Thursday, March 24, 2011

*Bringing the Madness North of the Border


    I am a walking maple flavoured stereotype. I have a beard and a lumberjack's jacket, I love beer, I'm polite, witty, and I only pretend to know about sports other than hockey. I might know a little more than your average Bob and Doug, but only because it's my job to. I know hockey because I love hockey. I grew up on hockey. So how is it that I've come to be captivated by the distinctly American spectacle that is the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament? Well, it's not hard, so take notes.

    Basketball was a sport I never much bought into as a kid. I would watch the Jorden-led Bulls, as did anyone with a working set of lookin' balls in that era, but it wasn't a sport I was personally invested in. The Raptors didn't hit the scene until I was in about the sixth grade, and it wasn't until "Vinsanity" that I started to take notice. Over the years though, and particularly since Colangelo took the helm, the Raptors have made their way into my heart. 

    This year is an especially hurting edition of the team, but there is a glut of young talent there that is ready to take the next step. The Dinos are currently looking at a bottom-five finish and a potential lottery pick for this year's draft, which instantly drew some intrigue to college ball for me. I want to know who these young guys are. I want to have an idea of who the Raps could get their claws on come draft day, and thus the seed was planted. 

     Step one for anyone like me, who have never followed March Madness to any serious degree, is to fill out a bracket of your own. You don't have to know much about the teams, they're all ranked, and you just take a few gambles on the inevitable upsets. Joining a pool, or at least having friends to compare brackets with, will instantly push you to follow what is happening on a night to night basis, and you'll find yourself watching games and highlights on the regular. 

    There is no way to not enjoy NCAA basketball. It's like watching "Lost"; you get one episode in and you have to know how the whole series ends. The amount of nail-biting finishes and unlikely upsets are enough to keep even the most casual hoops fan screaming at the television. This year has brought a healthy abundance of bracket busting underdogs with teams like Butler, Marquette, VCU, Richmond, and Florida State still alive in the sweet sixteen round.

    So why is any of this important? The reason I'm giving you the play by play account of my discovery of March Madness, is because I'm such a stereotypical Canadian fan. So many sports fans north of the border are missing out, as I had been for so many years. 

    It's not like the tourney isn't well-covered either. Over the last few years, the profile of the college game has risen incrementally, with heavy hitter TSN landing the coverage rights this year, after The Score did the heavy lifting of creating inroads to Canadian fans. TSN does a decent job of covering the tournament as a whole, by simulcasting several American feeds at once. It's very court-surfing-esque, and gives you a great overview, with high entertainment value. It's just not shoved down your throat the way it is when TSN are covering puck.

    This year the NCAA tournament featured a record number of Canucks, several of whom were impact players for their teams. It's imperative to the national program that the foundation be laid for young Canadians to be successful in a sport other than hockey. There's no shortage of hockey heroes for kids to look up to in this country. Everybody in Canada knows somebody in the NHL. What we don't have is legitimate hoops icons. Beyond Steve Nash it's pretty slim pickings. People like Robert Sacre, Tristan Thompson, and Cory Joseph are real NBA prospects, and represent a new wave of improved Canadian contribution to the sport.

    The NCAA has after all begun introducing select Canadian universities in lower divisions. Just saying.

    March Madness is one of the most exciting tournaments in sports, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be a more mainstream fixture in the culture here. It takes a bit of a mental effort to introduce a new major sporting event to your normal routine. Many of us in the Toronto area are so deeply entrenched in Leaf fever that it's hard to concentrate on anything else. You can't blame us, we're Canadian. 


     After teams like Texas and Pitt crushed my, and many others' brackets, I decided to give my picks a facelift. Here's who I've got for the sweet sixteen:

Duke over Arizona - Arizona won't be able to keep the magic alive against the West's top ranked team. Duke's shut down D will take the wind out of their sails.

UConn over San Diego State - Kemba Walker will have another big game. San Diego will get a case of the "i'm-just-happy-to-be-heres" despite great team toughness.

Ohio State over Kentucky - This one will be a barn-burner, two talented teams. Ohio State is the nation's best for a reason, I like them in the clutch.

