Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category

As promised, we continue to empty out the mailbag (click here for Part I):

Frank,
One of your theories is that if the Big 12 dies, Texas would try for a partial member deal like Notre Dame in the ACC instead of becoming an equal member of another conference. I had agreed with that theory up until Texas A&M exploded onto the national scene at the end of last year and has remained there ever since. Texas is going to make its money anywhere but playing 2nd fiddle to its state rival has to be a blow to the powers that be at UT. I don’t think playing a half ACC schedule mixed with a couple of 2nd tier Texas schools is going to offer enough pub to compete with A&M and the SEC especially with the coming difficultly of scheduling with conferences going to 9 games. Does Texas A&M success, and more importantly attention, change your thoughts on the future of UT? – PSUhockey

Very interesting question. I think that A&M’s success can definitely impact the long-term prospects of Texas, but that it’s a separate issue from the particular conference that UT is in (or if it’s an independent, not in). A lot of sports fans may be looking at the Big 12 through the prism of its relatively good on-the-field football success over the past few years, while the ACC has had arguably its weakest stretch over the exact same period. However, I’d argue that Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson at the very least are more valuable football opponents than any Big 12 school outside of Oklahoma. Personally, I’d put UNC, NC State and Georgia Tech ahead of anyone non-OU Big 12 school purely for football, as well. So, if Texas keeps the Red River Rivalry as an independent, plays 1 or 2 of its fellow in-state Texas schools not named Texas A&M, has a similar 5-game partial ACC schedule like ND and then fills out the rest of its schedule in a manner that’s similar to now, I think that’s very attractive compared to the normal Big 12 schedule for the long-term. We’re not even getting to basketball and baseball, where the ACC is extremely powerful.

So, A&M could certainly put a serious dent in UT’s power (and if it’s not A&M specifically, it could be simply the increased presence of the SEC in the state of Texas), but that doesn’t necessarily correlate in Texas preferring the Big 12 over partial membership in the ACC. If anything, Texas might end up with acting in a way similar to how BYU responded to Utah’s invite to the Pac-12, where independence became mechanism to show how it was “special” compared to its in-state rival.

To me, Big East expansion to 12 schools is inevitable and ought to have happened already. The fact that Xavier AD Greg Christopher mentioned St. Louis, Dayton, Richmond and VCU as the prime candidates isn’t any surprise. SLU seems to be a lock – it’s a perfect institutional fit in a large market (by college sports standards) with a competent on-the-court basketball team. As I’ve stated previously, it’s really a matter of who comes along with SLU. I don’t see the Big East being interested in creating a nationwide conference with schools like Gonzaga and BYU – that’s an interesting fantasy for those purely focused on the basketball product, but it’s a non-starter for all of the other sports. So, Dayton, Richmond and VCU are really the well-worn “other” candidates, with the Big East’s consternation on each of them being that they have major flaws from the conference’s perspective (Dayton is in a smaller Midwestern market, Richmond has a small alumni base, and VCU would be the lone public school in a league of private institutions). It’s also difficult to see many other schools outside of that group that could have both a Butler-like ascent and the institutional and market profiles that the Big East is looking for. The only ones that come to mind are Davidson (which has a small size like Richmond but has had more recent on-the-court success and is located in a college hoops hotbed) and Duquesne (great institutional and market fit, yet they have zero on-the-court credentials).

If I were running the Big East, I certainly wouldn’t see Davidson or Duquesne as panaceas that are worth holding off expansion for. University presidents have proven to be a strange bunch in conference realignment decisions, though. To me, SLU is a lock to get into the Big East when it expands (and I say when because I just don’t see Fox being satisfied with the level of inventory and market coverage that the 10-team setup offers in the long-term), with Dayton as a slight front-runner for the 12th spot. Now, VCU might end up being too much to ignore if they have another Final Four run and, maybe more importantly, keep having fans showing up in droves in Brooklyn for the Atlantic 10 Tournament (as the Big East needs to maintain ticket buyers for its own tournament at Madison Square Garden). The public school profile is definitely a major problem for VCU’s candidacy, though. That factor can’t be underestimated with the Big East presidents.

