The Ghost of Alpe d’Huez

Lance Armstrong is many things. He is a Texan. He is brash. He is a cancer survivor. He is a doper. But one thing he will never be is forgotten.

Of course, the president of the UCI, Pat McQuaid would like us to all develop a little case of selective Alzheimer’s and forget that Lance and the last decade of pro cycling ever existed: “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling.”

The records, now stripped, leave a gaping chasm between the years 1999 and 2005 where the world’s greatest cyclist once reigned supreme.

But it’s a troubling idea to forget such a remarkable era of a sport’s history. Our memories are the foundation for everything in our life. We remember how to put our pants on in the morning, remember where to go to work, and we remember who we are and the people we love. Without these memories we are lost.

So where will cycling be if everyone just quietly goes about their business and pretends the “lost era” simply didn’t exist?

With Lance Armstrong being named and shamed by what seems like every rider of his era – both friend and foe – cycling is trying to move on, but in the process they are forgetting a piece of who they are – and what made the sport great.

Like it or not, Armstrong’s day was an absolutely incredible time to watch cycling. He put an entire sport on the radar in North America, and provided some of the sport’s greatest moments in the process:

– The frantic dash through a field when Beloki went down mere feet in front of him.

– Crashing when his handlebars caught an errant flag on a climb at Luz Ardiden, then recovering to win the stage.

– And then “The Look”. How could anyone forget? It was one of the great moments in sport when Armstrong glanced back, stared down a labouring Jan Ullrich, and said something to the effect of, “You will always live in my shadow,” before hammering to the top of Alpe d’Huez.

(Or perhaps enjoy this montage with an incredibly fitting – and ironic – Coldplay soundtrack:)

These are the very moments that enchanted an indifferent North American audience. They were exactly what were needed to captivate us and keep us coming back the next year.

Now we know they were all accomplished through the use of drugs. But were we not entertained? How many new cycling fans were born along with Armstrong’s wins? Then of course the countless others who took from his success a message of hope and optimism. Maybe it’s better to forgive than forget in this case.

Besides, how were the USADA and the UCI’s drug testing methods not more effective through these past two decades? Surely they, just like the MLB, could have done a better job cleaning their sport up. Or maybe they were just as happy to remain blissfully ignorant to the misdeeds while the sport made headlines and broke new ground in a lucrative market?

Regardless of who was in the wrong, the whole Armstrong debacle encapsulates the bizarre nature of drug culture in our society. It has a very strange existence, especially when it comes to sport, and the area of right and wrong is becoming increasingly grey.

For cycling, it’s EPO and blood boosting that live on the front lines of the war. For baseball it was “The Clear” and human growth hormone. Meanwhile cortisone shots and Red Bull are perfectly legal, socially accepted, not without adverse side effects – and certainly performance enhancing.

Of course, blood-boosting can be dangerous. There was a rash of deaths in the 80’s 90’s when the doping methods were new and not as well understood. But the stigmatization of drug use took a toll as well – Marco Pantani battled depression after doping allegations marred his career. He eventually died of a cocaine overdose.

Lance and company obviously just had it down to a science. The use of drugs enabled him to do amazing things, inspired millions and gave us something to cheer for. Now it should all be gone despite the positivity it brought?

It’s not to condone the actions, but why Armstrong is the only fall guy one can only guess. Sure, he lied many, many, many times. He is pig-headed as they come. But he wasn’t the first guy to do it and he’s certainly not going to be the last. He was just the best when doping was at its zenith, and he made the sport what it is today.

Really, the shadow will be cast very long and very dark over the lost era. Ullrich, Pantani, Basso, Contador, Hincapie and of course, Armstrong – all would-be legends now left with legacies in tatters.

But for what? The validation of an embarrassed UCI? We all embarrass ourselves through our mistakes. It’s how we reconcile them that shows our true colours. And frankly, the UCI is coming out a bit “yellow” on this one (pun intended). Pass the buck, blame Armstrong to save face. Perhaps a look in the mirror about how they handled the last two decades would be more fitting.

