Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Games of 2015 & 2024

(This column appears as part of my regular series of sports commentary on The Daily Payoff).

By Terry Lyons (Twitter: @terrylyons)

BOSTON - A dangerous game with the highest stakes in the entire sports world is playing out this summer, and about a week ago, the United States Olympic Committee doubled down on its weakening hand. The USOC is gambling with the battered reputation of the United States of America in the international sports community, and the organization’s wager is a “Boston in 2024” bet that has a doubting New England community yelling “CRAPS!”

On January 8th of this year, the USOC surprised the elite followers of the Lord of the Rings with the announcement that Boston was selected over Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles as the USA’s choice to put forth in the high stakes poker game of landing the rights to host a future Summer Olympic Games, targeting the next available Olympiad to be held way in the distant future of 2024. With the fact that the Summer Games have not been held in North America since the ill-fated, domestic terrorist bomb-laden Atlanta Olympics of 1996, the Pundits of the Rings all believed the United States entry had a better-than-average chance at landing the ’24 Games. Since ’96, the better part of the universe has had its hands in the Olympic cookie-jar, including Sydney (2000), Athens (2004), Beijing (2008), London (2012) and all-too-soon-to-be Rio (2016). After that, Asia will host the XXXII Olympiad, with the 2020 events in Tokyo.

That left Olympiad #33 up for grabs, and what better way could there possibly be to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the great Larry Bird’s dual NBA & NBA Finals MVP season than the Summer Games right behind the Fourth of July on the Esplanade?  So the USOC acted on this notion back in January, and all the local Boston politicians and civic leaders jumped right on the bandwagon, figuring there would be much rejoicing. All was fine and wonderful in Beantown, for about as long as it took the New England weather to change.
The cruel winter of 2015 dumped 108.6 inches of snow atop the golden dome of the State House, the worst winter snowfall since 1872, some 24 years before the ancient Olympic Games of 1896. What the politicians and USOC members did not count on during that snowy winter were the two things every Bostonian can claim as his or her own - crankiness and complaining.

Bostonians, and New Englanders, in general, love to complain. They complain about the weather, the weather forecasters, the politicians, the sports teams, and their coaches. Even when the coaches deliver championships, the next season the fans complain. You can ask Red Sox manager John Farrell or Bruins coach Claude Julien, and they’ll tell you, if they still have jobs next week. And, that’s just sports!  When it comes to REAL complaining, Bostonians have three favorite topics: the Big Dig, the traffic, and the transit system, known to all as the T, probably since its formation in 1897, only a year after the inaugural and ancient Olympics in Greece.

Now put this perfect storm together, and you won’t need a PhD in Mathematics from MIT to frame the equation:

IOC + USOC + 2015 + 108.6 (snow) + Big Dig - (new Governor + new Mayor) = Boston - 2024

What is the answer to that problem?

A resounding, “No."

Faster than a politician can flip-flop, the grand plans of Boston 2024 were called into question, and the pronouncement of Boston being the USOC’s city of choice as fact was denounced by civic groups, claiming the 2024 Games would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions. While the snow fell, Bostonians did what they do best and started to complain to their elected officials to the point where all hell broke loose, and the original head of the Boston Olympic organizing group, prominent construction magnate John Fish, had to step down and was replaced by Steve Pagliuca, known to most as managing partner of Bain Capital investment group and co-owner of the Boston Celtics. 

In recent weeks, Pagliuca has done what any newfound co-chair of a committee would do. He called for a “players only” team meeting, re-shaped the Boston 2024 bid specs, and launched version 2.0 in order to appease the inquiring minds of “No Boston 2024” and a public still complaining about the Big Dig, the snow (and the resulting parking and traffic woes), and an ancient, failing transit system. One thing is for sure: in the world of politics, investments, public opinion, and even sports, team meetings, re-launches, and versions 2.0 are not good, although Pagliuca has assured all who will listen that the premise of Boston 2024 will not come at the cost of taxpayers of the Commonwealth and the Summer Games will actually fuel a much-needed rebuilding of two Boston neighborhoods while the city works to finance its aging and decrepit infrastructure.

