May 30, 2011
I've been a loyal follower of major league baseball, the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and college football, basketball and hockey for about three decades. I've occasionally tuned in for golf, tennis and World Cup soccer. I used to love the Olympics but it doesn't do much for me anymore. There are things I love and hate about all of these sports. The following are the best and worst aspects of these leagues/sports from my perspective.
Major League Baseball
Best -- A game every day. Even though I think the season is a bit too long (154 or 156 games would be better), I love the fact that a baseball season can be followed on a daily basis. The Red Sox play nearly every day between April and September and there is a new story every day. I might be a little biased about this, given that my team is typically in the pennant race wire to wire. I'm not sure if people in Pittsburgh and Kansas City are excited about teams that often lose around 100 times per season.
Worst -- MLB games are too long. Baseball is meant to be a methodical game. I appreciate the somewhat slow pace of the game. I think that's part of it's charm. However, in the last decade or two, baseball games have been getting longer and longer. Pitchers hold the ball too long. Batters spend too much time getting back into the box. When runners are on base, the game seems to last forever (pitchers are getting fond of the "Statue of Liberty" play where they hold the ball longer to disrupt would-be base stealers). Pitchers don't throw as many strikes and some umpires have tiny strike zones. It's one reason why I don't attend as many games in person as I used to.
Best -- Competitiveness/Parity. I mean competitive in two ways. First of all, because there are only 16 games, every game matters and it's rare that a team mails one in. Even if it's Week 1 or 2, a Patriots-Jets or Steelers-Ravens game will have a playoff atmosphere. Secondly, pretty much every NFL team goes into the season feeling like they can make the playoffs. This is not the case in other leagues where there are a handful of teams with no shot at the postseason. The NFL is 21 weeks of big games starting with Week 1.
Worst -- Injuries. Injuries are part of every sport and they often can ruin a potential championship run (eg. 2010 Red Sox, 2010-11 Celtics) but in the NFL injuries play far too big of a role. The biggest problem are the frequent injuries to quarterbacks. Most teams are built to fill spots on the offensive line and on the defense. They may even have solid backup receivers and running backs. But most top teams cannot survive losing their starting quarterback for a long period of time. A Superbowl favorite can become a 5-11 team very quickly if the QB goes down early in the season. I admire the Packers for winning the title despite all of their injuries. That doesn't happen very often.
Best -- The home crowds. I love the intensity of the home crowds in the NBA. This is part of the reason why home teams have such great records, especially in the playoffs. Truth be told, I don't have much affinity for the NBA. Compared with the MLB, NFL, NHL and college sports, it's a lousy product. But, I love the Celtics and I'll continue to follow the NBA.
Worst -- Officiating. The officiating in the NBA is both bad and biased. For my money, baseball umpires are the best among the four major sports. They rarely miss a call on the bases and they tend to be pretty consistent on balls and strikes (though it is annoying that umps have different strike zones). Determining whether or not a ball traveling 90+ miles per hour ends up in a roughly 36" by 27" square is a pretty difficult job so they are entitled to miss a few. Hockey referees call some penalties when they shouldn't and miss other penalties but in general, they do a pretty decent job. NFL refs are pretty awful but with replay they get most of the calls right. I also feel that MLB, NHL and NFL refs don't typically play favorites. I've been upset at times with bad calls going against the Sox, Patriots and Bruins but I rarely feel like the officials are intentionally trying to help the opponent. In the NBA, the officiating is generally horrendous, the home team almost always gets several calls per game and there are different sets of rules for certain players, coaches and teams. Tim Donaghy, who actually fixing games, is gone, but the officiating hasn't gotten any better. This year we've seen the refs carry the Miami Heat through the last two rounds. The 1990s Bulls were a great team but they wouldn't have won six titles without the special unwritten rules for Jordan. The Lakers won the Western Conference Semifinals in 2000 and 2002 almost completely because of friendly officiating. I'm no conspiracy theorist so at the time I resisted thinking those games were fixed. After the Donaghy relevations, it seems that those series (or games during those series) may have actually been fixed.
Best -- Playoff overtime hockey. Every sport is loaded with postseason drama but nothing quite measures up to an overtime NHL game in the playoffs. First of all, it's sudden death so every shot on goal can end the game - or even the season if a team is facing elimination. It's stressful if your favorite team is involved but it's a beautiful stress. A Game 7 overtime takes it to the next level. Score and advance or give up a goal and be done for the season.
Worst -- Meaningless regular season. The only thing that really matters in the NHL regular season is making the playoffs. Home ice advantage means very little in the NHL playoffs. Seeding means very little as evidenced by the number of #8 seeds that defeat or nearly defeat #1 seeds in the first round and the number of poor seeds that advance to the conference finals and finals. If you follow a good team, they will almost certainly be one of the 16 playoff teams. That doesn't create much regular season drama. At least in the NBA, the home court advantage is very meaningful.
Best -- Rivalries. No sport has better rivalries than college football. Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, FSU-Florida, USC-UCLA and Texas-Oklahoma are just a few of the great ones. Just about every college football program has at least one opponent that they hate. It's like having a Superbowl every year. Washington and Washington State could both be 2-9 heading into their in-state showdown but the stadium would be filled and the teams will be battling as if they are both undefeated and playing for the BCS Championship.
Worst -- The BCS. Those of you who follow my bceaglesfootball.com website know how much I despise the BCS. The BCS favors the high profile teams rather than the best teams and there is almost always drama around trying to determine the teams who play for the championship. I am in favor of a "real" playoff for college football. Anything less is an insult to the sport.
Best -- March Madness. The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is an amazing event. Plenty of good teams advance in each round but there are usually plenty of upsets and near-upsets. The do or die format and the fact that as many as 16 games are played on a single day makes for a spectacular event. The television coverage has been getting better and better. This year, every game was televised so you could choose the game or games you wanted to watch. The start times were staggered to allow the viewer to see the end of most of the games.
Worst -- Early trip to the NBA. It's unfortunate the so many great players never play college basketball while others go to the NBA after just one year. It would have been nice to see two or three years of Kevin Durant at Texas or see LeBron James play in the NCAA Tournament. I don't blame the players for going pro.
Best -- Best game to watch live. I think hockey is the best sport to watch in person. I feel that a person cannot fully appreciate the game of hockey until they see it in person. TV just doesn't do it justice. College hockey is the best sports bargain in Boston (and I imagine in college hockey towns around the country). For about $10 a ticket (maybe less) you can get great seats and most nights you'll see a great game. What's not to like?
Worst -- Postseason tournament. The NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament is maybe a half a step above the BCS. The tournament participants and the seeding are determined almost entirely by a poorly-constructed computer model. Sixteen teams make the tournament (four #1 seeds). This year, Boston College won both the regular season and their conference tournament yet was shipped out West to start the tournament while second place UNH and tournament runner-up Merrimack played in Manchester, less than an hour from the respective campuses. The people running the tournament could have easily moved teams around and kept BC in the East but chose to follow the silly computer rankings to the last decimal point. UNH, a #4 seed, was actually a host team against a #1 seed (Miami) who was shipped East despite their great performance in the regular season. Both BC and Miami lost in the first round.
Best -- Relaxing to watch on TV. This is almost certainly a backhanded compliment but golf is great sport to watch when you don't want to get too excited about what's going on. When I watch games from the four major sports, I almost always have a rooting interest (for or against). I don't care who wins or loses in golf so I can just watch and appreciate the game. Golf is also the best sport to watch if you want to fall asleep. The announcers speak in that soft voice and there is little background noise (maybe some "golf claps").
Worst -- Rarely head to head. I rarely watch golf, but when I do, it's usually when there is a playoff. This is one of the rare times on the PGA Tour when the players go head to head on the same hole. If you watch golf on a Thursday through Saturday or early on Sunday, the telecast will bounce from player to player and hole to hole. For me, that's not exciting. The playoff in golf is much more like a team sport. A tee shot or an approach shot is a little bit like a possession in football or an inning in baseball. I wish it was like that more often but that's not how tournaments are played.
World Cup Soccer
Best -- International flavor. I am not a soccer fan and I don't really watch too many World Cup games not involving the U.S. but I do think the World Cup is arguably the best event in sports. I love the idea that everyone is rooting for their country. It's a huge deal and the stakes are really high given that it is only played once every four years. The fans are incredibly intense and passionate. I hope United States Soccer continues to improve because I would love to follow the U.S. through a deep run in the Cup someday. I'd also love to attend the World Cup.
Worst -- Wimpy guys. As a fan of football (where 250 pound world class athletes smash into each other at high speeds), hockey (where a guy has his nose shattered by a slapshot and comes back within 20 minutes) and baseball (where 100 mile per hour pellets are being tossed at your head), it's hard to respect soccer players who frequently roll around on the grass nearly in tears after being kicked in the shinguard. I'm sure it doesn't feel good but rolling around on the grass? Stretchers? Either these guys are faking injuries (pathetic) or they have a lower threshold for pain than my four year old neices (more pathetic). Note to European soccer players: if you are trying to shed the American stereotype that Euro men are soft and effeminate, you are going about it the wrong way.
Best -- Women's Tennis. The feminists can scream at me but I have to say that the only sport where the quality of the women's game is better than the quality of the men's game is tennis. I mean "quality" from a fan's perspective. I am not suggesting than anyone on the women's tour could beat anyone on the men's side. I don't watch a lot of tennis so I'm no expert but my general impression is that the women's game has more long rallys where the players are moving around, fewer aces and more approaches to the net. I am a very infrequent tennis viewer and I haven't watched a lot of it since the Graf-Seles days so I could be way off base. I could also just be imagining that women's tennis is a higher quality of play because the players often look like Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic.
Worst -- Men's Tennis. It seems to me that men's tennis is all about aces and a couple of guys slamming the ball at each other from behind the baseline. I think my friend Tom summed it up best: "I wouldn't watch a men's tennis match if it were being played in my driveway."