Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Inter Milan and Panathaikos to play in Toronto

The World Cup is only on for a few more weeks, but there's going to be plenty of pretty exciting soccer in Toronto after that. In addition to the regular Toronto FC schedule and Manchester United - Celtic on July 16 [Noah Love, Posted Sports], it was announced earlier this week that The Score and Lexxec Corporation will be bringing UEFA Champions League winners Inter Milan to Toronto [The] to face Panathinaikos FC, who won the Greek Super League and the Greek Cup last season. The match will be at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday, August 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster.

This should be a tremendous fixture. Individual players who will participate can't be confirmed yet, but Inter can draw from a roster that includes Brazilian stars Julio Cesar and Lucio, Argentine striker Diego Milito, Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o and the Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder. Panathinaikos doesn't have quite as renowned of a lineup, but they're one of the most accomplished Greek sides and they do have some pretty impressive names on their roster, including French striker Djibril Cisse, Brazilian midfielder Gilberto Silva and Argentine winger Sebastian Leto. It should be well worth checking out.

Thanks to Jamie Uyeyama of Top Cheddar for the tip.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

CIS: Faulds headed to the sidelines

York Lions head coach Warren Craney made two interesting hires today, picking Michael Faulds as the team's new offensive coordinator and Eric Laflamme as their new defensive coordinator. Although it's his first coaching job at the CIS level, Faulds needs no introduction to CIS football fans; he finished up a stellar quarterbacking career at Western last year and holds the CIS all-time passing record with 10,811 career yards. He led the Mustangs to back-to-back Yates Cups in 2007 and 2008, took them to the 2008 Vanier Cup, where they fell to Laval, and brought them back to the Yates this past year, where they lost to Queen's. He also played for Team Canada at the Global Junior Championships. There was some talk that a CFL team might consider giving him a shot, but nothing seemed to materialize. This move would suggest that Faulds' playing career is at an end.

His CIS coaching career may just be beginning, but Faulds already has some experience in the field. He has a master's degree in coaching from Western and has served as the offensive coordinator at the London-based First Round Football Skills Camp for top Canadian players. Still, going from executing the plays to controlling an entire offence can be a significant jump. Faulds certainly brings some name recognition to York, and all indications suggest he has the mindset to be a successful coach. Other quarterbacks have also been able to make the transition to offensive coordinator, including Laurier's Ryan Pyear and Benoit Groulx, who went from playing at Laval to the OC job at Bishop's.

Curiously enough, Faulds is following in the footsteps of the man whose CIS passing record he broke, former Queen's quarterback Tommy Denison. Neate pointed out that Denison was York's offensive coordinator in 2006. I'm not sure if Denison is still in the coaching ranks somewhere; the last mention of him as a coach I was able to find was this 2008 story about him joining the Victoria Rebels junior team after his tenure at York, but the current coaching roster doesn't include him.

Laflamme is a hire from a different mould. He has 14 years of coaching experience, eight of which are at the CIS level. He also has experience working with Craney, both last year at Concordia (where Craney was the defensive coordinator and Laflamme was an assistant) and for three years at Vanier College in the late 90s. Seven of his eight season of CIS experience came with the Montreal Carabins before he headed to Concordia last season. His speciality has been working with the defensive front, so he should be able to help boost the Lions' pass rush. Like Faulds, he's new to being a coordinator at the CIS level, but his previous coaching experience and Craney's own defensive background should help alleviate some of the concerns there.

As the Toronto Star's David Grossman pointed out in his May article on the Lions' hiring of Craney, York has a long path back to football respectability. That's perhaps made even more difficult by U of T making strides of their own across town. The addition of Faulds might help with that, as he's certainly a big name for recruiting purposes, but it's hard to tell if his lack of CIS coaching experience might hurt them. Still, no one's expecting miracles from York right away, so hopefully this staff will be given time to develop. We'll see how it pans out.

Update (June 30): It seems my assumption that taking this coaching position would end Faulds' playing career may have been premature. I've received information that Faulds didn't get a CFL shot this year because he was recovering from a knee injury, and that he may yet wind up at a CFL training camp in 2011. I'd imagine that would depend on how things go with York and what the state of CFL interest in Canadian quarterbacks is at that time, though. It will be an interesting situation to follow.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup: My thoughts so far

The 2010 World Cup has been fascinating to follow so far, with surprising underdogs, underachieving big names and refereeing controversies among many other elements. Here's a few quick thoughts on the tournament’s group stage and Round of 16 games to date, and what those matches might tell us about the rest of the tournament.

Group A: Winner: Uruguay, Runner-up: Mexico

This group was one of the most disappointing in terms of the quality of play, but it did offer some surprising results. Uruguay were in fine form throughout, collecting two wins and a draw, and Diego Forlan proved to be one of the best strikers in the tournament thus far, collecting two goals in the three group-stage games (two more than the man who took his place at Manchester United, the considerably more hyped Wayne Rooney). Group A was more notable for its failures, though, including the 2006 finalists France, who struggled to one point in three matches, and hosts South Africa, who turned in a better showing than expected en route to four points but still became the first host country to not make it out of group play. Mexico did about as expected, but weren't terribly impressive and only made it out of the group on goal differential. It's not particularly surprising that Uruguay advanced past South Korea in the Round of 16 Saturday, while Mexico were thumped by Argentina Sunday. Uruguay should be able to make their way to the semifinals past the overachieving Ghanaians on Friday, but the rest of this group has been written off, and deservedly so.

Group B: Winner: Argentina, Runner-up: South Korea

Argentina put on a clinic in this group, winning all three of their matches and scoring seven goals while only allowing one. While Diego Maradona may be insane, perhaps his insanity is perfect for this team, or perhaps they're just too talented to be dragged down by him. They haven't really faced any serious opposition yet, though, as South Korea, Greece and Nigeria all failed to put up much of a fight, and the Mexicans were underwhelming opponents in the Round of 16. Still, Argentina have been one of the most impressive sides so far, and their quarterfinal match with Germany should be one of the most anticipated of the tournament. The rest of the group was pretty much a write-off, though; Nigeria were ineffective without John Obi Mikel, Greece had their moments, but couldn't recapture their form of Euro 2004, and South Korea made it through basically by default before getting beaten by Uruguay in the Round of 16. That's a fair indictment of this group, which was always Argentina and everyone else.

Group C: Winner: USA, Runner-up: England

This group produced some of the most exciting action, largely because there wasn't much difference in quality between the U.S., England and Slovenia. Even Algeria found a way to gum up the works, holding the English to a 0-0 draw. The Americans and English made it through, which was probably deserved based on squad quality, but American progress only came thanks to a last-second strike from Landon Donovan. Second place was a somewhat harsh fate for the English, who only conceded a single goal in the group stage thanks to Robert Green's Hand Of Clod moment, but they were continually inept going forward and never lived up to their potential. They actually put up a decent fight against the fearsome Germans in the Round of 16, and might have been able to squeeze out a victory if the referee hadn't stupidly overlooked Frank Lampard's equalizer, but Germany was a much better side on paper and on the day and deserved to advance. Meanwhile, the Americans looked very strong at times in the group stage, but they were unable to take advantage of a more favourable Round of 16 matchup with Ghana, falling 2-1 thanks to an extra-time goal. Group C delivered more parity than quality, which produced excitement but not long tournament runs.

Group D: Winner: Germany, Runner-up: Ghana

This group also featured parity, but there was considerable high-quality action on display as well. Germany looked brilliant in their opening 4-0 thumping of a decent Australian team, but very vulnerable against the last-place Serbs. They recovered to beat Ghana in their final game and claim the group title. Serbia kept everything close with their defensive style, and did better against the Germans than anyone else, but they couldn't take advantage of the weaker teams. The Australians and Ghanians duked it out in the middle of the group, with both producing a win, a draw, and a loss, but Ghana made it through on goal differential thanks to the Australians' opening-match humiliation. Both Germany and Ghana put on solid displays in their Round of 16 matches, with the Germans dispatching England in style while the Ghanaians upset the favoured Americans, but both have tougher tasks ahead. Germany may be able to take down the high-flying Argentines, but that will be a difficult challenge. They look more likely to advance than Ghana, though, despite the latter's easier draw against Uruguay.

