Fast Breaks and Fast CarsRick Horrow and Karla Swatek
Football—who needs it?
With the NFL and NFLPA ordered back into mediation, and the NFL Draft lurking next week like a wallflower bridesmaid desperate to catch the bouquet, America's sports fans turn their attention to fast breaks and fast cars.
This weekend, the NBA Playoffs tip off with all the attention in the East. The pressure's definitely on LeBron James and company as the Miami Heat continue their quest for a NBA title. Whether or not you support the "Big Three" or LeBron's "Decision," there's no questioning the impact the Heat have had on the NBA this season. Ticket sales, TV ratings, and fan interest are all up dramatically this year, all thanks to the free agency movement last summer. A potential second-round clash with the feisty Boston Celtics have Heat fans and media salivating—Boston's first round matchup sees the New York Knicks returning to playoff contention, another major draw.
But as basketball reaches its postseason, hoops fans must worry about a summer lockout. Commissioner David Stern has repeatedly stated that owners were projecting losses of about $350 million. Meanwhile, the NBPA feels that only a "small number" of NBA teams are losing money, and the union insists it will not agree to a hard salary cap during CBA negotiations. The most recent signs the league is heading toward a lockout: Earlier this week, insider sources indicated that the NBA had canceled its annual Las Vegas summer league, as well as its annual summer internship program. And in a departure from recent seasons, the league has not scheduled any European preseason games this fall.
Meanwhile, if motor sports satisfy your need for speed more than Reeboks and Nikes (NKE), IndyCar racing takes to the sandy streets of Long Beach, close enough to Hollywood to attract a pit crew's worth of stars. Ticket sales are increasing for almost all upcoming races of the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series, which is no longer spinning its wheels financially.
The NBA Post Season: Pre-Apocalypse?
Around All-Star weekend in February, the Boston Globe opined that the NBA is "more popular now than it was even in the Michael Jordan era, with a renaissance of talent and a wealth of young players." From Chicago to Oklahoma City and Portland, that hot young talent will be showcased as never before over the next eight weeks as the road to the NBA Finals unwinds.
In the cash register of jersey sales, however, veterans still rule. As the NBA regular season concluded on Wednesday, sales figures from NBAStore.com revealed that Heat forward LeBron James has now overtaken L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant to claim the No. 1 spot on the league's best-selling jersey list, the first time in seven years that James has occupied the top spot. Behind the dueling MVPs in the league's top five sellers are Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire, and Chicago Bulls guard (and possible next MVP) Derrick Rose—all about to start postseason play.
On TV, Turner Sports and NBA TV have just announced their NBA Playoff coverage plans. Much like "Selection Sunday" before March Madness, a special edition of GameTime aired on Wednesday night to unveil all the NBA playoff matchups and storylines. NBA TV will also air three 30-minute Sounds of the Playoffs specials at the end of each round.
Online, NBA.com has just transformed into "NBA Playoffs Central," with a converted home page highlighting each Playoff series and a "Stats Cube" feature allowing fans to access the NBA's statistical database. Sponsors have jumped on board, including AutoTrader, with its Drive to the Finals fantasy game for fans.
Despite all this positive activity, as FoxSports.com's Bill Reiter has noted about a potential lockout, "Owners and players … risk forfeiting all the good will and excitement generated by the storylines that have arisen this year: The Big Three in Miami. The Boston Big Four. The renaissance of the point guard. The greatness of Blake Griffin and the rejuvenation of the monster dunk. The growing relevance of big-market teams." The key point in labor negotiations, as NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter emphasizes, is the league's push for a hard salary cap that would effectively end guaranteed contracts, rather than a franchise tag or another means of keeping star players.
With the CBA expiring June 30, the NBA, echoing the NFL, claims it has given players all the financial information they need. The union sees it differently, pointing out that a projected player payout of $2.02 billion this season, down from $2.14 billion a couple of years ago, demonstrates that the existing CBA and its percentages are sufficient to reduce spending long term, NBA owners' primary goal.
