Sports Prices, Hideki Matsui/Ichiro Suzuki; Don Nelson/TMC; Kentucky Champs; Matt Cain
ABOUT TWO YEARS ago, a reader of my generation wrote me to say I should write a column about how baseball was pricing itself out of the market, which is especially bad for a game which has always been known as the family game. I told him I had already written that column, some time in the mid-Ď70s, and I didnít think I wanted to repeat it..
I was reminded of that last week when I was at the Giants Open House, where they show media what theyíre doing with the park, special promotions and feed us some of the food we couldnít afford ourselves. The improvements were impressive. Virgin Atlantic has financed an almost total overhaul of one deck. There are substantial improvements to the mini-field for youngsters behind the left field fence. In center field, there are still more food areas with prices resembling what youíd pay in an airport food stop. Hopefully, the food is better.
These new improvements are how baseball teams have countered the price explosion. Itís not just a baseball game now but a dayís (or nightís) experience, with many activities for children and adults. Early on, Jeff Kent wondered how the Giants could claim sellouts when he could look up from the field and see so many empty seats. The answer, of course, was that many fans were out getting food, playing games or just walking around the park. If anything, the pedestrian traffic is more intense now. I like to walk around the park myself in the middle innings, and the area behind right field can seem like Times Square.
Even adjusted for inflation, the Giants ticket prices are higher than in the Ď70s, when I was so concerned about them. But, the tickets are selling. In 40 seasons at Candlestick, the Giants only three times drew more than two million fans bit theyíve been over three million in 10 of their 12 seasons at AT&T, with an average of about 3.1 million.
Ironically, this is in a sport which also reveres its past much more than other sports. The Cubs are still playing in Wrigley Field, built in 1917, the Red Sox in Fenway Park, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Both have been refurbished considerably but neither has all the conveniences of modern parks. I saw a TV special on Fenway last week and heard announcers and writers extolling its wonders and all I could think was, Iíll take AT&T, thank you very much.
Other sports also offer more to those who pay extra, either for luxury suites or club seats, but donít have all the activities for children because they are not so geared to families. But even the regular seats cost an arm and a leg.
This at a time when it might seem that television is even more of a threat because the new HD telecasts make it seem that youíre right there, at courtside or on the sidelines. Even hockey is much better on TV because viewers can actually follow the puck.
Yet, fans still much prefer to be at the games, which everybody understands but NFL owners, who continue to black out home games that arenít sold out. The 49ers have bought unsold tickets for years to keep their games on home TV because they realize that TV is a great selling tool. They wonít have to do that this year; theyíre already sold out for the season. The Raiders have bought up tickets when theyíve been close to a sellout, but their long stretch of non-playoff teams has left too big a gap for many games.
Despite all that is available on TV, and I havenít even talked of all the college football games, and despite the rising prices, people still want to be at the games. I donít understand it, but I know one thing: Iíll never write another column saying a sport is pricing itself out of business.
THIS COLUMN is going out a day early because I plan to go to the Giants-Aís exhibition at AT&T tomorrow to talk to managers and players, since I havenít been to spring training.
Itís already been a weird baseball season because baseballís commissioner, Bud Selig, in all his wisdom decided that the Aís and Seattle Mariners should start the season with two games in Japan. Well, of course, thatís the right way to introduce the Japanese to baseball, since theyíve only been playing it sinceÖ..the 19th century.
When the NFL makes these overseas jaunts, itís to sell their merchandise because NFL Properties has become an immense source of profit. Itís hard to say what MLB gains from playing games in Japan. The Japanese already buy a lot of baseball-oriented merchandise, but only if the name of a Japanese player is attached. I witnessed this phenomenon up close the past season because several Japanese journalists were assigned to follow Hideki Matsui around and report on what he did Ė and nothing else. It mattered not whether the Aís won or lost because the Japanese journalists were not concerned with that, only what Matsui did. Seattle writers say itís been the same with Ichiro Suzuki all these years.
Iíll say one thing for the Japanese journalists, though: Theyíre quiet and courteous in the press box. Several Japanese journalists donít come close to equaling the noise and bluster of one New York writer, in any sport.
The problem I have with these games in foreign cities is that they can affect the regular season play. NFL teams are still not certain whether itís better to go in early so players can overcome their jet lag, even though theyíll face many media demands, or treat it like a normal road game and come in two days earlier, thus eliminating much of the media contact.
The competitive balance is less affected this year in baseball because the only thing the Aís and Mariners will be battling for will be third place in the AL West. Neither team will be able to see the Angels and Rangers with a telescope by midseason. Because of the schedule, the Mariners will get an early break because they can pitch Felix Rodriguez three times against the Aís in two weeks. Ouch.
DON NELSON: During his last coaching season, 2009-2010, Nelson kept saying it wasnít his desire to have the most coaching wins that kept him at the Warriorsí helm. Did he really think he was fooling anybody? His strategy worked because he got elected to the basketball Hall of Fame last weekend, with his total wins overcoming the fact that he never won a championship.
Good for him. Nelson brought an excitement to the game that is usually lacking in what has become an increasingly cookie-cutter game: Point guard brings the ball up, looks to pass it inside to the Designated Shooter (not an actual position but thereís usually one or two on every good team) and, if the DS isnít open, takes a three-point shot himself or drives to the basket. Forget any semblance of an offense which involves all five players.
Nelson coached a different game, using somewhat smaller players who were constantly on the move. His TMC group (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) was his best and most exciting. Nelson broke up the group by trading Richmond for Billy Owens, getting more size but much less movement. He later said it was the worst move heíd ever made. Amen. But before that, there were some exciting playoff games in which his strategy totally baffled other coaches. Great fun.
He could be very hard on rookies, which was what caused the explosion with Chris Webber. Nelson treated him like any other rookie, which is to say, with constant criticism, and Webber did not take that as a learning experience. I thought maybe the two would mend their differences in the offseason but they didnít. ďItís all Don,Ē said Dan Finnane, then the co-owner and president of the Warriors when we talked in the offseason. ďIíve tried to get him to talk to Webber but he just wonít bend.Ē
You know how the rest of that story went. Ugly.
Nelsonís last good team was the 2007-8 Warriors team, which won 48 games but didnít make the playoffs. The previous year, the Warriors had their only playoff team in the last 16 seasons, upsetting the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. It was typical of Nelsonís good teams, productive by going against the norm. Instead of having the normal guard lineup with a small playmaker and a larger shooting guard, he went with Baron Davis as his point guard and the smaller Monta Ellis as the shooting guard. The 6-5 Davis guarded the shooting guard of the other team. Meanwhile, the mercurial Stephen Jackson curbed his evil demon and made big plays from all over the court. (I was glad to see the Warriors quickly ship out Jackson when they acquired him in the Andrew Bogut trade, though. He could have been very bad news in this losing environment.)
Nelson also broke all the personal conduct rules. He loved his cigars and smoked one at media news conferences until the league told him not to. He ate and drank too much during the season, then went on a rigid diet in the offseason to lose at least some of that weight. Not a regime a doctor would prescribe but Nelson often went against the rules.
I saw a story last week that said he could be charming or churlish with the media but truthfully, I seldom saw that second attitude. There was one time, though, in spring, 2010 when he appeared at a pre-draft meeting with writers and made no secret of the fact that he didnít want to be there. But I didnít regard that as an anti-writers stance. It had been his practice to spend most of the offseason at his home on Maui but he had been called into the Warriors office to help work on the draft. He was angry at general manager Larry Riley for forcing him to do that, not the writers.
Now, Nelson can stay on Maui, though Iím certain heíll make trips to the mainland, including the one when heís formally inducted into the hall. Iím happy for him, and for the game. Basketball needs more like him.
COLLEGE HOOPS: My congratulations to the Kentucky freshmen who just won the NCAA tournament. Now, they can go on to get that wonderful college education atÖ.oh, wait a minute. Theyíre all going to leave for the NBA.
This is one of the worst things about college basketball, the ďone and doneĒ players. As Iíve written before, this is the result of the NBAís age restriction for its draft, that players must be at least 19 years old. Those who arenít, which is almost all high school seniors, just go to college for one meaningless year and then turn pro.
I treasure my own college experiences, at UC Santa Barbara and Cal, but I also realize that college isnít for everybody. It especially isnít for talented basketball players who want nothing more than a career in the NBA. Is anybody naÔve enough to think that these young men got anything significant, other than basketball, from their brief college experience? If they havenít already, theyíll drop out as soon as theyíre drafted.
The sad thing is that the NBA game has become so dumbed-down (see bit above on Don Nelson) that 18-year-olds can play in the league. The NBA should drop its age restriction and end this one-and-done charade. Again, as Iíve suggested before, put in baseballís rule: If you choose to enroll in a four-year college, you canít turn pro until after your junior year.
MEMORY: When I started in journalism, nobody used tape recorders. We just scribbled notes into a tablet. I quickly realized that (1) I was missing a lot that way; (2) I couldnít read my own hurried scribbling. So, I trained myself to remember the important parts of conversations, a practice Iíve maintained through my career.
There have been some especially interesting moments because of that. Here are some of my favorites:
--In 1989, I interviewed then San Francisco mayor Art Agnos several times about the Giants ball park project, which was narrowly defeated by voters. Agnos was astounded by my ability to write accurately about a complex situation and asked me how I did it. Later, he gave me a portrait of himself and his autobiographical book, both inscribed, ďTo Glenn Dickey and his incredible memory.Ē
--In the early Ď90s, Don Nelson told me that one of his assistants Ė I think it was Garry St. Jean Ė was certain I had a tape recorder hidden in my clothes because he had overheard our conversation and knew I had quoted Nelson accurately.
--In the late Ď90s, I had a lunch time interview with then Cal chancellor Robert Berdahl over sandwiches in his office. I assumed it would be off the record but when I asked Berdahl at the end how much I could use, he said, ďAll of it.Ē So, I talked my sports editor into letting me write a double column, about 2000 words. John Cummins, then the chief of staff, had taken notes of the entire conversation and he told me latter that he and Berdahl had both been amazed that I got everything right.
--At one practice during Steve Mariucciís time as 49ers head coach, he said to us, ďPut your tape recorders away.Ē Matt Maicco, then the beat writer for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, said, ďGreat. Now Glenn will be the only one with the story.Ē
I think training myself this way has also helped me to remember sports history, as I did with the single wing history last week. There are undoubtedly more important topics to remember, but sports has been my world.
THE READERS have all the best lines: After the Giants signed Matt Cain to his new contract, Janice Hough wrote, ďAnd the Yankees responded with the sigh of the very rich man who has learned that somebody else just bought the very expensive sports car he coveted.Ē
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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