"The Future of Sports" at Washington University
It was Monday afternoon. I had just checked South Side Sox for the first time that day, and read Cheat's post about stepping down. Smelling the blood in the water, I ran out to the car and started driving to St. Louis. The plan was desperate, but if I could make it to the lecture on "The Future of Sports" at Washington University, get the panel of experts to endorse me as the next south side sox dictator, maybe~ just maybe, I could triumph over the evil larry and bury him in the same cook county forest preserve he takes all of his horse corpses.
Bill James, Joe Posnanski, Gerald Early, Bob Costas and Michael MacCambridge surely had to carry enough weight for my candidacy to be realized.
The event was nearly 280 miles away and started in 5 hours. Fueled by peanut butter Twix, Dr. Pepper, Fiji water, and 87 octane petrol the mrs. e-gus mobile and I made it through the sideways rain of central Illinois with time to spare. I found a pew in the 7th row of the Graham Chapel 45 minutes prior to show time.
Gerald Early and Michael MacCambridge are both professors at the University, and MacCambridge was the moderator of the event. Perhaps you've heard Early on NPR's Fresh Air. He also worked with Ken Burns as a consultant on the Baseball and Unforgivable Blackness documentaries. He was the fight expert of the panel and MacCambridge was the football guy, having written America's Game and worked with Brian Billick on his book More Than a Game. Costas Im sure you know from NBC sports or HBO, or if you have ever owned a TV and watched a major sporting event. Posnanski and Costas are sort of experts in general, and James is obviously the baseball guru. Bill James and Joe Posnanski are my two favorite writers of all time. William Shakespeare, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, yeah they all crack the top 10, but here we had my one and two together, talking about something that I care entirely too much about- sports. I had to go.
The first topic- What has been the most profound change since you became a fan of sports? Generally everyone talked about the expanded media coverage with 24 hour networks(Costas), how we are hammered with the same highlights over and over(Pos) and the proliferation of images gives us almost a gluttony of sports(Early). This was the first of the sort of anti-espn undertones that carried on throughout the evening. Expanding on this, Bob Costas said that there never will be another sports legend. He cited Dr. J. as the last one in his ABA days, because there was no media coverage, and hardly anyone in house to see it. Pos used Strasburg as an example, saying he was so hyped he was legendary because we hadn't seen him yet and everyone was clamoring for this new thing.
They were asked if they thought women's sports could ever rival our big three of Baseball, Football and Basketball in ratings and attendance. Bob Costas said his short answer was 'No.' but went on for about 15 minutes anyway, explaining the virtues of Title IX. I was a little worried about this going in, the Costas factor.
My concern was that Bob Costas would be so long winded on these warm up question that he would consume the lectures time and we wouldn't ever get to the meat and potatoes, namely baseball. While he did talk more than anyone else, I found him to be very engaging and pretty funny throughout the night.
Costas went on to say that they shouldn't try and reach the ratings and attendance, but change their definition of success. Bill James said he couldn't be more wrong and blamed mismanagement of the WNBA for its failures. I didnt think I would end up on Costas' side of the ledger vs James on anything that night but here we were. James said woman's volleyball was a fine sport(and the only that didn't require cheerleaders), and that it only takes about 40 years to get a loyal following so yes, of course woman's sports could reach elite status. I'm not so sure. Posnanski cited the popularity of Poker and sort of backed up James using it's meteoric rise as an example. Posnanski imagined the pitch meeting to ESPN and couldn't believed it worked, then Costas went off:
"We'll call it superstars(air quotes) of poker, and people will tune in thinking they'll see the Cincinnatti kid, or Bart Maverick, instead- they see some clammy degenerate in a members only jacket trying to see if he can get the card he needs to get a straight- What kind of get a life loser, unless the remote was broken- in that case you should flee the house instead, would watch two seconds of this?" - Bob Costas
Good stuff, Bob. Even if I do like to watch the occasional WSOP final table. Posnanski closed that if poker can break through, women can break through as well.
Next up was whether or not people will know who the heavy weight boxing champion is in 25 years. They thought that yes, probably as much as they do now. If there is a charismatic, colorful champion then yes, more people will know who it is, otherwise it will be about the same. My own thinking is that MMA will be the top dog by then(if it isn't already) and I agree that greed has drastically hurt the sweet science. They never show the top fights on regular tv, and the expanded weight classes combined with multiple governing bodies is detrimental to the sport.
The panel next addressed college football.
"The math that's involved in college football is a sham.... the BCS rating system is statistical gibberish. It doesn't make any sense, its not supposed to make any sense..." - Bill James
Yes, they should have a play-off. Rotate the big bowls as the championship and that could bring college football about 5-10x more money with a 8 team play-off, but the NCAA would handle that, and the conference commissioners would lose control of the money, so they see a bird in the hand worth two(10) in the bush. - MacCambridge. They liked it better when all three big bowl games were relevant and there was a 'mythical national champion'. All parties were in agreement that a play-off is the way to go, but its very unlikely.
They were asked about soccer in America and if it could equal the big three in this country. If the US gets the 2022World Cup, then yes, that would be a big event but not much more than a modest breakthrough for the sport was expected overall. The consensus was that we want the best of a sport, and therefore we don't accept the American teams as elite but that the Premiere league will likely accrue more status on this side of the pond as it becomes more accessible over here. Soccer and swimming are ok as events over here during the world cup and the Olympics, but they are unlikely to reach the big time on their own as elite sports.
Finally they got to baseball. Are baseball games too long? Bill James said it would be pretty easy to shorten games. He said in 1975 a baseball game and a movie were both about 2 hours long. The movies are about 30-40% shorter now, games are 40-50% longer, and a game of baseball is now about twice as long as a movie. "It doesn't make any sense for us to do that." He suggested radical changes like limiting the number of pitchers allowed per game. Costas said they should call the high strike, don't let hitters readjust their junk between pitches. Posnanski said he supported Bill James' idea about limiting pitchers, because bringing in a pitcher for a single hitter hurts the dramatic storyline of the game.
"Some of the drama of the game is lost, and the length of the game just stretches out with that lack of drama. So its like alright, well, instead of seeing your starter in the eighth inning with two on, one out, is he going to get out of this? Lets go to a commercial and wait for this guy you don't care about to come in and pitch." - Joe Posnanski
"It really changes the narrative. The drama of Bob Gibson taking off his cap and wiping his brow with his forearm, and you say, well all right, now, this is the fourth time he's faced Willie Stargell, how did he get him out the two other times, and what pitch did Stargell hit for a homer in the 4th? And what's he going to do? That's part of the subtext of baseball thats being lost." - Bob Costas
The next talking point was that in 1945, baseball was the unchallenged national past time, but within a generation, it was usurped in every way by pro football. Is there anything on the horizon that can challenge football? The consensus was that its not very likely. Bill James brought up the meteoric rise of American Gladiators and said yes, anything can pop up and take off which spun off into a discussion about ESPN classic which lead to its predecessor Classic Sports Network getting a mention. "ESPN subsumes everything" - Bob Costas
That was it for prepared questions, and they opened up a mic for a few questions from the crowd. I really should have gotten up so I could get them talking about blogs and game threads and things of that sort, but alas I did not. I was in the middle of the row and although I think that would have been a great thing to bring up now, it didn't immediately dawn on me. Too bad too, considering I knew about the event because of Posnanski's blog and the local gentleman to my right heard about it on Rob Neyer's.
a few topics brought up:
youth sports and organized play- it was better when you could go get a pick up game in the neighborhood but it is what it is. this leads to homogenized play and you don't see stylish play any more.
Jeter's gold glove and sabermetrics infiltrating the voting process- It already is, as evidenced by Felix's Cy Young.
salary cap in baseball in the next 5 years?- "0% chance," Bill James. they are doing better with profit sharing.
geographic NFL realignment? -no. the NFL(and MLB) isn't geographically set up. this spun off somewhere, but it lead to Bill James saying "the Royals compete with the Cardinals like your high school class President competes with the President of the United States."
NFL athletes getting a pass for being good at football.- Michael Vick served his time, paid his debt, he's ok. But Roethlisburger and Kobe Bryant are another matter. Costas dislikes it when he hears the term 'redemption', and Bill James said he cant root for Kobe Bryant.
18 game schedule in the NFL?- 4 is too many preseason games so why not, but there will have to be several changes to protect the players, added bye weeks, extra long term health benefits for the players, expanded rosters, stuff like that.
The most interesting question brought up was on Instant Replay. Joe Pos had a lot of good stuff on this one-The Calvin Johnson play vs the Bears was obviously a TD. It has changed the way we root for the game as well:
"If you're watching a football game and a guy scores a touchdown you're like, yay. whats going to happen now? is there going to be a replay? oh. oh yay!? oh hes not out yet, wait, oh, yay." - Joe Posnanski
He then alluded to a conversation he had with Bill James on the ride to the lecture. Hopefully that road trip gets a post over at his blog. Bill then chimed in saying you don't need instant replay in baseball because you can track the ball electronically and you will always be right, and the umpire can get the signal to make the call on the field. Bob Costas said that's a world he doesn't want to live in, but it falls in step perfectly with my own ideas about computerized robot umpires, and you can have the traditional ump out there behind home plate relaying the signals to the crowd.
Just before this thing wrapped up Joe Posnanski said he was waiting all night to blast LeBron James and laid into him for his tv show and into espn for airing it. The Miami Heat are a game above .500 and yet they have a slew of reporters following their bad basketball team around the country, which is ridiculous.
I was able to get all these quotes because I brought my little flip video camera with me to tape the whole thing, but Chris Getz sat right in front of me so I didn't get a good picture. Actually the pews were rounded at the top so I couldn't just set the camera up there, and I didn't want to be framing a shot from 30 ft. away with my tiny crap camera so I just settled for getting some audio with a picture of my leg, the back of the pews, the ceiling, stuff like that. I should also mention the amazing pipe organ they had in this place. It was huge, I would have liked to hear it in action.
Before leaving the house I went to the book case and was going to grab one of each of their books in the off chance I could get an autograph. I'm 35 years old. I have never asked anyone for their autograph in my entire life. I generally don't see the point of it. But there I was, the first one up to the front like a giddy 5 year old with my pen ready for Bill James. After considering a stack of 'Bill James handbooks', 'Whatever happened to the Hall of Fame', 'The Mind of Bill James', and a 'The Bill James Goldmine' I ultimately decided on "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract". The Abstracts are what put him on the map and his huge compilation of basball's history seemed the best fit. For Joe Pos I had a similar dilemma, did I bring my hardcover copy of 'the Machine'? It made the most sense as far as future value I assume being a hardcover, and Pete Rose was my favorite player when I first fell in love with the game, but instead I opted for a used paperback copy of 'the Soul of Baseball' on the basis that Joe seemed to care more about Buck O'Neil than he did about the Reds. I never considered bringing multiple books, it seemed greedy. I probably should have brought 'the Machine' though. Not at all at ease asking for another mans autograph I staggered through the occasion. I didn't get to tell Bill about my similar thoughts regarding robot umpires or tell Joe I find him to be brilliant, specifically citing his recent thanksgiving post:
"I love Thanksgiving. I mean, seriously, I love everything about it. I love turkey. I love cranberry sauce. I love how the house smells on Thanksgiving day. I love falling asleep in my recliner. I love that one a day a year I'm allowed, no, encouraged, no, commanded by American law and the powers of tradition to sit in front of the television and watch the Detroit Lions play football." - Joe Posnanski link
All in all, it was worth the 11 hours and $60 gas money to meet my heroes and listen to their insight first hand. A special thanks to mrs. e-gus for handling the toddler on her own for a night(no small task) and putting up with my spontaneous whims and endeavors. Especially because typing this today cut into more time that should have been spent packing or with the kid so she could pack for our trip out of town. Love ya baby.
EDIT: The car ride conversations between Posnanski and James that I so hoped would become a series of posts at Joe's Blog is now a reality. click here for 'the car ride essays'.