Friday, August 11, 2006

Unforgiving Reds fans, Maurice Clarett and a league in bad taste

Cincinnati Reds fans send a clear message – deliver the goods

The Cincinnati Reds entertained the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday afternoon at the Great American Ballpark. The Reds completed a critical ten game home stand yesterday that included the four game series with the Cardinals, leading the second place Reds in the National League’s Central division. The Reds have contended since the start of the season for the playoffs, near the first place Cardinals and at or near the top of NL wild card standings.

Despite the Reds’ success on the field, the team hasn’t enjoyed a great year at the box office. Before Thursday’s game the Reds had sold 1,654,728 tickets through 61 home games. The Reds are averaging 27,126 fans per game, filling 64.5 percent of their ballpark. While there are plenty of questions in Cincinnati as to why more people haven’t been attending home games, the Reds/Cardinals series did attract more then 160,000 fans.

The Reds realized the series against the Cardinals represented a great opportunity to showcase their team. Monday night (a game the Reds lost 13-1), the Reds offered half-priced tickets in 10 sections and $1 hotdogs, but where still more then 8,000 fans below their stadium’s capacity. The team offered promotions for each of the four games against the Cardinals in hopes of selling out each game.

The Great American Ballpark, which captures the ambiance of the retro-stadium look, opened in 2003. Built almost entirely with taxpayer dollars, the stadium cost $280 million. 1,855,787 fans made it to Reds games in their last year at Riverfront Stadium (a facility the Reds shared with the NFL Bengals for many years). Baseball fans in the Queen City sent a strong message to Reds management the following year when the Reds moved into their new home.

The Reds drew 2,355,259 fans a significant increase in 2003. However, the team averaged 29,077 fans per game, or filling an average 69.1 percent of their new home’s seats per game. Teams traditionally enjoy a honeymoon period during the first few years they play in a new facility, selling out most of their home games. That wasn’t the case for the Reds. Clearly baseball fans had enough of losing and non-competitive franchises. Attendance dropped and fell moderately in 2004 (2,287,250 28,237 67.1) and even more in 2005 (1,943,157 23,989 57.0)

Carl Lindner’s stewardship as Reds owner lasted ten years, ten terrible and forgettable seasons of losing and teams that were never competitive or entertaining. Under Linder, the Reds had two wining seasons in the ten he was owner. Robert Castellini, purchased the franchise in January with two other local businessmen.

"Fans are a huge part of the game," right fielder Ryan Freel told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "You don't want to say you get more amped up, but playing in front of 40,000 people is a lot more exciting than playing in front of 5,000 ... it's a lot more intense with a big crowd."

Professional sports teams more so then most other business need to do whatever they can do to reasonably control their message, and in particular what’s the public believes to be true about that team. While you can never censor the media, making yourself available to answer the media’s questions allows a sports franchise to try and spin their message.

The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Colleen Kane tried to contact the Reds about the teams’ lackluster attendance numbers. Phil Castellini, the Reds senior director of business operations, and chief operating officer John Allen did not return Kane’s calls. Not only does that encourage the media to speculate if the Reds have a hidden agenda, but it allows the media to draw whatever conclusions they wish to. Avoiding the media also forces writers like Kane to look for other sources prepared to go on the record about that issue, in this case the Reds attendance problems. Kane spoke with a local sports talk show host Lance McAlister of WCKY-AM (1530).

"If being in contention, being the surprise of Major League Baseball, and - if the postseason started today - being in the playoffs isn't enough for a town where baseball was born, I don't know what is," McAlister said. "If I were working for the Reds, I'd throw my hands up."

Many believe the Reds challenge is the class – what have you done for me. Sports fans everywhere are sending a loud and clear message to sports teams, stand and deliver!

"We appreciate the support we're getting," Freel said. "On the other hand, you wonder if people are still waiting to see if we're going to be in the hunt at the end."

What exactly was Maurice Clarett Thinking?

A life that looked so full of promised three short years ago is today in ruins. Maurice Clarett who may never see the light of day again, is in jail facing a series of weapon related charges. Clarett arrested early Wednesday morning will remain in jail until his trial unable to pay his $5 million bail after the Judge at Clarett's bail hearing ruled the former Ohio State football star was a danger to society.

After being selected as the USA Today’s 2001 High School Football Player of the Year, a harbinger for what should have been a great career for many years, Clarett entered Ohio State in January 2002. Clarett’s antics should have made people question where his head was very early in the one year he played for the Buckeyes. In October 2002, Clarett told ESPN he would consider leaving Ohio State early for the NFL. Regardless of what the young Clarett was thinking, establishing his intent to leave the Buckeyes early upset many Ohio State football fans.

Despite missing two games in his freshman season to injury, on the field Clarett excelled. Off the field, ‘issues’ continued to develop. In December 2002, Clarett was highly critical of Ohio State officials after the 19-year old was upset he was unable to attend a funeral.

Clarett scored the wining touchdown on January 3, 2003, in a 31-24 double-overtime victory over Miami to give Ohio State its first national title in 34 years. While the good times may have been rolling for the Buckeyes and Clarett may have played the key role, TROUBLE was about to surface all around Maurice Clarett and Ohio State. A series of Ohio State related events ended not only Clarett’s Buckeyes career but for all intents and purposes ended his football career.

• July 12, 2003 -- The New York Times quotes a teaching assistant at Ohio State who says Clarett got preferential treatment. She says he walked out of a midterm exam but passed the class after the professor gave him an oral exam.

• July 29, 2003 -- Ohio State confirms the NCAA is investigating Clarett's claim that more than $10,000 in clothing, CDs, cash and stereo equipment was stolen in April from a 2001 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that Clarett had borrowed from a local dealership.

• Sept. 9, 2003 -- Charged with misdemeanor falsification for the police report on the theft. The charge carries a penalty ranging from probation to six months in jail and $1,000 fine.

• Sept. 10, 2003 -- Athletic director Andy Geiger announces Clarett is suspended for the season. Geiger says Clarett received special benefits worth thousands of dollars from a family friend and repeatedly misled investigators.

Clarett then begin a series of lawsuits against the National Football League attempting to circumvent NFL draft eligibility rules. The current NFL collective bargaining agreement dictates once a student’s junior year has passed he can declare himself for the NFL draft. After the NFL’s successful appeal of a U.S. District Judge in New York ruling that made Clarett eligible for the 20004 NFL draft, Clarett tried twice to have the Supreme Court hear his case. The Court refused to deal with the case both times.

The Denver Broncos wasted a 2005 third round pick on Clarett cutting the running back who hadn’t played a football game in more then three years on August 28, 2005.

"He's got some heavy issues," Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan told reporters in Denver Wednesday. "It's just a shame this has happened to a guy that [had] so much promise and so much ability. I'm not sure what happened to him but it's a real shame. . . . We tried to reach him quite a bit when he was here. One thing he did have here was a lot of support from our veterans and our players tried to really take care of this guy and he wanted no part of it, and that was one of the reasons why he didn't make our football team."

His fall from grace continued on January 1, 2006 when Clarett was accused of robbing two people at gunpoint in an alley behind a Columbus bar and is wanted by police on two counts of aggravated robbery. That led to Wednesday’s terrible events. There has been a great deal of speculation concerning why Clarett was in a vehicle with guns and wearing a bullet proof vest, but one issue has to be certain – wherever Clarett was headed wasn’t to do his good deed of the day.

The question that begs to be asked, what went wrong and why? Clarett graduated from Warren Harding High School in December (2001) of his senior year, reportedly with B-plus grades and a score of 1,220 on his SAT. On the surface Clarett would have appeared to have both the physical and mental stills to become a great athlete and a even better role model. Growing up in Youngstown Ohio, he was a troubled kid who had been in juvenile detention centers three times by the time he was in junior high.

The real challenge society faces in trying to deal with young elite athletes is all too often they are given everything they could want from a very young age. They literally live their lives on pedestal. They almost live their lives in a bubble.

Being told you’re the best from a young age can fill a young person’s mind with the belief that they are above others, and ultimately above the laws that govern our society. An even bigger challenge exists in the media. In the media (and the sports media are very guilty of this) there is a never-ending search for sensationalistic stories, the juicer the better.

Former Florida State running back Warrick Dunn has had an outstanding NFL career that spans more then ten years with first the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then the Atlanta Falcons. Dunn has rushed for an average of 832 yards per season in his decade long career. As great as he’s been on the football field his accomplishments off the field tell the real tale of the man Warrick Dunn has become. He grew up in a single family home, with not a great deal. He gives back even more then he has received with his Foundation’s slogan --“Dedicated to providing opportunities for economically-disadvantaged single parents and children who have demonstrated a commitment to achieve financial independence and stability.”

The problem is as great a story as Dunn has become, the media tends to focus on athletes like Maurice Clarett and let’s remember other then a few games at Ohio State Clarett never accomplished anything but bring shame to everyone around him. Society needs to remember what Maurice Clarett has done but must learn what to do from the actions of men like Warrick Dunn.

More from the sports league that can’t shoot straight

Its not too often SBN commits an entire Insider Report to one issue only to see that issue surface with a similar story the following day, especially a sports league as obscure as the American Basketball Association, and even rarer with a teams nickname again causing concern. Thursday’s Insider in part looked at the Buffalo Silverbacks, one of the newest teams in the lowest rung on professional basketball’s ladder, Joe Newman’s ABA. In a classic case of ‘we can’t be making this up’ controversy surrounds the selection process for yet another 2006-07 ABA expansion franchise, this one located in Quebec City.

Réal Bourassa has included a cartoon frog in the team's logo. Just as Silverbacks can be considered offensive to members of the African-American community any direct or indirect reference to the word ‘frog’ can be just as derogatory to French Canadians.

“I've heard sometimes, ‘Hi, frog,' or ‘Hi, froggie,' but it has never been an insult to me,” he said from his home in Quebec. “I feel good with the fact that maybe someone will say, ‘You are not shy to be a frog.' My answer will be ... ‘I may be a frog, but I am proud to be a frog.', Bourassa told The Globe and Mail.

In a classic ABA business decision Bourassa purchased the team on March 31, 2004 but waited two years to begin his teams’ play in the ABA. His one decision just after paying Newman’s $20,000 expansion fee – meet with Quebec City based public relations companies in hopes of finding the right name and logo.

“I asked them, may I be not politically correct with my logo and my name? But have something funny?” he said.

Thursday, Liberal MP and former sports minister Denis Coderre added his voice to the chorus, saying the moniker risks glorifying a racist depiction of Francophones.

"I find it degrading, it's not a very judicious choice," said Coderre, who represents the Montreal riding of Bourassa. "To have the entire league refer to the team from Quebec as frogs is not useful. We shouldn't have to go through that. It's the kind of remark we've been fighting against for years."

French-speaking Canadians are acutely sensitive to the derogatory term — a Montreal La Presse columnist called it "the ultimate insult" — which etymologists trace back to a British slight of the French fondness for eating frogs as a delicacy.

There are those who believe that as a society we have become too politically sensitive to sports team nicknames. The NCAA may not agree with that statement. The NCAA in what has evolved into a very heated debate has banned all Indian related school nicknames some with ‘traditions’ that date back almost 100 years, to a time in history when schools created nicknames that should have been considered racially insensitive.

As the terrible financial toll owning an ABA team has taken on most would-be owners, the optics and terrible publicity of naming your name and potentially insulting the ticket buying public just makes no sense whatsoever. Soon enough the Buffalo Silverbacks and the Quebec City Jumping Frogs will go the way 23 of the 30 ABA teams that started the 2005-05 season did – into disarray and bankruptcy.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Source cited in this Insider Report: ESPN, Associated Press, Cincinnati Enquirer and the Globe and Mail.