Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 -- The Day the Sports World still still

A generation will never forget where they were the morning of September 11, 2001. This tells the tale of where SBN Publisher Howard Bloom was that day, the days that followed and a look at how the sports world dealt with the terrible aftermath of 9/11 in the days, weeks, months and years that have followed. Simply referred to as 9/11 it is a day indelibly etched in the memories of everyone who experienced the events that took place that terrifying Tuesday morning.

Canada’s first national sports radio network, The Team Radio Network, born in April 2001, defunct in August 2002, was early into its sixth month of an all too short existence. It was an important time for the fledgling 11 station Canadian network (at the time it was the largest Canadian radio network programming any format). On top of that the six week fall ratings period was into its second week.

Gene Valaitis, the host of the network’s mid-morning program (9 to Noon) had a different co-host each week, was getting ready to start his show. One week each month yours truly traveled from Ottawa, Canada (Canada’s capital) to Toronto, where I had the honor of working with Gene. Gene wasn’t your traditional radio sports guy and he was a part of the legendary Toronto radio team Gene and Jesse Dylan. The great thinkers behind The Team Radio Network teamed Gene with a different sports radio ‘guy’ each week. Gene may not have known a great deal about sports but that day he showed how great a radio personality he is.

Inside the studio located on Toronto’s Yonge Street (where CHUM founder Allan Waters began his radio network), it featured a bank of televisions. Given that it was a weekday morning (the night after a Monday Night Football game), two of the six televisions were tuned into CNN when Gene was starting his show. As was the case with nearly everyone in the studio and in the newsroom most took note of a report on CNN mentioning that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

As clear as if had just taken place, every single person thought it was a small prop plane which somehow accidentally hit the World Trade Center. It caught everyone’s attention not because anyone initially believed America was under attach, but because it was a Tuesday morning and there weren’t any sports events taking place – on what everyone believed would be an otherwise uneventful day, what was on CNN looked ‘interesting’.

CNN was right on top of the story, capturing the horror of the second plane hitting the South Tower. It was 17 minutes earlier when the North Tower was hit. Anyone who was witnessing history realized an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil was underway.

Gene was on the air when the North Tower was hit, with Brian Henderson. Given that Valaitis was working for an all-sports radio network, Gene quickly realized the boys working in the toy box (aka those who work in the sports media) had no idea what to do next. In the midst of no one knowing what to do, or what to say, Gene Valaitis knew exactly what to do. While he was chatting with Brian Henderson at the time (talking about life on a trampoline) Gene watched the news as he saw it on TV and began reporting it.

Gene quickly motioned for yours truly to come into the studio (I was in the newsroom watching CNN). We both agreed the show we had planned for that day (between 10 and Noon) would be scrapped. Valaitis, the pro’s pro reminded me to call the guests we had booked for our show that morning (NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus and Richard Peddie, the president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, among others) and make sure they knew our show plans had changed.

By 9:45 AM I had joined Gene and Brian on the air. Gene Henderson, with years of radio experience, and Howard Bloom, with little if any real radio experience, would try and describe the unthinkable to a national audience. Gene took charge and stayed in charge that day. He stayed on national radio for more then seven straight hours. In the critical 90 minutes after the towers where hit, Gene, Brian and I did our best to describe what we where seeing and feeling. One moment I’ll always remember, talking about a Tom Clancy novel (The Sum of all Fears) and how it appeared Clancy’s novel was somehow coming to life.

Watching the South Tower fall on six television’s still remains a sickening image. It just didn’t seem possible. 29 minutes later the North Tower fell. Having spent so much time in New York and in the World Trade Towers, my first thoughts were that tens of thousands of people had died.

By the time the South Tower fell several CHUM and Team management types came into the studio trying to figure out what to do next. Listeners that day have Gene Valaitis to thank for bringing sanity to an event that no one would have ever imagined could have taken place, was happening.

In the days that followed and the horrifying news that hundreds of New York’s finest (fireman and policeman) had died in collapse of the Twin Tower’s, how society thought about sports underwent a dramatic shift.

Needless to say our plans for the show that week, a key ratings week (which included interviews with David Stern, Mark Cuban and Ted Leonsis) were scrapped. As was the case with most of the network’s shows, listeners wanted to talk about what they where experiencing. Most of the listeners wanted to still talk about sports, and how sports would be part of the healing process. Almost universally each and every caller and guest believed this was a moment in time when people would stop idolizing athletes and begin believing the real heroes where policeman, fireman, rescue workers, those who dedicated their lives to giving back to society.

Needless to say in the days, weeks, months and years that followed, for whatever reason sports fans have reverted back to sports heroes serving as their role models. When will we ever learn?

The sports industry five years after September 11, 2001:

For the most part five years after that terrible day, it’s hard to tell if there has been any effect on the industry. Attendance at sports events is at record levels. Major League Baseball will once again set a single season attendance record with more then 76 million people attending MLB games this year. The National Football League sold out their opening weekend. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League filled their buildings to 90 percent capacity last year. The sports industry generates a half trillion dollars annually, the economic numbers are staggering.

Initially sports leagues canceled their international travel plans. The NBA’s 2001 European pre-season event and Major League Baseball’s 2001 annual post-season Japanese tours where canceled.

The NBA and MLB renewed those opportunities a year later. Next year the National Football League will send the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks to Beijing for a pre-season game. London, England is expected to host an NFL regular season game in the next two years. September 11, 2001 slowed down the globalization of sports. The industry reaching out to international markets continues to move forward at a blistering pace.

In the six months that followed September 11, 2001, there where three sports events, held in the United States, that not only contributed to the healing process but helped Americans realize it was safe to once again enjoy attending events with tens of thousands of people.

The 2001 World Series won by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but featuring the New York Yankees. Coming just six weeks after September 11, 2001, the image of President Bush on the mound at Yankee Stadium throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for game three on October 30, 2001 (the first two games where played at Phoenix’s Bank One Ballpark) sent a strong message to Americans, it would take time but America would move forward.

The second sports event was the Super Bowl. Played a week later, on February 3, 2002, the New England Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams 20-17, when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired giving the New England Patriots their first Super Bowl title. Irish rockers U2 offering a stunning halftime tribute to America.

Days after the Super Bowl Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics. In the following days after September 11, 2001 many believed the Salt Lake Games would never take place. The Games were a tremendous tribute to the spirit sports can bring everyone, save for Skategate -- Jamie Sale and David Pelletier and the judging scandal that nearly destroyed figure skating.

The world has changed a great deal in the last five years, but at the end of the day sports features winners and losers. The issue of performance-enhancing drugs tainted athletes before 9/11 and continues to pollute the image of sports. The National Football League has a new commissioner. The New York Yankees haven’t won a World Series since the 2000 season, and the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004. Sports experienced the rise, fall and the resurrection of Kobe Bryant and Syracuse University finally won an NCAA basketball championship. If you look hard ,each and everyday, you’ll find a highlight or two, a memorable moment from a sports event.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom