Business of Sports
WNBA: Not Just a Punch Line Anymore
As the WNBA All-Stars take the court July 25 for the league's annual festivities, the vibe at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Arena will be eerily familiar, a skinnier sibling of the NBA's bash last February in Phoenix.
Yes, the players will participate in WNBA Cares and Toyota Project Rebound service projects in the community. You bet they'll step up to the All-Star Pregame Challenge presented by Toyota (TM), including a three-point shooting competition. But no player will take a cue from Dwight Howard, don a Wonder Woman costume, and show off her best dunk moves…seeing as only two players in the league can dunk, and one of them just had a baby.
Nonetheless, the WNBA reaches the midpoint of its 13th season in a year in which the men's Arena Football League has been suspended indefinitely and the NCAA Women's Final Four posted better-than-ever ratings. Does that bode well for the survival of the league?
It's certainly good for the players, especially such high-profile stars as the Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa Leslie, who commands more than $1.25 million per year in salary and endorsements, and the Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings, who ranks as the top vote-getter in WNBA All-Star balloting presented by T-Mobile USA.
But one player absent from the 2009 All-Star roster happens to be the current face of the league and the model for its longevity. Los Angeles' Candace Parker, who didn't get an All-Star nod because of said baby, is aiming to be the first $10 million woman in professional team sports. Parker currently rakes in about $3 million a year in salary and endorsements from such stalwarts as Adidas (ADSG.DE) and Gatorade (PEP), and she's stated repeatedly that her goal is to be the "female MJ…with crossover appeal." The $10 million annual number is key, as only four female athletes have reached that mark: tennis' Maria Sharapova ($25 million), Venus Williams, and Serena Williams; and golfer Michelle Wie.
Parker's dunks as a college star at Tennessee, during her rookie year in L.A. last season, and her second practice session following her maternity leave have impressed more than her opponents—last week, ESPN premiered a new SportsCenter ad starring the forward, one of only a handful of such spots over the years to feature a female athlete.
And Parker has delivered for the Sparks. Last season, L.A.'s home attendance was up 10%, and road game crowds were three times bigger for the Sparks than other WNBA teams. The league's TV ratings climbed 19%, and Parker's No. 3 jersey is the league's best seller by far.
Parker's stature may be influencing other leagues. Last week, Amway Global signed a contract with Marta Vieira da Silva, star forward for the Los Angeles Sol of Women's Professional Soccer, to endorse its Nutrilite and Artistry brands. Marta is a three-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year and has anchored the Brazilian national team. Amway also serves as the jersey sponsor for the Sol, which played in the first-ever WPS match Mar. 29.
Off the court, on July 16 CBS' Lesley Visser was voted as the No. 1 female sportscaster by the American Sportscasters Assn. NBC's Andrea Kremer ranked No. 2, while ESPN's Robin Roberts, Michele Tafoya, and Hannah Storm rounded out the top five. A good couple of weeks for women in sports, for sure.
2. NBA in the Off-Season
Not to be upstaged by the women, the NBA Summer League, which ended its sixth season on Sunday, "set an attendance record and further entrenched itself in Las Vegas' sports culture," according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The league drew an average of 4,367 fans per session at Cox Pavilion and Thomas & Mack Center. The previous record, set last year, averaged 4,036 fans per session for the 10-day span.
In Utah, however, the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league was "canceled by the recession," according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Opposed to playing in the Las Vegas environment, the Utah Jazz are playing instead in a summer league in family-friendly Orlando.
NBA Commissioner David Stern was pleased with the Vegas results, noting the NBA Summer League is a "fixture for us now… The people in Las Vegas have shown their support for the summer league, and we love being here." Stern, however, repeated his oft-told refrain that Las Vegas will not house a NBA franchise anytime soon, noting that the league is "not in a position to add members, and relocation is not an option because there is no NBA-quality arena in Las Vegas. "It's more about the economy than the arena," Stern said. "The idea of expansion, of building arenas, it's waiting to see if the economy has bottomed out, what it's going to do."
