagine two more seasons?
More important, two years of attempting to humiliate Bennett – a man I sense is constitutionally incapable of saying “pardon me” after spilling his coffee on a fellow first-class airline passenger, much less humiliation – forever dooms Seattle’s chances of reconciling with the NBA.
Sure, the league is run by a commissioner, David Stern, whose every breath contributes to a smug alert. When he spoke on behalf of Bennett’s half-baked campaign for a thoroughly modern, $500 million arena in King County, Stern championed the proposal less as an opportunity than a threat.
If the Sonics leave, he said in so many words, Seattle can kiss the NBA goodbye.
The posture was firm, the rhetoric inflexible. More recently, behind the scenes, Stern was quite more amenable to a truce with Seattle: Let this team go, we’ll have your back the next time there’s a franchise-relocation opportunity.
As city of Seattle attorney Tom Carr, speaking to KJR a few minutes after the settlement-disclosure press conference, put it: “Having the NBA pleased with you is a lot better than having the NBA mad at you.”
In other words, suck it up, and try to consider David Stern less as the czar of an evil empire than a friend of the disenfranchised.
Just a hunch, but I’m predicting an NBA team calling itself the Sonics tipping off at KeyArena for the 2011-12 season."

Let's hope he's right.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

And the Sonics are gone...

Well, the details of the Sonics settlement have finally come out [Sharon Pian Chan and Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times], and it looks like they will in fact be moving to Oklahoma City sooner rather than later in exchange for $75 million dollars ($45 million if the city gets another NBA team within five years). That's much better than the $26.5 million Bennett offered in February before the trial, but it leaves me with plenty of questions for the city. Their whole case revolved around the idea of "specific performance", the idea that money alone could not replace an NBA team. What about the passionate testimony from writer and fan Sherman Alexie? What about Mayor Nickels' testimony [Greg Johns, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer] about being an eternal optimist, where he said "A lot can happen in two years?" What about the testimony from economist Andrew Zimbalist, who said he couldn't put a dollar value on what the Sonics bring to the community? What about the city's arguments, repeated over and over, that you can't replace the team with money? It seems to me that they've gone back on their entire arguments and decided you can quantify the team's value after all. The city will surely claim that this was the best possible option, but if they had had the guts to wait for Judge Pechman's ruling, the team might not have left at all. They took the safe route out, and sold the Sonics down the river (or perhaps one of the east-west highways) for 75 million pieces of silver. Betrayal is certainly more profitable these days.

Sonics: How bizarre is this?

Now that's highly unusual: The Seattle Times is reporting [Jim Brunner and Sharon Pian Chan, The Seattle Times] that the Sonics and their owners have apparently agreed on a settlement, only hours before Judge Marsha Pechman was supposed to issue her ruling in the case. The timing of this is bizarre, as I don't see what either side has to gain by settling now. For the city, their aim throughout has been to try and enforce "specific performance" to make the team play at least two more seasons in Seattle, so it wouldn't seem to make sense for them to take a cash buyout at this stage when Judge Pechman might have ruled in their favour, and it's hard to imagine Clay "Buccaneer" Bennett agreeing to the Sonics staying in Seattle any longer than necessary. The other odd aspect to the timing is that both sides have already been fighting dirty: often, settlements are reached in cases like this one to try and prevent incriminating information from coming out in court, but it's hard to picture what else could come out in this one: we've already had scandalous e-mails, "Machiavellian" PowerPoint presentations and enough mudslinging for a federal election. If the Sonics were able to secure a buyout of the lease, then this makes sense for them, but I have no clue why the city would agree to that before at least finding out Judge Pechman's decision. There's apparently a press conference at 5 p.m. today: I'll have more details as they come out.

Update: 4:09 P.M. ET. The settlement is confirmed via an order from Judge Pechman, but still no details to be found.

On the Ground: Steven Pyeatt

Photo: Steven Pyeatt of Save Our Sonics. [Photo from].

