Financial Unfair Play?

The best baseball World Series I’ve ever seen was the 2001 World Series which went to the final game seven and was won by the Arizona Diamondbacks thanks to that rarest of rare things a Mariano Rivera blown save. What made that series memorable was two fairytales were up against each other. A Yankees World Series win is not usually a fairytale but two months after the trauma of 9/11 it would have been (2001 is the one time I wanted the evil empire (as the Yanks are called!) to win the World Series). But to me the Diamondbacks were the real fairytale.

The fact is the Diamondbacks did not exist in 1901. Or 1951. Or even in 1996 when the Yankees started their four World Series in five year dominance that the 2001 Diamondbacks ended. The Diamondbacks did not exist until the Major Leagues expanded in 1998. In just four seasons the Diamondbacks won it all. Some people might complain that the team was all imported but there is no way a new team could compete so quickly otherwise. But in the US they believe in giving everyone a chance to keep the League competitive.

The funny thing is that something similar had been done in European football the team would have been hated. In 1995 UK football had its nearest equivalent of the 2001 Diamondbacks when Blackburn Rovers – bankrolled by millionaire (and life long fan) Jack Walker) won the League title in England for the first time since 1914. Of course the UK being the UK they were derided rather than celebrated on the basis that they had no history and that they owed their success to Walker’s money. Well so what? Shouldn’t every team have the right to dream of winning titles?

Well not according to European football’s governing body UEFA who have introduced Financial Fair Play regulations. Now in theory Financial Fair Play is a good idea as it limits teams to spending what they earn and is meant to stop teams getting into debt. The problem is that it stops people from spending their own money. As far as I’m concerned anybody has the right into spend their money the way they want to (once they have paid tax of course). The likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain (PSG) have been punished for no better reason than they have owners who want to spend their own money and for daring to have ambition. Another example is Wolfsburg of Germany who might fall foul of the regulations because they are owned by Volkswagen who want to spend their profits on the club. And why shouldn’t they?

The most damming criticism of Financial Fair Play is it is an oxymoron. Limiting teams to spending what they earn is fair if they all earn the same. But in European football that is not the case. Because the revenue in European football is unequally earned Financial Fair Play actually preserves the dominance of a clique of big clubs. The French, German and Italian Leagues have clear favourites in PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus respectively. Spain has two favourites in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Only the Premier League in England has four or five teams that might win it because of the investment by billionaires in Manchester City and Chelsea – which the football establishment hate but has made the league more competitive and earned it more TV money which has strengthened the other teams. Financial Fair Play in its current form should be called Financial Unfair Play.

Now I am not against proper Financial Fair Play but you won’t get it in European football. You have to look at the US. They don’t grumble about billionaire investors in the US. In fact US sport is full of them. The prime example is the Guggenheim group who paid $2.15 BILLION just to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers from ex owner Frank McCourt. In 2013 the Guggenheim group’s first full season in charge the franchise’s payroll was $214 million. In 2014 their payroll was $236.1 million. And what have they achieved in those two seasons? ONE post season series victory. Which might – or might not – change this year. My favourite baseball story of big spending gone wrong is the 2009 New York Mets who had a $ 153.5 million payroll – second only to the Yankees – but while the Yankees won the 2009 World Series the Mets won 70 games – only the Indians, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates and Royals won fewer games than the Mets that year. Why?

While part of it is due to the draft system which means the worst teams get the best young talent the fact is that in US sport the income the sport is made is distributed more fairly. Admittedly baseball is not the best example of this in since each franchise negotiates its own TV deals. And when I started following baseball in the 1990s it was like football in Europe is today. To win a World Series in the mid 1990s/early 2000s you had to beat the Yankees, Braves or both. But baseball did not make the same mistake with the internet. The parity in baseball today is probably due to one man – Jerry Reinsdorf the owner of the Chicago White Sox. He came up with the idea of sharing the internet income equally between all 30 franchises which has happened since Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM) was set up in 2000. Now baseball got lucky in that few people knew how much – if any – money the internet would make back in 2000. But BAM long ago exceeded its annual revenue target of $660 million. It is this internet revenue sharing that is in my opinion the main reason that every MLB franchise bar one has had a post season appearance in a year beginning with “2” (and the one franchise that has not the Blue Jays  – last post season appearance 1993 – has a great chance of making it this year).

And if I were running football we would have  proper Financial Fair Play. All revenue would be split equally between the 20 teams in the big European Leagues (18 teams in Germany) and also between the 32 teams that play in the Champions League. That doses not happen now. Revenue sharing would level out the playing field without banning billionaire investors. Just like what happens in America. And that is real Financial Fair Play.

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Where 2015 ranks in Ashes history

Well hardly anyone predicted that England would regain the Ashes did they? I didn’t (see previous post “Ashes to Ashes?” for evidence). And no one predicted they wold regain them with a Test to spare as they would have to be two matches up with one to play to do this (Australia as holders would have retained them with a draw so if England had been 2-1 up not 3-1 the Ashes could still have been salvaged at the Oval) but it wasn’t to be. Congratulations to Alistair Cook and his team for a magnificent achievement that no one predicted as recently as July 19th when England were humiliated at Lords.

But where does 2015 fit into Ashes history? England have regained the Ashes seven times in post war history (1953, 1970-71, 1977, 1985, 2005, 2009 and 2015) so I decided to rank the seven in order of what I think is the best achievement with the top one coming first. I should say at this juncture that regaining the Ashes is always a magnificent feat but some Ashes retentions are harder than others. So here we go with where in my opinion England’s seven post war Ashes regains rank in history.

1.1970-71(won 2-0) This one in my opinion easily tops the list. First of all it was the only one of the seven where England regained the Ashes away from home.  The Ashes have changed hands thirteen times since the war but only on this occasion and Australia’s win in 1989 was the feat done by the away team. That alone earns 1970-71 big points. Also England had not held the Ashes since 1959. Add to that the fact that captain Ray Illingworth had to deal with tour manager David Clark who wanted vice captain Colin Cowdrey to get the job (Illingworth had got the job by accident back in 1969 when Cowdrey got injured and a lot of people thought Cowdrey should have got the job back once he was fit) so the manager and captain did not get on well to put it mildly. Also England did not get a single lbw decision from the Australian* umpires in the whole six Test series. But England thanks to Illingworth’s captaincy and a fine team effort lead by Geoffrey Boycott with the bat and John Snow with the ball overcame the odds – but still won the final seventh** Test when Boycott wasn’t fit to play and Snow got injured halfway through. Illingworth called it the highlight of his career. It is also the highlight of England’s post war  Ashes history. (Guy Fraser-Sampson’s book “Cricket at the Crossroads, Class, Colour and Controversy from 1967 to 1977” – pages 127-168 – has excellent writing on this series).

The next two are far harder to separate and no 2 beats no 3 by a short head.

2. 2005 (won 2-1) Often called the greatest Test series ever and with some justification. The middle three Tests – Edgbaston (which England won by 2 runs) Old Trafford (draw with Australia having only one wicket left) and Trent Bridge (England won by three wickets after threatening to choke a la Australia in 1981) must be the greatest trio of Tests ever. Three things rank this series highly. First England had not held the Ashes since 1989. Secondly the excitement of the cricket and the outstanding individual performances of Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Simon Jones, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath among others. And thirdly this was a great Australian side – yet England inflicted only their fourth series defeat in 21 years (and they would not lose another one for three more). Only the fact that it was in England stops this being number 1.

3.1953 (won 1-0) So many similarities between this series and 2005. Again England had not held the Ashes for a long time – they lost them in 1934 – and (like 2005) this series captured the nation’s imagination as it was the first series a large number of the country could watch on TV (TV only really became popular in the UK in June 1953 when a large number of people bought their first sets to watch the coronation of the current Queen). There were great performances from Trevor Bailey, Willie Watson and in the last decisive match spinners Jim Laker and Tony Lock. The reason this is no 3 is that there was a lot of rain and defensive cricket. As Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2003 (page 59) put it “the slow batting, and all the rain, means that 1953 cannot be ranked as the greatest Ashes series of them all”.

4. 2015 (lead 3-1 with one to play) Always hard to judge a current series but mid table is fair. It has ben a great feat for Cook to overcome the trauma of the 5-0 disaster in Australia back in 2013-14 and the stick he got for the axing of Pietersen last year and for his own poor form of most of 2014.  For long spells he was more hated than UK Prime Minister David Cameron! It also took courage to change his team’s dour defensive approach for a more attacking one which I thought (see “Ashes to Ashes?”) was beyond him. The performances of Joe Root and Stuart Broad in particular will go down in Ashes folklore. 2015 can only be ranked fourth as Australia’s batting has been awful and after all England held the Ashes as recently as 2013 (unlike the three occasions above where they regained them after long periods of Australian dominance). Still a very pleasant surprise in a year full of surprises.

5.2009 (won 2-1) The luckiest of the seven. England’s series batting average was 34.15. Australia’s was 40.64***. Australia scored eight centuries to England’s two. Yet somehow England won. This was due to the heroics of Paul Collingwood, James Anderson and Monty Panesar in turning certain first Test defeat into a draw the batting and captaincy of Andrew Strauss and inspirational bowling spells from Flintoff, Broad and Grahame Swann. But the fact that this came so soon after the Lord Mayor’s Show of 2005 plus the luck that was involved sends this down the list.

6. 1977 (won 3-0) Similar to 1953 in that the Ashes was regained during a summer of Royal celebration – the Queen’s Silver Jubilee this time – it loses points because the Australians were divided among themselves  between those who h had signed for Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket (thirteen of the seventeen man squad) and the minority who had not.  Dennis Lillee then the best bowler in the world and former captain Ian Chappell  had according to Wisden 1978 “left their flannels at the cleaners until the Packer fortunes became available” thus weakening the team. Plus the fact England only lost the Ashes in 1975 made this feat less remarkable. It is still memorable for the batting of Bob Woolmer, the fast bowling of Bob Willis and two significant events. Boycott scored his 100th career hundred on his home ground of Headingley in the match where the Ashes were regained and a young all rounder called Ian Botham made his debut during this series took five wickets in an innings in both his first two Tests and went on to have a reasonably good career!

7.1985 (won 3-1) Similar to 1977 in that Australia were weakened by the loss of sixteen of their best players to a rebel tour of South Africa and that England had only lost the Ashes in 1983. Captain David Gower was outstanding scoring 732 runs and Botham took 31 wickets in his last great series as a bowler. But the fact that Australia’s bowling apart from Geoff Lawson and Craig McDermott was as awful as their batting has been this year means that it is the least impressive feat of the seven times that England have regained the Ashes in the post war era.

However it is still a great feat. Anything that has only happened seven times in sixty years is always impressive. But some are more impressive than others. I should say the list above is subjective my opinion and I suspect not everyone will agree with it.

*Ridiculous as it must seem to fans of other sports all cricket umpires (there are two on field umpires in cricket) were from the host country until 1994, and it wasn’t until 2002 that two neutral umpires became the norm. Some dinosaurs still want home umpires to return but we don’t want umpires who are perceived to be biased even if they are not. I’m not saying the Australian umpires in 1970-71 were biased (I wasn’t even born) but that lbw statistic is suspicious to put it mildly.

**The 1970-71 series was scheduled to have six Tests. When the third Test was rained off the two cricket boards agreed to add an extra seventh Test to the schedule (over the heads of England’s players who disapproved of the idea). That explains why there were six Tests played but seven in the series. It is the one seven Test series in Ashes history and means England will have a 100% record in seventh Ashes tests for ever as a seven Test series has never been – or ever will be – scheduled.

***As in baseball the higher the batting average the better the performance is.

Why Rousey v Mayweather must never happen

I have not admitted it here before but I am a big fan of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Yes I know it is fake but it is great entertainment and the wrestlers are great performers and athletes.

However there is something that just might happen at the WWE’s premier annual pay-per-view Wrestlemania that if it did happen would mean that I would never watch WWE again. The event would be a mixed fight between the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women’s bantamweight champion the unbeaten (12-0) Ronda Rousey and the unbeaten (48-0) multiaple time World boxing champion Floyd “Money” Mayweather.

Now you might think why would people be even thinking of a male v female fight? A conjunction of circumstances. First Rousey appears unbeatable. She won her last fight against Bethe Cotreia in just 34 SECONDS. And amazingly it was not her shortest fight! So people start looking for competition for her. Also add to this the fact that Mayweather is similar in height to Rousey (5ft 8 in to 5ft 7in) and there is only a few pounds in weight between them and people start thinking.

But there is a more sinister element to this. Mayweather has a history of domestic violence. He has been charged with the offence six times and served two months in prison for attacking the mother of three of his children. Rousey is a feminist. Some women would like to see Rousey take on Mayweather as some sort of revenge for his victims. Rousey has even brought up Mayweather’s past on a couple of occasions. First when she said that she would “never get in the ring with him unless they were dating” and  when she beat him to the Fighter of the Year award at the recent ESPYs she said (July16 2015) “I wonder how Floyd feels about being beaten by a woman for once”.

And add to this the race element.  Rousey is a white blonde while Mayweather is black. It is  too easy – especially in the US of 2015 – to see this becoming a case of the white hero v the black villain.  Every racist crackpot in the US – and there are a LOT of them – would support Rousey. You could have bizarre alliances forming where racists and feminists would support Rousey and sexists and blacks would support Mayweather.  Not a desirable scenario to put it mildly.

And amazingly people are taking this seriously. In the last week two articles have been published advocating the fight. One by Clay Travis on Fox Sports.com (August 3rd) was entitled “Ronda Rousey and Floyd Mayweather need to fight”. The next day David Whitely in the “Orlando Sentinel” wrote that “Rousey v Mayweather must happen”.

And Twitter has also mentioned the possibility of the fight happening. Two examples:

I would pay a large amount of money to see @RondaRousey kick Floyd Mayweather’s ass in the ring. She’s a beast. (Brittaney Phelps (@brittaneyphelps) July 28 2015).

When Rousey-Mayweather happens at Wrestlemania 5 years from now I want credit. Favourite this tweet. (Robert Littal (@BSO) August 2 2015).

And this is where the WWE comes in. Even taking gender out of the equation if one fighter is a boxer and the other is an ultimate fighter they can’t meet in the ring or in the octagon as that would be to the advantage of one or other of the competitors. They need a neutral venue. Like the WWE. And as luck would have it both Mayweather and Rousey have appeared at Wrestlemania. Mayweather at Wrestlemania 24 when he fought and beat the Big Show and Rousey at Wrestlemania 31 this year in a cameo with Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and the Rock. So a boxing/mixed martial arts hybrid match at a future Wrestlemania would seem ideal.

There is one big drawback in my opinion. The very idea of a man and woman fighting each other is to me morally repugnant. What message would it send out to men who beat their wives/girlfriends if they saw a man hit a woman in a fight on TV? Remember WWE fans know it is fake but those who don’t normally watch WWE who are drawn to WWE because of a Rousey v Mayweather fight would not know it was fake and think it is real. Would a wife beater justify beating his wife by saying “I saw Mayweather do this to Rousey on TV”? Even if only one man used the fight as an excuse it would be one too many. And I think Rousey knows this as she says she would not fight Mayweather.

But in sport money talks and there is a historical precedent. On September 28th 1973 female tennis player Billie Jean King took on male player Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome in the “Battle of the Sexes” – a $100000 winner-take-all match. Amazingly more than 30,000 people turned up to see King win and over 50 million watched on US TV – proving that a market for this kind of event existed during a period of strong feminist activity (another similarity with today).

The big difference of course is that tennis is not a physical contact sport and there was no risk of injury to King and no risk of glorifying male violence towards women. So that event was a harmless little publicity stunt – quite unlike a potential Rousey-Mayweather fight.

Ironically if these two were from the UK this fight would be easily nipped in the bud as the authorities could easily ban it because of the “average woman” law in the UK. This prohibits mixed sport in events where the average woman is at a physical disadvantage to the average man (my emphasis).It is clear that fight sports would fall into this category. The fact that Rousey is not the “average woman” would be totally irrelevant. Now when this law is applied to say football and cricket it is wrong but in the case of a man fighting a woman it is a perfectly justifiable way to stop it.

And that is what the US authorities must do. They must pass an “average woman” law – provided it only applies to fight sports – and for the purpose of this law the WWE – which calls itself “sports entertainment” would count as a sport.

If they don’t do this they are relying on the morals of the competitors and promoters of sport overcoming their desire to make money – a very unlikely scenario. People will say the fight will never happen but no one thought the Conservatives would get a majority in the UK General Election or that the Astros and the Mets would be top of their divisions or women’s football fever would sweep the UK and the US. Funny things happen in sport – and life.

So the US authorities must step in and make sure the sick spectacle of a Rousey-Mayweather fight can never happen. The UK Government can help by banning the WWE and UFC from coming to the UK if it ever happens (both brands see the UK as a key growth market).

One thing is certain. If Rousey v Mayweather happens I won’t be watching. And if it is held at a future Wrestlemania the WWE will have lost themselves at least one fan forever.

Its time for football managers – and the press – to grow up

So the new Premier League football season starts on Saturday. But the season hasn’t started and already there is a sour taste in the mouth. One of the main features of Sunday’s pre season Community Shield match between Arsenal and Chelsea was yet another whinge a thon between Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho culminating in their failure to shake hands at the end of Arsenal’s 1-0 victory. This feud has a tiringly long history with Mourinho calling Wenger a “voyeur” back in 2005 and the two men nearly coming to blows during a game at Stanford Bridge last year being the lowlights. Mourinho is 52 years old and Wenger 65 but you wouldn’t know it from their behaviour. I suspect two three years olds would behave in a more mature way towards each other and it is about time they grew up. Perhaps a six month ban from doing their jobs might do the trick.

But this is not the first managerial feud in football history. There has been Mourinho v Rafael Benitez – which flared up again last week even though Benitez is not even in this country – Mourinho v Manuel Pellegrini (notice a pattern here?) and in the past there was Sir Alex Ferguson v Kevin Keegan, Ferguson v Wemger, Ferguson v Mourinho, Ferguson v Benitez(another pattern emerging!). This is nothing new – managerial feuds in the UK can be traced back to the early 1970s and the feud between the two “big beasts” of management in that era – Don Revie and Brian Clough who even had a 30 minute live TV debate in 1974 when Clough got sacked from Leeds a mere 44 days after succeeding Revie in the job – but it has gotten beyond a joke. Time to grow up.

To be fair the managers are not the only villains here. The people really to blame are the UK press a  lot of whom in my opinion are not interested in football at all and only care about the off field stuff – transfer gossip managerial spats etc – and as a result the papers are full of this stuff rather than the actual game. Another problem is that managers have to talk to the press far too often – before every game after every game seemingly every day. Personally I am sick of them and when ever the awful Sky Sports News (an oxymoron if ever there was one) says they are going to a manager’s press conference I switch channels. Time for a change. If I was in charge of football all press conferences would be scrapped. This would mean that managerial feuds would not be made public as they would not talk to the press and the journalists would have to do some work for a change. You know actually thinking for themselves instead of getting quotes from managers spoon fed to them like babies. At the very least the press and TV interviews should be voluntary. Everybody goes on about freedom of speech. But shouldn’t there also be a freedom not to speak?

The cutting down – or banning – of press interviews might also have two desirable side effects. First with less – or no – interviews to report the UK press might be forced to cover both foreign men’s football and women’s football which are both woefully under covered by our sexist and xenophobic press. Secondly the banning of post match interviews would lead to less “referee bashing”. A lot of criticism of referees comes from upset managers giving interviews at the end of a game when emotions are still raw and people when they are angry say things in the heat of the moment that they don’t mean (I know I do). The FA keep saying they want referees to be respected. Banning the post match interview would reduce criticism of referees “at a stoke” – to quote ex UK Prime Minister Edward Heath.

Another beef I have with the UK press is that they get into football matches for free. Why on earth should they?. No one else does. If a fan wants to watch their team in action at the ground he/she has to pay. Sky Sports, BT Sport and the BBC don’t get into games for free. They have to pay millions of pounds for the privilege. If fans want to watch football on TV they have to pay monthly subscriptions to both Sky and BT Sport. Even to watch the popular “Match Of the Day” highlights show on free-to-air BBC 1 they have to pay a licence fee. Radio too has to pay to be able to cover the games. Why should newspapers be different? Answer: they shouldn’t be. All newspapers should have to pay for the right to get into games – say £200 a year for national papers and £100 a year for the local ones. They should also be ordered to cover women’s football and – in the case of the nationals – foreign football – far more than they currently do. The press may howl they give football publicity. And they do. But so do TV and radio. And they pay up willingly.

All this I am afraid is wishful thinking. No doubt during the season we will get the usual feuds between moaning managers encouraged by a lazy press who don’t then have to write about the game on the pitch – which should be their job  – or soil themselves by covering women’s football and foreign football – which could fill the gaps left by the  moaning managers . But I live in hope that one day there will be a “tipping point” and football fans will become fed up with grown men behaving like cry babies and our gutter press egging them on and  instead demand more coverage of the action on the pitch plus foreign and women’s football – and force our sexist and xenophobic football press out of the 1970s  and into the 21st century.