Baseball must live on

MLB attendance is down league-wide as the average game length continues to increase

Baseball must live on

Attention spans have shortened and with the rise in popularity of competing sports leagues, the NBA has replaced the MLB as the second most popular sports league in North America, behind the NFL.

In an recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, host Bill Simmons says that he believed that people under 35 generally do not care about baseball. “When you go to the games, half the people are on their phones,” he said. “I got LAFC MLS tickets and you go to the game and people are into it, and its two hours and you’re out!”

The slow pace and long schedule of baseball has increasingly become a problem. The MLB has adopted new rules: the number of mound visits per game are limited, intentional walks are no longer thrown, and managers have only a 30-second window in which they can challenge a play. Each of these changes was made with the end goal of speeding up the pace of play.

In the end, there is no way to control how many hits or walks will occur during a game, and there is no limit on how much time a pitcher is allowed to take between pitches. The long, tense nature of the sport is unavoidable. And despite rule changes, in 2017, the average game length reached a record high, at three hours, five minutes, and 11 seconds.

Another point made in Simmons’ podcast is that an overdependence on statistics may actually be hurting fan engagement. When I find myself watching baseball with my roommates, one asks, “Hey what’s OBP? What about RISP?” and none of us know. Interesting baseball discussions have boiled down to analytics, a jumble of numbers, citing past matchups, and hitting averages against lefties or righties — the list goes on.

Simmons explained that the league has become so “stat obsessed” that there is no room for arguments. Meanwhile, basketball fans can argue about a player for hours since there are many arguments that do not refer to statistics.

Chuck Klosterman added that baseball arguments are often about “should we even care about batting averages?” and that he is “constantly being told what stats not to think about.”

Baseball’s dependence on numbers has halted conversations and simply made baseball debates less engaging. Ultimately, we must ask whether the level of argumentation is truly a reflection of the sport’s health. In my household, baseball games mainly provoke statistics chatter — much less engaging than our chats during the NBA season.

Now, let’s get down to the numbers regarding the MLB’s troubles. In June, Fortune reported that attendance is down 6.6 per cent since the same time last season and that there hasn’t been such a drastic dip in attendance since 1995. MLB attendance is now at its lowest in the past 15 years and there is a chance that average attendance dips below 30,000 for the first time since 2003. This may support the argument that the sport’s overuse of statistics and lengthening games has not done well for the MLB’s ratings.

Ironically, the advanced statistic Three True Outcomes percentage (TTO) is the clearest signifier of baseball’s slowing pace. TTO shows the percentage of at-bats that result in a walk, strikeout, or home run. Reporters have noticed that baseball has transformed from a “game of intense strategy, scrappy hitters, crafty pitchers and defensive wizardry,” into a sport that solely emphasizes the matchup between batters and pitchers. This year TTO reached a league average of 33.5% of at-bats, the highest rate in history, which means the league has never seen so few balls hit in play.

As the average number of home runs and walks reach their highest rates in history, the games only get longer. The MLB is walking a tightrope as there is pressure to shorten the game, but there is also pressure to promote excitement — which means base runners and home runs.

The recent decrease in ticket sales and TV ratings display that the sport is in obvious trouble, but baseball is still too special and popular of a game for it to die out completely.

Personally, the game’s slow pace adds a level of tension that no other sport can offer. Every motion and every inch in baseball can decide out or safe, win or loss. The use of statistics creates a fascinating strategic element that is unparalleled in any other major sport. It remains the only sport where players can depend more on technique and knowledge than pure athletic prowess.

While young, flashier soccer and basketball players have put pressure on the MLB to reinvigorate its own fan base to see a rise in viewership, I strongly believe that this is only a phase and there are many decades of great baseball ahead of us.

Under Armour comes to U of T

#WillFindsAWay meets the #6ix

Under Armour comes to  U of T

After the announcement that Under Armour would be the new athletics apparel partner and sponsor for the Varsity Blues in late May, the hype for the famous brand has increased across campus. With Blues athletes sporting their fresh track wear and uniforms, there is no doubt that Under Armour has become a significant presence on campus.

On Thursday, September 13, the Under Armour team brought fitness training and athletic events to U of T, as Back Campus was transformed into a state-of-the-art workout studio with a massive stage. Under Armour symbols were proudly worn by participating students and fitness instructors alike.

The yellow and black #WillFindsAWay signs were scattered around, separated by the sea blue U of T shirts handed out to participants. #WeareTO was also a huge sign, flying in the air.

The day started out with drop-in events such as dodgeball, yoga, soccer, and volleyball, but ended with three sessions of bodyweight fitness classes.

The bodyweight fitness classes were packed with students and athletes alike, taking a much needed break from their first week of studies to stretch and move around.

The fitness classes, led by a very motivational fitness coach, started with basic stretching and moved into more complex moves, providing participants with a good challenge. At one point, U of T mascot True Blue decided to take a shot at some of the moves.

Although the sponsorship from Under Armour as the official sportswear brand of U of T may seem like it is only an opportunity for Varsity Blues athletes, it is events like these that help make athletics more accessible to the regular, everyday student.

The space was inclusive and inviting, with people of all abilities and fitness levels joining in.

Whether a participant was there for an intense workout or just for a fun activity to break up a busy day, it’s doubtful that anyone left the field without a smile on their face.

Donald Trump has sparked a civil war within the NFL’s fanbase

Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the anthem in 2016

Donald Trump has sparked a civil war within the NFL’s fanbase

With more fans than any other collegiate or professional sport, the NFL boasts the highest league revenues as well as the most lucrative television deal in the world.

Yet in recent years, the NFL and its players have been bombarded with controversy, which has served to polarize the league’s fan base. Players choosing to kneel during the national anthem — and the assorted policy and procedural changes that the NFL adopted to address these player actions — continue to be an ongoing issue, even with the 2018 season kickoff.

Nike’s latest “Just Do It” ad campaign, featuring the leader and face of the movement, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, has only served to heighten the debate surrounding the issue.

Kaepernick first popularized the controversial act of kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to highlight racial injustice in the United States. In May 2018, NFL owners finally responded by voting in favour of requiring players to stand during the anthem and threatened to fine teams if players took a knee or weren’t on the field during the national anthem.

As Kaepernick’s social movement has gained momentum, notable individuals like US President Donald Trump have criticized it. Like most critics, Trump believes that kneeling during the anthem is unpatriotic and disrespectful to the men and women who serve in the military. Proponents continue to respond to this point of view by asserting that when athletes take a knee, they are simply practicing their right to free speech.

After the NFL Players Association filed a complaint, Adam Schefter, ESPN’s lead NFL correspondent, reported, “the new policy is going to be no policy,” later explaining that “too many people have stances too strong to figure out a compromise.”

In July, the NFL ultimately decided not to implement the new policy detailing player behaviour during the national anthem and teams sanctions.

By hitting the pause button on their policy, the NFL has recognized that the issue of kneeling during the national anthem is simply too contentious; therefore, the safest course of action is simply to do nothing.

The NFL’s inaction has resulted in a barrage of criticism from Trump. After the first week, the US President continued his social media barrage against the league, tweeting that television ratings for the first game were down from those of last year and “viewership has declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade.”

While Trump would like there to be a link between the NFL’s declining television ratings and players kneeling during the national anthem, the truth is that ratings have been declining for the past couple of years, which is consistent with broader viewership trends across the country. At the same time, the number of players that have decided to overtly protest has also declined, which further discounts Trump’s assertion that kneeling has resulted in lower television ratings.

And while Trump has been extremely vocal about his views regarding this topic, other public figures within the NFL have verbalized their support for the social movement. Detroit Lions principal owner Martha Ford openly challenged his assessment of the situation, saying that “players’ right to express views is part of what makes America great” and that “negative disrespectful comments suggesting otherwise are contrary to the founding principles of our country.”

