Sunday, February 20, 2011

The CFL Road Trip


The Canadian Football League released their 2011 schedule a couple of days ago and naturally I looked into possible road trips. The CFL is a tricky league for travel - although there are only 8 teams, they are spread across a large area and you don't have much choice about the order in which you visit the cities; you either start in Montreal and finish in BC or vice versa. Of course, you can backtrack, but for me, I'd probably do the return leg through the northern US and try to catch some other sports. Teams play once a week, although there are two bye weeks (when 4 teams have the week off), which reduce your options a bit.

A few teams are close enough that you could see games on back-to-back days, which is important when you are trying to save a couple of weeks on the road. Edmonton and Calgary are the most obvious pair, but they are home on the same weekend exactly once, on the last weekend of the season. Not good! Fortunately, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan are not that far apart, and Montreal, Hamilton, and Toronto are also relatively close, and they do have games on the same weekend, so a six-week journey is possible.

The season gets underway on Canada Day weekend and lasts until the first week of November. I prefer the warm weather, so I'd get started early and try to catch some late-season minor league ball on the way back. With that said, here's one potential CFL road trip for 2011:
Fri, Jul 15 Toronto at Montreal 7:30
Sat, Jul 16 Saskatchewan at Hamilton 4:00
Sat, Jul 23 Winnipeg at Toronto 4:00
Thu, Jul 28 BC at Winnipeg 7:00
Sat, Jul 30 Calgary at Saskatchewan 7:30
Sat, Aug 6 Hamilton at Calgary 7:30
Sat, Aug 13 Winnipeg at BC 7:00
Fri, Aug 19 BC at Edmonton 9:00
Not bad, just 5 weeks, and leaves two weeks to get back to the east via Washington, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where there'd be plenty of chances to see minor league ball. It would also be a great chance to see Canada, something I haven't done since 1990. Doubtful I'll be able to take this trip, but you never know, it might be the only pro football played in North America this year and I'll need to get my fix somehow.

Best,

Sean

Monday, February 14, 2011

Break out the Bats and Balls!


It's that time again, when millions of fans around the world look forward to another magnificent event with bats and balls, and umpires too. Yes, after a long, hard winter, it's time for the Cricket World Cup! This is the 10th edition of the tournament, which takes place every four years. This time it is being held in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh from February 19th until April 2nd. That's 7 weeks of cricket featuring 14 teams, including Canada, who are by far the worst squad to participate. (As a sign of Canada's weakness, their opening opponents, Sri Lanka, are 1/33 favourites to win the match - that means bet $33 to win $1.)

Matches are of the one-day variety, which is quite different from the 5-day tests that constitute real cricket. It's kind of like having a hockey tournament with one-period games. There's also the issue of having 4 good teams and 3 bad ones in each of the two groups. The round-robin is merely for positioning as it is unlikely there's be a big upset. In Canada's group A, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka will advance, while Group B will see England, India, South Africa, and the West Indies through.

This is certainly not a road-trip friendly event, with venues scattered throughout South Asia, but there are those who will fly to several matches to catch their national heroes. I'd love to join them to watch Canada, but I'm stuck in Japan for the next 6 weeks. Naturally there will be no coverage of the goings on here, but I'll be following on-line. Once the playoff round gets started, it will be really quite exciting, so follow along too!

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No games or 18?


With the Super Bowl over, attention turns to the ongoing labour spat that may put a stop to the 2011 NFL season. I'm not going to go into detail on the issues or what I think about the whole thing (surely they can find a way to share $9 billion!), but rather just talk about the 18-game season that has been proposed.

Most players are against the increase in games, and it's not hard to see why. There will be more injuries and careers will be shorter - 144 games currently takes 9 seasons (with 9 years of pay) compared to only 8 with the longer schedule. Essentially players are taking a pay reduction of 11% over their career to play the same number of games. There should be an increase in TV, gate, and ancillary revenues, but the question is how much of that would accrue to the players and whether existing contracts would be adjusted. A key talking point no doubt.

