Baseball's True World Series

The World Baseball Classic kicks off its second season, and this year more than 1.3 billion fans around the globe might tune in

1. Tiger, Fins, and the PGA Florida Swing Even though Tiger is nowhere near the Honda (HMC) Classic tee, pro golf just seems a lot more lively this week after Woods' jubilant (if short-lived) return and the PGA Tour's cross-country flight to Florida and the start of the five-week runup to the Masters.

The Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens gets off to a strong start this week with not one but two high-profile Pro-Am events. On Monday, with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross, I co-hosted the inaugural Fin Cup. The event raised tens of thousands of dollars for area children's charities and the Richard David Kahn Melanoma Foundation with the help of winner Bob Griese, Dan Marino, Chad Henne, and a host of other active and retired Miami Dolphins. On Wednesday award-winning musician and scratch golfer Kenny G continues that outreach at an annual event of his own.

While NBC's (GE) and the Golf Channel's weekend ratings were not what they had hoped had Woods held on through the Accenture (ACN) Match Play's final rounds, his return on Wednesday gave its site-best 2.5 million video streams in a single day. NBC is anticipating another swing at Woods two weeks from now at Doral in Miami, a tournament that he has almost always entered.

Other Southern Swing cities didn't fare so well last week. On Thursday, Wachovia (WB) executives said the new Wells Fargo subsidiary will not continue to lend its name to the annual PGA Tournament it sponsors in Charlotte and will immediately limit spending to contractual obligations. Starting this year, the Apr. 27-May 3 tournament will be named the Quail Hollow Championship. Wachovia employees will continue to volunteer their time to support the event, and the tournament will donate 2009 net proceeds to Teach for America and other nonprofits, as in the past. The title sponsorship for the $6.5 million purse tournament is estimated at $3 million per year.

On a lighter note, the Golf Channel on Monday night launched The Haney Project, an entertaining show in which famed golf coach Hank Haney attempts to fix NBA Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley's highly challenged golf swing. Five episodes are confirmed to have been taped—with several more to come, as it looks like Haney will need more than a couple of sessions to accomplish his mission. Future versions could reportedly include swimmer Michael Phelps and retired NFLer and dancer Warren Sapp.

2. Whether Grapefruit or Cactus, Fans Get a Taste of Spring Training Despite the anything but juicy economy, fans returned to spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona in record numbers this week to soak up the sun and hear the crack of a bat, even if said instrument is wielded by an unknown scrub from the minors or college draft.

Perhaps attracted by travel bargains and ticket prices held at 2008 levels (a policy that most MLB clubs acknowledge will carry over into the regular season), baseball fans are flocking to the Sunshine States. According to SportBusiness Journal, overall spring training ticket sales should equal last year's total of roughly $60 million.

• In Goodyear, Ariz., the just-relocated Cleveland Indians sold more than half of their projected 90,000 tickets for the season before the box office at their new $115 million ballpark even opened, say team representatives.

• In Clearwater, Fla., the reigning World Series champions Philadelphia Phillies report advance sales are 24,000 tickets ahead of last year, nearly matching last year's record attendance of 114,715.

• At Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., springtime home of the Los Angeles Angels, the most expensive ticket on the premises is $27.50; kids and adult T-shirts can be had for $7.99 and $9.99, respectively.

Angels owner Arte Moreno was recently quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying he didn't want a dad to go into the team store there and "be embarrassed in front of his family because he can't find anything he can afford for his kids." Concession prices remain flat from 2008, again because, Moreno says, "someone should be able to buy four beers for their friends and still have two bucks left to maybe leave a tip."

• Across town at the brand-new Camelback Ranch complex in Glendale, Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt apparently didn't get the recession memo. There, home plate club tickets to "premier" matchups with the White Sox, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Cubs will cost you up to $100 each—plus a $4.50 "convenience fee."

3. Second World Baseball Classic Kicks Off Across the Globe Three years after its much debated but ultimately successful debut, the second round of the World Baseball Classic kicks off Thursday in seven venues featuring 16 teams from six continents. Baseball's true "world series" starts with locales in Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Puerto Rico in the first round, moves to the U.S. in Miami and San Diego for the second round Mar. 14-19, and finishes off with semifinals and finals Mar. 21-23 at Dodger Stadium in L.A.

When the Classic made its debut in 2006, more than 25% of MLBers were born outside the U.S.—and that number has risen slightly since. As in 2006, the 2009 tournament capitalizes on international merchandising and development and is seeing steady ticket sales. Last time around, MLB announced that over 800,000 tickets had been sold, as many as sold for the Olympics. What's more, the Classic received a 30-35 television rating in Venezuela and other baseball-crazy countries including China, where 1.3 billion viewers might watch the games.

While panned by many MLB club managers, who obviously would prefer that their players not risk injury and continue to train with their own teams, the World Baseball Classic is giving a lucrative boost to Cactus and Grapefruit League facilities, allowing more spring training games to be played in the venues than in an ordinary year—especially in Florida, where Grapefruit League sites are hosting 24 WBC exhibition games this week and generating an estimated 2,000 extra hotel room stays for the surrounding communities.

4. Hey, If That Cricket Thing Doesn't Work Out…. On NBC Nightly News on Sunday night, NBC correspondent Peter Alexander examined the Pittsburgh Pirates signing prospects Dinesh Kumar Patel and Rinku Singh of India, a country known for its fervor for cricket, not the game of Aaron and Ruth. On the heels of Slumdog Millionaire winning the Oscar for Best Picture last week, Patel and Singh were picked from among 37,000 Indian baseball hopefuls trying out to win a $100,000 prize and a shot at a $1 million contract in the U.S. "Think of it as 'Indian Idol,' where contestants compete with their arms instead of their voices," explained Alexander, who also noted that the Pirates saw the players as a "chance to enter an emerging market with more than a billion people."

Of developing Patel and Singh into legitimate prospects, Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said: "It's going to be a challenge, no question about it. But, at the same time, it's no different than the young 16-year-old that we signed from the Dominican Republic."

5. Surf Industry: Drowning? Spring training is under way, which means that spring break is not far behind, with its vision of endless beaches, boards, beers, and bikinis. But for the $8 billion surf industry, whose success hinges on bringing this sandy fantasy to the landlocked beyond Malibu, 2009 is anything but a day at the beach.

The surf industry's biggest players, such as apparel manufacturer Quiksilver (ZQK) and retailer Pacific Sunwear (PSUN), are trying to stay afloat as they watch their stocks continue to slide. Pacific Sunwear's shares were down more than 80% as of early February, while Quiksilver eliminated 200 positions to cut costs in January and might be saved only by a possible purchase by Nike (NKE). Surfing events on the 11-stop ASP World Tour—each of which cost a reported $2 million to stage—are likely in jeopardy because sponsors have floated away. Also in jeopardy are the careers of individual surfers not ranked in the top 10, as they are 100% dependent on sponsorship dollars and prize money.

Two major factors are affecting the surf industry, one economic, one biological. The industry has been especially hard hit by the mortgage meltdown because its core customers tend to live in California and Florida—ground zero for the mortgage crisis. Not only that, the market is aging, and fast. In 2007 there were 2.4 million surfers in the U.S., according to Board-Trac, a sports market research company, up from two million in 2004. But more than 50% of thosesurfers are over 25, which has drastically hurt surf retail.

Even the big wave Mavericks contest isn't helping this year; months-long calm surf conditions are threatening the cancellation of one of the industry's most anticipated annual events for the second time in three years. The absence of another Mavericks contest, especially during a recession, would hurt the coastal businesses that count on the crowds flocking to watch the surfers. The worldwide notoriety of the Mavericks contest does much to bring year-round visitors to the scenic coastal region. "There are kids in Australia who know where Half Moon Bay is," says Coastside Chamber of Commerce & Visitors' Bureau President Charise McHugh.

6. Cisco and AEG Convene Landmark Conference Last week, Cisco (CSCO) and AEG convened the invitation-only Cisco Sports & Entertainment Summit at AEG's L.A. Live complex. The event, which Cisco plans on holding annually, is part of a new partnership between the two companies that also will bring widespread use of Cisco products and services at AEG-owned and/or managed venues. The products are expected to enhance the way fans enjoy sports and entertainment events by making the experience more interactive, immersive, and personalized. For starters, AEG is deploying innovative Cisco technologies in The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, The O2 London, and in its corporate offices at L.A. Live.

Professional sports luminaries and decision-makers, including NBA Commissioner David Stern, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, AEG President and CEO Tim Leiweke, Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers, and executives from ESPN and Harrah's, convened in Los Angeles for a forward-looking discussion on innovation and technology's strategic impact on sports and entertainment.

"Whether a venue is hosting a sporting event for tens of thousands or a rock concert for a few hundred, innovative new technologies will deliver new and enhanced experiences for fans," explains Ron Ricci, Cisco sports and entertainment vice-president. "AEG and Cisco [hosted] this summit to discuss key industry trends and explore ways for our customers to take advantage of video and other interactive offerings, in the venue and beyond, to create more customized and memorable experiences."

Amid lively discussions by the executives on how their organizations are using technology to maximize the fan experience, Leiweke said AEG's partnership with Cisco gave its global portfolio of venues the level of flexibility required to address local market needs, while creating significant global cost-savings and efficiencies.

Likewise, AEG is able to better streamline event-day operations, giving the organization the ability to change from one event to the next, introduce new revenue-generating services, and deliver interactive fan experiences.

Says Michelle Wahlgren, vice-president of IT for AEG: "The next-generation of venue technologies incorporates and integrates video, voice, data, wireless, and even social networking into one seamless network. Cisco was able to bring a unique perspective on how technology could be used to meet our business and technology needs, but was also as equally concerned as AEG about enhancing the fan experience—our top priority."