To that point, Pagliuca and Boston 2024 are right. The failing “T” and the aging roads are not going to fix themselves, and by 2024, they will be nearly a decade older.

So the question remains - Should the USOC put forth a bid to the world for Boston to host the 2024 Olympics?

With world class cities like Paris and Rome amongst the competing cities, a successful Boston bid is a long-shot, at best. Even Hamburg and Budapest might be more viable candidates to the IOC. But the influence of the North American audience (a.k.a. NBC/Comcast television money) might be enough to influence the IOC hierarchy to vote for the USA candidate city, either in 2024 or no later than 2028. The people of Boston need to recognize the fact that the old fashioned way of “complaining and doing nothing” is only a mantra for the GOP, not a city in dire need of modernization.

While the bid-specs detail the use of existing facilities and champion a new approach, tagged as "Olympic Agenda 2020” by the IOC, seeking to cut down on the growing excesses of prior Olympiads, the secret sauce for Boston 2024 is to seek new and better sources of revenue generation. One idea, totally lost in the shuffle of all noise generated this spring, is Boston 2024’s original bid idea to “farm out” some of the events - such as the preliminary round of basketball. In such a plan, two groups of six teams could play to large audiences in cities such as New York or Chicago before coming to Boston for the medal round to be played after artistic gymnastics folds up its tent and TD Garden reverts back to the parquet floor.

Another idea - ripe for the times - is to factor in potential revenue or licensing from all-out sports gambling on certain events of the Games. Properly administered, global wagering from authorized sports books and even daily fantasy sports could add tens of millions to the Boston 2024 coffers, and that would be just for the sponsorship or official licensing rights to the likes of William Hill or Betfair. Affiliate fees and a portion of the take might net enough cash to appease the Boston 2024 naysayers while paving the road for additional fees to further insure possible cost over-runs. The Mass Lottery might like it enough to begin the program as early as the Summer of 2016, when wagering or a DFS lottery on the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots could mint millions, just as the Rio Games are planning to wager their Olympic reputations on the likes of win, place, and show bets on gold, silver and bronze medalists.

Let the Games begin.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sports Good Guy wins Cool Fantasy $1M with Crazy US Open Finish

A Father’s Day summer evening turned into night and golf fans around the world surely shook their heads in disbelief when the 17th and 18th holes at Chambers Bay brought about the strangest of finishes to the 115th United States Open golf championship. The four-day tournament was near its conclusion and the prime time US television audience stayed glued to their High-Def TV sets which delivered the grimaces of PGA Tour pros Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson into the living rooms of many casual sports fans, some longing for a Game 7 of the completed NBA or NHL seasons but left with nothing else to watch but the major golf championship.
What those primetime Fox Sports viewers couldn’t see or feel as the sun set near the Puget Sound were the heart palpitations pulsing through Carl Bassewitz, a veteran sports industry good-guy who was playing Draft Kings PGA Millionaire-maker daily fantasy game for the very first time. Bassewitz, watching on his TV, a half continent away from the action, double and triple-checked the scores of his six player fantasy team that he selected. His lineup featured Spieth but not Johnson, and also included, Louis Oosthuizen (T-2), Kevin Kisner (T-12), Tony Finau and Patrick Reed (T-14) and Jason Dufner (T-18).
That “fantasy team” combination delivered Bassewitz to the dream world of all fantasy sports players, as he turned a single $20 entry fee into a cool $1 Million dollar prize. In doing so, Bassewitz outlasted 143,000 entrants who ponied-up the $20 fee with hopes of a $1 million when they chose their lineups for six golfers, staying under a $50,000 cap, as per usual in the Draft Kings golf game. One such player, the second place finisher who is only known as “Headchopper” who is known as a professional in the fantasy sports world, needed Johnson to finish ahead of Spieth. But Johnson’s improbable three-putt on the 72nd hole of the tournament gave the U.S. Open title and its $1.8 million first place purse to Spieth, while delivering a cool mil to Bassewitz and a not-so-paltry $877,144 runner-up prize to both Johnson and Oosthuizen.
When reality set in, Bassewitz realized he’d made more money than the U.S. Open runner-ups!
For the rest of this column, click HERE

Friday, June 19, 2015

When Will American Pharaoh Run?

