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June 21, 2011

Baseball’s Marketability Issues

Last week, Sports Illustrated unveiled its annual Fortunate 50, a list which documents the 50 highest earning American athletes with respect to the sum of salary and endorsement earnings. On this list are three golfers, three NASCAR drivers, eight NFL players, 17 MLB players, and 19 NBA players. From this standpoint, it would seem as if the MLB is ably treading water with respect to having marketable stars; one would expect it to be right about on point with the NBA with both leagues’ being ahead of the NFL where players do not have guaranteed contracts, are buried under masks and pads, and have to split revenue between 53 active roster members of each team. Further, much more so than those of the NBA and MLB, NFL fans root for laundry as opposed to individual talent.

While close to the NBA in players with high total earnings, upon closer inspection the MLB is lagging significantly behind the NBA with regards to player marketability. In the NBA, 10 players on the list grossed in excess of $1,000,000 in endorsements: LeBron James ($30,000,000), Kevin Garnett ($14,000,000), Dwyane Wade, ($14,000,000), Kevin Durant ($14,000,000), Dwight Howard ($12,000,000), Kobe Bryant ($10,000,000), Amar’e Stoudemire ($8,000,000), Carmelo Anthony ($6,000,000), Tim Duncan ($3,500,000), and Vince Carter ($3,000,000). It is fairly safe to assume that Derrick Rose, who has a big contract with Adidas, and Ron Artest, who has a deal with the Chinese sneaker company Peak, do as well but did not qualify for the list because of their salaries. In contrast, only four MLB players on the list grossed over $1,000,000 in endorsements: Derek Jeter ($10,000,000), Albert Pujols ($8,000,000), Alex Rodriguez ($4,000,000), and Ryan Howard ($1,500,000).

On SI’s international list, meanwhile, three NBA players likely qualified for over $1,000,000 in endorsements (Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, and Pau Gasol) while two MLB international players (Ichiro Suzuki and Miguel Cabrera) also most likely achieved this milestone.

How big of a problem is it for the MLB that it objectively does not have young, marketable stars? Derek Jeter, who is entering the twilight of his career, is baseball’s highest endorsement earner but grossed less than five NBA players. A-Rod and Ichiro are also on the downside and it is hard to see Pujols, Cabrera, and Howard ever becoming more marketable than they are now. Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether the issues pertaining to MLB players’ lack of marketability are systemic or circumstantial and what impact this will have on the broader appeal of the sport.

As we move toward the future, the best case for baseball is that the individual player marketability issues are circumstantial. To elaborate, this would mean that for whatever reason the current crop of players are deficient in personality and that this is a short-term problem that will be fixed by both time and smarter marketing. Maybe the MLB will relax its draconian Youtube policy to more effectively reach its younger fan base, players will have better media training and be more accessible off the field, and the league will get lucky and have an influx of young, vibrant, and personable talent in major markets. With good luck, forward thinking, and attention to detail, the MLB could address its player marketability issues within five years and position itself to continue to thrive in the 21st Century.

In contrast, the worst case for baseball is that these issues are systemic and will prove drastically harmful to the sport’s overall viewership. In this case, the reasons for lack of MLB player endorsements extend far beyond the current crop of talent and causes baseball to enter into a period of substantial long-term decline. Here, the game stays slow and boring and nothing is done to speed it up, internet video policy remains archaic and detrimental to growth, and the players continue to fail to resonate with both American and international consumers.

As more and more people grow up accustomed to constant stimulation, the MLB is going to have to adapt if it wants its stars to be marketable and its overall game to flourish. Right now, it does not have a huge incentive to change because, despite all of its cosmetic issues, franchises continue to print money, in many cases undeservedly. It would be a mistake, though, for Major League Baseball to assume that just because it has been popular in America for a long time and is presently financially successful, it is entitled to future success. Boxing and horse racing were once immensely popular American sports and now occupy specialized niches. For baseball to thrive going forward, it needs to reform its issues sooner rather than later to make its talent more marketable.



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June 17, 2011

LeBron’s Future Decision

Last summer, as The Decision was taking place, I was in the middle of a 5-week Asia trip that took me to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and China. While I was all the way across the world, I found myself glued, first by where LeBron James would end up (I feverishly refreshed at our hotel in Vietnam), and, subsequently to the endless coverage dissecting both the way in which LeBron left Cleveland and whether he was copping out by joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat. Even as I was on a 13-hour time difference, I consumed every column and listened to as many podcasts on The Decision and its broader ramifications as I could get my hands on. After a week or two, I probably could have hosted the Dan LeBatard Show or B.S. report (or even a schizophrenic debate between the two) and accurately represented their viewpoints for about an hour.

“Jordan NEVER would have done this. He would have wanted to BEAT Wade,” Simmons would have said as LeBatard retorted sarcastically about how “Allen, Pierce, and Garnett should have wanted to BEAT each other.”

One of the foremost critics of how LeBron carried himself at the time was Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had previously co-authored a book with LeBron. At the time, Bissinger wrote:

“Strangest of all was LeBron’s complete lack of emotion when it came to Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of fans worshiped him, but it was clear last night that the feeling is not mutual. When asked what Cleveland meant to him, he talked mostly about what he had brought to the franchise and the city over the past seven years, how great he had been, how lucky, in effect, they had been to have him. He would not even commit to staying in Akron (I don’t think he will) and he did not even have the decency to talk to owner Dan Gilbert beforehand, even if only to say thanks for all the obvious effort Gilbert made to keep James happy.”

Ultimately, the self-unaware manner in which LeBron left Cleveland and his stubborn refusal to even feign humility and regret about his spurned lovers’ despair gave us the opportunity to collectively “sports hate” LeBron and the Heat to an extent which may have even surpassed the Spygate Patriots. We rooted vociferously against him and felt gleeful when he underperformed in the Finals and the Heat lost, so much so that the achievement of the Mavericks was grossly overshadowed by LeBron’s failure. Did we take TOO much glee? Was our level of schadenfreude too high?

Upon further reflection, Bissinger now thinks so. In an appearance on the Dan LeBatard Show yesterday, Bissinger explained the reason for his initial disdain: “I was merciless about LeBron because he showed a side that I had not seen when I was doing the book…arrogance and self-centeredness.” There came a point, though, where Bissinger felt the vitriol had gone overboard: “People act as if he killed people. People act as if he is the most hated athlete in America and I just don’t get it…This spewing of hatred I think is absurd…Jason Kidd beat his wife and nobody cares about THAT.” Further, in a Daily Beast column this week, Bissinger wrote:

“It is absolutely accurate to say he was awful in the finals (conveniently ignoring his stellar play in the previous two rounds against the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls). But the vitriol, the spewing hatred spit out with such gleeful self-satisfaction by commentator after commentator, has sunk to a new level of nuclear negativity.”

In evaluating how we have reacted to James’s failure and responding to Bissinger’s Daily Beast column, Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski acknowledges being “irritated with some of the over-the-top loathing of James” but generally rationalizes the glee at LeBron’s expense, analogizing our rooting interests to the way we cheer against pro wrestling heels such as Ric Flair (“Other sports are not all that real, either”). Posnanski continues, “But in the end, it seems to me, none of this is about HIM. We like and despise, root for and against the CHARACTER we know as LeBron James. The person, LeBron James, we don’t know anything more than a ghostly image and never will.”

With all due respect to Posnanski, Ric Flair PLAYED a character in a manner in which LeBron James did not. Flair calculatedly knew exactly what he was doing whereas LeBron James became hated, in many cases as a person and not just as a sports character, due to a public relations mistake (of admittedly colossal proportions) stemming from enabling handlers and a lack of both worldly and self-awareness. These circumstances, as well as stunning innate talent, converged to breed an arrogance for which LeBron became genuinely hated as a human being, moreso, as Bissinger argued, than athletes such as Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger,  and Jason Kidd who have committed or been accused of legitimate crimes.

Still, though, as a general public, we love nothing more than beating our public figures down only to help them rise up again. As currently constituted, LeBron is perfectly positioned for a brilliant story of American redemption. Over the past few days, he has FINALLY started taking the hint and has, at the very least, least faked humility. If he is true to the word and spends this summer working on his game, specifically adding the low-post game that his critics have been clamoring for for years and offers some sort of genuine-sounding (he doesn’t even have to REALLY MEAN IT!!) apology to the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers franchise for how last summer transpired he will no longer be a villain.

It wasn’t so much that LeBron underperformed late in last year’s Celtics series and this year’s Mavericks series that has made LeBron such a lightning rod, it was the manner in which it happened. If LeBron can then prevent whatever happened (there HAS to be some sort of explanation, right?), internally or externally, that made him play so passively in those series he will redeem himself in the eyes of the public. While he may never again regain his stature in popularity before the decision (some people perpetually hold unreasonable grudges, I believe they are called “haters”), I am rooting for LeBron to restore himself as a character that we root for in sports. With his magnificent natural ability, a combination of natural speed, strength, size, and grace previously unseen in my lifetime, it would be special to watch him realize his potential.

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June 15, 2011


“Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James reality show and what he is or isn’t doing?” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said in an exasperated tone following Game 6: “When are people going to talk about the purity of our game and what these guys accomplished? That’s what’s special.” While this “Nobody believes in us, nobody is talking about us, everybody thinks we are going to lose” chip on Carlisle’s shoulder pervaded through his organization and helped drive his team to an underdog victory, it is also well-founded even after the Mavs’ conquest.