Next year’s Tour will be a moment to watch – if for nothing more than to see if some form of contrition come from above.

There are signs cycling is cleaning up its act. Ryder Hesjedal recently won the Giro d’Italia and his Garmin team is known for their strict drug-free approach to the sport.

But a jaded feeling has hung over this sport for so long, who even knows when it will lift. When the possibility of an advantage exists in a competitive setting, there will always be the whispers of transgressions.

So one can only wonder, next year, when a group of riders are hammering their way up Alpe d’Huez with their lungs on fire, will they remember the legends who rode before them, or will they choose to forget? One can only hope they don’t because it’s very much a part of who they are and where the sport goes from here.

Crazy ol’ Gene

So, a while back we learned a bit more about how Travis Snider’s career was more or less derailed by poor communication from Jays’ former manager Cito Gaston, and hitting coach Gene Tenace.

In a Sportsnet article by Shi Davidi, Snider reflected on what he was told on his first day in the bigs:

“Have you always finished your swing with two hands?’” Snider remembers (Tenace) asking. “I said, ‘Yes I have, my whole life.’

“He said, ‘You might want to change that if you want to stay at this level.’”

Funny that. Tenace seems to be a bit of a hypocrite (jump to 1:58 for the action):

Looks an awful lot like a two-handed finish to me.

Now, granted Tenace’s year with Oakland in ’72 he wound up hitting .225  with a .339 slugging percentage and an OPS of .646 in 82 games. Not the best numbers. So maybe he was telling Snider what NOT to do based on his experience. Who knows?

And to be fair, in Davidi’s piece Tenace does say he doesn’t remember what he told Snider. But, man… if Snider remembers correctly? Well, me thinks Tenace has got some explaining to do.

Poking the Bear

“”I’m not afraid of anything. I’m afraid of bear – but bear in the forest.” – Ilya Bryzgalov

An NHL lockout is bad for a number of reasons. People will be out of work, and not just the well-paid hockey players. Hockey’s popularity will suffer right as it was making inroads in less conventional markets. And sadly, the Stanley Cup could wind up with odd gaps in its lineage unseen since the seasons lost to World War II (or the 2005 lockout).

But something that’s getting lost in the fray of this lockout conversation is the potential for other hockey leagues of Europe to start encroaching on Canada’s favourite pastime – particularly the KHL.

Unlike football, baseball, and to a lesser extent basketball, hockey is actually quite popular in Europe. In fact, leagues like the KHL are quite ambitious. The popularity comes with an asterisk though. While popular, the leagues are smaller than the NHL, and in some cases, the countries are simply don’t generate NHL-type money from ticket and merchandise sales.

The KHL doesn’t exactly follow the business model of the NHL, where fans flood to arenas (at least in the northern climes) and pay staggering amounts for tickets, food, booze and merchandise. This is not really a trait of the European leagues. For example, hockey games in Sweden are actually relatively inexpensive, and beer is moderately priced – even though the country itself is exorbitantly expensive.

But does this mean the European leagues can’t ever compete with the NHL until they start charging $12.50 per beer and $8 for a plate of shitty nachos?

Not necessarily.

Gates, concessions, and merchandise make up only a portion of a team’s revenue. Another bulk of a league’s revenues – and therefore a portion of a team’s revenue – can be driven by the TV deals they have. Of course ‘can’ is the operative word here. Forbes.com (loosely) summarizes the relationship between revenues, ticket sales, and TV deals of the major North American sports leagues as such:

“During the 2010-11 season, the typical NHL team relied on gate receipts for half of their revenue. Last year the average team in the NFL, which has the richest national television deals (divided equally among all teams), got less than 25 per cent of its revenue from ticket sales. The comparable figures in the NBA and MLB are 33 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively.”

Also… “The league’s new 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC is such a small piece of the overall revenue pie that it is virtually inconsequential.”

Interesting and alarming at the very same time. In the TV world, it would seem hockey is getting left out in the proverbial cold – leaving it on dangerously thin ice. Oh the puns, how rich.

Further Forbes-based analysis would imply that the NHL is ankle-burning its way to a bad business model: “During the 2010-11 season the typical NHL team only generated 18 per cent of its revenue from television. Last year the average team in the NFL, which has the richest television deals (divided equally among all teams), earned 54 per cent of its revenue from TV. The comparable figures in the NBA and MLB are 38 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively.”

So, the idea goes something like this: If Russian TV networks pony up and drop serious coin on a KHL TV deal (one big enough to compete with the NHL’s revenues) then the league would get enough of a cash influx – regardless of merchandise and ticket sales – to inject money into the teams, pay comparable salaries to the NHL, thus luring away the top talent and becoming more watchable.

Of course it is not that cut and dry, and it probably never will be with the corrupt and slippery world of Russian business. The KHL has plenty of obstacles to overcome. Some teams are very spread out, currently the league is largely funded through petro-dollars, there are the legalities of more than just two countries to juggle, and the general population has less disposable income than North Americans.

But the troubles aside, the potential exists. PwC has done an interesting analysis of the Russian media market, which is one of the fastest growing in the world.

“In 2010, the Russian media market grew by 13 per cent and is now worth $20.5 billion, while the global media market increased by only 4.6 per cent.”

Kovalchuk: “Hey Ovie, you know we world’s fastest growing media market?”
Ovechkin: “No. Dats cool.”

They predict that between 2011-2015 the market will continue to grow at an 11.7 per cent compound annual advance, compared to the global rate of 5.7 per cent.

But here’s the kicker… They expect “in 2012 Russia will overtake the UK and Germany as the largest TV advertising market in the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East and Africa) with USD 6.1bn. By 2015 Russia will be the fifth-largest TV advertising market in the world, behind only the US, Japan, China, and Brazil.”

Shit. That’s a lot of available advertising dollars. Where those will go of course is anyone’s guess. But, what if the KHL suddenly becomes the hottest thing going on TV? What if Tretiak is on TV every Saturday doing his best Don Cherry impersonation? Given Vladimir Putin’s use of hockey as a foreign policy tool, maybe it’s not such a far-out idea.

If hockey starts to drive ratings, and advertisers pay more, and the KHL funnels that money back into the league, all of a sudden there may be enough cash kicking around to keep the Ovechkins and the Malkins from going over to Canada. Especially considering Hockey’s grip on the North American sports market is tenuous at best.

Plus, the NHL seems to be very unaware of the simplest laws of economics. If there is a demand for hockey, but no supply of it on TV, someone will figure it out. Hence, the KHL and ESPN3 will be joining forces.

I can’t believe Yakupov score shootout winner!

It doesn’t stop there though. Internet access share of the media market is expected to increase as well. Granted, the revenues might be small, but the more clicks on khl.com from Igor in Chelyabinsk and next thing you know the league has even more money to play with.

Then there’s more potential for money from ads on jerseys, other European TV deals in countries, and the money that does actually roll in from the games themselves – St. Petersburg sells out a 12,000 seat arena every game.

Of course, this would require the KHL to act more like a governing body as the NHL does, where they take money in and distribute it amongst the clubs. Then, the owners will need to use that money on players and these Russian “businessmen” who own teams will have to avoid spending cash on ridiculous stunts.

Plus, there’s the little image problem the league has of using aging planes, planting drugs on players to get them to quit, making players buy their own equipment, folding teams mid-season and players going fishing for their dinner after games. That last one is not a joke – read Dave King’s book about coaching Magnitigorsk for a year for details.

Yes, the obstacles are large, and some NHL teams are catching on to the importance of TV deals – LA recently signed a regional TV deal with Fox Sports West.

But tread carefully, NHL. You had a pretty good thing going, and you probably will once things start up again, but it’s always safer to just not poke the bear.