As someone who often writes about sports, I feel caught, a lot of the time, between imaginative optimism and materialist nihilism, and I am not saying this to sound fancy but because it reflects an actual crisis in the way I think about my job. That is, I try to find what’s beautiful and interesting and strange in what I myself am all too ready to view as dumb interactions of matter. In doing so, am I helping to lift meaning out of a universe that’s hostile to it, or am I serving as a propagandist for the thing that’s killing thinking? I don’t always know, and it scares me. Most of the time, I can convince myself that there’s value in this. Other times, I meet someone who actually cares whether the Cowboys win on Sunday, not “cares” in the way you care about something you’ve semi-arbitrarily decided to invest emotional energy in to make your life more exciting, butactually cares in the way you care whether your family is fed and the war is postponed till next week. At those times, I feel despair, and I think about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Every first-time player of daily fantasy football begins the new season undefeated, just like even the most hopeless NFL teams. But after 16 weeks of real football, most rookie fantasy players will have been separated from their money, just as certainly as the Cleveland Browns will be disabused of their playoff ambitions.
Daily fantasy is getting ready to generate more losers in 2015 than ever before. Each year in the history of daily fantasy sports has been bigger than the last, and September has become the biggest month for new fans trying the game, which combines the stats-jockeying of traditional fantasy contests with the thrills of old-fashioned sports betting. (Fantasy sports are exempted from the federal ban on sports gambling.) FanDuel and DraftKings, the two main services, will bring in a combined $60 million in entry fees in the first week of the NFL season, according to Adam Krejcik, a partner at Eilers Research. Sports books in Las Vegas, by contrast, are expected to handle about $30 million.
The rival startups prospered in football’s offseason. Both companies raised huge new rounds of investment, bringingDraftKings’s total haul to $426 million and FanDuel’s to $363 million, and both are now valued at more than $1 billion. To get to the size their investors are expecting requires a continuous stream of new players lured by ever-increasing prize pools with the help of muscular advertising campaigns. These ads never spell out a simple truth about daily fantasy competitions: While any player might get lucky on the back of a handful of entries, over time nearly all of the prize money flows to a tiny elite equipped with elaborate statistical modeling and automated tools that can manage hundreds of entries at once and identify the weakest opponents.
What’s America to do about its stadium problem?
Over the past 15 years, more than $12 billion in public money has been spent on privately owned stadiums. Between 1991 and 2010, 101 new stadiums were opened across the country; nearly all those projects were funded by taxpayers. The loans most often used to pay for stadium construction—a variety of tax-exempt municipal bonds—will cost the federal government at least $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to bondholders. Stadiums are built with money borrowed today, against public money spent tomorrow, at the expense of taxes that will never be collected. Economists almost universally agree that publicly financed stadiums are bad investments, yet cities and states still race to the chance to unload the cash. What gives?
Answer: No one knows.
Two months ago, ESPN unexpectedly, unceremoniously dumped Bill Simmons, one of the network’s biggest and best-known personalities. When they did, Simmons was forced to abandon Grantland, the sports and pop culture website he created and edited; more specifically, he was forced to abandon dozens of writers, editors, podcasters, and contributors. Now, with the site’s future in doubt and in the hands of a new editor, many of those staffers are eyeing the door.
Nothing ESPN has done since firing Simmons has given anyone much reason to be confident in the site’s future. John Skipper, ESPN’s president, fired Simmons without even telling the site’s staff, and three weeks later, he named Chris Connelly—best known as that one movie guy from ABC—the interim editor-in-chief. The staff, again, found out when everyone else did. If Simmons’s firing came as a shock, Connelly’s hiring felt familiar. This was, many at Grantland figured, just the new way of things.
In private, Grantland writers and editors give contradictory appraisals of Connelly’s performance during the month and a half he’s served as EIC. Some say he’s been just fine as a band-aid; others describe him as a company man and unabashed star-fucker who just doesn’t grasp the purpose of the site. (Multiple staffers have told Deadspin of times that Connelly has meddled with pieces; while one person’s meddling is another’s editing, we’re told that articles are invariably worse off for his participation.) Either way, Connelly was screwed from the start. Simmons personally hired everyone on staff, many of whom are young and haven’t worked under anyone else. They were close with Simmons; he supported them, and gave many of them their first shot at a national audience. Whoever came in was going to face some skepticism.