Several writers and the NFL players union have mentioned another bye week and increased rosters as ways to reduce injuries, and those are ideas that will need to be explored. I suspect we'd see bigger practice squads but the 45-man game day roster would remain unchanged. As for the additional week off, it would mean a 20-week season and the playoffs starting in mid-January, with a Super Bowl near the end of February.

Initially I was opposed to the longer schedule, but I've become more accepting after thinking about it, purely as a selfish fan. First, February is the worst sports month. With college football pushing into mid-January, I can see having the NFL playoffs starting on the Sunday after the BCS championship and going to the President's Day weekend. Only the Daytona 500 would be affected by that, but perhaps they could combine those events into one massive sports viewing day.

The other positive for a longer schedule is naturally the NFL road trip. It's my sole remaining road trip dream and it would be much easier to complete in 20 weeks than 17. That would mean 12 weeks of two games and 8 with just one, instead of 15 and 2. If you want specifics, I like the suggestion put forth by Paul Kasabian of Bleacher Report, who recommends playing two divisions in your conference per season and having 8 bye weeks during the year, each with 8 teams resting.

Still, there will be a decrease in the quality of football. With more injuries and more players on reserve, end of season games could be decided by third-stringers who are currently playing arena football. As well, historical season records will no longer be meaningful and the symmetry (4 weeks of 4 games) of the NFL schedule will be lost.

It's not an easy decision, but I expect 18 games will prevail. NFL players don't have long careers and can't afford to sacrifice an entire season for their eventual replacements. I think the owners have them over a barrel and will try to splinter the union, eventually succeeding but not without losing a few games in 2011.

The final result will be a 20-week schedule with two bye weeks starting in 2012, and the resulting increase in revenues should keep everybody happy. Except the fans, who will end up paying more than ever to follow the game they love.

Best,

Sean

Monday, February 7, 2011

Darryl Sittler's 10 points - 35 years ago today!


My first live professional sporting event occurred 35 years ago on February 7th, 1976. Somehow my father had secured two tickets to a Toronto Maple Leafs game, where they would host the Boston Bruins. I remember excitedly looking at those tickets, which is those days colour-coded to match the seats. We had greens, midway up the upper deck near one of the blue lines (pic obviously not from that game - don't think Dad kept our tickets).


I vaguely recall entering MLG for the first time and seeing the ice, shocked at how pristine it was compared to what you saw on TV (long before HD). I remember the Leafs scoring early and often and being pretty happy, but being 9 years old at the time, I didn't really appreciate the bigger picture. After getting two assists in the first frame, Darryl Sittler added 3 goals and 2 more helpers in the second as the Leafs built an 8-4 lead. With 7 points, he was one shy of tying Rocket Richard's record of points in a game. In the third period, Sittler added another hat trick to finish with 6 goals and 10 points, still a record today. My most enduring memory is that when he scored his 5th goal and record-setting 9th point, I couldn't see the celebration with all the grown-ups standing in front of me.

In a curious aside, Sittler notes some numerical coincidences in his biography. He wore #27 and the game was on February 7th; his hat-trick goal came at 10:27 and his 9th point was at 9:27 while the game finished at 10:27 pm. With this reasoning, Phil Kessel should score 10 points on August 1st.

Here's a video summary of the game from 15 years ago which is quite interesting itself, if only to see Don Cherry before he became the media savvy celebrity he is now.

Attending that game is doubtless the highlight of my years as a Leafs' fan. I didn't get to my second game until 1981 and the Leafs lost 8-2 to Winnipeg, a team that had just ended a record 30-game winless streak. Since then, things have just gone downhill. Here's hoping that win over St. Louis is the start of a 30-year uphill run.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The End of Sumo?


Last year I wrote a long post detailing a visit to Chiyotaikai's retirement ceremony. For me, it also marked my last time going to a sumo event as the sport had become scandal-ridden and terribly boring. I mentioned that I would write a post detailing the situation but never quite got around to it. I'm glad I waited, because in the past week, yet another scandal broke that may serve to end sumo as we know it.

First, a brief look back at the other stories that left the sumo world embarrassed. In June, 2007, a young wrestler named Takashi Saito died after being beaten with a beer bottle and baseball bat. Initially the incident was covered up but after Saito's father demanded an autopsy, the truth was revealed. The master of the stable was dismissed from sumo and eventually arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Meanwhile, 3 other wrestlers involved were not punished until February, 2008, illustrating just how slow the sumo world was to react. Remember, this was murder, pure and simple.

Then in August, 2008, a Russian wrestler named Wakanoho lost his wallet with a small amount of marijuana in it. Japan is usually a libertarian society (at least legally), but not when it comes to any sort of illegal drug. Wakanoho was expelled (he's now playing college football for a small school in Florida) and the following month, drug testing was conducted on all wrestlers. Two more Russians were found to have traces of marijuana in their systems and they too were sent packing.

There were so many differences in the way these two incidents were handled, and it shows how foreigners get short shrift in Japan. If you are Japanese and kill someone, a cover-up ensues and the punishment is withheld until the pressure becomes too much to bear. But a joint in the wallet of a foreign wrestler (or traces of the drug in a test) is an immediate career-ender. It was about this time I gave up on sumo, which seemed to say drugs are bad but beating the crap out of youngsters is OK.

Despite assurances that sumo would improve its image, the problems continued unabated. Exactly one year ago, Yokozuna Asashoryu, a Mongolian who was not well-liked due to his aggressive attitude, (despite their huge size, wrestlers are expected to be polite and humble at all times) was forced to retire after beating up a civilian outside a nightclub. I liked Asashoryu as he added some much-needed colour to the sport, but he had a long history of pissing off the sumo elders and this was the last straw. Since his retirement, fellow Mongolian and Yokozuna Hakuho has won all 6 tournaments. Yawn.

Then later last year, it was revealed that many wrestlers were betting on baseball games. This led to some of them owing large amounts to members of the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. This time, the response was swift and a top wrestler, Kotomitsuki, was fired and other wrestlers were demoted. It seemed like the world of sumo had hit rock bottom.

Until last week. After years of speculation, there was finally proof that some sumo matches were rigged. Some wrestlers had left incriminating texts that discussed how to throw the next day's match on their cell phones. A police investigation into the baseball betting incident had brought these other messages to light, and fans reacted with horror and indignation. What's funny about this is that any sumo fan (or reader of Freakonomics) knows that certain matches were fixed. Wrestlers fight 15 matches in a tournament and need to win 8 or more to move up the rankings. Seven or less wins, and a demotion results with a possible cut in pay. So what happens when, on the last day, a 7-7 wrestlers meets one who has already secured his majority of wins? About 80% of the time the guy needing the win gets it, far above what would be expected if things were on the level.

The reason behind match-fixing is easily explained by incentives. Sumo wrestlers are divided into two groups: the top 70 wrestlers are paid at least $10,000 a month, while number 71 and below get maybe $1,000 a month (dollar amounts are approximate due to exchange rate variations). There are other assorted benefits with being in that top group, so there is a strong incentive to stay there. Paying your already-successful opponent $500 to take a dive is the logical action when compared to the possibility of having your monthly salary cut by 90%.

Still, this scandal has shaken Japan, and is being reported on breathlessly by every media outlet. In a shocking move, the sumo board reacted by cancelling the March tournament that was to be held in Osaka. This is the first time in 65 years a tournament has been cancelled and in my mind, signals an end to the tradition-bound world of sumo.

The sport has been around for centuries and has remained essentially the same as it was back then. Arguments for change were always met by the standard defense of "tradition", which left sumo looking awkward and out-of-date as the rest of the world moved forward. Few young people became fans and sumo lagged in popularity behind baseball and soccer. Now that a shake-up is finally happening, sumo should benefit in the long run with more transparency, new forward-thinking leadership, and a chance to re-invent its image.