Group E: Winner: Netherlands, Runner-up: Japan

Group E featured another dominant performance, with the Netherlands claiming nine points from their three matches. The football on display wasn't as picturesque as the usual Dutch brand, though, especially during those moments when Arjen Robben was not featured. Still, the Dutch got it done in clinical fashion, something that they've occasionally missed in the past, and they used that same style to dispatch an overmatched Slovakia 2-1 in the Round of 16 this morning. Japan earned a deserved second-place finish with two wins and a loss, while the Danes couldn't find consistency and Cameroon imploded spectacularly. The Japanese will face Paraguay tomorrow in what should be a relatively even match, and they'll have a chance to continue Group E's success.

Group F: Winner: Paraguay, Runner-up: Slovakia

This was a curious group. On the surface, defending world champions Italy seemed sure to walk through this one despite several key personnel losses since the 2006 World Cup, but they stumbled to two draws and a loss and finished in last. New Zealand was at the other end of the spectrum, as their squad featuring amateurs, bankers and clubless players looked overmatched, but they piled up three draws and looked very solid in the process. The group wound up very even, and Paraguay claimed top spot with just five points, while Slovakia squeaked into second with four. The Slovaks fell to the Dutch today in an expected result, but Paraguay can carry the honour of Group F tomorrow against the Japanese.

Group G: Winner: Brazil, Runner-up: Portugal

On the surface, this looked like a traditional Group of Death, featuring three strong countries and a potential wildcard in the North Koreans. It didn't really play out that way, though; North Korea largely rolled over and played dead, and the Ivory Coast was much less impressive than predicted (partly thanks to an arm injury that limited Didier Drogba). Brazil put on an impressive clinic in their first two games and then held second-place Portugal to an effective draw in their final match. The Portuguese were less impressive (except for their 7-0 thrashing of North Korea), but were efficient and picked up second place without too much trouble. The Brazilians took down Chile relatively easily today, but Portugal face a tougher task against Spain. They certainly have a chance, though, and Group G could be well-represented in the remaining stages of this tournament.

Group H: Winner: Spain, Runner-up: Chile

The final standings in this group worked out as many might have predicted, with Spain finishing on top, Chile in second, the Swiss a close third and Honduras a distant fourth. The path to that point was interesting, though, with Chile leading most of the way through, the Swiss beating Spain and the Spaniards stealing first place in with a 2-1 victory over Chile in their final match. That victory may yet prove crucial to the tournament outcome, as Spain avoided the Brazil juggernaut in the Round of 16. They will still have to get by Portugal, but if they do, either Paraguay or Japan await in the quarterfinals, and the Spanish would be favoured against either. They have a long way to go, but a run to at least the semifinals may be in the cards for the Euro 2008 champions despite their slow start at this year’s World Cup.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup: Kicking it up a notch

The World Cup's on to the single-knockout section with the Round of 16 starting today. I love the group stage, and it's probably the best way to fairly determine who advances, but I also love the single-elimination format of the later rounds and the accompanying boost in intensity that follows. I'll be increasing my coverage of the tournament as well, and plenty of that's coming today. First, I'll have a short recap of the group stage action with thoughts on each group, then a predictions post for this round, then a review of John Doyle's great soccer book The World Is A Ball and then finally a recap of today's action. I'm planning to deliver daily recaps from this point on, so keep it here for all your soccer coverage! Until then, enjoy one of the best goals of the tournament so far, Maicon's ridiculous strike for Brazil against North Korea:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Canucks: Hank wins the Hart

It was a big day for the Canucks, with Henrik Sedin taking home the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. I've got some thoughts on the matter and how the voting broke down over at Canuck Puck; check them out!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"You must have Jedi reflexes if you cast pods."

I'm in Prince George at the moment for my cousin's wedding, so I probably won't have much time to write this weekend, but I appeared on the Davis Sports Deli Podcast this morning with Jon Santiago to discuss the World Cup, the NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Blogs With Balls 3.0 in Chicago. Check out the episode here!

Monday, June 14, 2010

CIS: Waterloo cancels 2010 football season over doping concerns

In a few short months, the Waterloo doping scandal has gone from an investigation of one player to a team-wide investigation to league-wide concerns over drug testing. Today saw the first tangible impact on a league-wide scale, though; as Sean Fitz-Gerald of The Canadian Press reports, Waterloo has suspended its football program for the coming year. The coaching staff has been placed on paid administrative leave.

I'll get into analysis on this later, and I believe Rob Pettapiece has a post coming at The CIS Blog as well, but for now, let's focus on the facts. As Mark Masters reports, Canadian Centre for Ethics In Sport (the organization that oversees CIS drug testing) president Paul Melia announced that nine anti-doping violations were found after tests of Waterloo's 62 football players.

As Masters writes, CIS CEO Marg McGregor called it "the biggest doping situation in CIS history. "The results announced today illustrate that the CIS core value of drug-free sport has been compromised and more needs to be done to protect the integrity of university sport and the rights of clean athletes to a level playing field," she said. That would suggest that we're going to see some drug policy changes from a league-wide perspective.

For now, though, the tangible impact comes from the Warriors' disappearance from OUA football for 2010. That's going to alter the schedule, and the OUA football institutions will be holding a conference call today to discuss how that will work. Dropping from a 10-team league to a nine-team league isn't normally easy, but it might not be that difficult in this case. Under the current system, each OUA team plays eight conference games and misses one opponent; with nine teams, each team should be able to play every other team. There are still complications around scheduling (for example, most schools use the same field for football and soccer, so dates have to be carefully planned to avoid conflicts), but they should be able to work it out.

I'll keep you updated as things progress.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog. Make sure to go there this evening for Rob's thoughts.]

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Whitecaps - RailHawks: Force meets object, but not much of a result

Tonight in Vancouver, an immovable object and an unstoppable force decided to forget the whole thought experiment and go for a drink together. The Vancouver Whitecaps came into this clash with a 4-0-2 record at home in USSF Division II play, while the Carolina RailHawks were 2-0-3 on the road, so you would have expected something to give. Neither side did, though, and the game ended 1-1 after a solid battle.

Vancouver looked set to pick up another low-scoring home win when Ansu Toure put them ahead in the 31st minute. It was a beautiful goal with a terrific buildup. Former USL-1 MVP Jonny Steele found space for a run down the left flank, where Toure normally plays. Toure shifted inside and Steele sent a cross in for him near the top of the six-yard box, but it was slightly behind him. Toure reached back, though, and with a move straight out of a freestyle competition, hit a behind-the-back sideheel into the net.

Their lead was short-lived, though. In first-half stoppage time, controversy came to light when Whitecaps’ defender Zurab Tsiskaridze went down near midfield after a challenge. No call was made and Carolina had a temporary advantage. They rushed in on goal and defender Nelson Akwari was beaten by the RailHawks’ lone striker, Etienne Barbara. Barbara didn’t have much of an angle, but Akwari foolishly took him down from behind and conceded a penalty. Barbara made no mistake from the spot, beating Jay Nolly with a low blast to the bottom-left corner that tied the game at one. It also was the first USSF-II goal scored against the Whitecaps at home this season, snapping their streak after six and a half games or 585 minutes.

Carolina started the second half with a bang off a Josh Gardner run six minutes in, but Nolly made the save. From that point on, the Whitecaps controlled more of the play and produced some excellent chances. Steele sent in a picturesque cross to Marcus Haber, playing his final game at home for the Whitecaps this year (he’s scheduled to return to West Bromwich Albion after two more road games with Vancouver), but Haber’s header went just over the net. Philippe Davies had another strong chance off a looping header in the 67th minute, but Carolina goalkeeper Eric Reed tipped it over the bar. The RailHawks’ five-man midfield kept Vancouver from doing too much offensively, but the Whitecaps poured it on towards the end. Haber, Takashi Hirano and Wes Knight were all denied, though, and the match finished 1-1. It was a physical game, with the Whitecaps picking up 16 fouls and the RailHawks collecting 11. Vancouver outshot Carolina 9-5 on the day and put six shots on target against the RailHawks’ three.

Vancouver captain Martin Nash said afterwards there were some positive elements to take away from the draw.

“We scored from open play at least, so that’s a start,” he said. “We had a couple of close opportunities, we had some nice runs, we just didn’t put the ball into the back of the net.”

Nash said the team might be waiting too long for the perfect play.

“We didn’t put the ball in quick enough,” he said. “A bad ball in quick is sometimes better than a good ball in late.”

He said it was frustrating trying to break down the Carolina defence, though.

“They pass the ball well, so they get rested, but they pack 11 guys behind the ball,” he said. “They’re a team that battles, you have to admire that.”

Nash said he wasn’t impressed with the penalty call.

“From my angle, I thought he dove a bit, but sometimes you get those.”

Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson said the penalty shouldn’t have been given.

“I definitely thought we were offered a wrong decision from the referee,” he said. “They basically gave them a goal, so that was frustrating.”

Thordarson said he didn’t receive a satisfactory explanation of why the call was made when he tracked down referee David Barrie at halftime.

“I asked what he gave a penalty for and he didn’t give me a good answer,” Thordarson said.

He was also annoyed that the tackle on Tsiskaridze earlier in the play went unpunished.

“On the penalty, there’s a tackle on Zurab where it should have been blown as a free kick, but it’s not and then they get a penalty.” Thordarson said. “It’s very frustrating.”

The Whitecaps were without striker Marlon James tonight. Thordarson said that was thanks to injury concerns.

“We’ve been giving him some time to get his fitness back,” Thordarson said.

He’s optimistic James will be able to return midway through the Whitecaps’ upcoming road trip, which goes until they host AC St. Louis on July 8 and spans five games. They’ll play the Austin Aztex on Saturday, then head to Puerto Rico on June 16 to face the Islanders, visit St. Louis on the 26th and then finish up with a June 30 match in Montreal against the Impact and a July 3 match in Portland against the Timbers. Thordarson said the schedule poses a difficult challenge, but it’s out of their hands.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “We just have to face it.”

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Whitecaps - RailHawks live blog

I'll be live-blogging the Vancouver Whitecaps - Carolina RailHawks USSF Division II clash tonight from Swangard Stadium. Game time is 7:30 p.m. Pacific, and the match can be watched via webcast at Come join me then!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Kentucky Wildcats coming to Canada

Head coach Chris Oliver of the University of Windsor Lancers' men's basketball team had some interesting news in an e-mail release yesterday. Only a few weeks after deciding to stay at Windsor despite rumours of a move to McMaster, and earning a new contract in the process, Oliver has landed what should be one of the most intriguing exhibition matchups of this coming year; John Calipari's University of Kentucky Wildcats.

According to the release, the Wildcats will be coming north to Windsor from August 15-17, Sunday through Tuesday. They'll face the Lancers Sunday evening at 7 p.m., then face the University of Western Ontario Mustangs Monday night at 6 p.m. and then play the Lancers again Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. All games will be played at the university's St. Denis Centre; ticket prices are $10 for adults and youth, $5 for children. Advance ticket information is expected to be released soon through the university's website.

The Wildcats should be a fascinating matchup for Windsor and Western. They were a dominant team this year and one of the four #1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, falling in the Elite Eight to West Virginia. Yes, they will likely lose John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and up to three other players to this month's NBA Draft, but all indications suggest that they'll have an incredible group of recruits to replace them. Topping the list at the moment are Rivals' overall top prospect, small forward Mike Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague, Rivals' #2 overall prospect and #1 point guard prospect.

Update: Gilchrist and Teague are actually on the 2011 list of recruits (my fault for misreading), but
the 2010 class is just as impressive; it's currently ranked #1 overall by Rivals and features potential stars like forward Enes Kanter and point guard Brandon Knight. Thanks to Windsor assistant coach Barry Amlin for the heads-up!

Kentucky should be a team to be reckoned with this coming season, so their tour should be a nice moment for the profile of Canadian basketball, as well as Western and Windsor. Moreover, the Wildcats are likely to again rely on freshman talent this year, so these games may be crucial preparation for them as well.