Last fall, after the Oilers were downed 7–1 by Chicago—their sixth consecutive loss—Mike called in to 630 CHED’s Overtime Openline show. “I am an Oilers season ticket holder. I’ve spent many years driving from Red Deer, sacrificed so much. But I do it because of my absolute, sheer love for the Oilers. And I have lived vicariously through the Oilers because I was never good enough to make the team, but I always had the heart to believe in a team,” he said, the words tumbling out like he couldn’t stop himself. “I now have a three-month-old son. I will not even allow him to go anywhere near an Oilers shirt. He will be put in nothing that has to do with the Oilers, and that’s because the heart and soul of this team is gone. It’s lost. The only thing I can do right now is beg Oiler fans to stop buying jerseys. Stop buying tickets. Until we stop pumping money into this stupidity, we’re gonna watch the same thing over and over and over. It’s just so sad.”
When Mike finally ran out of words, all the hosts could do was gently thank him for the call and acknowledge that there were probably a lot of fans out there feeling exactly like he was.
Welcome to sports call-in radio, the world’s cheapest therapy. You don’t have to wait too long for an appointment, and like a 12-step meeting, it’s first names only—and you can even lie about that if you want. There’s no real psychological expertise on offer, but that’s not why anyone tunes in. Call-in radio is, quite literally, about making your voice heard. These shows are their own intense little communities—complete with local celebrities, crackpot street-corner prophets and unwritten etiquette—built on the foundation of obsessive sports fandom. It’s a weird thing to have a team in your life that you care so much about, but which acknowledges you only fleetingly, like a wink from the prom queen striding past you in the cafeteria. On call-in radio, everyone gets it: strangers sitting in their cars or garages or rec rooms, connected only by a radio signal and the fact that the same team lights their emotions on fire. “They know they’re saying something to other people who care, to the other callers and listeners. They don’t have access to the players or the coaches or [the general managers], so who are they gonna vent to?” says Reid Wilkins, the host who fielded Mike’s call back in November. “The call-in show is that front line.”
He looks out of place, at least at first. Wearing a Mets uniform that grants no slimming effect to his block of a body, he could easily be mistaken for an overinvested fan who has wandered past assorted “Authorized Personnel Only” signs at Citi Field, onto the outfield grass.
But this is the night’s starting pitcher, Bartolo Colon. Forty-two years old, it is believed. Two hundred eighty-five pounds, it is believed — a full 100 pounds heavier than when he made his major league debut in 1997. An Ernest Borgnine face, by way of the Dominican Republic. The mere sight of him stirs the “if he can, I can” fantasies of Sunday softball heroes everywhere.
Colon is the second-oldest active player in the majors. He has collected eight teams’ uniforms, 213 career wins, a Cy Young Award and a steroid-related suspension. In an often frustrating Mets season, this Everyman has been a joyful diversion, with a 9-7 record that includes 48⅓ innings without a walk, a franchise record worthy of pause.
A few days before our trip into the Cirque of the Unclimbables was scheduled to begin, I saw a physiotherapist for the first time in my life. I’d been on standby for a week, hoping that someone would cancel on an appointment and I could sneak in at the last minute. In late July last year, sometime during a three-day hike, I had hurt my left knee. I was following in the footsteps of a young German hiker who had died on that same trail three years earlier — hoping to see what he’d seen and to get a sense of the terrain he’d covered before his still-unexplained death. But my hiking partner and I never made it to the mountain pass where the hiker’s pack and his scattered, scavenged remains had eventually been found, collected, and then returned to his friends and family far away. By the end of the second day, for no reason I could discern, my knee was on fire, pain shivering up my leg with each step. We camped a couple miles short of our goal and I went to bed early, hoping I was just sore and tired and that my leg would be better the next day.
