Saturday we will witness the Greatest Match in Basketball History

Op-Ed written as an Assignment for my University of Westminster Sports Journalism Module. Written on March 16th, 2016.

When we cover sports, we are always fascinated by the ‘glorification’ of the past.

Maradona is better than Messi, Jordan is better than Bryant or Schumacher is better than Hamilton.

The 2015-16 edition of the NBA, the most spectacular Sport League in the World, is teaching us that New could be better.

Saturday night will mark Round Two of the ‘Warriors – Spurs Showdown’, a matchup that is rewriting several statistical and history books.

Basketball fans are starting to compare this duel to others that have made sports history.

Like England – Germany in Football or New Zealand – Australia in Rugby or Federer – Nadal in Tennis.

This new edition of the ‘NBA Saturday Primetime’ between Golden State and San Antonio will mark the Greatest Regular Season Match in NBA History.

Warriors and Spurs this season have won, combined, 88% of the games they have played.

Something that has no equal in the League’s 69 years of existence.

San Antonio is the ‘Tradition’.

A ‘Tradition’ that, as of today, is unbeaten in its own court.

No one, before them, had won their first 34 Home games in a NBA Season.

They have dominated these last two decades, pursuing perfection both on and off-the-court.

Since their Franchise Player, Tim Duncan, joined the team in 1997, they have the best winning percentage in all the four American major sports (Basketball, American Football, Hockey and Baseball).

Duncan, in these years, has led the winningest Trio in NBA History.

An International one: he is from the Virgin Islands, and his sidekicks have been the Argentinian Manu Ginobili and the French Tony Parker.

Tim, Manu and Tony have won together almost 700 NBA Games.

Better than any Trio in League History.

Where there is tradition, often there is continuity: since December 1996 the Spurs are led by Gregg Popovich, one of the two coaches in NBA History to have won more than 1,000 games with the same Franchise.

The Spurs Legacy is something that goes beyond simple matches: today’s NBA is filled by Coaches or Managers that somewhere have written, in their CVs, ‘Employer: San Antonio Spurs’.

That is because the Texan Franchise is able to plan and build with an incredible cleverness.

An example of that is Spurs’ next Franchise Player.

Despite being only in his 5th season in the Association, Kawhi Leonard is already one of the three men to have won both the Defensive Player of the Year Award and NBA Finals MVP.

Leonard is in an elite company: the other two in that category are Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan, the Greatest Player of All Time.

Tim, Manu, Tony, Gregg and Kawhi, together with other great Spurs players in multiple-time All Star LaMarcus Aldridge, veterans David West and Boris Diaw or key players as Danny Green and Patty Mills,  will approach Saturday’s game with one desire: Revenge.

In their only matchup so far in the season (Spurs and Warriors will meet twice in the Regular Season final week in mid-April), Golden State have forced their opponent to their worst loss of the season with a final score of 120-88 that leaves no objections.

This is one of the reasons why, after Leicester City in Football, the Golden State Warriors are now the best story in Sports World.

Because they are simply changing the whole concept of Basketball as we know it.

Today the Dubs can exhibit the best start in NBA history after the first 67 games, with 61 wins.

It may seem redundant, but the superlative has been used quite often in this 2015-16 season for the Californian team.

Best Season Start in NBA History, Best Record at the All Star Break, Best Record for a debutant coach in his first two seasons.

And, last but not least, the Best Player in the NBA today in Stephen Curry.

Many people thought that, after an MVP Season last year, he had reached his peak.

But as we are now seeing, the sky is the Limit for Dell Curry’s son.

As of today, Warriors’ iconic guard has converted 330 3-Pointers. Before Stephen Curry, no player in NBA History had scored more than 270 long-distance shots in a Full Season.

But Steph’s historical run is not only made by his shooting ability.

As of today, Curry is having the best ‘after-MVP’ Season in NBA History. His Player Efficiency Rating, a Statistic that measures the successful impact of a player in a team, has no comparison in Basketball’s History.

No Basketball Team is great for having just one legendary player.

