2015: U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 US Map.

Rhode Island — U.S. Figure Skating Synchronized Skating Championships

Synchronized Skating — February 25-28, 2015

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the country and one of the strangest. It has a long tradition of being on the cutting edge of sporting events. It hosted the country’s first outdoor polo match in 1876, the first open golf tournament in 1895, and the first national lawn tennis championship in 1899. The state is well-known for its hosting of folk and jazz music festivals in Newport. Even the circus first came to Rhode Island in 1774! This year, the biggest sporting event of the year is the U.S. Figure Skating Synchronized Skating Championships.

Synchronized skating is admittedly, not a very well-known sport, but it has a lot going for it. Synchronized skating is seriously athletic! Like synchronized swimming, which is an Olympic sport, synchronized skating features individual athletes performing feats that most people couldn’t dream of doing alone, much less in completely regimented, virtually flawless lock-step with a team full of athletes performing the same tricks.

The championships will not, as far as I can tell, be televised or available in a streaming fashion, so you’ll have to head over to the Dunkin’ Donuts center in Providence, Rhode Island, to see them in person. The schedule is available here and generally follows a young to old pattern, with the younger teams starting on Wednesday and doing most of their routines before the tournament transitions to its most serious divisions Friday night into Saturday.

How does synchronized skating work?

Synchronized skating is a team sport where groups of ice skaters perform coordinated dance-like routines to music. Synchronized skating is a judged sport, just like the individual or pairs figure skating you might be used to watching in the Winter Olympics. Teams consist of between 12 and 20 people depending on the level of competition (from Tot to Youth to Collegiate to Senior.) One of the coolest things about the sport is that, although most of the participants are female, there are no sex or gender requirements whatsoever. It’s a totally egalitarian sport. In competitions, each team will perform two routines, a short program and a free skating routine. Like in Olympic skating, the short program is all about performing difficult technical elements while the free skate’s length allows for more artistic expression. Each routine is scored before the competition based on how difficult it is. During a competition, the judges will be looking to see how well a team executes the planned routine. A more difficult routine therefore has a higher potential score than an easier routine. A lot of a sport’s strategy must be about finding the exact right balance between too easy and too risky.

Each routine must have a set of required elements, although there is room for variation and creativity within the rules. The Wikipedia page on the sport has a list of these elements and nice descriptions of each. Many of them, like the Wheel, Block, Circle, Intersection, and Line requirements are descriptive of the overall shape of the team. If seen from above (or imagined) the entire team must do something in the shape of a wheel, block with three parallel lines, etc. Other requirements are about what skaters do within formations. For example, in a Spin move, each skater must spin the same number of rotations at the same speed as his or her teammates. To fulfill a Pair requirement the team must do something where pairs of skaters hold onto each other. The lifting of one skater by another, like in pairs figure skating, is allowed, and, since there are so many more skaters on the ice, synchronized skating teams sometimes do group lifts, like you might see from cheerleaders.

In an article about a local team going to the national championships, The Frederick News Post quotes the mother of a skater as saying that watching the team is like “watching a flock of birds.” That’s a very apt description. It’s hard to do the sport justice by describing it, you’ve really got to see it. Luckily, there’s Youtube! What you’re about to see is a routine by the most successful American Sychronized Skating program, the Haydenettes from Lexington, Massachussets. Their team has won the U.S. Championships every year but two since 1999! The performance is impressive for some of the same reasons that a fighter-plane flyover before a football game is — power, speed, and precision. I am guessing that the team’s name is an homage to another impressively synchronized team, the Rockettes. The difference with the Haydenettes, and the thing that makes this sport so cool, is that they’re on ice. The positive of being on ice is that it allows for speed, power, and fluidity that would be hard to achieve on solid ground. The downside, of course, is that any mistake is magnified. Get an inch off, and the ice will make that inch into a foot. Also, and it’s hard to emphasize this enough, being on ice means you are wearing deadly weapons on your feet while you move backwards at high speeds mere inches from a teammate who is herself moving backwards at the same speed. Talk about trust!

Who’s going to win?

Like most competitions that involve the creation of beauty — ballet, beauty pageants, cheer leading — my assumption is that beneath the surface, synchronized skating is every bit as competitive as football or ice hockey. With that in mind, there’s no way I’m betting against the reigning champion Haydenettes who will be competing not far from their home town. The two teams that could challenge them are the Miami University team and the Crystallettes from Dearborn Michigan.

2015: North Carolina vs. Duke

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 US Map.

North Carolina — North Carolina vs. Duke

College Basketball — February 18, 2015 — 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. Also, March 7, 2015.

It may seem funny that we chose a regular season college basketball game as the biggest sports event in North Carolina for 2015. The thing is… we’re right. There is no bigger sporting event in North Carolina than when Duke University and the University of North Carolina play in men’s college basketball. Indeed, it would be easy to make the case that there’s no bigger college basketball game all year than when these two teams play.

It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt and Duke and North Carolina are a prime example of this. The two schools are only eight miles apart and have played against each other at least two times a year since 1920. For people who live in North Carolina, it’s hard to remain uncommitted to one side or another. You’re either a Blue Devil (Duke supporter) or you bleed Tar-Heel Blue (North Carolina’s nickname is the Tar Heels and they wear baby blue but don’t call it that… 😉 ) It’s a rivalry that cuts through race, class, and family. The Wikipedia article on the rivalry has two wonderful quotes which together paint a wonderful picture of sports antipathy.  The first is from Will Blythe’s book about the rivalry, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever:

To legions of otherwise reasonable adults, it is a conflict that surpasses sports; it is locals against outsiders, elitists against populists, even good against evil… The rivalry may be a way of aligning oneself with larger philosophic ideals.

The other quote is from former U.S. Congressperson Brad Miller, who actually told an AP reporter this in 2012:

If Duke was playing against the Taliban, then I’d have to pull for the Taliban.

What’s the plot?

With Duke and North Carolina, there’s a macro plot about the rivalry as a whole and a micro plot about each edition. We’ll start macro. Like many great college rivalries, the one between Duke and North Carolina can be characterized easily as a rich private school against a public school. Duke is the elite, private school. If you know it mostly for its sports teams or don’t know much about it at all, it’s easy to not realize just how elite it is. Duke accepts only 10% of its undergraduate applicants and 4% of its graduate level applicants. It’s regularly listed as one of the top ten colleges in the country by all sorts of organizations that do that type of ranking. It has an enormous endowment — over $7 billion — and it spends a lot too — over a billion dollars in 2012 on research alone! Duke students and alumni are quite reasonably proud of their school and that pride translates for many of them into obsessive rooting for their school’s sports teams, men’s basketball first and foremost. North Carolina plays the role of the public school. The university is, indeed, a public school, as you can tell from its size — 18,000 undergrads and 12,000 graduate students compared to Duke’s 6,500 and 8,000 — and from its admission stats, which are much more forgiving than Duke’s. Other than that though, the mantle of public schools falls a little uncomfortably on North Carolina’s shoulders. Like Duke, North Carolina is sneaky elite when it comes to academics. North Carolina is consistently sited as one of the top five public universities in the country and claims its place as one of the “public ivies.”

Likewise in basketball, the similarities between the two schools are greater than their differences. They both have incredible histories of winning with no apparent plans to stop any time soon. They are number three and four in all-time wins. Together, they account for nine championships and 33 Final Four appearances. Since the beginning of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) that they both play in, the two teams have won 79% of the regular season titles and 59% of the conference tournaments. They both win. A lot. They’ve also been lucky enough to have two of the top three most well regarded coaches of all time. Dean Smith, who just died recently, coached at North Carolina for 36 years. My favorite story about him, which illustrates his stature and character the best, is that he was so well loved and respected by his former players, including basketball greats in their own right like Michael Jordan and Larry Brown among others, that they continued to call Smith for advice on any important life decision, well into their forties, fifties, and even sixties. Smith would get calls from former players asking for his advice on engagements, house purchases, etc. Duke’s current coach, Mike Krzyzewski is the current holder of the best coach in basketball mantle. He’s coached for Duke since 1980 and, with 932 victories, is the all-time winningest coach. Although he’s rejected countless offers to coach in the NBA, he has coached the USA Basketball team for the last ten years. In a rare but touching show of inter-rivalry solidarity, many Duke fans will be wearing a shirt honoring their late rival, Dean Smith.

This year, Duke is the more highly regarded and ranked team. Duke is currently 21-3 and ranked fourth in the country. North Carolina is no slouch themselves, but they are significantly behind at 18-7 and ranked 15th. Duke is coming off five straight victories. North Carolina has actually lost three of their last four games although two of those losses came in back to back games against highly ranked Louisville and Virginia.

Who are the characters?

Roy Williams — Roy Williams is the current coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Williams was not the direct successor of legendary Coach Dean Smith, but he’s the first one who’s stuck. He was born and grew up in North Carolina and went to the University of North Carolina where he played freshman basketball and volunteered for the Varsity team. After graduation, he took a job as a high school coach nearby and after five years there, returned to become an Assistant Coach under Smith at UNC. He stayed for ten years before striking off on his own to become the head coach of the University of Kansas. At Kansas, Williams succeeded admirably, taking the team to four Final Fours and losing two National Championship games. Still, when the North Carolina job opened up in 2003, Williams jumped at it. In his twelve years coaching for UNC, he’s succeeded even more than at at Kansas — three Final Fours and two National Championship victories. He may still live in the shadow of his one time mentor, but he’s comfortable there.

Jahlil Okafor — For years, Duke seemed to be a hold-out against the trend of recruiting athletes of such promise that they were likely to remain in college for only the one year that is required until they turn professional and enter the NBA draft. Jahlil Okafor is exhibit A that that is no longer a reality. Okafor is likely to be the first overall pick of the NBA draft for this year. He’s listed at 6’11 and 270 pounds. Guys that big don’t grow on trees (they’re so big, perhaps it would be more likely for trees to grow on them?) and to be as polished an offensive player as Okafor is extraordinarily rare. Okafor is deadly when he gets the ball around the basket. Watch for Duke to try to get the ball to him close to the basket so he can overpower or out-skill his defender. Okafor’s only weakness is that he’s not a great defender. North Carolina may try to attack him on that end and hope that the refs call a few fouls on him, forcing Duke to limit his playing time.

Who’s going to win?

Duke. Duke should win. They have the best player on the court and the best coach on the sidelines. It is a rivalry though and rivalries bring out strange performances, especially from college kids, so who really knows?

2015: USA Sevens Rugby World Series

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 US.

Nevada — USA Sevens Rugby World Series

Rugby — February 13-15, 2015 —  on NBC, NBC Sports Network, and Universal Sport.

You know rugby, right? It’s like American football but the players don’t wear pads and you’re only allowed to pass the ball backwards. Also, play doesn’t really stop all the time like it does in football — it’s more of a fluid game, like soccer or basketball or hockey. It’s played mostly by crazy people from Australia and New Zealand. Well, rugby sevens is an exciting version of rugby played with half the number of people on the exact same size field. By reducing the number of players without changing the size of the field, rugby sevens play becomes way faster and higher scoring than it’s full-size counterpart. The sport is growing quickly and will be a medal-sport for the first time in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. One of the sport’s biggest organized leagues is a series of nine international tournaments played over the course of a year. This weekend, one of the nine tournaments will be hosted in Nevada at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. It’s the only one of the nine held in the United States.

Rugby Sevens has an interesting history. Many people believe it is the future of rugby but that doesn’t mean it is a recent invention. It’s current popularity could be said to have started in 1973 when the first international rugby sevens tournament was held as part of the sport’s 100 year birthday celebration. That’s right, the sport began in the late 1800s in Scotland! Over most of its history, it’s been thought of primarily a training ground for players to develop skills that they could use in traditional rugby. Today, this is less true than ever. Sevens is different enough and popular enough that few players cross from one sport to the other.

For a beginner viewer, the sport has some real advantages. It’s simpler to follow than the fifteen person version and it’s very, very fast. A game consists of two seven minute halves with only a one minute halftime break. In the time it takes to watch one quarter of American football, you could watch two whole games of Rugby Sevens. The championship match is a little longer, but even that is only two ten minute halves separated by a two minute half-time. There’s enough hitting to make you feel like you’re watching an extreme sport but surprisingly little of the disgusting bone/ligament/brain injuries that make watching football tough these days. Give it a try!

What’s the plot?

The stakes for this year’s Sevens World Series are high. The top four teams receive automatic qualification into the 2016 Olympics. Countries that don’t get these spots will still be able to get a spot in the Olympics by doing well in regional international tournaments or, failing that, another global qualification tournament. Still, this is the first chance to qualify and it’s a prized one. After four tournaments, South Africa is a surprise first place team, followed closely by New Zealand (which has won 12 of the 15 championships ever), Fiji, and Australia. Australia is trailed closely by the England team who are only two points behind them. The United States is in eighth place. For our team, that’s actually a pretty good showing so far. They’ve never finished better than 10th in a Rugby Sevens World Series. The United States is not a traditional rugby power-house by any means but a good effort in this tournament at home would give them confidence going into the other opportunities to qualify for the Olympics.

The tournament works a little bit like the soccer World Cup. It begins with a round-robin group stage composed of groups of four teams each. Teams play three games in the group stage, one against each of the others in their group, and receive three points for a win, two for a tie, and one for just showing up. At the end of the group stage, the top two teams advance to the next round. The next round begins with eight teams that play single elimination games. Then there are four and finally two left who play for the championship. In this tournament, the groups are as follows:

  • Group A: New Zealand, Fiji, Wales, Samoa
  • Group B: England, Kenya, Argentina, Canada
  • Group C: South Africa, USA, Portugal, Japan
  • Group D: Scotland, Australia, France, Brazil

If you want to follow the United States team, they’ll be playing Japan at 7:22 p.m. ET and Portugal at 10:18 p.m. ET on Friday, February 13 on Universal Sports and South Africa at 3:40 p.m. ET on Saturday, February 14 on NBC. The elimination rounds will also be televised and hopefully the USA will be playing in them. NBC has coverage on Sunday, February 15 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. ET when NBC Sports Network takes over.

Who are the characters?

Carlin Isles — Isles is the star of the USA men’s Eagles Seven. He’s also representative of how the United States hopes to become a power in this sport — by stealing athletes from other sports. Isles was primarily a sprinter until just a few years ago when he gave up his dream (and a very reasonable dream, it was) of qualifying for the Olympics as a sprinter. Instead, he got interested in rugby and quickly became an extraordinary member of the USA team. With the inclusion of the sport into the 2016 Olympics, he may get his shot after all, just in a different sport than he expected. Rugby players are fast but virtually none of them are as fast as Isles. Once he gets even an inch of space on the field, it’s hard for anyone to keep up with him and no one is going to catch him.

Here’s a highlight reel of great Carlin Isles plays (it’s got a vaguely NSFW Kanye West music, so be warned). Watch for the shrugs of despair from Isles opponents as he turns the corner on them and they realize he’s just too fast:

Grantland did a short biographical video on Isles that’s also worth working:

The New Zealand All Blacks — I mentioned that New Zealand kind of runs this sport, right? They’ve won almost all the world cups but they’re not in first place this year. They’re called the all blacks because their traditional uniform is, you guessed it, all black, and has been since 1905. In addition to being famous for winning, they’re also famous for performing a Maori Haka dance before each match. Here’s a video of them performing it in the rain before a game last year… shirtless:

Who’s going to win?

Oh, who knows. Probably New Zealand. Maybe South Africa or Australia or Fiji. Possibly France. Or, you know what? How about the United States? Let’s do it!!

2015: College Football Championship plot and characters

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 map.

Texas — The College Football Playoff Championship Game

College Football — January 12, 2015 — Oregon Ducks vs. Ohio State Buckeyes, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

For the first time ever, college football is using a playoff system to determine the best team in the country. In the past, the national championship was decided by vote (until 1998) or by the result of a single game with its two competitors decided by a mixture of computer and human ranking systems. This year, there was a selection committee made up of thirteen people including some former college coaches, players, athletic directors, as well as a journalist and Condoleezza Rice. These thirteen people chose four teams to play in two semi-final games on New Year’s Day. The winners of those games, Oregon and Ohio State, get to play tonight in the College Football Playoff Championship game. The national championship game is always a big deal but this year it seems even bigger. Having a playoff may or may not be a more fair way of deciding the best team in the country but it absolutely makes it a more compelling sporting event. One of the main problems with the way college football was done in the past was that by the time the national championship game came around, the two teams playing hadn’t played competitively for over a month. That was bad for them and bad for viewers. This way, the teams just played the week before last. They should be at the top of their game and they’re fresh in spectators’ minds.

What’s the plot?

This is Coke vs. Pepsi. Ohio State and Oregon are both big time college football programs. Ohio State has a longer history than Oregon, so they will be playing the role of Coke. Oregon sometimes gets cast as the happy-go-lucky, quirky Pacific Northwest team but actually, they’re the prototypical nouveau riche of college football. The Oregon football program is basically a branch of Nike. Nike co-founder Phil Knight is an alumnus of Oregon, where he ran on the track & field team. As a proud alum but also in what has probably been a smart business decision, he’s donated a lot of money to Oregon athletics. Wikipedia cites figures well above $100 million! The Oregon Ducks football team is famous for their fast-paced style of play and their many, many uniforms. It seems like every game, the team comes out with a brand new style of uniform and all of them make the team seem like the fastest one out there. Or wait, maybe that’s just because they are great athletes. Oregon is Pepsi — a little less traditional, a little quirky, but materially the same as Coke.

Part of the plot, or at least the fun, of this game is how it’s going to be produced on ESPN. ESPN is rallying all of its channels to provide different choices of how to consume the game. If you just feel like watching the football game, you can see it on ESPN in English or ESPN Deportes in Spanish. If you want to watch the game but get different commentary, you have three main options: ESPN2 will be doing a “Film Room” take on the game with a bunch of coaches breaking down the tactics, ESPNU will have a group of random ESPN personalities blabbing about the game as they watch it together, and ESPN News will be showing the game with a group of ESPN analysts talking. On ESPN3, the online streaming service, you can get the game synched up with either the Ohio State radio announcers or the Oregon radio announcers, or you can watch the whole thing from that cool “Spider Cam” that roams over the field, suspended by wires. My favorite option is the “Sounds of the Game” option on ESPN Classic that shows the game without any commentators at all! How cool will it be to just hear sounds from the stadium itself?

Regardless of which team wins this game, it will be a fairy tale ending for the winning team’s quarterback. If Oregon wins, their quarterback Marcus Mariota will be like the cowboy wearing the white hat, riding off into the sunset after vanquishing all his enemies. If Ohio State wins, their quarterback, Cardale Jones, will be a true Cinderella story. The third quarterback on his own team, winning this game would indelibly leave a mark on college football history. Let’s find out more about the characters.

Who are the characters?

Cardale Jones — Quarterback is by far the most important single position in football. Great quarterbacks are extremely rare and even functional ones are difficult to find. Teams that lose their starting quarterback to a long term injury very rarely have an acceptable backup who can maintain the level of play at a high enough level for the team to succeed. Teams that lose their first and second string quarterback are almost always dead in the water. We’re seeing that now in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals whose play has declined dramatically as they descended from Carson Palmer to Drew Stanton to Ryan Lindley. Ohio State has been through the exact same series of injuries this year but each time they lose a quarterback, a new one steps in and the team doesn’t miss a beat. Cardale Jones is the third quarterback up for Ohio State and in his first game as a starter, he led the Ohio State team to a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game. He followed that up with an unbelievable performance in the team’s semi-final win over Alabama. Jones has an almost stereotypically hard-luck back-story and I certainly hope that he beats the odds to play well in this game.

Marcus Mariota — As long as Mariota can get through this game without shredding his knees, he will be the first pick of next year’s NFL draft. He’s the prototypical modern quarterback. He’s tall (6’4″), fast (sub 4.5 seconds for the 40 yard dash, which is faster than you can imagine), and a good decision maker. If we were better than terrible at identifying good NFL quarterbacks, Mariota would be a sure thing. He’s also a senior, playing his third year for the Oregon Ducks (he sat out his freshman year.) When he won the Heisman trophy this year, he became the first Hawaiian born player to ever get that honor given to the best college football player each year. If he can win this game, he’ll leave college on top of his sport.

Mark Helfrich — Who? Right, that’s the point. Even sports fans don’t know who Mark Helfrich is. He’s the head coach of the Oregon Ducks. Reading this excellent article about him by Michael Weinreb in Grantland makes me feel like maybe there are some college football coaches out there who care about more than just winning and getting paid. Here’s a few tidbits about Helfrich. He grew up in Oregon and loved the Ducks as a kid, even when they were terrible. He played college quarterback for Southern Oregon and later as a pro in Austria during the NFL’s flirtation with developing a minor league in Europe. Instead of screaming and yelling, like many coaches do during the game, he is “thorough and utterly prepared and calm on the sideline, an intellectual at heart who happens to be a football coach.”

Who’s going to win?

Oregon is favored by six points. That may seem like a lot but the over/under (you can bet on whether the combined total of both teams’ scoring is over or under a number set by Vegas) is 74, so six points is only eight percent of the expected scoring. The odds suggest a close, high-scoring game, but I always think that college kids (and they are really kids, after all) tend to get a little more nervous than we expect in the biggest games. My guess is that it takes a little while for the offenses to settle down. That might be enough to give Ohio State a chance to keep up with Oregon and squeak by them for victory in a relatively low scoring game.

2015: Winter Classic plot and characters

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 map.

Washington D.C. — The Winter Classic

NHL Hockey — January 1, 2015 — Chicago Blackhawks at Washington Capitals, 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

The first thing to know about the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic is that it is aspirational in every aspect. The game is not a classic, it’s simply a regular season NHL game that is played outdoors on New Year’s Day. This tradition began in 2008 with a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabers in Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo’s NFL arena. An NHL spokesperson would probably argue that the word “classic” refers to the traditional aspect of playing hockey outdoors. I think it’s more about the NHL trying to make this a classic element of New Year’s Day for the sports-aware public. For the most part, I think it’s been a success. I’m looking forward to it! Here’s a few things I know about the plot and characters.

What’s the plot?

The plot of the Winter Classic has very little to do with the teams playing or the possible result of the game. Frankly, no one cares too much about the outcome of a one of 82 regular season games for two teams likely to make the playoffs. What the Winter Classic is about is pageantry and spectacle. I think I’ve watched some part of all seven Winter Classics and they’ve all provided stunning images in different ways. The games in football stadiums are amazing because of how many people decide to spend their New Year’s Day watching hockey in the freezing cold. The capacity of a football stadium is four to five times more than that of a hockey stadium. The football stadium games also feel more outdoors because the rink is placed right in the middle of a big rectangular field with lots of grass on all sides between the rink and the audience. The baseball stadium games have been cool because of their unique shape and history. Games have been played in the two oldest and most famous baseball parks, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston. Both stadiums are so recognizable that they bring their own sense of cool to the games hosted there.

Aside from just putting a game outside, the NHL does other smart things to promote the game. From 2011 to 2013, the NHL arranged a partnership with HBO who filmed a near real-time documentary about the two teams playing in the Winter Classic and aired it weekly leading up to New Year’s Day. This was a great way for fans to learn their favorite teams (or rivals) and a pretty good way to introduce hockey to non-fans as well. HBO decided not to film another series this year and, although Epix took up the mantle, the results have not been as good. The teams always wear special issue throwback jerseys during the game which adds to the novelty, the classic feel (they’re usually homages to a previous era of uniform), and to the visual spectacle (they chose brighter colors).

This year’s game has a distinct (and to my taste, slightly unnecessary and tacky) flavor of Americana. It’s in Washington D.C.’s baseball stadium, where the Washington Nationals play, and not only have the hosts constructed a model of the U.S. Capital Building which the players will enter through, but they’ve also hired Lee Greenwood (much to some fans dismay) to sing his song, “God Bless the USA” between periods. The Winter Classic is a great showcase to market hockey to non-hockey fans but this year’s pseudo-patriotic pitch seems a little pandering to me. Nonetheless, Mike Emerick, who will be commentating this year’s game, is the absolute best in the business and I’m sure he’ll do a great job selling it.

Who are the characters?

Alexander Ovechkin — Known as “The Great Eight”, Alexander Ovechkin is one of the best goalscorers in hockey. When he’s on, his speed and power is only matched by his enthusiasm for playing hockey. Within a sport that values stoicism, Ovechkin shows more passion that most players, even the great ones. It’s hard to imagine a player more suited for responding to the rare thrill of playing outdoors with an explosive, joyous performance than Ovechkin. I expect him to score a couple goals, get penalized for a reckless hit, and be shown on TV, flashing his trademark toothless grin, at least fifty times.

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice in the last five years, and the two players who have meant the most to the team in that time have been Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They are a great study in contrasts. Toews is a center, Kane is a winger. Toews is Canadian, Kane is American. Toews is a responsible, defensive player, Kane is a free-lancing offensive specialist. Toews is a soft-spoken captain who leads his team by example, Kane is a party-boy extraordinaire who has sported a playoff mullet and been arrested for drunkenly assaulting a cab-driver. Together, this odd couple has made the Blackhawks perennially a championship contender and there’s no sign of them stopping.

Who’s going to win?

Who cares? I mean, I guess I’d go with the Blackhawks if I had to choose, but the bigger question is how well will this game serve the NHL? The Winter Classic is an important marketing vehicle for the league and they cleverly scheduled it before the two big college football playoff games (the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl). The only problem is, there are already reports that the game might be postponed an hour or more because of glare on the ice. If that happens, it will be hard to get the game in before all the general sports fans in the country switch the channel.

2015: Sugar Bowl plot and characters

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 map.

Louisiana — The Sugar Bowl

College Football — January 1, 2015 — Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Ohio State Buckeyes, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

The Sugar Bowl is one of three college football bowl games that claims to be the second oldest in the country. It was first played in 1935 and has been played annually in New Orleans or nearby ever since. For its first forty years, it was played at Tulane University’s stadium and was named the Sugar Bowl in honor of Etienne de Bore, the first mayor of New Orleans and a trailblazer in the industrialization of sugar. Since 1975, the game has been played in the New Orleans Superdome, where the New Orleans Saints of the NFL play. This year, the bowl game begins a new chapter in its history when it becomes one of two bowl games to host a semifinal in the first edition of the college football playoffs. The winner of this game will advance to the finals to play the winner of the Rose Bowl for the National Championship. It’s a big game! Let’s dig into its plot and characters.

What’s the plot?

This game doesn’t have the epic good vs. evil implications of the Rose Bowl but it is interesting in its own right. The first place to start is with the conferences. Ohio State is part of the Big Ten and Alabama is a member of the SEC (Southeastern Conference). Both conferences have long and powerful histories but the Big Ten has been seen as waning in power over the past five to ten years while the SEC has waxed to ascendency. If you look at this as simply a high ranked Big Ten school versus a high ranked SEC school, you’d expect the SEC team to win convincingly. As evidence of this bias, all ten Big Ten teams (there are actually 14 Big Ten football teams) that made it to bowl games were underdogs according to Vegas. Of the 12 SEC schools in bowl games, nine were favored to win. So far, the SEC prediction has been mostly true — they are 4-1 — but the Big Ten has been surprisingly successful. They are 2-3 so far. Other than the conference conflict, there’s not much going on from a plot perspective that isn’t character driven. These are two extremely good teams with long histories of winning.

Who are the characters?

