Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening day!

It’s finally here! It is upon us. Twelve teams across six cities are throwing out their first pitch, starting at 1pm ET (7pm CET) all the way through 8pm ET (2am CET, ouch). There’s a solid triple-header coming our way on ESPN America: Detroit at NY Yankees, San Diego at St. Louis and San Francisco at LA Dodgers. I myself plan to watch at least parts of all three, however I’ll rotate out the St. Louis game for my own MLB feed from Kansas City (Angels at Royals). Additional games that one would need the MLB package to view in Europe are the Brewers at Cincinnati and Atlanta at Washington.

What’s on your agenda for the evening’s festivities? Hot dogs? Beer? Peanuts and Cracker Jacks (pretty sure you’d have to import the latter, of course). Anyway, it’s a nice break from all of the basketball drama, and I’m excited as ever about the new season. Hope that everyone is getting a little taste of home tonight!

Help Bring ESPN America HD to UPC Digital Cable Austria!

On the advice of a good friend in the SEO industry, I have started a grassroots campaign similar to bringing democracy to the Middle East only this time it is ESPN America HD to Austria's digital cable provider, UPC.

For the kids!

Monday, March 28, 2011

ESPN America HD coming to Austria? UPC Digital?

Hi Luvbeers,

Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. ESPN America HD is currently available on many television platforms in Europe, including Canal Digital in the Nordic region (Sweden, Finland, Norway), Sky Deutschland in Germany and Austria, and others in the UK and France. ESPN are in commercial negotiations with a number of satellite, cable and ADSL platforms throughout Europe about launching in the months ahead, though we do not disclose the terms of any of our business deals publicly. Thank you for your note, and I hope you continue to enjoy the channel.

All the best,


Richard Vivian
Sales Director Sports Distribution

The Walt Disney Company
3 Queen Caroline Street, Hammersmith, London W6 9PE


Sent: 17 March 2011 10:06
To: Vivian, Richard
Subject: ESPN America HD Distribution

Dear Mr. Vivian,
I am writing you in regards to ESPN America HD distribution. I am an American consumer currently living in Austria. I am aware that through Sky Satellite Germany I can acquire the HD feed in my building, however I have some offhand questions before I switch from my cable provider. Is the HD feed only available through satellite? I cannot find any cable operators in Europe right now offering the feed. Also does Sky Germany have exclusive rights to the HD feed that would prevent an operator such at UPC Austria from licensing it?

I am not sure if you are the correct person to contact, if so perhaps you can send me some else’s email?

Thank you with warm regards,

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The 2011 app

I just installed the new free Formula 1 app for my Samsung Galaxy Android and I must say that it looks pretty nifty and will come in handy when I want to see F1 news and time sheets and can't be in front of a television. Download it now for free!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sweet 16 – An Alternate Take

So yesterday we posted Arturo’s take on the remaining NCAA squads. I don’t think I’ll go into the full detail that he did. Suffice it to say that I too thought that the opening week was, for the most part, amazing (if one can suffer some temporary amnesia where the refereeing is concerned, that is). We had upsets galore, close games, buzzer beaters and a few dominant teams asserting themselves (and I had one of those annoying American Sports in Europe situations rear up when we made our monthly trip to Upper Austria to visit relatives and my viewing options were wiped out completely for 36 hours. Torture!)

Now, though, is where it gets serious. The Sweet Sixteen – where Cinderella dreams go to die. It’s tough to carry over the momentum into the second week, and this is why I expect most, if not all, of the double-digit seeds to fall by the wayside sooner, rather than later. Which teams will get through, then? Will it all play out to form from here on in? Not quite…

East: Before the tourney started, everyone pointed this out as the “killer” region, and it doesn’t look much different today. Marquette winning through would be a surprise, but any of the other three could make it out alive and no one would blink. Being as I identified them before it got started, I’ll stick with UK in this one, pulling off the upset over a cruising Ohio St. that’s due for a tough game and a win over Roy Williams and UNC to reach Houston. Kentucky it is.

West: Hate to do it, but I’ve gotta go with the Blue Devils in this, the one region that went to form. I don’t see Arizona giving them much competition (unless their friendly Pac-10 ref is in charge of all of the clock management), SDSU just doesn’t strike me as a Final Four team and the Huskies are bound to cool off sometime, aren’t they? So, once again, we'll be stuck with Duke on the last weekend. Yipee!

Southwest: Yeah, this is all Jayhawks, baby. Sure, they could run into a cold spell, coupled with an opponent shooting lights-out from downtown and fall short of the Final Four. But they won’t. This team is too deep to drop one at this point, and none of the remaining teams in their region has the horsepower to stay with Kansas when they’re playing well.

Southeast: Eh, I still don’t like this region. I didn’t like anyone in it when the tournament started, and nothing has changed that opinion. Butler, maybe. Or the trendy pick of Wisconsin. BYU? Jimmer? Maybe without their ridiculous, self-defeating pre-marital sex clause they’d have pulled it out. Hmm… that leaves Florida. Oh, what the heck. I’d love to watch KU dismantle the Gators in the semi-finals. Let’s call this one for FU. Or is that UF? :)

That’s it for now. Tune in next week to see me either gloating or writing up a formal retraction of all my predictions…

Monday, March 21, 2011

Guest blog: Arturo's take on the NCAA Sweet Sixteen

I am sure by now you know that the NCAA Tournament has started. If you are like most Americans living in Europe you are disconnected from what is going on back home or you’ve just lost that giddy feeling. Well, let me give you this feeling back and share with you my experiences of this past week.

This is by far one of the greatest tournaments I have witnessed on many accounts. The fact that there is no one team that can impress you that much or is a clear favorite is beyond me. This week has been full of upsets, buzzer beaters, crazy plays (ones that make you wonder “Did that really just happen?”) and just plain plays that break hearts. All this in one week!

Teams that are pulling like they are for real are in my opinion: Ohio State, Kansas, and Florida. These are teams I see going far into the tourney and I have them in my final four in my bracket along with SDSU. More on that later. So I have been staying up late watching almost every game which is insane since most games end around 4:30am or 5am (GMT +1). During the first week myself and another co-writer on this page, Joel, made a tourney bracket bet, then I stayed up to see how my bracket turned out. Let me tell you, I found out my bracket sucks. But that is not important - the games have been unbelievable. By the time one of the first games (Butler vs. ODU) ended, you had your first buzzer beater of the tournament. On that day you would also find yourself looking at #12 Richmond advancing to play a #13 Morehead. If you do not know who these schools are do not worry. You are not the only one. I mean, this has been great. This is what makes March Madness great - watching top schools fall to Mid Major schools on a daily basis. The fact that we have a #11 VCU team advancing to the Sweet 16, a #8 Butler also advancing and winning both of their games on last second shots, a pair of narrow escapes from top seeds such as Duke, UNC, and SDSU is awesome. It seemed that all of the games were headed towards the final minute, if not seconds.

So, let’s get down to the Sweet 16 and my opinion on teams to watch for upset alert. First, UNC will go down to Marquette. The reason I say this is because Marquette is an insane team. Their defense is playing as well as anyone in the country, they have a great low post presence (very tall front court), have lots of bodies to throw at you and decent perimeter shooting. Another upset, for which I am going to get killed by my fellow writer, is the Kansas Jayhawks. They are playing a quality Richmond team whose confidence is way high and lets not forget that Kansas has a tendency to take lower seeds very lightly during tournament time.

Games to watch:

Ohio State vs Kentucky: This has all the components to be a great game. Ohio State, which I think is overrated, has not played anyone on a neutral court. When they did play on an opponent’s court, they faltered. For instance, their game at Wisconsin. But this game has 3 freshmen on the Kentucky side that have been very streaky and inconsistent. The game will be decided by rebounding, so Harrison (Kentucky center) has to be tip-top and as leading rebounder in the SEC he better have a monster game and control the boards, as Ohio State likes to crash the offensive glass. Knight and Miller had better be on board as well, as they will have to control the pace of the game and try to keep it up-tempo. Ohio State needs to control the guards of Kentucky and get quality 3-point shots. Make Kentucky play a half court game and then methodically rip apart a young Kentucky team.

Pick: Ohio State wins it on experience, even though Kentucky has better overall talent.

UConn vs SDSU: These are almost two identical teams. Both play at a frantic pace, both have terrific talent in the guard position and both are patient. However, the point here is that UConn has more experience then the Aztecs. Even though SDSU was ranked #2 in scoring in the nation, they seemed a bit tight playing on the big stage and that counts dividends to UConn, who has been here before and is ready to rumble. SDSU need to control the boards. They did not do a good job in their previous match against Temple, who not only controlled boards but also the type of game they wanted.

Pick: Uconn, but in my heart I want SDSU (I have them in my bracket Final Four)

Finally, I conclude with a look at which team has the easier path to The Final Four. And that, my friends, is the Florida Gators (I am very biased here, not only because my father and I graduated from UF or because my younger brother needs just one more semester to graduate from there, but because the main competition the Gators had in that bracket, Pitt, is gone.)

The Gators not only have the talent, but are a very deep team. They have a great do–it-all player in Chandler, incredible guards in Walker and Boynton, but most importantly they are getting quality contributions from the bench big men, especially from Young (a McDonalds All-American) Their bracket is tricky with BYU, but the Cougars are very thin on the boards. They lost their quality big men on some dumb no-sex rule that would never fly here in Europe. Do not get me started on that. Also, who do they play if they get past BYU? Wisconsin or Butler… Come on!!!!! I would, of course, love for the Gators to play Butler, as I am a sadistic person and would love to crush a Cinderella-type team.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Season’s Greetings!

The Formula One World Championship. Part Three.

With the start of the 2011 World Championship season next weekend you don’t get anything closer to Christmas for me. I would roast a Turkey or something if the race wasn’t on down under Aussie time, 8am here in Austria. You can bet there will be a nice breakfast spread and a naughty screwdriver or two! This season is shaping up to be quite the classic as there are now 5 former world champions in the first 4 grid rows. Let’s jump right into it with what’s new in 2011 as far as rule changes and technology are concerned.

Burn Rubber.

In 2009, Formula 1 tire supplier Bridgestone announced they would no longer manufacture tires for the Formula 1 circuit at the end of the 2010 season due to the “continuing evolution of the business environment”. This left the door wide open for a new manufacturer which was eventually filled by the high performance tire company Pirelli, who have competed in F1 before during the 50’s and 80’s. This time, exclusively and to some degree of controversy. From initial driver reviews and pre-season testing, the Pirelli compounds are purposely more delicate than their Bridgestone counterparts which are acknowledged to require better conservation and pit strategies. Some even believe it may cause a safety issue due to tire blowouts and heavier pit lane traffic. The super-soft Pirelli tire may only last 3 laps before noticeable degradation. Whatever the end result, the quick wearing tires will favor some drivers over others as hard pushing, aggressive drivers will find themselves in the box more often if not the wall.


Every season it seems some team invents, or more aptly put, bends the rules on how racecar technology can be adapted. With every successful bend, comes a slew of teams copying the breakthrough for their own car. The following season these loopholes are banned and teams go back to the drawing board to see how they can manipulate the rulebook. 2011 is no exception as the double diffuser, made famous by the 2009 Brawn GP Championship team, is forbidden. Also out the door are the less important F-ducts and adjustable front wings. Making its debut this season is the adjustable rear wing. Still to be decided by the FIA on exactly when and where it can be implemented, the rear wing will have the ability to “open up”, decreasing the car’s drag and giving it extra speed during passing maneuvers. Most likely it will be used by following cars on straights that are otherwise impossible or too short to pass on. Returning this year after last season’s hiatus will be the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems). A costly device still under development that stores a racecar’s kinetic energy during acceleration and cornering for use at other times, it can provide extra speed boosts although it adds another 25kg and can change the center of gravity. It had mixed results in the 2009 season. And the tricky newcomer this season is Renault’s forward facing exhaust system. The theory being it will reduce the air turbulence trailing the car which results in drag. I’m not sure how it works yet, but Renault will definitely be a team to watch as they walk the fine line between the front-runners and mid-field.

Let’s have a quick rundown on teams and drivers (in order of supremacy)…


Red Bull (Austria)
The WDC and WCC defending champs of 2010, Vettel has been phenomenal in pre-season testing, topping the time sheets on many days. Even as a Ferrari fan I must admit they are hands down the favorites and the season is theirs to lose. Mistakes made last year that nearly cost them the Championship will have surely been ironed out. Expect them to be on the podium every race.

Sebastian Vettel (Germany)
Mark Webber (Australia)

Ferrari (Italy)
Red Bull’s only rival during training, Scuderia will come out of the gates fighting with probably the second fastest car on the grid. Never underestimate a thirsty Alonso to take a last minute pole during qualifying and coast to victory during the race. The new Ferrari F150 is looking quick and reliable as ever. Also keep an eye on Felipe Massa to improve greatly this season as his freak accident in 2009 appears even farther in his rearview mirror.

Fernando Alonso (Spain)
Felipe Massa (Brazil)

McLaren (England)
The first question mark arises with McLaren’s recently introduced MP4-26. It has produced nothing worthwhile during testing until a new package was introduced last week in Barcelona. Even so it still is at least a second of the front-running pace. On top of the team’s speed woes, Hamilton has some qualms in regards to the new tire compound of Pirelli which may favor his teammate Button who is known for a more lackadaisical driving style. Regardless they boast a pair of world champions and stiff upper-lipped Britons at that. Look for a slow start as they redesign the rear of the car but expect them to catch up by season's end. With 25 points up for grab every race weekend, a trailing driver can be right back in the mix of things with a win.

Lewis Hamilton (England)
Jenson Button (England)

Mercedes GP (Germany)
Schumacher’s return to Formula 1 last season left much to talk about in a comeback. The Michael Jordon of motorsport failed to make a lay-up, dunk or three-pointer. The highlight of the season sadly was when he almost forced his former teammate Barrichello into the wall (this blocking move will come with a heavy penalty in 2011). With a surprise car update for the final stage of testing in Barcelona, Schumacher managed to grab the best lap time of the pre-season making the critics wonder if Mercedes can leapfrog McLaren for the title of “The Best of the Rest”. With a 7-time world champion and a competent, cold-as-ice Val Kilmer-like wingman in Rosberg, all the duo need is the right car package for success.

Michael Schumacher (Germany)
Nico Rosberg (Germany)

Lotus Renault (France)
Apparently on pace with rest of the front-runners at the beginning of testing, the 2011 season outlook took a turn for the grim when their main driver, Robert Kubica, suffered severe injuries in an exhibition rally race. Expected to recover, Kubica’s season looks to be over before it even began and his future in F1 beyond that is uncertain. Even though Renault are introducing a tricky new exhaust system that may bag them an extra second, it is unseen how two drivers with 0 wins between them might utilize this advantage. If Renault are not drinking champagne at the end of the race, at least they will look like a bottle of Dom Pérignon in their new colors.

Nick Heidfeld (Germany)
Vitaly Petrov (Russia)


Force India (UK/India)
This former British team bought by Indian mogul Vijay Mallya will be making its 4th appearance in F1. With a good amount of reliability, many testing kilometers under the fanbelt, and the debut of Scottish rookie Paul di Resta, look for this team to hold a consistent mid-field lead.

Adrian Sutil (Germany)
Paul di Resta (Scotland)

Williams (England)
With well over 300 race starts, Rubens Barrichello has become the Elder Statesman of F1. Unfortunately the former Ferrari #2 will be lucky to reach the podium this season. The mechanics team at Williams has been struggling with the new KERS all pre-season, completely disabling it for the final test in Barcelona. Their plan is to have some incarnation working in time for the season opening Australian GP and continue to develop it race by race. However, the best hope for Williams in 2011 is to challenge Force India for the mid-field crown.

Rubens Barrichello (Brazil)
Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela)

Sauber (Switzerland)
Another hopeful second-tier team, this Swiss outfit clocked the most pre-season laps except for Red Bull and Ferrari. Kobayashi, coming off his rookie season already sees himself in the first team position as he welcomes 2010’s GP2 series second place driver Sergio Perez to the pits. Perez’s main focus this year will be to stay ahead of the back-markers while Kobayashi will continue to score points on a consistent level.

Kamui Kobayashi (Japan)
Sergio Perez (Mexico)


Team Lotus (England)
Currently involved in a sponsorship name dispute with Lotus Renault, Team Lotus only wish they were in the position of their name rival. Hoping their pre-season improvements will put them in the points, they will have a hard time separating themselves from fellow mid to back-markers Sauber and Torro Rosso.

Heikki Kovalainen (Finland)
Jarno Trulli (Italy)

Toro Rosso (Italy)
Red Bull’s farm team, Alguersuari and Buemi will have to perform well this year if they do not wish to be replaced by double-A drivers in 2012. It will be a tough task for this pair to shine as Williams and Sauber have made big improvements since last season.

Jaime Alguersuari (Spain)
Sebastien Buemi (Switzerland)

Virgin Racing (England)
Despite Glock recovering from an appendicitis, the team is confident they have made the necessary steps to challenge the mid-field this year. Only time will tell.

Timo Glock (Germany)
Jerome d'Ambrosio (Belgium)

Hispania Racing (Spain)
Last and probably least are newcomers Hispania. Pre-season testing didn’t even include their 2011 car which was not unveiled until the final day of testing in Barcelona. This will be a team that, if slow enough, may appear to be in first place for a short time.

Tonio Liuzzi (Italy)
Narain Karthikeyan (India)

In summary it should be an interesting year. Both Red Bull and Ferrari will have to be reliable and consistently on the podium to outdo each other. Who will fall in 3rd place McLaren or engine partner Mercedes? Can Schumi reclaim some of his former glory? This perhaps will be an interesting B-story. And what will become of Renault’s season without Kubica and how effective will their new exhaust system be? Formula 1 is a very hard sport to predict, with so many variables to deal with, the Championship often plays out like a novel with plot twists and surprise endings. We will just have to wait and see.

