Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sports Team Showdown

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It sounds like the subject of a beer-bellied bar dispute: Who’s the best sports franchise in town? ESPN says the Coyotes, some swear by the Suns, but it depends who you ask.

Picture your favorite sports bar, then a debate raging among a few folks, all absolutely certain their team is the pinnacle of professional sports in Phoenix. There’s a Suns fan fuming about how no one can

compete on Nash’s level, a Diamondbacks groupie waxing rhapsodic about the 2001 World Series win, and a Cardinals buff blustering about the Super Bowl title that almost was.

And out of nowhere, a burly guy lumbers over from a booth, declares the Coyotes the best franchise in Arizona, and slams down a mountain of papers overflowing with stats to prove his point. He might not change anyone’s mind, but his slightly scientific approach does cause people to look up from their lagers and think.

In June, this happened. Metaphorically, anyway.

ESPN The Magazine was that burly guy in the booth, and the statistical sucker-punch it delivered came in the form of its annual list of the greatest sports franchises in the country – all 122 MLB, NHL, NFL and NBA teams. The Coyotes took the No. 28 spot, followed by the Diamondbacks at No. 33, the Cardinals at No. 71 and the Suns at No. 80. (No WNBA rankings means no Mercury, but more on that later.) It was the second year in a row the team rankings fell in that order, but the gap was noticeably smaller in 2010.

The ranking – a surprise to some, the obvious choice to others – was picked up by local websites, and sports hounds jumped on it, some with constructive criticism, some… not so much. “Fact is, I could care less what ESPN thinks about our teams here in AZ,” wrote one on arizonasports.com. “When it comes to the community and what they bring to it, the Suns have always done the most and the longest,” another argued on azcentral.com. Still others wrote that ESPN had gotten it right.

To the magazine’s credit, the list doesn’t come via one reporter, or even a staff of writers, but from empirical data mixed with fan opinion. ESPN surveyed supporters, and the responses were weighted based on what those fans said was most important in a team. “Bang for the Buck,” or how easily money from ticket-buyers could be converted into team wins, accounted for about 24 percent of how a team was ranked – which sounds, at least in the relative world of sports rankings, like solid math. Affordability, which made up about 14 percent of the ranking, also seems like a pretty good barometer.

Still, there’s no equation for fan happiness, and that needs to be accounted for, too. More subjective measurements, like stadium experience (“friendliness of environment”) and players (“effort on the field and likeability off it”) took a significant chunk of the weighted average – but try to hold out a ruler in the stands and measure the friendliness of your environment.

That means some of the results based on fan opinion might come off as a little strange. The Coyotes, for example, were ranked No. 114 in the quality of ownership category – as in, they were ranked in the ownership category, despite not really having an owner but resorting to the NHL acting as an interim owner until someone purchases the team. (Condolences to New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, who is, in the eyes of fans, slightly worse than no owner at all.)

John Eaton, a clinical faculty member who specializes in sports marketing at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, had something nice to say about the ranking... and then didn’t.

“I think it’s perfect,” Eaton says.

Great.

“And here’s why: It’s obviously something that’s easily criticized, and rightly so, for a lot of reasons.”

Oh.

Meaning the whole point of the article – getting fans to yell and scream about why ESPN is wrong – accomplished its goal. But methodologically, he calls it downright “scary.”

One big problem Eaton has with the list – and his list of problems could be longer than the actual list – is that, in some ways, it rewards not doing well. Say a team is ranked somewhere in the middle. Then comes a bad season – such a bad season that this team has to cheapen ticket prices. The team could move up in the rankings, despite multiple losses, because the “Bang for the Buck” factor is weighted more heavily.

“It’s circular logic,” Eaton says. “The worse a team is, the more affordable they have to be. And the more affordable they are, the more it helps the rankings.”

Another question worth asking is, Is it even fair to lump four different sports together? Eaton points out that, even accounting for a different number of games, the best NFL teams consistently record a higher win percentage than the best MLB teams. Often, the NFL teams in a given season do better than the best MLB teams ever. “There’s so many apples and oranges mixed together... and they’re calling it fruit salad,” Eaton says.