Outside of its gloomy labor scenario, the NBA is also facing a likely battle over the Sacramento Kings and their likely relocation to Anaheim—the franchise has until Monday to ask the league formally for permission to relocate. The Anaheim City Council has approved a $75 million incentive package to lure the Kings to the Honda Center there, but Sacramento officials (including ex-NBA star and mayor Kevin Johnson) claim that the team and Maloof family owners owe the city nearly $80 million to cover bond issues. On Monday, bipartisan legislation was introduced in California that would prevent all pro sports franchises in the state from relocating without first paying off municipal debts, and that would apply to any agreement retroactively to Jan. 1.
Sacramento fans desperate for their only pro sports franchise to stay in town may have a somewhat unlikely new ally—on Tuesday night, TNT on-air personality Chris Webber, a seven-season Kings alum, claimed he was gathering another ownership group together to keep the Kings in town. (Co-anchor Charles Barkley said he would contribute.)
Long Beach Grand Prix Long on Celebs
Just call it Meals on Wheels.
Top chef and TV foodie Gordon Ramsay has been named grand marshal of Sunday's Izod IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Before that main course is served up, in the 35th annual Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, a star-studded cast of some of America's favorite celebrities from sports and entertainment will challenge the pros in order to benefit Racing for Kids, a national nonprofit program benefiting children's hospitals in Long Beach and Orange County.
As the world's longest-running celebrity racing event, the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race has seen more than 540 celebrities behind the wheel. In the old days the likes of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman competed—this year's lineup of 18 celebrity drivers includes glam L.A. talk show host Jillian Barberie Reynolds, A.J. Buckley (CSI: NY), Kevin Jonas (Jonas Brothers), ultimate fighter Tito Ortiz, and vampire Stephen Moyer (HBO's True Blood).
Izod IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix events are expected to attract more than 170,000 spectators to Long Beach streets over three days. To draw more casual fans and families, Grand Prix President Jim Michaelian and his team have expanded off-track activities this year, including a go-kart track in the middle of the circuit, an expanded family fun zone, and a 300-foot zip line.
The high profile of several IndyCar drivers has definitely put more gas in the series' financial tank. Two-time defending IndyCar points champion Dario Franchitti recently appeared on CBS' (CBS) Late Show, while driver Helio Castroneves showed up on NBC's Today. Last week, the Facebook game Car Town came out of the garage, featuring custom Izod IndyCar Series elements. Facebook drivers can race the cars of 13 Series drivers, including Franchitti, Graham Rahal, and Marco Andretti.
Another intriguing storyline around the IndyCar circuit this season involves well-known driver Danica Patrick. Patrick has indicated that she'll move to Nascar full time in 2012, and as the Indianapolis Star observes, "By midseason, all eyes will be on [Patrick] to see if she resigns with Andretti Autosport or chooses Nascar."
A Final Word on Girls Behind Wheels: Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles
Patrick isn't the only American girl making headlines behind the wheel these days—the 21st anniversary of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles ended last weekend in Essaouira, Morocco, with American "gazelle" Emily Miller capturing second place.
Owned and produced by France's Maïenga Communications, the all-female Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is held annually in the deserts of Morocco. In addition to serious off-road competition, the rally is known and respected for the extensive humanitarian and environmental efforts that have brought significant improvement to the health and welfare of the region.
The Rallye, held across southern Morocco, in a test of keen navigation and off-road driving skill. Nine days of brutal competition among more than 100 driving teams through the Sahara involve sunrise start lines, camping in the desert, eating Army rations in the sand, managing sand storms, and driving/navigating unknown terrain on very little sleep.
Two teams of Americans finished strong, with three-time Gazelle and off-road racer Miller taking home second place overall. Sisters Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina made an impressive showing early in the event by running in 12th overall by day two, and the first-time team ended in 52nd place after vehicle difficulties and illness. "It was an incredible adventure from start to finish," Lerner said. "More challenging than we anticipated in so many ways. We are really proud of what we accomplished and pushed ourselves each day."
Next for these Gazelles: perhaps a Long Beach Grand Prix ride?