As part of the preparation for Judge Pechman's decision [Greg Johns, Seattle Post-Intelligencer] later today on the future of the Sonics, here's the next installment of On the Ground, featuring an interview with Steven Pyeatt, the co-founder of Save our Sonics. Steven has been one of the most influential figures in the fight to keep the team in Seattle, working with co-founder Brian Robinson and the impressive team they've pulled together (including former Sonics star Slick Watts). He's helped organize rallies (including the one I covered), e-mail and letter-writing campaigns, and much, much more. If the Sonics do survive in Seattle, his efforts will be a large part of the reason why. There's an excellent Seattle Times profile on him by Ashley Bach. Anyways, here's my questions and his answers.

Q: What’s the mood like in Seattle? Do people still feel there’s a chance to keep the franchise, or are they resigned to losing it?

A: The mood is mixed. A segment is so upset with the NBA that they will stop following the NBA if they abandon this market, a large segment is still focused on doing whatever it takes to keep a team here, and some still don’t realize that the relocation approval was conditional and for this year only. That segment doesn’t realize that this isn’t a “done deal” but when they learn that they tend to get back on the “Save Our Sonics” train.

Q: Do you think the rallies and popular expressions of support will make any difference in the end?

A: Going into this deal, Brian and I honestly thought the fan movement was a valuable piece of the puzzle but in the end would have little effect on the outcome. What has amazed us is how much the “Save Our Sonics” effort has impacted the situation. We have flooded elected officials with emails whenever this issue is on someone’s plate, gathered more than 300 people to travel to the state capital with just a few hours notice, taken over the Governor's campaign kickoff event, and had over 3000 people come to the rally at the courthouse to start the trial (we were hoping just to break 1000). The people have stepped up so much it is humbling to be a part of this movement. The claims by Bennett that no one cared couldn’t be heard over the chants of “Save Our Sonics” echoing through our downtown.

Q: What do you think was the city’s strongest argument or piece of evidence presented during the trial?

A: The testimony by Virginia Anderson (former director of Seattle Center) and the people in charge of running Key Arena did fantastic jobs in their testimony. They destroyed any claim that Key Arena was not a viable facility, that the relationship between the team and the city was dysfunctional, or that there would be no way they could continue “business as usual” through the end of the lease. This is a key part of the case because the judge would not want to continue the relationship if it looked like the next two years would be nothing but bickering over what kind of hotdogs to sell or how often to sweep the floors.

Q: What do you think was PBC’s strongest argument or piece of evidence presented during the trial?

A: PBC’s legal team was amazing. Considering they took on a client that had no case they actually were able to at least present something that would cause people to think. They did an excellent job of embarrassing the Mayor, and the private parties that were working to keep the team here, but in the end they had nothing that showed that the city did anything to undermine the ability of PBC to perform on the lease. Coupled with Clay Bennett compounding his lies by piling on more unbelievable statements it is going to be very hard for a judge to find any reason to let PBC out of the lease.

Q: Is there anything you think the city could have done better during the process leading up to the trial? If so, what?

A: I was very impressed by the effort of the city in this case. They left no stone unturned and really did a great job of “getting the dirt” on Clay Bennett, David Stern, and the rest of PBC. We all wanted to see Stern on the stand but the court in NYC blocked it saying that the city got the information they needed from others and in the end they had so it wasn’t that they could have done better, but we sure wanted to see him come unglued on the stand.

Q: What about during this trial?

A: I would have liked to see them follow a line of questioning with Nick Licata, the President of the City Council when the city adopted our Initiative [ed's note: Seattle Initiative I-91, which strictly regulated the public funding of sports arenas] as an ordinance, that showed that the ordinance was a result of public pressure and a complete change in the level of support from the city. It was portrayed by PBC as an attempt to lock PBC in so they could bleed them when in reality it was the people demanding that the city enforce the lease to buy us time to get a deal done to keep our team. In the end that is nothing but nit picking on my part. The key to winning the case was showing that the lease was clear in its terms, that Bennett knew those terms before he bought the team, agreed to honor those terms when he bought the team, and that the losses would not cause him undo harm if required to honor the contract. The city did a fantastic job of getting the important parts into evidence and defended the lease well.

Q: If Judge Pechman rules in favour of PBC buying its way out of the lease, do you think there is still any hope for keeping the team (i.e. appeal, the Schultz lawsuit, or something else), or will that mean they’re definitely gone?

A: Yes, there is still hope. There does not seem to be any way this team gets to move for this upcoming season without a negotiated solution and that requires a team named the Sonics in Seattle long term. If the legal process continues to play out this team will not be moving before the end of the lease no matter what happens. If that road continues there is a significant risk that Clay could lose the team and no smart businessman would ever take that risk when there are options for “Win/Win” deals out there.

Q: If the city is allowed to enforce the "specific performance" clause, do you see the Sonics remaining here any longer than 2010?

A: Yes. We think that two years of “lame duck” status is more than just losing $60 million, it is hard to the league and their revenues and supporters that they cannot endure. In January we will have a funded Key Arena expansion package and with local ownership ready in the wings we see no way the NBA wouldn’t want to resolve this for everyone.

Q: If the team leaves, do you see Seattle ever getting another NBA franchise? If so, what timeframe do you think is likely?

A: Eventually, but that means building an arena on spec and having a lot of work to find a team and a deal that a local ownership group is willing to do. We are very proud in Seattle of having all “home grown” teams. We never “took” a team from another city and see that as a point of pride. Expansion would be preferred because we wouldn’t have to put a another city though what we have just dealt with.

Thanks to Steven for taking the time to answer these questions in such detail: there's obviously a lot on his plate at the moment. Here's his bio paragraph:

Steven Pyeatt is a Kirkland area businessman who was born and raised in the Seattle area. Steve has been active in his community in both grassroots political and charitable organizations including 15 years as a Football Official. He was a candidate for King County Council in 2005 and has served on commissions for King County and the City of Bothell. In addition Steve was active in the regions effort to keep the Seahawks in Seattle in 1996. During this successful 14 month campaign, Pyeatt organized more than 950 members and coordinated significant lobbying of our local business and political leaders.

On the Ground: Jim Moore

Photo: Jim Moore, Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports columnist. [Photo from the Seattle Post-Int].

Without further ado, I present the second installment in the On the Ground interview series. The subject this time is Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports columnist, . Here's my questions and his answers:

Q: What’s the mood like in Seattle? Do people still feel there’s a chance to keep the franchise, or are they resigned to losing it?

A: The mood here isn't good. I think people are hopeful that the city has a good case but are more resigned to the thought that the Sonics will win and leave town soon.

Q: Do you think the rallies and popular expressions of support will make any difference in the end?

A: No, I don't think the rallies or fan support matters. Hate to say that, but I don't. The judge even intimated during the trial that fan sentiment wasn't her chief concern.

Q: What do you think was the city’s strongest argument or piece of evidence presented during the trial?

A: The specific performance part of the lease that requires the Sonics not just to pay for the lease but to play at KeyArena.

Q: What do you think was PBC’s strongest argument or piece of evidence presented during the trial?

A: That two partners should not be forced to stay together when there's so much acrimony.

Q: Is there anything you think the city could have done better during the process leading up to the trial? If so, what? What about during this trial?

A: Just a personal feeling, I thought the PBC side was better prepared with its arguments.

Q: If Judge Pechman rules in favour of PBC buying its way out of the lease, do you think there is still any hope for keeping the team (i.e. appeal, the Schultz lawsuit, or something else), or will that mean they’re definitely gone?

A: It won't mean they're definitely gone, but it will move from possibly gone to probably gone. City officials have indicated they will make some kind of move in that event, possibly a temporary restraining order so they'll have time to explore further options.

Q: If the city is allowed to enforce the "specific performance" clause, do you see the Sonics remaining here any longer than 2010?

A: I do see the city staying until 2010. but that will be it. I don't think Bennett will sell the team. He seems pretty hellbent on taking the Sonics to Oklahoma City one way or another.

Q: If the team leaves, do you see Seattle ever getting another NBA franchise? If so, what timeframe do you think is likely?

A: Yes, I think the Sonics will get another franchise. My guesstimate is 2015 after another arena is built.

Thanks to Jim for taking the time to do this. Here's his bio paragraph:

Jim Moore grew up in Seattle. He's 51, and has been at the Post-Intelligencer for 26 years. He covered the Sonics as the beat writer from 1989-96 and the 2000-01 season. He was a huge fan as a kid, but his love for the NBA has faded to the point that it won't be a big deal to him if the team leaves, though he hopes it doesn't.