For the long-term (the next 10 to 20 years), it probably won’t look too much different than now when it comes to U.S. spectator sports: (1) football, (2) basketball, (3) baseball and then a big dropoff to get to hockey and soccer. (This is different than levels of actual participation in sports, where soccer and basketball will likely dominate.) When looking at the metrics, basketball is clearly ascendant compared to baseball: the NBA Finals have been consistently drawing better ratings than the World Series, NBA players are more recognizable to the general public, neutral sports fans are more likely to watch an NBA game that doesn’t involve their favorite team than an MLB game without their favorite team, and, most importantly, the NBA viewing audience is younger and more diverse across economic and racial lines.

I wrote a piece on soccer’s issues with viewership back when David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy a few years ago and the main thrust of that post still holds true: viewership of soccer in the U.S. will be capped as long as Major League Soccer fails to import the best players in their primes like they do in Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL. Americans want to watch the best of the best, which is why they’re willing to watch the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams play in the World Cup and other international competitions, but aren’t interested in what they perceive to be minor league pro soccer compared to the English Premier League and other top European leagues.

Think of it this way: most sports fans can recognize the difference in the quality of play between an MLB game with a 1-0 score and a minor league baseball game with the same 1-0 score. Likewise, even relative soccer watching novices in America can see that the level of play in a World Cup or EPL match is vastly different than MLS. That’s why I’ve long said that the drag on soccer’s popularity in the U.S. has nothing to do with the supposed lack of scoring*. Instead, it’s that soccer is the main sport where we’re exporting the best players as opposed to importing them, which means we’re getting a worse product than other countries (unlike in basketball, baseball and soccer) and we know it. So, soccer can grow, but it will be limited as long as we don’t get to watch the best players here.

(* Scoring is an artificial construct, anyway. A 21-14 football score sounds a lot different than a 3-2 score (as in 3 touchdowns to 2 touchdowns) even if it reflects the same amount of on-the-field action. The “lack of scoring” argument for why Americans don’t watch soccer en masse is one of my sports pet peeves because it’s so simplistic and misses the larger picture.)

What will it mean for NCAA 14 that the conferences aren’t represented? – @Devon2012 

Ah, yes. Yet another toothless action by the NCAA and conferences in attempting to deflect criticism that they’re taking in billions of dollars on par with the largest pro sports entities in the world. I guess the NCAA has a bit more skin in the game since its brand is in the title of the game itself, but it’s pointless for the conferences to remove their names from video games, but then allow their members to continue to be included under their own separate agreements with EA Sports (and all but one of them have such agreements). We’re not talking about going to some Blades of Steel era logoless and nicknameless labeling of teams here: the Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes and all of their other conference-mates will be playing in a video game league that’s not named the Big Ten but everyone will recognize is the Big Ten. (I’m sure that EA Sports will simply use the mathematically correct “Big 14”.) Why the Big Ten, SEC and other power conferences give up their branding control when their member schools are still participating in the game is beyond me.

I don’t think ESPN and Fox are battling over conference realignment per se in the sense that the only conference where it really matters at this point for them is the Big Ten. In fact, the Big Ten’s next TV contract (which would start in 2016) is in an environment where it’s the only power conference that’s going out to the open market for the next decade, so ESPN and Fox (along with NBC and maybe even Turner) could fight for the conference with realignment being a tangential factor. At the end of the day, I believe that the Big Ten will end up with a Pac-12-style deal where the Tier 1/Top Tier 2 rights are split between ESPN and Fox and then the Lower Tier 2/Tier 3 rights go to the Fox-affiliated BTN, so neither ESPN nor Fox will push the Big Ten or the other conferences to do one thing or the other simply for the sake of TV rights. If anything, the last thing that ESPN and Fox would want is further realignment, as it has resulted in significantly higher rights fees that they’re footing the bill for. The Pac-12, Big 12, SEC and ACC rights are all locked up for a long time, so the networks are just going to end up paying more if any other schools end up defecting to the Big Ten.

Which is more likely for the NHL – expansion or contraction? Which NFL franchise(s) are most likely to land in LA? If none do in next 5-10 years, would NFL expand again? – John O

A couple of key overarching points about about pro sports realignment:

(1) Having an “acceptable” stadium is non-negotiable –  It doesn’t matter how attractive a market might be – if it doesn’t have the right stadium (which means having the requisite amount of luxury suites and sweetheart revenue streams), then it won’t be considered. (See the lack of an NFL team in LA for the past 2 decades.)

(2) The top 4 U.S. pro sports leagues will NEVER contract – Believe me – if I could wave a magic wand, there would be 8 to 10 NHL franchises eradicated tomorrow. However, when franchise values for even the worst pro teams in the worst markets are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, owners would rather (a) collect entry fees from new buyers of those dog franchises, (b) move those dog franchises to new markets with “acceptable” stadiums and (c) simultaneously scare current markets into building new “acceptable” stadiums in the process.

So, the first question is fairly straightforward at a high level – the greater likelihood for the NHL is expansion simply because contraction isn’t a viable option. That being said, when you dig down deeper, how much is it worth for any league to expand at this point? Most NBA and NHL franchises are better off using Seattle as a threat to current markets within their footprints to ram through new stadium deals than putting a team in Seattle itself. Leading into your next question, the NFL has used this type of threat better than anyone with the lack of a franchise in Los Angeles. Think about it if you’re Jacksonville, St. Louis or San Diego – if the NFL won’t put a team in LA for not having an “acceptable” stadium, then they sure as hell won’t care about you if you don’t have the right building.

The team that should move to LA is the Jaguars (nothing against Jacksonville, but it truly doesn’t make sense how that market has an NFL franchise), but it appears that their stadium lease is extremely difficult to break. That leaves LA’s two prodigal sons of the Rams and Raiders as frontrunners (franchises with aging stadiums and relatively low contractual barriers to deal with) along with the Chargers (a fairly short geographical move).

Of course, remember point #1: LA must have an “acceptable” stadium. That has always been the dilemma. The proposed Farmers Field in downtown LA near the Staples Center and LA Live had always made the most sense to me from afar since it presents the best opportunity to be a catalyst to further economic development in that area. Downtown LA still isn’t anywhere near as walkable as New York City, Chicago or San Francisco, but a football stadium is a logical addition to what the LA Live complex has already brought there. Unfortunately, that proposal seems to be dead right now.

The problem is that the massive size of the LA market almost works against it in an environment where getting the right stadium deal matters more than anything else in attracting an NFL (or any other pro sports) franchise. The LA market is so lucrative that tons of potential high profile investors want to get into the action, which means that the region as a hole continuously fails to coalesce around a single stadium proposal. The City of Industry and Orange County, for example, see Downtown LA as a competitive threat as opposed to a partner, so we’ve been seeing lots of stadium proposals from various municipalities and factions over the past two decades without any of them getting broad support. In contrast, smaller markets have a better ability to get behind a single proposal with little infighting.

I’ve been thinking that LA would have an NFL team within the next 5 years for the past 15 years, so while it makes sense to virtually everyone with half a brain, it’s pretty obvious that the NFL won’t budge whatsoever on the stadium issue even with a gaping hole in the #2 TV market in the country. Roger Goodell would rather work with markets that have top tier stadiums in place… like London*.

(* Look – I love London. It’s one of the few places that I’d ever consider moving to by choice from Chicago. However, Goodell’s continuous rhetoric about possibly putting a Super Bowl and/or team in London is wearying. The NFL needs to separate the interest of the American expat population in England that’s interested in the league with the fact that native Brits are unbelievably resistant to the overtures of U.S. sports leagues much more compared to other European countries. The most successful franchises in terms of attendance in the old NFL Europe developmental league were actually located in Germany, while Spain, France and many Eastern European countries are solid followers of the NBA. London simply isn’t a good growth spot for the NFL at all.)

Enjoy the upcoming games, everyone!

(Image from HitFix)

Advertisements
This blog has been a hub of activity for conference realignment discussion and other issues in the business of sports for the past couple of years, but it has sometimes been difficult to get quantitative data to back up what many of us observe qualitatively (such as the popularity of fan bases and conferences).  So, the following presentation direct from Nielsen (the TV ratings firm) about the 2011 sports year provides a treasure trove of previously unknown (at least to me) and fascinating statistics about pro and college sports TV viewership, social networking buzz and ad spending:
This slide presentation was uploaded by ceobroadband at slideshare.net.  Nielsen analyzed everything from the four major pro sports leagues to the rising viewership of the English Premier League in the US, so there’s something here for every type of sports fan.  It’s key that this analysis is coming directly from Nielsen itself, whereas a lot of other viewership figures that get reported these days come from leagues, conferences and TV networks themselves and are spun to put them in the most favorable light.  As a result, the slide presentation is about as unbiased as you can reasonably get on the subject matters at hand.
One of the more interesting charts is on slide 4, where Nielsen tracked the social media buzz for the major pro sports leagues over the course of 2011 and news events where activity spiked on Twitter and Facebook.  Major League Baseball can’t be happy to see social networking mentions hover around the NHL’s numbers and its 7-game World Series last year didn’t produce a real spike in activity compared to the NBA Finals.  I’m not surprised by the fact that the NBA has more social networking buzz compared to MLB since the basketball league’s fan base skews younger, but I didn’t expect baseball to be on the social media level of hockey.  (Note that there’s no point in comparing any other sport to the NFL in America: pro football blows everything else away on every metric.  The only discussion is about who can take second place.)
For college sports fans, slide 9 presents some extremely pertinent information that few of us have seen before: the average TV viewer numbers per game for each of the 6 power conferences for both football and basketball.  With so many issues in college sports, such as conference realignment and a football playoff, driven by television money, these viewership figures are enlightening (and surprising in some cases).
Here are the average football viewership totals by conference according to Nielsen:1. SEC – 4,447,000
2. Big Ten – 3,267,000
3. ACC – 2,650,000
4. Big 12 – 2,347,000
5. Pac-12 – 2,108,000
6. Big East – 1,884,000
Here are the average basketball viewership totals by conference according to Nielsen:1. Big Ten – 1,496,000
2. ACC – 1,247,000
3. SEC – 1,222,000
4. Big 12 – 1,069,000
5. Big East – 1,049,000
6. Pac-12 – 783,000
Some takeaways from those figures:
A. The Big Ten and SEC deserve every penny that they receive and then some – The readers of this blog probably aren’t surprised by the football viewership numbers, but the proverbial icing on the cake is how strong both of them are in basketball.  ACC alum Scott Van Pelt of ESPN once said, “Watching Big Ten basketball is like watching fat people have sex.”  Well, the Big Ten even tops the vaunted the ACC in basketball viewership and it’s by a fairly healthy margin.
B. The ACC has an undervalued TV contract – The flip side of the Big Ten and SEC analysis above is that while the ACC’s basketball viewership strength isn’t unexpected, the much maligned football side actually has strong TV numbers.  If you take a step back for a moment, it makes sense.  Florida State and Miami continue to be great national TV draws (even when they’re down) and schools such as Virginia Tech bring in large state markets.
C.  Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott can sell ice cubs to Eskimos – The viewership numbers for the Pac-12 in both football and basketball indicate that they shouldn’t be in the vicinity of the ACC and Big 12 TV contracts, much less currently above the Big Ten and SEC.  The football numbers might be a little lower compared to a normal season with USC having the scarlet letter of not being able to go to a bowl this year, but one would think that some of that would have been countered by strong Stanford and Oregon teams.  Meanwhile, the basketball numbers are just awful – the Pac-12 definitely needs UCLA to resuscitate itself to be viable nationally.  The Pac-12 presidents ought to give Larry Scott a lifetime contract with the TV dollars that he’s pulled from ESPN and Fox.
D.  Big East basketball is a weaker draw than expected – No one should be surprised by the weak Big East football numbers.  However, the basketball and large market-centric side of the league actually had fewer hoops viewers than any of the power conferences except for the Pac-12, which doesn’t bode well with the league losing the strong draws of Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia.  The Big East was also widely acknowledged as the top conference in basketball last year, so the league was at its competitive peak in the post-2003 ACC raid era.  This gives credence to the argument that large media markets in and of themselves don’t matter as much as large and rabid fan bases that draw in statewide audiences.
E.  The Big 12 is appropriately valued – For all of the dysfunction of the Big 12, it might be the one conference whose TV contracts are actually in line with their viewership numbers.  The Big 12 is ranked #4 among the power conferences for both football and basketball and the likelihood is that it will end up as the #4 conference in TV dollars after the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC when all is said and done.
There’s lots of other data to chew on here that I may examine in future posts, but for now, the college conference viewership breakdown is something that I haven’t seen before and puts some quantitative backup to what we have speculated was behind conference realignment moves.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Slides from slideshare.net)

I apologize for the lack of blog posts over the past month as my family and work obligations have been impeding on my ability to write pithy comments about the Bulls’ obsessive need to draft more tweener forwards.  (That being said, I haven’t really missed writing about the White Sox and the general awfulness of Chicago baseball this summer.)  The full-length posts will soon return, but in the meantime, feel free to follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter as I’m more able to squeeze in some 140 character thoughts these days with my new iPhone.  This is a public page (so you can read my musings regardless of whether you have a Twitter account or not) where the types of content will essentially mirror what’s seen on the blog (meaning that I won’t be boring you with inane details about the contents of my cat’s lunch even though I might find such Tweets personally amusing) – microblogging, as the digerati like to say.  So, check out the Tweets and have a great Fourth of July weekend!

david-beckam.jpg

Mr. Posh Spice AKA David Beckham has arrived in America and there’s been the predictable discussions as to whether his presence in Major League Soccer will finally bring the United States into concurrence with the rest of the world of viewing the original football as a preeminent spectator sport.  A lot of the naysayers argue that Americans will never warm to soccer because we need lots of scoring (being the land of excess that we are), which soccer doesn’t provide.  Of course, I’ve always found this ludicrous, since a 1-0 pitchers’ duel in baseball is infinitely more exciting than a 12-11 slugfest, while football of the American variety assigns multiple points to each of its scores which artificially raises the numerical total score (we might look at it differently if a 21-14 game was instead called a 3 touchdowns to 2 touchdowns game).  Sure, there are those that like scoring for the sake of scoring, just as there are those that believe Larry the Cable Guy is a comedic genius.  That doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the view of the majority.

However, I will be a naysayer on soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport in the U.S. on a different front which ought to be obvious but I rarely hear being brought up in discussions about the game (in contrast to the simplistic “low scoring” issue).  If you’ve ever read “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, he uses an apt sports analogy as to how the United States has attained its success over the past century.  He states that historically, we have been the best on grabbing the “first round draft picks” from around the world in nearly every walk of life, whether it’s scientists that come to study and research at our top universities, computer and technology pioneers building companies in Silicon Valley, financiers running the world’s capital markets on Wall Street and LaSalle Street, actors and actresses making films in Hollywood, and competitive eaters attacking hot dog stands on Coney Island.  Our success has largely been predicated on attracting the best of the best from the rest of the world (look at the disproportionate number of immigrants in America that have founded technology companies, run corporations, or are A-List celebrities) and the world of sports in general is certainly no exception.  The world’s top basketball players, even if they are superstars in their home countries, invariably long to come to the NBA.  The same thing applies with baseball.  When we watch professional sports in this country, part of the allure is that we know that we are watching the very top players in the world competing at the highest level.  That’s why we feel justified (or maybe we’re so vain) to crown our ultimate winners in the postseasons of our pro sports leagues as “World Champions” – other countries be damned.

Of course, there’s one glaring exception to this superiority, if you haven’t already figured it out: soccer.  If we called the champions of the MLS “World Champions”, that would be the biggest joke to the rest of the world since the fact that we voted George W. Bush into office not once, but twice.  (I’ll admit that I was a contributor to this.  Sorry, folks.)  Do you know how NBA fans like myself have a nice chuckle over the grainy footage posted on YouTube of Yi Jianlian posting up 5′ 5″ power forwards in the Chinese Basketball Association since the quality of play between the leagues is so glaringly wide?  Well, that’s exactly how fans of the English Premier League and other top European leagues feel when they watch the MLS.  The reason why watching the MLS feels like watching minor league baseball to me is because that’s exactly what it’s comparable to: it can be perfectly nice family entertainment for an evening, but it’s very apparent that the best in the world aren’t on the field.

Americans have already shown that they have the capacity to watch top quality soccer with their increasing interest in the World Cup and the U.S. national team over the past decade.  The ratings for the World Cup last year vastly exceeded expectations even when the U.S. team got bounced out early.  However, that doesn’t translate into increased attention for the MLS at home since the average sports fan intuitively knows the difference in the quality of play between the World Cup and MLS, even if the games have the same 1-0 score (just as you can tell the difference in the quality of play between a Major League Baseball game and a minor league baseball game even if the scores are the same).  We will gladly spend our precious time and hard-earned dollars on watching the best of the best, whether it’s sports or movies, but we will only give a passing glance to anything less than that.

What American soccers needs is David Beckham… from five years ago when he was in his prime, along with attracting other soccer superstars from around the world while they are at the tops of their games as opposed to being on the descent.  Until the MLS (or some other professional soccer league) gets to the point where it can legitimately call its champion at the end of the year the “World Champions” or at the very least be able to compete with the top European leagues without being laughed off the field, soccer as a spectator sport is going to have a hard time gaining traction outside of the World Cup and the U.S. national team.  The scoring issue has nothing to do with the soccer’s problems.  It’s all about the quality of play.

(Image from The Big Lead

I’m not happy with the performance of the White Sox lately at all. If this keeps up, we might be worrying a lot more about the AL wild card contenders behind us right now than Detroit. Well, at least there are some links to take away attention from the slumping Sox:

1) Making Money in Basketball (Blog Maverick) – Mark Cuban’s suggestion on how to build a successful minor league basketball franchise: pay off high school kids… seriously. While his “business plan” here starts with this unfathomable leap, he does make an excellent point as to how European basketball teams make their serious profits from the buyout clauses of the players that they develop that go on to the NBA and that there’s no reason that an American minor league club couldn’t do the same. The Wall Street Journal had an article a couple of weeks ago about how the reverse of this money flow occurs in the soccer world, where European soccer clubs will pay large “transfer rights” to Latin American clubs for the top players that they develop, which are completely separate from the actual playing contracts for those players (it’s a virtual stock market regarding the value of soccer players, which is why the Journal reported that hedge funds have been getting into the action). In the case of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United paid his old club in Portugal $19.2 million for his transfer rights. Something tells me that the Pistons paid a bit less for the rights to Darko Milicic (although I could be very wrong in that thought).

2) Scientists Plan to Rebuild Neanderthal Genome (New York Times) – They’re exclusively using DNA samples from Patrick Ewing and Bill Laimbeer.

3) Ex-Village People Singer Answers Charges (Los Angeles Times) – You knew it had to be the cop, right? By the way, it might be just me, but I always have an internal chuckle at every wedding that I attend where all of the grandmothers are whooping it up to “YMCA” since it’s obvious that they have absolutely no clue what that song is about.

4) Remini Held Suri Cruise During L.A. Visit (Washington Post) – There still hasn’t been any denial that this baby is an alien cyborg. Hmmmm….

5) Quite Frankly, Baker Bails Out (Chicago Tribune) – A number of Cubs bloggers received emails that appeared to come from the producers of Stephen A. Smith’s show on ESPN, urging them to join the studio audience during a Dusty Baker interview and boo him. Smith stated that he believed it was a hoax and then blamed Deadspin for all of this. Of course, Deadspin has a nice retort to Stephen A’s accusations.

And finally…

6) Pennsylvania Man, 80, Admits Dealing Crack for Sex (San Francisco Chronicle) – On that note, have a great weekend!

On a day where Italy bested France on penalty kicks to win the World Cup and the Chicago area hosted a PGA Tour event (following up on my diatribe on this subject a few months ago, Rick Morrissey beautifully tore a new one into the PGA president for dropping the Western Open and rotating the tournament out of Chicago every other year starting in 2007) and a NASCAR race (pretty boy Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in the USG Sheetrock 400) within a few miles of each other, the White Sox and Red Sox engaged in a 19-inning game that brought to the forefront a lot of issues for the second-half of the baseball season. A few thoughts heading into the All-Star break (no White Sox or Cubs games until Friday???):

1) The Pair of Sox Are Baseball’s Best – At the beginning of the year, I had about as much faith in Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett holding up for the entire season as I did in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (who might be done forever) doing the same, which is the reason why I had picked Boston to finish behind both the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East. Well, it turns out that Schilling and Beckett haven’t broken down while the Bosox have solved their closer problems (Minneapolis Red Sox had a nice post last week on what makes a quality closer) with the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon (save for Jermaine Dye’s line drive rocket out of the park with 2 outs in the 9th to bring the White Sox back to life yesterday). With their pitching staff largely in order and possibly the strongest batting lineup from top to bottom in baseball, the Red Sox look like they are in better shape this season than they were when they won it all in 2004.

Meanwhile, the White Sox are bashing the ball on offense a lot better than last season, but the pitching staff has taken a step back. Bobby Jenks, of all people, has become the most stabilizing and consistent force off the mound for the ball club. The White Sox starting rotation hasn’t been clicking on all cylinders for quite awhile despite the fact that Jose Contreras hasn’t lost a decision since last August. Contreras has continued to be a rock, but the consistency from game-to-game for the rest of the starters has been lacking so far. Fortunately, the superior depth that the White Sox have in this spot means that they have a great chance to rectify this in the second half. I’m more considered about the middle relievers, who, outside of Neal Cotts, continue to fail to inspire confidence in me. That’s the area that I’m looking for Kenny Williams to shore up prior to the trade deadline. Still, we’re in a great spot here. I don’t think the White Sox have been playing up to par pitching-wise at all, yet they still have the second-best record in baseball.

Regardless, this weekend’s White Sox-Red Sox tilt was a possible ALCS preview with a look at the top two teams in the game at this time (the Tigers are just mercilous with their continued winning, but until they beat the White Sox head-to-head in a series, they’ve got a gaping hole on their resume). For that matter, if we took a combination of the top starting position players from just the White Sox and Red Sox and put them up against the starters from the National League All-Star Game, the only spot where I believe the NL would have an advantage would be at first base with Albert Pujols (and even there, a combined Sox team wouldn’t be giving up much at all with Paul Konerko or one of the virtual first basemen of David Ortiz or Jim Thome). The Red Sox took the weekend overall, but the White Sox winning a marathon game with two separate comebacks has got to have some carry-over effect the next time these two clubs meet in September at Fenway Park.

2) The White Sox Aren’t a Small Ball Team and Never Have Been – During the White Sox playoff run last season, there was a myth propogated by the national media that the team engaged in “small ball” or a bastardized version call “Ozzie Ball” that was the antithesis of the Moneyball philosophy advanced by Oakland’s Billy Beane and his follower Theo Epstein in Boston. This seemed to become the conventional wisdom despite the fact that the White Sox were fourth in the American League in home runs last season with higher power totals than the perceived-to-be-stronger-on-offense Red Sox.  I guess the media forgot that teams other than the Red Sox and Yankees actually existed in the American League, so they went and continue to go overboard in attempting to differentiate the White Sox.

All of this wouldn’t bother me if the White Sox themselves didn’t buy into this myth and just realize that they win a lot more of their games by Moneyball-esque power than by small ball. Instead, we get situations such as the bottom of the 17th inning yesterday. At that time, the White Sox had runners at first and second with nobody out and all they needed was one run to score to win the ballgame. It’s perfectly smart baseball to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move a runner who wouldn’t reasonably be able to steal from first base to scoring position. However, I’m not a fan of attempting a sac bunt when there is: (a) a man already in scoring position, (b) an advantageous 2-0 count in favor of the hitter, or (c) two strikes on the hitter. All of this occurred in the same at-bat by Tadahito Iguchi in that 17th inning, who ended up popping out straight to the pitcher on an attempted bunt with two strikes on him. Of course, the White Sox then grounded into a double play after that to kill the potential for a win in that inning. Fortunately, Iguchi redeemed himself by hitting the game-winning single in the 19th.

The point here is that the White Sox are not a small ball team and, therefore, shouldn’t try to act like a small ball team. If a guy is already in scoring position, the team has good enough hitters where a bunt has more of a chance to hurt them than to help. This is the only thing that Ozzie Guillen does as a field general that I have any criticism over.

3) Player to Dye For – Jermaine Dye was the MVP for the White Sox yesterday with both his bat with a 2-out 9th inning homer to tie the game and glove with an outstanding catch to prevent possibly a triple by the White Sox. For that matter, he has been the MVP for the White Sox for this entire first half of the season. If a World Series MVP could ever be underrated, Dye would fit the bill. While Jim Thome has certainly electrified the crowds at U.S. Cellular Field with his moonshot home runs, Paul Konerko gets the “Paulie” chants, and A.J. Pierzynski attracts attention in every way, Dye has quietly gone about his business by killing the ball at the plate and snatching everything in right field. An even better reward than the invitation to tonight’s Home Run Derby for the White Sox leader would be the opportunity to start in the All-Star Game itself as a replacement for the “injured” Manny Ramirez (he didn’t look hurt in playing all 19 innings yesterday). This is bigger no-brainer for Ozzie Guillen than any of his discretionary picks of White Sox players for the All-Star roster. Jermaine Dye should be starting in right field on Tuesday night.

A post on a sport that I never write about is on tap for tomorrow. Hint: it's not about soccer, which Minneapolis Red Sox has already eloquently addressed. By the way, I'm in search of new country to root for in the World Cup as the U.S. and Poland were inept in their opening games and won't make it to the final 16 unless they can pull off upsets against some superpowers. Also, I believe Las Vegas oddsmakers have put the over/under for the number of days after the World Cup ends that it takes for that guy from Paraguay who headed the ball into his own net this past weekend to "disappear" at negative 3. Anyway, here are today's links:

1) Multiple Injuries, Few Injuries for Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) – WTF, Big Ben?! As my buddy B-Diddy mentioned, Ben Roethlisberger wore a helmet everyday to work, so why would he not wear one riding a motorcycle going 60-plus miles per hour? I was in a catatonic state for days after Jay Williams wrapped his motorcycle around a pole on the North Side of Chicago (throwing the Bulls back into a hole that they were just starting to come out of at that time), so I can only imagine how Steeler Nation is feeling right now after seeing this happen to their star quarterback that's coming off winning a Super Bowl in only his second season in the NFL.

It isn't too strange that Pennsylvania doesn't have a helmet law for motorcycle riders. What is wacky to me, though, is that it used to have a helmet law until 2003, when it was then repealed. So, enough Pennsylvania politicians were actually convinced that the law was such a bad idea that they had to get rid of it. The biker lobby must have joined forces with Charlton Heston and the NRA to get that type of result.

Let's just hope Big Ben comes out of this okay.

2) For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Resume (New York Times) – Word to the wise: remove any references as to how you "smoke blunts" off of your MySpace personal profiles. As one fellow Illinois grad found out (thanks for making us look like schmucks, dude), that's probably a bad idea when you're looking for a job.

3) Worst-Case CTA Scenarios (Chicago Tribune) – No mention of what to do if you're trapped on the El with Ronnie Woo Woo, which has happened to me on multiple occasions.

And finally… 

4) How To Brainwash Your Baby Early (Deadspin) – Do I think this is the latest sign of the apocalypse? Yes. However, do I also believe that there should be a statute enacted making it mandatory that every hospital in the State of Illinois provide an Illini version of this, whenever it is released, to go home with every baby? Absolutely.