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May 30, 2008

Sponsorships, prize money, and appearance money

“Appearance fees” are a favorite bete noir of Toni Reavis, a well-known television commentator for road races. Toni’s theory is based on the “athletics would be more popular if the top pros were earning millions” theory I’ve discussed here, and postulates that because appearance fees, which are not public, make up such a large fraction of a top athlete’s income, they hold down (public) prize money, and thereby hold back the marketing of those athletes as high-earning pros.

I tend to agree with Toni on this score, but I think the situation is more complicated than this formula suggests, and for a few minutes I’d like to prick holes in it in the name of strengthening our ideas of what needs to improve in terms of marketing our athletes as professionals.

First, the basics: track athletes have three major income streams. Sponsorship contracts (which generally have a large performance-based component), appearance money (how much event organizers will pay them just to show up), and prize money. Athletes in the big team sports, as I’ve discussed before, also have the sponsorship contracts, though they’re not as large a part of their income; their largest income stream is their team, and that should be compared to the appearance money, because like appearance money, they get it whether they win or lose.

In the team sports, however, both parts of the income stream are relatively public and transparent. Fans know what kind of income the players are getting from the teams, and they don’t know, in general how much more or less the players earn if they win or lose. And the interesting part, to me, because it means that for the team sports, at least, how much the athletes are earning has little or nothing to do with how interested they are in the game.

Is it possible that by focusing on the money, we’re selling short the inherent excitement of the competition, the thing that made us all fall in love with the sport in the first place (assuming, of course, that you’re one of my readers who’s a track fan)?

So here’s my thought experiment. Instead of following Toni’s proposal and doing away with appearance money, let’s do away with prize money. Make it all appearance money, and put it on the table. Maybe a consortium (call them a “circuit”) of five or six races—a marathon and three or four lesser distances—puts together half a million dollars to get a commitment from Catherine Ndereba for all the races. If she runs well, they pony up again next year. Repeat for thirty or forty more pro athletes at all levels of the pay scale to build fields. Maybe you build some performance bonuses into the contract, but it’s not strict race-by-race “prize money.” The fans know they’re seeing expensive pro athletes. The athletes have both a predictable income for up days and down days—but also an incentive to perform to the best of their ability, because those who slack off won’t be invited back.

One advantage to this system is that it’s compatible with the existing system. A few road races could pursue this model while still being able to compete for the best athletes; alternative compensation models already exist in the system, like Wisconsin’s Bellin Run (no appearance money.) It’s not too far from the Japanese corporate model, except that it is postulated on the money coming from the races, not from sponsors.

That leads me to the two drawbacks of the system. One is track meets: too many events, too many athletes, and not all of them merit the same price tag. Certainly football linemen don’t make the same cash as star quarterbacks, but how do you balance discus throwers against hurdlers? Men against women? Making those distinctions public (because they’re already being made in private, in the athletes’ sponsorship contracts) might open a can of inequality worms.

And finally, where does the money come from? Would the current pool of prize money and appearance money be enough to fund an announced-appearance model? Do meets or races have enough revenue to make this work?

But before we follow a path of abolishing appearance money, maybe we should spend a little more time considering the opposite course: putting it on the table and taking away the prize money.

Posted by pjm at 9:35 AM | Comments (0)

May 29, 2008

Speed merchants in New York

I have a preview up today of the weekend’s entertainment. Insert the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth over preview writing; I’ve already discovered one factual inaccuracy (a start-list change which happened after I filed), but it’s relatively minor and my evolving view of how to write these things now understands that by Sunday morning, nobody will care.

And now you know where to find me on Saturday evening: trading elbows with the Jamaican and Chinese press.

Posted by pjm at 8:31 PM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2008

An efficient way to get thrown out of the country

We got word today that housing for the Olympics is 99% certain, and the hotel is 50m (meters, not miles) from the Birdcage, the main stadium (and, of course, the track and field venue.)

The message included this endorsement:

To quote the accommodation manager responsible, “I could hit a golf ball off the roof and it would land in the shot put area!”

This image leads me to speculate on how hard it would be to borrow some clubs in Beijing and test this assertion… how quickly I’d be on a plane if I actually did… and whether I could hit a golf ball that accurately in the first place. (The javelin sector would be easier.)