Stern also revealed last week that fewer than half of the NBA's teams turned a profit last season, and that teams "could face at least" a 10% drop in ticket revenue next year. Elsewhere, sources have been cited as saying that "as many as five" NBA teams "either have a for-sale sign up, or are giving it serious consideration." Teams that could be in play include the Charlotte Bobcats, Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets, and Golden State Warriors.
Some happy NBA news: In the three weeks that Shaquille O'Neal has been a Cleveland Cavalier, merchandise has been flying off the shelves. The team has seen a 350% increase in sales this offseason, and have so far renewed 94.5% of season-ticket plans.
3. Baseball in the Second Half
We've long known that most pro sports are consumed on television, as proximity and cost are often two big barriers to fans' ability to get to games in person. But should Major League Baseball be really alarmed when 81% of baseball fans surveyed in a Knowledge Networks poll conducted June 26-July 5 said they have not attended a baseball game this year, and 15% who went to a game last year said they aren't likely to return this season?
According to that poll, 63% of fans "believe the expensive price of attending baseball games is the biggest problem" in MLB, a number that has grown from 45% at 2009 Opening Day. The average ticket price this season is "up 5% from last year." Also, 72% of respondents said that MLB is "not doing enough to prevent the use of" performance-enhancing drugs, and others expressed alarm at ever-escalating player salaries.
Yet Commissioner Bud Selig, meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America before last week's All-Star Game, was forever blowing sunshine when he stated that 2009 is shaping up to be the league's "greatest season," despite an attendance decline of more than 6% and sponsorship sales being down considerably in many markets.
"To be where we are, given what's going on in the economy and the world, is absolutely remarkable," Selig said, adding that he had set a personal goal to reach 40 million in total league attendance by the All-Star break (a mark missed by about 400,000 according to SportsBusiness Journal). Selig added, "Ten or 15 years ago, everybody was feeling sorry for baseball. 'Ah, it's boring, it's dull, it's past its time.' It's been declared moribund for six decades by many people. Well, these numbers keep adding up." Selig also touched on a handful of team-specific issues, including hinting strongly that the Chicago Cubs may very well file for bankruptcy, baseball's first in 39 years.
In other midseason franchise news, the New York Yankees remain the favorite baseball team among those who follow MLB for the seventh year in a row, according to the latest Harris Poll. The Boston Red Sox moved up one spot to second place, as the Atlanta Braves dropped one spot to third.
In Los Angeles, the sellout crowd for Manny Ramirez bobblehead night July 22 pushed the Dodgers above 3 million tickets sold for the season, according to a team release, the 24th season in franchise history the team has passed that mark. After 44 of its 81 regular-season home dates, 2009 Dodgers attendance has totaled 1,922,039 fans, an average of 43,682 per game, or about 78% of capacity at 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium.
The Milwaukee Brewers already have sold more than 2.7 million tickets this season and are on pace to top last year's franchise record attendance of 3.06 million, which coincided with the team's first trip to the playoffs in 26 years. The Brewers also have seen a 10% increase in sponsorship revenue, a 5% rise in concessions, and no drop in retail sales, according to team officials.
4. D-backs, Rockies Plan for New HKS-Designed Spring Home
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies have agreed to finance a new estimated $100 million spring training complex on Native American land in Scottsdale, Ariz. HKS, Inc., the architectural firm that designed the new Cowboys Stadium, is designing the ballpark; the Salt River tribe will fund, build, and operate it.
According to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Council, the organization has signed a memorandum of understanding to partner with the teams on the spring training facility. The 25-year agreement "calls for a multipurpose facility that would include an 11,000-seat ballpark, a total of 12 practice fields, and office buildings." The Diamondbacks, Rockies, and the council will jointly decide on design elements for the facility, which could host play as early as 2011.
The HKS-designed complex represents the first time Major League Baseball teams have held spring training on Native American land. More details concerning the facility were to be announced this week.