Even though Kaepernick is no longer in the league, he continues to support players taking a knee to protest racial injustices in the United States and has found a new advocate in Nike. While not all consumers have responded positively to Nike’s new campaign and some have even taken to burning Nike products, the company has seen a 31 per cent increase in sales since the campaign’s launch.

Regardless of one’s stance on the issue, Kaepernick’s message has served to inspire not only NFL owners, players, and fans, but also positively impacted society as a whole.

Ravens defeat unconvincing Blues 3–0

Defeat exposes men’s soccer team’s ineffective attack

Ravens defeat unconvincing Blues 3–0

The University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s soccer team and their previous two opponents — the Carleton Ravens and the Ryerson Rams — have consolidated the top three Ontario University Athletics (OUA) East division places in each of the past two seasons. Judging from early results around the league, this three-horse race will likely remain intact for the season ahead, but the 3–0 defeat to the Ravens on September 8, one week after suffering a 3–1 loss to the Rams, means that the Blues may need to settle for third best.

The Blues made four changes to their starting lineup from their previous game, with starting striker Jack Wadden out injured and first-choice goalkeeper Stefan Dusciuc relegated to the bench in favour of first-year Sebastian Sgarbossa, who is making his first OUA start for Toronto.

Unlike their previous four games, the Blues started slowly, unwilling to commit players forward in their trademark pressing style. Instead, they found themselves sweating in the opening 40 seconds, as poor defending from the usually reliable centreback and captain Nikola Stakic forced Sgarbossa to make a key save.

Carleton, who began the game with a perfect record and who had topped the division in 2017 with 13 wins out of 16 matches, continued to dominate proceedings, sending a number of dangerous balls into the attacking third.

Their attacking play would pay off in the seventh minute, as forward Gabriel Bitar won a penalty after dribbling through the Blues’ defensive line. Bitar dispatched his spot kick straight down the middle, marking the first time this season that the Blues did not open the scoring.

Seconds after kickoff, Stakic gave away possession with a poor forward ball that Carleton quickly passed to left winger Emad Houache, who released a defense-splitting peach of a ball to the other flank. Poor positioning from the Blues allowed right winger Ricky Comba to centre to striker Jimi Aribido, who smashed the ball past Sgarbossa.

Already trailing, Toronto were still unable to move the ball forward, owing to Carleton’s incessant pressing and proficient tackling. The Ravens continued to threaten in attack, forcing the Blues to camp inside their own half. Carleton’s attacking organization repeatedly bypassed an inattentive backline, and they could easily have scored one or two more goals in the first half.

Counterattacking opportunities for the Blues were far and few between, and lone striker Jae Jin Lee, positioned at the halfway line, lacked the pace and ball control to trouble Carleton. The Blues’ best chance would come in the 40th minute as second-year midfielder Anthony Sousa found himself in a pocket of space 20 yards away from the goal and unleashed a powerful shot that rattled the crossbar.

Toronto grew into the match in the second half and operated with more attacking freedom, as Carleton stopped pressing intently, happy to sit back and absorb attacks. The Blues’ most exciting moment came in the 57th minute as Sousa displayed smart ball control and managed a neat Cruyff turn to pass the ball beyond three surrounding Ravens players, but, like most of their forays, the attack fizzled out harmlessly.

In the 71st minute, Carleton forward Dario Conte sliced the ball across the field, splitting Toronto’s defense yet again and allowing substitute Stefan Karajovanovic to easily chip the onrushing Sgarbossa and make the score 3–0. Karajovanovic almost scored again in the 77th minute after intercepting a terrible pass from fourth-year defender Kenny Lioutas, but he blazed the shot wide of the net.

This second consecutive defeat for the Blues emphasized their ineffective attack and lack of ideas against teams with strong, organized defenses.

The Blues will hope that Wadden returns from injury sooner rather than later to provide a much-needed pressing and positioning-based dimension in their attacks.

Blues women’s lacrosse earn unbeaten home weekend

Blues trounce York Lions 21–4, draw Trent Excalibur 10–10

Blues women’s lacrosse earn unbeaten home weekend

The Varsity Blues women’s lacrosse team (WLAX) played its lone homestand of the season, as Varsity Stadium played host to several Ontario University Athletics WLAX matches on September 15.

The Blues entered the weekend tied for fourth place in the OUA with a 1–1 record, after opening the season with a 14–8 loss against the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks and a 6–2 victory over the Guelph Gryphons.

Toronto easily dominated York in every area of the game to earn a commanding 21–4 victory.

Despite the early 8:30 am start time, the late summer humidity was felt from the opening faceoff.

The Blues started the match with eight unanswered goals. Attacker Sarah Morgan played a vital role in the Blues offense, coordinating attacking plays from the right wing. Brynne Yarranton and Mary Frost each scored five goals to lead Toronto.

York attacker Sonya Mwambu was the lone bright spot for the Lions, using her tremendous speed to penetrate Toronto’s defense.

The heat and humidity only got higher ahead of Toronto’s second game of the day. Players from the Queen’s Gaels and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology Ridgebacks attempted to beat the heat and relax between matches by taking naps on the concourse, an effective barricade from the sun.

Toronto’s match against the Trent Excalibur was an intense showdown featuring two sides unable to break away from each other, ultimately ending in a 10–10 tie. Trent opened the scoring two minutes into the match and Yarranton promptly answered back for the Blues.

After a strong performance against York, Blues goalie Sierra Watkins had a rough first half as Trent mounted pressure and used cutters to create space in front of Toronto’s goal. Watkins looked more confident in the second half, as the Excalibur fired a flurry of shots toward goal.

Yarranton picked up where she left off against York, netting another five goal performance. Fellow attacker Heather McDougall added four goals for Toronto, and Frost rounded out the scoring with one goal.

Fans, including players from the Blues men’s lacrosse team, stood and cheered during the dramatic final two minutes of the match.

Trent pressed forward and Watkins stopped a shot from point blank range. After possession changed, Yarranton ran toward goal, swerving between defenders and firing a low shot into the far corner to level the score at 10–10.

The play prompted a member of the male lacrosse team to exclaim, “Why aren’t any of our games this exciting?”

Trent committed a foul near their crease, providing the Blues with a prime chance to take the lead. But Toronto’s shot from close range fell just wide of the far post.

The Blues were able to regain possession but unfortunately, as their attackers circled the Excalibur goal and fans eagerly anticipated a game-winner, time expired for the Blues.

On the come-up: Erin Kelly on taking second-year by storm

The Blues striker is focused on finding the back of the net

On the come-up:  Erin Kelly on taking second-year by storm

Amidst the bustle of a Kensington diner, second-year Varsity Blues striker Erin Kelly scans the menu intently. She hums and haws and finally settles for the huevos rancheros, at the hasty recommendation of an impatient waitress.

After placing our order, Kelly stares across at me with apprehension, her fingers interlaced tightly. She can stall no longer.

She smiles nervously and fidgets in her chair. It’s obvious that she’s not in her element. “I can just start talking?” she asks.

The same cannot be said for when she’s on the field. After outplaying even the boys’ team in her hometown of Pembroke, Ontario, Kelly began making hour-long treks to nearby Ottawa in middle school to play striker on elite club teams, where she started every game and scored in most.

A healthy dose of natural talent set her apart from her small-town crowd: clocking in at a whopping six foot two inches and boasting a naturally-athletic build, some would chalk up Kelly’s success on the field exclusively to winning the genetic lottery, but those who know her would disagree.

Erin Kelly catches a small fish. PHOTO COURTESY of ERIN KELLY

“When you make that pass up top to her, you trust that she’ll get the job done, which she always seems to do!” says Blues goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis.

“She brings all of the characteristics one would need in a striker — tall, quick feet, technical, and the courage to take shots.”

Captain and fellow striker Chelsea Cheung adds that Kelly’s “athleticism and willingness to work are two of her greatest strengths [and] now in her second year, Erin has not only her strength and work ethic, but now experience to help her play a bigger role on the team.”

Many would say that it is Kelly’s ability to ‘see’ the field in terms of plays and a team in terms of individual strengths — what her forward counterpart Natasha Klasios calls having a “soccer brain” — that makes her stand out.

This ability to predict and analyze behaviours extends into her life off of the field: Kelly intends to major in Cognitive Science or Psychology, explaining simply that she “likes to understand people.”

“Personalities can definitely play a big role, and the first thing I think of… is [with] coaching staff too, and how you get along with coaches and your relationship with coach and player.”

Teammates appreciate her ability to predict their plays as well. “She… makes everyone around her feel ten times more comfortable, which is critical in the game of soccer,” says Staggolis.

However, Kelly admits that it was this same analytical perspective that held her back in her rookie season. “In the home opener last year, I hit a crossbar. And I think that’s the closest I ever got [to scoring], because I wasn’t in my head. I wasn’t overthinking it,” she recalls.

From there, she says the pressures of starting on a varsity team as a rookie, combined with her tendency to overthink, started to get the best of her. “I think I lost sight a little bit of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, and got caught up in expectations for myself, imposed by myself,” she reflects.

This year, Kelly has discovered that this intrinsic pressure to prove herself, a reflexive mentality that has stayed with her from the beginning of her athletic career as a young soccer star on the boys’ team, doesn’t always have to be a source of anxiety.

“I had to prove myself just because I was a girl,” she admits. “And of course, the transition to elite soccer in Ottawa and then again to the OUA [Ontario University Athletics] with the Blues, gives me constant reminders that there’s really good women’s soccer being played out there, and to strive to improve every day.”

Kelly is intent on using her previous source of anxiety as a source of strength and motivation.

Erin Kelly stares intensely at the ball. PHOTO by MARTIN BAZYL, COURTESY of THE VARSITY BLUES

This shift in perspective is what she believes will keep her on an upwards trajectory throughout her second year of varsity sports, and toward scoring her first goal for the Blues. “I never went in with a can-do attitude and I was hoping for the best, instead of expecting the best of myself… That is different this year.”

Anyone watching closely enough would concur. With plenty of chances in the Blues home opener against Trent, Kelly seems closer than ever to her debut varsity goal. It all seems to boil down to an epic leap in confidence and an improved understanding of her place on the field.

Though with a positional counterpart like Natasha Klasios, who ranked ninth in the OUA league with nine goals in 2017 and represented Canada at the 2017 Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU) Summer Universiade in Taipei, it’s understandable why Kelly was self-conscious as a rookie.

“When I joined the program I had heard a lot about Tash,” she admits, “but she actually wasn’t there when I started because she was competing at the FISU Games.”

This ultimately worked to Kelly’s advantage because she got invaluable time on the field as a rookie, allowing her to find her footing as a striker on the Blues. This year, she intends on working on her partnership with Klasios.

“We are trying to work as a pair to create chances for each other,” says Kelly.

Klasios agrees. “We are definitely continuing to get in sync with one another… As we link up more in future games, hopefully she’ll be feeding me the ball behind the lines and also the reverse — me playing Erin in behind the lines.” Kelly is also confident that this partnership will be fruitful, saying that Klasios is “a great person to learn from.”

Despite heaps of drive and natural talent, Kelly is quick to attribute the support from her teammates and coaches for her improvements — especially the older girls on the team. For example, Kelly spoke very highly of Cheung: “She’s a great leader to the entire group, and especially because we do have a lot of younger players this year, so that’s important.”

In general, Kelly seems to be constantly seeking ways to improve her game and to become an even more powerful asset to the team. “It’s good to learn from [the older girls], so I have the foresight to see how quickly the time can pass and what I can do in that time,” she says.

By constantly improving, Kelly has high hopes for herself and for her team. When I ask if she thinks that the Blues can make it to the OUA quarterfinals this year, she smiles confidently.

“Our captains Julia, Tash, and Chelsea are all leading us in the direction we need to go to. The thing is, once you get yourself into the playoffs, anything can happen. It’s about getting there.”

And of course, there’s the ever-pressing issue of scoring her first Varsity Blues goal. “I have more confidence and I know what I’m capable of, and I’m hungrier,” says Kelly.

Fair warning to the other teams.

The importance of athletes giving back

LeBron James’ I Promise School speaks to the current era of athletic star power

The importance of athletes giving back

In late July, NBA superstar LeBron James made international headlines after opening his I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The public elementary school, created to assist at-risk youth, offers free tuition, college funding for all students who graduate, an extended school year to keep children engaged in their schoolwork, and a food pantry for parents, as well as many other resources for students and families — all free of cost.

LeBron’s initiative comes in the wake of Fox News reporter Laura Ingraham’s comment earlier this year that LeBron and fellow NBA superstar Kevin Durant should stay away from political commentary and social issues, and “shut up and dribble.”

Ingraham received widespread criticism over the remark, as sports fans, politicians, and media figures reaffirmed the widely held position that athletes have the right to speak up on issues they see as important and to use their wealth and stature to give back to communities in need. Since the incident, examples of social awareness and altruism in sports have gained much more attention.

LeBron’s peer, WNBA star Tina Charles, is one of these examples. For the third season in a row, New York Liberty’s centre has donated her entire salary to her own organization, which is aimed at combating sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), the number one cause of death in the United States. Charles’ efforts have made external defibrillators accessible for thousands more people, thus decreasing the chance of death due to SCA from 90 per cent to 10 per cent.

Canadian Olympic icon Clara Hughes, the only Olympian in history to win multiple medals at both the Winter and Summer games, has been working for years to help end the stigma around mental illness. As the national spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk, Hughes has assisted in bringing over $7 million to the cause of eliminating the stigma around mental health in Canadian communities.

Fellow Canadian and NHL winger Jordin Tootoo, the first person of Inuit background to play in the NHL, has created anti-bullying programs for Indigenous youth and communities through the Team Tootoo Fund. These programs also include raising awareness for suicide prevention and addiction in Indigenous communities. With Inuit suicide rates 11 times higher than the national average, the goal of the foundation is to provide Indigenous communities with proper mental health services, and to “get in front of kids about suicide prevention and let them know there are people who care.”

During the FIFA World Cup earlier this summer, 19-year-old French phenom Kylian Mbappé gained international attention after donating his entire national team earnings to Premiers de Cordée, a charity seeking to provide greater access to sports for children with disabilities.

Spanish professional soccer player Juan Mata also created the Common Goal initiative, which encourages players to donate a minimum of one per cent of their salary to charity. The initiative is in response to skyrocketing transfer fees in the soccer world, with the goal of introducing “social responsibility” to soccer by setting a realistic humanitarian goal that all players would be willing to participate in.

The goal is a minimum requirement that should be adopted by athletes in all sports, not just in soccer. Sports fans should not only celebrate social responsibility taken by athletes, but should encourage athletes to speak out on social issues and set an expectation for all professional athletes to make a commitment to humanitarianism.

Athletes serve as role models for entire cities and nations, and these tremendous stories of altruism could go far beyond sports by serving as inspirations for thousands of others to try and do something good for humanity.

Starting off the season with the Varsity Blues Field Hockey Team

Blues earn 2–1 victory

Starting off the season with the Varsity Blues Field Hockey Team

Blues midfielder Emily Ziraldo attempts to strike the ball and collides with Michelle Patterson. DANIEL SAMUEL/THE VARSITY

Blues defender Katherine Obst awaits Calgary’s attackers. DANIEL SAMUEL/THE VARSITY

Blues defender Julia Costanzo chases down Kenzie McMillan-Harrington sprinting toward goal. DANIEL SAMUEL/THE VARSITY

Blues midfielder Isabella Watson battles Dinos midfielder Meghan Norlander as Courtney Andrews and Julia Costanzo watch on. DANIEL SAMUEL/THE VARSITY