The 2015-16 English Premier League season started this past weekend with some very unexpected results but some very good television ratings. Saturday’s four matches on NBC, NBCSN & USA Network combined for 2.02 overnight rating which was the best ever in the United States for the EPL opening Saturday. This rating was up 43% from the prior record set last August. The 12:30pm ET match on NBC, a 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Swansea City, averaged a .93 overnight to rank as the best Saturday opener ever and topped last season’s NBC opener between Arsenal and Crystal Palace by 27%. Moreover the 7:45am ET match on NBCSN that featured Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham in the opening match of the EPL posted a .49 rating which was the best overnight rating in the early Saturday window.
The results were surprising to say the least. Arsenal, who many considered a favorite to be atop the league after picking up Petr Cech in the off-season, dropped a 2-0 home match to West Ham. Defending champions Chelsea had a frustrating 2-2 draw with Swansea City. Liverpool were able to pull out a last minute 1-0 victory at Stoke City behind Philippe Coutinho’s “goal of the week” worthy winner. Manchester United squeaked by Tottenham in an evenly played contest 1-0. And yesterday, Manchester City impressed everyone in the way in which they beat West Brom 3-0.
One of the things we know about US sports viewers is that they like stars and that they like big events, especially when it comes to sports outside the “big 4” (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). People in the U.S. are watching the World Cup in record numbers. The U.S. team’s final match against Belgium had an overnight rating of 9.6 (16 million viewers) on ESPN, the largest rating at the time for a soccer match on ESPN. Also of note, the match between Mexico and Croatia set a record on Univision, as did the Germany-Ghana match set a record on ESPN for most watched soccer match not involving the U.S. national team. These numbers suggest that soccer interest in growing in this country.
Having said this, over half of the goals in the World Cup were scored by players who play in the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. With NBC paying the Premier League more than $80 million annually to air every match of the season, Americans can now watch the stars of the World Cups on a regular basis. The U.S. viewership of the EPL has steadily climbed since 2007. Comparatively to Major League Soccer, where ESPN, NBC and Univision pay a combined $30 million, viewership has stayed relatively stagnant since 2009. Within the MLS television deal, many of the games are only available locally or with the MLS Live Subscription. This has caused very strong local fan bases (some of which rival the support of MLB, NFL and NBA teams). Along those same lines, attendance has increased over the last 14 years, with total attendance topping 6 million each of the last two seasons.
The good news is soccer is growing as a sport in popularity in this country. The EPL is a more watched league, as it should be for the average sports fan. After all, the EPL is still a better product. Something Major League Soccer realizes it has to do a better job of is diverting stars (in their prime) away from the EPL and into the MLS. This year the MLS was able to do a substantially better job of this in getting Kaka to Orlando City, David Villa and Frank Lampard to New York City FC, and Steven Gerrard to the LA Galaxy. Meanwhile, they’ve been able to retain U.S. stars like Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England) and Clint Dempsey (Seattle) away from Europe and back into the MLS.
Needless to say, the EPL looks to continue to maintain its dominance after a very entertaining opening weekend, as it clearly is the most popular soccer league in the world. While it may not be the best thing in the world for MLS, the continued rise in U.S. viewership numbers of the EPL speaks very well to the future of the game in this country.
Sports statistics and box scores have existed for many, many years, but it wasn’t until recently that the perceived importance of “numbers” really exploded when it comes to sports. In 2003, Michael Lew published a book called Moneyball (which would turn into a film in 2011 starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill), which highlighted Billy Beane’s “sabermetric” approach with the Oakland Athletics. Beane’s rigorous statistical analysis demonstrated that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive success compared to the more popular statistics of stolen bases, runs batted in and batting average. This approach enabled the Oakland A’s to find undervalued players in the market while remaining competitive with teams like the New York Yankees whose salary cap was three times their size.
It is certainly a little surprising that this level of quantitative analysis has not existed to a greater level in the hyper competitive sports business industry. This level of quantitative analysis certainly exists in finance, real estate, medicine … the list goes on and on. Of all those industries, sports is one founded and based on getting that slight competitive edge to be better than your next competitor. Needless to say this heightened level of statistical analysis in baseball has seemingly caused a trickle down approach to other major sports, including soccer.
There is no better place to look at this emerging trend than Major League Soccer. Due to the salary-capped nature of the MLS, a disproportionate amount of competitive advantage can be derived from effective usage of the cap space. Unlike baseball, there are much less statistical categories in the game of soccer (goals, assists, shots, fouls, offsides, corner kicks) and so there is sometimes a perceived notion of less statistical analytical value. However, in a league like the MLS, where teams operate on extremely tight budgets in a vast, global, and competitive talent exchange; knowing what it is you are and what you are not, what you need and what you don’t, and how your limited dollars are best spent, effective analytics can offer concrete advantages. On top of all that, outside of the Designated Player exception, everyone is working under the same salary cap constraints, creating a very even playing field … increasing the incentive to recruit and evaluate current talent.
Because of this recent heightened importance of high-level analytics within the MLS, those few clubs that are using the analytics are really not willing to speak publicly about the specifics of what they’re doing. The industry’s reliance on proprietary data sets restricts worthwhile discussion to a select few, and that’s ultimately unhealthy and stunts overall growth. A lot of teams are re-inventing the wheel behind closed doors and there is no strategy in place for collective growth. This has ultimately resulted in a “cold-start” problem that has hindered club’s incentive to make an investment into analytics. There is no club incumbent to decipher the difference between good and bad analytics and moreover there is no tangible way to measure the return on investment; thus creating a bottleneck of sorts for the industry.
One club that has made a splash in these waters is Toronto FC. Toronto FC has a very young, forward thinking GM, Tim Bezbatchenko who has gone on record as saying “There’s more information available to coaches and General Managers. You need to collect it, organize it, and then look at it and try to figure out patterns and new ways of looking at the game… You don’t know what you don’t know.” Toronto has hired a Director of Analytics, Devin Pleuler, who previously worked for the Opta statistical service and has a strong soccer background writing as a columnist for MLSsoccer.com. Toronto will break down game film looking at trends in pattern of play while scouting their upcoming opponents. By processing games algorithmically, season trends are uncovered and it allows for game film to be watched with a specific focus. In addition to scouting opponents, this level of analytics also helps Toronto better understand their own strengths and weaknesses, which leads to useful information regarding player acquisition.
The San Jose Earthquakes, which coincidently share an owner with the Oakland Athletics, said they use a variety of services to provide data. The club has contracted with Wyscout for international scouting services, Match Analysis for in-game analytics, and Catapult to monitor players for overuse at practices. Match Analysis has a league-wide deal with the MLS and is an “xy coordinate system” that has become popular with many college programs within the United States. Catapult is a heart-monitoring device that is easily worn by players in practice, and is something that many teams throughout the league implement. However, they have not gone in greater detail about their specific use of these programs.
Two services that some teams use that San Jose didn’t mention are Pro Zone and Opta. Pro Zone, like Match Analysis, also has a MLS league wide deal. It’s a system that is used by over 70 college teams and is based in Leeds, England. They will turn a match back within 36 hours that has over 4,000 data points (touches, tackles, headers, etc). From these data points, coaching staffs are able to break down passing completion and accuracy as well as shots and shots on goal. Even more specifically, they can see where on the field certain players have success and where on the field they might have a high turnover rate. Opta, is a manually tracked system that is done live, giving it more practical use in the course of a match whether it be on a live broadcast or if it’s produced for a coaching staff going into the halftime locker room.
Peter Vermes, the Head Coach of Sporting KC, is a big believer in analytical data. However, Vermes admits that soccer is unlike baseball in that there are so many variables that go on within a game (from pitch size and condition, to formation, to a team’s style of play). Thus, Vermes argues, you have to use both the statistical analytical data along with the actual game film to pick up a greater understanding of player trends. Sporting will rank each of its eleven players comparatively to the rest of the 19 teams in the league through a set of statistical categories. In general Vermes points out, if Sporting has at least 6 of their players in the top 10 (half) of the league they are successful.
A former Los Angeles math teacher, Tim Crawford, runs the New England Revolution’s analytics and they take more of a “best practices” approach. What I mean by that is the Revolution will try to understand what is successful in the MLS, what works. From there, they will take those data points to evaluate their own style of play and then take it one step further to use those higher valued statistical data points to scout players. The Revolution take a more academic sabermetric approach where they come up with a thesis and try to find a proof for it.
The last club in the MLS that is known to use a fairly large amount of data specifically around injury prediction and prevention are the Seattle Sounders. While the club has become the model organization around the league from a business perspective, it should come to no surprise that they are out in front on the analytics side as well. Dave Tenney, the Sounders sports science and performance manager, uses the Catapult gps tracking heart-rate monitors in training to see how hard each player is working during certain sessions of training.
Meanwhile, the Sounders use Ravi Ramineni, the team’s performance analyst and former Microsoft employee, to automate and streamline the data. Tracking software allows the technical staff to measure how often a player reaches top speed during a given practice, to design drills that best simulate game action. Players that are pushing themselves too close to the limit get dialed back, while teammates that are loafing are put through extra paces the following day. Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid sums his viewpoint on this data:
Analytics is just part of the identification package. I don’t think anybody is at the stage where you’re going to make that your sole identifying source or the sole determinant of your decision, but it certainly factors in. Does the objective data support what you’re seeing?’ I’ve never been a person that just looks at the data and goes, ‘OK, that makes them a good or a bad player… You’re looking at whether the objective data supports what you’re seeing subjectively.
Schmid’s words capture what seems to be a shared sentiment amongst the league. That is, “we see the value in collecting and reviewing data, but we are not completely confident in relying on the data standing alone.”
While teams like Manchester City in the English Premier League have upwards of a dozen analytics staff, MLS teams are lucky to have one. Those few MLS teams that are investing into the analytics field have remained very secretive about their processes. The verdict is still out as to who is really capitalizing on their investment into analytics. And so it seems that the growing trend towards capturing data and finding meaning to it all is very quickly coming to a tipping point in Major League Soccer.
Last week the United States Olympics Committee (USOC) announced that it was withdrawing Boston as it’s proposed bid city due mainly to resistance from residents. As the process drew on, a growing skepticism lingered among the majority of Boston residents that they would have to foot a significant portion of the costs. And on last Monday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh refused to risk his taxpayer’s dollars on the Olympic games.
“If committing to signing a guarantee today is what’s required to move forward, then Boston is no longer pursuing the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” And shortly thereafter, the USOC officially pulled the plug on Boston’s bid. Mayor Walsh positioned himself, as the voice of fiscal sanity in seeking to protect taxpayers from having to pay for cost overruns, which polling all along had suggested was the central concern of a majority of Boston residents. While Mayor Walsh did suggest long-term benefits of hosting the 2024 games, he agreed, “No benefit is so great that it is worth handing over the financial future of our City … and our citizens were rightly hesitant to be supportive as a result.
Interestingly enough, Americans overall are very supportive of hosting the Olympics games at 89% (according to an Associated Press poll in June). However, that percentage sharply drops to 61% when people were asked about hosting the games in their local area. The number drops even lower, to 52%, when asked if public funds should be used on top of private funding.
When the USOC picked Boston over the other three US city contenders (Los Angeles, Washington DC and San Francisco) in January, Boston still didn’t have majority support, as just 46% were in support (and 44% were against). As the record-breaking snowy winter wore on and Boston’s mass transit system took a beating, support dipped to as low as 36%. Recently, support had risen back up to the low 40’s, but still nowhere close to what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) likes to see.
Ultimately it came down to the voters being concerned about paying for cost overruns. Cost overruns have happened for every single Olympic Games, and has averaged 252% since the 1976 summer games. For example, the 2014 Sochi Games ended up costing Russia $50 billion rather than the projected $12 billion. Quite simply, many Boston residents saw other needs like housing, transportation and education as greater importance to hosting a sporting event.
Another element to the ultimate collapse of the Boston bid was the notion of precedent. Mayor Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker both felt like they got strong-armed in not only being forced to sign off on covering cost overruns, but also having to sign an agreement as quickly as the USOC was asking them. In 1984, Los Angeles did not have to sign a guarantee. New York made a bid for the 2020 games that capped its exposure to $250 million. And Chicago, when it bid for the 2016 games, did not agree to an unlimited exposure until a month before the IOC chose Rio for those games. So the mayor and his staff thought the USOC, given the past precedent, would give them more time.
The lack of interest in hosting the Olympic games is not unique to the United States, as right now the IOC is meeting to choose between a mere two options for the 2022 Winter Games … Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan. It seems as though the notion to hold the Olympic games is perceived to be a glamorous opportunity, but when all the financial costs and sacrifices are made, it seems significantly less appealing.
Scott Blackmun, the Chief Executive Officer of the USOC, has said that the USOC intends to move quickly to prepare a bid from another city prior to the September 15th deadline, which many expect to be Los Angeles. Having successfully hosted the Olympics twice before and perhaps more importantly, already possessing the Olympics infrastructure with the necessary stadiums, LA appears to be next in line.
While it looks unlikely that any US city bid will prevail over such bids like Paris, Rome, Hamburg, Budapest or Toronto in 2024, the larger question of bid selection process and USOC/bid committee communication appears in need of some revision.
Yesterday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the league was going to uphold Tom Brady’s 4 game suspension, causing a huge uproar specifically among Patriot Nation. The announcement caused lots of discussion as it marks just another chapter in the DeflateGate scandal. Now, Tom Brady and the NFL Players Association will appeal Commissioner Goodell’s decision to uphold the DeflateGate suspension.
In a statement yesterday, the NFLPA laid out its case against the NFL:
The commissioner’s ruling today did nothing to address the legal deficiencies of due process. The NFL remains stuck with the following facts:
The NFL had no policy that applied to the players;
The NFL provided no notice of any such policy or potential discipline to players;
The NFL resorted to a nebulous standard of “general awareness” to predicate a legally unjustified punishment;
The NFL had no procedures in place until two days ago to test air pressure in footballs; and
The NFL violated the plain meaning of the collective bargaining agreement.
The fact that the NFL would resort to basing a suspension on a smoke screen of irrelevant text messages instead of admitting that they have all of the phone records they asked for is a new low, even for them, but it does nothing to correct their errors.
The NFLPA will appeal this outrageous decision on behalf of Tom Brady.
In other words, the players union is arguing that the NFL misapplied its own policy. As written, the rules pertain to the handling of equipment apply to club officials and not players. Therefore, the NFL set a precedent when it punished Brady without any specific guidelines for how the situation should be treated.
Brady’s uphill legal battle against the NFL will include the attempt to obtain an injunction, which would prohibit the NFL from imposing any sort of punishment until a decision is reached in the court of law. The toughest obstacle for Brady will be demonstrating that he will be irreparably harmed if he sits for four games. On the backstretch of his career, Brady’s four missed games will certainly not hurt his body (but in fact help it with the rest) and should have zero effect on his future contractual negotiations. If the NFL’s final decision is vacated and Brady is paid the four paychecks for the four games on the bench then that would most likely be viewed as adequate compensation for the harm that was caused by the final decision.
Upon upholding their decision to suspend Brady for four games, the NFL filed a lawsuit in a New York federal court seeking to have the court confirm the arbitration decision. By filing in New York, the NFL will most likely have its case heard on its home turf in New York. There was discussion that Brady would potentially file his own action to vacate the four game suspension in Massachusetts (which is labor friendly and Patriots friendly) or Minnesota in front of Judge David Doty, who has traditionally ruled in favor of NFL players and its union on multiple occurrences (including Adrian Peterson’s case involving child abuse charges). Federal courts typically follow the first filed rule … meaning that if Brady wants to play ball, then it will be in NFL’s stadium in New York.
Perhaps the most newsworthy piece of information that came out of Goodell’s decision yesterday was that on March 6, 2015, the very day that Brady was interviewed by Mr. Ted Wells and his investigative team, Brady instructed his assistant to destroy the cellphone that he had been using since early November 2014 and included almost 10,000 text messages. At the time he arranged for the phone’s destruction, Brady was aware that Mr. Wells and his team had requested information from that cell phone in connection with their investigation. Thus the court could determine that Brady engaged in spoliation of evidence – that is he violated a duty to preserve evidence. Certainly, the act does not make Brady appear to have acted in good faith when he failed to hold on to highly relevant evidence. However, Brady vehemently denies this, as he reportedly received information that his phone was not necessary for the investigation.
Lastly, the Courts have a standard of not interfering with the decision when the two parties already have a binding arbitration process. “This decision is issued pursuant to Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA, which confirms the Commissioner’s authority to impose discipline for conduct by a player that is ‘detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.’ … [The full decision] will constitute full, final, and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the players, Clubs, and the parties to this Agreement.” Therefore, as a member of the NFLPA, Brady will have a challenging time explaining why he agreed to be bound by a process that he later believed to be unjust.
However, if Brady is able to prove any of the following, then the final decision could be vacated by a federal court; (1) that the award was procured by corruption, fraud or undue means; (2) that there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrator; (3) that the arbitrator was guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy; or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of Brady was prejudiced; or (4) that the arbitrator exceeded his powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.
While, Brady and his legal team will most likely highlight the fact of impartiality in Commissioner Goodell’s ruling, Brady and the NFLPA agreed to a system that allowed for Commissioner Goodell to serve in the position of arbitrator. The course may very well come down to the Federal Court Judge’s view as to whether Commissioner Goodell’s level of impartiality interfered with the case in such a way to which he overstepped his jurisdiction as Commissioner of the NFL.
There has certainly been a lot of speculation around the question of whether David Beckham is really going to launch his own Major League Soccer team in South Beach.
Well the international superstar and his team got one step closer to that this past Friday when the City of Miami came to a verbal agreement for the soccer specific stadium to be built next to Marlins Park at the former Orange Bowl site. David Beckham’s group states “We firmly believe we can build a world-class stadium at that site.” The site has always been the favorite to land a pro soccer field after Beckham’s first two pushes to build a stadium on the waterfront fizzled.
According to Beckham’s group, MLS officials have been visiting the area and are supportive of building a soccer-specific stadium on the site. When talks first started about the land there had been discussion about a joint football-soccer stadium where the University of Miami football team would also play. However, those talks stalled, and now Beckham’s stadium would be soccer specific. While Beckham’s group plans to privately fund the stadium, the land is largely city owned which begs the question will taxpayers get rent in the deal? Another questions remains as to what will happen to residents in the area?
Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez expects the commission on Thursday, July 23rd to officially approve a negotiation between Beckham United and the city. And while there is still quite a few details to be worked out, it certainly seems as though the stadium is more likelier than not going to happen. In a letter last Friday, Beckham’s group released the following:
Three years, three years, 2017. That’s the idea if it all works out like we hope. I think three years is the objective because we’re creating a soccer team from scratch. We have to pick coaches, we have to involve the community, we have to pick a name, pick a jersey, we have to convince big-name players to come play for us.
The MLS has already awarded Miami the franchise, but had said they needed to start seeing some progress made on the stadium. 18 months had passed since Beckham first announced his public launch to his stadium quest. Cruise interests blocked his design attempts on Port Miami. The deadline for Beckham to exercise his option for an MLS franchise has been extended several times.
So who makes up David Beckham’s ownership team? The two other big names on Beckham’s ownership team are Marcelo Claure and Simon Fuller. Marcelo is Bolivian and is the current CEO for the Sprint Corporation. In 2008, Marcelo bought BAISA, the entity that operates Bolivar, a soccer team in Bolivia. He also serves on FIFA’s Committee for Fair Play and Social Responsibility. The other partner is Simon Fuller, who is an English entrepreneur, artist manager and television producer. Simon is best known for his creation of the Idol franchise that was originated in the UK and sold to more than 100 countries including American Idol in the US. Simon and Beckham have been business partners for a while.
While there is no team name officially announced, rumors are that the “Miami Vice” or the “Miami Current” are the leading contenders. With Miami serving as the Latin American capital of the US there would certainly be a very strong fan base around the franchise. Moreover, with the face of David Beckham behind the organization, Major League Soccer certainly wants to see this franchise happen for all sorts of marketing and advertising advantages. The last obstacle is getting that final signature from the City of Miami.
On Wednesday, Nike officially announced a shoe and apparel deal with the University of Michigan that was worth $169 million. The contract begins in the 2016-17 fall season and will run for 11 years through 2027, with an option to extend through 2031. The cash and equipment part of the deal over the guaranteed 11 years is worth $122.3 million, with $65.5 million in cash and $56.8 million in apparel and equipment. There will be another $46.6 million in cash and apparel through the four-year option. The only larger school and apparel deal in the country is Notre Dame’s deal with Under Armour that was worth in the neighborhood of $90 million over 10 years.
Michigan’s current deal with Adidas was worth $8.2 million a year in cash and equipment and was the most lucrative among public schools in the country. The new deal struck with Nike will be worth $11.26 million per year over the course of the next 15 years.
According to reports, Nike was in fact the lowest bidder for the Wolverines new deal. However, given the angst over the much-criticized Adidas deal, Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett felt making the right deal with the right partner was important:
After careful consideration, the right partner for the University of Michigan was Nike. This decision is about more than Michigan athletics; at the core, it is about our University community and it is about two great names reuniting for an opportunity that speaks to more than uniforms and apparel.
This deal dwarfs Nike’s next largest shoe and apparel deal with a public school (Florida State) by two and a half times. Nike gives the Seminoles $4.4 million a year in cash and gear.
Comparatively to other Big Ten Schools, the deal doesn’t even come close to the next largest deals. Ohio State has the next largest deal that is worth about $4.16 million per year in cash and gear with Nike, followed by Wisconsin’s $3.5 million per year contract with Adidas and then Nebraska’s $3 million per year contract with Adidas.
Despite Michigan’s relatively weak performance in both basketball and football over the past few years, the shoe and apparel titan went to the mat for the Wolverines.
On Wednesday evening in downtown Los Angeles at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theater, ABC and ESPN put on the 23rd annual ESPY Award Show. Actor and comedian Joel McHale hosted the award show, and spared no one in the audience, with jokes about Donald Trump deporting Triple Crown jockey Victor Espoinoza to Mexico, Super Bowl runner-up Russell Wilson choosing to throw and not run the ball on the goal line against the Patriots, and the lack of action in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. While McHale, like most previous ESPY hosts, set a tone of lightheartedness through comedy, the show simultaneously highlighted some stories that transcend sports to bigger issues.
One of these heavier stories was that of Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still and his cancer-fighting daughter, Leah. The two were honored for the Jimmy V Perseverance Award because of how they served as a beacon of hope for other families facing similar battles. In June 2014, Leah was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer that left her with a 50-50 chance of survival. Devon was unable to concentrate on football that summer and so the Bengals placed him on the practice squad, which meant Leah would still be covered by the team’s health insurance policy. Devon delivered a moving speech stating, “I always used to dream about how I was going to be able to show [Leah] so much about life, but in the five years I’ve been with [her], she has taught me more about life than I could ever do.”
Another moving story was that of Lauren Hill who was honored for the Best Moment. Hill was a Division III women’s basketball player at Mount St. Joseph’s who inspired people with her fight against brain cancer. Her dream was to just play in one college basketball game. The NCAA agreed to move Mt. St. Joseph’s opening game against Hiram College up by two weeks because her condition was deteriorating. Xavier University offered it’s 10,000 arena so more people could attend the game, and sure enough tickets sold out in less than an hour. Hill inspired people with her fight against brain cancer and helped raise over $1.5 million in cancer research before she lost her battle to the disease on April 10th. Her parents, Brent and Lisa Hill, accepted the award on her behalf.
As is tradition with the ESPY’s, the big moment of the award ceremony was the presentation of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The Arthur Ashe Award was awarded to Caitlyn Jenner – the transgendered woman formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner delivered a very emotional speech where she thanked her family for unconditional support and urged acceptance for others who are transgendered. As you might imagine the award presentation was met with mixed responses and some controversy, but she received a standing ovation from the star studded audience after the 10-minute speech.
From the stage, Caitlyn Jenner thanked Diane Sawyer, who interviewed her in an interview on ABC in April and helped break the news to the world that she was becoming a woman. Noting her powerful celebrity platform, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and current reality TV star vowed “to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated.” Bruce Jenner was the epitome of masculinity as the 1976 Decathlon Olympic Champion with big muscles and supreme athleticism, and so this announcement was all the more surprising. Coming on the heels of the gay marriage rights announcement, Caitlyn Jenner’s story and this award seemingly gained extra attention especially among social right activists.
The award was marked with controversy when RadarOnline.com reported Wednesday that Jenner’s representatives approached ESPN suggesting the network give her the Ashe award in exchange for plugs on her upcoming E! documentary series “I am Cait.” Allegedly, Jenner’s representatives approached ESPN, prior to the ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, forming an agreement to do the interview on ABC in exchange for the Arthur Ashe Award. Disney owns both ABC and ESPN.
Whether or not these reports are accurate, some have expressed disagreement with using the ESPY’s as a platform for such issues like gender identity and transgendered equality. And while these topics are controversial in nature, it seems by the rating numbers and the audience reaction, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage was extremely well received. The three hour show averaged a 2.2 rating/8 share in adults 18-49 and 7.7 million viewers overall on the ABC stations from 8 to 11pm. These numbers more than tripled last year’s telecast on ESPN which did a demo rating of 1.1 and only about 2.2 million viewers.
Other highlights of the show included the US Women’s Soccer team taking home the Best Team of the Year, Rob Gronkowski winning Best Comeback Athlete, Odell Beckham Jr’s one-handed catch taking Best Play, Steph Curry capturing Best Male Athlete and the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX winning the Best Game Award.
The ESPY’s once again proved to the world the unifying effect sports have on society and how sports can effectively be used as a vehicle to bring attention to widespread global issues.
Wimbledon is considered to be the pinnacle of tennis. Why is that? One, Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, dating back to 1877, only a few years after the invention of the modern game. Not only that, but the game originates in Britain and is considered to be “at home” with the Wimbledon Championships. Similar to the Golf Masters in Augusta, Georgia, the All England Club has worked hard to maintain the old customs and rituals, as all players must predominantly wear white and are expected to curtsy or bow towards the royal box. And so these traditions have created a special aura around this tournament.
This weekend in London the 2015 Wimbledon Tennis Championships concluded in memorable fashion once again. On Saturday, Serena cemented her dominance on the women’s game with 21st Grand Slam Title against Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-4. The 33-year-old took home her 6th Wimbledon title, and her 28th consecutive victory in a Grand-Slam match. Meanwhile, the two heavyweights (Number 1 and Number 2) did battle earlier today on Centre Court, with Novak Djokovic beating Roger Federer 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 to defend his Wimbledon Title and win his 3rd overall.
Let’s start with Serena. To the casual fan, there is nothing shocking about another Serena victory, but in looking at exactly what she has done for as long as she has done it … it’s quite remarkable. Her 16-year gap between her 1999 US Open win and Saturday’s Wimbledon championship is the largest in women’s tennis history. Her 21 Grand Slam victories rank second all time, only trailing Steffi Graf. Moreover, Serena is the current champion of each of the four Grand Slam events: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. And at 33 years and nine months, she became the oldest women’s tennis player to ever win a Grand Slam title, eclipsing Martina Navratilova, who was a month younger when she won Wimbledon in 1990.
She has seemingly become better with age as she has transcended her sport to be able to comfortably say she is the best female tennis player of all time. Comparing athlete’s dominance across different sports is an inexact science, but certainly her dominance and longevity outshines the likes of LeBron James or Tiger Woods.
The arch of a typical professional tennis career resembles that of a pop star: ascendant at 17, dominant at 21, washed up and done by 30. And yet, Serena who will turn 34 in September, is playing the best tennis of her career.
On the men’s side it has been a four horse race for the last several years with the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all sharing Grand Slam Titles. The top two coming into Wimbledon were Djokovic (#1) and Federer (#2), and sure enough both held serve through the field meeting in the final earlier today. The matched lived up to the hype as Federer went up an early break in the first set, only to see Djokovic break back and win in a tiebreaker. In the second set, the opposite happened, as Djokovic went up a break early only to see Federer claw back. Similarly, in the tiebreaker, Federer went down early but saved 6 set points to win a memorable 2nd set tiebreaker. After a brief rain delay, Djokovic cruised relatively easily to take the following two sets 6-4 and 6-3 to defend his Wimbledon title.
Legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri came out this weekend saying that Djokovic is the “perfect tennis machine” referencing everything about his game to his fitness to his personality. John McEnroe said he is the greatest returner in the history of the game. Surely, his back-to-back Wimbledon titles and his current world #1 ranking signal his current dominance.
After this entertaining Wimbledon Championship, tennis fans have lots to look forward with the summer series of tournaments leading up to the US Open in September.
On Sunday the US Women’s National Soccer Team won it’s third FIFA World Cup emphatically over Japan by a score of 5-2. The game broke television records as it was the highest metered market rating ever for a soccer game in the United States on a single network (FOX). Sunday’s game averaged 26.7 million viewers, with 25.4 million watching the English telecast on Fox and another 1.3 million viewing the Spanish telecast airing on Telemundo. In fact, the audience was larger than that of every NBA Finals basketball game since 2010 as well as every World Series baseball game since 2004.
The previous soccer television viewing high in the US was 18.2 million on ESPN last year for the United States-Portugal group stage Men’s World Cup contest. While, the previous high for women’s soccer in the States was 18 million set in 1999 for the World Cup final on ESPN between the US and China. Moreover, Sunday was a 77 percent jump from the 2011 final that also featured the US and Japan on ESPN. I’m not sure anyone truly expected the numbers to be as high as they were. However, given the holiday weekend, and without any major competing sporting events, the US Women did exactly that, and they delivered.
And while the US women receive an additional $2 million for winning the World Cup (a mere fraction of the $35 million the men are awarded), the players will receive supplemental earnings in endorsements. Players like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo will certainly capitalize on their sponsorship and endorsements deals with companies like Nike. Team apparel sales went up 3,000 percent on Sunday.
The US demographic tends to be a “big event” audience, as Americans tend to support their National teams in big international competitions. So the question remains will these shockingly high rating numbers transfer over to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). All but one of the women on the US World Cup team currently play in the NWSL which gives the league great exposure.
In the last 20 years, there have been four professional women’s soccer leagues: the W-League, the WUSA, the WPS, and now the NWSL. The first three folded after no more than three seasons due to poor league management and a general lack of interest. However, it seems like the NWSL is going to be here to stay this time around due to the significant investment US Soccer has made into the league. The timing of the 1994 Men’s World Cup being hosted in the States prior to the launch of the 1996 Major League Soccer on the men’s side is very reminiscent to the timing here with the NWSL. In aligning the sports largest event around the launching of the league helps build momentum for fan interest and ticket sales.
There has already been a significant uptick in ticket sales, as the Houston Dash expect a record attendance of 15,000, as they only average 4,500. The Portland Thorn expect their first ever sell-out crowd of 21,000 next Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Seattle Reign host Western New York this weekend and expect to double their average attendance of 3,000 to 6,000. The question remains though, will the league be able to maintain these ticket sales through until the final week of the season in September.
Sunday proves that the United States is becoming more and more of a legitimate soccer nation. We will see if the Women’s luck on Sunday carries over to the Men’s side as they continue their Gold Cup run tonight against Haiti in Foxboro, MA. Meanwhile, the US Women will be celebrating in a parade four hours south in New York City.