It's not the first Canadian tour by an NCAA squad, as these games have become quite common over the last few years. It's likely not to be the only one this year too; Jeremy Cockrill mentioned on Twitter that the Minnesota Golden Gophers may be coming to play UBC and Trinity Western this preseason as well, and I'm sure there will be more announced in the coming days. These games can deliver a tremendous show when things work well, though, such as the August 2008 clash between NCAA champion Kansas and perennial CIS powerhouse Carleton, which the Jayhawks won 84-83. This tour might even have higher potential than that; Kentucky isn't defending a national championship, but that was a rebuilding Kansas team and this could be more accurately described as a reloading Wildcats' squad. These matches should be ones to watch.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Blogs In The Windy City I: To Stay Local, Or Not To Stay Local?

The Blogs With Balls III conference took place last weekend at Wrigley Field. I was there, and I quite enjoyed it; there was a lot of good discussion around several key topics in sports media. Over the next few days, I'm going to be presenting recaps and analysis of all the different panels. Here's the first one:

Panel: Going Local: Charting The Evolution of Local Sports Media In The Digital Age

Panelists: Jim Bankoff of SB Nation, Enrico Campitelli of The 700 Level, TK Gore of Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago and Dave Nemetz of Bleacher Report.

Moderator: ESPN's Amy K. Nelson.


Theme Song (unofficial): Tom Petty - Learning To Fly

I chose this because it reflected both the small-scale beginnings of many of the panelists and their current lofty status (Bankoff and Nemetz both run massive sports networks, while Campitelli's site was recently acquired by Comcast and Gore and Greenberg are both prominent in the Chicago media), but it also addresses the main theme of the panel; contrary to many businesses, much of the current growth in sports media is at the local level with specific team-based or city-based sites rather than big national ones. Thus, it's important to be able to come down and stay connected to your roots even after building a following that may transcend your particular area.

I thought Bankoff made a particularly good point about the importance of locally-focused content. He mentioned that we tend to think of people as fans of particular leagues or sports, but in many cases, they identify themselves more as fans of a specific local team.

“If you said ‘Who’s a sports fan?’ people would look at you pretty weird,” he said. “If you said “Who’s a Cubs’ fan?” people would raise their hands.”

Bankoff said he thinks that local identification has been a mainstay over the years rather than a recent development. I’d agree; to me, city newspapers, radio and television stations have been able to take advantage of that, but it’s taken longer for sports blogs to catch up. There have been good local sites since the inception of the blogosphere, but those sites haven’t always had the resources of the big national blogs.

“The passion has always been at the local level, but maybe the technology wasn’t able to catch up,” Bankoff said. “Now you have the technology to really allow people to go in and serve their audience.”

He sees SB Nation as doing that by building fan communities, not just blogs, and he wants their individual sites to be hubs for discussion about individual teams. Thus, their hiring process takes community-building skills into account as well as pure writing ability.

“Our job is to get the best blogger to lead a community of people who care about that sports topic,” he said. “It’s important for us to use the blogger as the catalyst for the community.”

Bankoff said they have a twofold approach; they want to display fan perspectives, but they also want their bloggers to turn in professional-quality work.
“SB Nation focuses on the voice of the fan and we focus on quality,” he said.

Don’t conflate professional with traditional, though. Bankoff was involved in the launch of AOL FanHouse way back when, and his vision for the site was much more blogger-focused than the recent trend they’ve displayed towards hiring and heavily promoting well-known print journalists. Bankoff said blogging is its own field with different demands, including connecting with the reader in a way uncommon to many mainstream media outlets.

“Those journalists may not be as adept in engaging people on the web as the bloggers are,” he said. “It’s a different skillset than a beat reporter, it’s a different skillset than a TV reporter.”

Bankoff said one of their key approaches to bring new bloggers on board is through their existing bloggers and their connections.

“We have talented people who recognize other talent,” he said.

He said SB Nation doesn’t try to fit all of their writers into a specific mould.

“We offer complete editorial independence,” he said. “We wouldn’t bring those people on board if we didn’t trust them.”

In fact, he’s quite happy to have a range of perspectives displayed in his network, with everything from heavy statistical analysis to more traditional game reports.

“Each one of them finds their audience,” he said. “No one’s better than the others. I just love the diversity of it.”

He said bloggers in his network are always in discussion about how to improve their product.

“We have a lot of internal communication," he said. "We don’t necessarily train our writers: our writers train us.”

One recent venture of theirs is today's launch of city-specific sites, similar to what ESPN has been doing in key markets.

“I think it’s a really interesting exercise to see if a city has the same appeal as a team," Bankoff said. “We’re going to do that too, but from a different perspective, a fan’s perspective."

He said ESPN's move has opened the door for other media outlets to develop a larger local focus.

"Now that you’ve done it, it opens the door for other players like SB Nation to go in with a different editorial perspective," he said.

Bankoff said SB Nation’s focus on displaying well-written fan perspectives on local teams rather than using the traditional media approach, plus the sheer size of their network, has given them unique advertising opportunities.

“We come in from the grassroots perspective and offer the voice of the fan,” he said. “I think bigger companies are finding that perspective increasingly more valuable.”

He said they're focused on growing the network from a business perspective as well as a content one.

“Our goal is to be a place where bloggers can prosper," he said. “We take it seriously. We take sales seriously. We’re trying to make this into something where we can all earn a living at it.”

Gore said the approach of building locally-focused blog networks, like SB Nation, ESPN’s TrueHoop and Sweet Spot networks, Fanball, The Score's Sports Federation, Fansided, Yardbarker, Bloguin, Bleacher Report and others have done, is a promising one. One of his previous jobs was working on an Olympic Sports Network (which sounds quite similar to the one the Canadian Olympic Committee’s still trying to get off the ground).

Gore said his experience there taught him that many individual Olympic sports might not have huge year-round followings, but showing enough different sports can draw in enough fans of each to make that kind of a venture profitable. He said local blog networks can use the same approach; individual local sites may not get the pageview numbers of national sports blogs like the Yahoo! ones or Deadspin, but they can make a compelling package together.

“These niche audiences you’re seeing, like SB Nation, really aggregate,” Gore said. “You sort of aggregate these things as a whole and there’s definitely a business model there.”

Gore said the fan perspective is also appealing for advertisers, especially because it’s growing in popularity.

“The strongest voice out there is the fan’s voice,” he said.

Bleacher Report features their own massive network of bloggers. They often receive a lot of criticism in the blogosphere (some of it from me) thanks to some of their bloggers’ errors, poor writing and rumour-mongering, but they do produce some good content.

Nemetz said he doesn’t see Bleacher Report as a direct competitor to the likes of SB Nation, but rather as a training ground for writers.

“We’re our own part of the ecosystem,” he said. “We kind of help people develop. A lot of our writers go on to writing at newspapers. … It’s almost like a player development system for writers.”

From that perspective, Bleacher Report can be seen in a much more positive light. As I’ve written before, I’m all for the democratization of the blogosphere and the encouraging of up-and-coming writers, and Bleacher Report can certainly provide a platform, exposure and some experience for new bloggers. I’m not sure if it’s the path I’d choose if I was starting out, but if they’re helping people find professional writing jobs, that’s great. As Nemetz said, the vastness of the Internet means there’s plenty of room for different approaches.

“It’s a big space,” he said. “There are a lot of people doing interesting things in the space.”

Campitelli is one of those people doing interesting things. His site, The 700 Level, is a rare tale of a locally-focused site that became a major success without a network affiliation. It was recently acquired by Comcast. He said the blogging world’s undergone considerable change since he joined it.

“In 04, when I started my blog, sports blogs didn’t really exist,” he said. “Over the last five years, it’s changed dramatically to the point where a random fan who can write really well can make a living of it.”

He figures part of that is thanks to sports fans going to local blogs for information more frequently instead of relying on traditional media sources.

“Over the last five years, people have been going online to get their local content more and more,” he said.

Campitelli said local bloggers have a big advantage over national writers when issues involving their team spring up, because they’re familiar with the background from consistently following the team.

“No national people know as much about local teams as the people in that city,” he said.

Now that Campitelli works for a mainstream media outlet, you’d imagine that there might be more restrictions on what he can write. He said he hasn’t changed his approach, though.

“I don’t think it’s changed me at all," he said. “I don’t think I say anything that’s too controversial.”

