On account of the holiday and some summer school work, I’ll be taking a bit of a break from the blog this week, but I’ll be back on Monday July 6th. In the meantime, please consider signing up for my newsletter, the SportsThink Weekly Review. Each week, I share my top 5 sports reads of the week, as well as a digest of the week on SportsThink, and other news, notes, and recommendations. The newsletter goes out every Friday, but will reach inboxes on Thursday this week, with an absolutely massive, 4th of July special edition, featuring links to stories and videos of some of my favorite sporting Americans. It would mean the world to me if you’d subscribe and possibly share the link with another sports fan or two.
Just a quick update on the sports calendar as we know it…although surging US COVID cases may alter this in the coming weeks. Women’s pro soccer is the first team sport to return, with the NWSL kicking off their Challenge Cup tournament in Utah. Of course, golf, NASCAR, the UFC, boxing, and the PBR are already back. Here’s the timeline of other expected returns:
July 5: Formula One
July 8: MLS is Back Tournament
July 10: NHL training camps open
July 23-34: MLB Opening Day
July 24: WNBA expected to start abbreviated regular season
July 25: Premier Lacross League’s Championship Series tournament
July 30: NBA expected to restart the unfinished 19-20 season.
In the two weeks since the PGA Tour returned, players have recorded notably low scores, suggesting the fanless environment could be helping them focus.
I certainly think that this is a factor, but I also wonder if the extra time off has also been helpful. Even if they kept up with their regular training, a lack of travel and other activities likely means that the golfers are simply better rested than usual, which can be a huge difference maker.
It will be interesting to see how these two factors play out in other sports as they return without fans. For example, the soccer world has attributed lackluster World Cup performances to players who played a high volume of games in the preceding club season: if your team went deep in tournament and cup play–on top of the rigors of the regular season–you might just be physically spent by the time the big tournament rolled around. I’m quite curious as to how the extra time off will impact NBA minutes and shooting accuracy late in games, as well as pitcher’s stamina in MLB.
As for the lack of fans in team sports, there are a variety of implications. Some athletes will likely focus better in the fanless environment, while others may struggle if they are accustomed to feeding off fan energy. Early results from German soccer suggest that empty stadiums have neutralized home field advantage; such an advantage is already out the door in the “bubble” format being pursued by the US pro leagues. Finally, in addition to fan energy (or a lack thereof), there is a physiological factor at play: what players’ see as they play the game will be radically different. The parallel here is the NCAA basketball Final Four, where poor shooting is often explained by the games being played in retrofitted non-basketball facilities, making for radically different optics. Thus: will seats without fans cause issues of depth perception, undermining years of muscle memory and eye coordination, and bring down shooting percentages? They might, but it certainly won’t stop us from watching whenever things start back up.
Hats off to UT PhD student Ryan Murtha for winning this year’s R. Scott Kretchmar student essay prize from International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, one of the most prestigious awards in sport academia. Ryan won for his paper entitled, “Untangling the Differences Between Live and Filmed Sports, or Why Are Sports Movies Bad?” I’m proud to say that the paper began its life in my graduate ethics course, so I’ll take 1% of the credit here! Ryan’s win is all the more impressive because it is outside his primary field of history. You can follow Ryan on Twitter and should definitely check out his blog, Talkin’ Bout Praxis.
A couple months ago (or what feels like a decade in pandemic time), UFC head honcho Dana White made the headlines with the idea of a “Fight Island,” ostensibly a private island where the organization could return to producing events as quickly as possible. While this never took off, it has now been reconfigured, with next month’s series of UFC events in Abu Dhabi now dubbed “Fight Island.” This is not the manifestation of White’s early-pandemic vision of some quasi-dystopian oasis of violence: what most are calling Fight Island is Yas Island, a man-made resort island in Abu Dhabi, a locale that has previously hosted multiple UFC events. The buzz surrounding the upcoming fights, as well as Saudi Arabia’s contentious bid to take over Newcastle United FC in the English Premier League, offers a chance to reflect on the growing role of sports in the Middle East.
As the slew of links below suggest, there is much to think about in this context. But first there’s the question: why are these countries so focused on building their sports portfolios, whether in the form of foreign team ownership or mega-event production? The answer is two-fold and unsurprising: money and politics. First, there is the obvious economic angle: as the world grinds away from oil-dependency, these rich states are scrambling to diversify their interests, in part by reinventing themselves as tourist destinations with a range of cultural offerings. It’s not just spending on sports, but a range of arts, entertainment, and leisure investments. Second, the sports diplomacy and soft power angle: sports are a key means of building an international reputation and positive “brand” image, one often reliant upon the seemingly global acceptance of the shaky idea that sports are somehow above politics and other ugly stuff. In hosting big-time sports events, nations bring themselves positive international PR, an excuse to bring influential people together (again, in allegedly apolitical contexts), and attract international investment and partnerships in large-scale infrastructural projects (yes, this circles back to the economy, as most things do.).
To dive deeper into the background of sport and soft power in the region: here’s a timely overview of soccer-specific efforts across the region from USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy. For Saudi Arabia specifically, there’s this piece I wrote last year, when tensions arose around a WWE event in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal. Qatar, while not in the headlines at the moment, has been a major player in this realm, having successfully secured the 2022 FIFA World Cup, an event that is becoming a bigger and bigger deal as sports will remain decidedly abnormal for at least another year. (If you’re wondering how the Gulf State somehow secured the crown jewel of the sporting world…there are serious allegations that it was not all above board.) This overview from the Middle East Institute is a nice introduction to the country’s strategy.
Even when mega-brands and wealthy nations are involved, plans don’t always materialize. To wit: Spanish soccer club Real Madrid’s ambitious and failed attempt to place a branded luxury island in the emirate of Ras al Khaimah. If you have a subscription to the Athletic, this is an excellent deep dive on how things fell apart. If you don’t, this article will suffice.
It is hardly a surprise that not everyone thinks this is all fun and games. Critics accuse the Gulf States of “sportswashing,” a neologism coined by Amnesty International. The term means what it sounds like: using sports to obscure an undesirable reputation, particularly in the realm of human rights. The journalist Karim Zidan is probably the best author on the subject. Here’s his take on US-Saudi sports relations and a detailed critique of Morocco. If you’re in more of a listening mood, here’s a recent podcast featuring Zidan, wherein he covers a lot of this territory in only 20 minutes. Worth it for the background alone, even if you don’t accept the sportswashing critique.
An interesting paper in the Journal of Sports Economics by Geoffrey Propheter: “Does Proximity to a New Sports Facility Affect Existing Businesses’ Survival Time?” Abstract as follows, my emphasis on the key finding:
Existing literature on the economic impact of sports facilities fails to consider whether new facilities positively affect existing businesses. To fill this gap, data on existing establishments in Sacramento, CA, active from 2004 through 2018 were collected. The outcome of interest is existing businesses’ survival time. Using an accelerated failure time model in a difference-in-difference framework, retail establishments within a half mile of the Golden 1 Center are found to have survival times 53% shorter than otherwise similar retail establishments further away. Models also reveal existing establishments in other industries complementary to sports are not affected by the arena.
England reveres the Premier League, relishes its status and revels in its supremacy — particularly in relation to other leagues — but it resents its scale and its prominence and its self-importance. It is addicted to it, hopelessly so, but it is repulsed by that addiction. It is a relationship of love and self-loathing.
Similarly, on our side of the pond, we’ve begun to see a political awakening and mobilization by college athletes. Tensions are high at Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, at my place of work, I’m proud to see Longhorn student-athletes standing up for what they believe in. To critics who say “why are they speaking up now?”, I’ll offer the friendly reminder that many of these campuses and athletic departments were still segregated two generations ago, and that the student-athlete experience has long been contingent on keeping a low profile off the field. Or, perhaps more simply, “Why NOT now?”
I’ve launched a weekly newsletter, highlighting my favorite sports writing that I read each week and a digest of recent posts on SportsThink. The first edition just went out, I’d appreciate it so much if you’d take a look and consider subscribing!
This guest post comes our way from Jose Izquierdo, former General Secretary of the World Boxing Organization. Mr. Izquierdo is a San Juan based attorney, specializing in sports law with a focus on boxing. He counsels world-class athletes, corporations, and international organizations on a range of legal, strategic, and developmental matters.
Hard though it is to believe now, it was just a little more than three months ago that Tyson Fury claimed the WBC Heavyweight Championship by utterly outclassing, outmuscling, and obliterating Deontay Wilder in one of the most eagerly anticipated prizefights in decades. At the time of that seventh-round stoppage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, it seemed almost certain that the all-important heavyweight division— and boxing in general— was in the midst of ushering in a new era, reminiscent of its illustrious past.
While fights of the kind that transcend boxing are, at least for the immediate future, outside a logistically and financially feasible range, last night marked the return of televised boxing in the US. Top Rank Boxing and its indefatigable CEO Bob Arum were back in Las Vegas on Tuesday, putting on a successful first card on ESPN. While the fights were, as expected, lopsided affairs, they showcased former Olympian and now featherweight world title holder Shakur Stevenson. The young and exceptionally talented southpaw thoroughly dominated the tough, but overmatched Felix Caraballo from Puerto Rico, who ultimately succumbed to a left body shot in round 6. Also of note, Cuban Robeisy Ramirez— a former two time Olympic gold medalist who shockingly lost his professional debut last year— continued his winning ways under the tutelage of trainer Ismael Salas, with a 54 second stoppage. While not the most exciting of fight nights, it was great to see live boxing again.
To be sure, a pandemic is, by definition, a hugely disruptive global event. But as we’ve already seen in the sports world, the pandemic also presents the opportunity to foster innovation. But just how changed a sport boxing will be when the opening bell rings and moving forward in these deeply paradoxical times, depends on who you ask. Here are what I think are some of the more pressing issues the sport will have to deal with as it cautiously proceeds with its comeback.
Sport and race. There is so much to say on this issue, one that really underscores how context drives the meaning of sports: the sports world has often been a leader in the fight for racial equality, while almost as often providing reminders of the racial work that remains for us to do as a society. At times of great reckoning, my instinct is to listen, learn, and absorb, to consider how I can better serve my students, my community, and the world around me. Thus, for now, I’ll limit my thoughts on the matter, focusing on a critical juncture for our most powerful league. Some books that have shaped my understanding of the intersection of race and sport follow in the second part of this post.
The Opportunity for the NFL
Moments of great unrest bring with them the potential for great change. The NFL, arguably the business (sport or otherwise) with most visible black labor force is now presented with a major opportunity to counter years of racial baggage and emerge as a leader in the national conversation on race. To the league’s credit, they were already focused on the issue in the week’s before George Floyd’s death, working on revisions to the Rooney Rule that would produce greater equity in high-level hiring. But the world is radically different now. Axios has a nice chronicle of how a group of NFL players took to social media, essentially forcing commissioner Roger Goodell to confront racial issues that have long been brewing within the league. The specter of Colin Kaepernick looms large.
Simply put, the league is at a crossroads. The commissioner and owners can follow their previous path, bide their time, claim apolitical neutrality, and hope that things mellow out in time. Or, they can do the right thing, and support their athletes’ right to free expression and a powerful platform for advancing meaningful conversations. Where almost every company has put out some platitudinal statement of equitable values, the NFL has the visibility and reach to be an actual force for necessary conversations and social change. And they should lean in to the opportunity. Is there some market risk? Of course there is: some older fans, mostly white, will be turned off. But is there not also market opportunity to emerge as a progressive league, one more in sync with the worldview of younger fans? I think yes. Plus, let’s not ignore the simple fact that the American appetite for football remains insatiable. The XFL experiment proved that fans will tune in to an inferior football product. No amount of political activism from players will change the fact that NFL product is the pinnacle of the game. There will be still be fans and there will still be plenty of dollars to go around.