It is Difficult To Even Process How Ridiculous Tanking is, But Here is How To Stop It (Part 1 of 4)

If you want a fascinating vantage point into the yin and yang of the competitive spirit, all you have to do is take a look at four NBA teams this season who share one thing in common: they are all not very good.

However, while it may be true that no member of this off-key quartet will be raising a championship banner this year, two of them are fighting with the ferocity and urgency of Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Their spirited fight–which ironically is not entirely voluntary because their past bad trades demand it–reminds me of what makes professional sports great and what the future of the NBA should be about: franchises doing all they can to win all of the time.

These four teams here with rosters not ready for prime time are the Nets, Kings, Lakers, and 76ers. While the Nets and Kings are doing everything they can to win, the Lakers and the 76ers are engaged in an art form that has been crafted to perfection in the recent NBA: tanking.

Tanking is when a front office purposely fields a team that will lose a majority of its games, with the end goal of securing a high draft pick. It has become such a reality in the modern NBA that no team can really criticize the practice, because they have probably done it themselves.

Even the Warriors recently did it in 2011. They finished that season 5-22 because their upcoming draft pick was top 7 protected, meaning if they finished with the 8th worst record they would have to give it to the Jazz. Voilà! The Warriors barely nudged into the 7th worst record on the last day of the season and they then picked Harrison Barnes the following season. Tanking can be very beneficial for a team and actually a good long term strategy. But is this what the NBA really wants?

These last couple of seasons the 76ers have taken tanking to a level never seen. They have been doing it nonstop for a while and there is no end in sight. The 76ers front office has even tried to give their tanking strategy some bravado and swagger: they actually named it. They dubbed their continual losing “The Process“.

That’s right, this perpetual state of ineptitude is affectionately referred to by 76ers executives  as “the process”–as if something clever and strategic is taking place. But let’s be honest here: the 76ers may need the help of a process engineering consulting company, because now even league executives are calling it “a failure”. This must be difficult for the 76ers brass to process!

The Nets and the Kings, by contrast, are doing the opposite of tanking. They are trying. They may have rosters that could merit a tanking strategy, but from the ball boy to the owner they all want to win every possible game. That’s because these teams get absolutely no benefit from being bad, because they either traded away their future draft picks or given other teams the right to switch picks with them. In fact, the more they lose the more humiliating it is for all of them because another team may actually benefit from their poor play by getting the draft pick they would otherwise have received.

Hmmm…feeling bad about losing, shouldn’t that be a given in professional sports? Seeing what happens when non-superpower teams really want to win is in itself interesting. Take the Nets: here we are still weeks before the All Star Game and they already fired their coach and GM in a desperate attempt to salvage their season and turn things around. In addition, even before this their effort was turning heads, in November the Nets took the undefeated and uninjured Warriors to overtime in Oakland. It turns out that when bad teams are put in the position of needing to win every game possible, it is gripping and entertaining stories emerge.

The NBA looks like a more fun place without tanking. But before figuring out a potential remedy, it is worth the time to understand how tanking has become engrained into so many layers of the NBA.

Next in Part II: Trading future picks is like running up credit card debt, and the NBA sure likes their credit card.

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Trump Would Say Anything for Attention, But He Won’t Say That

Judging from the public’s response to words from Presidential candidates, it’s become clear where the American public is most sensitive. This is an area so raw that it can trigger a public backlash strong enough to decisively ruin a candidate.

Spoiler alert: it was revealed four years ago.

Donald Trump has called Mexican people coming across the border “rapists”, mocked war hero John McCain for “getting caught”, said he wants to exclude all Muslims from emigrating into the United States, ridiculed the physical appearance of both Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul, appeared to make fun of a reporter with special needs, and referenced Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle. Trump re-tweeted racist misinformation to his 5.3 million followers regarding the racial breakdown of domestic shootings–and then defended himself by saying it wasn’t coming from him, but was a just a “retweet”. Huh!? This is the current leader in the polls for the Republican Party, and it’s hard to believe.