This blog mainly focuses on American Sports in Europe as the name implies, but I will drop a quick F1 update if something extraordinary takes place during the season.

Forza Ferrari!!!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Schumi. The man that everyone loves or hates.

The Formula One World Championship. Part Two.

In the winter of 2000 I decided to pack my bags and move to continental Europe. My flight was actually on Christmas Day and I could think of no better present to myself than to immigrate to the land of Formula 1 and practically non-existent alcohol consumption laws.

Michael Schumacher, the 32 year old German driver for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro had just won the 2000 World Driver’s Championship, his first for Ferrari (career 3rd) and the first in 21 years for the Italian team. I unfortunately missed this because it was not broadcast in the states. Well things were about to change as March of 2001 was quickly approaching and I had landed an advertising job in Austria where they show every round of Friday’s practice, Saturday’s qualifying and Sunday’s race on national television, ORF, commercial free to boot. It was going to be heaven and it was also the debut that year of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen, two of Schumi’s future rivals not to mention the final season of ex-Ferrari driver Jean Alesi whose glorious 12 season career produced only 1 win, the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix.

Not him again.

The 2001 season proved to be a walk in the park for M. Schumacher and Ferarri as his 9 wins and 5 second place finishes out of 17 rounds nearly doubled his nearest rival, David Coulthard's point total. 2002 resulted in more of the same domination as Schumi nearly doubled his own teamate’s points while clinching the WDC in record fashion with still 6 rounds remaining in the season. Between Schumacher and his teammate Rubens Barichello, Ferrari accumulated more points than the rest of the teams put together. This was the pinnacle of Ferrari dominance not seen in Formula 1 since the era of Nikki Lauda in the mid to late 1970’s. In the 2003 season, to help make the competition tighter, the point system was changed to allow more points to be scored from 2nd through 8th place. That, combined with a more competitive Mercedes and BMW team, led to a very exciting season with Schumacher only winning the championship, his 4th consecutive with Ferrari, by 2 points over rival and future Ferrari driver Kimi Räikkönen. This is about the time that the critics became really annoyed with the sport calling the Schumacher dynasty a bore. Things wouldn’t change the following year has Schumacher and Barichello muscled their way to another 1-2 WDC and Constructor Championship. In times like this, as a fan of a team that dominates to everyone else’s displeasure, especially in Austria where they hate Germans (the whole micro/macro cultural envy thing), you just have sit back and enjoy as the day will come where your team will be a shell of its former glory and you will become the critic.

Fresh meat.

And with that I segue to 2005 when a young and cocky 24 year old Fernando Alonso and a surprisingly quick Renault F1 team managed to knock the record holding 7-time World Champion off his pace. Of course this was due to Bridgestone, Ferrari’s tire supplier being shit that year, but I won’t get into it. 2006 saw Alonso again retain the Championship as Schumi, although making it close, suffered from some season ending mechanical problems in the last two rounds. Now approaching 40 years old, shattering practically every Formula one record, his career seemed to be at its end. Appropriately on September 11th, 2006, Michael Schumacher confirmed his retirement from Formula 1.

One for the road.

One last ray of Italian sunshine came in 2007 as former Mercedes rival, now Ferrari front-man and personality of the decade, Kimi Räikkönen, somehow managed to snag the WDC away from a rookie Lewis Hamilton by a flipping point in the end of the last race. Kimi, seven points back from Hamilton going into the final round in Brazil, basically had to win the race and hope Hamilton could place no better than 6th to have a chance. On top of that Alonso, who was in between the two in the point standings could place no better than 3rd. This scenario seemed fairly impossible as Lewis Hamilton, on pace all weekend just lost out on pole to Felipe Massa, the second Ferrari driver, however still on the front grid. Amazingly, in perhaps the biggest sporting choke of the decade, Hamilton early in the race made a gear shift mistake that stalled the car which sent him back to 18th. The rest of the race was spent trying to catch the Ferrari’s to no avail. I was in a casino in Moscow to watch the last race and I nearly bet my entrance cover on a Räikkönen WDC for shits and giggles which was paying out at around 27/1. I still kick myself to this day. Fortunately I watched the race right next to a table of British McLaren fans whose face I happily rubbed a Ferrari victory in and the wife won enough money at blackjack to pay for the rest of our holiday.


The next 3 years were a struggle for Ferrari in the post Schumacher era to find a rhythm. There were some major organizational changes in the team between 2006 and 2010 with the departures of team bosses Jean Todt and Ross Brawn not to mention chief designer Rory Byrne and Michael all together known as the “Dream Team” in autosport. The signing of former 2-time World Champion Fernando Alonso for the 2010 season who had been struggling with the internal politics at Renault and McLaren, seemed to be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately through some team errors and a strong Red Bull team/car, Alonso missed out on his third Championship title in his debut season with Ferrari by a measly 4 points to a record breakingly young Sebastian Vettel (23).

The looking glass.

March 25-27th sees the Formula One World Championship return for its 53rd incarnation. The opening race originally scheduled in Bahrain was canceled due to democracy which will now drop the season down to 19 hopefully action packed rounds. Next time on American Sports in Europe in Part Three, we will preview next weekend’s race, teams, drivers and the outlook on the 2011 season.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dancin’ days are here again! March Madness begins!

March Madness is upon us once more, though one would be hard pressed to recognize the fever from this side of the pond. Basketball is fairly popular in Europe, with some notable exceptions (most Brits I talk to just can’t seem to countenance with so many points being scored in a single sporting contest), but they’re not really keyed into the whole notion of college athletics. You’ve got the various pro leagues around Europe (it’s pretty big in Greece, Italy and Spain, for example) and international competitions. And then there’s the NBA, though it’s late start times will likely keep it from ever becoming as popular as, say, the NFL is (unless Stern makes good on his twice-yearly threat to expand to Europe. Do it, Dave. Do it.)

Point being, the college game and news of it are basically nonexistent here. Heck, I’m betting that most Americans living here won’t realize that it’s on until they’ve missed the first week’s worth of games. Even those of us who stay in tune with American sports have a hard time keeping up with the NCAA game. So many schools, conferences, records, stats, seeds… it’s exhausting! So, I’m not going to pretend that I have any real insight here. I’ve seen a handful of games, and followed the Big 12 (especially my ex-local triumvirate of Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State, all of whom are dancing this season I am happy to report), but aside from what I’ve read on SI, ESPN and various other blogs, I could no more tell you which top seeds are ripe for a fall than I could handicap a ski jumping event.

I can, however, report that the tournament will receive extensive coverage on ESPN America and, for those lucky enough to have access, ESPN America HD. And, once again, the option for streaming the games has been provided by the NCAA: - an especially compelling option this first weekend, as so many of the games start early and can be viewed in Europe without completely altering one’s sleeping pattern! And I can tell you that, depending on just how long you’ve been out of the loop, there is a key change this season that is worth noting. If you pull up any one of the many free brackets available online, you’ll notice something called the “First four”, which is the new nomenclature for the four games tipping off the tournament. Two of these games are the 16 seed “play-in” variety games that we’ve gotten used to in recent years, and the other two are similar but at a different seeding level. In this instance, UAB will play Clemson for the right to become the official 12 seed in the East (and take on 5 seed West Virginia in the “first round”) while USC plays VCU to see who’ll be the 11 seed in the Southwest. How they came up with the placement of these “extra teams”, I have no clue, but it’s a much better solution than the expansion to a full 96 invites that they nearly went to after last season.

The teams themselves? Well, the top seeds are Ohio St, Kansas, Duke and Pitt. All of whom seem vulnerable to me, which probably means they’ll all make it to the Final Four in Houston, just to spite me. The Big East is nearly as scary tough as they were last season while the ACC is still down a bit, though UNC is back in a big way. The Big Ten and Big 12 both have a respectable showing at the dance but it remains to be seen whether either conference will back up that number with a solid showing. No big run of mid-majors, but everyone is abuzz over BYU and their scoring sensation Jimmer Fredette (I’m convinced that the hype is 90% cool name and 10% actual talent. We’ll see. Might be a bit of a fizzle as late-season injuries have sapped them of their early-season juice).

Who’s going to win it? Haven’t you been reading? I have no clue. I’ll be rooting for Kansas, as usual (and MU/K-State right after the ‘Hawks). It works out for me every now and again. And my “upset” team is Kentucky, which is so talent laden that calling them Cinderella would be just plain silly (they’re only a 4 seed, but came on strong after a long jelling period to start the season). Beyond that, I’ll just be sitting back and rooting for the underdog. Hope that some of you are going to do the same!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wrapping your head around soccer – Part Two

So, in the first installment (which you really should read before delving into this one) we talked about European soccer/football in general, then focused on the English system. For part two, let’s move it on over to Spain and Italy!

Spanish soccer is paradoxically both the best and somehow least climactic at this time. It is so top-heavy that there is practically no drama whatsoever in the Liga BBVA (or La Liga, or whatever it’s called today). Not at the top, at least. Hell, even the supposed showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid has fizzled as Barca collects every point in sight and wins the head-to-head to boot (their culture-clash games are billed as “El Classico”, and are certainly worth the price of admission, whatever one thinks of the overall state of La Liga). Those two clubs play some of the best, most exciting football in Europe, making the league impossible to ignore.

The Spanish leagues are similar to those in England, if a bit less pervasive. They too have a tournament running in conjunction with the season (the Copa del Rey, the final of which will be played this season between… you guessed it, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Big surprise there). In La Liga, as in the Premier League, it’s 20 teams, home and away matchups, 3 and 1 points for wins and ties respectively. They too have multiple levels and relegation/promotion within them. And year in and out, their top clubs are in the running for the Champions League title.

Besides the big two, whose lineups sound more like national teams than club level (C. Ronaldo, Messi, Xavi, David Villa, Ozil, Kaka, etc), there are several other clubs in La Liga who are dangerous on any given night. Valencia is a solid third at the moment, and has won two league titles in the last decade. Villarreal always seems to field a solid side. Atletico Madrid have a great team history to fall back on, but haven’t won the league since the mid-90s. Deportivo de la Coruna has only won the league title once, but were in the running yearly at the turn of the millennium. Athletic Bilbao seems to pull off a big upset every season. At the moment, though, it’s all smoke and mirrors for those squads. In reality, it’s Barca’s title to lose, and Madrid will be the benefactor if they drop off a bit (not just this season, but for the foreseeable future). The big question is, how will they perform against Europe’s best?

Speaking of, last season the best side on the continent didn’t come from Spain or England, but Italy. The Italian Serie A, down a bit in recent seasons due to massive overspending in the early part of the last decade, came back with a vengeance. Or, to be more correct, one team did. Inter Milan not only won the Serie A title, but also the Champions League, and in doing so knocked off Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, each of whom won their respective home leagues. It was an impressive run, but as this year has unfolded it becomes clear that it was a bit of an aberration, due as much to the machinations of their former coach Jose Mourinho and his familiarity with many of those sides (Jose jumped ship this offseason to… Real Madrid, naturally. And the rich get richer…).

Still, Inter heads a list of impressive teams that make up a rich history of club football in Italy. Cross-town rivals AC Milan were just as star-studded as Barcelona a few short years ago, and are back on top of the Serie A table this year. Roma, Juventus (the alltime top Italian club with 27 league titles), Fiorentina, Lazio – all clubs that have been in the top league for the majority of its 80 or so seasons and all are sitting in the top ten slots today. Naturally they’ve had other big time clubs fall by the wayside in that extensive period, but by and large the cream sticks around near the top.

Italy’s setup is also similar to England and Spain (20 teams, 3 point wins, multiple leagues, relegation – to Serie B – of course, yadda yadda yadda). Their big in-season tournament is called the “Coppa Italia” (with a matchup of previous season champions in a one-off Super Coppa Italia as a pre-season specialty). Italian soccer may not have the plethora of international stars in their prime that they boasted recently, but the overall health of the league seems to be coming back in a big way. And when it does, watch out!

Next time out, I’ll pen a few words about the German Bundesliga and a bit more about the Champions League… Stay tuned!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Whatcha mean I can't park my Winnebago on the infield?

The Formula One World Championship. Part One.

I am by no means a gearhead, but I have always followed to some extent motorsports back in the States since I was younger. I think my love for anything fast and branded with Marlboro livery all started when an aging Al Unser, Sr., from 20th on the grid, worked his way up through the pack to pass pole position driver Mario Andretti, suffering from mechanical problems, late in the race to win his 4th Indianapolis 500. I was 9 years old and hooked on CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams, now-defunct).

Al Unser, Sr. at 48 years young drove for Penske for another 3 years with mixed but not winning results until losing his race seat in 1990. From there I followed the Unser racing family and became a fan of his son, Al Unser Junior. With close CART campaigns in '88 and '89, Little Al finally won the championship in 1990 and the Indy 500 for the first time in 1992.

My affinity for Marlboro, Mercedes-Benz and racing began in 1994 when Al Junior found a seat at Marlboro Team Penske Racing. The 1994 Penske PC-23 was the most beautiful automobile I had ever seen and I soon began smoking Marlboros to match the red and white stripes of my favorite racecar. With teammates Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy, Penske that year was arguably the greatest and most dominant race team in American history with 12 wins out of 16 races, collecting 10 poles and 28 podium finishes on their way to the championship including Al Unser, Jr.'s second Indy 500 and a Paul Tracy win at Laguna Seca for which I was in attendance.

In 1996, CART split into two separate race series called Champ Car and Indy Car and my interest temporarily waned from motorsports as the mindlessness of NASCAR and the disappointment over the former CART governing body left me with something to desire. The following year a small cable channel, Pacific Sports Network (now Comcast Sports) began to broadcast Formula One races. I don't recall if they were live or tape delayed, only that some guys named Villeneuve and Schumacher were battling it out, the cars made a strange high pitch whine, the tracks were Grand Prix style like Laguna Seca which I love, and there was a huge Marlboro logo on a Ferrari! I quickly developed another addiction; digging up info on the championship series' TV schedule, teams, and drivers which was not so easy in the cradle days of the Internet. I switched allegiance from Mercedes-Benz to Ferrari since I was first and foremost a Marlboro addi... er... fan but it wasn't difficult since I am descendant from the Ferrari family (if my Great10 Grandmother counts). And so a Tifoso was born.

Forza Ferrari.

For those who don't follow European football (soccer) or Formula 1, Tifosi (pl.) is Italian for fans of Ferrari and/or Italian football clubs. The seasons of 1997, 1998, and 1999 were heartbreaking years with Michael Schumacher receiving a controversial championship disqualification, a second place finish after a strong fight and a season ending broken leg respectively. Adding insult to a literal injury, Eddie Irvine the other Ferrari driver finished second by only 2 points in 1999. I was however still a proud Ferrari supporter and they won their first constructor's (team) championship in 16 years.

Unfortunately as quickly as God gaveth me F1, he tookth it away as the Pacific Sports Network was sold and the new operators decided (probably rightfully so) not to pay the exorbitant licencing fee for a sport that is on at 5am and not particularly followed by the Anheuser Busch crowd. I was shattered. It was time to move to Europe.

The Millenium.

A move to Europe, the rise and fall of Schumi and Scuderia Ferrari. Next time on ASIE.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wrapping your head around soccer – Part One

Yeah, I used the “s” word. I figure it’s my prerogative as an American. Feel free to do so yourself, and if any of those Brit expats get on your case, point out that it was one of their own who coined the term (coming from “association football”), and they have only themselves to blame if they don’t like it).

Digression aside, it’s time to discuss this seemingly simple, deceptively difficult game. Or, more specifically, the spectator side of the coin (as I would be the last person to recount any actual personal experience based soccer playing strategies or anecdotes). No, what we’re discussing here is getting into the sport via watching (maybe even rooting for) the “local” clubs. And by “local”, I mean European, in totem.

First off, know that there are a myriad of leagues in Europe. Too many to keep track of, realistically. So, let’s not try. Instead, we’ll just focus on the big boys. The top clubs in the top leagues. This task is already a little easier, as ESPN and Fox have upped the stateside ante soccer-wise in the last few years, showing Premier League and Champions League games quite regularly (I can’t describe how odd it was to be on the periphery, during my last visit to Kansas City, to sit in a pub and hear several locals arguing over which soccer team was better between Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea. One guy even had a tattoo showing his support. Surreal).

Okay then. Many countries, many leagues. And, to add to the confusion, many competitions taking place within those leagues. We are, however, going to stick with the big four: England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Some years, one is up and the others down, then the cycle swings back. But, to my mind, those are the top leagues in Europe. Naturally, they change names every now and again. Spain has recently gone from La Liga to Liga BBVA for its top tier, and England has only been the Premier League for the last couple of decades. But we’ll avoid most history-delving as unproductive here. You can get that stuff from anywhere on the internet. Just as we’ll avoid talking about the French Ligue 1, or the Austrian Bundesliga. You may find yourself living in the Netherlands, rooting on Ajax, or in Poland and enjoying the Wisla Krakow matches. But that doesn’t make them compelling soccer when we’re talking about high-level, international clubs. Most leagues have one or two decent teams who make it on to the Champions and or Europa Leagues every season, but that doesn’t make their domestic product worth discussing.

So let’s talk England. The birthplace of this great game. For well over a hundred years, the big English clubs have been battling it out on the pitch (their term for the field), fighting it out before a bunch of hooligans and vying for bragging rights in the home city (get over the notion that any club will maintain sole sway over an entire city, as any town of even middling size will have two or more. Not sure if anyone knows how many are in the London area, but I believe it to be about 753.) These clubs don’t up and move (well, one did, but they’ve been vilified throughout the isles ever since). Don’t call them franchises, either, if you don’t want an earful. And nicknames are unofficial. Liverpool may be called “The Reds”, but it’s not the “Liverpool Reds” as it would be the “Boston Red Sox”, and they won’t be limited to just one nickname.

The teams are all slotted into a league, but movement occurs between these leagues every season. The top tier is currently named the Premier League (or Barclay’s Premier League – Soccer is a bit like motor sports over here what with the integrated advertising. Wonder how long it is before MLB and NFL join in that gravy train and put adverts on the uniforms…?). Before that it was the same format, but called the Premiership, and before that it was part of the larger Football League and… but wait, I said that this would be no history lesson. Today, it’s the Premier League. ‘Nuff said. The best performing teams in this league get invites to the next season’s Champions League or the Europa League, both of which set up a tournament with top sides (another Brit term – think “team” or “squad”) from leagues around Europe. The worst performing are “relegated” to the next level, currently called the “English Championship League”. Likewise, the best teams from that league are “promoted” to the Premier League for the following season. Below that is the “English League 1” and “English League 2” and so on. Many teams seem to spend their entire existence bouncing back and forth, hoping to hang on to fourth place and avoid relegation, while others battle it out at the top and travel about the continent every year.

It’s the Premier League that we’re interested in, naturally. It consists of 20 teams, each of which plays a home and away at each of the other 19 teams. A win earns a team three points in the standings, a draw earns one point for both teams and nothing comes from a loss. They also keep track of teams’ goal differentials as a means of tie-breaking (Oops, used the word tie. Here a “tie” is a match, while the preferred term for two teams with the same score is “draw”). At the end of the season, the team with the most points is the winner. No muss, no fuss, no playoffs. Makes for a good “the best team won it” system, but certainly doesn’t allow for that end of the season payoff that we as Americans are used to. Certainly, many seasons play out so that the winner is known well in advance and the last month’s worth of games are irrelevant in that regard. Of course, to many teams the real excitement is around making the European cut. The money that flows into a club from yearly appearances in the big tournaments is vital, and a team which falls from grace back into the rank and file (see: Liverpool) can find serious repercussions in subsequent campaigns.

Meanwhile, other games are going on all the time. For a lucky few, there are the European Cups that I’ve already mentioned (and will discuss in more detail next time out.) Then there are the FA Cup (Wikipedia info: Entry is open to all teams who compete in the Premier League, the Football League and in steps one to five of the FA National League System. This means that clubs of all standards compete, from the largest clubs in England and Wales down to amateur village teams. The tournament has become known for the possibility for "minnows" from the lower divisions to become "giant-killers" by eliminating top clubs from the tournament and even theoretically win the Cup) and the Carling Cup (also known as the “League Cup”) which is similar but not as inclusive as the FA Cup. The problem with these competitions, from an outside fan perspective, is that the big clubs don’t seem to take them seriously, often fielding second or third-string players in the competition. Still, it provides another chance for your favorite club to snag some hardware, which never hurts! There are also a number of smaller competitions that take place throughout the year, one off numbers that I have yet to really get into, so I won’t detail them here.

Which clubs are worth paying attention to in the Premier League? Well, they’re the ones that you’ve likely heard of as even a casual sports fan. Manchester United are the big bullies on the block, having dominated since the league’s inception. Chelsea are right up there with them with three titles in the last six years along with a boatload of Russian money being funneled in to keep them competitive no matter what. Liverpool are a bit down at the moment, but always seem to bounce back and stay in the mix. Arsenal continue to remain relevant despite spending less on big names than the other top clubs, but they haven’t hoisted any hardware in the last five seasons. Manchester City now have the backing of big oil and are likely to break through and win something soon. Tottenham Hotspur (or just “Spurs” as they are usually coined) broke into the top four last season and are threatening again this year. Aston Villa also have some big backers, but so far have not been able to put it all together. Blackburn Rovers aren’t particularly dangerous at the moment, but are one of the few teams to win a Premier League title (in 94-95) and are rarely relegated. Likewise with Everton (the team which Landon Donovan has occasionally played well for), West Ham (the Hammers), and Newcastle United, each of which has spent at least 16 of 19 possible seasons in the top league since its inaugural 92-93 season. There are some others in the lower divisions who have big names and big histories, such as Leeds United, but we can worry about them if and when they regain their footing and return to “The Show” (had to work a little baseball talk in there. It’s spring training time!).

And that seems like a good place to break. The next installment will focus on Spain and Italy. Until then, sports fans…

Friday, March 4, 2011

MLB 2011, Part Two

Time for a little junior league talk. Who’s going to contend in the American League, and who’s going to be looking forward to football season come July (NCAA football, that is, as we all know that the NFL labor talks are going down to the wire at best)? Let’s look at things AL West to East this time out. Save the best for last, so it would seem.

AL West: It has been the Angels division for so long that it was weird to see anyone else take the flag, much less the Texas Rangers, whose postseason run put them into the franchise’s first ever World Series. Will they repeat the feat? To put it bluntly, no. Oh, they might again wrest control of a weakened division (though I’m going to officially call for an LA resurgence), but without the services of Cliff Lee they won’t repeat their run through they playoffs. Speaking of the Angels, they would seem to be on the brink. One push and they could fall, hard. Still, there’s something about Scoscia’s veteran squad that makes me think they have one more run in them. Oakland? As usual, the A’s are a year away. Maybe two. Seattle? Well, at least no one will be surprised and disappointed when they’re occupying the cellar from June on…

AL Central: As usual, the team to beat here is Kansas City. The Royals are coming off of an exciting World Series victory over the Cardinals and… Wait a minute. This isn’t 1986. Sorry, just had a bit of hometown nostalgia there. It’ll soon pass. No, this is 2011, and the team that appears poised for a division title hails from Detroit. Sure, last season was a .500 washout, but with the slew of young bats that the Tigers bring to the table and power pitchers Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner waiting in the wings, Detroit should make a return to the playoffs. As ever, though, they’ll have to get by a game Minnesota squad, with Morneau and Mauer anchoring a lineup that’s the envy of most squads west of the mighty Mississippi. They’ll take the race down to the wire. The question is, can Chicago make it a three-way? The White Sox fielded their most formidable squad since their title run only to finish 6 games back. I think they’ll again make a race of things, and wouldn’t be astonished to see them nip the crown at the wire. What would surprise me, however, would be for either the Cleveland Indians or my beloved Royals to finish higher than fourth in the race. Both squads are “rebuilding” and “waiting for next year” even before the starting gun is fired. Business as usual.

AL East: Okay. Here’s where it gets good. The Rays surprised everyone by again taking baseball’s best division, then surprised no one by getting taken to the cleaners in the postseason. Since then, they’ve lost Carl Crawford and gained a couple of “idiots” – Johnny Damon and Manram. Not exactly a push, but they should again be in the mix through August. Past then… well, it’s tough to see anyone cracking through the Boston/New York mix this season. The Red Sox had the most productive offseason of anyone who didn’t sign Cliff Lee, picking up the aforementioned Crawford as well as Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego. Will they be enough to offset a rotation that leans heavily on “older” starters? My feeling is yes. Boston will wrest the division away from Tampa Bay and finish a full 3-4 games ahead of the Yankees, whose inability to bolster their rotation this offseason will be costly, even if they pull off an expected trade for a lefty sometime soon. Still, the Bronx bats should be enough to get them back to the dance with a wild card ticket, though not enough to return them to World Series prominence. Toronto could make things interesting, but may ultimately have to settle for being the best fourth-place team in baseball. The Orioles too should improve under solid skipper Buck Showalter, but any aspirations the Baltimore has should focus on escaping the cellar.

Summary time –
AL West: Los Angeles Angels
AL Central: Detroit Tigers
AL East: Boston Red Sox
AL Wild Card: New York Yankees
AL Championship: Boston over Detroit

And, your 2011 World Series – Philadelphia over Boston in six, as great pitching overcomes superior hitting. That’s about it, kiddies. At least, until the first half of the season turns everything upside down and I have to write my revised predictions… In the meantime: Go KC!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

MLB 2011, Part One

With all of the hot stove league action coming at us this off-season, it’s almost like baseball never stopped. The Giants had barely fitted their rings (man, what a fun ride that team was down the stretch!) when talk turned to Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Zach Grienke and a host of other rising or peaking talents who were seemingly destined for the MLB holy triumvirate of Boston, Philly and New York (and no, I don’t mean the Mets). Now, with the arrival of spring training, it’s time to start looking at the results and venture into those favorite waters of pundits worldwide. In short, it’s time for some early predictions.

NL East: Is there really any question here? The Phillies’ rotation ranks among the best in recent MLB history (really, only SF rivals them going into the season). Their unexpected signing of Cliff Lee was the most momentous pickup of the offseason, and has positioned them for a third World Series appearance in four seasons, and the most pressing question headed into the season would seem to be whether or not Philadelphia can crack 100 wins for the first time in franchise history (of course, avoiding a prolonged slump at the plate this time out would help that venture tremendously). Best of the rest? The Braves’ surprising playoff appearance smells of one and done to me (though the first season without Bobby Cox since the Nixon administration does bear some interest), and I’m not impressed by the offseason posturing of any other NL East clubs. Florida might make a wild card push, and I’m curious to see what becomes of the snakebit Nationals (Will we ever again see a genuine Strasmas start, or has their young fireballer already flamed out?). The Mets? Well, let’s just say that most of the pressure in NY should fall squarely on the Yankees this season.

NL Central: Will the real Cardinals please stand up? With All-World Albert Pujols’ contract status still up in the air, will the redbirds step up to reclaim their division? I think so. It’s not a strong feeling. I wouldn’t go “all in” on it, by any means. It’s just that they were rolling along nicely last season before an unexplained late-season swoon gave Cincinnati a shot at the postseason, and I somehow think that they’re going to bounce back. Speaking of the Red Stockings, is anyone convinced that last year was more substance than fluke? Joey Votto’s the real deal, and they’ve got a couple of solid hurlers in the rotation, but the chances that they build upon 2010’s breakthrough appear to be slim and none. Still, an outside run for that wild card slot isn’t beyond possibility. A more likely challenger would appear to be the Brewers, whom may well steal the division if St. Louis falters. Zack Greinke was a steal and could well put Milwaukee over in what may be their last Prince Fielder season. As for the field… well, it will still be fun to attend games in Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh. In May, at least. Chicago could surprise us all with a decent midseason run, but don’t be fooled if they do. The Cubbies will be at home, watching the playoffs as usual. As will the Astros and Pirates. Book it.

NL West: What’s more likely, the Giants repeating their unexpected title run, or the Padres taking the division title race down to the wire again? I’d hazard the former, as the loss of Adrian Gonzalez has signaled the end of San Diego’s poorly timed near miss (the front office would have much rather blown up the existing core and started over, but were unable to pull the trigger so long as the club was in contention). San Francisco barely made the postseason, needing a lot of luck and a smattering of assistance in order to qualify on the final day of the season. Still, once there, it was easy to see why the Giants should be a contender for years to come, if only they can add a little pop to their patchwork lineup (does anyone really expect Cody Ross to be more Superman than Clark Kent as a full season gets underway?). With or without another stick, SF looks to be the class of the division, with only the Rockies posing any real threat (their late swoon makes it easy to forget just how close they seemed to stealing the division with two weeks to go). The Dodgers again figure to be more fun off the field than on, though seeing Donnie Baseball in the dugout figures to add some national interest until they fall from contention. Arizona is still in full-on rebuilding mode.

So, to sum it up –
NL East: Philadelphia Phillies
NL Central: St. Louis
NL West: San Francisco Giants
NL Wild Card: Milwaukee Brewers
NL Championship: Philadelphia over San Francisco

But hey, the fun is in the journey. Can’t wait to see how it all turns out in 2011 (though I’m already dreading the late-nights that a compelling playoff matchup inevitably brings to European baseball fans). Up next – a look at the American League!