Monday, July 04, 2011

In Which We Attempt to Solve Some Major Sports Issues

MLB: How to Realign
It's been reported that Major League Baseball is taking a hard look at realignment. What I've heard is, first, that the playoffs would be expanded to five teams per league, the first round being a brief elimination contest between the fourth- and fifth-place teams; and second, that one team would go back to the AL, bringing each league to 15 teams. Finally, there is a notion of eliminating the divisional races i, simply having the playoffs consist of the top five teams in each league.

My advice would be to keep the first two ideas, but lose the third. Another round of playoffs means a few more high-ratings games in the fall (hopefully cutting deeper into the early-season ratings of the NFL), and it could be constructed in such a way that the three divisional winners get more of an advantage vs. the wild card survivor than is currently the case (they'd get the days off, but there could also be a more pronounced home-field advantage in the next round).

I get the idea, and I sympathize with it: The lords of baseball would like to enhance interest in the regular season, and in the playoffs, too; however, I think that having six playoff races (or at least two or three, with the inevitable Wild Card year-end frenzy) is better than—at best—two, and those would probably be for the unenviable fourth and fifth spots, with the league leaders coasting in.

The key question for the realignment is probably the team that will need to go over from the NL to the (I hate to say it, as a NL fan, but tougher) AL. The answer is definitely not the one I've heard, of moving over, so it can compete with its natural rival, the Texas (Dallas) Rangers. Houston should play Texas, but as its “natural rival” in interleague play, which will become more fundamental—going throughout the year—when both leagues are at 15 and there will need to be an interleague game in any full-schedule day of play. No, I'd say it should be an NL West team—Colorado, San Diego, or Arizona, and probably one of the latter two—that should go over, with Houston moving to the NL West.

That would achieve the key objective of balancing out the league with 6 divisions of five teams each (just like the NBA), with a good natural pairing for each team: a lot are obvious, but one pairing would be America's Team (Atlanta) vs. Canada's (the Blue Jays), and another would be the best in the NL, 2011 version (Philadelphia) vs. the AL's best (Boston).

Under this framework, there is a very natural breakdown of the schedule, as follows: 64 games vs. one's own division (16 per each opponent), 80 vs. the other teams in one's league (8 per), and 18 vs. the other league's teams in the same geographical division—three vs. four of them, and six vs. the natural rival. In terms of interleague, this is a slight increase—288 games vs. the 2011 schedule's 252—but not a big change. The AL teams already played 18 interleague games each this year (NL teams played differing amounts; for some reason unknown reason MLB did not go with the logical number of 224, which is 16X14).

There would be a stable set of appealing matchups, and the home vs. away nature of the interleague games against secondary rivals would alternate. Seems pretty fair, except that there would be some variation in the interleague difficulty for purposes of Wild Card qualification—but I don't consider that a big problem if the divisional races are fair. Compared to today's approach, it is much more fair, and the amount of change is small (except for the team convinced to move, which should be generously compensated).

My honest advice would be more ambitious: expand MLB to 36 teams, adding two in Asia (Korea and Taiwan—leave Japan's league alone), two in Latin America (San Jose/Santo Domingo and Mexico City) and two more in Canada (Montreal and Seattle's only real natural rival, Vancouver). To those who think it would water down the talent, I would respond that the talent is out there, it just needs a heightened worldwide interest level in the game in order to emerge (again, see the NBA). I think it will happen; I hope I live to see it.

NBA: Don't Be Blockheads
On the tail of probably the most successful season ever for the league—in terms of quality playoffs in all rounds, high fan interest in the finals, and (I presume) TV ratings—the owners have chosen to put a gun to their own heads and are threatening to use it. They've already fired a warning shot in the form of announcing a lockout, the same player-and-fan-unfriendly tactic currently in use by the NFL's greedy, blockheaded owners.

Unlike the NFL owners, the NBA's have been fairly open about their books, which show that they are not making much money, at least in relation to the cost (or value) of their franchises. The bad news is that they are looking to make up huge amounts of money in a new deal, unrealistic amounts. The good news is that the relations with the players' union are fairly respectful, and that the players are motivated to make a deal. NBA players are a relatively small number, compared with baseball and football, and they are really very well compensated, and they know it.

The main problem, as I see it, is the owners' zeal to compete has caused them to make a lot of very bad guaranteed contracts to a fairly sizable set of players who are underperforming or perennially injured. My solution does not cover the bad performers—owners just need to be a little more restrained about giving the big contracts to guys who are unproven (and that especially applies to big men jumping from Europe or skipping college)--but I think the injuries are a problem they can easily be protected from losing money upon. The players should offer to fund insurance, on the order of $300 million in potential annual benefit, to the owners. The conditions should be no more than $20 million in a year, $50 million in five years, and no more than three players at a time. If the owners need more injury insurance benefit than that, they're gambling on too many physically shaky individuals.

P.S. Congratulations to Dirk Nowitzki, Jasons Kidd and Terry, and the rest of the Mavericks' players for their championship win over Miami. They earned it, for sure.

Tennis: A Midyear Championship Series?

While we're at it, I congratulate Novak Djokovic for his success this year, capped by his gaining the No. 1 ranking, then defeating Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final. I have to say it's a good thing that he won the final (though he didn't need to do it to attain the top ranking). I'd be in favor of a midseason championship series—maybe just the top four players, playing on three different surfaces—as a big moneymaker which might make the ratings a lot less important in our consideration of the game.

The women's game shows how bad things are: unlike the men's game, where the top four are clearly known, and, despite intense competition, show up in the semis and finals with regularity, the women's game has no one deserving of the top spot. It's been that way since Kim Clijsters and the Williams sisters went out with injuries (the Williams' just got back, but not quite all the way) and Justine Henin retired. Suppose they had a championship series and no one qualified?

NFL: Just Give Up
The owners are doing their best imitation of Congress: they dither and make unreasonable demands until the last minute, then they will rush a deal, force the players (who've been locked out of training) to show up for their precious preseason travesties, and make other moves to grind the players' brain pans and limbs into glue and dust.

My only advice is: the players should refuse any deal in which they have to play more than two preseason games—this year, especially, and for the future, too. Other than that, I continue to enjoy the absence of the NFL and continue my boycott of all things related, until we get a new set of owners.

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