7. The BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup Besides watching Charles Barkley wage battle with himself, sports television viewers on Monday night were treated to the second major tennis event held in Madison Square Garden in the last year: the BNP Paribas (BNPP) Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup. While last year's sold-out MSG exhibition game pitted all-time Slam king Pete Sampras against his likely successor Roger Federer, this year's event is all about the women.

Airing on HBO—that network's first live tennis event broadcast since 2000—the four-woman single-elimination tournament in New York featured Venus and Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, and Ana Ivanovic. King, herself part of the broadcast team alongside Mary Carillo and John McEnroe, was honored by former President Bill Clinton in a ceremony during the event. The Williamses beat the Serbs in the semis, then Serena bested Venus for $400,000 of the $1.2 million purse.

In partnership with the USTA, King also enlisted more than 700 tennis centers across the U.S. to host a corresponding "Tennis Night in America," a youth sports registration drive to entice more kids to the sport. The USTA reported in December that total tennis participation at every age is up 7%, from 25.1 million players in 2007 to 27 million in 2008. New players have risen 3%, to just under 6 million.

And for tennis fans who can't get enough of exhibition matches between retired players on grand stages, it was just announced that on May 17, five weeks before Wimbledon begins, former Wimbledon champions Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Kim Clijsters, and Tim Henman will return to the All England Club to test playing conditions beneath the new roof at Centre Court. Make sure those tellies and DVRs are at the ready.

8. Five Unlikely Stadium Deals A couple of teams made noise this past week as they continued their quests for new stadiums. In San Francisco, team President Jed York made the rounds at City Hall, and in Minneapolis, the Vikings could not muster any support for public funds. Here are five proposed stadiums that could fall through, from most to least likely to be built:

• NJ Nets/Barclays Center. The $3.5 billion Brooklyn sports arena, business, and residential complex was first announced in 2003. Since then, controversies including a lack of funding and complaints from local resident have delayed the project. Although the projected opening is 2011, a shovel has yet to strike the ground.

• San Diego Chargers. An Election Day proposition failed to generate enough support to move forward with a $1.2 billion stadium. Now, the Chargers are looking outside of San Diego for a new home. Could L.A. be the answer?

• New York Islanders. Team owner Charles Wang wants out of the Nassau Coliseum, arguably the worst venue in the NHL. The problem for Wang is that a lease agreement prohibits the team from moving until at least 2015. Legal experts say that if Wang attempts to move the team, he could be held in contempt and would face the possibility of jail time.

• San Francisco 49ers/Oakland Raiders. Individually, these two teams have no chance of getting their own stadiums. California has been hit harder than any other state in the current economic crisis, and the odds of two teams, only eight miles apart, getting the necessary public funds is doubtful. The only option for the 49ers and Raiders to get new homes might be to share, à la the Meadowlands.

• Minnesota Vikings. Vikings fans should just forget about the team getting their proposed $954 million home. Public funding for a new stadium received no legislative support when the issue was brought up at the State Capitol. The team's lease with the Metrodome expires in 2011, and between the economy and money committed to the Twins and the University of Minnesota, the Vikings have next to no chance of getting a stadium in the foreseeable future.

9. NFL Arrests by Position Since 2000 With 442 player arrests since 2000, it is no surprise that Roger Goodell has made personal conduct the focal point of his tenure as NFL Commissioner. Here is a breakdown of those arrests by position:

• Safeties 42 • Linebackers 47• Running Backs 49• Cornerbacks 66• Wide Receivers 76

Pacman Jones has more arrests (six) than all fullbacks (four), punters (two), and centers (two) since 2000. It's worth noting that all of Jones' arrests have come since he entered the league in 2005

10. Wii Keeps Heath Fit In recent years athletes increasingly have been using sports video games to gain a competitive edge. Whether it is reading pitches in baseball games or defenses in football ones, teams and players are always trying to find innovative (yet, in today's era, non-injective) ways to get ahead. San Diego Padres pitcher Heath Bell has taken this philosophy to a completely new level.

When baseball season ended, and Bell went back to his home in Florida, he found himself playing video games with his children—in particular, Wii Fit. Bell stated that when he entered his weight and height for the first time, the Wii game said that he was obese, and his on-screen persona simultaneously ballooned up.

After noticing that he was working up a sweat every time he played Wii Fit, Bell decided to make the game the cornerstone of his off-season workout regime. Now, diving into spring training with a chance to clinch the closer role, Bell is 25 pounds lighter, and according to the game, down from obese to overweight.

Does the game have a future in MLB locker rooms? Bell is thinking about getting a Wii for the Padres' clubhouse, so he can renew his "hula-hoop" rivalry with SS David Eckstein. This is not your father's workout plan, but hey, whatever helps you win.

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