This may be a contender for the closest I’ve ever stayed to a competition venue. Stuttgart will be hard to beat, though.

Posted by pjm at 3:07 PM | Comments (0)

May 27, 2008

Return of the Famous Cat

Laptop cat

Iz is an illustration on a Houston Chronicle blog entry today. The funny thing, to me, is that the question is about a Mac, and the photo shows Iz on A’s Dell. (There are plenty of photos of him on a Mac in iPhoto, but I suppose the ones which would have been illustrative here never made my Flickr stream.)

Posted by pjm at 8:54 PM | Comments (0)

The advantages of engineering schools

I got email from the University’s alumni office just now, inviting me to a seminar titled “Networking for Introverts: why does it have to be so hard?”

This is not a seminar I would expect from the College, and I have to wonder if the presence of engineering programs at the University accounts for that difference. (More likely it’s simply the size difference between the two institutions.)

I also have to wonder about the potential attendance at a seminar expressly targeted at people who “avoid networking events so [we] won’t have to talk to strangers.” Isn’t that like trying to start a procrastinator’s meeting on time?

Posted by pjm at 1:57 PM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2008

Reluctant coffee consumer

One of the strategies I’ve been following to get work done during the time Iz is pestering me for dinner, once a week, has been retreating to one of our local wifi-equipped coffee shops, picking up a beverage, and working there until it’s time to return for kitty-dinner time.

Maybe the second time I did this, I realized that I was ripping through a pretty good quantity of work for the time I was there. Some of this is simply due to a feeling of having people looking over my shoulder, but I’m also playing with the idea that a little of this is also due to a stimulant effect of the beverage.

I’m reluctant to embrace this idea for a few reasons. One is that I usually get the least coffee on the menu, a mocha or vanilla latte, and I’m reluctant to believe that they have that much more caffeine (or sugar—I don’t add any) than my morning tea, which doesn’t appear to have much stimulant effect at all beyond quieting my craving for it.

The bigger one is that I don’t want to become one of those people whose ability to function becomes dependent on the regular application of $4 beverage. (Alcoholism, ounce for ounce, is cheaper.)

Given that I still haven’t developed a tolerance for the beverage in its pure state—my current ideal coffee is still the Japanese iced variety which is closer to coffee-flavored milk than coffee—I guess I don’t have too much to worry about just yet. But the path is there in front of me.

Posted by pjm at 11:35 AM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2008

Sprint matchup of the spring

There is a lot of justified anticipation surrounding the Tyson Gay vs. Usain Bolt (plus six other sprinters anxious to pull off an upset) 100m race in New York next week.

However, as of Monday evening I find myself wondering how Jacoby Ellsbury would stack up. Granted, 100m is about three times longer than Ellsbury is used to running without needing to turn a corner, but imagine what starting blocks—and not needing to slide into the finish line—could do for him! Maybe a 60m during the indoor season next spring? Boston Indoor Games?

Jon Drummond, meet Terry Francona. USATF, let’s get on this.

Posted by pjm at 11:00 AM | Comments (0)

May 20, 2008

The perils of making assumptions

I got a call from the University last week, wishing to nag me about making a pledge to their capital campaign. I was otherwise occupied and angry about being interrupted, but the twit on the other end of the line was not at all interested in my convenience. He asked if they could send me email. He then read back an email address which they claimed to have on file for me, using an alumni.*.edu subdomain I didn’t know existed at the University and a construction of my name I’m pretty sure they never used.

“You can send all the mail you want to that address,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure I won’t get any of it.” Oh, he asked, what should we use for an address?

At that point I was feeling pretty snooty about it, so I pulled out the alumni.*.edu address for the College.

“Wait, you’re an alumni there? How is that possible?”

I explained that as long as the University offered graduate programs, it was quite likely that many of its alumni would also be alumni of other colleges and universities. He seemed startled by this new revelation.

Noah reported a somewhat less satisfying experience, with the caller “putting him down” for a pledge Noah never mentioned. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t the graduate students dragging down the University’s alumni giving rate, but the boneheads the development office has making their calls.