These comments are 100% detestable. But notice how Trump has no insults for the “47%” that Mitt Romney insulted. That’s right– the subject of income inequality appears to be the most sensitive spot for the American public.

In the “47%” video, Mitt Romney mocked the poor and essentially called them entitled free-loaders. He said, “47% of Americans pay no income tax” and “they believe they are victims (and that) the government has a responsibility to care for them”. He went on to say “I’ll never convince them to take personal responsibility”. Romney claimed he was just talking about his election strategy but the damage was done and he was done.

This tells me that Bernie Sanders is really on to something. His message of combating income inequality has enabled him to set the all time record for the most individual donations ever during the year before the election. He just passed the record President Obama set of 2,209,636 through December 31, 2011. Sanders claims that 99 percent of new income is going to the top 1 percent in the United States, and that the top .1 percent have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Setting the record for the most individual donors ever at this point in the campaign shows his message is resonating strongly with many people.

I wonder if all Trump’s ridiculous statements are hurting Sanders more than any other candidate. As the news cycles are filled with feigned shock and rubber necking at what Trump said, Trump’s words are having a result opposite to Romney’s, and that’s quite ironic. Trump is saying shocking things that are taking attention away from the issue of income inequality, and it’s helping him win in the polls.

While Trump may insult everybody in disgusting ways, I’ll bet he never insults anyone for being poor. I wish he would.

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The Pen is Not Too Mighty When Penned Up

There have been some disturbing happenings in the past year that hint at a growing challenge to the free press in our country. In November, 2014, the Senior Vice President of Uber threatened to dig up dirt on a journalist who was reporting on his company in a less than flattering way. It’s hard to believe that a representative  of such a high-flying company would say this, but yes, this actually happened! It is true that the executive thought he was speaking off the record at a company event, but think of the implications here, and the audacity it took to say this out loud as a potential ‘strategic communications’ strategy.

The journalist, Sarah Lacy, was reporting on a lack of safety in Uber rides, and what she perceives as a misogynist attitude in the company. Uber could have ignored these reports, or factually countered them. The choice of this Uber executive to go on the attack and dig up personal dirt on the reporter demonstrates a factor that a free press may be up against when perhaps billions of dollars hinge how a company is perceived.

And what happens when a multi-billion dollar company decides to bypass the dirty business of private detectives and even blackmail, and just buys the media? Amazon’s purchase of the Washington Posdid save the struggling newspaper, but the question that still remains to be answered is how this may affect the news. Do you think the Washington Post would ever do any hard-hitting reporting on its owner the way the New York Times recently did? How much power could Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch wield in the newsroom to benefit their businesses?

Sometimes, powerful people can literally push the press around. At some of Donald Trump’s political events, security keeps the press in what they call the “pen”. This Trump pen prevents the press from walking around to observe and film protestors and events so that they can report on them fully and accurately. Believe it or not, the press are actually required to have a security escort when they leave the pen to go to the bathroom.

It takes boldness for a reporter to rip into a powerful corporation over and over again. It’s been encouraging to see some local Bay Area writers do this, and I applaud sports writers Tim Kawakami, Lowell Cohn, and Ann Killion. Sometimes sports is a window into the dynamics of our society–and these writers show the best of what can be seen through that window.

The San Francisco 49ers are a powerful corporation. Not only do the 49ers have millions of loyal fans, they also have a new stadium that is triggering the construction of a metropolis around it. But all of this power hasn’t stopped these writers from tearing into the 49ers ownership and front office when necessary.

Kawakami describes having GM Trente Balke “glaring” at him for his reporting, even calling it a “death stare”. Cohn says that team employees like announcer Ted Robinson, whom he has known for over 30 years, have stopped talking with him. When multiple writers receive such  treatment for reporting on a billion dollar corporation, chances are it is a story that the public deserves to know about.

In my blog, Stay Classy, Santa Clara I wrote about the 49er follies back in August. Since then Jed and his team have only gotten more bizarre and comical. After allegations that Jed leaked negative stories to the press last year regarding Jim Harbaugh, somehow the press recently found out that earlier this season Blane Gabbert read his iPad playbook four to five times more than Colin Kaepernick. Obviously, the 49ers care enough about how they are portrayed in the media to leak information about a player’s personal computer usage. What’s next–leaking to the press how many sugars each quarterback puts in his coffee? It is naive of the 49ers to think that the public won’t realize that they were the ones who leaked this information.  But there is a certain arrogance and smugness that the 49ers ownership has been showing since the so-called firing of Harbaugh, and it is refreshing that these reporters are not afraid to endure some uncomfortable moments to report on what is happening.

When corporations do ridiculous things like leak information to “win the press conference”, no matter how powerful and beloved by the public this company may be, it is a benefit to society for the press to be able to report this from many different perspectives. It is no secret that Fortune 500 companies are booming while American print journalism is financially struggling, and this only makes it more tenuous to displease big business. When an emerging billion dollar reputation is on the line for a company like Uber, or when millions of dollars may hang on a single news story, it is scary to think that at some point, a reporter might just decide that trying to use the so-called freedom of the press is just not worth the cost.

The last point I will make about challenges to the press and to accurate reporting  is the advent of social media, where the line becomes more blurry as to what is a story and what is an individual blogger with an ax to grind. Mainstream news outlets are now more important  than ever, because they are vetted analysts, and when they take a stand on an issue, it may not be the true story, but at least it’s more likely to be. In this case, the publications behind Kawakami, Cohn and Killion are the San Joe MercurySanta Rose Press Democrat, and San Francisco Chronicle. I hope these newspapers are ready to go after a local Fortune 500 company with the same zeal that they are going after the Jed York and the 49ers. If they are, the Bay Area free press seems in good hands–except when they are stuck in a pen.

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Feeling the Burn of Non Competitive Elections

If the Democratic Party had a tag line for this year, it would be ‘Elections without Competition’.

Or maybe “Let’s Make a Deal”.

The Democrats seem to be perfecting this at both the national and local level, and I’m pretty sure that this is not what the founding fathers had in mind.

I thought the purpose of elections was for people to have the opportunity to choose between competitive and viable candidates. And yet, there is Hilary Clinton running for the Democratic nomination for President, with her chief rival being a self-described “democratic socialist”.

I love Bernie Sanders and I’ve been ‘feeling the Bern’ as much as the next person. Perhaps his powerful words could have the impact of taking Clinton more to the left. However, if this lovable and unelectable guy is the only competition, the burn is really on us.

This election year so far would make even Putin look like he’s scrambling for votes every four years.

In my lifetime, there has never been a Presidential election in which a party ran only one electable candidate, unless that candidate was an incumbent. The most accomplished and ambitious Democrats with a chance of being elected decided to sit this one out. Why does Hillary have no viable Democratic opponents? It seems to me that a deal was cut to set the table for Hillary and it’s as clear as day.

I’d trace this deal back to 2012, leading into the Democratic convention. Obama was trailing Romney in the poles and President Bill Clinton gave a speech at the convention that brought the house down and immediately shifted the campaign. The Washington Post wrote that Clinton “delivered for Obama”.

But it didn’t stop there. After this speech, Bill Clinton campaigned with Obama and generously filled in for Obama at events. Politico wrote that Bill Clinton “zig zagged” across the country for Obama.

Here is an article entitled “How Bill Clinton Won the 2012 Election”. Even Mitt Romney said, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this election season, it is that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good”. So where was Bill Clinton in 2008 for Obama? Why was he suddenly so enthusiastic about Obama in 2012? Do you think Bill offered this support in exchange for the lack of competition we currently see for Hillary? And if so, would deals like this be an acceptable way for us to practice democracy?