North Carolina over Marquette - UNC is too talented, and too strong in the front court.

Kansas over Richmond - Richmond has had an epic run, but neither of the first two opponents were in the class of Kansas.

VCU over Florida State - VCU has been dominant thus far, it's hard to see that momentum slowing down.

Wisconsin over Butler - Butler is the trendy pick as an upset because of their run to the finals last year, but Wisconsin is a smart, responsible team who will force Butler to play their game.

Florida over BYU - Jimmer Fredette will Jimmer Fre-durp. He's an amazing player and can take over a game, but the well-coached Gators will focus more on his supporting cast and the offence will dry up.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

*Toronto FC Enters Awkward Adolescence


The kid's gloves are off for the rabid supporters of Toronto FC. They may have graduated from "new kids on the block", but there is still a period of growth and self-discovery they must go through before they're truly ready to take on the grown-up world. Smells like teen spirit so to speak.

    Through the first four years of their existence (the so-called "childhood" of the franchise) we watched with wide-eyed adoration as the team stumbled around, learning how to crawl (five scoreless games to start their inaugural season), then walk (winning the nearly meaningless Nutrilite Canadian Championship), learning the difference between good and bad (mostly by being bad), and eventually learning how to talk and question the world around them (hometown star Dwayne DeRosario demanding more money).

     Now entering their fifth season there is a sense of new beginnings. They've had a bit of coming of age, as they played decently through the first half of the 2010 season, only to fall apart down the stretch, and the fans are now clamouring for improvement. Welcome to the awkwardness of adolescence.

    Dutchman Aron Winter has taken over as technical director and head coach (the sixth head coach the team has seen as they enter their fifth season), and he has promised to instill a Dutch style "total football" approach, which should bode well for a team short on scoring punch. What it means is that any player on the pitch can play any position on the pitch, filling in for a team mate who gets pulled out of position, thus maintaining the team's organizational structure. It should be an improvement on last year's ketamine-laced, defence-first style.

    Defence shouldn't be a big problem, with Toronto's blue-chip goaltender Stefan Frei returning to trounce teams trying to tickle the twine. Frei was a top draft pick of TFC back in '09 and has quickly become one of the most reliable 'keepers in the MLS, and that development should continue to progress this year.

    Sticking with the theme of defence being one of the team's stronger suits, Toronto's reigning player of the year, and hometown boy, Adrian Cann is returning, along with fellow Canadian international Nana Attakora, and they should steady the centre of the defensive unit. There are still some question marks, as there are throughout the roster, with the team's response to the new system still yet to be seen, but the defensive end of Toronto's game should be one of the steadier aspects.

    The midfield has some real talent as well with American international Nathan Sturgis, and designated player Julian de Guzman being steady defensive-style midfielders, but the defense isn't going to be the issue with this team.

    The real red flag for the Reds is with scoring, and as any idiot will tell you, the point of the game is to score more goals than the other team. The loss of Chad Barrett and the disappointing Mista will only serve to hurt Toronto's attack, unless there are some pleasant surprises from some of the team's young strikers. Sometimes addition by subtraction is a winning formula. Not often, but sometimes. Maicon Santos will be asked to play a bigger role this year, and how he responds will have a ripple effect on the team's record.

    The biggest story of this season lies with the team's biggest name. Scarborough native, and team captain Dwayne DeRosario has been at odds with management since late last season. DeRo makes the (extremely valid) case that he's worth much more than the $770,000 he made last season, and believes he should be given designated player status like de Guzman, to put him in the same pay scale (in the million and a half range). Although doubling a player's pay is not that common in sports, take into account that DeRo scored thirteen of the team's 30 total goals last season, and with a far less-seasoned forward unit on the 2011 edition, you can count on that percentage rising. DeRosario is the face of the franchise, the heart of the team, and the hands-down fan favorite.

