Can a sports fan become a cord cutter?

Dear Sports Fan,

Some friends of mine just canceled their cable subscription and replaced it with one of those fancy new internet streaming TV services. They’re saving a ton of money but they’re not sports fans. I am. Can a sports fan become a cord cutter?

Thanks,
Lorena


Dear Lorena,

It’s a funny coincidence that you sent me this question today. I just cut the cord myself this weekend, and you know I’m a sports fan! Yes, in today’s market, even many sports fans can switch from cable to a streaming TV service without losing the ability to watch your favorite teams play. Here’s a quick overview of what streaming TV services you should consider, how you should make your decision and what you might stand to lose, and finally some thoughts about the costs and benefits of cutting the cord.

You may have heard of Sling TV. They got into the streaming TV game first. They also have, at least for sports fans, a very strange way of packaging their channels. They have two options — Sling Orange ($20) and Sling Blue ($25). The problem for us sports fans is that Sling Orange has ESPN and ESPN 2 and Sling Blue has Fox Sports 1 and 2 and NBC Sports Network. So, you’ve got to get both. For an extra $10 you can get NBA TV, NHL Network, the Redzone channel, etc. That’s $55 total.

Another option is DIRECTV NOW. Run by a company that has long been a favorite of sports fans, at least those of the football variety, DIRECTV NOW has four packages ranging from Live a Little at $35 to Gotta Have It at $70. Amazingly enough, the cheapest package has most of the sports channels you would want: ESPN and ESPN2, Fox Sports 1, NBCSN. The Go Big package at $60 gets you NBA TV and NHL Network, etc. The NFL is, alas, nowhere to be seen.

YouTube TV is the newest entry into the market and, I’m guessing based on the power of the company behind it, (the company formerly known as Google,) will soon be the best bet for most people. Alas, as of writing this, it was only available in 14 cities in the U.S. and I don’t live in one of them.

Playstation Vue is the service I decided to go with. It has four packages ranging from Access for $40 to Ultra for $75. The Core package, for $45 has ESPN and ESPN2, Fox Sports 1 and 2, NBCSN, NBA TV, NHL Network, MLB Network, and the NFL Network.

All of these services are around the same price and offer a similar selection of channels. Playstation Vue was my choice because, where I live, they have what seems to be an exclusive deal with the dominant regional sports network, NESN. On any of the other services, I wouldn’t be able to watch any of my local NBA, NHL, or MLB games. Now, I don’t happen to be a Celtics, Bruins, or baseball fan but my partner is and it’s important for her to get to watch her teams as well! Regional sports networks — often owned by the local cable company — are the last riskiest part of switching to a streaming service. As you can guess, these networks often don’t have any incentive to cut a deal with a streaming service that’s just going to lure customers away from their parent company. All of the streaming services have a spot where you can enter your zip code and see if your regional sports network will be carried. If you can’t find yours… that may be a good enough reason not to cut the cord! If that’s you, look again periodically or set a Google Alert. These deals seem to be happening more frequently now.

A last note on what you might stand to lose: I haven’t done any in depth comparisons between streaming and cable, so I don’t have a strong sense of whether the streaming service lags more than cable does. (Cable does lag — I remember watching my Rutgers football games on the TV in my living room in college and hearing (rarely) the cannon fire in celebration of a home touchdown and then seeing the play happen on the screen. Talk about spoilers!) The picture quality is quite good, but I plunked down $90 to get the Roku Premiere Plus that has an ethernet connection so I didn’t have to worry about wifi. I can attest to the interface in general being less satisfying than the kick-ass Comcast Xfinitity interface and the DVR not quite working as well. (Editor’s Note: The DVR really doesn’t work very well.)

What’s the benefit then? Well, I am saving $80 a month without losing any of the channels I care about outright. That’s a big benefit from my point of view! I’ll actually end up saving a bit more because I’ll be using less energy. They’ve improved in the past five years or so but cable boxes, particularly those with DVRs are still shockingly power-hungry devices. Most range from 20-30 watts of power regardless of whether you’re using them. The Roku I bought uses 4-6 watts of power and one of those streaming sticks that connect to your TV through USB probably use even less! Using less power is a good thing regardless of the money.

Is there a downside? I can almost always think of a downside. In the case of streaming TV, I have a couple of concerns. Although it’s expensive, one thing I like about the cable TV model is that, by refusing to create customizable or slim packages, they force fans of all different types of entertainment to subsidize each other’s love. Sports fans pay for The Bachelor to be made and fans of Chopped pay for the production costs of 24. Destroying the bundle inevitably means destroying less popular or less mainstream channels and shows. Cable TV money is also one of the drivers of the sports industry in particular. Cable companies pay massive amounts to sports leagues in order to get the exclusive rights to carry local games. If they get undercut by streaming services, those contracts could become less lucrative. Without that money, leagues may have to contract or pay athletes less. Pay the athletes less… and the quality of the competition may go down.

Now that my fear-mongering is done for the night, I’m gonna kick back and see what sports are streaming right now.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why be part of a breakaway in the Tour de France?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do cyclists in the Tour de France bother going out on breakaways? They always get caught!! What is the point?

