Column: Fowler Shadowing Mickelson In More Ways Than One

Since Rickie Fowler joined the PGA Tour in 2010, he and Phil Mickelson have become friends, despite their age difference.

Fowler, 28, and Mickelson, 47, often play practice rounds together at Tour events, and have played together as partners in the 2010 and 2016 Ryder Cups.

Rickie Fowler (Chris Breikss/Flickr)

But as Fowler has shadowed Mickelson personally through his young career, he’s also done it professionally, as his career on the course is on a similar path to Mickelson’s.

Fowler opened this weekend’s U.S. Open as the first round leader with a 7-under 65 and was never out of contention until very late Sunday, but after tying for fifth behind winner Brooks Koepka remains the “best player without a major,” a title once held by Mickelson for a significant portion of his career.

The similarities between the career arcs of Fowler and Mickelson started early:  Both qualified for multiple major championships as amateurs, with Mickelson winning low amateur honors at two U.S. Opens and the 1991 Masters, and Fowler making the cut at the 2008 U.S. Open.

While Fowler did not win a PGA Tour event as an amateur like Mickelson did (Mickelson’s win at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open is the last PGA Tour win by an amateur), Fowler won both the prestigious Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate golfer in 2008 and PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010, both of which Mickelson never accomplished.

Fowler and Mickelson are both perennial members of the U.S. team in Ryder/President’s Cups:  Mickelson has been on every U.S. team since the 1994 President’s Cup, while Fowler has appeared in three Ryder Cups and one President’s Cup, and in 2010 became the youngest player in U.S. Ryder Cup history at the time (21 years, 9 months; the record has since been broken by Jordan Spieth)

Phil Mickelson (center left) and Rickie Fowler (center right) play a practice round with Brandt Snedeker (left) and Dustin Johnson (right) at the 2015 Masters. (Shannon McGee/Flickr)

Mickelson’s began his career with 22 PGA Tour wins before his first major, the 2004 Masters, which he won at age 33 after playing several years with the dreaded “best player without a major” label that Fowler, with four PGA Tour wins and three more worldwide, currently bears.

Fowler is currently five years younger than Mickelson was when he broke through at Augusta, and actually has more top fives in majors–Sunday was his sixth–than Mickelson did at the same age of 28, when he had four.  Fowler also has two major runner-ups (the 2014 U.S. Open and Open Championship), while Mickelson’s best finish at the same age was a pair of thirds (1994 PGA Championship and 1996 Masters), before his first runner-up in the 1999 U.S. Open, four days after his 29th birthday.

Like Mickelson, who has suffered from the fate of being born within five years of Tiger Woods as well as losing majors to multiple major winners like Nick Price, Nick Faldo and Payne Stewart, Fowler’s near-misses have come at the hands of many of today’s best, notably falling to Martin Kaymer’s dominant U.S. Open performance in 2014 and to Rory McIlroy in back-to-back majors later that summer.

This comparison is good news for Fowler–Mickelson has gone on to win five major championships between 2004-13, and is only a U.S. Open title away from completing the career grand slam, something only five players have accomplished.

Many players, including Mickelson, have endured several near-misses in majors before finally breaking through for their first major title.  Just in this century, in addition to Mickelson, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink, Darren Clarke, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia all had multiple close calls in majors before hoisting a major championship trophy.

All of these players were among the best in the world at various points of the pre-major-champion stage of their careers, and all except Duval, who was 29, had to wait until their 30s to taste major glory.

Even Brooks Koepka, who is 27, has had two top five finishes in majors before Sunday’s impressive stretch run earned him his first major.

It took a while–two and a half seasons–for Fowler to get his first PGA Tour win (the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship), and another three years to get his second, which came at the 2015 Players Championship, the unofficial “fifth major” (which Mickelson never won until 2007), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fowler, who is still young, hasn’t won a major just yet.

As Fowler and his throngs of fans patiently await his first major, the assertion of some that he doesn’t have what it takes or that he won’t win a major because he hasn’t by age 28 is simply unreasonable.

Fowler failing to win a major to this point isn’t grim.  It’s normal.

And he’s just following in the footsteps of a friend.