An election is not a lifetime achievement award, and both Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party would be better served if the most competitive field of Democrats joined the race.

One would think that after eight years of loyal service as Vice President, Joe Biden would have earned a full and enthusiastic endorsement from the President he served for so many years.  I would think a Presidential committee would have been started for Biden not soon after Obama became a lame duck President in 2013. But none of this ever happened for the Vice President.

Elections with a foregone conclusion are not happening just at the national level. At the local level in San Francisco, incumbent Mayor Ed Lee did not face any legitimate competition in the general election.

That is, unless you count one of Lee’s biggest rivals, a candidate who goes by the esteemed name of ‘Broke Ass Stuart’.

It’s not just the election process that appears to be broken.

Broke Ass Stuart actually finished in fourth place–only five percentage points behind the second place finisher! This second place finisher, singer and community activist Francisco Herrera, ended up a whopping 44 percentage points behind Ed Lee.

San Francisco is not your average American city. The opposing sides in the mayoral election are not usually Democrat vs. Republican but rather Democrat vs. Progressive. This year, the parties decided to party with each other and let the Mayor run unopposed. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, the most competitive candidates chose not to run, names like Sen. Mark Leno. City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. The candidates backed away as if Ed Lee were the best Mayor in the history of America.

Even the most trusting and transparent thinking people would have to consider the possibility that somewhere in the ‘Mayor Lee running unopposed” narrative lies a backroom deal.

So what is an election without real competition? I guess we are finding out this year.

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The House That Bonds Built

The construction of AT&T Park a.k.a. Giants Stadium did not rely on any government financing or public bonds. However, if not for Barry Bonds and his decision to come to San Francisco in 1993 this ballpark would probably not exist today.

Let’s not forget that in the year 1992 the San Francisco Giants signed a memorandum of agreement to sell the team to a Tampa Bay group that would move the team to Florida. Giants owner Bob Lurie made this shocking decision after four ballot measures seeking public financing for a new stadium failed and private financing efforts were unsuccessful. I remember being at a game once when the buzz in the crowd was that financier George Shinn was in attendance and he might be interested in buying the Giants and keeping them in San Francisco. There was even a sign that night that read “Shinn Happens”.

Well, Giants fans really felt like Shinn during these times when a move seemed imminent and getting a baseball only stadium for the Giants seemed impossible. It’s startling today to think that no local buyers emerged in 1991 or before and that Bob Lurie decided to sell the team to the Tampa Bay group for $110 million.

Flash forward to the year 2000, when the Giants unveiled their new San Francisco stadium with its short right field fence, giving a power hitting lefty the chance to get a ‘Splash Hit’. The picture above is of Bonds hitting a ball into what would someday be called McCovey Cove as ground broke for the new ballpark.

How did this stadium finally get done at this time, after years of failed attempts and inactivity? People like Peter Magowan really helped and I’m sure the dot com boom didn’t hurt. But there is no person or event more responsible than Barry Bonds.

It is fitting that Bonds arrived in San Francisco the year after that sale to Tampa Bay fell through. He brought exactly what San Francisco baseball needed: swagger, excitement, and wins.

When Bonds chose the Giants in free agency he was the biggest name in baseball and the most famous free agent the Giants had ever signed. He already had won two MVP’s with the Pirates and he brought a superstar quality that the Giants had not had since Willie McCovey.

Whatever Bonds did was national news, and as soon as Bonds signed, the interest level and national TV exposure for the Giants spiked. This excitement surely helped galvanize the investors who came together to buy the Giants and privately finance the new stadium.

Can you name the most famous free agent the Giants signed before Bonds? Rennie Stennett? You see, the big name free agents did not want to play in windy freezing Candlestick. On the flip side, Bonds loved the Giants and his family history with the team. He chose the Giants and Candlestick when every team in baseball was laying out the red carpet for him, a decision that, looking back now, was a crucial tipping point in the history of the team.

Bonds brought a lot more than hype and a super star swagger, as the team immediately improved upon his arrival. The year before Bonds arrived in 1992 they had a record of 72-90. In 1993 their record improved to 103-59, a stunning change. Bonds won his third MVP that season, a total that exceeded all the MVP’s won by Giants in their entire history in San Francisco.

A historical snapshot also shows a shift in performance on the field. In the 10 year period before Bonds’ arrival, from 1982-1992, the Giants had a record of 787-833 and a winning percentage of 48%. Going back another 10 years, from 1972-1992, the Giants record was 1,552-1633 and still that same winning percentage of 48%. Contrast this to the ten years after Bonds arrived, when from 1992-2002 their record improved to 840-715 and their winning percentage increased to 54%. This success continued into the 20 year vantage point, when from 1992-2012 their winning percentage was 53% and their record 1685-14

I’m not saying that Bonds single handedly created the new stadium for the Giants or won all those games. But when Bonds decided to come play in Candlestick for a team that had been sold to Tampa Bay just the previous year, he made a giant difference both on and off the field.

So however you may feel about Barry Bonds, when you enjoy the Giants in their sparkling stadium by the bay, you might want to ask yourself if it would even exist had Bonds not chosen the Giants in 1993.

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Corporate Giant Park

Have you ever heard the place where the Giants play called anything else but AT&T Park? Whether it be in a coffee shop, at a gym, friends talking on the phone, it’s always the same. The Giants play in “AT&T Park”. It’s not Giants Stadium, or any other more apt description of the place, but strictly the name given by a corporate entity. It seems that a corporation can buy naming rights and thereby enter private conversations. We just follow along, as if their purchase price makes inroads into our constitutionally given freedom of speech.

If you were told to start calling that bridge the “Golden Arches Gate Bridge”, would you?

I can already hear voices of the Bay Area coming together in outrage, saying “a hard line will be drawn if they paint the Golden Arches Gate Bridge yellow!”

I understand why announcers and team employees toe the company line here; they have to. They could face disciplinary measures if they don’t. But last I checked, neither AT&T nor the Giants or MLB have the muscle to fine or sue you if you decide to stop your involuntary personal advertising campaign for a corporate giant.

How about instead of calling it AT&T Park, we go for a half measure and call it Corporate Giant Park?

Or really just go crazy and call it Giants Stadium?

I’ve heard people say “see you at AT&T Park” when what they are actually planning is to meet at a Giants game. Talk about corporate control.

Or my favorite is: in the same breath that someone takes to complain about corporate control in America, they say that they love AT&T Park.

Remember the outrage of the entitled FaceBook users who were upset when the company introduced ads into the FaceBook newsfeed?  That was just a company putting ads into the users line of vision. Well, in regard to stadium naming rights, people apparently don’t have any problem at all ceding advertising space in their own personal newsfeeds a.k.a. their conversations.

At least the 49ers made an effort to show some creativity and connection on stadium naming rights–they went with Levi’s stadium to honor the connection to the jeans that those 49ers in 1849 wore when they were mining for gold. Still, that bit of cuteness does not even make it remotely worthwhile to work that brand into every conversation that takes place about what happened at the last 49ers game.

How about a movement, the modern day equivalent of a sit-in, where we come together and try to thumb our nose at the subliminal influence of power and money. Let’s call that place where the Giants play baseball Giants Stadium.

While it may not be in the cards to tell FaceBook not to put ads in their newsfeed, we can clear our own newsfeed of ads.

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The Big Market vs. Small Market Mirage (Part 4 of 4)

Tom Brady just defeated the NFL in court when a judge ruled that his league-mandated suspension did not pass legal muster.  Wow, seeing all-powerful commissioner Roger Goodell humbled and looking for a place to hide sure was a first. Talk about the perfect conclusion for this series on the monopolistic sports business ecosystem. If something as innocuous as a suspension for breaking a rule in the rule book on the inflation of balls does not even stand up in a court of law, how in the world would a salary-restricting cap hold up?

