Sports Shorts

* OK, the Rays still don’t draw well at the Trop. But at least their crowds are almost always in the five figures. The Miami Marlins, who relocated to cool, new digs a few years ago, struggle to draw 6,000. Good luck, Derek.

* For what it’s worth, HBO and NFL Films picked up a Sports Emmy for “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.” The five episodes were occasionally entertaining, sometimes insightful and–by its very nature–intrusive and invasive for the workplace. That’s the reality with having to grant virtually unfettered access to roaming camera crews looking for story lines and over-the-top personalities. No head coach would have volunteered for this. Dirk Koetter is no exception.

* That was quite the telling quote by former Major League manager Davey Johnson about Tampa native Dwight Gooden, the erstwhile New York Mets pitching phenom whose career was seriously impacted by substance-abuse issues. “He could say no,” said Johnson, “but he didn’t know how to back it up.”

* That detailed report by the Condoleezza Rice-chaired Commission on College Basketball didn’t pull any punches in its criticisms and recommended reforms for college hoops. It notably looked into ratcheting corruption that included bribe and kickback schemes involving coaches, agents and apparel companies. “The goal,” underscored the report, “should not be to turn college basketball into another professional league.”

Addressing the rebottling of this genie of corruption and hypocrisy that has so many self-serving, moving parts is beyond formidable. Only two approaches make sense.

First, pay players in marketplace fashion–starting with recruitment and then on a sliding scale based on performance. It is what it is: “Amateurism” is preposterously passé. Attending class would be optional. Those who actually belong on a college campus could actually work toward a degree on a part-time basis. Those for whom this is a 13th-grade, trade school experience can concentrate on basketball without becoming shamstudent-athletes” who only further undermine the integrity of higher education.

Second, only admit those who actually deserve to be admitted to a real university. It’s not for everybody. We’re talking SATs and high school or community college GPAs. If you can’t make the cut, let the National Basketball Association follow the role model of Major League Baseball with a viable minor league system. That way the league and its franchises can pay to train their own future employees.

* I love it when Tampa lands a Super Bowl or a Women’s Final Four or a Frozen Four or an NHL All Star game. It’s further validation of what we’ve evolved into, plus it’s a great marketing coup. Next Super Bowl is only three years away.

And now we know that the Tampa Bay Sports Commission is seriously pursuing “Wrestlemania,” sometimes dubbed the Super Bowl of pro wrestling, for 2023, ’24 or ’25. Only one downside: It’s pro wrestling.

Sports Shorts

* The Bucs Ring of Honor will be adding another inductee this season–and it will be at halftime of the Sept. 24 Monday Night Football game at Ray Jay against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The honoree will be Tony Dungy, who, as was the case with last year’s honoree, Jon Gruden, is a former Bucs coach. Something else they also have in common: They were both fired.

* USF just signed Athletics Director Mark Harlan to a contract extension. He’s been with the Bulls since 2014. Since then, USF has won 13 conference championships. That’s impressive. But we know what bucket list boxes remain unchecked. None of those championships were in football or men’s basketball, which still matter the most.

Sports Shorts

* USF has proactively emailed a survey regarding an on-campus football stadium to a broad constituency–from students to boosters. The agree-disagree survey queries range from “I feel a new on-campus football stadium will enhance the collegiate experience for current and future USF students” to “A new on-campus football stadium will position USF to be an attractive program in future conference realignment discussions.” One question not on the survey: “I feel that there’s probably a better way to invest in USF’s future than putting up $200 million for an on-campus football stadium.”

*  On Sunday the Philadelphia Flyers lost at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 8-5. They were thus eliminated from Stanley Cup contention. With time still remaining, frustrated Flyers fans began littering the rink with, among other things, beer cans. They weren’t even empty. Philly fans never disappoint.

Sports Shorts

* The Lightning held on and held off the Boston Bruins to win the Atlantic Division with the best record in the Eastern Conference of the NHL. The Bolts now have home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs. Just one cautionary note: Be careful what you wish for–and celebrate over. As a result of edging out Boston, the Lightning has drawn the lower-seeded New Jersey Devils–instead of the higher-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs. Only caveat: While Tampa Bay won three out of four against Toronto in the regular season, the Bolts were winless in three games against New Jersey.

Regardless, this is a special Lightning team, which set franchise records for wins (54) and points (113)–yes, better than the Stanley Cup champions of 2003-04. Go, Bolts.

* Amid all the hype and hope about a new Rays stadium in Ybor City, it would help if the Rays, per se, would do their part–and not start the season playing so badly. Hardly a complement to efforts at ginning up market enthusiasm. And, BTW, amid all the high-profile support being rallied by corporate Tampa Bay, among others, where is Jeff Vinik, Tampa’s visionary and developmental godfather? Water Street Tampa needs to be more than a de facto player.

* Nice to see Villanova win another national championship in basketball. That’s two titles in three years. The Wildcats are a throwback. No sham-student-athletes, no one-and-dones. Its best player, Jalen Brunson, won the Wooden Award as the national player of the year–and he will graduate after this semester.

Sports Short

* For what it’s worth, both the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays, as expected, sold out their opening games. Once the tradition and hipness of opening day had passed, however, reality set in. By game three, the announced crowds in Miami and St. Petersburg were 13,442 and 17,838, respectively. By game four, the numbers were 10,428 and 14,256. And that 10,428 at Marlins Park was the lowest in the facility’s history.

For the Rays, a new stadium–in a different part of the market–is the last chance to get this right. For the Marlins, a new stadium–in the same part of the market–hasn’t been nearly enough.

Sports Shorts

* Alas, another successful women’s basketball season ends with disappointment for the USF Bulls. Once again USF had felt disrespected about its NCAA Tournament seed (6). But once again it didn’t show up the seeding committee by at least making it into the tourney’s second weekend. This time it was underdog Buffalo, which routed USF 102-79, that sent the Bulls home. Yet another disappointing, perhaps teachable, moment. You want respect? Beat the likes of Buffalo, which had never even won an NCAA Tournament game until encountering the Bulls last Saturday.

* Glad I wasn’t at that Tampa Bay Lightning-Boston Bruins game last weekend. Not only were the Bolts, the highest-scoring team in the NHL, shutout by the hard-charging Bruins, but they had to do it in front of a “home” crowd that was evenly divided.

Just guessing, but I’ll bet that most of those prominently loud Bruins’ fans in their team jerseys weren’t just visiting for spring break and St. Patty’s in Tampa. It’s much more likely they are relocatees who have no local allegiance when Boston shows up. It’s a frustrating,–and, yes, irritating–ironic reminder that we are a market that is attractive to transplants, who are just not supportive of the home team when their back-home franchise comes to town. It is what it is. Go, Bolts.

Sports Shorts

* Roger Bannister, R.I.P. In perpetuity. Along with your accomplishment. And its context.

Bannister, the British runner who in 1954 broke the four-minute barrier (3:59.4) in the mile, died last Saturday at 88. What he did was historic and incredible. But how he did it–and what he did afterward–are also incredibly memorable.

When Bannister made history on the track at Oxford University in front of some 1,200 spectators, he was a 25-year-old medical student. He was also part of an amateur–yes, amateur–post-graduate all-star running team. How quaint.

And after he broke that mystical barrier and made sports history, he went back to work. And then a few months later–at the peak of his prowess and international renown–he retired. He couldn’t stay a world-class athlete and become a physician, he would explain. Standards–and priorities–mattered. A distinguished career as a neurologist would ensue. He was also knighted.

Roger Bannister will be remembered for making history. For those in the know, he will also be recalled for doing everything the right way. He wasn’t the beneficiary of performance-enhancing drugs, he wasn’t subsidized, he ran on old-school, dirt tracks and he never “cashed in.” His feat of fame was between Olympics. He quit on top–and became a doctor. We’ll not see his kind–nor era–again.

* That was quite the devastating quote the other day from ESPN’s long-time hoops analyst Dick Vitale. “I don’t like the fraud that college basketball has become,” he said. Ouch.

Remember when the biggest, big-time college basketball issue was academic standards and who might flunk out? Now the very best players have no intention of finishing, have institutional enablers to get them through faux-student status and have access to de-facto, palm-greasing agents before committing.

* I’m one of those sports fans who reads all those page-two, small-print results, schedules and college rankings. The rankings are particularly interesting right now with basketball, baseball and hockey as staples. Basketball and baseball are all familiar names. Not so, college hockey. It’s beyond eclectic. Where else would Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State be in the same mix as St. Cloud State, Clarkson, Omaha and Union? BTW, St. Cloud State is No. 1. Go, Huskies.

Sports Short

* Talk about timing. Imagine, after having formally announced its preferred Ybor City site for a ball park–and needing to rally, among others, the business community for $upport–the Rays plummet into full, salary-cutting, tank mode. Even Evan Longoria, who no longer plays here, is audibly voicing his disappointment.

The Rays are arguably not as good as they were last year–which was their fourth consecutive losing season.

Tampa Bay’s Own

“I’m now one of you, a Lightning fan forever.”

That was what Vinny Lacavalier said to the sell-out crowd at Amalie Arena last Saturday as the Bolts retired his No. 4 jersey in a typically classy ceremony. Lacavalier is more than a franchise icon. He’s also a genuinely nice guy who loves living here. He’s Marty St. Louis without any familial elephants in the room.

Vinny and his wife Caroline are raising their three kids in Tampa. He does serious charity work with pediatric cancer and coaches youth hockey. He is Tampa Bay–not just Tampa Bay Lightning.

Sports Shorts

* Super Bowls, we were again reminded, are Sunday evening games preceded by week of entertainment, economic impact and marketing pizzazz. But Minneapolis–or New York–in early February!
Time was when the Roman-numeraled spectacles were the purview of weather-friendly Southern California, New Orleans, Miami or Tampa. But that was before stadium-construction/renovation became the main driver. But, hey, we get our next shot in three years. And those pricey, gigantic video screen/scoreboards and other RayJay amenities such as renovated club and suite areas were not exactly non-factors in awarding Tampa Bay SB LV. It is what it is. We’re fortunate we have a great venue with enviable February weather.
* When you watch pro football, including the Super Bowl, do you rationalize the game’s concussion cause-and-effect–or just put that on hold to enjoy the big game? Do you feel guilty? Awkward? Callous? Enabling? Hypocritical? Here’s another take.
“I have no problem watching the NFL–these are grown men making grown men’s decisions,” says former New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, who exposed the concussion crisis. “After being kept in the dark for so many years by their employers, they now know they could wind up brain-damaged. … They’re professional daredevils. It wasn’t immoral to watch Evel Knievel. We watch stuntmen in movies.”
Never quite thought of it that way–although the risk-award factor is obvious, even if underplayed. But who would have thought the Wallenda family and pro football would wind up in the same sentence?
* Each Olympics there are new events added. No exception this year in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But co-ed curling?
* I’m no fan of the “one-and-done” era of college basketball. I think it’s a “hire-ed” sham. Most University of Kentucky fans, I’m sure, would disagree. They would probably appreciate the take of Warren K. Zola, a Boston College sports law expert, on UK’s high-profile “one-and-dones.” It’s a rationale we’ve heard before about certain student-athletes in certain revenue sports.
“If one accepts the premise that the purpose of college is to help students enter the workforce,” says Zola, “then students who play for one year then progress into the NBA could be considered a success.” One, however, should also be required to accept the premise that a university is much more than a selectively elevated trade school.
* Nice to see Bay Area golfer Brittany Lincicome in the winner’s’ circle again. The Seminole High grad, 32, recently won the Bahamas LPGA Classic for the second straight year. She’s also one of the nicest, down-to-earth athletes you’ll ever meet. Reportedly she’s still on track for early retirement. “Sometimes, I think I’ll retire at 35,” she said in an interview a few years back. “Buy a home on the water with a dock. The travel is hard.”
* Joe Maddon was in the news recently for more than hosting another big Bayshore Gasparilla party and still living next to Jill Kelly. He was honored in Tampa as Dreammaker of the Year by the Children’s Dream Fund for work related to pediatric cancer causes.