Brian Cashman, Artie Moreno, Jeffrey Loria, Jim Crane, Lew Wolff; Tara Vanderver, Lindsay Gottlieb; Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell
HOW DO you measure fan interest in a team? One way is by looking at attendance at games, but that’s not necessarily the best way.
For instance, the Sharks have an incredibly loyal fan base which gives them consistent sellouts, with ticket buyers coming from all over the North Bay. They are also probably the most fanatical but fanaticism is often a result of a smaller fan base. Hockey is not a natural sport to this area and I suspect that a high percentage of Sharks fans are from areas where hockey is a natural sport. There is another factor: When Matt Levine decided to put the Sharks in San Jose, he told me it was because the NFL, major league baseball and the NBA were not represented there, so he believed many residents would support the team because it was a San Jose team. That has proven to be true.
But outside those going to the games, I doubt there’s much interest in the Sharks. Hockey is huge in the northern tier of states because it’s played at all levels. I was born in northern Minnesota and I was a hockey fan early, even trying to play the sport a little. At the start of the school year in mid-September, our school playground was flooded and it promptly froze over, to become an ice skating rink for several months. When I was 10, though, my family moved to San Diego and my interest quickly shifted to baseball. There are no outside ice skating rinks in San Diego.
The Warriors are another team with a deceptive audience. They sell out Oracle Arena game after game to young professional types who enjoy the games and the raucous atmosphere, which lately has at least approached the noise at Sharks games. But beyond those actually going to the games, how many people really care? I don’t go to sports bars but my guess is that the football and baseball teams in the area are discussed much more than the Warriors.
The Giants and 49ers are at the opposite end of the spectrum, teams which have a broad appeal throughout the Bay Area and northern California, which goes far beyond the box office. In some areas of the country, especially the East and parts of the Midwest, fans go to the games for years, even when their teams aren’t winning, because they’re such an important part of the social fabric. The move, “Silver Linings Playbook,” had the Philadelphia Eagles as an important background to the main story. In California, fans go to the games if their teams are winning but find other things to do if they’re not. But, that doesn’t mean they stop caring.
The same Matt Levine I just quoted came to the Bay Area in the ‘70s to do research for sports teams, first the Warriors, then the Giants. In the late ‘70s, when the Giants were usually bad, Matt was hired to do research on the fan base. Over and over, he’d talk to people who insisted they were longtime fans, but when he asked them how many games they’d seen that year, well, usually the answer was none. But, they still followed the team through the newspaper and radio (TV wasn’t a factor then). When the Giants had an unexpectedly good season in 1978, the fans came flooding back, with attendances jumping more than one million over the previous year.
It’s the same with the 49ers. When they’ve won, they’ve sold out. When they haven’t, their only way to stay on TV for home games has been to buy up unsold tickets. But interest has always been high and when the Niners started winning again, those fans came flooding back. Now, it seems they’ll even sell out games at their new stadium in Santa Clara, despite greatly inflated prices.
It’s helped me to understand that fans can still be interested in reading about a team even if they’re not going to games – which has also been revealed in the mail I’ve gotten over the years. So, I’ve always written more about the 49ers and Giants, somewhat less on the Raiders and A’s, who have more localized markets, even less on the Warriors and nothing at all on the Sharks.
FOR THOSE of you who think the salary caps in the NFL and NBA are a bad idea, I give you baseball, which has ridiculous extremes on both ends of the economic scale.
Until recently, the Yankees and Red Sox were the biggest spenders because they have their own television networks which bring in an enormous amount of money. When Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has been accused of bad signings – the Alex Rodriguez longterm contract may be the worst – he could laugh it off because there was always more money to buy other players if his first choice failed.
Lately, it’s been the southern California teams which have been breaking the bank. Artie Moreno, the Angels owner, is trying to buy a championship, adding free agents Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in successive years. It didn’t work last year, as the Angels missed the playoffs, but it may work this year. Meanwhile, the Dodgers, under new ownership, will have a payroll that will be more than $100 million more than the NFL salary cap. That’s for 25 players, compared to the NFL’s 47 active players, plus those on the reserve list. But, like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Dodgers owners can afford it because of a lucrative new TV deal, apart from the MLB’s deal, whose proceeds are spread through all the clubs.
At the other end of the spectrum are two owners who make the A’s Lew Wolff and John Fisher look like spendthrifts. In Miami, Jeffrey Loria is working his magic with his second club. He first ran the Montreal Expos, once a successful franchise, into the ground, before they were transferred to Washington to become the Nationals. He then was given a chance to buy the Miami Marlins. It didn’t hurt that he was a friend of commissioner Bud Selig’s. He got a new domed stadium in Miami by promising to bring in players who could bring a championship to south Florida. It seemed the free agents might do that last year but they played poorly and Loria got rid of them and brought in cheaper, inferior players. Too bad, Miami fans.
Even Loria looks good, though, compared to new Houston owner Jim Crane, who has brought in cheap, veteran players who are so far over the hill they don’t even know a hill exists. The Astros have a major league record low payroll of $25 million for this season, though Crane got $60 million for changing from the National to the American League. Some baseball people think the Astros may lose 120 games this year but, when Crane got much-deserved criticism from fans, he told the Wall Street Journal that, if they want a higher payroll, they should pony up the money themselves. “If they want to write a check for 10 million dollars, they can give me a call.” He must be a descendant of Marie Antoinette’s.
Owners like Loria and Crane can do this because MLB has a revenue-sharing plan that funnels money to those teams with the lowest revenue, even though that low revenue is usually a direct product of a low payroll. Wolff and Fisher have garnered millions like that.
Since baseball isn’t about to adopt a salary cap, owners should modify that revenue-sharing plan to make teams that get that money either put it into their payroll or their farm system – or forfeit it if they do neither. That would thwart the Loria/Crane type owners, perhaps even force them out, which would certainly benefit the fans of these teams. Or, doesn’t that matter any more?
SPEAKING OF bad owners, Wolff got another jolt last week when San Jose mayor Chuck Reed was told his move to sell Wolff an option on land for his mythical ball park violated the current provisions of urban renewal. Reed insisted it was just a matter of bookkeeping, though he might have some problems explaining why Wolff was given an option to buy the property at much less than its value.
Doesn’t matter. The A’s are not moving to San Jose. Selig will not challenge the Giants territorial rights. He’s never even put it on the agenda at owners meetings.
NFL DRAFT: How do you start to rebuild through the draft? Most clubs would say, draft a quarterback. That worked very well for the Indianapolis Colts when they took Andrew Luck with the first pick in the draft last year and he led them back to the playoffs.
But, quarterbacks are the hardest to evaluate. Nothing proved that better than the 1998 draft, when the Colts also had the first pick. There was a fierce debate over whether Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf would be the best choice. The club’s scouts actually preferred Leaf but club president Bill Polian and the coaching staff preferred Manning, so the Colts took him. The San Diego Chargers took Leaf. Manning, still playing for the Denver Broncos, will certainly be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Leaf was a disaster, considered the worst draft bust until Al Davis drafted JaMarcus Russell.
I’ve written several times that one reason for the 49ers success in the 1981-94 period was the fact that they only had to draft one quarterback in that time, Joe Montana, who was taken near the end of the third round in 1979, and never drafted a quarterback in the first round during that stretch. Steve Young, who followed Montana, was obtained in a 1987 trade. When they had to draft a quarterback in the first round, the 49ers took Jim Druckenmiller. Enough said.
This year, there is no standout quarterback in the draft. The Raiders have the No. 3 pick in the draft, but I doubt that they’ll try to draft a quarterback. What they should do, and are no doubt working on right now, is to trade down and get additional picks. The Raiders have too many holes to go after a quarterback, especially since they still have Carson Palmer. As always happens on bad teams, Palmer often got blamed for losses last year, though the Raiders didn’t have a good running game and Palmer’s receivers weren’t very good, either.
As I wrote last Friday in the Examiner, general manager Reggie McKenzie had to get rid of many players because Davis had left him in an impossible situation, with player contracts that included balloon payments and a serious salary cap problem. This was never a quick-fix solution, though some fans and even writers have treated it that way.
McKenzie’s job will be to go after solid players, not stars, until the team is built up enough to go after a difference-maker. He had the reputation of finding good players in lower draft rounds when he was with the Packers, which he will have to do here. He also has an advantage in finding that kind of player because, with the draft only seven rounds, there are often good players available who go undrafted.
WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: The Bay Area involvement in the NCAA tournament is limited to the women: Stanford and Cal may be the two best teams in the country. Unfortunately, both of them can’t survive the West Regional because they’ll probably meet in the regional final this weekend, which will probably be a better game than the tournament final.
Lindsay Gottlieb has done a superb job with the Cal women the last two years, better even than her predecessor, Jeanne Boyle, who is considered one of the best ever in women’s basketball. Tara VanDerver has long been the gold standard for women’s coaches. When “Good Sports” was going in the early ‘90s, she was a guest on one program and we debated whether a woman could successfully coach a men’s team. At the time, Mike Montgomery was coaching the Stanford men, so there was no opening there. But does anybody doubt that she could do a better job with the Stanford men now than Johnny Dawkins?
Alone among my male colleagues, I went to some games when a professional women’s league started in the ‘80s, with a team in San Francisco. I enjoyed the games, especially the shooting of Molly Bolin, but the women’s game was still evolving, with definite roles for players. Bolin, of course, was a shooter; her nickname was “Machine Gun Molly.” Hardly anybody else on the team took a shot.
By the time I started watching the women’s collegiate game in the ‘90s, I was amazed at the way they played. They’re playing the men’s game, very aggressive, even dunking. They aren’t as big as the men, of course, but they’re every bit as competitive. As one who was an early proponent of women’s sports – after a strong push from my wife to break me of my old MCP attitude – it’s gratifying to see how far they’ve come.
AS I MENTIONED last week, when I was on “Chronicle Live” earlier this month, host Jim Kozimor posed the question: Should the Warriors be worried about the Lakers? I said no, and my opinion looks better all the time. The Warriors took them apart in their game last week, exposing them for what they are: old and overpaid.
The Lakers went after marquee players in the offseason without considering age, injury and ability to play together. Dwight Howard has haad injury problems, Steve Nash missed a considerable amount of games, even Kobe Bryant has been injured recently, though he willed himself to come back and play.
Worse, this bunch can’t play together. The Lakers haven’t been able to figure a way for Pau Gasol and Howard to play together, for instance. That’s no surprise. One of the problems I have with pro basketball is that teams have become solo acts, with one star and other players as a supporting cast. The Lakers have a team full of players who think they should be stars, which is why they’re fading fast.
The Warriors, in contrast, seem to be finding themselves as a team with some special players but no superstars. Stephen Curry may become one, if his ankle holds up, and he’s playing very well, but the team doesn’t suffer when Jarrett Jack comes in. I don’t see them going beyond the second round of the NBA playoffs, but they’re fun to watch.
NAMES: One of the things that drives me crazy is the way the media accepts name changes that make no sense. For instance, when Artie Moreno started calling his team the Los Angeles Angels, the Associated Press started listing them as a Los Angeles team. News flash: They’re playing in Anaheim in a park remodeled for baseball with city money after the Rams left. They’re the Anaheim Angels, which is how I always call them.
Even worse, in the NBA, Ron Artest is now calling himself Metta World Peace. Good grief. In fact, peace is the last thing you’d ever believe about Artest, who is continually in some kind of altercation. Yet, writers and broadcasters have ignored reality and used this absurd name instead of Artest’s real name. Absurd.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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