 

 

117th U.S. Open

Leaders:
1. Brooks Koepka, U.S., -16 (67-70-68-67–272), ties Rory McIlroy (2011) for lowest score in relation to par in U.S. Open history
T2. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, -12 (74-65-71-66–276)
T2. Brian Harman, U.S., -12 (67-60-67-72–276)
4. Tommy Fleetwood, England, -11 (67-70-68-72–277)
T5. Xander Schauffele, U.S., -10 (66-73-70-69–278)
T5. Bill Haas, U.S., 10 (72-68-69-69–278)
T5. Rickie Fowler, U.S., -10 (65-73-68-72–278)
8. Charley Hoffman, U.S., -9 (70-70-68-71–279)
T9. Trey Mullinax, U.S., -8 (71-72-69-68–280)
T9. Brandt Snedeker, U.S., -8 (70-69-70-71–280)
T9. Justin Thomas, U.S., -8 (73-69-63-75–280), became fifth player in U.S. Open history to shoot 63 (third round)

Notables:
T21. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -4 (70-71-71-72–284), highest-finishing former major champion
T27. Scottie Scheffler, U.S., -1 (69-74-71-73–287), low amateur
T35. Jordan Spieth, U.S.,  +1 (73-71-76-69–289)
Justin Rose (+2), Dustin Johnson (+4), Rory McIlroy (+5) and Jason Day (+10) missed the cut.
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods did not play.

Column: Why Earnhardt Jr.’s Retirement Isn’t Surprising

Many in the racing world were stunned on Tuesday morning when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement at the end of the 2017 season.

But while NASCAR’s biggest star walking away is certainly a big story for the sport, his retirement is not exactly a huge surprise, at least to me, considering the circumstances.

The 42-year old Earnhardt is in a contract year, coming off a 2016 season in which he missed 18 races with a concussion, the fourth concussion he had suffered in a racing accident.

As Earnhardt came back from his injury, he opted to wait to sign a contract extension, and see how he felt about racing and his future after his return to the track.  Now, eight races into the 2017 season, Earnhardt has decided this will be his final season.

The decision was actually made by Earnhardt in March, saying at Tuesday’s press conference he met with car owner Rick Hendrick on March 29 to inform Hendrick of his decision.

Given all he faced in 2016 and his desire to stay healthy, particularly after his recent marriage to wife Amy, Earnhardt’s decision to step away is understandable, and relatively unsurprising.

Earnhardt didn’t go into great detail about his decision on Tuesday, but said he wants to make his own decision to retire instead of potentially being told by doctors he couldn’t race again in the event of an additional concussion or other injuries.

“You’re wondering why I reached this decision–it’s really simple. I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said.  “I’m at peace with the decision.  I’m very comfortable with it.”

Earnhardt, the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and 14-time defending winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, has faced more pressure in his career than any other driver in NASCAR–and arguably as much as any athlete–as he tried to live up to the Earnhardt name and give his colossal fanbase something to cheer about.

While Earnhardt has won 26 races over his career and finished as high as third in points, that pressure has continued through many ups and downs throughout his career, from winning two Daytona 500s to losing his father at Daytona to winning the first race at Daytona after his father’s death to leaving family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. and struggling in his early years at Hendrick Motorsports.

As for what’s next for Earnhardt, the immediate focus is his final season, which is not off to a good start.  Earnhardt has just one top 10 through eight races and sits 24th in the current standings, 50 points outside a playoff spot.

After this season, Earnhardt will remain active in the sport, continuing to work as an XFinity Series team owner with JR Motorsports, a Hendrick Motorsports satellite team which has helped Hendrick with driver development in recent years.  Earnhardt will also honor his prior commitment to run two XFinity Series races with JR Motorsports in 2018.

As for Hendrick Motorsports, the #88 seat will become vacant for the first time in 10 years, and the Hall of Fame owner has a variety of options to fill the vacancy.

Alex Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt in 2016 with some moderate success, should be one of the frontrunners.  JR Motorsports has some strong young talent, particularly including William Byron, although a couple more seasons in the XFinity Series are probably the more likely option for him.

Outside the Hendrick organization, impending free agents at season’s end include Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and others.  Hendrick could also get an XFinity Series or Truck Series driver from another organization, something they’ve done in the past to sign both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Looking at the big picture, NASCAR also has to figure out what’s next as it loses its most popular driver.  The sport will have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retirement in the span of three seasons, a void that would be difficult for any sport to fill.  It will be up to the sport’s young talent, including Kyle Larson, the current points leader, and Chase Elliott, who like Earnhardt is the son of a legend, to become the next generation of superstars in NASCAR, although being as genuine and classy as Earnhardt won’t be easy.

There are 28 races left in the career of NASCAR’s biggest star.  As the sun sets on Earnhardt’s career, and for all intents and purposes the era of Earnhardt family relevance in NASCAR dating back to the 1960s, the plot continues to thicken in an already intriguing NASCAR season.

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
603 starts
26 wins
149 top fives
253 top 10’s
13 poles
1998 & 1999 XFinity Series champion
24 XFinity Series wins

Column: Sergio’s Major is Worth the Wait

After a long road from prodigy at age 19 to veteran at age 37, Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.

The “best player to never win a major” burden has been lifted.  An 18-year pursuit has, at last, reached its end.

The memory of the 2007 Open Championship lip-out at Carnoustie, a water ball while leading at the 2008 PGA, and multiple run-ins with Tiger Woods has been erased by an epic victory Sunday at the 81st Masters, beating Justin Rose in a playoff.

Garcia, who won his first major in his 74th attempt, entered Sunday with the third most major championship starts without a win, behind only Jay Haas (87 starts) and Lee Westwood (76 starts), but became the third Spaniard to win the green jacket, joining Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, 1999) and Seve Ballesteros (1980, 1983), who would have turned 60 on Sunday.

At one point on Sunday, Sergio’s breakthough looked like it would have to wait another major.  After Garcia led by three on the front nine, Rose caught him with consecutive birdies on six, seven and eight, before Garcia bogeyed the 10th and 11th to fall two behind, then hit his drive on the 13th left into the pine straw across Rae’s Creek.

From there, however, Garcia turned the tide.  After a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie, Garcia punched out to 90 yards short of the green on the par-5, calmly hit his approach to seven feet, then made the putt for par.  Rose, simultaneously, missed a birdie putt to go up three.

After a birdie at 14, Garcia then hit one of the great clutch shots on the 15th hole–which is saying something considering that hole’s history in the previous 80 Masters–when his second shot to the par-5 hit the pin and settled 14 feet from the hole.  Garcia led briefly when he made the putt, although Rose birdied to tie at 9-under.

Rose birdied the 16th, where Garcia missed a short birdie putt, but Rose bogeyed the 17th to fall back to a tie, marking the first time since 1998 both members of the final pairing were tied for the lead on the 18th tee on Sunday.  That 1998 Masters was also the last time a player won his first major at age 37 or older, when Mark O’Meara won at 41.

Garcia hit two clutch approach shots into the 18th green–one in regulation and one in the playoff–setting up excellent birdie opportunities; after missing his five-footer to win in regulation, Garcia made his 12-footer in the playoff to win, and physically released the emotion of 73 previous frustrations in majors and 19 in the Masters, the most attempts ever before winning for the first time.

In winning the 81st Masters, and a record $1.98 million purse, Garcia has become the fifth player to win the Masters after previously winning low amateur in the event, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus.  Garcia won low-amateur in 1999, the last Masters before Sunday won by a Spaniard (Olazabal).

That 1999 Masters was just the beginning for Garcia, who turned pro at 19 later that year and finished second to Woods at the PGA Championship at Medinah.

What followed is a career filled with triumph in “normal events” on the PGA and European tours, perennial participation in–and impact in the outcome of–the Ryder Cup, but consistent near-misses in major championships.

Garcia finished in the top 10 in all four majors in 2002, finished as high as fourth at Augusta (2004), finished third at the 2005 U.S. Open and 2006 PGA Championship, the latter also coming during a Woods win at Medinah.

In the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, Garcia led wire-to-wire until the final hole, when he lipped out an eight-foot put for par to win the title, then lost a four-hole playoff by one to Padraig Harrington.

A year later in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, Garcia held the lead for most of the back nine on Sunday, only to hit a ball in the water at the 16th and bogey two of the last three holes, losing again to Harrington.

A fourth runner-up finish in a major came at the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, when a final round 66 wasn’t enough to catch a historic performance by Rory McIlroy.

Garcia did win the 2008 Players Championship, the biggest tournament that isn’t a major, with a clutch shot to within five feet on the famous island green at the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.

But the questions still remained about whether Garcia could ever win a major, including from Sergio himself, and the noise has gotten louder as time has gone on.

But this week, Garcia seemed to have a clearer mind, which appeared to help him recover from the bogeys at the 10th and 11th to make a charge down the stretch.

“Because of where my head was at, sometimes, I did think, ‘Am I ever going to win one?’,” Garcia said Sunday after winning.  “I’ve had so many good chances, and I’ve either lost them, or somebody did something to beat me. So, it did cross my mind, but lately I’ve been getting some good help. I’ve been thinking a little differently, more positively, and I’ve been more accepting, that if for whatever reason it didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on. It’s not going to be a disaster.”

Sunday’s runner-up, Justin Rose, finished second at Augusta for the second time; the Englishman might have two green jackets if not for Jordan Spieth’s record-tying 18-under performance in 2015 and Garcia’s back-nine charge on Sunday.

But Rose, a good friend with Garcia, was beyond classy in defeat.  During the round, the pair acknowledged each other’s impressive shots with thumbs ups and low-key high fives.  Once Garcia won, Rose hugged him and congratulated him.

Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist posted his 5th Masters top 10 finish, the most by Rose in any major.  Rose has never missed the cut at the Masters, and his finishes have gradually trended upward over his career, including the two seconds in the last three years, with a tie for 10th last year.

Rose should win the Masters at some point in the next few years, but Sunday was Sergio’s day, a fact that Rose even acknowledged by tweeting his congratulations to Garcia on Sunday night:

Rose was far from the only member of the pro golf community who extended congratulations to Garcia on the long-awaited major title:

While the golf community is collectively happy for Garcia, whose win is among the most popular in recent memory, Garcia himself had been possibly the happiest he has been during his career when he came to Augusta.  His change in perspective about major championships not defining him helped him play looser, and he is entering a life-changing period off the course, as he is engaged to be married this summer.

And now, after taking the pressure off himself to perform on golf’s biggest stage, he has finally been able to do something that was waited on for so long many had given up on his chances to do so.

Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.  After an epic performance and a thrilling victory, the green jacket was worth the wait.

 

 

The 81st Masters Tournament

Leaders:
1. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -9 (71-69-70-69–279), won on first playoff hole
2. Justin Rose, England, -9 (71-72-67-69–279)
3. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, -6 (74-72-68-68–282)
T4. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -5 (72-73-71-67–283)
T4. Thomas Pieters, Belgium, -5 (72-68-75-68–283)
6. Paul Casey, England, -4 (72-75-69-68–284)
T7. Kevin Chappell, U.S., -3 (71-76-70-68–285)
T7. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, -3 (72-73-71-69–285)
T9. Ryan Moore, U.S., -2 (74-69-69-74–286)
T9. Adam Scott, Australia, -2 (75-69-69-73–286)

Notables:
T11. Rickie Fowler, U.S., -1 (73-67-71-76–287)
T11. Jordan Spieth, U.S.,  -1 (75-69-68-75–287)
T18. Fred Couples, U.S., +1 (73-70-74-72–289)
T22. Jason Day, Australia, +2 (74-76-69-71–290)
T22. Phil Mickelson, U.S., +2 (71-73-74-72–290)
T27. Jon Rahm, Spain, +3 (73-70-73-75–291)
T36. Stewart Hagestad, U.S., +6 (74-73-74-73–294), low amateur
Defending champion Danny Willett (+7), Henrik Stenson (+8) and Bubba Watson (+8) missed the cut.
Dustin Johnson withdrew; Tiger Woods did not play.

Column: Rules Unfairly Rob Thompson of LPGA Major Title

When So Yeon Ryu, the winner of the LPGA Tour’s first major championship of 2017, says she doesn’t feel right about how she won, you know there’s a problem.

In Sunday’s final round of the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson left the 12th green with a three-shot lead, strongly positioned for her second title in the event.

Then, the LPGA dropped a bombshell.

Rules official Sue Witters informed Thompson that she was being assessed a four-shot penalty after the LPGA had deemed that Thompson misplaced her ball when marking it on the 17th green in Saturday’s third round.

The violation had been discovered only after a television viewer, presumably watching Saturday’s round a day later on DVR, emailed the tour about the potential violation, after which officials reviewed video and penalized Thompson.

After the penalty, Thompson fought through tears to play the final six holes in 2-under, making three birdies including one on the final hole to reach a playoff.  She lost the sudden-death playoff to Ryu, who won her second major.

The violation itself is a two-stroke penalty, but given the circumstances two additional strokes were added for Thompson signing an incorrect scorecard in Saturday’s round.

Thompson, who fell from three ahead to one behind the lead, was understandably shaken by the sudden turn of events.

“Is this a joke?” Thompson asked, and after Witters confirmed she was serious, Thompson replied, “This is ridiculous.”

The golf community responded similarly to Thompson, with many, including the sport’s biggest name, showing their displeasure with the ruling on Twitter:

Based on the rules as written by the USGA, the ruling was correct.

“I can’t go to bed tonight knowing I let a rule slide,” Witters said. “It’s a hard thing to do, and it made me sick, to be honest with you.”

But the way it played out was certainly unfair, and begs the question whether some changes may be necessary.

Tiger Woods and the other professionals above have a point:  no other sport’s fans have the ability to call in (or, in this case, email in) potential violations they have seen from home on the event’s television broadcast.

This has an easy solution:  the PGA and LPGA Tours and other sanctioning bodies whose events are televised should place a rules official in the television truck, where they can watch the broadcast for potential violations and request replays or additional camera angles if necessary.

The potential for a fan at home to influence the officiating of an event, especially 24 hours later, is simply nonsensical.

The rule on signing an incorrect scorecard should also change in cases where the player has no intent of improving their score.  Penalizing Thompson, or any other player, two shots for not writing down a penalty that wouldn’t be discovered for another 24 hours is totally unfair to the competitor.

The original rule for signing an incorrect card was if the incorrect score was better than the player’s actual score, the player was disqualified.  Fortunately for Thompson, instead of being disqualified as she would have been with the original rule, a 2016 rule change made it a two-stroke penalty.

But that’s still unfair.  Thompson had no intent in signing an incorrect card, because she had no idea a penalty in her round was even possible.  Penalizing her for a review initiated by the LPGA upon a fan’s suggestion is completely unfair.

Enforcing such a penalty after 12 holes of the final round have been played is even more ridiculous.

Thompson entered the final round at 13-under par, leading Suzann Pettersen by two shots, and played from ahead through the first 12 holes.  Had she started the final round at 9-under, chasing the lead instead of protecting it, she would have played more aggressively to try to catch (and pass) the leader.  Instead, her strategy was different for two-thirds of her round because she had no clue she was about to be penalized.

There is no way this can be considered fair.  Knowing the “time and score” is immensely important for participants in any sport.  Reviewing a play in a “stick and ball” sport later in the game is unreasonable, which is why reviews in such sports can’t happen after the next play has begun.

In golf, it is legal for tournament officials to enforce a penalty from Saturday during Sunday’s round, but once the final player to finish the final round signs their scorecard, the tournament is considered over, so a penalty in Sunday’s round cannot be added on Monday.

For the fairness of all participants (the other players have a right to know where their opponents stand), it should be written into the USGA rules that a penalty cannot be added once the player has started their following round.

My proposal of a rules official in the television truck and no ruling suggestions from fans would help here too, because potential violations would come up immediately instead of hours later or the next day.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent memory penalty strokes have come into play late in a major championship.  In the final round of last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, Dustin Johnson was notified on the 12th hole that he may or may not be penalized a stroke for his ball moving on the fifth green–the decision could only be made once officials and Johnson sat down with video evidence after the round–and had to finish the round not knowing if he was, for instance, leading by one stroke or tied.

In Johnson’s case, the penalty ended up not mattering, as he finished at 5-under, four shots ahead of the nearest challengers at 1-under, and won by three after the penalty dropped him to 4-under.

Thompson wasn’t as fortunate.  As a result, the 2016 U.S. Olympian still had a chance to win, which she narrowly missed, but was robbed of her fairest chance to win one of the biggest events in women’s golf.

Now, as the sport of golf enters its biggest event this week at The Masters, a black cloud hangs over the sport, with a real question of how fairly its rules may play out in the event of similar circumstances on its biggest stage at Augusta.

Column: Raiders Backstabbing Fans With Move to Vegas

Monday, the NFL owners approved for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas.  The move will take effect once a stadium is built in Sin City, with an earliest realistic ETA of 2020.

By moving, the Raiders franchise is stabbing one of the most vocal and loyal fanbases in sports in the back.

Prior to last year’s AFC playoff appearance, the Raiders franchise had been in a prolonged slump.  After reaching Super Bowl XXXVII–which they lost to Tampa Bay 48-21–the team did not have another winning season until last year’s 12-4 campaign.  While that season ended in a disappointing playoff loss to Houston aided by several key late-season injuries, the future is very bright for coach Jack Del Rio’s team.

Now, as the franchise’s boisterous and devoted fans finally have a solid on-field product to watch, the Raiders executives are abandoning their supporters who have stayed with them through so many rough seasons.

Sure, the Raiders have actually consistently ranked in the bottom half in attendance over the last few years.  But every franchise would suffer at the box office if they were mired in a decade-plus of losing–and few other franchises have the culture and tradition of the Raiders, which they have enjoyed in good seasons and bad.  As the team’s fortunes improved in 2016, attendance did as well.

In addition to on-field struggles, the Raiders have one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL–the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum has a capacity of 63,132.  The Raiders share a market with the San Francisco 49ers, who play across the bay at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara; the Bay Area is by far the smallest two-team market in the NFL (behind New York and Los Angeles).

Combining all factors, the Raiders low statistical attendance makes sense.  However, the stats can’t show the atmosphere created in Oakland, especially in big games (even though there haven’t been many of them there in recent years).

Even as these fans are the ones hurt by the move, they are not actually the reason for it.

It’s no secret that for the team to stay in Oakland long-term, a stadium was necessary.  The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is shared with MLB’s Oakland Athletics and is, quite frankly, seen by many as a dump.

The City of Oakland has dragged its feet for years, but now has a stadium proposal which is realistic and feasible (but expensive).  A stadium plan approved by both the city of Oakland and Alameda County would cost the city $200 million, an investment group led by Raider legend Ronnie Lott $400 million, the Raiders franchise $500 million and the NFL $300 million (the league committed this money to a potential stadium proposal when it turned down the Raiders’ application to relocate to Los Angeles in favor of the Rams and Chargers moving there).

If a plan exists for the Raiders to remain in place, and especially in a place where all their fans and tradition are already established, then why are they so eager to move to Las Vegas and abandon their fans in northern California?

Sure, the NFL is a business, and there is a potential for tons of revenue in a previously untapped market that is also one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S.  But that being said, I’m not completely sold that the move will pay off in the long run.

Las Vegas is certainly a growing market.  Pro sports have stayed away in the past because of the connection the city has with sports gambling, but all four of the major North American pro sports leagues have softened their stance in recent years.  The city acquired an expansion franchise in the NHL that will begin play this fall, and now has convinced the Raiders to move from Oakland.

The city, theoretically, has a large enough population to support an NFL franchise, since it is as large or larger than several existing NFL cities.  But while cities like Green Bay and Buffalo both have well-supported franchises, other cities similar in size to Las Vegas have struggled with fan support; partially for this reason, St. Louis lost their franchise when the Rams moved to Los Angeles last year.

That said, Las Vegas is unlike any other city in America.  In the self-billed “Entertainment Capital of the World,” tourism is the biggest part of the economy.  Sure, the residents of the Las Vegas area would make some permanent fans, but the NFL is surely counting on tourism to provide additional filled seats in the Las Vegas stadium, which will be located just off The Strip.

This is an experiment, as no other NFL franchise will be so reliant on tourists being interested in its games, and one which may work–or may not.  Sure, fans will show up en masse at first, but once the novelty of a Las Vegas team wears off, it’s impossible to know if the visitors will keep heading to the stadium.

It’s telling that the NFL owners, who typically have little tolerance for unnecessary distractions, are moving a team to a city full of them.

As for the immediate future, while the Raiders wait for their Las Vegas home to be built, the Raiders will continue playing at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  Their lease there runs through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018.

The earliest the Las Vegas stadium can be finished is likely 2020, meaning the Raiders would have to find a temporary home for that season, either in the Bay Area (more likely) or the Las Vegas area.  Conventional wisdom would say to play as few lame duck seasons in the Bay Area as possible, but there is not currently an attractive stadium option in Las Vegas to even use temporarily:  UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium has a maximum capacity of 40,000.

The Bay Area has three more likely options for a temporary home in 2019:  Levi’s Stadium (capacity 68,500), which they would share with the 49ers, Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto (cap. 50,000) or California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley (cap. 63,000).  Levi’s Stadium just opened in 2014, while California Memorial Stadium was renovated from 2010-12.

The move to Las Vegas is not the first time the Raiders have forsaken their long-standing fans in Oakland for a move to one of America’s centers of entertainment.  After playing in Oakland from 1960-81, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, playing in the City of Angels for 13 seasons before moving back to Oakland after 1994.

Now, history is repeating itself as the Raiders move to Las Vegas.  But this time, even if they return to Oakland in another decade as they did before, the forsaken fans may not.

Column: In Agreeing to Phillips Trade, Braves and Reds Going in Different Directions

Three-time All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips has reportedly been traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Atlanta Braves, in exchange for two minor leaguers, LHP Andrew McKirahan and RHP Carlos Portuondo.

Phillips, who has played for the Reds since 2006, waived his no-trade clause, a clause he has used to nix multiple trades previously, to return to his home state of Georgia.  The Stone Mountain native has over 12 years of MLB experience, and will turn 36 in June.

The Reds agreed to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million salary for 2017, the final season of a 10-year deal he signed before the 2008 season.

The Braves and Reds both won an identical 68 games in the 2016 season (Braves 68-93, Reds 68-94), but now after agreeing to this deal, two of the game’s oldest franchises have shown how much they are going in opposite directions entering the 2017 season and beyond.

The Braves are on the back end of a rebuilding project, and enter 2017 in a position to be much more competitive than they have been the last two seasons (67-95 in 2015, 68-93 in 2016).

After the firing of GM Frank Wren in 2014, the front office agreed rebuilding the Braves’ minor-league system was the best solution for long-term success, and the club went all in on a massive rebuild.  As a result, every ranking of farm systems has the Braves at or near the top, and most pundits project the major league club to be more competitive in 2017 and contenders for several years after.

The Braves reportedly first attempted to trade for Phillips early in the offseason, before the free-agent signing of Sean Rodriguez.  But Saturday, after the announcement that Rodriguez would be out three to five months with a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident, the team stared at a possible weak spot at second base, and trade talks with the Reds resumed, and then commenced, quickly.

Phillips, who hit .291 with 11 HR, 64 RBI and 34 doubles in 2016, is no longer at his peak performance–he is a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, both most recently in 2013–but is still a solid addition for the Braves, adding more offensive depth and another veteran to lead a clubhouse that blends lots of youth and experience.

Adding a local player, from Redan High School in the eastern Atlanta suburbs, won’t hurt the Braves at the box office either, as they move into a new home at SunTrust Park for the 2017 season.

The addition of Phillips fits the Braves’ pattern from this offseason.  With a bevy of prospects in the minor leagues who could be big-league ready in a year or two, the Braves don’t want long-term deals with players who may block said prospects’ path at their given position.

As a result, the team signed veteran free agent pitchers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey (both former Cy Young winners), traded for Jaime Garcia, and has now traded for Phillips.  All except Dickey (club option for 2018) will be free agents after 2017.

With these additions, the young talent like Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Dansby Swanson and others already at the major league level, and the highly-touted prospects the team has waiting in the wings in the minor leagues, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Braves, and it’s not just a candle, but a flood light.

The turnaround of the club’s outlook in just a two-year span since starting their overhaul is impressive, especially considering how many other teams in baseball have been somewhat non-committal as they entered a rebuilding phase, and now appear to face a lengthy period of mediocrity as a result.

The Reds appear to potentially be one of these teams.  After three playoff appearances in four seasons between 2010-13, the Reds dropped to 76-86 in 2014 and 64-98 in 2015.  The core of those playoff teams–players including Phillips, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, Mat Latos, Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman–is gone, with the exception of Joey Votto (signed through 2023).

While some of those players left in trades (others were free agents) and allowed the team to get prospects, the Reds’ farm system is considered by most analysts to be mid-pack.  The team does own the ninth-ranked prospect in the just-released Baseball America Top 100 (3B Nick Senzel), he is the only Reds player in the top 68, and they only have three of the top 100 (the Braves, by comparison, have eight, including two of the top 11).

Most metrics have the Reds winning less than 70 games in 2017, and those projections likely came when Phillips was still with the team.

According to reports since the trade, the Reds may have viewed Phillips as a problem, with his presence potentially blocking younger players–potential parts of the Reds future–from playing time, namely infielders Jose Peraza (ironically a former Braves farmhand), and Dilson Herrera.

This is further evident when considering the return for Phillips.  McKirahan is a former Rule 5 Draft pick, who missed half the 2015 season with a PED suspension, then all of 2016 with Tommy John Surgery.  The 27-year old was not expected to contend for the Opening Day Roster in Braves spring training, although with the Reds’ lack of bullpen depth, with a good spring he could potentially threaten to make the Cincinnati club.

Portuondo is a 29-year old Cuban defector, viewed more as “organizational depth” than a prospect after eight mediocre seasons in the Cuban league, and a 3.63 ERA across two minor-league levels in 2016, his first season in American pro baseball.

The fact the Reds are willing to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million while he takes at-bats for another team in exchange for two players who may never make it to Cincinnati says a lot about the state of the franchise entering the 2017 season.

While the Reds continue their dive into the beginning phases of a potentially lengthy rebuilding process, further cementing their path with the trade of Phillips, the Braves are coming out of their own, and the acquisition of Phillips further equips them in their role as a sleeper team for the 2017 season.

 

*One interesting note for the Braves:  RHP Bartolo Colon and Brandon Phillips were once traded for each other in 2002, in a deal between the Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians; the pair will now, nearing the ends of their careers, play together for the first time.

Column: The NFL Overtime Rule Needs Changing

For years, fans, players, and the media have all wondered when we could see a Super Bowl end in overtime.

Finally, in the game’s 51st edition, it happened.  Then, after just 3:58 elapsed on the game clock, it was over, without the Atlanta Falcons even possessing the football.

The New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to score a game-tying touchdown and conversion with :57 left in regulation, leading to the historic extra period, played under the NFL’s overtime rules.

Those rules gave the Patriots an unfair advantage simply because they won the coin toss.  Unlike college and high school football, in the NFL the team that gets the ball first in overtime can win the game with a touchdown.

The league justifies this by saying both teams are guaranteed to possess the ball unless the first team scores a touchdown by driving all the way down the field after the extra session’s opening kickoff.

And yet, that’s exactly what the Patriots did, going 75 yards in eight plays to score just 3:58 into the overtime period, without the Falcons ever having a possession.

As a result of these rules, the team that wins the coin toss almost always takes the ball, with a few rare exceptions (including, once, the Patriots), because they know their chances to win are enhanced by possessing the ball first.

This doesn’t make sense.  While the rule is better than it used to be–until 2010 the first team to score in any way won, meaning the first team with possession could win with a field goal–it is still preposterous that one team or the other got an advantage in the Super Bowl based on whether a coin landed on heads or tails.

What I would like to see would not be a major overhaul:  the NFL could simply require the team that loses the coin toss to also get a possession.  To use last night’s game as an example, after the Patriots took a lead that would have likely been 35-28 after an extra point, the Falcons would have had a chance to match.  Had they not scored, the game would be over, or if they scored to tie, then the next team to score would win.

While tweeting my discontent with the overtime rule after the game’s conclusion, multiple users replied to me that the Falcons deserved to lose because they led by 25 late in the third quarter and didn’t score over the last quarter and a half.

But that doesn’t change the flaw in the overtime rule.  If the Falcons had won the coin toss and marched down the field and scored, wouldn’t it be right for the Patriots to get a possession after fighting so hard to tie the game and reach overtime?  (That scenario happened to the Packers, last season, as I mentioned here.)

Furthermore, in a hypothetical back-and-forth game that both teams play all 60 minutes at a high level, isn’t it only right that both teams get a possession, instead of one having the ability to win on the first possession because they won a coin toss?

This rule has been a problem for a long time, and I’ve been a critic of it for as long as I’ve been watching pro football.

Now, as football enters its offseason, if the occurrence of one team being robbed of a chance to possess the ball in a historic Super Bowl overtime doesn’t get the league to change the rule, nothing will.

The overtime problem in the NFL has gone on far too long, and now the rule gave one franchise a disadvantage as it tried to win its first Super Bowl title.

It’s long past time for a change.