Thursday, January 15, 2009


One of the best things about living in my adopted home area of Phoenix, Arizona, is the ease of attending Major League baseball games. Just about any evening in season my wife and I can drive downtown to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field home and buy two tickets in the behind-home-plate section of the upper deck we prefer. Their cost-- $20 per at current rates-- is reasonable as those things go. Parking is easy if we arrive at least 30 minutes early, as we always do.

We’re able to do this because Phoenix doesn’t support the D’backs the way other cities support their baseball teams. Chase Field holds about 49,000 bodies but recent-year attendance has averaged only about 60% of that, despite some pretty good clubs. Fact is, people here don’t support most of their teams especially well. It’s a bad sports town all around.

Is it the nation’s worst? That’s hard to say. Certainly, the metropoli of South Florida—Miami and Tampa-St. Pete— are perennially strong contenders for that title; I’m sure that many of the locals who attended last fall’s Tampa Bay Rays’ World Series home games needed directions to the ball park. I lived in Pittsburgh for several years and can testify to that city’s ho-hum fan attitude, even towards the Steelers in rare down periods. Seattle lost a basketball team and doesn’t do well by the baseball Mariners despite a very nice, new stadium. Ditto in the latter regard for Baltimore and Denver after new-stadium honeymoons.

Folks in Minneapolis-St. Paul are cheap as well as apathetic. I recall standing in front of the Humphrey Dome on game night trying to sell-- for face value!-- a couple of tickets for the seventh game of the 1991 World Series (it’s a long story how I got them), and meeting considerable sales resistance. In any other town, I’d have been mobbed.

But Phoenix can hold its own in that crowd, and then some. The NBA Suns, who have fielded consistently excellent and interesting teams of late, sell out regularly, but they’re the exception. That there’s a hockey team in town called the Coyotes might come as news to many. It’s annually among the bottom few NHL teams in attendance, reportedly has been losing money at the rate of $30 million a year and is in search of new ownership suckers. That’s despite the presence behind the bench of Wayne Gretzky. If “The Great One” can’t sell hockey, who can?

The football Cardinals brought up the NFL’s attendance rear almost from the time they moved to Phoenix in 1988 until 2006, when they opened a retractable-roofed stadium in nearby Glendale. They’ve sold out since but, this season, just barely a few times. The current Cards made the playoffs for only the second time in their local history, but with an 9-7 record, and interest in their first home playoff game two weeks ago was so scant they didn’t achieve sellout status (and lift a threatened local TV blackout) until 2:30 p.m. the day before the game. The locals are excited now that the team is in the Super Bowl Semis, but it owes its sudden ascent mostly to NFL parity, and a return to form would bring a return of fan apathy, it says here.

Exhibit A in my indictment is Phoenicians’ treatment of the D’backs. Baseballwise this town has been treated royally, with a World Series championship (in 2001) and four divisional titles in the team’s 11 years of existence, but it hasn’t reciprocated with much loyalty. The team’s best year at the home gate was its first, in 1998, when it drew about 3.6 million people, but it’s never come close to that level since. In 2007 it finished with the best record in the National League yet was 20th in MLB attendance. Last year it was in the playoff race until the season’s final week but was playing to half-empty houses in September.

Once inside the park, D’back fans are the quietest, sweetest individuals extant. The vile oaths that foul the air in other stadia never are heard here; Phoenix folks rarely even cheer unless urged to do so by the electronic scoreboard. Sometimes large humanoids will arrive in the second inning and plunk themselves down in the row in front of my wife and me, causing us to have to crane to view the action. When wife Susie says let’s move I tell her to be patient. Sure enough, by the fourth inning they’re usually gone, off to forage in the food courts. They could have saved the price of admission by spending the evening at Pizza Hut.

What’s up? Several things. Phoenix has the reputation of being a golden desert oasis but it’s really mostly a low-wage Sunbelt burg with lots of families just scraping by. Corporate headquarters are few and so are takers for the “luxury” boxes that fuel the modern sports engine. Just about everybody comes from somewhere else and most (like me) root for teams from their former homes. The weather is so nice from October through April that people would rather be outdoors playing than indoors watching, and so beastly hot the rest of the year that just going from house to car and back is more than many can bear.