Thanks,
Lester


Dear Lester,

It’s one of the most common and most heartbreaking sights of the Tour de France — a small group of riders, or even a single rider, have led the race for fifty miles or more, over mountains and through valleys, across bridges and through forests. Then, with the finish line metaphorically or sometimes even literally in sight, they are caught by the big pack of riders called the peloton. How does the peloton always seem to catch them at just the right time? Why can they go faster than the breakaway? And, as you put it, why bother going out on breakaways if you’re always going to get caught?

First they physics of it —  the peloton is always able to go faster than a single rider or small group of riders because they have more riders to rotate through the painful position of being at the head of the pack. The person in front “breaks the wind” for all the riders behind them. This is an exhausting position, and even the superhuman (implication intended) athletes of the Tour de France can only do it at full effort for so long. In a solo breakaway, a rider must always fight the wind, in a small breakaway, even when the riders cooperate, each person’s share of the effort is bigger than in the peloton. Race radios, allowing team coaches to communicate with the riders on the course, help the peloton time its effort so that it catches the breakaway at just the right moment.

Luckily for viewers of the Tour, there are still a bunch of legitimate reasons for cyclists to go out on breakaways. A tour with nothing but a single pack of riders would make for boring viewing!

Like in many European sports, there is more than just one prize to shoot for in the Tour. Aside from the yellow jersey, which goes to the rider that completes the stage and eventually the race in the least amount of time, there are two other cumulative jerseys to race for. The green jersey goes to the best sprinter in the race and the red polka-dot jersey on a white background goes to the King of the Mountains. In order to win either of these jerseys (and the money that comes along with the prestige) you have to accrue the largest number of mountain or sprint points during the tour. Although many of the biggest sprints (and a few of the biggest mountain summits) are at the end of stages, most of them are intermediate or during the race. A rider in a breakaway has a good shot at winning an intermediate sprint or being the first over a summit. This helps if they are in contention for the green jersey or the King of the Mountain competition or it can help a teammate of theirs if it denies someone on another team those points. And, these intermediate sprints and summits come with cash prizes.

A third, less visible secondary prize may even be more directly affected by participating in a valiant but eventually unsuccessful breakaway — the Combativity Award. Unlike all the other competitions we’ve discussed before, this award is subjective. A panel of judges watches and votes on the rider for each stage and for the tour as a whole (the one for the tour as a whole is called the “super-combativity award… I’m guessing there may be some slight transliteration issues here…) who is most aggressive. Although this award does not come with a jersey, it does come with cash and some amount of notice in the cycling world.

If you’ve been watching the Tour, you no doubt noticed that each rider wears a jersey with their team’s sponsor emblazoned all over it. The brand name of the sponsor IS the team name. It’s not the “Amazon Bowstrings,” it’s just “Amazon.” Although this may feel foreign to American sports fans who quiver just at the thought of putting an advertisement on their favorite team’s jersey, it’s an integral part of cycling. A rider who can make it into a small group at the head of the race and stay there for three or four hours has successfully captured free advertising for their sponsor for the same amount of time on television. And that rider knows the team sponsor will notice it and remember when the time comes to renew contracts.

So far we’ve been describing only rationales for taking part in a breakaway that don’t have to do with winning the race, either that day or the whole tour. Well, here’s a tactical reason that does have to do with winning. A team that has a rider in contention for winning the whole race (called general classification or GC) may sometimes want to hide one or two of that rider’s teammates in a doomed breakaway. That way, if the GC rider feels like they have an edge on some of their GC competitors and is able to break away from the peleton, they will have teammates ahead of them who can fall back and help their GC teammate extend his lead over the other GC riders.

If all of these reasons are still not good enough, there is this: sometimes it does work. Sometimes the peloton, even with the advantage of physics and race radios, mis-times their charge and can’t catch up in time. Or, sometimes the team tacticians may decide it’s simply not worth expending the energy to catch the breakaway. Cycling is a relatively predictable sport after the first five to ten riders. If no one in the breakaway group is in the top ten, they probably pose no threat to the GC riders who feel they have a chance at winning the whole race. So, those GC riders and their teams may decide it’s more important to save their energy or try to make a late move on another GC rider than to organize the peloton for a long chase.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Race and Basketball in the New York Times

Race and basketball in America are inextricably linked. Of the four (or five) major sports leagues in the United States, the NBA is the most predominantly black league. This past weekend was the NBA All-Star game, a festivity that two of my favorite NBA writers, David Aldridge and Michael Wilbon, got in trouble for calling “Black Thanksgiving” several years ago. (Side note, the quoted comments from fans in that article from look eerily like Trump-era attacks on CNN). By any measure, one of the most famous movies about basketball is about a white con-man who plays off racial assumptions to scam people in two-on-two basketball games. Entitled White Men Can’t Jump, this movie provided the inspiration for the headline of a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review about race and basketball that was so misguided it pulled me out of my grad school hiatus from writing this blog.

The article, “Even When White Men Can Jump…” is written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist and author. In it, he presents an interesting analysis he worked on, determining the percent breakdown of NBA player fanbases by race based on Facebook data. The data show two things: that fans tend to root for players of their own race and that black players of similar ability to white, hispanic, or asian players tend to be more popular.

