Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sonja Henie Had the Midas Touch

Sonja Henie of Oslo Norway made more money than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined. Henie changed figure skating forever when she dazzled the crowd and the judges at the 1927 World Championships in her home town. While the other skaters wore ankle length skirts, Sonja came on the ice with a thigh length skirt that allowed her freer movement and accentuated her performance. While the other skaters looked serious and contemplative, Sonja skated out on the ice with a huge smile. While the other skaters followed a relatively conservative program, Sonja skated faster with greater skill and more athleticism than her contemporaries--and she performed a much more difficult program to which she added ballet-like choreography. In one performance at the World Championships, she pushed women's figure skating into the modern era. She would go on to win 10 world championships in a row and take gold in three consecutive Olympics. Sonja also struck gold with her endorsements, her skating tours and her movies. She was a modern star in many ways.
Reference: Nike is a Goddess, Edited by Lissa Smith - Atlantic Monthly Press.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Midas Touch Athlete: Quiz Number One

As we approach Super Bowl 43 and consider the commercialism that is now so fundamental to professional sports, I thought it might be fun to look back at some athletes who made it big financially "back in the day." Sport has long been a commercial enterprise for many.

See if you can guess who is being described below without looking it up.

This superstar of sports won Olympic Gold in 1928, 1932 and 1936--an athlete who didn't get started until age 8, but competed in the Olympic Games just three years later. Fans included Queen Mary, King Edward VIII, King Hakkon of Norway and Crown Prince Edward Wilhelm of Germany. This star had a powerful brand and became an international media phenomena who made huge sums from marketing products. The athlete's chosen sport was fundamentally changed by this teen idol's new sportswear and techniques. Crowd control was needed everywhere this competitor traveled. After this star's Olympic career ended in 1936, Hollywood beckoned with a five-year contract that paid $125,000 a film. A barnstorming performance tour paid $20,000 a night in big venues. This celebrity made more money than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined. At the time of this athlete's death in 1969, the star's worth was $47 million.

Hint: In 1949, this star was one of three people to own a Zamboni.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Piniella Takes Heat for Looking to Books

I was driving to Madison on Monday to exhibit at the University of Wisconsin Dugout Club Banquet. This year's banquet featured talks from the Milwaukee Brewers front office and media, but my mind was on the Chicago Cubs. I was listening to the Boers and Bernstein sports talk show on the SCORE, AM 670, Chicago and B & B were raking Lou Piniella over the coals. Piniella had recently stated that this spring he was going to spend some time reading sports psychology books in attempt to improve the Cub's dismal post season record. On the B & B show, much was being made of the fact that Piniella was well paid and ought to know how to win in the post season without resorting to books. I was itching to call and suggest that Piniella's approach seemed perfectly rational and much improved over past attempts to get the Cub past their fabled curse and into the world series via goat ceremonies and chants. Reading a little Phil Jackson or John Wooden wouldn't do Lou or anyone else any harm.
I don't find fault in Piniella myself. The Cubs performance these past couple years has been stellar in regular season play. A good manager directs the day-to-day handling of the players and strategy that brings the team to the big game. The Cubs loss in post-season 2007 and 2008 was clearly understood by Piniella and articulated by him back in the fall of 2008. According to the Cub's Manager:
You can play postseason baseball for now to another hundred years, but if you score six runs in three games, it's going to be another hundred years before we win.

So I don't think B & B have to worry about Piniella's sanity. He understands why the Cubs lost in the post season. Yet, a good book won't hurt Piniella as long as he continues to manage the club the way he has the past two seasons. When Piniella says that he would want his players to hit better and his pitchers to throw more strikes, he gets some nasty criticism because people don't like to hear that it could be that simple -- but in a way it is. Fundamentals are critical. Piniella does a great deal to get the Cubs past their 100-year World Series draught -- he manages them into the post season. It seems to me that he deserves a lot of credit for getting the Cubs there.

Because, Lou is apparently in a mood for books, I am sending him a copy of The 10 Commandments of Baseball. I am hoping it will give him confidence in the face of criticism to keep stressing the fundamentals like Joe McCarthy did a long time ago. Like Piniella, McCarthy also managed the Yankees and the Cubs. But in McCarthy's case, the Cubs gave up on him and the Yankees showed more confidence in him. I am hoping in Piniella's case that the Cubs can keep him on for a long while. He didn't win the National League Manager of the Year award for 2008 for his good looks. And it is good to see Cub fans rejoice in the last two winning seasons even if they didn't win the World Series.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sportsmanship and Rules

Tony Dungy's retirement from professional football was an important sports story today. Sports writers suggest that the character of Tony Dungy was evident more in how his teams won than in his outstanding record of wins. It is my belief that a good coach can help get your team to the big games--but all coaches need their talented players' exceptional efforts and a lot of luck to win championships. According to Sporting News Today, Dungy was the first coach to reach the NFL Playoffs 10 Seasons in a row. He certainly did his part to win and according to many sports writers, he did it with class and principle. Sports figures like Tony Dungy give us hope and encouragement that sports continue to have a positive influence on our society.

Acting with class and principle is especially important for all those involved in youth sports. Many believe parents have the most critical role in developing character in young athletes. Their behavior at games and their attitudes towards coaches and referees is important. At sporting events, "overactive" parents may be well intentioned, but often miss the point in terms of rules and sportsmanship. One thing that parents might do is try to understand the principles of play in the sports their children participate in. A better understanding may lead them to understand the actions of the umpires, referees, coaches and officials.

Having been a part of youth soccer for many years, I see many misunderstandings of play and rules on the sidelines during games. One of the more common occurrences of misunderstanding occurs when a soccer player who has control of the ball and is moving the ball towards the opposing goal is fouled. If the player maintains possession, often the referee makes no call. The ref may acknowledge the foul by saying "play on," but the ref does not stop play. The offensive player is still controlling the ball (and assuming the player is not in physical danger), the "advantage" is still with the offensive player's team. If the ref calls a foul and stops play, the offense loses their "advantage." This is a rule that makes sense for soccer, but many parents who are more familiar with basketball or football rules often misunderstand the ref's actions.

A Second and less common situation is when there is an injury on the field and the referee allows play to continue. Those who are involved in youth soccer with young players understand that players often stop play for any number of reasons. When very young, kids may stop short of a puddle or they may be distracted by something going on outside the field of play. Coaches have to encourage kids to play on until the ref stops play. If one kid is standing looking down at a puddle, he or she is not aware of what's going and can get hurt.

Kids also have different levels of pain and many "injuries" in youth soccer can occur when a player gets hit by ball. Some kids cry often to things that don't seem to bother others. In most cases, the injured player has been instructed to sit down, but the referee will not necessarily call time out right away if the ref perceives that the player is not seriously hurt and is not in danger -- and if the play on the field is at a critical juncture -- like an offensive thrust at goal. A coach may encourage the kids to play on for many reasons. If some kids are playing and others are standing, it could result in a more serious injury than the one already on the field. If the injured player's team gains advantage by stopped play, immediate stoppage of play upon injury would encourage unsportsmanlike behavior --faked injuries. By using judgment to manage the situation, the referee's action is appropriate, but parents don't often see it that way. It is the referee's job to stop play; it is not the parent's nor the coach's role. In some programs all players are instructed to sit down when an injury occurs on the field. If this is the rule of the program, it should be followed. In cases where the program rules may be slightly different from the traditional rules of soccer, the referee will often point such rules out to the children before play begins.

The bottom line is that sportsmanship often has a closer link to the rules than spectators may think. Second guessing the rules or grousing about events on the field one knows little about, is not good sportsmanship.