Wednesday, August 29, 2012

NHL's Looming Lockout Affects Road Trip Plans

The braintrust that runs the NHL are yet again steering the league towards a labour stoppage. Despite handing out long-term contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, the owners cry poor. The players suggest revenue sharing to help those clubs losing money which makes sense to me as the league is only as healthy as its poorest teams, but the richer owners will have none of that. I'm so tired of these shenanigans that a glimpse of another headline on the topic sends me into a narcoleptic collapse. Still, these negotiations have an effect on me as I am planning my next big sports road trip during the upcoming season.

The Winter Classic in Ann Arbor is supposed the centerpiece of that journey, and I hoping to complete all 30 NHL rinks with stops in Boston, Raleigh, and Buffalo as well. Without a season, those destinations would fall by the wayside. Fortunately, other leagues have labour certainty, and the AHL has an outdoor game scheduled for Detroit on December 30th with the Marlies the visitors. That afternoon sees the Bears visit the Lions in a week 17 NFL tilt. So I've decided to go ahead and plan a trip based around the Detroit area at New Years, with that two-sport doubleheader as the centrepiece. If the NHL comes to its senses, I'll see the Winter Classic two days later; if not, then those three NHL rinks will remain unvisited as I will be boycotting the league for a very, very, long time.

What I expect to happen is for the NHL to follow the NBA model from last season: a relatively short lockout to scare everyone, a hasty agreement when they realize that fans have many more entertainment options these days, and a shortened schedule that begins just in time for the Winter Classic. If that scenario happens, the new schedule will leave me with little time to change plans, so I'll have to see how things work out, but regardless, once I have finished visiting all 30 NHL rinks, I'm going to leave the league in the rear view mirror. Two major work stoppages in eight years shows how little they care about the fan and I'll gladly spend my sports dollars elsewhere.

Anyway, here's the plan so far, with lots of time left for changes:

Fri, Dec 14    Albany Devils at Connecticut Whale (AHL) 7:00
Sat, Dec 15    St. John's Icecaps at Springfield Falcons (AHL) 7:05
Sun, Dec 16    St. John's Icecaps at Providence Bruins (AHL) 3:05
Sun, Dec 16    San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots 8:20
Mon, Dec 17    Los Angeles Kings at Boston Bruins 7:00
Tue, Dec 18    Utah Jazz at Brooklyn Nets 7:30
Wed, Dec 19    Albany Devils at Bridgeport Sound Tigers (AHL) 7:00
Thu, Dec 20    Florida Panthers at New York Rangers 7:00
Fri, Dec 21    Albany Devils at Norfolk Admirals (AHL) 7:30
Sat, Dec 22    Anaheim Ducks at Carolina Hurricanes 7:00
Sun, Dec 23    Oakland Raiders at Carolina Panthers 1:00
Fri, Dec 28    Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators 7:30
Sun, Dec 30    Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions 1:00
Sun, Dec 30    Toronto Marlies at Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL Outdoor Classic) 7:00
Mon, Dec 31    Rockford Icehogs at Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL) 6:00
Tue, Jan 1     Toronto Maple Leafs at Detroit Red Wings (Winter Classic) 1:00
Tue, Jan 1     Sacramento Kings at Detroit Pistons 7:30
Wed, Jan 2     Washington Wizards at Indiana Pacers 7:00
Thu, Jan 3     Florida Panthers at Buffalo Sabres 7:00
Fri, Jan 4     Reading Royals at Elmira Jackals (ECHL) 7:05
Sat, Jan 5     Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres 7:00

I still have a month or two before I need to book any tickets or hotels, so here's hoping by then that we have a sudden burst of intelligence in the NHL's head offices and the season proceeds as scheduled.

Update: As you know, there is a dearth of intelligence at the NHL's head offices. Why did I think otherwise? I have cancelled the entire trip and will be visiting Texas in February instead.

Next Up

The Malaysia Cup is in full swing and Singapore has a team playing in the tourney, so I'll be heading back to Jalan Besar Stadium this Saturday to see Lions XII hosting a team from Johor Bahru. Check back next week for a recap of the game.



Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hanoi T&T 0 at Saigon Xuan Thanh 0 (V League) - August 19, 2012

Saigon and Hanoi are famous in the United States as the opposing capitals during the Vietnam War. Although Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City (often abbreviated HCMC) after it fell to the victorious North in 1975, much of the city still retains the old moniker, and thus you can still see the old rivals fighting it out, although this time on the soccer field. The V-League is Vietnam's domestic circuit, which was formed in 1980, a mere five years after the nation was reunified. The league begins play in January and finishes in August, with each of 14 teams playing each other home and away for 26 total matches. Coincidentally, I was visiting HCMC during the final weekend of play and decided to venture out of the city centre to Thong Nhat Stadium to watch Saigon Xuan Thanh hosting Hanoi T&T. (For simplicity, I am using the general English spellings of these names and avoiding the diacritical marks that are everywhere in the Vietnamese language).

There is little information available in English, so my research was limited, but it appeared as if Saigon was not a popular team. Their last fixture drew only 3,500 to a 25,000 seat stadium, so I wasn't expecting much in the way of a crowd. What I didn't count on was that this game would likely be the championship decider. Hanoi led the league with 47 points, with Saigon just a single point behind. Another team, SHB Da Nang (again a city more famous in the U.S. for its wartime associations) was level on points with Saigon but behind in goal difference. With this being the last week of the season, the winner of the Saigon-Hanoi tilt would take the title, while a draw between those two combined with a Da Nang victory would send Da Nang home with the trophy.

I had spent most of the afternoon touring and got away late, arriving around 30 minutes before the 16:10 start time. The taxi ride from downtown was 75 000 Vietnamese dong (VND), which is about US$3.60. I realized that I had severely underestimated the number of fans when my taxi driver stopped a block from the stadium to drop me off, as he could go no further. HCMC is ridiculously disordered at the best of times, but this was insane. A mass of humanity stretched across the street, preventing even motorcycles from making it through. These particular fans had been shutout of the end zone seats and were vainly trying to push open the sealed doors. I quickly understood that this would be no typical sporting event.

I slowly made my way around to the main entrance, where things were somewhat quieter, in other words, there was actually a bit of room to maneuver. There were three open doors, one with a VIP label (above) in front of which the fans were well behaved. The other two had police in riot gear (below) trying to prevent a teeming sea of fans from surging through the door. Most of these patrons had tickets and were waving them in the air, and one-by-one they were allowed in. There was nobody at what I assumed was the ticket window, but I did see a few scalpers. Vietnam is still very cheap for those of us used to western economies, and the tickets were priced around $3 from what I saw. Scalpers were asking 6-7 times that, which may not be a lot of money to you or me, but is far more than I was willing pay given the local conditions. Especially with no guarantee of getting in the venue.

I saw a fourth entrance down at one end and ventured over to see a boisterous group pushing their way past an angry security guard. This appeared to be the general admission section, and no ticket was required. Joining the heaving mass, I was soon propelled into the stadium and up a concrete staircase. Sadly, the field was still not in view, as several thousand fans had preceded me into the area. Many of them had secured dangerous perches along railings and at the top of the roof from which to watch the game, but I was not willing to try my rusty climbing skills, choosing to push my way through the crowd.

By this time I had gained a view of the field, I was drenched as the 31 C weather is that much hotter when surrounded by hundreds of other fans. I secured a relatively safe spot as kickoff approached and looked over the field. There were armed guards on the track surrounding the pitch (you can barely make them out in the shot below), a sight not much different from seeing policemen at Yankee Stadium. The difference here is that they would likely use their guns to quell a riot. From my vantage point, I could see most of the field but as soon as the game began, those behind started to push and much of the time was spent pushing back or simply going along with the crowd. The action on the field was secondary to trying to stay upright as more and more fans made their way in, causing much consternation and what I assumed was swearing. I was reminded of tragedies that have struck several overcrowded African soccer venues but fortunately, this stadium was up to the task.

After about 20 minutes of rather mundane football, I decided to leave the crush and venture back outside to catch my breath. What did I see but more riot police driving in! OK then. Back into the swarm where I again managed to get to the front and watched the last few minutes of the first half, still scoreless.

At halftime, I again headed outside and was surprised to see the riot police had surrounded the VIP entrance. I am not sure why this was done, but I was able to get close, although not brave enough to snap a picture. At another entrance, a foreigner who had been locked out while grabbing a snack was repeatedly beating on the door and getting no reaction, other than slack-jawed stares from the locals. Eventually someone guided him over to the VIP entrance and he was admitted.

No such luck was afforded to me however, so once the second half had started, I again tried the GA section. By now I was too tired to push through the throng and resorted to occasional glimpses of the field. What little I saw was not encouraging with bad passes and feigned injuries the rule of the day, and with 25 minutes left in the still goalless game, I headed out with just a single picture of the action (above).

While walking back, I stopped in at a bar to watch the last few minutes of the match on TV. It was amazing how different the stadium looked when you avoided the GA section; it was much more serene and orderly than what I had just experienced. Sadly for the home supporters, Saigon was unable to net a winner despite several chances near the end. Meanwhile Da Nang won their match and thus took home the championship, jumping from third place on the last day of the season. Quite an exciting finish to the league but one that you will never hear about in the sports pages.

For me though, it was one of the most exciting, exhilarating, enjoyable, dangerous, disgusting, and ultimately memorable sports road trip experiences. But not one that I'd like to repeat. Next time, I'll be getting a ticket regardless of how much it costs.



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Who Really Won the Olympics?

The London Olympics are over and as expected, America came out on top. For me, it was not a particularly enjoyable fortnight as the time difference meant that I missed most of the great performances. Back home in Canada though, there has been much national angst as Canadian athletes brought home a solitary gold among 18 overall medals. Personally, I thought that was a reasonable achievement; we are not blessed with America's population so to garner 18 medals is fine, even if 12 were bronze. As James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail said, there's no shame in celebrating bronze, as long as it is not in hockey.

One of the problems with the Olympics is the unbalanced playing field. It is not really fair to compare countries against one another based purely on medals. There are so many other factors that can be used to get a better idea of which nation performed beyond their expectations.

As an example, let's compare medal totals for Canada (1-5-12) and Brazil (3-5-9). Sure, Canada gained one more medal overall, but Brazil had the better record. Even then, gold medals alone are not a proper measurement either; North Korea's 4-0-2 puts them ahead of Spain at 3-10-4 in the official rankings. And medals don't even take into account populations or economics. Most notably, Grenada's single gold coming from a population of just over 100,000 is amazing. So rather than accept the prevailing standard, I decided to combine all of these elements to get a more interesting look at the medal standings.

First, I awarded points on a 5-2-1 basis for gold, silver, and bronze. These are purely arbitrary numbers based on a gold being worth more than 2 silvers, while a silver is equivalent to two bronzes. Again, just an arbitrary choice which actually didn't affect the rankings much. As an example, Japan (7-14-17-38-80) and France (11-11-12-34-89) switched places with Japan falling from 6th to 8th and France jumping up 2 spots by virtue of their extra 4 golds (those numbers are G-S-B-Total-Points). Canada suffered one of the biggest drops, falling from 13th to 22nd, just ahead of Belarus who had one of their gold medals taken away after the winner was caught doping.

The next step was to divide this point total by the population, which I took from the always reliable Wikipedia. Multiplying this number by 1,000,000 results in a stat that I have creatively dubbed Medal Points/Million People or MPMP. To illustrate, the US had 317 points using the 5-2-1 system and with a population of about 314 million, gets 1.01 MPMP, in other words about one medal point for every million people. This puts them 40th on the list with the aforementioned Grenada taking 1st at 47.62. Canada falls down to 47th at 0.77. The top 10 by this stat (MP are medal points):

Nation          MP     Pop      MPMP
Grenada          5    105,000   47.62
Bahamas          5    353,658   14.14
Jamaica         32  2,705,827   11.83
New Zealand     39  4,434,590    8.79
Trinidad & Tob   8  1,317,714    6.07
Hungary         53  9,962,000    5.32
Croatia         19  4,290,612    4.43
Lithuania       14  3,187,700    4.39
Slovenia         9  2,057,970    4.37
Denmark         21  5,584,758    3.76

The problem here is that less populous nations have a massive advantage as you can see above, where not a single country has a population above 10 million. So I also incorporated each nation's economy using GDP per capita, which is a reasonably accurate measure of a country's wealth. Dividing GDP per capita (in $US) by Medal Points gives a number (GDP/MP) that represents how much each Medal Point cost each resident of that country. It is obviously just a theoretical calculation, since each nation doesn't spend all of its wealth on sport, but it gives a rough idea of how much each medal "costs". Naturally, poor countries with a few medals are at the top of the ranking. Ethiopia, the poorest nation to take home a medal (GDP is just $360 per person), managed 7 medals for 20 medal points, which means each Ethiopian paid $18 for each medal point. Qatar, the richest country in the world with a GDP 273 times greater than that of Ethiopia, netted only 2 bronze medals, each costing over $49,000. Canada ended up in 54th, with each medal point costing $1,868. The top 10 and bottom 5 are below:

Nation      MP     GDP     GDP/MP
Ethiopia    20     360       18.0
China      267    5414       20.3 
Kenya       23     851       37.0
N. Korea    22    1200       54.6
Russia     204   12993       63.7
Ukraine     49    3621       73.9
Uganda       5     478       95.6
Cuba        37    5397      145.9
USA        317   48387      152.6
Jamaica     32    5402      168.8
Bahrain      1   23132    23132.0
Singapore    2   49271    24635.5
Hong Kong    1   34049    34049.0
Kuwait       1   47982    47982.0
Qatar        2   98329    49164.5

So how can these varied measures be combined to give an overall ranking? After much thought and experimentation with complicated mathematical formulae that involved logarithmic analysis (yeah, right) I decided to simply average the 3 rankings: medal points (MPR), medal points per million (MPPMR), and GDP/MP. Here are the top 20 and bottom 5:

Nation         MPR    MPPMR   GDP/MPR   AVG
Great Britain    4      14      13      10.3
Jamaica         20       3      10      11.0
Hungary         11       6      19      12.0
Cuba            17      12       8      12.3
Russia           3      30       5      12.7
USA              1      40       9      16.7
Kazakhstan      14      21      17      17.3
South Korea      7      28      18      17.7
Ukraine         13      39       6      19.3
Belarus         23      19      16      19.3
Germany          5      32      24      20.3
Australia        9      11      41      20.3
France           6      31      27      21.3
New Zealand     15       4      45      21.3
Georgia         38      15      15      22.7
China            2      66       2      23.3
North Korea     25      43       4      24.0
Czech Republic  21      18      35      24.7
Netherlands     12      16      47      25.0
Italy           10      38      28      25.3
Greece          75      68      78      73.7
Morocco         79      83      61      74.3
Kuwait          79      61      84      74.7
Hong Kong       79      72      83      78.0
Saudi Arabia    79      82      80      80.3

So Great Britain actually "won" the Olympics! Jamaica and Hungary round out the top 3, while the US falls to 6th due to their large population. Belarus remains in the top 10 despite losing that gold. Canada ended up right in the middle at 43rd out of 85 countries that won a medal, exactly where we like to be. Smarter sports fans could probably figure out a way to include all those nations that went home empty handed, but I think the final result here is pretty intriguing.

Obviously, this is an arbitrary analysis with no scientific merit whatsoever. Please don't take it seriously. You can easily adjust the rankings by playing with the weightings or changing the point system. It is actually rather interesting to do so; if you would like the original data, please let me know and I will forward it to you.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to Sochi in 2014. At least I'll be in the same time zone!

Update: No I won't be in the same time zone! I have unexpectedly moved to the USA and will be watching tape delays on NBC. Yay!



Thursday, August 9, 2012

Playing .500 ball

I've been following the Blue Jays season rather closely this year, mostly because I spent a good part of the summer in North America and was able to see more of their games than usual, both live and on TV. One thing that I, along with every other Jays fan, has noticed this season is that they are always very close to .500, rarely more than a game or two away from the break-even mark.

With the season 2/3 over, I decided to check out their day-by-day record and was surprised to see that they had never been more than 5 games above the .500 mark (24-19 most recently) or 4 games below (51-55), a 9-game swing. As well, they spent 17 days at .500 (out of 54 possible days). I wondered if any other team had a similar record, so I downloaded each team's results, again up to game 108. A brief statistical analysis showed that no other club managed a single-digit span around the .500 mark, but the Diamondbacks weren't far off, ranging from 4 games above to 6 below. They also spent 16 days at .500, so they are the NL equivalent of Toronto, at least in this meaningless category.

The Red Sox also enjoyed 16 days at .500, while the Cardinals had a 10-game range, but that was from .500 to 10 games above.

Looking at the stats for each team, there are a few interesting tidbits:

The Dodgers are the only team to have not been at or below .500 all year (0-0 is not .500). They won their first three games on their way to a 9-1 start and have not fallen all the way back despite some recent struggles.

Minnesota, San Diego, and the Cubs have not been at or above .500, losing at least their first two and never crawling back. That's just sad.

Detroit spent 49 days above, 49 days below, and 10 days right on the mark. (Off-days are ignored). To compare, the Jays were above .500 78 days and below just 13. Unfortunately, the seemingly endless spate of injuries has finally caught up to them and most of those sub-.500 days are in the past two weeks. They may not make it back to .500 the rest of the way but it will be good to see their young guys in meaningful games.

Here are the stats for those interested. Max is the maximum number of games above .500, Min is the maximum below .500, Range is Max-Min, while Above, At, and Below are the number of days the team has spent relative to the .500 mark. The list is ordered by Range.

Team   Max     Min    Range   Above   At  Below
TOR      5      -4       9      78    17    13
ARI      4      -6      10      32    16    60
STL     10       0      10     103     5     0
BOS      5      -7      12      37    16    55
TBR     11      -1      12     102     4     2
MIL      2     -11      13       3     5   100
NYM      8      -5      13      91     3    14
BAL     13       0      13     107     1     0
DET      8      -6      14      49    10    49
SFG     13      -3      16      79    11    18
CHW     12      -4      16      78     9    21
CLE      8      -8      16      84     8    16
LAD     17       1      16     108     0     0
PHI      3     -14      17      13    10    85
MIN     -1     -18      17       0     0   108
SEA      2     -16      18       8     8    92
LAA     10      -8      18      56     6    46
MIA      8     -10      18      36     6    66
OAK     10      -9      19      33    14    61
PIT     16      -4      20      58     5    45
KCR      1     -19      20       2     3   103
ATL     16      -4      20      99     2     7
TEX     21       0      21     107     1     0
SDP     -1     -22      21       0     0   108
WSN     22       0      22     107     1     0
CHC     -1     -24      23       0     0   108
NYY     23      -3      26      98     5     5
CIN     25      -4      29      83     9    16
COL      1     -30      31       5     9    94
HOU      2     -37      39       3     3   102



Thursday, August 2, 2012

T20 Cricket World Cup

The most interesting aspect of living in Singapore is that I am much closer to so many interesting Asian destinations. I've already been to Penang and am flying to Langkawi for the upcoming weekend. Bali and Vietnam are two more spots I'll be visiting this year. Of course, there's no interesting sports to watch in those places, but lots of outdoor activities to keep busy.

But this blog is not about my personal life, rather I hope to encourage others to travel with sports the catalyst to get them thinking about all the possibilities, not only in North America, but worldwide. With social media giving all of us the opportunity to brag endlessly about our trivial lives (myself included), I've noticed how Americans are quite impressed with themselves just for seeing their own country. I love the US for the variety of available sports as well as the ease of getting from place to place, but there's a whole world out there that most Americans rarely consider for a new sporting experience. I'm hoping this blog has demonstrated that sports is truly a worldwide pursuit and with my move to Southeast Asia, I will be looking for events that will get me on an airplane to somewhere new and exciting.

With Singapore just a short flight from India, cricket is now much higher on my radar. I've already seen the Ashes in Australia and county cricket in England, but haven't seen an international tournament yet. So I was very happy to discover that the Twenty20 World Cup is being held in Sri Lanka in September and October. The island nation is just 3 1/2 hours from Singapore and flights are surprisingly affordable, as are match tickets. So I've booked myself a weekend trip to Colombo at the end of September, where I will see three matches in the Super Eights, which is the second round of the competition and should feature the better squads such as Australia, South Africa, and India.

Twenty20 is a relatively new form of the game where each team has just 20 overs (120 balls) to score as many runs as possible. I've never seen it live before and there's no better place to start than a world championship. Of course, to see it in a country I've yet to visit makes the whole thing doubly interesting. Check back in October for a recap of what should be a very different sports road trip.