The suspense is killing me. When will American Pharoah run? Just tell me, please, when and where will he run?

The horse racing world is abuzz this week as fan speculation on the whereabouts of Pharoah’s next race is being fueled by a considerable amount of old-fashioned lobbying. Since thoroughbred owner Ahmed Zayat’s initial statement two days after The Belmont Stakes, the odds-on favorite for the Triple Crown winner’s next race was The Haskell at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. However, a June 18th social media posting by Zayat turned the racing world upside down when the horse owner cryptically tweeted, “right know Saratoga is in the lead. Head of Haskell.” (sic).

That post might have the folks at TVG, known as America’s #1 online horse wagering and TV network, scrambling for a PR flack re-write as the broadcaster had previously issued a press release, complete with Betfair odds on Pharoah’s next run, which stated:

4-to-5 - August 2 - Haskell Invitational, Monmouth Park (NJ)
4-to-1 - August 1 - Jim Dandy Stakes, Saratoga (NY State)
4-to-1 - August 22 - TVG Pacific Classic, Del Mar (San Diego, California
7-to-1 - August 29 - Travers Stakes, Saratoga 
16-to-1 - September 26, Awesome Again Stakes, Santa Anita
20-to-1 - August 29 - Mystic Lake Derby, Canterbury Park (Minnesota)
20-to-1 - September 19 - Pennsylvania Derby, Parx (Bensalem, PA)
33-to-1 - September 26 - Jockey Club Gold Cup, Belmont (New York)
10-to-1 - “The Field” also known as Any Other Race

“American Pharoah won the nation’s heart when he crossed the finish line at the Belmont Stakes to end the 37-year wait for a Triple Crown champion,” said Kip Levin, CEO of TVG. “His time in the spotlight is hardly over, however, as he is expected to hit the track once again. The real question on everyone’s mind is, ‘Where will he race next?’”

As American Pharoah was shipped from Kentucky to California for a “promotion and appearance” at Santa Anita, the speculation swung mightily from Monmouth to Del Mar to Saratoga over a 24-hour span of time.

“I’m intimately involved with all the goings on,” said Dennis Drazin, advisor to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association to Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Press. “It’s a lot of money. But at the end of the day, what I would say is that (trainer Bob) Baffert is a top horseman, and regardless of the money, you have to do the right thing for the horse. And the right thing for the horse is to run at Monmouth Park against straight 3-year olds. You don’t want to attack older horses at this point.

“The ultimate goal is the Breeders’ Cup Classic and you have to plan for him getting to that race,” said Drazin to the APP. “The Haskell, although it’s not a walkover, it’s the right kind of race. It’s straight 3-year olds on a track he’ll love. Baffert’s been a winner seven times (at The Haskell)."

Immediately after the perfectly-timed Zayat social media post, the twitterverse went wild with further speculation and Drazin declined comment to his Asbury Park pundit.

American Pharoah is now looking at his non-racing public appearance at Santa Anita in California for the track’s Gold Cup day on June 27. Importantly, the colt’s breeding rights have already been secured by Ashford Stud in central Kentucky’s bluegrass country and his stud fees will range between $175,000 and $200,000, placing a conservative $17.5 million for annual fees, according to numerous published reports.

The question for trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat will remain secret as they field requests from “all kinds of tracks,” according to Baffert. Last weekend, American Pharoah returned to Churchill Downs, site of the colt’s Kentucky Derby win, and was applauded by 30,000, just for a stroll in the park.

“We won’t know for a few weeks,” said Baffert to the Asbury Park Press. “We want to do what’s best for American Pharoah, not what is best for the racetracks.”

Certainly, what is best for all, including the Triple Crown winner, is to continue to fuel interest in the sport of kings while his keepers fuel speculation and keep the industry in the national news. But, as they decide what is best, the victims of that campaign might just be race track ticket buyers who scramble for admission and attempt to make their summer travel plans, whether it be to Monmouth, Saratoga or maybe, Del Mar,

Get your rider’s up!

(This column is among those which regularly appear in The Daily Payoff. Please visit HERE).

Friday, June 12, 2015

High Stakes Game in TV Ratings

(This column regularly appears at The Daily Payoff)

By TERRY LYONS, Contributing columnist at The Daily Payoff

In recent weeks, we’ve paid our fair share of attention to American Pharoah’s run to the Triple Crown of horseracing, watching intently as the once-in-a-generation thoroughbred racehorse won graded stakes at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Raceway. American Pharoah delivered on the track, but his Triple Crown win translated into only 18.6 million television viewers on NBC, down from the 20.6 million fans who tuned into California Chrome’s failed bid at The Belmont in 2014. When Pharoah had the Triple Crown on the line at The Belmont, you might’ve thought the stakes were as high as they’d get but, as spring turns to summer and stretch-run at Belmont is in the rear-view, there’s no higher stakes in professional sports than that of the TV ratings game.

Certainly the National Hockey League and NBC benefitted from a strong audience lead-in from The Belmont, as Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final calculated a tune-in of 6.6 million viewers for Game 2 of the series between the Tampa Bay Lightening and Chicago Blackhawks, the strongest non-clinching game TV audience since 1994. The data will improve as the Stanley Cup series, split 2-2 as of this writing, moves on to Tampa for a pivotal fifth game.

Meanwhile, after the longest break in NBA playoff history between the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the midst of a memorable NBA Finals series, with NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Warriors and the league’s best player, Lebron James of the Cavs doing battle on the court. However, the real numbers are being crunched, off the court, by the Disney Corporation, the caretakers of ABC Sports, cash cow cable entity ESPN and the NBA on ESPN property. As of this writing, the 2015 NBA Finals are the highest-rated ever on ABC with Game 4 delivering a 13.9 overnight rating to be joined with the league’s soaring numbers after the first three games of the Finals. Those ratings points translate to some 18.6 million viewers turning into the series, with the numbers — like the NHL’s — sure to go up as the league is guaranteed no fewer than six games to determine the champion.

Delving deeper into the NBA on ABC numbers, the Nielsen ratings in Game 4 were up 31 percent from the Miami vs. San Antonio numbers of a year ago with the ABC ratings averaging 13.1 (overnight), up some 26 percent over 2014. Of course, those are record-setting numbers for ABC Sports and do not factor against the record numbers the NBA did when NBC Sports carried the property and veteran broadcast chief Dick Ebersol put the pedal to the metal to promote Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to the tune of a Game 6 1998 NBA Finals record rating of 18.7 when no fewer than 30 million tuned into the NBA Finals from United States households, alone, nevermind the growing and strong international audience for basketball.

To be clear, the television ratings game of the winter-spring sports, such as horse racing, ice hockey and basketball cannot and will not compete with the television audience for the NFL’s biggest game - The Super Bowl. Last February, the New England Patriots exciting victory over the Seattle Seahawks saw a Nielsen rating blockbuster of 47.5 that translated to a US audience of 114.4 million viewers for the NFL and TV’s biggest audience of the year. Quite simply, there will never be a sporting audience viewing a game on TV that is larger than the NFL’s Super Bowl audience.

The other interesting point of comparison in the high stakes ratings game for televised sports properties in Major League Baseball which saw an 8.2 ratings average and 13.8 million viewers tune into the 2014 series, according to Sports Media Watch. Between Jordan’s last game in 1998 and 2008, the World Series consistently out-rated the NBA Finals. But, over the past five years (2010-2014), the NBA Finals has out-rated Major League Baseball’s World Series and the trend is surely going to continue in 2015, unless October brings about a miracle story (Insert Chicago Cubs joke here!)

One other interesting factor in televised sports ratings is to look at the numbers from the competing local markets. In Cleveland, Game 4 of the NBA Finals generated a 45.7 rating for the 20+ point Golden State blowout of the Cavs. In the Bay Area (SF market), the broadcast delivered a solid 30.5 rating. Pretty amazing audience numbers for the NBA which was largely criticized, especially by NASCAR and Fox Sports tv executives, when the 2003 NBA Finals drew all-time ratings lows of 6.5 for the New Jersey Nets vs. San Antonio Spurs series.

