Tuesday, March 31, 2009

For the love of Tommy Smyth, say it ain't so!

AP Photo/Barnat Armangue

The Associated Press has published that Fox Soccer Channel has beaten out ESPN for U.S. broadcast rights of the Union of European Football Associations Champions League games. ESPN previously had the broadcast rights to the UEFA Champions League since 1994.

This has huge ramifications on the soccer coverage in America. According to the same Associated Press report, ESPN and ESPN2 are available in 98 million homes, compared to Fox Soccer Channel, which is only available in 34 million, as well as having no broadcasts in high-definition. Also, with ESPN losing the rights, they also cannot stream and replay those matches on ESPN360, which is also much more accessible than FSC. This would be like the newly created MLB Network buying the rights to broadcast the MLB playoffs and World Series.

FSC already has the U.S. broadcast rights to the English Premier League and the Italian Serie A, as well as sharing MLS matches with ESPN and other networks. Now they also get Champions League. Instead of beefing up its soccer coverage for an increasing market—just take a look at the expansion of MLS—ESPN has now lost some premier matches. In trying to improve the audience interest in the sport, fans need to see soccer played at its highest level, in order to create a higher interest, appreciation, and understanding of the intricacies of the game at the level that only teams like Manchester United or Barcelona can perform best. ESPN also has the best platform to reach out to soccer fans and non-soccer fans alike.

The Champions League, for the most part, takes place over the winter months, when MLS teams are in their offseason. Beneficial to coverage in this country, it kept some type of soccer on television year round, so that once the MLS season finished, the sport would not fade into oblivion. MLS also can’t draw the marquee players. Sure, David Beckham signed to the league, but MLS, because of roster rules and the salary cap, only has a few of these types of players for the entire league. Teams like Barcelona can afford to sign a whole team of marquee names, like Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi, and Samuel Eto’o. Broadcasting the Champions League allowed viewers access to the most famous names in soccer overseas that they couldn’t get anywhere else on television.

ESPN certainly has the resources to outbid FSC, it seems however, that they just cared not to, and that is a discouraging sign for the American soccer viewing public.

So what happens now?

Well, ESPN still has rights to the World Cup, soccer’s biggest showcase, in 2010 and 2014. Hopefully, it makes a play to keep those rights even longer, keeping the game’s biggest stage on the most accessible network. They also own the rights to U.S. men’s national team games through 2014, promoting the country’s finest players. So, international competition is still safe for another five years.

ESPN also shares rights with FSC for MLS, airing one game per week. It is a great platform for the league to get exposure. Without having the Champions League, ESPN may have more financial flexibility and broadcasting space to devote more of its soccer coverage to the MLS, which is great. However, what happens when the season ends? How does ESPN continue to promote soccer in the offseason, without games to watch? How does the network increase the sport’s visibility?

FSC is strictly a soccer station, and can devote all its attention to promoting the game. However, in this country, there is the visibility factor. Soccer isn’t as mainstream as football or baseball. Americans may not know who the best players in the world are because they’ve never watched them on TV. FSC isn’t available to every person in this country, and the non-fan that’s interested in checking out what the buzz is about isn’t going to buy a subscription to FSC to check it out. ESPN was good for bringing in the casual fan.

ESPN needs to strengthen its position in the soccer universe. How can the worldwide leader in sports have so little coverage of the world’s game?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Talking with Ted Gillen

Photo from http://www.metrofanatic.com/

My final project will be a print feature profile on a Toms River, New Jersey icon. Gillen was captain of the only Toms River High School East boys’ soccer team to win the state championship, played at Penn State University, and was a member of the New York/ New Jersey MetroStars (now Red Bull New York) in the club’s inaugural season. Gillen also had the fortune of appearing three times for the United States men’s national team in international play. After retirement, and a stint working for Merrill Lynch, Gillen returned to his hometown and the game he loves. He currently coaches the Toms River East boys’ soccer team, the team he once starred for. He was also elected to the Toms River Regional Schools Athletic Hall of Fame.

“I’ve lived my life through the game and it’s provided me a lot,” Gillen said. “Now I try to teach kids as much as I took and make them also see it as ‘The Beautiful Game’”.

This profile will go through Gillen’s soccer beginnings, to his professional successes, the lows of leaving the game, and his return to Toms River and bringing the game of soccer to new generations.

Oh, how Sweet it is

We’ve reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. The Eastern region consists of all chalk—the top seeds: top seeded Pittsburgh, second seeded Duke, third seeded Villanova, and fourth seeded Xavier. The teams are set to face off Thursday night in Boston; Pittsburgh against Xavier and Duke against Villanova, with the winners squaring off against each other. The teams held open practices at TD Banknorth Garden Wednesday afternoon, each for 50 minutes with 10 minutes in-between. I was able to catch Pittsburgh and Duke prepare for their next round matchups.

Pittsburgh had a light practice, mainly a shootaround. The bigs worked on posting up and then popping out. DeJuan Blair, a candidate for the Naismith Player of the Year award, used this drill to work on his range, popping out and nailing quite a few 3-pointers. Don’t expect to see him shoot from that far out in the game against Xavier though; in his two years at Pitt he has never attempted a 3-point shot in a game. Blair also took it to the rim frequently during drills and free shooting. He is a powerful player and every time he slammed it home, he tried to take the backboard down with him, like Shaquille O’Neal in his heyday.

The Panthers worked on free-throws, and during shooting, an impromptu jumping contest broke out, where redshirt sophomore Gilbert Brown and senior Sam Young impressed with their leaping abilities, wowing the crowd by continually reaching higher than the box on the glass. Young even almost hit his head on the rim.

Every player on Pittsburgh then took one half court shot, in case they ever needed a desperation heave in the tournament. Senior guard Levance Fields was the last player to shoot and the only one to make one. The Panthers ended their light workout five minutes early.

Duke took advantage of Pitt’s early exit and took to the court 10 minutes early. It was clear from the beginning that Duke meant business. Their practice jerseys were tucked in, and, unlike Pittsburgh, began the practice with a few end-line to end-line jogs, stretching, and even jumping rope. Surprisingly, Duke held a legitimate practice. I’ve never been to a Blue Devil practice before, but I can imagine this was a relatively close representation. Rather than just a shootaround, they actually went through different shooting and shuffling drills. Everything the Duke players did, they seemed to do with a great sense of urgency. It was all business—that is until they went to layup lines and junior Gerald Henderson and freshman Elliot Williams started having their own dunk contest, Henderson leading the way with a 360 and a windmill.

The team then went into 5 v. 5 full court drills, utilizing the shot clock. Another difference between Duke’s and Pittsburgh’s practice was the defensive chatter. The Panthers’ practice was relatively quiet, but the Duke players talked and yelled out defensive calls, even during the shuffling drills.

Then they split into bigs and guards and wings, but it was still a workout. The assistant working with the post players had a pad that he would actually hit the players with, to mimic the force from an opposing player. They actually took a water break, another difference between the two practices, and finished with a shootaround.

The two practices were vastly different, but they both did some unique things that I liked. Practicing the half court shots was a good idea by the Pitt coaches. You never know when you’re going to find yourself in that kind of predicament in the tournament, and it can’t hurt to work on it, especially at practice the day before your biggest game of the season to date. For Duke, I liked the intensity and urgency they brought. Most teams go through a light workout in these kinds of practices, but for Duke, they treated it as if it were business as usual. The practice wasn’t necessarily taxing, but they worked hard and showed why they are not only one of the elite programs in the ACC, but all of college basketball as well.

Both teams will be ready to go tomorrow night. Anticipate some good basketball from all teams, Xavier and Villanova included. It will be a dogfight to see which of the four earns the right to take a trip to Detroit and a chance at the national championship.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Phillies pitchers 'phight' for jobs

The Philadelphia Phillies head into the 2009 MLB season as the reigning World Series champions. However, the team has made the local and national news this preseason due to uncertainty involving the roster, specifically the pitching staff.

World Series MVP Cole Hamels’ face was seen all over ESPN and SportsCenter. Monday, he was sent from the team’s spring training facilities in Clearwater, Fla. back to Philadelphia to have his left elbow examined. Hamels expressed feeling tightness and discomfort in his pitching elbow, and the team decided it would be best to have their young ace checked out for precautionary reasons.

The saga continued Tuesday night when it was reported that Hamels' elbow was not structurally damaged, just inflamed. However, pitching coach Rich Dubee said that he did not believe that the southpaw would be ready to start on Opening Day. Hamels told reporters the next day that he is still working towards pitching on opening day but that he would let the team make the decision. Hamels was back to work on Saturday, throwing a bullpen session, and will pitch in a minor league game on Tuesday.

While it is good news for the Philly faithful that Hamels is not seriously injured, there is cause for concern. Hamels has had an injury plagued career and it’s not the first time he’s hurt his pitching arm; he’s broken his pitching arm twice, experienced left elbow tendinitis, elbow soreness, a left shoulder strain, and has also gone on the disabled list with a back injury. Last season was the first time in his eight-year professional career he did not go on the DL. He pitched 262 1/3 innings last year, including the playoffs, which were 79 more innings than the year before. The wear and tear of a long season and a spotty injury history are certainly red flags concerning the 25-year-old. The Phillies made the right moves in getting him checked out and not rushing him back.

Even on the local level, the pitching staff is still the area of interest. The Philadelphia media, while concerned about the team’s ace, focused heavily on the back-end of the rotation. The fifth starter spot is up for grabs, as well as a spot in the bullpen for the runner-up. The competition involves incumbent starter Kyle Kendrick, last season’s young fill-in J.A. Happ, free agent signing Chan Ho Park, and top prospect Carlos Carrasco.

Kendrick has to earn back his job because of his performance in the second half of last season. He had a quality rookie season in 2007, and was solid in the beginning of 2008. However, after the all-star break, Kendrick hit a wall and struggled and was eventually left off the playoff roster. Kendrick has had his ups and downs in spring training, and is no longer considered the favorite to win the spot, but on Saturday, he threw his best outing of the spring and is hanging around in the competition.

Happ started last season in Triple-A, but was called up for a spot start to replace the struggling Brett Myers. He started three more games that season, appeared in a total of eight regular season games, and earned a spot on the Phillies’ playoff roster. This spring he has impressed and has been considered one of the two favorites for the fifth starting spot, but had a less than stellar outing on Wednesday.

The other favorite is Chan Ho Park. He was signed over the winter with the intent of pitching out of the bullpen, but with the promise of competing for a starting spot. Park has impressed the organization with quality starts, but he missed his scheduled start on Saturday with a sore left hamstring.

Carrasco has not enjoyed a stellar spring. However, he has learned a great deal and has pitched better as of late.

Carrasco, only 22, should start the season in Triple-A and gain some seasoning. Kendrick has struggled to maintain his form and confidence and should also start the season in Triple-A in order to work on his technique and get himself back together. Happ will wind up a victim of circumstance. The Phillies will be without reliever J.C. Romero for the first 50 games because of suspension. That leaves the team with only one left-hander in the bullpen. Happ pitched mostly out of the bullpen for the team last year and would serve as Romero’s replacement and a long-inning reliever when he returns. Park would be a welcome veteran to the staff.

Photo Credits:
Cole Hamels: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Kyle Kendrick: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
J.A. Happ: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Chan Ho Park: AP Photo/Yonhap. Do Kwang-hwan
Carlos Carrasco: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Friday, March 6, 2009

Leading Lion

All photos courtesy of Meghan Robinson.

Meghan Robinson is the only upperclassman on Emerson College women’s lacrosse team. The defender has earned the role of being one of the team’s captains.

Co-head coach Katie Shannon praised Robinson’s leadership qualities, saying, “She is in a tough position being the only junior on the team, but she takes pride in her leadership and the younger players really look up to her.”

However, her lacrosse career almost never made it to this point, on a couple of occasions.

Robinson started playing lacrosse in seventh grade. She continued to play at her high school, Springfield Township, in Philadelphia. She was a two-year letter winner, but every season she questioned whether she should stay on the team or quit.

“I didn’t like the team or the coach,” she said. “People’s hearts weren’t in it. The coach would say one thing and do another. It was bullshit.”

Amidst the frustration, she never acted upon her inclination to quit.

“I almost quit, but I never had it in me,” Robinson said. “I just kept telling myself, ‘Just one more year,’ and that it would be my last chance to play sports.”

Robinson never had the intention of playing lacrosse in college. She was going to focus on academics. Robinson knew she wanted to go to a college in a city. She visited Boston College and loved the campus and the city of Boston. As far as academics were concerned, she wanted to do something involving television, reporting, and possibly film. That’s when a friend suggested Emerson to her. One morning, Robinson and her family made an appointment to tour Emerson in the morning and Boston College in the afternoon. However, they wouldn’t need to go to that second meeting.

“I loved Emerson,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to go to Boston College anymore. Emerson had a great location, it was a small school, and it had great programs and opportunities. It just felt right being here.”

Robinson applied early action to Emerson but was deferred to the spring semester. She weighed her options of going somewhere else or waiting until the spring and decided there was no other college she would rather be at. That semester off was also where she got the inspiration to play lacrosse for the Lions.

“I started watching this show ‘Two-A-Days’ on MTV, about this high school football team,” she said. “It was really nostalgic for me and I realized that I really missed sports. So I contacted [former head coach Mike] Blanchard, and he said I could absolutely play on the team.”

The trip down nostalgia road didn’t last very long. “I almost quit after the first week. I thought the girls were mean,” Robinson said. “I was a bit presumptuous and thought everyone was clique-y. But I stuck it out and I’m glad I did. I’ve made some of my best friends playing lacrosse.”

Her coaches and teammates are glad she stuck it out too.

“Meg makes my job as coach easier,” said her other co-head coach, Gail Decker-Wittman. “I know that if I ask her to do something or take care of something that it will be done.”

Shannon mentioned how valuable Robinson is because of her skill-level. “She is the last defender on the field before the goalie, and I have all the trust in the world in her,” she said.

Fellow captain Maeghan Ross is very close with her teammate. The two were former roommates and Ross has a lot of respect for Robinson and what she adds to the team. “I think she is the best teammate ever, she’s so hard working,” Ross said. “She brings a sense of excitement, leadership, intensity, and dedication.”

While Robinson is a valuable piece to a Lions team that went to the Great Northeast Athletic Conference championship game last season, there is still room to improve.

“Her weakness is she is too nice,” said Decker-Wittman. “Sometimes in sports you have get a little mean. Meg doesn't do ‘mean’ well.”

Being a defender, Robinson agreed that she needed to get tougher. “I want to be more of a presence on defense. I want to be more of a threat,” she said. “I need to be more physical.”

Still, Robinson says her most important job is to be a leader. “I’m a team player. I want to make sure everyone does their best,” she said.

With Robinson leading the way, the Lions are not only poised to return to the GNAC championship, but determined to win it all.