Sunday, July 27, 2014

Arsenal Reunion at Red Bulls Stadium Yesterday

When you try to live in the moment -- and just enjoy something and not worry about everything else that is going on in the world that you don't control and even in the one over which you might have some influence  -- it's just a lot of fun.  And when you reflect back on that moment -- as I am doing now -- you realize why that moment was so special -- precisely because while you will have good moments in the future, moments like that one might not recur, if only because of the passage of time.

My son is fourteen, at an age where he can tend to grunt answers and not be overly communicative.  I joke with him that at times when I'd like to have a conversation I would appreciate answers in words of more than one syllable and sentences of more than one word.  Which of course has led to some pretty amusing poly-syllabic two-word sentences.  With a smile, because he gets it (or as much as any fourteen year-old can, and I hope he thinks I get it as much as a dad of a fourteen year-old can).

We're big Arsenal fans, having caught the magical bug that is the love of the Premiership about five years ago when we went to Arsenal's home opener in North London, got the scarves that they gave out to fans and watched the Gunners demolish Portsmouth 4-1 (Abu Diaby scored two goals; Aaron Ramsey and Thomas Vermaelen one apiece).  We took the London Underground to the stadium (along with about 59,998 others, as no one drives there),  sat in a sea of red, sampled the amazing Arsenal store (about the size of eight CVS drug stores), and watched some very precise ball movement and counter-attacking.  We had played EA Sports FIFA for a while (I confessed to my son recently that when he was about five I would move my defenders out of the way so he could score), but that trip took our being soccer fans to a whole different level. 

Over the years, we've followed the team more over the internet than watching it on television.  That said, the coverage on NBC SportsChannel, both on television and streaming video, enabled us to watch almost every game last season.  Last summer we got back to London to watch the Emirates Cup, a pre-season round robin that featured Arsenal, Porto, Galatasary and Napoli -- at a much better price point, too, than the home opener.  We enjoyed great soccer and great weather and further galvanized our attachment to the Arsenal club.

We were particularly excited when we saw that the Gunners would be making their first appearance in a while in the U.S., in an exhibition at Red Bulls Stadium in Harrison, New Jersey, right outside New York City.  Tickets on StubHub averaged about $250, but we were fortunate that we were able to obtain ticket at face value (about $46 apiece) through a friend.  The thought of not having to travel all that far and expensively to see Arsenal -- even with back-ups playing a half -- and Thierry Henry -- was just too good to pass up.  (A college-age kid told us that he had paid $170 apiece for he and his girlfriend on StubHub -- not sure it was worth that much money, especially given the cost of New Jersey Transit and PATH tickets atop that -- $53 for two people).

The day started in the early afternoon with a drive to Princeton Junction and a one-hour train ride to Newark's Penn Station, where we bought PATH train tickets to take a two-minute train ride to Harrison.  For those traveling to crowded events, always remember to purchase round trip tickets for your journey (it avoids standing in a long line on your return trip and the potential to miss your train).  From there, it was about a ten-minute walk to Red Bulls Stadium, where we ran a gauntlet of outdoor Red Bulls-oriented activities.  The FA Cup, which Arsenal won last year, also was on display for those who wanted to take a photograph with it.  The Red Bulls Shop, which is small, featured some Arsenal gear, and I do think that the Red Bulls missed out on a huge opportunity to align with Arsenal and open up a sizable tent store in the parking lot full of a broader and deeper variety of Arsenal gear (they would have sold, in my estimation, between $250,000 and $500,000 of merchandise -- including the new kit shirts -- had they done so).

What transpired once inside was a packed house and a fun day.  We say Bergkamp, Nasri, Ozil, Mertesacker, Henry, Bendtner, van Persie, Fabregas, Vermaelen, Cazorla, Arteta, Giroud and many other jerseys -- home and away, new and old.  The really current fans had the new kit jerseys, which looked very nice.  My son and I had last year's -- he Chamberlain, me Ramsey, and the dry-fit shirts felt very good on a not too hot and not to humid day (but remember, if you sit in the upper deck of the stadium, because it's closed in, which is great to ward off rain, the air doesn't circulate as well as it does downstairs, and heat rises).

It was an exhibition in the purest sense, with fans rooting for good soccer as much as their own teams.  Arsenal fans cheered Henry, and Red Bulls fans cheered Arsenal players.  While the Red Bulls won 1-0, both sides had plenty of chances, and, among others, Henry and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal put on some amazing dribbling skills.  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger wore a red shirt and blue pants, not his trademark blue suit with a white shirt and a red tie and, of course, not his famous black puffy coat.  He also was roundly cheered.

My son and I talked about the intricate passes, the saves of both goalies, the potential of Arsenal younger Gideon Zelalem (and whether he'll play internationally for the United States), the speed that Henry still has (while people talk of him as an elder, he's only in his mid-thirties and makes the most out of his long stride), the fact that Arsenal great Ian Wright's son is a star for the Red Bulls and scored the only goal yesterday and which players the Gunners might sign in transfer season.  It was just the two of us, in the upper deck, sharing a game, talking soccer.