It's interesting in that the sumo world is really a representative microcosm of Japanese society. Led by powerful oldtimers who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the society slowly crumbles under their watch while the public stands by in ignorance. Scandals come and go but no serious changes are made as things get worse and worse. Only a huge event that serves as a catalyst can leave the public informed sweeping change initiated. This is the same model that Japanese military followed during WWII, and the government is following it now as the population ages with not nearly enough children or immigrants to take their place in the workforce. I'm not sure what event will finally get people to wake up and realize the country will be bankrupt in 50 years (or less), but Japan has always found a way to survive, so I'm guessing they will do so here as well.

That of course, will be long after I'm gone, so all I can look forward to is seeing if sumo has really changed. The next tournament takes place in Tokyo in May; by then we should have an idea of how this will play out, so I'll post something around that time to keep everyone updated.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Gold Cup Road Trip


This summer sees the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup being held throughout the US. The Gold Cup is North America's national tournament, much like next year's Euro or the just-completed Asian Cup (won by Japan).

The event will be held at 13 different venues over 3 weeks, which makes for an intriguing road trip. What is particularly interesting is that each venue hosts just two games in a doubleheader format, so you can move from city to city without retracing your steps. The full schedule is below:
June 5:  Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, TX      Costa Rica/Cuba, Mexico/El Salvador
June 6: Home Depot Center, Carson, CA Jamaica/Grenada, Honduras/Guatemala
June 7: Ford Field, Detroit, MI Panama/Guadeloupe, Canada/USA
June 9: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte Costa Rica/El Salvador, Cuba/Mexico
June 10: FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Jamaica/Guatemala, Honduras/Grenada
June 11: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL Canada/Guadeloupe, USA/Panama
June 12: Soldier Field, Chicago, IL El Salvador/Cuba, Mexico/Costa Rica
June 13: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, NJ Guatemala/Grenada, Honduras/Jamaica
June 14: KC Soccer Stadium, Kansas City, KS Canada/Panama, Guadeloupe/USA
June 18: New Meadowlands Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ (QF)
June 19: RFK Stadium, Washington, DC (QF)
June 22: Reliant Stadium, Houston, TX (SF)
June 25: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA
An ambitious roadtripper could make 10 of these venues, skipping only Carson, Chicago, and Kansas City. To be honest, many of the games are not that compelling, with teams such as Guadeloupe, Cuba, and Grenada coming from the Caribbean, but such is the nature of these continental competitions (except the Euro). It would still be a fun time and you'd see most of the country. The draw hasn't been held yet, but when it is, I'll update this post with the teams. If you are Canadian, it's a great chance to see our boys as they begin the long road to the 2014 World Cup!

Update (March 12): The draw was held a few days ago. I've updated the schedule above with the games for the first round. Each group plays in one of the cities that would be skipped, so you'd see each team twice. The big game is Canada vs US in Detroit on the 7th.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stadium Journey


It looks like I'll be in Japan for another year, so I've decided to help out a fellow roadtripper in his quest to document as many sports stadiums around the world. His name is Paul Swaney and his site is StadiumJourney.com. There are hundreds of reviews already posted by regional correspondents, and I've agreed to be the Northern Japan correspondent for this year. It only involves visiting the 5 baseball stadiums in the Tokyo area plus Sapporo and/or Nagoya. That's just one game a month, so I think I'll be able to handle it. I'll update here when I make a post but if you like stadium reviews, I encourage you to bookmark the site I've linked above as it has new reviews on a daily basis. Oh, and if you live in Osaka or somewhere else south of Tokyo and are interested in being a regional correspondent, please contact Paul via his site.

Next Up

The Asia Ice Hockey League finishes its season in Tokyo in mid-February so I'll check out a doubleheader there. After that, I'll attend one more Tokyo Apache game with a Japanese friend to see if he can shed any light on why nobody goes. In March, the NPB season starts, but other than those games I mentioned above, I'm giving this season a pass; I'm afraid my two-year attempt at "rediscovering" Japanese baseball has ended in failure. It's just not entertaining.

So it will be a quiet year for roadtrips, although I do hope to get one or two short jaunts back home. Whatever the case, I'll be adding a variety posts over time, so check back on occasion.

Best,

Sean