Tampa Rays Attendance Just Fine

Not many teams win a division and finish in the bottom five in attendance in the same season. Tampa Bay is on pace to do that – and they should be ecstatic with the numbers. Rome was not built in a day – Rays fans can attest to that. Using average per game attendance and percent capacity as indicators, Tampa is up over 25% per game from last season, approximately a 10% capacity increase. Those numbers deserve applause, both for the teams improvement and the fans for coming out.

The last time Tampa didn’t finish last in percent capacity, the Expos still existed. Standing 26 out of 30 doesn’t sound like an accomplishment until its compared to finished a distant 30th each season.

Last week star pitcher Scott Kazmir criticized fans for not turning out for a first place team embroiled in a pennant race. Critics argued Tampa-St. Pete does not deserve a professional team because they don’t support it. Timeout, hold the bus. The Rays were a disaster since their inception, never finished above .500, and only topped 70 wins once. Ownership didn’t spend smart, the stadium stinks, the franchise was a laughingstock. Meanwhile, its expansion-mate Arizona paraded to a World Series and subsequent playoff appearances and down state the Marlins won a title. Rays fans got the middle-finger for the first ten years of the franchise.

It takes more than 5 months to undo ten years of damage. Players, management, and critics need to remain patient. The team should – and observing how their new management operates, they will – view this as a stepping stone to catapult attendance next season and going forward. Come playoff time, fans will sell out The Trop, more than some other teams can boast (ahem, Atlanta).

They will finish with by far the biggest year over year attendance increase. Instead of spewing negativity, commend fans for not throwing the towel in on the franchise. Commend fans for showing up at a god awful stadium that has no right housing a professional team, or any team for that matter. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is a brand or a franchise. Ten years of damage take more than a few months to overcome. Hold judgement until playoff time and next years season ticket sales. Things are heading up in Tampa.

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Lebron Needs Help

Classic sudden death playoff games break one of two ways, the game creates a legend or a legend makes the game. Sunday, one legend and one superstar made the game. Forget Bird vs. Wilkins from ’88, go back to Oscar Robertson and Sam Jones in 1963 to find the only other time two players scored over 40 points in a Game Seven. Add Lebron and Pierce to the annals after an epic duel in Boston.

James outdid Pierce with 45 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds to 41, 5, and 4, but the Pierces’ Celtics got the best of the Cavs 97-92 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a game featuring two stars at their best, a 38-year-old forgotten role player made the biggest shot, and was the difference in the game. PJ Brown buried an open jumper with 1:21 left to give Boston a three-point cushion. Off a timeout, Delonte West, the only other Cav to show up Sunday, missed a good look at a three, turning the game into a Celtic foul shooting contest for the final minute. Brown, who didn’t even play in the NBA until February this season, finished with 10 points, including six in the final stanza.

He took a few bad shots, maybe fell in love with the three ball too much in the fourth, should have pulled up before his last ill-fated drive to the basket, and as Van Gundy pointed out on the broadcast, missed a boxout on the crucial jump ball late in the game. However, Lebron can answer any criticism levied toward him with a simple question – where’s the help?

The 23-year-old now knows how Jordan felt his first 5 or 6 years in the league, except there is no Pippen on this team. Cleveland stinks. It’s a disgrace what surrounds Lebron. Forget 2010, he may be better off on the Knicks right now, and that’s saying something. Ben Wallace is no longer a rebounding and defensive monster, yet remains an offensive liability. Sczerbiak did not score. Did Ilgauskas even play in the second half? Many people forget the Cavs actually have two former Number 1 draft picks on the team. Clearly the GM who took Joe Smith is no longer employed. Explain to me how Anderson Varejeo and Sasha Pavlovic held out for new contracts before the season. Danny Ferry could dig into the D-League for better talent, or find a sharp-shooter like Boston’s Eddie House in free agency. Though spotty at times, West gave a valiant effort, the only other Cav that actually played like he wanted to win at all costs.

Without help, James almost did it all by himself. Scoring aside, he came up with two big steals in the second half, the second leading to a dunk that trimmed the Celtic lead to 89-88, the closest Cleveland would get. He skied for clutch rebounds after painfully watching former rebound legend fail to box out, allowing Boston to tip back offensive rebounds and maintain possession, forcing Cleveland to get multiple defensive stops.

In the press conference, James intimated the team needs to improve. He handled it with class, shouldering the blame, giving credit to Pierce, critiquing his own game and where it needs to improve. The bottom line is clear, get this man help. Ferry has cap flexibility, he has the biggest star in the world to entice players to come, get it done. At this point, forget finding a Pippen, just improve this make the rest of this team NBA-caliber.

Boston again escaped, this time hiding behind Pierce. Ray Allen was admitted to the Witness Protection Program, only to emerge for a few late-game foul shots. Garnett played decent, but 13 points, 13 rebounds hardly says Big Ticket. If Tim Duncan puts those numbers up in Game 7 tonight, he’ll be killed and the Spurs will lose. To my surprise, Rajon Rondo stepped up with a solid game, enough to keep playoff vet Sam Cassell glued to the bench, though Cassell’s putrid performance in this series also contributed to that.

8-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. No team who played decisive games in the first two rounds ever won the NBA title. The Celtics need to shape up immediately, or this dream season will end. Detroit will get a game in Boston, in fact they will get one of the first two. That’s what the Pistons do. Billups is rested, Lebron is out of the way, Detroit is ready. If Boston intends to advance, the Celtics have to show up on the road. 69 points for a 66-win team is unacceptable, especially in a Game Six against a mediocre, at best, defensive team. Garnett’s legacy is at stake. Rewind before the season, skeptics quietly questioned that none of Boston’s Big Three had advanced to the NBA Finals, and none was known for knocking down the big shot. Well, no need to wonder quietly anymore. Pierce answered the bell, Allen had his bell rung, and the verdict is out on KG. He has not played like a Hall of Famer, has not looked for the ball with the game on the line, and has not stepped up when he had his chance. The season ends in six games unless that changes.

Rays Fans Need to See More

Two months of good play does not make up for ten years of ineptitude, at least according to Tampa Bay Rays fans. Surprisingly atop the competitive AL East, ahead of mighty Boston and New York, Tampa ranks 27th in MLB attendance, next to last in the AL.

Local and national media have criticized Rays fans this week for not supporting the club, now that its winning. That’s ludicrous. Rome was not built in a day. Tampa fans have suffered for ten seasons with winning more than 70 games. It took a disastrous season by another team to get them out of last place. Baseball experts widely believe Tampa is on the right track, locking up young talent to long-term deals, a distant change from the previous management regime, it takes more than a few good management decisions and 43 games to erase ten seasons of misery. Ten years of watching the team haphazardly sign free-agent busts – Vinny Castilla, Jose Canseco, and Greg Vaughn to name a few – then become too cheap to call-up a minor league player because they are afraid he’ll reach arbitration and free agency sooner.

All indications are Stuart Sternberg and Andrew Friedman have the team setup to compete in the next few years. If they succeed fans will come back. The Rays averaged over 30,000 fans per game in their inaugural 1998 season, and have a strong fan base to draw from. Since that season the team has dragged fans through the mud, nine last place finishes, three 100-loss seasons, trading away young talent, cutting payroll, and not just losing – failing to compete. Fans have no reason to flock to the ballpark quite yet, they will if things continue. Missouri may be the “Show Me” state, but the moniker applies to sports attendance.

The best comparison is this seasons New Orleans Hornets. They had Chris Paul and David West before the season started. However, a strong start did not lead to box office returns, the Hornets, in their first season back in New Orleans, sat near the bottom of the league in attendance. Paul becomes an MVP candidate, the team continues to play at a high level, enters the playoff chase, and voila – sell outs. Tampa may not have a player at Chris Paul’s level yet – a few have that potential – and they may not win its division this season, nonetheless remaining competitive into and through the All-Star game will almost certainly push average attendance over 20,000 for the first time since 1998.

Lest we forget Tampa plays in a stadium that belongs at the Kennedy Science Center. The city and team have publicly debated funding a new stadium, tentatively slated to open on the waterfront. Until then, Tropicana Field ranks among the worst baseball stadiums around. Some minor league facilities are nicer. Fans are fickle, but they do have good memories. This team has treated its fans terrible. A bad product on the field, bad facility to watch games, poor PR – bad, bad, bad.

Winning solves most teams problems. Building a strong brand is more important. Give fans a reason to like the team, incentive to come to the park. Create a positive experience, a challenge in the modern supernova of a stadium they have, the only place that plays like a schoolyard with different ground rules. Hey, good idea for giveaways, now that I think about it.

Why Cavs Can Beat Boston

Two or three losses makes you think, at four its a steak, now Boston’s road problems are a troubling trend, following its fifth straight post-season road loss in Cleveland, evening up the Eastern Semifinal at two games apiece. Home-road dichotomy aside, the Celtics find themselves in trouble because they wilt under pressure.

Boston trailed by 3 points after the third quarter. They have three All-Star, superstar players, Cleveland has one, who continues to struggle by his standards. Logic says the Celtic trio steps up, makes big plays, closes the game out, and take control of the series. Yet offensively challenged Anderson Varejao outscored Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett combined in the deciding 4th quarter. Not a tremendous feat considering Allen and Garnett were shutout, attempting only three total shots. That’s Boston’s problem, nobody wants the ball in crunch time. Same situation during Game 4 in Atlanta, reluctance to take the big shot.

The Cavs don’t suffer from that problem. Despite shooting an historically poor shooting performance in the series, Lebron wants the ball no matter how many he misses, and he’s not afraid to the deciding shot, or take it hard to the basket. Like a preying animal, James smelt blood late in the fourth, and sunk his teeth into the entire Celts defense, driving by Pierce and Posey, before giving Garnett – the Defensive Player of the Year – a facial with a powerful, rim rattling signature dunk. A microcosm of the game, Boston on its heels, Cleveland on the attack.

Despite the road problems, Boston has continued to dominate at home, playing like a completely different team. But as the road losses mount, the pressure to win at home builds, and if it comes down to a close game, Cleveland has its go-to guy, but where will Boston turn? Monday night you would not have known KG was even on the floor in the fourth quarter if Lebron didn’t posterize him on that dunk.

All season Boston proved me, and many critics, wrong. Could Rondo run the point, would age catch up with them, can this team play defense? They answered each question emphatically. The last unanswered questions, none of the stars has ever won big in the playoffs and who takes the last shot, may sting Doc Rivers’ squad. Let’s say the Celts are in trouble if Rondo leads the team in scoring again.

Rutgers-UConn: Who Wins in Notre Dame Football Debate?

Earlier this week UConn reached an agreement with Connecticut state legislators that allows the Huskies to enter a six-game football series against Notre Dame from 2011-2017 with the three Connecticut “home games” staged at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, or Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. The agreement scales down the original 10-game package where Connecticut would have forfeited five home games to surrounding states, and comes days after Rutgers University rejected a similar offer from the South Bend football machine.

The Huskies elevated to Division 1-A in 2002, joined the Big East in 2004, and grabbed a share of the conference championship last season, along with its second bowl bid. On the heels of joining D-1, Connecticut taxpayers shelled out $91.2 million to build 40,000 seat Rentschler Field in East Hartford, which draws a loyal, devoted fan base for home games. Those same loyal, devoted fans who paid for the stadium get pushed aside by the almighty Irish money-making machine in this deal.

In exchange for the lost home games, UConn gains national exposure that the school hopes will help with recruiting, publicize the program, and draw revenue. On the surface it sounds good, especially given Connecticut’s incoming recruiting class ranks last in the Big East and 70th nationally according to Rivals.com, but does simply playing Notre Dame add that much value anymore.

Last season NBC ratings dipped 40% for Notre Dame broadcasts to 1.8, exactly half the 3.8 rating it enjoyed in 2005. The Peacock networks $9 million a year exclusive contract with Notre Dame expires after the 2010 season. Diminished ratings have led to softer advertising dollars. If the trend continues NBC may choose not to renew with Notre Dame, thus none of the six games in this contract guarantee national television exposure.

No longer a perennial power, Notre Dame has resorted to bully tactics to gain a competitive advantage by forcing the home field change.  The Irish played at Boston College, in a similar size stadium, multiple times, yet refused to travel to Connecticut for any games. If BC does not require a 70,000+ stadium to host the Irish, what’s wrong with Rentschler Field?

For one, Rentschler will sell out with Husky fans, a true road test, while Gillette and the Meadowlands, will have at least half Notre Dame fans. UConn’s AD can say what it wants about tickets, the Golden Domers will have a major presence in those so-called UConn home games. Second, the New York and Boston games probably will help with recruiting – it may help more with Notre Dame recruiting. With the program slipping in recent years, facing fierce competition for the best athletes, an extra game in the Metropolitan area will help the Irish establish more of a presence in the area. UConn is already here, half way between the two major metropolis’.

UConn mentions the games will help with fundraising and connecting the two big cities with alumni. I buy that, but is it worth deserting your students and local alumni and donors to do it? Still in its growing stages, if it makes sense for any team, its UConn. The annual Big East schedule can use an extra boost, and the program will take the publicity as it tries to crawl from behind the shadows of the wildly successful basketball team.

However, Rutgers, made the right decision not bowing to almighty Notre Dame. Embarking on a $102 million renovation to increase capacity to 55,000 seats, already down the block from the Meadowlands, the Scarlet Knights don’t need to back down to other programs. They put together multiple bowl seasons, just had a second-round draft pick, and convinced the coach to stay put, refuting various overtures from big schools. Recruiting continues to improve each year, and Rutgers proved it can capture the attention of New York when it fields a good team, generating buzz during its unbeaten run in 2006. As I mentioned, an solid out of conference game always helps in the BCS standings, and for the program at large, but Rutgers should not do it at the expense of building an identity at Rutgers Stadium.

Almost 20 years removed from a national championship, annually overrated both on the field and in recruiting circles, Notre Dame has arguably lost its clout to the USC’s, Ohio State’s, and LSU’s of the world. America’s fascination with the football team continues thanks to the rich history, unless, of course, Navy beats them a few more times, or god forbid, Duke wins in front of touchdown Jesus. Rutgers showed that teams no longer need Notre Dame, and made the right choice doing it. The verdict remains out on UConn’s decision. A bigger question remains, is this an omen of things to come for the Irish. Two years from now will they lose their exclusive television contract, and potentially their unique, powerful position in the BCS contract, up for renewal later this year. Stay tuned.

NBA Trade Deadline Winners

What a difference a year makes. 2008 proved anything but quiet at the deadline with a flurry of past and future All-Stars, a hall-0f-famer, big contracts, and championship contenders all involved. Needless to say it impacted the playoff landscape. With the phones silenced for now, time to assess the damage. We’ll focus on the teams that made the big moves – apologies to New Orleans, Portland, Denver, Detroit, and Toronto, I don’t see the impact.

The Winners
Lakers – LA made out like bandits, landing Pau Gasol for a point guard unlikely to realize his potential in LA, and a bag of balls. Gasol and Kobe clicked immediately, forming a dynamic inside out offensive duo. With Phil Jackson at the helm, two top notch scorers, the best player in the world, the right mix of veteran and young role players, a dynamic athlete now playing under the radar in Lamar Odom, the Lakers have formed the perfect storm to ride to the top. Not to mention 7 feet of potential lingering on the bench for a return. Forget a healthy Bynum, LA is the best team in the league right now, Bynum makes them scary.
Miami – Jettison a $20 million albatross for a dynamic offensive and defensive player. Criticize Pat Riley all you want for the coaching job, but consider he removed Shaq, Ricky Davis, and Antoine Walker – three bad contracts – from the salary cap, expediting the rebuilding process. A one year trial for Marion to find out if they want to team him with Wade for the long-term, or use the cap space on another star in 2009 or 2010.
New Jersey – A young point guard with nice upside locked up until 2013 at a reasonable price, expiring contracts, and draft picks for a disgruntled, highly paid superstar that publicly requested a trade. Consider how difficult it is to get equal value for star caliber players, Thorn made out nice, opening the door for NJ to re-tool and still compete in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
San Antonio – Subtle, yet important. Like the team itself, quiet assassins, San Antonio grabbed a veteran inside defensive presence to counteract the Gasol and Shaq deals, providing Duncan with help inside. Kurt Thomas can knock down the 15-foot jumper, another offensive weapon to go alongside Horry come playoff time. Don’t underestimate his toughness in a playoff series.
Atlanta – A scary collection of athletic talent, Bibby provides the veteran presence on and off the court the young team needs. A playmaker to create shots for Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, et al., Bibby improves the Hawks outside shooting and fits right into the transition game they excel in. Atlanta is close to becoming a force.
Seattle – Seattle moves into full-fledge rebuilding mode, dumping any and all veteran possible to stock up on draft picks and less expensive contracts. Since winning is not the objective, Seattle accomplished its mission.

Could Have Done Better
Cleveland – With LeBron quietly pressuring the team to make a move, Ferry made a splash with a trade involving a full roster of players. On the surface, Cleveland improves, acquiring shooting help with Sczerbiak and West, inside scoring with Joe Smith, having a solid season with over 17 ppg in Chicago, and the former defensive player of the year and rebounding monster Ben Wallace. A clear upgrade over Hughes, Gooden, Simmons, Brown, and Newble, though Gooden is much better than he’s played this season, the question remains if Wallace can rediscover his former self. Losing out on Bibby, who the Cavs could have snatched with Gooden in the package, along with the uncertainty of Wallace may leave Cavs fans – and a certain superstar – wondering what if come May.
Phoenix – Wrote about this previously, high risk, high reward trade by Steve Kerr. The type of move that can cost Kerr his job, or elevate him to genius. Phoenix was not winning the title with the team as it was, credit him for his boldness, not settling for another good regular season and tough playoff loss. On the upside, Shaq provides the toughness, rebounding, and interior defense the Suns lacked in the half-court game, liberating Amare on both ends of the court, leading Phoenix to the title. The downside, Shaq continues his downward trend, Suns fall in the first or second round again, get saddled with a bad contract for 2-3 years marking the downfall of this group. The reality lies somewhere in between, expect a rejuvenated Shaq to play well, help Phoenix develop a half court game for the playoffs, but the Suns still fall short in May and June
Sacremento – Mission half accomplished, moved Bibby, hung onto Artest. The bad boy had suitors, the Kings should have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Losers
Memphis – Can you say Fire Sale?
Dallas – Similar to Phoenix, the Mavs had to change things up to have a chance to take the next step. Kidd brings leadership and a grittiness to a team that clearly lacks the veteran presence. Dallas needs Kidd to find his former self after a sub-par season for an underachieving Nets team. His presence will benefit Dirk, Howard, and Terry offensively, but does nothing to shield Dallas from the Duncan’s, Shaq’s, Stoudemire’s, and Gasol’s of the newly West. At 35, though still playing at high level, you can make a strong case Kidd ranks behind Williams, Paul, and Nash at point in the West, all in the same Western Conference scrum as Dallas. If that proves true, Dallas loses out big time. They lose a young potential star with a good contract, become the oldest team in the NBA, tie up the salary cap with a big number for the next few years, assuming a Kidd extension, all for a player on the downside who does not solve their biggest weaknesses and does not put them over the top. The move reeks of desperation. However, give them credit for taking a chance, not settling for 55 wins and a playoff exit.
Chicago – Involved with every major trade rumor the past year – Kobe, KG, Gasol – the Bulls held their assets, watched Gordon, Deng, and Hinrich plummet in value for arguably the biggest disappointment in the NBA this season. In the end, they hold all three, acquiring the likes of Gooden and Hughes. What’s the plan in Chi-town? Yes, they end the failed Ben Wallace experiment, cutting losses. Is Chicago rebuilding, trying to make a run, planning to hold Gordon, Deng, Hinrich, Duhon, et al.? Why Hughes, who plays the same position? Will Gooden take playing time from Tyrus Thomas and Joakhim Noah, who both stood to benefit without Wallace. Too many questions.
Boston, Orlando, Houston You may ask why. All three teams need point guard help – Boston a veteran to split time with Rondo, Houston and Orlando a playmaker to setup their scorers. Houston tried by acquiring Bobby Jackson, but that does not put them over the top or out of the first round in the West – a waste of Yao and McGrady. Boston will play in the playoffs. Who do you want in a big spot, Billups or Rondo? Down in Florida, Nelson has disappointed, and Arroyo is nothing more than a backup. Still young with good upside, Orlando waits until next year without a point guard.

Reign in the Hype on College Recruiting Day

National signing day, thanks to the proliferation of the Internet and specialized cable sports networks, has pushed the media hype machine down to the high school level. It’s college football’s version of the NFL Draft. The timing works nicely for college football, a month after the BCS championship game, allowing the season recaps and annual BCS vs. playoff system controversy to die out, and a few months before spring practice leading into the big spring game that many big schools host. Yes, even college football receives 365 days of coverage in todays saturated media world.

Not to spoil what amounts to a great moment, a young athlete receiving his first national spotlight, a family celebrating sending their child off to college – for free better yet – but the intricate analysis of recruiting classes has crossed the line to the territory of absurd. Web sites rank players, rank schools, rank schools offensive and defensive classes, rank their junior college recruits, next someone may rank the lighting at the press conference. What do all these rankings mean? 99% of the time, they mean nothing.

Sports fans love rankings. Makes great fodder for debate, puts things in black and white, winners and losers, good, better, best. However, don’t buy into the hype. Recruiting rankings are the most imprecise, least likely to measure actual performance, in a list of increasingly useless rating systems. The NBA and NFL supposedly have arguably the best scouts around, pour a ton of money into scouting, have people who dedicate their lives to succeeding in the draft, yet the results still wind up a crap shoot. Ryan Leaf, Mike Mamula, Charles Rodgers, to randomly name a few recent sure fire NFL stars. If professional teams often make mistakes, after evaluating players compete under a similar spotlight against fairly equal competition at the college level, how can colleges expect to be accurate? High school players, dispersed nationally, typically play against teams in their own area, where star players often stand out as a man among boys. How will these kids react against someone their own size, or when they are no longer the best on the field? Nobody knows.

That leads to another point, these are kids, still young, still developing. Forget skill projections, try to project who will have a growth spurt, or who can carry an extra 40 pounds to go from safety to linebacker. Impossible. Remember, most players wind up at a different position in college. The landscape is littered with former standout high school running backs and quarterbacks playing all over the field, on both offense and defense. How will they handle the position change, can they even play the position the college wants them to?

Toss in the intangibles that 40-yard times and arm strength don’t account for. Learning a coach’s system, playing smart, dedication, work ethic. Suddenly these projections are harder than the rankings appear. After four years at a national college powerhouse, Tom Brady still lingered until the 7th round, Joe Montana into the 3rd.

Before I take away all the fun, recruiters often get it right, discover the stars, build powerhouse college programs, win nation championships. Pete Carroll always has good recruiting classes, his teams always win. Conversely, Notre Dame has had a Top 5 football recruiting class the past few seasons, right up there as high as #2 according to some publications this season. What did it buy them? One of the worst seasons in Irish history.

The book is not closed on this seasons recruiting winners and losers yet. Terrelle Pryor,  arguably the biggest fish in the pond, remains unsigned. Heed warning Michigan, Oregon, and Ohio State fans, Pryor will not guarantee success. Felipe Lopez graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before he step foot on the court for St. John’s, with fans not wondering if, but how many Final Fours he would lead them to. Four years later, the Red Storm finally made it back to the NCAA tournament before a first round exit ended an accomplished, yet immensely disappointing college career. Fall into the rankings frenzy, just don’t forget the warning label – that’s right I’m talking to you Alabama and Miami.