Archive for the ‘sports’Category

Most music companies miss the point with podcasts

You could ring Pavlov’s bells and it wouldn’t cause as strong a reaction as I feel when the first percussive beats of “The Pills” by The Eskimos introduce a new episode of Gamespot’s Hotspot podcast. The catchy song and enjoyable podcast become entwined in ways that movies and television shows have used to superinject moments with added emotional importance (yes, conversations about Duke Nukem can involve an emotion).

This bit of production work provides a nice middle ground between the excesses of morning zoo radio and the let-us-rec0rd-a-conversation aesthetics of other podcasts. It makes me seek out the band, the song, and if there’s anything else out there like this great song. And the reason it’s possible, as discussed by the show, is that one of the hosts is related to a member of the band.*

* A similar situation also applies to the always-enjoyable NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, which welcomes listeners each week with a sugar-sweet instrumental from the podcast producer’s band.

Royalty fees and music rights have made any attempt at using recorded songs a fool’s errand. Many shows have worked around this limitation by soliciting original works, including the likes of The Jonah Keri Podcast and Doug Loves Movies. Others embrace the limitations of the form, using royalty-free music. The Basketball Jones weekly audio show took a potential negative and turned using “Steppin’ On The Beach” (aka “Dirty Talk” by James Wallace) into a weekly highlight. Still, while I understand the fear of allowing shows to distribute licensed music for free on one section of iTunes while the other section asks for $1.29 a song, podcasts have matured enough as an artform that record companies should realize the potential benefits of allowing popular shows with loyal fanbases to use their artists’ songs.

At least one record company took a step in that direction this past week, when Up and In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast announced a deal with Bloodshot Records. The podcast – hosted by the excellent Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks – incorporates music as bumpers between segments of the show. In the past, the show has used music beyond the line of sight of litigous record companies, all the while exposing some relatively little-known bands to a whole new audience. Bloodshot has embraced new ways to reach listeners, including free samplers through Amazon’s MP3 store, and this agreement falls in line with those efforts.

Podcasts and revenue are still mutually exclusive, even for the most popular of shows. The costs of server space quickly turn popularity into a financial burden. But the audience – well, there’s gold in them hills. Advertisers s…l…o…w…l…y have warmed to the concept, as any listener of the Adam Carolla Podcast can attest. And by wont of RSS feeds and iTunes, the audience welcomes new content in a delivery system that direct mail marketers would envy. I’m not saying a band like Muse – with U.S. popularity propelled by the Twilight films – can be replicated through the smaller audiences of niche podcasts. But when you’re gambling on viral YouTube videos, early morning MTV airings and maybe a spot on the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to put some faith in an intriguing new bet.

In other podcast thoughts:

* Dan Levy at On the DL Podcast recently announced that his weekday show will end with show #555, giving fans about seven more episodes after today to settle in with a sports podcast staple. The show prided itself on long-form interviews with sports media personalities, but I always appreciated the days when media criticism and ruminations on the sports blog world dominated the conversation between Levy and his co-host, Nick Tarnowski. It became a staple of my early morning routine, with a hot shower and some interesting and/or provocative point jump-starting my brain. The show was thoughtful and entertaining, two attributes I wish sports talk radio could possess. And it will be missed.

* The AV Club has begun a regular feature called Podmass highlighting the best in a week’s worth of podcasts. Time commitments and the ocean of podcast content makes it difficult for most of popular culture to regularly focus on the medium. But the rise in quality, guest-laden comedy podcasts in the Los Angeles area makes for an easy hook, and this feature supplements a roundup of those podcasts with recaps of other shows you might have heard of. It’s a great resource, and it exemplifies some of the notable work done by the likes of Slate and NPR (with the aforementioned Pop Culture Happy Hour and Hang Up and Listen) in advancing the form and providing something eminently enjoyable week after week.


04 2011

Re-experiencing The Sportswriters on TV

Editor’s note: After seeing the show missing from any upcoming airings on my DVR, I feared I damned the show with not-so-faint praise. Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune reports that the show has been pulled for the time being to settle compensation issues. Let’s hope they come to an agreement at a faster pace than the Tribune’s bankruptcy proceedings.

ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn recently moved into a new studio, allowing for the ability to air in high definition. It marked a new milestone in the genre of sports talk, giving those shows a sheen that fits right in with the other productions on the Worldwide Leader. On-screen “navigation,” a multitude of highlights and on-camera remote interviews all take the simple act of (mostly) guys arguing about sports and turns that into a visual feast that can maintain interest in a world with attention at a deficit.

It wasn’t always this way. Chicago’s Comcast Sportsnet has re-introduced the vanguard in the genre, The Sportswriters on TV, with original broadcasts supplemented by “Pop Up Video”-style updates, fact-checking and irony. Enough time has passed that “old news” has turned into history, and these re-airings provide a great opportunity to compare the opinions of the day with our hindsight. And it just reinforces the aspects that make for good sports talk, be it in 1990 or 2010 – interesting personalities with interesting things to say, no matter the TV screen resolution.

Read the rest of this entry →


10 2010

Part of a well-balanced breakfast: free DVDs

After five boxes of Raisin Bran Crunch, cutting out five cardboard circles and mailing them off, I filled a giant hole in my sports DVD collection. Sure, for $5 I could have gone to Wal-Mart and received a snap case for my efforts. But I don’t care what you say, at the end of the game, in my book this deal was a winner! And one more week’s worth of cereal will give me the choice of A Walk in the Clouds, Benny & Joon, Eight Men Out, Here on Earth, Picture Perfect, Rocky II and The Sandlot. I already own The Sandlot (obvious reasons) and Here on Earth (Sobieski reasons), so it looks like I’ll say it’s so for Eight Men Out.


06 2009

Podcast review: ESPN’s First Draft

If only every industry could develop as fruitfully as the one surrounding the NFL Draft. Long just the domain of scouts, diehard NFL fans and one Mel Kiper Jr., the Internet and a multitude of college football television broadcasts has opened up interest in the controlled crapshoot known as the draft to anyone who thinks he can differentiate among seven rounds’ worth of pro football hopefuls.

ESPN soon incorporated draft analysis into its regular coverage of the college football season. The NFL Network then created an entire week’s worth of programming just from televising 40-yard dashes and cone drills at the draft combine. SportsCenter, grasping for anything to prevent extended hockey highlights, consistently features debates between Kiper Jr. (from an ESPN Zone that could double as his home) and Todd McShay (perpetually in front of a green screen backdrop to be named later). Now, ESPN has developed a podcast, First Draft, to consolodate some of the analysis. And for people like me who mute SportsCenter with reckless abandon, have no fear. The podcast provides a strong weekly snapshot as to what teams are thinking leading up to the April 25-26 event, with a minimum of forced debate or antagonism.

Ryen Russillo hosts each episode, setting up the tee so that Kiper Jr. and McShay can whack away. Given Russillo’s experience on ESPN Radio and the experts’ media saturation, the conversation sounds almost like a polished compilation from previous radio bits. But what should attract listeners who wake up with SportsCenter are the extended, divergent conversations that take place when considering a team’s or player’s prospects. Free from the confines of the revved-up television script, the half-hour show feels like a much more complete snapshot than picking up bits of news on TV or in the blogs.

The March 3 podcast (the fifth in the show’s run) probably mentions more than two dozen players, and all of it starts with a simple hook – given the shuffle of NFL free agency, how does that affect draft needs? Not every team gets mentioned, so diehards breathlessly awaiting any word on the Colts’ needs can find that elsewhere. But as anyone who follows the draft knows, knowing what other teams might be interested in directly feeds into our greatest pie-in-the-sky delusions. Kansas City scored a quarterback? Time to Bear down, Mark Sanchez! And McShay/Kiper Jr. nicely balance between what they see and what teams think they see, allowing for a sigh when combine warriors shoot up draft boards despite game tape to the contrary.

Rusillo caps the show with a visit from other members of Scouts Inc. In the latest show, Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl quickly give updates on players heading into pro day workouts. Both sound much less polished than their counterparts, but they don’t make the show any weaker for their inclusion. With as many players involved in the draft, more eyes at ground level only can improve the level of information and discourse.

Right now, the most in-depth coverage remains online, where an encyclopedia’s worth of daily multimedia awaits. Still, I like the niche-ing of ESPN’s podcasts (to wit: did you know there is a fantasy soccer podcast?). If you have somehow held onto your job and only the mid-afternoon Web surf has been laid off, a commute featuring the ESPN First Draft podcast will allow football fans to at least be more knowledgable than Michael Irvin during those golden days when the Playmaker analyzed the draft earlier this decade.

Gratuitous plug: For draft analysis outside the NFL draft, check out Diesel’s Draft Analysis, which is written by my friend’s spouse and comes from someone who played the game above the sandlot level.


03 2009

Joakim Tebow

Savor it now, Tim Tebow. Each challenge is different, and paychecks truly mean a whole new ballgame. One day you’re on top of the world, winning the last game of the year with your talented teammates and great coach. Then you make the leap, and the way college announcers confuse scrunching your nose for true leadership gives way to a different kind of challenge that few can muster. It’s not your fault if the expectations become too great or the praise heaped too high. But it just makes your climb more difficult. There is no shame in greatness at any level. Just remember (and this goes for you as well, Chicago sports franchise with a draft pick): not everything translates.


01 2009

Bowls have come a long way in five years’ time

In 2003, my alma mater – Northern Illinois University – set aside the memory of the nation’s longest losing streak in 1998-99 to somehow earn multiple mentions on major ESPN programs like Pardon the Interruption. It started with a Thursday night home win against a ranked Maryland team, and continued with wins at Alabama (pre-Saban, of course) and Iowa State. And it ended with a handful of key injuries and two conference losses at Bowling Green and Toledo. A team that at one point figured into the BCS Top 10 with no bad losses ended the year 10-2. Yep, one of the better mid-major teams of the BCS era didn’t go to a bowl game.

Since then, you can see the impact of that season everywhere. Local stores, and not just the university bookstores, started stocking and selling the red and black of Huskie paraphernalia. Michael Turner, the star running back of that team, has busted out from backup obscurity to earn a big payday and even bigger yardage totals for a surprising Atlanta Falcons team. Early blogs showed the way for prideful power conference fans to belittle any mention of a Mid American Conference school. And NIU used the momentum from that season to upgrade facilities through some sizable donations that probably wouldn’t have materialized without the recent reminder of school pride.

The latest sign that things have changed came Sunday, when a young NIU squad that finished 6-6 under new head coach Jerry Kill found out it will be traveling to Shreveport, Louisiana Dec. 28 to compete in the Independence Bowl against Louisiana Tech. No matter the outcome, we do know one thing – any result can’t be more embarassing than being known as the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl for a lengthy period of time. But this invite shows both how lower-tier bowls have proliferated in the last five years, and how the Mid-American conference has used the increased odds to find someone to dance with.

In covering Garrett Wolfe and the 2006 NIU Huskies, head coach Joe Novak laid out the true value of a bowl appearance, and it didn’t necessarily involve degenerate gamblers looking for action between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He cited the extra practice allowed by the NCAA to prepare for these contests, as preparation for the game and as a bridge to spring practice. Give a coach a rep and he’ll ask for a two-a-day.

As fans, though, do these games matter? I, of course, am pleased that ESPN will broadcast the game outside the ghetto of mid-week MAC matchups that clog the month of November. Maybe the game will serve as a springboard in the development of redshirt freshman Chandler Harnish, and allow the seniors a re-do on a lasting memory after a sound whipping at the hands of Navy. But games like these are of questionable value to the sport at large. For all the tradition of the major bowls, the lower-tier contests pop up and fade away with alarming frequency. Bowl organizers can’t rely on regular ticket sales, so they must invite local teams to fill at least part of the stadium. And then there’s the complicit involvement in a bowl structure that allows the presidents of major universities to milk a cash cow without worrying about silly things like a true national champion.

No matter what fans and observers on the outside think, I hope all those involved on NIU and Louisiana Tech appreciate their chance to run right off-tackle one more time. Teams much better than them didn’t get that chance, and it wasn’t even that long ago.

For a nice retrospective on that 2003 NIU team, check out this series in the Northern Star.


12 2008

Heroes do not wear shoulder pads

This is a pet peeve of mine, and it’s where the copy editor in me comes through strongest. But I wouldn’t feel so strongly about this if it wasn’t recognized earlier this decade when wordsmiths gazed at their navel and felt so self-righteous.

The aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks meant bringing the idea to all sections of the newspaper. As the main news sections detailed local remembrances and dispatches from Washington on what was to come, business sections detailed stock market swoons and the sports pages stayed static with baseball standings while columnists desperately tried to show their writing chops by relating senseless acts to professional sports.

“No more ‘bombs’ or ‘on the warpath’ and certainly no more ‘heroes,’ not when there are so many others who deserve this recognition!”

Then you see Tom Brady throw to Randy Moss, the Oakland A’s rattle off a winning streak and a football player guts out a game, and your righteous indignation falls to the irresistible force of looming deadlines and short memories.

I can accept this as a writer. But sometimes, a man must be stopped from making a fool of himself. Peter King writes a highly read “Monday Morning Quarterback” column, and the last two weeks he has seen heroes on every hashmark:

Stop it, Peter. These are great athletes, no doubt. But I thought we all agreed we’d limit the worship to those who do something great off the field, and not just for coming back from a pinkie injury to win a division game on Sunday Night Football.


11 2008

… and then he finished with a 500-crunch cooldown

This week’s Sports Illustrated featured the amazing exploits of Big 12 quarterbacks, the Manny-fied Los Angeles Dodgers and NHL goons. But a two-sentence blurb turned out to be the most memorable part of the magazine.

Faces in the Crowd has tethered the magazine to its “sports of all sorts” roots, showcasing athletes young and old outside the sports limelight. This week featured 30-year-old Ryan Bonfiglio, who:

“did 1,000 push-ups in sets of 25, finishing in 20 minutes and 50 seconds to break the Guinness World Record set by fitness guru Jack LaLanne in 1956.”

A 51-year-old record! And they thought Manny having a few good months deserved the cover? (You can see LaLanne talking about that record here). This being the YouTube age, I learned that the former wrestler’s record-breaking event took place May 5. And here’s a look at the second half:

Hmmmmmm. Now, let me preface this by saying that 1) Watching someone do push-ups for 10 minutes might be one of those instances the Cold War Kids were singing about in “Something is Not Right With Me” and 2) while I go to the gym, I’m not going much further than 100 pushups before crying uncle. But the last 500 push-ups shown left me feeling a little disappointed in what Guinness qualifies as a push-up. The commenters on the YouTube video say as much, in much more dismissive language that links to their own vanity clips. I honor the guy for his achievements, but have our standards lessened over the years over what constitutes a push-up? Our children’s education is one thing, but this is where I draw the line.


10 2008

Proper predictions for MLB playoffs

The 2008 baseball season, though obscured at different points by an exciting NBA finals and Brett Favre practicing with high school wide receivers, once again featured its odd mix of milestones and memories. I know I won’t soon forget the year Aaron Miles (almost) turned into a plus with the bat for the Cardinals.

Nowhere can you see the full spectrum of a season’s emotions than in the fate of the Chicago White Sox. After a Minnesota sweep in the Metrodome where announcers Hawk Harrelson and Darren Jackson almost creepily fetishized the Twins’ small-ball squibs and steals (like a family friend talking about how hot your wife is), Hawk’s “dag-nubbits” were exchaged for “Yes!”es with consecutive must-wins over the Indians and Tigers.