It wasn’t. In a heavy drizzle, we packed up and started the 12-mile trek back to the trailhead. I settled into a slow, steady limp, sometimes not even managing to cover a mile in an hour, and Mike took charge: reminding me to eat at regular intervals whether I felt hungry or not, and transferring more weight from my pack to his each time we stopped. By the time we made it back to the car — by then, he was carrying both packs while I hobbled along — my knee was throwing heat like a nasty sunburn, radiating warmth that I could feel on the palm of my hand when I held it inches away.
BALTIMORE — Ben Barlow likens the baseball season to a metronome. It keeps perfect time — tick, tick, tick — and never stops. It’s ever-present and gives you something to plan not just your evenings by, but vacations, celebrations, entire lives.
“It just stays there. No matter whether things are going well or going poorly, the season’s just rolling along,” the 39-year old attorney said.
Barlow’s wife, Monica, worked for the Baltimore Orioles for 14 years, in charge of media and public relations. That meant Barlow spent much of his marriage at the ballpark or on the road with the team, waiting for a game to end or for another start, their daily lives generally at the mercy of the mechanizations of a baseball organization. So when Monica died last year at just 36, he lost his center and his entire universe was thrown off its axis.
He remembers some sympathetic soul telling him in the days after Monica died, “Can you even imagine being at the ballpark on opening day?” As in, Could he even consider exposing himself to all the searing reminders of everything that he’d lost?
Barlow didn’t have to think about the question too long.
“I can’t imagine not being at the ballpark,” he said.
Baseball’s Opening Day often occasions syrupy prose about optimism and opportunity and clean slates. Every team starts with the same record. Have hope. Anything could happen. Even the most reliable losers could be winners this time around!
I say, no. Be a realist. This is going to be a tough year for fans of the Texas Rangers. And a disorienting one for baseball junkies in the Bronx who no longer have any of their career-Yankee legends. Enjoy A-Rod, I guess. And the only great assurance for the fans of the Philadelphia Phillies is that their ballpark now mercifully allows the sale of hard alcohol.
But even the realism of Opening Day should still be a relief. Because unlike nearly every other part of American life right now, in baseball, the rules and stakes are relatively clear. At the end of the game there is no dispute over who won or lost. The teams and their fans do not get to walk away with a conflicting set of facts. The greatness of an opponent is a threat only to your team, not to your sense of self-worth, or your feeling of membership in your country.
And much like the Incredible Hulk, Ken Baumgartner – 6’1”, 205 pounds, with a penchant for doling out punishment – was not the kind of guy you wanted to see angry. Baumgartner was a left wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. More specifically, he was their enforcer; a man paid literally to inflict pain on opponents. But in 1992, the target of his aggression was not another player; nor was it a coach or referee. It was a videogame producer at Electronic Arts named Michael Brook.
Outside an NHL Players Association (NHLPA) meeting held in San Diego, where players had gathered to discuss licensing opportunities, Baumgartner lumbered towards the young producer.
‘Hi, I’m Ken Baumgartner,’ he said flatly by way of introduction. As a lifelong hockey fan, Brook already knew who he was, and indicated as much with a tiny flinch of a smile. Despite the recognition, the thuggish enforcer felt compelled to further introduce himself:
‘I’m the guy you gave a zero rating to for Intelligence.’
Oh my god, Brook thought, growing red in the face.
What he didn’t realise at the time was that the beta version of his new hockey game, NHLPA Hockey ’93, had been the highlight of the licensing meeting. But the players had been interested not so much in the game itself, as in the ratings that Electronic Arts had awarded them for categories like Passing, Agility, and of course, Intelligence. That’s when Baumgartner had noticed that his 16-bit self was a dunce. To make matters worse, this detail hadn’t escaped the attention of the other players around the conference table, who seemed unable to stop laughing.
Intellectually, Michael Brook had always known that his sports games were based on real people, but this was the first time that the notion really hit him on an emotional level: EA’s hockey games had become so popular that the hockey players themselves actually took notice.