Cactus League President Robert Brinton has stated that the move would leave Tucson, the current spring training home for both teams, "without spring baseball for the first time since 1949, when the first Cactus League teams arrived in Arizona." The city of Scottsdale, where the San Francisco Giants have spring training, backed the tribal bid for the Diamondbacks and Rockies, applauding the move "as a way to consolidate teams in the Valley, improve competition, and place the Diamondbacks before a hometown crowd," according to The Arizona Republic. Tucson region officials, however, have made it clear they will fight the relocation. Said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry: "We've given them notice: If they leave before the lease is up, we will take legal action." (The Rockies are under contract at Tucson's Hi Corbett Field through 2011, while the Diamondbacks are "committed to play at Tucson Electric Park" through 2012.)
5. The March of Time(s): Uncle Walt, Lance, and Tom
For anyone who came of age in America in the 1970s and 1980s, last weekend's news events carried a distinct bittersweet flavor as we faced the passing of newsman Walter Cronkite, cyclist Lance Armstrong's upward climb against middle age, and the rocky British Open playoff road of Tom Watson.
Even in defeat to Stewart Cink, one only hopes that Watson can take small comfort in the tens of millions of golf fans who were rooting for his every shot, as TV ratings indicate. ABC earned a 3.9 overnight Nielsen rating for Sunday's final round, up 11.1% from a 3.5 last year but down 4.9% from a 4.1 in 2007, when Tiger Woods at least made it to the weekend. PGA.com also saw Web traffic increases throughout the British Open. PGA.com drew 85 million page views, up 44% from 2008.
Watson also jumped 1,269 spots in this week's World Golf rankings following his British Open performance (yes, you read that right), the largest jump since the current ranking system was introduced in 1986. (Watson's ranking went from 1,374th to 105th.)
We don't yet know if the 59-year-old Watson will be able to capitalize on his more than respectable rounds at Turnberry to add to endorsements including Adams Golf (ADGF), Ralph Lauren Polo (RL) and the Greenbrier resort, which ran a full-page ad in USA Today congratulating him for his play—Watson has been "Golf Pro Emeritus" at the resort since 2005. We do know that Watson will play this week in the Senior British Open (a tournament he has won three times) at Sunningdale, outside of London, before competing in the U.S. Senior Open next week at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind.
We also know that, according to the British media, the age limit for past British Open champions to play in the tournament, lowered from 65 to 60 only two years ago, is likely to be reviewed again following Watson's awe-inspiring performance. Says an official of the R&A, British golf's governing body: "I don't think we contemplated a 59-year-old leading the Open Championship going into the back nine on the final day at the time.…Every year after the Open we look at the exemptions.…It's much too early to say what, if anything, we'll do with it, but we'll certainly be looking at it."
6. Quirky Sports Contracts
With each league's collective bargaining agreement structured so differently, sports teams over time have made some rather quirky signings. Here are the most unique stipulations from the four major sports leagues:
4. NHL Upper Limit of the Payroll Range: As part of the NHL CBA signed in July 2005, no NHL player is allowed to make more than 20% of his team's total payroll. Alex Ovechkin is currently the closest to this cap, making 17% of the Capitals' total salary.
3. NBA Larry Bird Exception: Of all of the salary exceptions that the NBA has, the most well known is the Larry Bird Exception. Because of it, teams are allowed to go over the salary cap to re-sign their free agents, up to the players' maximum salary. The rule is named after Bird because the Celtics were the first team to exceed the cap under this provision.
2. MLB Salary Arbitration: Although the NHL has salary arbitration as well, decisions aren't as binding as in MLB. Players with three to six years of service, and without a long-term contract, can go to arbitration and argue their worth based on statistics. Whatever decision the arbiter makes is final.
1. NFL Franchise Tag: Each year, NFL teams are allowed to designate one unrestricted free agent with the "franchise tag," preventing that player from leaving the team. If the player and team are unable to agree on a new contract, the player receives a one-year deal worth the average of the top five salaries at his position. The franchise tag has been in the news a lot lately, with Terrell Suggs agreeing to a six-year, $63 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens, and Julius Peppers settling for a one-year, $16.7 million franchise tender with the Carolina Panthers.
7. World Football Challenge Comes to America
Who says Americans don't like soccer? The Baltimore Ravens have announced that they've sold out the 70,000 tickets available for the July 24 AC Milan-Chelsea World Football Challenge match at M&T Bank Stadium.
Tickets for the event range from $35 plus fees to $175 for a VIP package. What's more, all 33 hospitality tents ringing the stadium have been sold, according to the Ravens vice-president of ticket sales and operations. The fully catered hospitality tents include 30 tickets to the game and range in price from $4,500-$5,200.
Chelsea and AC Milan's friendly in Baltimore is part of a six-city round-robin soccer tournament known as the World Football Challenge. Other teams in the tournament include Club America and FC Internazionale Milano; American stops include the Rose Bowl and Stanford Stadium in California, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Gillette Stadium near Boston, and the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, where a sellout crowd of 82,252 attended Sunday's CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal doubleheader, the first sporting event held at the venue.
Cowboys Stadium groundskeepers are now busy switching out the artificial turf field used in the CONCACAF match for another first at the stadium—natural grass, as mandated by World Football Challenge standards.
8. Estimated Costs for 2012 Olympic Venues per Event
With the 2012 Summer Olympics only three years away, London's Daily Telegraph compiled a list of how much money each sporting venue will cost to renovate or build. However, since producing the Olympics is a multibillion-dollar undertaking, organizers will try to make venues as efficient as possible. Following are the five most expensive sports facilities per number of medal events they will hold:
5. Triathlon, $5,750,000: $11.5 million/two events
4. Cycling, $8,572,222: $154.3 million/18 events
3. Aquatics, $8,708,695: $400.6 million/46 events
2. Athletics, $18,791,489: $883.2 million/47 events
1. Basketball, $47,600,000: $95.2 million/two events
Notes: Money designated for the triathlon will be used to transform London's Royal Park. Cycling events will be held at the under-construction London VeloPark. Athletics includes all track and field events.
9. Sports Blackout?
It is the black hole of pro sports, a Bermuda Triangle that traps athletes and fans alike, and a day so dreaded it happens only once annually. For sports fanatics across the country, D-Day is the day after the MLB All-Star Game, the only day during the calendar year that is consistently without an MLB, NBA, NFL, or NHL event.
Exactly how bad was July 15? According to The Wall Street Journal, which graded every sports day from September 2008 to August 2009, last Wednesday was so slow that it scored lower than Tuesday, Oct. 7, when the sports docket was limited to a Philadelphia Flyers exhibition game and a Florida Atlantic-Troy college football game.
Fans weren't the only ones affected by the sporting pinch, as TV stations were still responsible for reporting "the news." ESPN's prime-time coverage was dedicated to replays: first the Home Run Derby, then the 2008 World Series of Poker, and finally a Baseball Tonight recap of the first half of the season. ESPN2 was even more desperate, airing a 1999 NFL game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.
10. Tough Turf?
On Wednesday, the gates open for the 70th season at one of the most picturesque racetracks in the U.S., when the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club kicks off its 37-day run. Del Mar, founded by Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and other big-screen icons, runs through Sept. 9, closing after the marquee event of the summer, the $1 million Pacific Classic on Sept. 6. All told, the club generated $33.9 million in revenues last year and boasted an average daily handle of $13 million—one of the highest-producing racetracks in the country.
But even Del Mar, arguably the Hollywood-meets-Ascot of thoroughbred racing, can't escape the yoke of the current economy. For the first time since 1945, the track will be closed on Mondays, changing the six-day format to a five-day one. (A decline in the race-ready horse population has also been cited as a factor.) What's more, under the massive weight of California's $26 billion budget deficit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed selling the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds and its signature track. The horse track generates money—$5.3 million last year—to fund future capital projects at the fairgrounds.
Though the surrounding city of Del Mar has quietly intimated that it would purchase the property from the state, operators instead have opted to open the racing concession to the highest bidder after the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's lease expires in December, for a shorter, more flexible period than the prior 20-year agreement. For the moment, though…they're off!
Finally, you can lead a horse to cider but you can't make him drink…The Seattle Times reports 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide was at Seattle's Ellis Park last weekend to "hawk a new drink—Funny Cider." No word on whether the concoction will be giving the Del Margarita a run for its money "Where the Surf Meets the Turf."