Then there’s the number of fans surveyed, which fans were surveyed, if prices for affordability were price-adjusted by area, if fans watching from home versus in a stadium count, if those fans could provide qualifications of their “fanship” before getting a chance to bash the team they dislike the most on their survey.... Eaton didn’t have access to all the data, but from what ESPN provided, there are at least a few unanswered questions.

So what’s the solution? Is there a way to engineer the perfect team ranking, or is it just too subjective? Eaton isn’t sure. Eliminating the fan aspect isn’t the answer – after all, they’re what the team is there for.

Maybe it’s just undoable to make a definitive list – at least scientifically. Maybe the best-team-in-town argument hasn’t gotten much further than the bar metaphor; maybe it’s had a little too much to drink.

So let’s look at the history and current events of the Coyotes, Suns, Diamondbacks, Cardinals and (this time) Mercury, and take any references to the ESPN list with a generous serving of salt – and maybe some tequila and lime. The debate may never die, but Arizona sports fans can turn to a few key points as they make a case in the never-ending argument.


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The Coyotes
The Coyotes have had some off-the-ice ownership drama, but that doesn’t change a few key details, such as making the playoffs the last two years. Sure, they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in the first round of 2010, then were swept by them in the first round of 2011, but the point is they were there. Ironically, it seems lately the more issues arising off the ice, the better the team does: The two match-ups with the Red Wings (fifth in the NHL according to ESPN, if you were wondering) were the Coyotes’ first playoffs since the 2001-2002 season.

This may be the best Coyotes team ever, really: The 2009-2010 season saw the team break 100 points for the first time in franchise history, and in 2010-2011 they made it to 99 points. In the 2008-2009 season, they made it to just 79. The 2010-2011 Stanley Cup-winning Bruins, by contrast, had 103 points that season.

If anything, the public outcry over a potential relocation for the team after a bankruptcy crisis in 2009 might have shown just how devoted their fans are. Say what you will about the merits of an ice hockey team in a city where snowflakes are a pipe dream; the folks in the stands are cheering. They’re doing it with some money left in their wallets, too: The Coyotes took third out of 30 in the NHL for affordability on ESPN’s list. It’s debatable how much fans care about free parking and cheap beer, but little moves like that could pile up.

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean the whole ownership situation didn’t matter at all to fans. “You can’t say it doesn’t affect them,” says Mike Nealy, chief operating officer for the Coyotes. “But they’re fans for a reason.”

And winning is a big part of that reason. “At the end of the day, fans want to be part of a winning organization,” Nealy says. “The beer’s always colder when the team’s winning.”

Despite the recent playoff performance and positive fan relations, one statistic keeps looming above the team’s head: They’ve never made it past the first round of the playoffs. Since the Coyotes’ beginnings in 1996 it’s seemed like a Curse-of-the-Billy-Goat-and-a-Little-Extra, especially during the team’s early years, when they qualified for the playoffs five out of six times and lost to a different team in the first round each time.

In fact, take a look at the Coyotes’ post-season standings and you could almost say it looks like one big waning/waxing cycle: making it to the playoffs five out of six seasons, then not making it for six, and now making it for two, with every appearance never getting tallied past the Conference Quarterfinals. If this does mean a few more years of playoff appearances for the team, past the first round or not, it would seem appropriate as another cycle restarts: The Winnipeg Jets, the name the Coyotes took before becoming the Coyotes in ’96, will be reincarnated and facing off against the Coyotes twice in the 2011-2012 season.  


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The Suns
Speaking of droughts, the one thing the Phoenix basketball franchise – possibly the staple franchise of the state – doesn’t have is a championship. If you haven’t heard it before, the Suns are historically the winningest team in the NBA to have never won a championship. In Arizona, they’re also the oldest team, which means they’ve had some time to rack up noteworthy accomplishments in their history (or mythology, if you’re a serious enough devotee). So recapping the ups and downs of their storied past might get verbose. But suffice to say: It’s mostly been ups, championship or not, throughout a 40-plus-year run.

The fans’ love for the Suns won’t stop shining, either, says Jay Parry, the Suns’ Senior Vice President of Brand and Business Development. “There’s so much passion for the Suns – just for as long as we’ve been in the Valley,” she says. “Fans make us feel like we really are the hometown team.”

This past year wasn’t bad so much as disappointing. After one of the best playoff runs in recent memory, the Suns went through an off-season shakeup, losing Amar’e Stoudemire to the New York Knicks – if you can settle for calling that loss a shakeup and not an earthquake.

In the ESPN ranking, the Suns took 21st place in the NBA in the “Title Track” ranking – the chance of fans getting to see a win in their lifetime. More encouraging was the ranking of the players (13th in the NBA), due in no small part to star Nash, who, regardless of playing, just seems like an all-around good guy. Just Google him: The No. 1 result is for the Steve Nash Foundation – Growing Health in Kids. On the performance side, he’s one of the greats: He recorded more games with 10-plus assists in the past three seasons than any other player. There were rumors of a trade as recently as late June, but that might have been just too much for Suns fans’ hearts.

It’s anecdotal, but Nash and the rest of the team must be one reason the Suns have such a loyal following. Parry calls it a part of the culture. Talk of charities and community involvement is one of the first conversations new players have with their teammates.

But with such a loyal following comes the potential problem of being too big to interact with fans on a personal level. Parry says the team has been making it a priority to keep the team involved with the community through projects such as this summer’s Operation Orange campaign and year-round charities. Forgetting about current (or past) standing, it’s hard to imagine an Arizona without the Suns. “We’re really proud of the commitment that we have in the community,” Parry says.

On the fan-relations side, the Suns took 22nd out of 30 in the NBA for affordability. A turnaround might be necessary to keep fans coming and paying. A history is important, but winning is the be-all-end-all for a lot of fans – and as great of a player and nice of a guy that Nash is, the team’s entire core is getting old. Maybe there needs to be an earthquake after all.



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The Cardinals
Who could forget it? Cardinals fans won’t. Heck, the sports fans in the state won’t. The 2008 Super Bowl: XLIII. Sorry in advance for opening old wounds.

The Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald had just made a stunning 63-yard touchdown reception, giving Arizona their first (and only) lead of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-20, as a scant couple of minutes ticked down on the clock. You can bet no fans in Arizona were paying much attention to the commercials, as everyone watching almost asphyxiated from holding their breath.

But we know how this one ends: The Cards lost. The Steelers ended up with the win 27-23 and with it took the title of most Super Bowl wins in history. No Cinderella story here; move along.

One of the most important figures of the game (and Cardinals history, and football history, really) was Kurt Warner. He just turned 40 in June, and at the Super Bowl, it was already time to consider retirement. He’d racked up enough accolades in his career, holding records for pass-completion percentage and yards per attempt in post-season play.

In early 2010, Warner officially announced his retirement, changing the face of the Cardinals – though, notably, it didn’t have much of an effect on ESPN’s ranking of how much fans approved of the players – in the NFL the Cardinals took 18th out of 32 teams for likability of players. That season didn’t bring much joy to some supporters, as the team wasn’t able to improve on Warner’s last season – neither resulted in post-season contention. As for the 2011 “Title Track” ranking: The Cardinals took 25th in the NFL.

The search for the next Cardinals quarterback created moments of interest, both on and off the field. Matt Leinart, the presumed starting quarterback for the Cards, ended up losing the gig to Derek Anderson, who, amid some early struggles, was eventually replaced as starting quarterback by rookie John Skelton, but not before making news nationwide for some heated comments directed toward a reporter at a press conference.

What people might forget now is that the Cardinals were pretty low on the NFL totem pole before the Super Bowl, taking their best record home in some time after the 2008 season, at 8-8.

In the years prior – from when they first became the Arizona Cardinals in 1994 and even before that – they’ve had some equally rough luck in the post-season.