Anecdotally, I would estimate that 75% of the coverage in the aftermath of the NBA Finals has been dedicated to the Heat and trying to psychoanalyze LeBron’s mental and physical breakdown (which is admittedly very fascinating and puzzling). Of the 25% of the pie that has been devoted to the Mavericks, much attention has been given to owner Mark Cuban and his various poses with the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Even though it is clearly not as interesting to the general public, the fundamentally sound purity with which the Mavericks played in these playoffs and finals made for beautiful team basketball. “Our team’s not about individual ability,” Carlisle said, not subtly implying a juxtaposition between his Mavs and the Heat. “It’s about collective will, collective grit, collective guts.” As compelling as the Heat are, the Dallas Mavericks deserve more accolades and glory.

As the final seconds in Game 6 waned and it started to sink in that the Mavericks were NBA champions, one could not help but feel an immense sense of happiness for Dirk Nowitzki. Perpetually suffering playoff disappointment, Dirk had led his team to the playoffs every season since 2000-01. One year removed from his team’s debilitating loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals (you may have heard a thing or two about that series in the last couple weeks), Dirk led the Mavericks to a 67-15 regular season record and the #1 seed in the Western Conference. The Mavs, though, lost to the #8-seeded Warriors 4-2, led by their former coach Don Nelson and questions abounded about whether Dirk had the mental toughness to lead his team an NBA title as he shot 38.3% in the series.

Unable to withstand the mental pressure, Dirk ran away, traversing deep into the Australian outback. “I think I take losses harder probably than anyone else in this league,” Dirk lamented to ESPN’s Mark Stein.  At this point, and in the following two seasons which saw Dirk and the Mavericks win just one playoff series, questions abounded about whether their window of opportunity had shut.

Although he had always carried himself with grace and class and worked tirelessly to improve his game, there was constantly an element of doubt as to whether a franchise could win an NBA title with Dirk as its best player and whether he needed help in the form of another superstar or two. These questions and doubts were finally laid to rest on Sunday as Dirk headed into the locker room for a moment of solitude; Sisyphus had finally rolled the boulder up hill without it falling down, and, with this burden off his shoulders, he felt more relieved than ecstatic.

Beyond Dirk, one also felt great for Jason Kidd. “His view of the game is so different,” Carlisle said about Kidd, “He is savant-like.” Having played in the NBA for 17 seasons, Kidd has suffered the disappointment of losing in the NBA Finals twice. What I find so impressive about Kidd is that he was able to accept the fact that his aging body no longer allows him to be a superstar and that he has embraced the opportunity to thrive as a role player. While Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury would rather be the man on teams in Turkey and China, Kidd has self-consciously realized his limitations and sought to maximize his strengths for the greater good of the team, playing crafty defense, distributing the ball artfully, and developing a 3-point shot that was deficient earlier in his career.

Up and down the Mavericks roster, we see a band of scrappy players who follow Kidd’s lead, understanding and ably fulfilling their roles in the parlance of the greater good of the team. Tyson Chandler, a glue guy whose archetype (unselfishly energetic defender and rebounder who does not need the ball to be effective) seems to fit on championship teams year after year, was acquired by the Mavericks this past offseason from the Bobcats for NO serviceable players in return. Fifth year player JJ Barea, listed at 6’0″ but by all accounts is more accurately 5’9″, went undrafted out of Northeastern and shredded the Heat defense, finding open lanes to score and distribute in a manner which altered both tempo and momentum. Jason Terry, whose Larry O’Brien tattoo story has been well-documented, threatened to wake a sleeping giant, calling out LeBron James, but immediately started playing much better.

Like Kidd, Shawn Marion also made a transition from high profile stardom to maximizing his effectiveness as a role player. Brian Cardinal, an 11-year veteran playing on his sixth team, provided a dynamic spark off the bench with his hustle, grit, and timely hard fouls. DeShawn Stevenson hit key 3-pointers and tantalized the world with his tattoos (AMERICA!!). Top to bottom, the Mavericks conformed to fit a model of team basketball and won an NBA Finals in which it objectively had less talent.

With its playoff format’s forcing teams to win four best-of-seven series to win the title, the NBA does the best job of the six major US sports institutions in determining a meritocratic champion. Hot pitchers and goalies can singlehandedly shift MLB and NHL series and one-game sample sizes can produce quirky results in the NFL Playoffs and the NCAA Tournament. Only someone who stands to derive substantial personal financial benefits would advocate for the BCS as a fair and balanced system to determine the worthiest champion.

Accordingly, this specific Mavericks team was undeniably the best TEAM in an NBA season which featured the greatest level of both individual and organizational talent in recent memory. Moreover, this outcome felt like JUSTICE. If the Heat had won this year, after LeBron callously drove a stake through the city of Cleveland’s heart and the Big 3 staged an introductory pep rally that can now be described as premature celebration, it would have felt unpure. As in the rest of the world, the sports gods don’t always grant us justice so this should be something that we savor.

“This a true team. This is an old school bunch. We don’t run fast or jump high,” Carlisle said, “These guys had each others’ back. They played the right way.”

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