Posted by pjm at 10:14 PM | Comments (2)

May 19, 2008

No hitter

Noah had two extra tickets as of Thursday, so I asked my brother and we made plans for this evening. Section two, row fourteen, up under the upper deck in right field. For all that I like the team, I average somewhat less than one game per year at Fenway, and I thought I should take the opportunity.

After the third inning, when the Sox scored five, and then when Ellsbury stole second and third before Tek drove him home (“I just hit a triple!” said Noah. “But they walked him,” I observed,) Ben said something like, “You know, Lester has a no-hitter going.”

We went for warm beverages at the top of the seventh. The line at the Dunkie’s was absurd. The vendors with hot chocolate were getting ambushed before they could reach the stairs and selling out before they made it up to the seats. When we came back out the game was still on.

When we got off the orange line at Wellington, even after I dropped off Noah and Rachel in Medford and started the drive back, my ears were still ringing with the noise of the place. Actually, now, in a dark house in Amherst, they still are.

I stopped in Gardiner at midnight for something to drink, and when I came out of the convenience store, there was a guy telling the woman filling her car at the pump, “Jon Lester threw a no-hitter tonight.” I fingered the ticket stub in my pocket and thought, tell me about it.

Posted by pjm at 11:52 PM | Comments (2)

May 18, 2008

Return on investment

I was trying to imagine a run with a better return than the Rabbit Run, and I wasn’t really coming up with anything, even the prize pie table at the Close to the Coast 10K in Freeport. (That would be the “…and a bat” race.) The first time I ran, the prize bag included a liter bottle (square, and glass) of Quabbin maple syrup. This year, among other pieces, they contained custom mugs from Golden Egg Farm (“poultry and pottery”) with rabbits on them.

I ran faster this year, though not by a whole lot, and placed about where I could reasonably expect to place, so I was generally pleased. But the prize bag is definitely worth more than the entry fee ($20). Also in the bags were pounds of coffee from Dean’s Beans, orange cranberry bread from New Salem Tea Bread, and more bread, jam, and maple syrup from other sponsors without websites.

And with 28 finishers and 11 prize winners (at least one age group prize went unclaimed), the odds of going home with one of those bags were pretty good.

Of course, in order to play those odds, you had to climb a hill, making up most of the fifth mile, fondly known as “Horse Break Hill,” which slowed the winner (who averaged 5:41 per mile) to 7:00 pace. So maybe “cherry picking” isn’t really the word.

Posted by pjm at 8:41 PM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2008

A better source for the information?

Maybe I’m getting less search engine traffic because it’s easier to find out how to get a parking permit in Medford now? (I’m not sure it is, but both major search engines show the right page at the top of their results, and my best result is third.)

Posted by pjm at 8:04 AM | Comments (0)

And where have you been?

Waiting for people

One of the rewarding things about most pets is an increase in the number of creatures who care where you are and what you’re doing. If one of us is home late or otherwise off the routine, or even if we’re just out on a run, Iz frequently stakes out the front door by sitting on his pedestal and gazing through the oversized window to the front porch. Last night, as he waited for A to return from her track meet, I took a long exposure.

Posted by pjm at 7:44 AM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2008

The Runners' Cookbook

[Cover Image: The Runner's Cookbook]

I doubt there are more than three people reading this who aren’t already aware that The Runner’s Cookbook was published last weekend. (I’ve placed the apostrophe differently in the title of this post for reasons which will become apparent.)

I’ve been a reluctant and grumpy consultant to this whole process, as A discovered that nine years of working in the publishing industry does not mean that I can provide an intelligent explanation of things like “bleed.” Mostly I tried to stay well out of the way. She’d been looking forward to the publishing date with the idea that once the book was produced and published, the work would be over, but instead the past week has been a whirlwind of email (to be expected when you send email to nearly everyone you know), a few telephone interviews, and all sorts of unanticipated questions. (This is not unlike her discovery that collecting all the recipes, which involved contacting about 250 top-level runners, was not in fact the hard part of the production process.)

How, for example, do you make the book available at running stores, who (a) don’t generally order books through “normal” channels (if everything goes well, the book will be available on Amazon one of these days, but running stores tend not to have accounts with Ingram), (b) want to buy the books at a discount (with the printer taking a fixed amount from every sale, whose share does that discount come from?) and/or (c) even while meaning well, can’t close the gap in knowledge between what A knows and what they know about how this could work?

I told her the other day that like any course you’d take in college, she’s learned some things through the process, but she’s also learned a slew of other things she never knew she didn’t know, and might not have wanted to bother with if she had.

Posted by pjm at 7:34 PM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2008

The Snoring Bird

I haven’t been reading as much since we started CMI, so finishing a decent book is half triumph (I found the time to plow through it!), half disappointment (now I need to find time to get traction on another one.)

Last night I finished Bernd Heinrich’s pseudo-memoir, The Snoring Bird actually much more a biography of his father than a memoir. Heinrich occupies about a foot and a half of my bookshelf, since I read his A Year in the Maine Woods shortly after graduating from college. He found his way into science by pursuing his own curiosity and questions, and he’s made his way as a writer, I think, by bringing readers along the same trail of questions (but without, of course, requiring them to follow every single false trail he did when tracking his own answers.)

The Snoring Bird is the story of Heinrich’s father, who was a soldier on the losing end of two World Wars, but also a leading scientist in an obscure niche of biology (the taxonomy of a certain order of parasitic wasps) and a well-known “collector” of specimens for museums when that sort of thing was still done. It also tells the incredible story of the family’s flight from western Poland across Germany ahead of the advancing Red Army, and their eventual emigration to the USA.

On finishing the book, I was motivated to pull out another Heinrich I’ve had on the “to read” pile for a while, The Thermal Warriors. This one is a lot closer to Heinrich’s own professional work, including actual equations for the heat generated by a flying insect. (Most of his other books tend to shy away from including equations in the text.) It’s similar to The Snoring Bird in that it introduces a fascinating subject and leads you through it, but different in that the subject is somewhat less personal.

But with the perspective of The Snoring Bird, knowing what led Heinrich into his field and how he found his own way in biology, there’s a new background to his discussion of wasps and bumblebees. His investigation of insect energy economies (and, eventually, raven intelligence, long distance running, and other topics) was part of the tides that bore biology away from his father, who completed his life’s work in relative obscurity, struggling to find peer-reviewed journals which would publish type descriptions of wasp species.

Posted by pjm at 7:14 PM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2008

Hardwood

When we first adopted Iz, our apartment had wall-to-wall carpeting. He got used to sticking his spikes out a bit for extra traction on the corners, so when we eventually moved to one with faux-wood flooring, he was constantly skating around corners and crashing into walls.

The current place has honest-to-goodness hardwood floors, and he’s finally adapted, keeping the spikes in when he’s playing hard. As a result, sometimes his little pads actually squeak on the floor, like a basketball player.

Posted by pjm at 7:52 PM | Comments (0)

Test pattern

Apparently something in the “changing passwords” part of this mess has thrown ecto for a loop, because I haven’t been able to get anything posted from there yet (and haven’t really had time to fight with it.)

I do have a few short ideas brewing. And bits are marvelously malleable.

Posted by pjm at 7:26 PM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2008

Well, that explains a lot

My Google traffic

Remember how I was complaining about all the ringtone spam which appeared to be pointed at this site, apparently causing me to drop in the search rankings? I was puzzled, at the time, by the inbound links; why would anyone link to this domain for spammy content which wasn’t here?

This afternoon, while I was backing up the site in preparation for a server move, I found four different locations on the site where loads of files had been hidden, most of them set up to look like a big blog about… ringtones. Or some other thing people spam for a lot. The files were mostly datestamped around January or February of this year. Some of them were hidden in directories named with a leading dot, which made them invisible in listings unless they were specifically requested; others were simply stuffed in with valid files. It looks like there was something to that ringtone stuff after all.

It could’ve been a lot worse; because of the placement of most of the files, they were not listed in my XML sitemap, nor were they in frequently-updated directories.

I’ve deleted the files, and as I was moving the site anyway, most of the passwords will become invalid soon. I simply accelerated my move process. But it’s not at all clear to me how the files got there.

Or, for that matter, if I’ll be able to convince Google that I’m not a spammer. Any more, anyway.

Posted by pjm at 3:23 PM | Comments (0)

May 9, 2008

You really do have to be able to spell

We’ve been watching the classified ads for office space in the area. You seldom see a listing with all the useful information (e.g. it will mention the location and price but not square footage) and we wind up sending a lot of email to filter out stuff that isn’t useful to us.

The other day we heard from one potential landlord that the space advertised was part of a “three-office suit.” Since then I have decided that the spare bedroom I split with A as an office must be a “one-office suit.” And I wonder, is a three-office suit an office drone who has multiple workplaces?

Now Playing: Helpless by Electric Light Orchestra

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Posted by pjm at 1:21 PM | Comments (0)

May 5, 2008

It depends on your definition of "ethical"

Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub draws our attention to a new “service” in which you pay for “relevant” comments to be left on “high-page-rank blogs”, which helps your site “rank better in the SERPs.” (SERP = Search Engine Result Page.)

The part I find most amusing is their attempts at self-justification:

YES, Buying Blog Comments is 100% ethical and NOT spam!

…and yet they’re spending the rest of the page explaining how their technique leaves comments which won’t be deleted by the site moderator. Now why would a site moderator ever want to delete 100% ethical, not-spam comments?

(If there’s any confusion in your mind, buying blog comments is 100% unethical and is spam.)

No extra points for counting the spelling and grammatical errors. Note that I have used rel="nofollow" on the link to the sleazy ones.

Now Playing: Workin’ For A Livin’ from Picture This by Huey Lewis & The News

Posted by pjm at 1:28 PM | Comments (0)

May 4, 2008

Rebate checks and our national priorities

Friday’s paper included an article about a school group in Northampton organizing a drive to ask residents to donate their “tax rebates” to the city’s schools, which are suffering severe budget shortfalls.

Like the last check we were sent by the federal government—$300 in 2001, which arrived in mid-September and which I proceeded to donate to the Red Cross—this particular handout of cash the government doesn’t really have to spend (aren’t we running a deficit?) makes me feel like someone is trying to buy my approval. It just smells bad to me. The pretense of “economic stimulus” feels pretty pathetic; if everyone who gets a rebate simply uses it to pay their existing credit card bill (not a bad idea, considering our national credit abuse is a major factor in our current economic malaise) it’s not going to do much to jump start the economic engine. To me, it feels like an attempt by our government to avoid responsibility; hush money to keep us from pointing the finger of responsibility their direction.

While many people are adopting the viewpoint that this is “their money” and they’ll use it for themselves, thank you, the idealist in me wants to believe that tax money paid to the Federal Government has always been “our money” and it still is, even if the feds give it back to us.

The National Priorities Project, another Northampton organization, examines how our government spending reflects our national priorities, and shows taxpayers how those priorities may differ from our own priorities. From that point of view, I think it’s possible to see this as an opportunity to spend this tiny fraction of the government’s money in ways that reflect our own priorities and not those imposed upon us.

Some Northampton residents think maintaining their schools is important, so they’re trying to redirect these federal funds there. We could give the money to research into issues touching people we know. We could spend it on photovoltaic panels or personal wind turbines to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We could find a way to plant more trees in our communities, or subsidize trail maintenance or other open-space initiatives. We could support people at the economic margins.

Or we could simply pay down our personal debt, acknowledging and facing the actions that got us here in the first place.

Either way, I think it’s time to twist the idea of whose money this is. If you don’t like how the government spends “your money”, here’s a chance to show them how you’d prefer to see it spent.

Now Playing: Northwestern Girls by Say Hi

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Posted by pjm at 2:44 PM | Comments (0)

May 3, 2008

General excellence

I’m two days late on this, but I’ve had limited time and inclination for being online for the last 36 hours or so. Not only did my old workplace (and I mean seven years ago), Runners World, win a National Magazine Award on Thursday night—a huge deal in the industry—but they won it for their website.

The site’s been down and up and down again and up again since my day, and the site in my time bears no comparison with the site now (this particular category didn’t even exist at the NMAs), but I still feel a little connection. I know a lot of the people working on the site. And I did write a weblog there last year.

I’ll be making things happen in their Olympic Track Trials coverage this summer, so we’ll see how much worse they do in 2008.

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Posted by pjm at 12:42 PM | Comments (1)