On the way home, my son thanked me for getting the tickets and thanked me for taking him.  He's nothing if not polite, nothing if not appreciative for opportunities that my guess is some kids take for granted.  I'm most grateful for these opportunities, too, opportunities to share experiences, opportunities to grow together.  More than he, I think, I know that these won't be as frequent five years from now as they are today.  By then he'll be off at college and be more along into building his own life, emphasizing this own interests that lead to a career and perhaps a location that is not all that close to where his parents live.  But I'm not sad about that or even wistful, because good relationships endure and thrive through all sorts of factors.  And that's far off, too.  No, I choose to celebrate the moment, to create opportunities, to make good memories.

And yesterday, at an exhibition game that required a drive and two trains to get to, we made yet another memory.  Of a favorite team making a rare appearance in the United States, of nice weather, of a fun game.  While I enjoy being a part of Arsenal nation, I cherish the platform that it provides to bond further with my son.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Not 1, Not 2. . . Certainly Not 7 -- What LeBron James Also Implied

The decision -- rather, the announcement of it -- was ill-advised.  A hard-working, earnest guy did the wrong thing, alienated an area he loved and went off to a glamorous place for glory that he helped create.  No one really argued with the substance of the decision -- competitive people want to go to places where they can succeed.  So, it wasn't the what, it was the how.

This time around, the how was great -- a humble article about how the self-described (see his Twitter handle) King James was returning to his hometown, a place with real meaning for him, and a place where most people his age move away from in order to find opportunity instead of moving back there.  The reasoning was sound -- he wants to give back to his area, he wants to raise his kids in that area, and he wants to bring a championship back to an area starved for good news.  He preached patience, but after 11 seasons of wear-and-tear on his body, it's hard to know how much of his elite tread remains before people might start talking about him the way they are talking about Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant now, that they used to be among the greatest but now they cannot strap a team to their backs anymore.

James's seemingly magnanimous decision -- and to a degree it is -- also is a concession that in continuing to build his brand he cannot out-Michael Jordan Michael Jordan and eclipse The Greater Player Ever's six titles in the modern era.  He alluded to the possibility of seven titles during a longer Miami tenure than actually will have taken place, but by moving back to Cleveland he's finessed the comparison.  Because if he delivers on a single championship in Cleveland, he'll both have played on elite stage elsewhere and won a few titles but also will have brought a title back to an area that hasn't won one in a very long time.  That Michael could not do.

But it's also a concession that he won't win seven titles, won't come close, won't come close not only to Bill Russell (who is in a category of his own) but also Jordan and perhaps even Tim Duncan of the Spurs, whose outstanding career gets eclipsed because he's been, well, the best team player since number 6 laced them up for the Celtics decades before the internet and instance media and instant messaging took root.  No, that's not the story, it's about good, old American values juxtaposed next to a max contract (note to fans, Duncan's contract for 2014-2015 calls for $10 million in salary, leaving plenty of money left over for teammates whose talents warrant good contracts).  It's about King James, but not an autocratic king but a benevolent one, letting his loyal subjects warm to him once more and get closer to the aura of his greatness because after years conquering far away lands he's bringing it all home.

LeBron is one of the greatest players ever.  I'm not sure he is the greatest, but when you are that good and in the top of the pantheon what does it really matter?  By coming home to Cleveland he's coming full circle, righting a wrong that was more because of how he delivered a message than what he said, by setting an example that you can win at home and help revitalize people's thinking about an area that you hold dear.  It's a great public relations story, and it's a "feel good" story as well.  LeBron, after all, seems to be a pretty good guy.

But it's also a branding and business decision, one that the LeBron acolytes in the sports media -- who depend on him for access and stories -- aren't necessarily covering because they love being in the aura and they love the "Disney Sports Movie" aspect to this, so much ask that they might be a little weepy.  The other story is "LeBron Conceded He is No Michael Jordan."

And that might not be such a bad thing.  Michael is perhaps the most competitive person on the planet, and perhaps ever.  There are good and bad sides to that.  So while James is saying that he's giving up on competing with Michael, he also might be saying that you don't always build your brand by winning all the time.  That's something that Michael Jordan would never do or admit.  By implying this through his actions, LeBron James is saying that his brand is more than just about basketball and winning.  It's about both those things and a community greater than the NBA and the basketball world.  It's not clear whether he'll pull that off, but right now, that's his message.

And it's working.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Whither Wimbledon?

The tennis is good.

The setting is historic.

The commentators seem good.

But how many people are watching?

It's amazing how television coverage and sports coverage has progressed almost to the point that you can catch almost any game you want to at any time.  That phenomenon seemingly has had two results -- one to dilute the viewership for all but the most compelling events (e.g., the World Cup) and to reduce the appeal of the tennis majors because my so-called scarcity factor has evaporated.  As for the latter, when there were seven television channels (and the dreaded UHF channels had trouble staying in focus on perhaps carried only your local baseball team), we watched Wimbledon in part because there wasn't much else covered on TV at the time.  True, there were compelling figures, but the network that covered tennis made them all the more compelling because there wasn't nearly as much to watch on TV.  Today, with much more choice -- including sports that appeal to bigger groups of people -- tennis has become almost an afterthought.

Is it because there isn't a good crop of Americans outside the Williams' sisters, who are near or at the end of their run?  Is it because with the advances in technology there isn't as much drama in the "smash and volley" tennis that there was when the points were longer?  Is it because so many players cycle through that it's hard to develop a following for any one particular player?  Or is it because the game is as good as it ever was, but other sports have surpassed it?  My guess is that it's a combination of the two.