That … was a long time ago.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Daily Payoff: Mondogoal Takes a Gamble on FIFA World Cup

(This column appears regularly at The Daily Payoff)

By TERRY LYONS, Contributing Columnist for The Daily Payoff

The United States of America’s Justice Department’s beat-down on the upper echelon executives of FIFA brought a bit more than a small share of criticism and focus upon the governing body for world futbol. It brought an all-out public relations disaster as the lead story on every network newscast in the world, and even worse, FIFA’s downfall became the punch line for comedic genius such as “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

The early morning arrests of several FIFA executives by Swiss authorities at the posh Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich fast-became the b-roll for a generation of FIFA’s critics. As the raid was barely underway, with charges under the USA’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), detailed accusations and background were printed in the morning editions of The New York Times which brought a level of seriousness that organized futbol has never seen, but its fans had long expected. The accusations were wide-ranging and were enough to eventually cause the resignation of longtime FIFA president Sepp Blatter. The fall-out will continue for the rest of the year as the US Justice Department’s Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, builds the case.

The focus of the alleged corruption and bribery charge was centered on FIFA’s designation of Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) as World Cup event sites but caught in the crosshairs of the scandal is the fact the 2015 Women’s World Cup is being staged in Canada from June 6 to July 5, right on the front doorstep of the FIFA scandal. One might think the highly visible RICO charges for such a highly visible world event might be cause for the sponsors and affiliates of the Women’s World Cup to run for the Hudson Bay, but that has not been the case as the women kick-off in Canada. Event sponsors, already neck-deep in their investment, have turned a blind eye to the off-the-pitch misconduct and are focusing on the athletes and competition itself.

One such affiliate is Mondogoal, a relatively new player in the daily fantasy sports world, which is staging a daily fantasy game for the Women’s World Cup. While not an “official” sponsor of FIFA, Mondogoal operates globally and focuses its efforts in the United States, Britain, Canada, Ireland and Brazil - all hotbeds of international futbol. The company is incorporated out of the Isle of Man and has business operations in the USA. Mondogoal’s Women’s World Cup offering will be the first fantasy game ever staged for women’s sport.

“The Women’s World Cup is a phenomenal platform for the game, and will draw not just passionate soccer fans but a casual audience interested in women’s sports and a global event,” said Shergul Arshad, CEO of Mondogoal. “By creating this game for a global audience we will provide a new engagement platform, which we believe, will raise the visibility and interest not just for soccer but for women’s sports as well.

“In North America, daily fantasy sports has taken off, and interest in soccer is at an all-time high. We are making sure the North American soccer fan not only can play fantasy contests involving the popular European leagues, but also from the best soccer, locally,” he said.

To that end, Mondogoal is offering fantasy players a way to blend both the Women’s World Cup players with those of men’s competitions being staged at the same time, notably in North America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), Europe’s Champions League final and the Copa America. The new blend will be the first time fantasy sports is offered on a “co-ed” basis.

Digging into the particulars, daily fantasy players can pick a team of 11 female players from the four Women’s World Cup matches on event days, using Mondogoal’s salary cap style of play to build a fantasy team. If the fantasy player doesn’t like the full offering from the women’s matches, they can mix and match with the men’s contests taking place the same day. As with all fantasy products, points are accrued for positive “on-the-pitch” statistics, such as goals, and assists. The fantasy winner is the person who picks the perfect fantasy team of players who compile the most positive statistics for the entire day.

Mondogoal has a deal with Perform’s Opta Sports to compile all the various stats - in real time - and tracks the nuances of the obvious stats, but also tackles won-lost, shots on goal, passes completed, or stats for goaltenders, like saves and shut-outs.

The take-away from Mondogoal’s foray into women’s sports, via the Women’s World Cup, is the fact the daily fantasy sports world is moving full speed ahead and flourishing. While some may think daily fantasy is a little too close to actually gambling on the outcome of a game, the fact of the matter is that daily fantasy might just have more credibility than the FIFA executives carted off in the dawn air in Zurich.

Check out the rest of my contributions and a ton of interesting content by clicking HERE.