    It's no secret that Toronto FC has one of the most loyal and enthusiastic fan bases in the league, and it is safe to assume that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the team's owner, isn't exactly hard-pressed for cash. It's vital that management recognizes DeRo's importance to this squad, and to this city. Cut the crap and write the guy a cheque. This team can not afford to have it's star distracted in a year when the fans are raging for the playoffs.
    Realistic expectation dictates that the team will struggle yet again, as they are at the beginning of a rebuild, but the fans also want something to cheer for in the short-term. It's not completely out of the question to think this team can be a playoff threat. Toronto is in the midst of sports puberty, and it may take a while for their voice to drop, but with the youth on their roster, and solid leadership now at the helm, they could graduate into full-fledged adulthood sooner than later. Just expect some teenage melodrama in the meantime.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

*NFL vs NFLPA: F The Fans


    If the NFL were a clothing company, the Players Association would be an Indonesian child labour sweat shop. Okay, so it would be a lavish and extravagant sweat shop where the child labourers were adored by millions of people worldwide, but the metaphor still rings true.

   As the reality of an NFL lockout grows more probable by the minute, one question seems to come to the minds of many fans: What did we do to deserve this? Players are fighting for a larger cut of the revenue, the owners are fighting to maintain control of that revenue, and in the meantime the people who generate said revenue are left hangin' in the wind.

    How does the most lucrative sport in North America get to the point where it is willing to shut down operations for an entire year? If you have yet to pass the B.A.R. exam it may cause you brain pain to examine the complexities of the situation. Quite simply, the owners have a good thing going here, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep it that way.

    The NFL generates more revenue than any other sport on this continent, an estimated 9 billion a year. Despite these massive numbers, NFL players are on average the lowest paid in comparison to the other three major team sports. Take for example the NHL; a league which has attendance and revenue issues with at least one quarter of their franchises, yet the average NHLer makes about triple the amount their NFL counterparts are bringing in.

   You're probably thinking "what preposterous fuckery!". Indeed, and it gets better. The NFL is also the only major North American sport not to offer it's players guaranteed contracts, which means a team can cut a player for any reason at any time, and not owe him another penny. For example Donovan McNabb, who signed a multi-year deal for 80+ million dollars could very well be cut before the coming season (if the season in fact comes), and the Redskins would only be on the hook for about four million. 

    As if all of that isn't enough for the players to have a valid case for being disgruntled, take into account that the average length of an NFLer's career is only three and a half seasons, and they also have the highest injury rate per player than any other North American team sport. Although these guys are famous, and well paid (minimum rookie salary is $225,000 which is nothing to sneeze at, although the NHL's rookie minimum is somewhere around $850,000) they are truly getting the shit end of the stick in the sports world. The proverbial raw deal.

    In an attempt to fight fire with fire, the players have decertified the NFL Players Association, turning it from a union to a trade association. What they hope to accomplish by this is to counter the threat of a lockout by filing a class-act antitrust lawsuit against the owners. Whether this will fly or not is yet to be seen, as the NFL, along with the NBA, NHL, and MLB have government-granted antitrust exemption. This could be overturned in the hands of the right judge, and the owners would be barred from locking the players out, thus greasing the wheels for a new collective bargaining agreement to be approved, and averting the public relations disaster that the lockout would create. All of this is yet to be seen, and extremely hard to forecast, as there are a multitude of issues involved in a single case.

    There is a somewhat ignorant notion amongst casual sports fans that athletes are already grossly overpaid, and shouldn't be crybabies asking for more, but the fact of the matter is that sports is a business driven by revenue. The people generating that revenue should get their rightful percentage of it. Actually, to be fair, a recent twitter post by Drew Brees, one of the players leading the charge in the battle against Scrooge McDuck and the rest of the NFL owners, speaks volumes to the resolve of the players: "Not once have the players asked for more money during this negotiation. That is a FACT. I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for us".

    What they are fighting for is fair working conditions (meaning NOT adding two extra games to the season), better pension plans to protect the financial future of their union members, and transparency from their domineering, tyrannical employers so that a fair percentage of revenue sharing can be established. These guys are giving themselves severe long-term brain trauma to make thirty-two old men very, very rich. All they want from their bosses is what most of us want from our bosses: for them to cut the bullshit.

Oh, and NBA: pay attention. You're going to be dancing to this tune very soon...