So here come the playoffs, and the Cubs’ historical lack of success has combined with the “crapshoot” nature of the proceedings to give all kinds of people all kinds of favorites. Here’s how I see things breaking down in the divisional series:

Milwaukee Brewers vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Key Milwaukee player: Mike Cameron
– The combination of Corey Hart and Ryan Braun tattooed lefty pitchers last year, but this year their platoon splits evened out. With lefty Prince Fielder in the middle of the lineup and the possibility of facing Cole Hamels twice and the ageless Jamie Moyer once, at least one Brewer will have to make the lefties pay. This year, Cameron hit .282/.397/.555 against them, and that production will be needed in games that are sure to break 10-run over/unders per game. Plus, the fly-ball nature of the Phillies’ big bats will require Cameron to show off his impressive range in center field.

Key Philadelphia player: Brett Myers
– Fantasy owners know just how hot and cold Myers ran this season. On Aug. 9, he owned a 5.09 ERA. After a close loss to the Dodgers, he proceeded to dominate the Nationals, Dodgers, Cubs and Mets for 31 innings – two earned runs and 35 strikeouts. But Myers couldn’t keep up that deadball-era pace, and lasted just until the fifth inning in his last two starts of the year. He could pitch twice in this series, and how effective he is will help determine his team’s next destination.

Prediction: Phillies beat up on a Brewers bullpen and power on to the LCS.

Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

Key Chicago player: Derrek Lee – Although Ryan Dempster might be a good pick here, I finally have come off the position that this season was purely some Wrigley-aided fluke for the former closer. Instead, let’s look at the surprisingly pop-less bat of Lee. He’s hit just three home runs since Aug. 1, but that lack of production has been obscured by a deep lineup that gets on base from one through nine. The playoffs have a tendency to reveal your weaknesses at inopportune moments, however, and Lee will need to pound a pitch or two in this series to keep that lineup moving.

Key Los Angeles player: Chad Billingsley – Did you know that Billingsley threw 200 strikeouts this season? The pitching has been overshadowed late in the season by Manny Ramirez consistent punishment of anything resembling horsehide, but L.A. took great advantage of Chevez Ravine to accumulate some solid pitching performances. One of those performers, oft-injured Hong-Chih Kuo, will miss the series. But the man known as “Buzzsaw” by the folks at ESPN Fantasy reached 200 innings this year by limiting hits against. He did walk 80, though, and his WHIP shows that patient teams can get on base against the young hurler. My guess is that the jump in innings for young Billingsley shows up somewhere in the series. (Note: This is the worst rumor ever.)

Prediction: Cubs outlast the Dodgers, and lazy columnists tear up their Manny-being-Manny jokes.

Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Key Boston player: Mike Lowell/JD Drew
– Both players have dealt with injuries in the latter part of the season (like retirement home roomates, a hip and back, respectively). Amazingly, the Red Sox have just one player (Dustin Pedroia) who has played 150 games this season. If Lowell/Drew can’t make it through the grind of a series, that means Kevin Youkilis shifts over to third and Sean Casey takes over at first while outfield at-bats are divvied up between Coco Crisp and Mark Kotsay. The home field advantage of Fenway Park is one of offense, and if that latter lineup goes out there, the Ortiz/Youkilis/Pedroia trifecta will have inordinate pressure to keep putting runs on the board. One can’t help but sense, though, that the Red Sox have been recuperating at their own pace especially for this series.

Key LA player: Mark Teixeira
– He’s the MLB star you’ve probably never heard speak, as playing on bad teams in Texas tends to do that to a young slugger. He went over to the Braves last season and caught them on their way back down to mediocrity, but continued to show the second-half power and all-season defense that makes him such a valuable player (both in the baseball sense and the Scott Boras-has-dollar-signs-in-his-eyes sense). Given that we don’t know a lot about him, it’s easy to see him as a stat-producing robot of sorts. But now he’s on a big stage, and the Angels brought him in to insure teams can’t slice through the middle of that lineup in a 10-pitch inning.

Prediction: I feel like I haven’t seen the true form of either of these teams in quite some time. The Angels fans’ hearts are broken once again, however, by those damn Red Sox.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. Chicago White Sox

Key Tampa Bay player: Evan Longoria – Yes, this is a lot of pressure to put on the presumptive AL Rookie of the Year. But the Rays’ lineup really dictates this. Carlos Pena found his power stroke in the second half of the season, slugging .561 and hitting 17 home runs after the All-Star Break. But Carlos turns into Tony Pena against lefties, and the White Sox have a couple good ones in Mark Buehrle and John Danks in the rotation and Matt Thornton in the bullpen. So Longoria will be charged with putting a charge into the ball as the rest of the lineup scratches and claws for additional runs.

Key Chicago player: Nick Swisher – OK, so this choice may be a bit out there. But manager Ozzie Guillen, if he wants to win the series, will have to identify that Dwayne Wise is no one’s idea of a championship-level corner outfielder and that Carlos Quentin’s injury requires a bat in his stead. Swisher has seen his batting average plummet this season, and with it the delectable on-base percentage that made him a valuable player. Still, his switch-hitting skills and good batting eye will be valuable in the postseason, far more than any defensive value Guillen would wring out of Wise. Embrace the homer-happy nature of the team, Ozzie, and put in the oddball.

Prediction: Tampa takes advantage of its home field and limits the home runs enough to advance. Baseball haters will fret eventual low ratings, but creating a new star team on the landscape takes an investment that will pay off in the coming years.


10 2008

Lilly, Cubs perform rare feat, extend the no-hitter hangover

Thank goodness for digital archiving. With the help of Google, newspaper archives and blogs, future generations easily will understand the events of Sept. 14 and 15, 2008. Can you imagine going through microfiche to figure out why the Cubs and Astros played in Milwaukee’s Miller Park, with the Astros wearing their road uniforms as the home team, no less? It will be notable to history, of course, as Carlos Zambrano Sunday night tossed a no-hitter with great stuff and the offensive black holes prominently featured in the Houston lineup.

The Cubs extended the no-hitter hangover this afternoon, adding a different meaning to the term “get-away day.” Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, thrilling both the incredulous Cubs announcers and the fans who sped through flooded roads to see their Cubs race toward the playoffs outside the friendly confines. The two-day combination of dominance recalled a faint memory in my mind, of Oakland A’s pitchers Rich Harden and Barry Zito both taking no-hitters deep into 2005 games against the Texas Rangers. On July 14, Harden gave up his first hit (to current teammate Alfonso Soriano) in the eighth. On July 15, Zito saw his no-hit bid end in the eighth courtesy of a home run powered by the fat head of Kevin Mench.

But what about the day after no-hitters? Courtesy of the invaluable Retrosheet no-hit database, I looked back at the no-hitters of the division era (since 1994). The best game after a no-hitter was turned in by the Los Angeles Dodgers after Ramon “Pedro’s Big Brother” Martinez. On July 15, 1995, Hideo Nomo (no stranger to no-hitters) gave up just 3 hits in a complete game, 10 strike out win. The worst? The Yankees followed up Dwight Gooden’s improbable no-hitter in 1996 by giving up 19 hits to the same Seattle Mariners. Here are the other results:

No-hitter pitcher / # of hits / Team

Lester / 5 / Kansas City
Buchholz / 7 / Baltimore
Verlander / 11 / Milwaukee
Buehrle / 5 / Texas
Sanchez / 17 / Philadelphia(Arizona for no-hitter)
Johnson / 10 / Atlanta
Lidge, etc. / 12 / Yankees
Millwood / 8 / L.A. (San Francisco)
Lowe / 10 / Baltimore (Tampa Bay)
Smith / 8 / San Diego
Burnett / 7 / San Diego
Nomo / 6 / Baltimore
Milton / 9 / Anaheim
Cone / 12 / Expos
Jiminez / 7 / Arizona
Wells / 7 / Baltimore (Minnesota)
Cordova-Rincon / 10 / Houston
Brown / 9 / Giants
Nomo / 8 / Colorado
Gooden / 19 / Seattle
Leiter / 8 / Colorado
Martinez / 3 / Florida
Rogers / 6 / Anaheim
Erickson / 10 / Milwaukee
Mercker / 4 / Los Angeles Dodgers


09 2008