Thursday, July 21, 2011

Waiting for WPS: Photos from the Flash-Magic Jack Soccer Game

Full stands at Sahlen Stadium.

Women's sports have always been a part of this blog. When I first started out, I was looking for undercovered areas in the sports blogosphere. Seeing how little coverage there was for female athletes, I decided to try to fill the gap. It paid off, as I've been able to interview athletes in figure skating, basketball, and cycling. Thankfully, trends have changed; espnW and All White Kit, among others, have helped close the coverage gap.

With the increased interest in women's soccer due to the World Cup, I decided to cover the Western New York Flash - Magic Jack game. I came away realizing just how much waiting there is in a soccer game. If you watch a game on TV, there is little waiting; each break in action leads to a commercial break, or a talking head pops up to yammer about what "TEAM X MUST DO" before being hammered down by the start of play.

Flash players prepare to toss soccer balls into the stands.

But if you're at the game early enough and stay late, you get a much different perspective. Players wait for the game to begin and wait to be substituted in. Media members wait for interviews, while fans wait for autographs. And most of all, women's sports waits for its survival to be assured.

I'm trying something a little different for this set of posts and letting the photos I received tell the story. Hope you enjoy seeing parts of the game that you normally don't notice from your television viewing angle.

Index of Posts:
Alex Morgan and the Waiting Game
Family Time at the Game
The Wait for Fans, Part I (Ali Krieger)
The Wait for Fans, Part II (Ali Krieger)

Waiting 5 Hours for 20 Minutes of Play: Alex Morgan and WNY Flash Pre-Game

Click on any photo to see a bigger version. Photos are my own: all rights reserved.
I would have preferred to do a post on Marta or Abby instead, but most of the cell-phone photos I got were extremely blurry. I think, though, most of you will be fine with an Alex post. By now you've probably heard of Alex Morgan, the young star whose brilliant World Cup Finals performance nearly won the Cup for the US Women's National Team. What you may not know is that she is not a regular starter for her club team, either. Christine Sinclair, who is having an amazing year and is the star of the Canadian Women's National Team, starts ahead of her. Alex got 20 minutes of playing time in the game. I tried to document all the waiting that goes on as athletes prepare for the precious few game-time moments. Here are some photos of Alex and her team.

Coaches try to convince their young stars that there's not much difference between starting and not starting. That's a lie. There are many small privileges that starters get that a substitute does not get. Alex may be better comparatively than any of the non-forwards on the team. But she's still not in this photo.

I somehow never got a very good photo of Marta (#10, on the right). She always seemed to be in motion or just out of camera view. I found it oddly symbolic, given her speed and elusiveness on the pitch.
Kaley Fountain (#17, left) would not play in this game. Like Alex Morgan, she's a 5'7" dark-haired substitute with a pink headband, who mainly gets in a substitute. But she will not see any playing time in this game. The life of a substitute player can be frustrating, holding the ball out to others while waiting for your own chance to get in.
McCall Zerboni is a skilled forward/midfielder, but she also seems to be the biggest clown on the team (her or Caroline Seger, who sat out the game). She's in the top-right corner of the photo, laughing it up with a staff member. Meanwhile, Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan intensely wait for some last-minute instructions. Part of being an athlete is listening to your coach talk over and over and over again. Is it any wonder that athletes tune coaches out?
Notice "Hill" on bottom left. Interesting how many of us wear our own reminders that we were once athletes to games.
Players boot some balls into the stands as a gift to fans.
More Alex Morgan
I find it interesting how all the little spread-out groups start to knot together as it gets closer to gametime. Players that prefer being alone start massing together at the end and becoming a team before they go on the field.
After the game, Christine Sinclair was interviewed for her two-goal night. Alex eventually came on for Christine late in the game. Until Alex can score nearly a goal a game like Christine has done, she's likely to continue waiting. But it's obvious that Alex will not be waiting much longer, given her being the #1 draft pick in the league.
I apologize for the low quality, but that's Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. One thing I like about the WPS is that it is a close-knit league. Players from opposing teams talk freely after the game.
Some security guards came up and talked to Alex Morgan while she was waiting. The added attention of being a well-known athlete is a double-edged sword. It exists for male athletes too. Not all female groupies are 22 and 24-36-24. But now Alex gets to experience what it's like being called the USA's World Cup Crush ...while still waiting to become a regular starter. I saw (but did not get a good photo of) a college guy who made his homemade "I love Alex Morgan" t-shirt. Of course, one wonders what Alex Morgan's boyfriend, a professional soccer player himself, thinks of all this. However, the occasional over-enthusiastic security guard and college guy (and blog post, admittedly) may be a welcome price to pay if it means consistent paychecks and respect for the league. I hope the WPS gets to struggle with this "problem" of fan enthusiasm and popularity in the near future.

Waiting for WPS: Family Time

The Women's Professional Soccer league does tend to attract a lot of young kids and their families. The question for me has always been if these young fans will grow to become regular fans. Many of us are baseball fans because our fathers and mothers took us out to the game when we were young and impressionable. Will these daughters and fathers be at WPS games five years from now? 10? 20? Who knows, but I enjoyed the family interaction in these two photos, and decided to make it a post.

Note the pink Abby Wambach jersey the little girl is wearing.

The Wait for Fans I: (Ali Krieger)

(Click any photo to see a larger version). While waiting around the game to dodge traffic, I noticed that several fans were running toward the second-level suites. Turns out that Ali Krieger, who did not play in the game, was there, and someone told the fans who she was. One aspect of women's soccer I find interesting is that unless you are told, you often don't know who is a fan or trainer, and who is a player. On the one hand, it encourages fans to think of players as real people. On the other hand, it means that there's not the natural aura one gets from staring, at, say, a Dwight Howard or Peyton Manning.

Fans look up at Ali while waiting for autographs.

I forgot just how excited young fans become when interacting with a star. Even with the blurriness of the photo, you can see the fan's smile as Ali Krieger signs her shirt.

I liked this photo for two reasons. You can see a little boy has also joined the girls in wanting an autograph (more on this later). Also, note the little girl with the soccer ball, apparently admiring an autograph she just received. Who knows if she herself will be a player some day?
Note the fan in the black top on the left. It's tough not to be nervous in waiting for an autograph. What if this adult athlete shuns you or has to go?
This might be my favorite photo in this blog. Ali was getting a bit tired at this point, but you can also see that the sweet request of the fan is endearing. I think at some point in our lives we've all been that fan holding up the slip of paper asking for an autograph.
I unfortunately did not get a photo of the fan as she left, but she and her friend were glowing. Click here for Part 2, in which Ali gets some unexpected (but needed) visitors in the autograph line...

The Wait for Fans II: (Ali Krieger)

Part I is here. As I was taking photos of Ali signing autographs, I noticed how typical the crowd was. Many young girls and their parents were trying to get an autograph. I once waited in an autograph line after a women's sports event and regretted it. Being the only male between 20 and 40, surrounded by screaming little girls and their parents, made me feel out of place. However, as I kept clicking away, something interesting caught my eye...
Two young guys ran up the steps to go get an autograph from Ali.

They started taking photos of her as they waited for their own autographs. You can also see a little boy at bottom left reaching up for an autograph, just as the girls are doing.

What is different about this photo than the others? It's dominated by men and boys. These guy fans wore pink headbands in honor of Alex Morgan, and I saw another guy who had his own handmade Alex Morgan t-shirt. In my opinion, the WPS needs to have this happen more and more often in order to survive. A cynic might note the rather crestfallen little girls waiting for their turn. But overall, I think a more diverse crowd will legitimize the WPS and keep it financially healthy.

In the end, you can see that the fans and player alike have joy from the interaction. Is it tedious? Did Ali Krieger's wrist hurt from signing so many autographs? Yes. But this is how leagues are built, unfortunately; one interaction at a time, multiplied over and over again until grassroots enthusiasm meets polished product and sophisticated marketing. Hopefully the wait will be rewarded for the WPS.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mark Jackson and the Value of a Name

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

When I heard that Mark Jackson was hired by the Warriors, I had to hide my disbelief. The point guard who ran some of the slowest offenses in the league would be now in charge of the fun-and-gun Warriors? The folks at ESPN agreed with me, as writer after writer tore into the Warriors for choosing Mark Jackson.

However, looking back at the records of star ex-players who became coaches, and TV analysts who became coaches, I'm surprised by how good those coaches became. The optimistic example for Mark is Doc Rivers, who only three years after his retirement was coaching the Magic. Kevin McHale and Larry Bird had zero assistant coach experience and still stepped in and did a halfway decent job. Also, analysts such as Hubie Brown and Doug Collins stepped in and got instant respect from their players. Honestly, I couldn't think of one analyst or player that was truly poor except for Magic Johnson. (I would have liked to see how Isiah Thomas would have done if Eddy Curry was healthy instead of hungry.)

The average NBA player would rather be coached by some guy that he's seen on TV rather than a guy who has been a no-name assistant for 20 years. The head coach doesn't need to be a star X's and O's guy himself. Being able to demand instant respect from the players the moment you walk in the door makes it much easier to wait out the inevitable player conflicts early on. It's why the NBA rarely works out for college coaches; they can't demand the same level of credibility. If Mark Jackson could handle the demands of Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing, I think he'll be able to keep Monta Ellis under control. With a guard-heavy offense in Golden State and a strong compliment of assistants, I think Mark Jackson will be a shrewd hire.