I mentioned those factors a few years ago to Jerry Colangelo, the transplanted Chicagoan whose ownership of the Suns and D’backs made him Phoenix’s foremost businessman. He agreed that the city wasn’t an immediate sports bonanza but said it inevitably would become one when (not if) area population hit 6 million in 2020 or so (it’s about 3.5 million now).

I’ll buy that but I’m in no hurry to see it. For now I’m grateful for the way things are, especially during baseball season. It’s like the way I feel about vegetarians: they leave more meat for me.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

GO 4 IT!

I love sports people who go against the grain, so I was delighted to see a story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about a football coach whose teams never punt.

That’s never, as in not ever. Fourth and 15 from his own 10-yard line? This guy says “Go for it!” How can you not love that?

Not surprisingly, the guy—his name is Kevin Kelley—coaches at the high-school level. He probably always will. Our sporting establishment is one of the most risk-averse of any occupational group and there’s zero likelihood of that changing. Coaches would rather lose going by the “book” than win breaking some fraternity rule. That mindset has to do with the possibility of looking foolish, which any jock avoids like a pulled hamstring. Jocks grow up to be coaches and take their highly developed sense of vanity with them. Hey, some girl might be watching.

The Times’ article was short so I went online to seek further intelligence on the remarkable Mr. Kelley. It turns out that his iconoclasm doesn’t end with his eschewal of the punt. After his team scores it almost always tries an onside kick. Why not? he reasons-- there’s about a 20% chance of the maneuver succeeding, and he thinks that more than makes up for the 20 or so yards of gridiron position his team would surrender with a conventional kickoff and return.

Kelley’s teams at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., have been winners—otherwise he wouldn’t still be employed even there. In his six seasons as head coach they’ve compiled a 68-13-1 record and have captured two state divisional championships, the last coming in the just-completed season.

In online interviews the coach acknowledges that more than his own brilliance has accounted for his teams’ success. He says he’s had some good players at Pulaski--always a nice thing-- and notes that any new wrinkle can discombobulate foes who will face it only once a season.

But he insists that breaking his sport’s three-downs-and-punt orthodoxy is solidly founded, and that its rewards exceed its risks. Obviously, a team has a better chance of keeping the ball—and eventually scoring—if it always gives itself four tries at a first down instead of three. But he says that more important is his sense that attacking relentlessly changes the psychology of the game in his team’s favor on both sides of the scrimmage line.

“Our offense goes out there with one aim—to move the ball—whether we’re at our own 10-yard line or our opponent’s 2. Yeah, there’s disappointment in going four and out, but converting a fourth down is almost like creating a turnover: it pumps up your kids while deflating the opponent,” he says. “Our defense knows it must stop the other team no matter where it is on the field. Period. Viewed like that, football is a simple game, and simple is good.”

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I’d take Kelley’s approach a couple of steps further. I’d remove the foot from football altogether and let the boys slug it out between the goal lines

You could call the sport “battleball,” thus eliminating its present international confusion with real football, which we Yanks oddly call “soccer.” There would be no kickoffs, punts, kicked extra points or field goals. You’d start the game by putting the ball on the 50-yard line, lining up a player on each of the 40s and letting them dash and claw for possession. The winner’s team would possess the spheroid until it goes four-and-out or scores a touchdown. Then the other guys would give it a go, and so forth until the clock expired, with the usual quarter- and half-time breaks.

For extra points teams would run a regular play from the 2- or 3-yard line, just like they do now for two points. Kicked PATs have become so automatic at all levels of the game they should be dispensed with on lesser grounds than my proposed revolution. Ditto for field goals, which are copouts and dull to boot (they’re either good or not). No punting would heighten the importance of every play, not just fourth downs. It’d be a better game all around.

If you agree with me—and I’m sure you will—forward this column to Roger Goodell at the NFL. If he adopts my idea I’ll let him keep his job. I’d expect a 10% royalty on all future revenues, of course.