Nelson said there's plenty of opportunity for locally-focused sites to do well, but it can be tough for them to draw people used to relying on traditional media.

"It’s really hard to get people out of their habits," she said. “In Boston, everyone goes to the Globe or the Herald.”

Greenberg said ESPN Chicago has done well so far, but that pattern change has provided them with challenges. He said their approach has drawn in a lot of younger fans, but it's been more difficult to attract older fans.

“Younger people are starting to go there a lot," he said. “I think older people are entrenched in the Tribune and the Sun-Times.”

In the end, I think that habit change is going to be the toughest task for locally-focused blogs, especially independent ones. Network blogs are able to leverage that connection for business and advertising purposes, but they also have the advantage of drawing people in through that network. For example, if I'm looking for a blog on the Cubs, it's much easier for me to track one down through SB Nation or Fanball than to find an independent one. It's important for bloggers to find the network that's right for them, but the basic idea of being part of a network is a good one in my mind, which is why I don't really agree with Cork Gaines' declaration that joining ESPN's Sweet Spot Network wouldn't help Rays Index much. Now, not every network is a great fit for every site, and the Sweet Spot Network may not be right for Rays Index. They may in fact be best served by remaining independent, but that means they'll have to handle their own advertising deals and build their audience by hand. That might work for them, but for the majority of single-team blogs, I think the right network can be a beneficial thing.

Network sites face challenges too, though, and it's not just about getting people to come to your blog instead of reading the newspaper or listening to the radio. Conventional media outlets are also expanding their offerings, and it's quite possible to get news, opinion, podcasts, and video on demand from the websites of local newspapers, radio stations and TV channels. Even in the blogosphere itself, there are so many good blogs associated with most teams that it can be difficult to stand out.

I think the last key element of this topic is that it's important to keep things in perspective. Yes, locally-focused sites have a lot of potential, but they're also limited by their very nature; a Blackhawks' blog or an ESPN Chicago's day-to-day audience largely consists of people interested in those teams. Those particular fanbases are large enough to prevent that from being a major issue, but that could be more important for those who cover franchises with smaller fanbases (Jacksonville Jaguars, anyone?). People outside the fanbase can be drawn to a team-specific blog from time to time if there's a special feature (SB Nation does an excellent job of this with the daily Best Of The Network post), if there's a big issue involving the covered team or if the covered team is playing one of the teams they follow, but they're unlikely to come back regularly unless the blog features a particularly interesting style.

Two examples of single-team sites that do this are the SB Nation blogs Black Heart, Gold Pants (run by Adam Jacobi and Hawkeye State, both of whom I met at BWB 3) and Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician (run by Sean Keeley, who I haven't met yet). I don't have any particular rooting interest in either Iowa or Syracuse sports, but I read those sites regularly because both feature tremendous writing and both often look at broader issues affecting college sports, such as conference expansion. That's a tough balance to pull off, though; only a few people can really use unique styles without making it feel gimmicky, and if you're going to cover league-wide issues to try and draw in a broader range of readers, you have to make sure that you're still appealing to your core constituency of diehard fans.

I've seen the debate from both sides, running both this multi-sport site and the single-team focused Canuck Puck. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, which is why I wouldn't recommend that every aspiring blogger should go for an uber-local approach. For those interested in covering the ins and outs of a particular team or a particular city, it may well be worth it. For those who would rather write about bigger leagues or issues, though, there's still a lot of benefits to that approach as well. It can be tougher to initially attract an audience with a league-wide or even sports-wide approach, but it doesn't restrict you as much, and your potential audience is much wider. Local content is important, but to me at least, it isn't the be-all and end-all.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Blogs In The Windy City

"It's 106 miles to Chicago. We've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses."
"Hit it."
- The Blues Brothers

I'm in Chicago for the third Blogs With Balls convention, which starts in just a couple of hours with a kick-off party. If it's anything like the last one I covered in Vegas last fall, it should be a great time. The real action is tomorrow, and there's a great lineup of panelists. You can catch all the action via; I'll also be tweeting during the proceedings and writing some recap posts here. It should be a great weekend; make sure to check back here for my coverage of it!