Is this whole sports business ecosystem really an ego system for sports owners? They are allowed to create their own rules and institute self-serving policies like the salary cap, disguised as a means to preserve competition on the field.

Just getting rid of the salary cap itself would not make a very big difference right now. It’s currently a ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’ system. The one major sport without a salary cap shows what happens when rich owners compete against owners who don’t want to spend or choose to be thrifty with their money and just enjoy the perks of revenue sharing. Starting on opening day this season, the Dodgers’ opening day payroll was about $207 million more than the Marlins! With that kind of financial disadvantage, the Marlins are about as competitive as an American league pitcher is at the plate in an interleague game.

Under a salary cap, players are denied the opportunity to have their employers compete at market value for their services, and without a salary cap, “big market” owners create an  uneven competitive landscape.  Is the future this bleak? No way! The playing field just needs to be cleared and a new game started. A start might be to step out of the  “big market vs. small market” mentality.

The small market vs. big market paradigm is simply an outdated concept. With multi-billion dollar television contracts to be shared and billionaires all over the place, can any sports owner really embrace that they are a small market operation?  It seems like teams who hide behind the “small market” moniker are just owners who prefer to profit by revenue sharing  instead of doing what is takes to win games. Oh, and hey Billy Bean and the A’s, if Oakland really is a “small market”, I have a bridge to sell you, like the one that makes Oakland only about 12 miles from San Francisco.

So what should the future business atmosphere of sports look like? I have two possible solutions:

Option 1: The reason why the term “small market vs. big market” is inaccurate is that America currently has  513 billionaires, and quite a few seem interested in owning a sports team. So bring in the billionaires! That’s right, make it a billionaires club, people who are there for their own competitiveness and thrill of owning a team. If an ego system is what we have…then let’s bring on egos…I mean REAL egos. Not the rich people who use power and influence to institute a salary cap and revenue sharing. The uber rich who don’t need to depend on annual profits or safety nets.

Billionaires are lining up and almost begging to buy sports franchises these days. Last year Steve Ballmer was chosen from a slew of bidders to pay $2 billion for the Clippers, beating out names like David Geffen and Larry Ellison. $2 billion was about twice what was considered market value for the team at that time, and Ballmer paid 12.1 times the expected 2014 revenues of the team. Larry Ellison has been pleading to buy a team for years and nobody will sell to him. Billionaire Mark Cuban took over a moribund Dallas franchise and has turned it into a model franchise and won a championship. If a sports owner puts profit maximization as the number one goal, this does not always go hand in hand with winning.

Watching a bunch of billionaires compete and in a business environment, would be almost as interesting as the games on the field.

This may not be a very realistic option. The currently engrained owners who have  created a system where they can’t lose, are bunkered in by monopoly power and socialism, and they love the influence and attention of being a sports owner.

Option 2: Each community owns their team, like the Green Bay Packers model. The Packers are governed by a board of directors and a seven member executive team, and all profits are invested back in the team. They also have 112,120 stockholders holding 4,750,937 total shares.  If local communities owned all their sports teams, the games and rivalries would be even more fun than they are now.

It’s hard to see how either of these options are realistic though. The owners just don’t want to sell, even at prices skyrocketing above market value. The Clippers were essentially forced to sell, and the number of offers at way above market value show the demand. The owners main goal now is probably to keep all their business practices out of a court of law, lest the Tom Brady decision is just the tip of the iceberg.

How could the community option come to pass? Nothing short of eminent domain could get this done.

Let’s eliminate all these made up business rules that would leave even the best economics professor in the world with a spinning head, wondering whether we’re dealing with a monopoly or a schizophrenic version of socialism. Preventing free market bidding for player salaries while guaranteeing a profit through revenue sharing is no way to run sports.

I’d like to see the Green Bay Packers model instituted in the future. Power to the people! At least in the world of sports. I’ll leave breaking apart the power of Super PACS and its affect on government for another day.

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