The Coaches: Urban Meyer and Nick Saban — The two most compelling, albeit creepy, characters in this game are the two head coaches: Urban Meyer of Ohio State and Nick Saban of Alabama. In many ways, they are mirror images. They’ve both coached at several different colleges before their current one and won National Championhsips — Meyer at Florida and Saban at LSU. They’re both straight-laced and obsessive coaches. A quick Google search pops up articles with headlines like, “Why Alabama’s Nick Saban is Against Texting” and “The Joyless Triumph of Nick Saban” as well as “For Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, no room for satisfaction before college football playoff“. If you ask me, they are prime examples of the type of megalomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, obsessive-compulsive snakes that seem to be attracted to powerful jobs like football coach and President of the United States. Luckily I think we do a better job filtering the worst of them out in politics than in football.

T.J. Yeldon — Yeldon is a running back for the Alabama Crimson Tide and the team’s most dynamic playmaker. In years past, he’d probably be projected as a first round draft pick in this year’s NFL draft, but teams seem to have figured out that because running backs have such short careers and are more interchangeable than other positions in the NFL, it’s not worth drafting them early in the draft. Yeldon will still probably go in the second round. The drama that he brings to this game is in the form of a series of questions: how much, how well, and how will he play? He’s been suffering from an injured ankle and hamstring and the latest news from the Alabama camp is that he will only be used sporadically throughout the game because he’s missed so much practice time. It’s possible that’s true, I’m sure the Alabama staff is thinking about the National Championship game and wanting to protect their best weapon for that game, but it could also be complete bunk — an attempt to deceive Ohio State into not preparing for a full dose of Yeldon.

Cardale Jones — Quarterback is by far the most important single position in football. Great quarterbacks are extremely rare and even functional ones are difficult to find. Teams that lose their starting quarterback to a long term injury very rarely have an acceptable backup who can maintain the level of play at a high enough level for the team to succeed. Teams that lose their first and second string quarterback are almost always dead in the water. We’re seeing that now in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals whose play has declined dramatically as they descended from Carson Palmer to Drew Stanton to Ryan Lindley. Ohio State has been through the exact same series of injuries this year but each time they lose a quarterback, a new one steps in and the team doesn’t miss a beat. Cardale Jones is the third quarterback up for Ohio State and in his first game as a starter, he led the Ohio State team to a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game. Now he’s had a couple weeks to rest, practice, and learn, which is good, but he’s also had a couple weeks to be bombarded by well-intentioned but ultimately questionable adulation and pressure from friends, family, and fans. Jones has an almost stereotypically hard-luck back-story and I certainly hope that he beats the odds to play well in this game.

Who’s going to win?

Alabama is favored by nine points and I’ve got to agree with that assessment. Everything points towards Alabama winning this game. The biggest mystery is whether Cardale Jones collapses in his second start or if he plays well, but even if he plays well, I don’t see it being enough to help Ohio State win.

2015 in the United States of Sports: Interactive

For the last week or two, I’ve been slowly adding features to the 2015 in the United States of Sports feature. First I designed a map and offered a free paper or .pdf copy in exchange for an email subscription. That deal is still going, by the way! Then I added a table showing all 51 (with Washington D.C.) events in a table view in order of date. This is an easier, albeit less beautiful, way of perusing the sporting events. Over my holiday vacation last week, I worked on my newest addition to the map, which I am releasing in this post. It’s an interactive Google map that looks just like the original map, but it’s interactive! Click on each of the states to see its event, date, and sport. As I preview all 51 events over the next year, I will add a link to the post in this interactive map. This  interactive map will slowly become your guide to the biggest sporting events in each state during 2015!

Here’s the map:

Just watch out, unlike on the original, I was unable to transplant Alaska and Hawaii into the missing Mexican mainland. They are in their geo-normative positions in the interactive map.

The deal — get a free copy

If you’d like a paper or .pdf copy of the map, please subscribe to our email list and I will mail you one.


More to come

Keep your eyes peeled to this channel — by the end of New Year’s Day, three (three!) states’ biggest sporting event of 2015 will be in the rear-view mirror. I’ll have a preview of the Rose Bowl (California), Sugar Bowl (Louisiana), and Winter Classic (Washington D.C.) written and added to the interactive map by the time the ball drops on New Year’s Eve!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer