Saturday, July 21, 2012

Small sponsor patches in the NBA are hardly a big deal

Years ago, back when I was still in high school, I was really into Adbusters and Naomi Klein and signed up for a course called Media Studies, taught by a new teacher called Ms. Bell, who was the kind of person who used to reprimand people for buying shirts with logos on them: why would you pay to be a billboard, she’d ask them, it’s supposed to go the other way around.

I thought of her when I heard about the NBA’s plan to put ads on jerseys.

The NBA’s plan is to out a small sponsor logo on the uniform, a patch “inches above the heart”, as a Bloomberg report so colorfully puts it. That report estimates these patches will bring in something like $100 million a season, which is pretty good money but nothing compared to some deals the NBA already has in place. Both TNT and ESPN pay over $900 million a year for broadcasting rights, for instance.

And it’s not exactly like the league is hemorrhaging money, either: 15 teams lost money in the 2010-11 season, but the collective bargaining agreement shifted revenue towards owners, meaning they’re not really out that much. So it’s not exactly as if the league needs this patch money, but who ever turned down free cash?

The reaction to this has been surprising to me: a blatantly unscientific poll on Bleacher Report has over 75 per cent of people against it, saying the NBA is “selling out,” a phrase I’m sure I understand in this context: how can someone making mega amounts of cash be not selling out? And the Bleacher Report article raises a good point: teams already play in million-dollar arenas named after corporate sponsors.

But it goes a little deeper than that, and I’m not sure people quite realize it.

Jack McCallum’s new history on the Dream Team repeats a story about Michael Jordan I’ve been fascinated by since I first heard about it years ago: when the team won gold, they were required to go to the podium wearing a certain jacket, part of a sponsorship deal. Reebok made the jackets and Jordan is a Nike guy. Jordan resolved this situation with an artfully clever solution, draping a flag over his shoulder and covering up the logo Reebok had so thoughtfully placed in a prominent spot.

Anybody who thinks that jersey-making companies don’t place their logo in a conspicuous spot is kidding nobody. The NBA has it’s logo on one shoulder, in a spot where it’s sure to be in every photo. The NHL likewise has one right at the neck of the jersey. If you buy a jersey, be it a Dream Team throwback or a Tyreke Evans road jersey, there’s a little logo on the other shoulder. You may not notice it, but you’re already advertising a company when you wear one.

In advertising, there’s a concept called effective frequency. Essentially, it expresses the number of times somebody needs to see an ad before it takes effect. My favorite take is Thomas Smith’s from 1885, which says it’ll take 20 views. Simply put, just seeing an ad once isn’t effective.

The NBA isn’t the first league to put ads on jerseys. It’s a staple in Europe, where ads on the field and on the players take the place of commercial breaks. Here in North America, they’re just on players in the CFL and sometimes own entire soccer teams.

And here’s the rub: they didn’t mean the league sold out, they didn’t ruin the play. Honestly, they’re something one doesn’t even notice: last time I saw a CFL game in person, I couldn’t make out players nameplates, let alone a small patch. It works better on TV (where everything is already sponsored anyway) and even better in print, when a patch is immortalized in a photograph.

It’s honestly a drop in the bucket of the exposure we all get to advertising everyday. As a society, we’re bombarded with ads every day, most of it unconsciously. From product placement to billboards on buses to a Subway logo on the score ticker, they’re everywhere. Having a small patch on a jersey is hardly a tipping point.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jack McCallum's Dream Team and the basketball book pantheon

I finished Jack McCallum’s new book about the Dream Team today. It’s a good read – look for a review at The Good Point and maybe elsewhere sometime soon – and I enjoyed it a lot.

There’s one thing about it, though, that keeps nagging at the back of my mind: how often McCallum turns to other authors. It’s not something he does often, but every so often he quotes a passage from Jackie MacMullan’s When the Game Was Ours or Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball and occasionally from something else. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just kind of a weird thing to me. After all, he interviewed Magic Johnson, so why is he using a quote of his from another book?

That’s a minor thing, but it got me thinking about those books. And once I started with that, I went a little further and looked at all the basketball books I own and thinking about the ones I’ve read and how they all compare. What follows is a few words about my favorite basketball books and if I'd recommend them over Dream Team

A Season on the Brink – John Feinstein

I suppose this is the definitive book about college hoops – it’s certainly the best known one, anyway – and for good reason: Feinstein’s long look at a still-incendiary Bobby Knight is occasionally breathtaking, and not in a positive way. Knight was a destructive force: everyone probably has a mental snapshot of him tossing a chair across the court and maybe feels that he’s an irritable guy, but as I remember this book – it’s been a few years since I read it – Knight comes like a tyrant, not the gruff guy he sometimes seems like on ESPN.

Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Yes, especially if you like college hoops.

Heaven is a Playground – Rick Telander

Another one I read a long time ago, back when I read something like four or five sports books a month. While writing this, Telander spent something like an entire summer living in New York and hanging out on concrete courts around people like Fly Williams and Albert King. It’s a good read, even if it’s depressing: the abject poverty, the drugs just off to the side of the court – a memorable scene has a player turning down something that looks like orange juice: methadone – and the divide between Telander and the kids that can’t be bridged all add up after a while.

Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Nope. It’s good, but not quite as good and it’s a little dated to boot.

The Last Shot – Darcy Frey

Here, Frey spends time in Coney Island, an outpost of despair. His book is tragic, with one of the principals dying and it’s most successful figure is Stephon Marbury, whose career is nothing if not checkered. I remember reading this on a bus, riding back from Moncton to Oshawa, and plowing through it in one sitting. It’s a powerful book, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s right up there with Hoop Dreams.

Would I recommend it over Dream Team? It’s a tough one, but I would: this is one of favorite sports reads.

The Miracle of St. Anthony – Adrian Wojnarowski
This is another one about basketball in the inner city, although this is more of an upper than the two previous. Here Wojnarowski spends time around Bob Hurley, coach at a school in New Jersey, and looks at how the program keeps kids out of gangs, wins games and now single-minded Hurley is: as he approaches his 800th win, a top ranking in the country and has games televised, his teams practice in a gym that’s falling apart, in a school struggling to make ends meet. I remember enjoying the hell out of this one.

But I wouldn’t recommend it over Dream Team, especially if you’re familiar with the PBS documentary on Hurley.

Loose Balls – Terry Pluto

I’ve written about this book before, as has pretty much everyone else ever – so chances are you know how good this one is: it’s pretty much the benchmark for oral histories, a book that manages to be both illuminating (especially in how the league was formed) and entertaining (any of the Marvin Williams stories, for instance). Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Yes, in a heartbeat.

Wilt – Wilt Chamberlain and David Shaw

Written before Wilt decided to do things like attempt to play pro volleyball, coach in the ABA (and in pretty rad pants) and claim he slept with 10,000 women. This is more about his earlier years, ranging from his time at Kansas to tangling with Bill Russell in the postseason. And he doesn’t hold back, either, talking frankly about discrimination and how much he didn’t like his coaches, throwing some of them under the bus. Also he was and Nixon were friends?

Would I recommend it over Dream Team? No. It’s a fun biography (his second one is even crazier), but it’s not a good a read.

Playing for Keeps – David Halberstam

Maybe the definitive Michael Jordan bio will never be written, given how private he seems to be and how much everyone likes him. But this work by Halberstam comes damn close: it’s a detailed look a the first two phases of Jordan’s career, ending with the 1998 championship run, and was the first place I remember hearing a lot of Jordan lore: Larry Bird’s quote after Jordan scored 62 in the playoffs, the flag draped over a Reebok logo, the gambling debts, etc. Like pretty much everything Halberstam wrote, it’s packed with research, well written and really enjoyable, even if Jordan didn’t really take part in it. It’s another one I’d recommend over Dream Team.

Seven Seconds or Less – Jack McCallum

His book previous to Dream Team is also good and arguably better: McCallum spent a season on the bench with the Suns, embedded and researching for this book, and was there for a wild playoff run that forms the backbone of this: a back-and-forth seven game series against the Lakers, a chippy series against the Clippers and them running out of gas against Dallas in a memorable conference final. His portraits of players like the moody, enigmatic Amare Stoudemire, the insecure Shaun Marion and the irreplaceable Steve Nash really push this book over the top: it’d have been easy to write something about how much fun this team was to watch, but he went further into how this team ticked. Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Definitely, yeah: it’s maybe my favorite basketball book.

The Breaks of the Game – David Halberstam

Another one I haven’t read in a while, although I can remember where I bought it (a little hole-in-the-wall store in downtown Oshawa) which is more than I can say for most of my books. It claims it’s a season-long look at the 1978 Portland Trail Blazers, although it’s really more than that: it’s a look at the NBA as it’s in trouble and struggling to stay alive. It wasn’t just the drug problem, which everyone points to now: Halberstam points to reasons like ABC Sports losing the contract and deciding to crush the league’s ratings by running made-for-TV sports at the same time. It’s enjoyable, another of my favorites and it’s back in print, too! I had a hell of a time finding a copy back when it was still OOP. Another I’d recommend over Dream Team and would especially recommend reading right before, if only to appreciate where the league had to overcome before it could get to the Olympics.

Let Me Tell You A Story – Red Auerbach and John Feinstein

Red never wrote an autobiography, so it’s nice that something like this came out: Feinstein hung around the legendary figure for a while and was able to get some stories about the golden years of the league out of him. It’s a fun read, especially enjoyable if you’re into either the Celtics or basketball history, but it’s a lesser effort from Feinstein and never really rises beyond “Here’s Red telling some cool stories in each chapter.” I wouldn’t recommend it over Dream Team.

The Free Darko Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac

A dark horse for best basketball book of the last decade, the first Free Darko book is a collection of profiles, infographics and the occasional illustration that’s dripping with insight, wit and charm. Granted, those sound like empty review words, but it’s a book which is equally funny and informative. It goes into why a temper is good for Ron Artest, into Kobe Bryant’s intense drive for perfection and why Vince Carter is unfairly maligned (and not just by Toronto). But it also is packed with good gags, like Isiah Rider applying for a job at Starbucks, rankings of How Euro various countries are and the wisdom of Rasheed Wallace. I’m torn if I’d recommend it over Dream Team, though: there’s a sort of implied knowledge here, that you know this book is half tongue in cheek but also really damn clever. If you don’t remember Free Darko, chances are this book isn’t for you.

The Book of Basketball – Bill Simmons

A gargantuan book, a huge ranking of players and seasons by someone who’s maybe incapable of writing short columns. The Book of Basketball was probably designed more to start arguments than to resolve them, and I suppose it does that pretty damn well since I disagree with a bunch of stuff here, but when read front to back, it’s a struggle to get through. Not only because it’s so long, not only because so much of what Simmons argues seems to be arbitrary (but aren’t all rankings?) but because he keeps making porn and sex jokes and it frankly gets a little weird after a while. Still, gotta admire the effort and there’s a good bibliography of basketball books in the back.

Would I recommend it over Dream Team? No, because it’s really just way too much of a thing. It’s a great thing to pick up once in a while and work your way through – much like another huge book, the Norton Anthology of World Literature – but it’s something of a slog.

That pretty much covers the basketball books I own and have read, although there’s a few other good ones I’m not going into detail over since I don’t have them handy: Pistol by Mark Kriegel, Tall Tales by Terry Pluto, Red and Me by Bill Russell and Alan Steinberg.

Whatever you do, don’t read that one Paul Shirley wrote, it’s self-obsessed trash and he’s pretty scummy to boot.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Final thoughts on Joe Paterno, the Freeh Report and Penn State

A while ago, when Joe Paterno died, I wrote a few wordsabout him, his legacy and the series of horrific crimes that took place at Penn State. That was then. Now, in the light of the just-released Freeh Report, all those words seem so hopelessly naïve, even if I still agree with what I said.

The essentials of what I wrote I still agree with: Paterno was tested by what happened and he shrank from the challenge. His failings should define his career at Penn State. But the scope of what happened, the depth of his knowledge and the amount of people that could have done something, anything, and didn’t, is staggering.

When Paterno died, the question was what he knew. Back in January, we knew he’d reported allegations of Sandusky’s behavior to his bosses but hadn’t gone to the police. That likely was in 2002, two years after Sandusky retired. Before his death, Paterno released a statement, reading in part: “I did what I was supposed to do,” a statement true only in the broadest legal sense and not at all in even the barest moral sense.

But the report offers a more disturbing picture of a school where nobody wanted to rock the boat and incur the displeasure of Paterno. In 1998, a story about Sandusky abusing children came to Penn State officials and the police. But Sandusky was never prosecuted and the only action taken was a warning for Sandusky to not to take children into showers anymore. Two years later, a janitor saw Sandusky with another child in the showers, but didn’t do anything for fear of his job.

To me, most damning of all is how Paterno knew about Sandusky as far back as 1998. One might remember how he told Sally Jenkins quite the opposite in his final interview. To wit: “You know it wasn’t like it was something everybody in the building knew about… nobody knew about it.” But the report contains emails where people mention telling Paterno, that he’s curious for more information. Page 51 of the Freeh report damns the Penn State coach, saying he knew “everything that was going on.” It wasn’t until earlier this year, nearly 14 years later, that Sandusky was convicted of any crime.

Paterno fancied himself as something of a student of the classics, especially Virgil. I recently read another work out of the Roman Empire that seems closer: Procopius’ Secret Histories. There, the Byzantine historian lays out the misdeeds of Justinian and Theodora, the hell that was their reign: gangs in the streets, people put to death for the most minor indiscretions – Edward Gibbon once reckoned something like 100 million died during their reign – and a culture of fear and excess, where if you crossed either of them, you vanished, and if you pleased them you could get away with anything.

But even that's something of a stretch in the light of the Freeh report. The implications it'll have on the future of Penn State are almost beyond reckoning: never before in college football has anything like happened. The closest I can think of is the abuses that happened at Maple Leaf Gardens decades ago. But the cynicism isn't quite there, that those abuses were overlooked for the same selfish reasons: winning games, keeping a program clean-looking, protecting the legacy of a famous and longtime coach. 

I think the report bears it bluntly: there's never been anything quite like this before. If we're lucky, there never again will be.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Good Point: The re-invention of the NBA through the Western Conference Finals

Over at The Good Point, I weigh in on the NBA's Western Conference Final and especially on how the San Antonio Spurs have changed from a boring, borderline unlikable team into one of the most exciting and compelling in basketball. To wit:
Don’t make the mistake of sleeping on this Spurs team. Yes, Duncan is old, as at 3, he’s older than everyone on the Thunder, save Derek Fisher. They don’t have the same star power Oklahoma City does. Durant finished second in MVP voting, Parker a distant fifth and Duncan picked up one fourth-place vote. Yet they roared into the postseason with the top seed in the west with the best SRS in their conference and were tied with the Bulls for the best record in the NBA.
Still, it’s more than that. It’s taken years, but the Spurs have emerged as one of the most enjoyable teams in the league. It wasn’t too long ago that the Spurs played a style of basketball usually called boring: Duncan backing into the post, a half spin, a bank shot that rattles in. Their most recent championship was a Finals sweep of the LeBron-led Cavs, where the Spurs scored around 80 points per game. They were a team easy to dislike and easy to hate, especially after bloodying Steve Nash.
Click here to read the whole thing!