This is a clever investigation and we are indebted to Stephens-Davidowitz for performing it. Unfortunately, in two places, his racial analysis leaves a lot unsaid, to the point of being misleading. Early in the article, Stephens-Davidowitz attempts to explain the historical context of his experiment:

This is a long-debated question. For years, owners were accused of padding their benches with white players to increase a team’s fan base. The implicit assumption: If you are white, you will have more fans.

While it is certainly true that “owners were accused of padding their benches with white players,” the implicit assumption is too generous to basketball fans of the 1970s and 80s, the era most associated with this tactic. The assumption was not that individual white players were more popular, it was that fans would not stand for teams made up completely of black players. To simply say that owners padded their teams with white players because they were more popular makes it sound like a marginal consideration; that teams could increase their popularity a little by hiring white players. In reality, teams worried that fans would completely stop watching unless they hired a quota of white players regardless of skill. This is a much more harsh interpretation that assumes widespread racism. In support of this claim, look to a 1979 Sports Illustrated article, “There’s an Ill Wind Blowing For the NBA” or “‘Too Black’: Race in the “Dark Ages” of the NationalBasketball Association” in the 2010 edition of The International Journal of Sport and Society. It’s also important to think about where this issue of the 1970s and 80s came from. During the 1950s the rules, written and unwritten around race in basketball were much harsher. According to David Kamp in his GQ article, “Only the Ball was Brown,” in the NBA there was an “unofficial quota on blacks in the late ’50s, allowing no more than two or three per team.” In college basketball, things were worse with institutions agreeing to “gentlemen’s rules” prohibiting the recruitment of black athletes. As with most things in college sports, fans and their rabid, rich counterparts called boosters, played a big role in enforcing these unwritten rules.

If the history of race and basketball is more pernicious than Stephens-Davidowitz makes it out to be, so is its present. Stephens-Davidowitz finishes his article with the rosy conclusion that the racial slant to NBA fandom is a refreshing change from the opposite tilt toward white privilege found in the rest of society. I’m all for rosy interpretations, especially in this political era, but it seems like a disservice not to also mention the quite well known trap of black popularity when confined to particular areas. In every fan who contests that “white men can’t jump” or play basketball as well as black athletes, there’s an overtone which states, “basketball (and music and acting) are all black people can be successful at.” Disproportionate adulation in one area can just as easily be seen as enforcing white privilege as lacking it.

Stephens-Davidowitz has produced rich data about race and the NBA but it needs more analysis from a cultural and historical angle.

What should I watch at the Olympics on Sun, Aug 21?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

What should I watch at the Olympics on Sat, Aug 20?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

What should I watch at the Olympics on Fri, Aug 19?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

What should I watch at the Olympics on Thu, Aug 18?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

What should I watch at the Olympics on Wed, Aug 17?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

What should I watch at the Olympics on Tue, Aug 16?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

Why are there two bronze medals given out at the Olympics in Judo?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are there two bronze medals given out at the Olympics in Judo?

Thanks,
Meredith


Dear Meredith,

Whoa! I didn’t know about that. I knew that there could be two bronze medals given out (or two or even more gold or silvers) in the case of ties, but I didn’t realize that an event could choose to always give out two bronze medals. Judo does just that. I’m not sure I can tell you why this is, but I can tell you how it works, and then venture a guess about why.

I wrote about repechages at the Olympics the other day. A repechage is a competition that gives athletes who have already lost a second chance to advance to the next round in an event. Judo uses something very similar. The first few rounds of the judo tournament are normal single elimination. Lose, and you’re out. Once the quarterfinals begin, however, things get a little funny.

The four winners of the quarterfinals go onto the semifinals. They compete against each other and the two winners move to the finals. Meanwhile, the four quarterfinal losers go to a repechage-like round where they fight each other. The two winners of that advance to play against the two semifinal losers. This results in two matches, each of which pit one semifinal loser against one quarterfinal loser who then went on to win the repechage. Since these are parallel bouts in all ways, each of them is for a bronze medal!

This might be easier to understand visually. The bold letters win their matches.

Quarterfinals: A vs B | C vs D | E vs F | G vs H |
Semifinals: vs C | vs G | Repechages: vs D | vs H
Finals: vs E | Bronze Medal Matches: vs B | vs F

Now, why judo does this is another story. My guess is that it’s because judo is not a naturally competitive sport. The Wikipedia entry on Judo has an illuminating quote from the activity’s founding father, Kanō Jigorō:

For one thing, judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life, art and science. In fact, it is a means for personal cultural attainment. Then the Olympic Games are so strongly flavored with nationalism that it is possible to be influenced by it and to develop “Contest Judo”, a retrograde form… Judo should be free as art and science from any external influences, political, national, racial, and financial or any other organized interest. And all things connected with it should be directed to its ultimate object, the “Benefit of Humanity”.

Maybe, just maybe, in the competitive desert that is the modern Olympics, judo’s granting of two bronze medals is an oasis of anti-competitive spirit.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer