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Tennis players Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, the “two loudest screamers in the game,” will play in the women’s final of the Australian Open Saturday morning, and “never before has so much attention been drawn to the high-pitched squeals they emit each time they strike the ball,” according to Margie McDonald of THE AUSTRALIAN. Several players have been “brave enough to speak up about the distraction of the yelping and grunting, most notably Agnieszka Radwanska after she lost to Azarenka in the quarter-finals.” Still, Azarenka and Sharapova “remain defiant.” Sharapova earlier this week said, "You've watched me grow up; you've watched me play tennis. I've been the same over the course of my career. No one important enough has told me to change or do something different. I've answered it many times before." Azarenka added: "It's been asked before and here again you're still asking me the same question. So I guess I have to repeat what I said before. ... It's the way I am, the way I play, the way I used to play when I was a kid." The WTA issued a statement “virtually saying it wanted to stamp out the screaming.” But in the “same breath, it acknowledged it was powerless to stop two of its biggest stars because they had been doing it for so long” (THE AUSTRALIAN, 1/27). In N.Y., Ben Rothenberg wrote despite the “increasing outcry against excessive grunting, representatives from the International Tennis Federation, the United States Tennis Association and Tennis Australia said that grunting was not a high-level issue for them” (N.Y. TIMES, 1/26). In London, Valentine Low wrote the WTA will be “concentrating its attentions on the forthcoming generation of young players,” as the veterans “show no sign of being prepared to change their ways” (LONDON TIMES, 1/26).
EARPLUGS ANYONE? In Melbourne, Richard Hinds wrote at the “all-shrieking final, anyone capable of drowning out the ear-shattering expulsions of Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova should be given an access-all-areas pass.” The match-up has even “vindicated the lyrics of one of AC/DC's anthems.” Hinds: “Rock'n'roll ain't noise pollution when compared with the aural bombardment to which 15,000 tennis lovers will be subjected.” There have been “half-hearted hints this week that the WTA Tour and the ITF might consider measures to muffle the worst offenders.” But, “of course, the WTA particularly is more likely to close the on-site hairdressing salon than take on its pampered starlets over grunting” (THEAGE.com, 1/27).
THE CORE FOUR: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will meet in the men's finals Sunday morning after beating Andy Murray and Roger Federer, respectively, in the semifinals. The WALL STREET JOURNAL’s Tom Perrotta noted in the “big four ... are so large that they make otherwise imposing colleagues look like specks of dust.” The Australian Open marks the “second straight time they've occupied all four spots in a Grand Slam semifinal,” and the “third time in the last four majors that they've claimed all four semifinal spots.” Tennis is “that predictable right now, though it's not something you'll hear fans complaining about.” Since Marat Safin won the ‘05 Australian Open, only “one man not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic has won a Grand Slam title” -- Juan Martin Del Porto's win at the '09 U.S. Open (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 1/26).
Even with Capitals LW Alex Ovechkin and Penguins C Sidney Crosby not at this weekend's All-Star Game festivities in Ottawa, and even with Bruins G Tim Thomas "likely to attract all manner of queries, there's a feeling about this shinny gathering that's a lot closer to the soul of the sport than last year" in Raleigh, according to Damien Cox of the TORONTO STAR. This year's event is "reaching out to the heartland -- a sensible strategy, let's face it, at a time when without the seven Canadian teams the NHL wouldn't be much of a business at all." When you come to Ottawa for this weekend, you "run headlong into that sense of a league leaning heavily upon the heartland, upon places where it's cold in January and the lakes and rivers are frozen, places that don't need to have the rules explained or the game sold to them." This is a league "being forced to search for new, sellable names and personalities because of the end of the Sid-Ovie power dynamic." But having the game in a "cold Canadian city where there's history and a gorgeous canal to skate on delivers a sense of reality to the occasion, and less of a sense this is all a false front constructed for TV" (TORONTO STAR, 1/27). In Columbus, Bob Hunter wrote, "With the NHL’s star-sapped All-Star weekend upon us like a cold winter rain, an accompanying feeling of malaise is understandable." Crosby is "missing because of a head shot he suffered, Alex Ovechkin is voluntarily absent because of a head hit he didn't appreciate being punished for, and maybe we are all feeling a little woozy from the blows they have dealt to the sport itself." Hunter: "Hockey has a concussion problem and an injury problem, and perhaps it takes having some of its best and brightest miss a showcase event to force the NHL to address the problem" (COLUMBUS DISPATCH, 1/27).
READY FOR THE SHOW: In Ottawa, Bruce Garrioch noted Senators Owner Eugene Melnyk is "looking forward to what's going to be a memorable weekend for hockey fans and the people of Ottawa." Melnyk has wanted an All-Star Weekend in Ottawa "since he bought the Senators and Scotiabank Place" in '03. Melnyk: "When I was buying the team, one of the things that was part of the negotiations was if the city was able to accommodate an all-star game, that we would get one. (Commissioner) Gary Bettman came through and we’re going to put on a show like they’ve never seen before." He added, "We’re going to have (a party) equal to or bigger than what we did for the world juniors (in 2009). Every hotel room is sold out, you’re going to have thousands of people skating on the Canal and enjoying the city. People are going to see what the city and the people are about" (OTTAWA SUN, 1/26).
MIDSEASON CLASSIC: A Vancouver PROVINCE editorial states, "It's time for the NHL to eliminate the All-Star Game -- a sad exercise in non-hockey that does zilch to boost interest in the sport or the league. Here's a better idea: take the fun aspects of the all-star weekend -- the skills competition, which could be expanded to include entertaining non-hockey sports tilts or contests demonstrating other aspects of the stars' personalities -- and hold them around the annual Winter Classic" (Vancouver PROVINCE, 1/27). The GLOBE & MAIL's Bruce Dowbiggin writes, "Let us suggest a solution to the All-Star Analgesic: Merge it with the Winter Classic. Have the all-stars frolic in the great outdoors before 50,000. And make Jan. 1 a real showcase game on real ice" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/27).
NHLPA Exec Dir Donald Fehr in a recent interview with THE HOCKEY NEWS' Adam Proteau spoke about issues pertaining to a new CBA, including league realignment and franchise relocation. The following is an excerpt from the Q&A:
Q: Has the PA looked at making a counter-proposal for realignment, something that would address the concerns you have regarding travel and competitive advantage? Or do you sit back and wait for the league to drive the bus on that issue?
Fehr: When it comes to bargaining, we’ll take a hard look at playoffs and schedules and all that stuff and come up with our own ideas. Whether those will be related to the specific realignment proposals we got last December has yet to be determined.
Q: Players essentially have no say in the location (or possible relocation) of teams. Is this something that players are interested in talking about in the next CBA -- more of a voice in the business end and a true partnership with the owners?
Fehr: A so-called true partnership, if that connotes joint managerial control, joint ownership and all of those things, is a pretty tall order and so far as I know has not been adopted in any professional sport. If you take a step back from that and talk about whether you could develop vehicles in which you discuss a wide range of issues both in the abstract to the extent you can predict them, and then when they arise, in an effort to reach agreements, rather than having one side or the other make a decision, is that a good thing to do? I think it’s a good thing to try, yes.
Q: You see where the other sports have been trending toward the deals recently struck by the NFL and NBA, where revenue is split 50/50 by and large, and most other elements are ancillary to the deal being signed than that one main issue. Is that something you pay mind to specifically in terms of “the writing on the wall,” for lack of a better term, in the overall sports picture, do you think hockey is inherently different in the way the financial pie is split up?
Fehr: I’ve always believed, and my experience since I’ve gotten to the NHLPA confirms, that the four sports are different. The ownership is different, the nature of the industry is different, the economics of the sports are different, and I think all the (labor) agreements are self-contained. And you should approach bargaining in that fashion. So that’s the way we’re going to do it, and it remains to be seen what positions various people are going to come in with (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 1/25).
DOWN SOUTH: USA Hockey Assistant Exec Dir of Membership Development Pat Kelleher said that the organization's membership "has grown significantly in each of the Southern states where the NHL put teams." The AP's Teresa Walker notes the numbers are "growing all around the South -- including in Georgia, where Atlanta lost the Thrashers to Winnipeg last summer." Between '98-99 and '10-11, Colorado-based USA Hockey went from 911 members in Georgia to 2,287, an increase of 151 percent." North Carolina "boomed to 170.5 percent with a high of 5,812 players last year," and Florida, which "had about four ice rinks in the 1990s, now has 25 with players jumping from 5,606 to 11,571 (106.4 percent)." Texas had "11,661 players this past year or 96.6 percent more, while Tennessee had 2,573 this past season for [a] 118.8 percent jump" (AP, 1/27).
A year after making sweeping changes to its point system and qualifications for its series championships, the news Thursday from NASCAR was no news. The sport’s sanctioning body started its preseason press conference with a video that highlighted closer competition, the addition of new drivers and its push to evolve by adding ethanol to fuel and electronic fuel injection engines. The video closed by saying that the sport wanted to continue its momentum from '11. NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France, who spoke afterward, noted that ratings increased in '11, attendance rose at several tracks and Sprint announced a major sponsorship extension for its entitlement of the sport’s premier series. France said, “We’re pretty pleased with where things are in general.” Despite Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing contracting by a team each this year, France said he doesn’t expect to see smaller fields during races in '12 (Tripp Mickle, SportsBusiness Journal). France said, “Last year at this event we announced a number of changes that we believed would build interest and help make it easier for fans to understand the championship race. We're very pleased with how all of those changes played out.” SI.com’s Bruce Martin wrote NASCAR standing pat on the playoff “is fairly notable.” Fans of the sport “will note that the Chase has been tweaked nearly every year since its inception, in 2004” (SI.com, 1/26).
POISED FOR A GOOD YEAR: FOXSPORTS.com’s Lee Spencer writes it appears that sponsorship “is recovering, and television ratings and track attendance both are up.” Certainly, the key to success for NASCAR in ’12 will be “to build on the momentum of last year.” And NASCAR “will not rest on its laurels.” Spencer notes it was the “response from fans that prompted NASCAR to curtail the extensive pairing of drivers at Daytona and Talladega.” Following a successful test for the Daytona 500 earlier this month “to discourage tandem drafting, the product for the Great American Race appears strong.” Surely the sport is “thrilled about three-time champion Tony Stewart defending his title, along with Danica Patrick defecting from IndyCar and making her Sprint Cup debut and Dale Earnhardt’s progress at Hendrick Motorsports.” However the league is “far from over the economic hump.” While there are “more sponsors entering the sport, many primaries have cut back from initial 36-race commitments.” That can be “confusing to newer fans who are more familiar with paint schemes and can’t make out or keep up with car numbers” (FOXSPORTS.com, 1/27).
LOOKING AHEAD: The biggest business questions facing NASCAR in '12 are on the media front. The sport’s broadcast agreements with Fox, Turner and ESPN end after the '14 season, and France said that all three broadcasters are interested in continuing to televise the sport. He added that discussions have begun, but there are no immediate plans to work on new agreements. NASCAR also is focused on its digital rights, and it is in the process of negotiating with Turner, which currently holds those rights, to retain them. France did not speak to those negotiations, but said, “Digital (is) very important to us. (It’s) very important for us to manage those rights in the future. It’s the new medium to develop that deep relationship with our fans, so we will be taking a very active role. Not just us. But the industry. This is one of those things where the industry is working together, the teams, the tracks, so on, to formulate the right social media strategy, the right digital strategy, for the future” (Mickle).
NO HARM DONE: NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson said Kyle and Kurt Busch, who have been under fire for their conduct at the end of the '11 season, "are not bad for NASCAR at all." Johnson said, "Everybody does things they regret. ... I’m not trying to defend anyone, but the era of Junior Johnson, I’m sure he ran through some areas running moonshine and outrunning the cops that he shouldn’t have, and now he’s looked upon like some great hero.” Driver Jeff Gordon “believes a good deal of trouble the two brothers have stirred up can be positive for the sport.” Gordon: “Some would say that any publicity is good publicity. They certainly draw attention, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” He added, “I look at how I want to be portrayed and how I want to be recognized on the track and off the track and how my sponsors and fans feel about those kinds of things. Those things come in my mind when I am about to say or do something that wouldn’t be appropriate. ... That’s the difference I see.” Gordon: “Is it good? It is good, but from where they are standing, they know it is not good because there are repercussions that come along with that. Kurt basically losing one of the best rides out there, that certainly got his attention” (SCENEDAILY.com, 1/25).
NBA Commissioner David Stern is "not the same as the old Stern, the Stern once considered the most player-friendly of all commissioners, the one credited with understanding both Main Street and Madison Avenue better than his peers, resulting in a boomtown NBA," according to Howard Bryant of ESPN THE MAGAZINE. Today's Stern has "presided over two lockouts in a dozen years, with a referee fixing games in between." More important moving forward, he has been "exposed as the enabler of the hopeless cadre of small-market owners who shut the game down." Stern "escaped any real blowback for his mishandling of the [Chris] Paul trade or for interjecting himself into the deal in the first place." At the same time, he "exploited the anti-player, anti-union sentiment in this country that always gives institutions the advantage in winning over the public -- and he did so without much scrutiny." Still, Stern's moves "will come back to haunt the league." He sent a "clear signal that the Lakers needed curbing, the way baseball for years tried to rein in the Yankees." Bryant notes Stern, who "rose to power during the Bird-Magic-Jordan years, shouldn't need a history lesson to know the NBA has been at its most profitable when people care enough to love or hate the superteams in Boston and Chicago, New York and LA -- and Miami today" (ESPN THE MAGAZINE, 2/6 issue).
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE INJURED: In Austin, Kevin Lyttle notes the NBA "feared a backlash from the lockout, which delayed the season's start from Nov. 1 to Dec. 25, but attendance is down only 3 to 4 percent, and TV ratings have soared." TNT's ratings are "up 65 percent from last season while ESPN's ratings are up 20 percent." NBA TV ratings have "risen 68 percent." But Lyttle notes scoring and shooting percentages "are down, turnovers are up, benches are being used more as coaches rest their weary stars and injuries are piling up, likely because of grueling schedules and the lack of a real training camp" (AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, 1/27). NBA.com's Shaun Powell asked, "Have you ever witnessed so many injuries, so many poor shooting nights, so many lopsided scores in so short a time? Has there ever been a first month of a season as astonishing as this one?" Powell: "Part comical, part tragic and totally freakish, this season is starting to separate itself from all others, and not entirely for the better" (NBA.com, 1/25).
The debate over whether the PGA Tour should offer appearance fees to some players was revived this week with Tiger Woods choosing to play in Abu Dhabi this weekend instead of at the Farmers Insurance Open, and NBC’s Jimmy Roberts said, “The fact of the matter is we already have appearance fees on the PGA Tour." Roberts: "It’s just they’re kind of under-the-radar, and the tournaments and their sponsors they pay players to do events.” Golf Channel’s Gary Williams asked, “Do you think that after the Open Championship that Luke Donald and Matt Kuchar and Anthony Kim wanted to necessarily -- and it’s a great event -- go to the RBC Canadian Open? They’ve got it on their sleeves and on their bags. So we have it for all intents and purposes” (“Morning Drive,” Golf Channel, 1/26). YAHOO SPORTS’ Jay Busbee and Shane Bacon discussed the topic of whether it was time for the PGA Tour “to start paying appearance fees to its marquee players.” Bacon wrote, “I know it's a slippery slope with this, but just LOOK at the comparable fields. Tiger, Rory, Lee, Luke, Sergio vs. Phil and Bubba? It seems like a no-brainer which tournament is a bigger draw.” Busbee wrote, “The PGA Tour has to realize that it's no longer the only show in town, and home-country loyalty will only get them so far. … But how do you implement this without setting off a. a bidding war or b. resentment and fury among the Mark Wilsons of the world?” (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 1/25). Golf Channel’s Jason Sobel said, “I would never begrudge a player for taking an appearance fee. ... If ‘Grey Goose: Abu Dhabi’ asked me to come on the show this week for ten times more than I’m making right here, I would be on ‘Grey Goose: Abu Dhabi’ right now” (“19th Hole,” Golf Channel, 1/26).
FUTURE OF Q-SCHOOL: In California, Brian Hiro wrote if the PGA Tour's plan to revamp Q-School “had existed in years past, players like Murrieta native Rickie Fowler would have had to serve at least a year on the Nationwide Tour before reaching the PGA Tour.” Fowler received his PGA Tour card in ‘09 by “tying for 15th at Q-School less than three months after turning professional.” Fowler Wednesday said, "It definitely seems like they're leaning for the switch. I know that the Nationwide Tour is a definite concern.” Fowler added, “It's a tough situation because you want the Nationwide Tour around and you want to have the title sponsor. At the same time, you want to have that open tour for the local club pro to be able to make it into the final stage and have his chance of making it on the PGA Tour” (NCTIMES.com, 1/25). ESPN.com’s Farrell Evans wrote under the header, “Don’t Destroy The Beauty Of Q-School.” Evans: “I hope the tour recognizes that Q-school is a unique place in sport for men to realize their dreams." The PGA Tour “would do well to find a middle ground, where the Nationwide Tour becomes the primary feeder to the big tour, but where Q-school can still be a direct portal to pinnacle of the game for some fortunate souls good enough to play well over six rounds” (ESPN.com, 1/26).
HELPING GROW THE GAME: Jack Nicklaus was at the PGA Merchandise Show Thursday to promote the PGA of America's Golf 2.0 initiative to attract new playes, and he said he thinks the plan will "help bring people into the game, will help keep people into the game and help enhance the pleasure and fun of the people that are the game." Nicklaus said, "We had to think out of the box. ... We're talking about larger holes, we're talking about bigger golf balls that are more user-friendly, all these things to try to help get people in the game. Once we get them in the game, we want to keep them in the game” (“Fast Money Halftime Report,” CNBC, 1/26). Nicklaus added, "“I've got 22 grand kids, and they all play a little bit, I mean a little bit, really a little bit. They play less than I do, and that's not very much. Other sports are grabbing their attention. We need to introduce our kids to the game of golf. We need to introduce it to them in a way that is friendly, and a way that they can have some early success and stay with the game. The same with women" (GOLFCHANNEL.com, 1/26).