For that reason, Warriors’ true success is explained by the so-called Splash Brothers. Klay Thompson, son of former NBA Champion Mychal, is the perfect ‘Robin’ to Bat-Curry, or Dr Watson to Stephen Holmes.

His constant shooting and scoring effort played a huge role in making Golden State’s backcourt into one of the Greatest in NBA History.

As we have seen before, NBA’s Legacy is made by ‘Trios’, or Big Three.

The third, in Warriors’ case, is Draymond Green.

First time All Star this year, Golden State’s big man is the best forward in all NBA for assists, and his efficiency and versatility makes him a hard matchup for the other 29 League teams.

Golden State is on the run for beating the NBA All-Time Winning Record for a Season, established by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls with 72 wins (and 10 losses) exactly 20 years ago. San Antonio is on the pace too for a 70-wins season.

Task will be harder than the usual for the Dubs, due to the injury to their reigning Finals MVP in Andre Iguodala, the perfect veteran player.

If you’re wondering if there has ever been an NBA Season with two teams winning at least 70 games, the answer is simple: Never.

Round one of this incredible matchup, played in January, marked historical television viewing numbers in the US.

Round two, at this stage of the season, with these records on the line and the current teams form, could turn out into the Greatest Basketball Game Ever Played in History.

How will we cover Sports in 2020?

Feature written as an assignment for the Sports Journalism module at University of Westminster. To reflect about the possible future of Sports Journalism, I’ve presented three ‘detailed’ cases of the category from my home nation, Italy, explained in first-hand by interviews I personally conducted between the 20th and the 22nd of February.

Since the Closing Ceremony of London 2012 Olympics, Sports Journalism’s landscape has changed out of all recognition, due mainly to the boom of Digital and Social Media.

How will it be by the time of the next Games, Tokyo 2020? We try to answer that question by looking at the path and possible future of three bright examples of Sports Journalism in Italy.

Globalising a Thematic Network

24 hours Live Channels have changed the way Sports is covered in Television, giving the audience a full understanding of everything is going on with their favourite player or team.

But there is still is a niche able to give audiences and subscribers an absolute 24-hours Access to their favourite Football Team: the Thematic Channels.

alevilla mourinho
Alessandro Villa interviewing former Inter manager Jose Mourinho | Photo via Facebook

Our subscribers know that, for €9 per month, they’ll get access to literally EVERYTHING that involves Inter, from training to special features or interviews: that is a kind of coverage that can’t be matched by bigger players like SKY Sport”. Alessandro Villa, one of Inter Channel Presenters, has no doubt when it comes down to identify the recipe of success.

Since 2000, Inter Channel has always represented an important part of F.C. Internazionale: the important role played by former President, Massimo Moratti, in creating the network is the best example of that thesis.

What could be a sustainable future for these kind of channels? “In these last years”, Villa observes, “We started to think differently, creating more original content and working closer to the team. We will soon launch two new channels in China and Indonesia to extend our audience.”

Going Global and creating new exclusive content for an entirely different audience seems to be a smart way to success, especially if you look at Inter’s background and at the fact that, at the end, we’re still talking about a niche platform.

“Even if we’re watched by relatively few people”, Villa says, “My goal is to make a product for a potential 10 million viewers, and it always will be. We might start to create more digital content exclusively for Social Media or APP, but we will still be a niche. Our subscribers deserve the best possible product.”

Finding different path to success is vital for a Football Club Network, to minimise the impact of disappointing seasons from the team: “Although our effort and our work is the same regardless of results”, Villa concludes, “what is changed by results is the mood, our personal one and especially our audience one.”

Creating a Genre

It may be argued that, in the Digital Media Era, Radio seems like an outdated platform. That couldn’t be more wrong: if we look around, people tend to enjoy more audio than video products.

Considering that, it seems weird that in Italy, the country where Radio was invented, there wasn’t a sport-only Radio Station until five years ago.

Radio Sportiva
Radio Sportiva’s logo and slogan | Photo via Facebook

Radio Sportiva was a fresh idea five years ago”, says Dario Ronzulli, one of the Radio’s Presenters, “and it still is today, because at this stage we’re still the only Sport Radio in Italy.”

Mr Ronzulli has no doubt in identifying his Station’s main reason for success: “Whenever we’re covering a Live Event or simply commenting a performance on one of our Programs, we give the audience the chance to join the talk with WhatsApp messages: they both boost our listeners’ ego and provide us with more Talking Points.”

Radio Sportiva almost entirely airs from its studios in Prato, Tuscany, and sometimes does some Live Coverage of Football or Basketball matches but, as Ronzulli reflects, has no intention to join the radiophonic rights market for any event: “It would deeply change our ‘perfect’ mix between ‘Breaking’ News and Coverage and Programming, it is not worth it to do that and changing our core structure.”

Sport’s Consumption is going towards an on-demand mood, like it is for TV Series or Movies: how can Radio Sportiva join this change? “The easiest answer”, Ronzulli concludes, “Should be ‘creating Podcast and On-demand contents’: I consider them vital for all Radio’s future, and I hope we will pursue that road in the near future.”

Does Size Matter?

From the previous two example, it may be argued that one of the recipes for success is also the ability, for the sport talk, to be short, concise and concrete. But in the US, a different style has emerged in the recent years, the Longform.

L’Ultimo Uomo’s cover for the acclaimed longform on José Mourinho | Photo via L’Ultimo Uomo

In 2013 a group of emerging online journalists founded L’Ultimo Uomo, an Online Magazine devoted to cover Sport in a different way from the mainstream one. “It was essentially started”, says Dario Vismara, Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief for Basketball, “bringing to Italy the ‘Grantland Example’: in an era where Sports Journalism goes towards shorter pieces, we try to bring to the audience the ‘longform’, and seeing if Italian audience is fascinated by that genre as we are.”

Even if Vismara joined L’Ultimo Uomo a year and a half after its foundation, you can see in his eyes the pride of being part of this great example of “New Journalism”.

The magazine started with a ‘grass-roots’ mentality”, Vismara continues, “in a pretty simple way: one piece for day, the text at the centre of the screen and nothing else. Our mission is to be, in every feature or profile, interesting, ironic, depth.”

L’Ultimo Uomo’s secret might be found, in addition to its narrative style, on the ‘average guys’ mood: only a few of its bloggers are professional journalists, but all contributors writes just to help people to understand what they see exactly how they do: they rarely attend Live Sport Events.

But how can an Online Longform Magazine survive in the Social Network Era? “Social Network are an opportunity, because a ‘casual’ reader will find us using them”, he says, “Our deep archive allows us to ‘relaunch’ an article if, for example, Ronaldo scores a hat-trick or LeBron James recorded a triple-double. That’s how you get a ‘casual’ reader.”

For L’Ultimo Uomo’s board and writers, the motivation essentially came from the ‘expert reader’: “He’s usually in our niche, and he represent a huge motivation for me”, Vismara says, “I have to be, on a general point of view, more informed and more prepared than him on that topic. That’s how you gain trust and ‘fellowship’

But Vismara is quite pessimistic about the future: “There’s a reason why Grantland has closed. Social Media created a ‘Numbers Hunting’, overshadowing the quality. Future is complicated, because people don’t read a lot in Italy, either about sport or on internet. We should then intercept this audience with new content, by video or Podcast.”

Palliativo Britannico?

Nonostante i risultati altalenanti a livello europeo (solo tre Champions League vinte dal 2000 ad oggi, con il 3° posto nel Ranking UEFA a rischio per i prossimi anni), la Premier League continua ad essere il campionato di calcio per club più ricco e attraente del mondo.

Il fascino del campionato inglese è decisamente elevato presso i media mondiali, e il nuovo contratto televisivo da oltre £5 miliardi di sterline (più di sei volte superiore a quello che è l’accordo TV per la Serie A italiana) che entrerà in vigore nella prossima stagione ha portato denaro fresco e abbondante nelle casse dei 20 club della massima serie.

Parallelamente, ha riacceso il dibattito attorno all’impressionante ed inarrestabile aumento dei prezzi dei biglietti allo stadio, che hanno creato un profondo cambiamento sociale nella composizione del tifo britannico.

Negli ultimi mesi, l’eco delle proteste di tifoserie come quella del Liverpool han fatto discutere sull’effettivo potere dei Fan nel contrastare questo fenomeno.

È in questo contesto che si inserisce l’accordo raggiunto stamattina tra i 20 club di Premier League che porterà, nelle prossime tre stagioni (quelle dell’accordo monstre), ad un tetto di massimo £30 per i cosiddetti Away Tickets, i biglietti per le partite in trasferta.

La misura è una risposta d’impatto alla campagna Twenty is Plenty, che promuoveva un tetto massimo inferiore, pari a £20 (poco più di €25). L’accordo unanime sulle £30 ha scongiurato una possibile spaccatura tra le società in caso di eventuale votazione, che si sarebbe svolta entro fine mese, sulle £20 volute dai tifosi.

Una domanda da porsi, a questo punto, dovrebbe essere la seguente: £30 è abbastanza?

Inizialmente sembreremmo propensi a dire di sì, specialmente guardando a questa tabella del Daily Mail, che mostra l’aumento degli Away Tickets delle 11 squadre di Premier League sempre presenti nella massima serie nelle ultime 20 stagioni.

Fonte: Daily Mail

Come si può vedere dalla tabella, l’aumento del biglietto delle squadre considerate è andato ben oltre qualsiasi tasso di crescita fisiologico dovuto all’inflazione.

Il caso più eclatante è, senza nessuna sorpresa, quello dell’Arsenal, che ha visto un per certi versi necessario aumento dei prezzi a seguito dell’inaugurazione, dieci anni fa, del suo Emirates Stadium.

Osservando meglio la tabella però si arriva a intuire come il tetto di £20 avrebbe rispecchiato in alcuni dei casi il potenziale prezzo odierno seguendo il tasso d’inflazione: in contrasto, alcune delle squadre (Tottenham, Southampton, Chelsea) già 20 anni fa si avvicinavano a quel prezzo “limite” oggi richiesto dai fan: in questi casi parliamo di squadre che 20 anni fa (ma anche oggi) avevano impianti relativamente piccoli, attorno ai 40.000 posti a sedere, con necessità quindi di ricavi anche sui biglietti “esterni”.

L’accordo collettivo rimpiazza, almeno momentaneamente, il cosiddetto ASI (Away Supporters’ Initiative): una serie di contributi economici (dal valore minimo totale di £200.000 a squadra) previsti dai 20 club di Premier per gli Away Supporters dal 2013-14, data di partenza dell’attuale contratto televisivo (di valore inferiore del 71% rispetto al nuovo).

Le iniziative, in alcuni casi, prevedevano già tetti massimi ai prezzi (il caso dello Swansea e del’iniziativa “True for 22”), accordi di reciprocità (con protagonista in questo caso il Newcastle), trasporti gratis o agevolati (anche in aereo) per alcune delle partite della stagione o sconti fissi (tra i £4 e i £5) sul prezzo del biglietto in trasferta applicato dalla squadra ospitante (è il caso di club più blasonati come Arsenal, Liverpool e Manchester United).

È tuttora poco chiaro se le agevolazioni dell’ASI continueranno ad essere applicato, singolarmente o collettivamente, da parte dei club di Premier League (l’Arsenal ha già confermato lo sconto di £4, stabilendo quindi un tetto di £26 al prezzo di tutti gli Away Tickets).

È altrettanto dubbio quanto l’accordo possa rappresentare da apripista a una riduzione anche per quanto riguarda i prezzi dei biglietti casalinghi e degli abbonamenti stagionali.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.06.21
Fonte: Premier League

La Premier League, per evitare che tutto questo sia semplicemente considerato un palliativo, un semplice contentino per i tifosi, deve quindi far in modo che l’accordo di oggi sia un punto di partenza (e non di arrivo). In questa direzione il prossimo passo potrebbe essere l’istituzione di un Season Away Ticket, misura che testimonierebbe la crescita della collaborazione tra i 20 club di Premier.

In caso contrario, sarà dura non vedere l’accordo come un Image Cleaning da parte dei club di Premier League dopo le reazioni negative alle voci sulla futura Superlega Europea.