Yep. Seasons change, and Warner’s retirement ushered in a cycle of change for the Cardinals. Now they’re probably going to keep changing. What exactly that change might be is still up in the air. 

For a while, Warner’s legacy may be a trip-up for the Cardinals as they find their footing. And the Cards’ next season will be one to watch.


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The Diamondbacks
Let’s get it out of the way now: The Diamondbacks took home a championship for Arizona in 2001. And that championship was the only one ever taken by one of the state’s big four leagues – the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB. But a team can’t live off one championship forever, and the past couple seasons haven’t been stellar – despite pitcher Edwin Jackson’s second no-hitter in franchise history this past season. Still, the team took 26th in likability and effort from players.

But a short note paired alongside the Diamondbacks’ ranking focused on an off-the-field point: The Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation gave $2.4 million to local nonprofits, more for charity than the other professional Phoenix teams mentioned combined. And it wasn’t the first year, either. They even received some kudos for their work in advancing autism research and helping kids. It’s an impressive figure, regardless of how it stacks up to other teams or affects the team’s standing in the community.

Derrick Hall, president and CEO of the Diamondbacks, says as much is done for the fans as the community: The Diamondbacks have lowered ticket prices for three straight years (to the second-cheapest in the MLB), and now have “the most affordable beer in all of baseball,” he says ($4 for a 14-ouncer). The team took third in the MLB in the “Bang for the Buck” category.

“I almost chuckle to myself because no team does what we do,” he says when he comes across a ranking.

Hall chalks up the Coyotes’ ranking to a couple good seasons, but says he’d like to see all of the local franchises ranked higher – “all boats rise in a high tide” is his maxim, echoed by officials on other sides of their respective franchise fences.

On the management side, a switch-up that brought in manager Kirk Gibson and general manager Kevin Towers might have been exactly what the Diamondbacks needed. If this season so far is any indication, it looks like the change mattered. It’s a little early for celebration, but they’re off and running, holding second in the division at press time. But it’s tough for anyone to predict how far away another championship will be for the Diamondbacks.


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The Mercury
So the Arizona WNBA team wasn’t featured on the list. Actually, no WNBA team was featured on the ESPN list. But that doesn’t make the Mercury matter any less. If you’re counting championships or playoff performance (and that’s a pretty fair way to count), then the Mercury are plenty noteworthy – three conference championships and two WNBA championships ain’t nothin’.

The tickets are cheap, too, which is admittedly affected by the free market but still a bargain for one of the best teams in the country. It also means the fan-to-player-interaction rate gets a jump.

“I don’t think that’s a common practice among professional sports teams,” says Amber Cox, the Mercury’s chief operating officer. “[The fans] feel as entrenched in making this league successful for years to come as we do.”

In a theoretical franchise ranking, the Mercury has got to be up there, not just in the WNBA but in the sports world in general.

And it extends beyond signing autographs after games. The Mercury are involved with plenty of charities – mentoring a high school team, hosting food drives, reading Horton Hears a Who to kids, and the list goes on. The team’s even building an international fan base, as Cox points out – women’s basketball is popular in other countries as the players regularly travel outside the states, and having fans from Turkey sending warm regards says a lot about the underrated appeal of the Mercury, and the WNBA as a league.

But is it frustrating? Getting left out of the shuffle while folks can debate on the relative merits of the four biggest men’s teams?

“Yeah…” Cox says, a little reluctantly. “Because we really feel like we’re a player in the market.”

Still, she adds that the credit will come eventually. “It’ll happen,” she says. “It’s going to take time.”

Which says more about the general opinion of women’s basketball than the team – the Mercury have been around a year longer than the Diamondbacks, debuting in 1997 while the D-backs made their grand entrance in ’98. But having a winning team might have sped the process along – the Mercury did well in the earliest and latest seasons of their existence.

“The fans that have been with us since the beginning… those folks are really tied in emotionally,” Cox says. And now, winning is only filling seats faster. 

Remember the Coyotes all those words ago? Not so different – except for the ice.  And, well, that No.1 sports franchise in Arizona ranking from ESPN.

 

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