Picking sides

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

In a World Cup year and with the major finals across most major European sports fast approaching, Declan Hughes offers his thoughts on how neutrals can decide which side to pick.

In my last piece I discussed provincial allegiances. This topic was inspired by a question posed to me by a player, Irish international Leah Ewert from UCD, my favourite field hockey team, who was lining out for her native province Ulster in a competition against my native province later on in the Under 21 interprovincial tournament… “Who are you rooting for today?”.
In the previous article I explored the area of provincial allegiance, but Leah Ewert’s seemingly innocuous enquiry poses yet another question.

As 2014 is a year in which the Winter Olympics occurred in Sochi, Russia (Ireland only sent 5 competitors) and the World Cup takes place this summer in Brazil (neither the Republic nor Northern Ireland qualified), it poses yet another question in the area of allegiance.

Who do you root for, in major international sporting events, when you’re obvious choices are not taking part? Even within the provincial context as a Leinster man I feel quite comfortable rooting for other Irish provinces in rugby when they take on foreign opposition. Not a problem. They are Irish after all.

In the recent winter Olympics what few highlights I was able to take in, it was easy as a former resident of Canada, to choose an option and I rooted for them in most events. The exception, apart from the events including Irish participation, was curling.
I was introduced to curling while living in Canada via television. Each year about eight countries including Scotland, the USA and I think Denmark participated in a made for TV event called The Golden Broom, the Canadian skip during this was inevitably Don Duguid.

Indeed in the competition to select team Canada where the provincial teams took part as a resident of predominantly French speaking Quebec , they too were my team.

For some reason despite all this personal historical baggage associated with my former place of residence I found myself on a rare occasion rooting for Great Britain in this because essentially it was Scotland by another name. I also knew while they had a shot at medals, the Women were going to ultimately fall short to the Canadians and the men were about as competent as their female counterparts and unlikely to strike gold. Underdogs normally do it for me when all other criteria for choosing a team fall short.
World Cup 2014 however will be a different case in point. Neither Canada nor the two Irish representative sides made the finals. My Chilean born granny gives me a South American side to root for. My Egyptian born granddad, didn’t make it on either front as he was raised in Newtownards. But there’s something unnatural about not supporting a fellow continental side. In fact since we joined the EU it’s sort of incumbent to root for a fellow member state.

I found my other home in football long before I knew of the EU or indeed before Ireland joined this august association.
The first time I can ever recall watching soccer was in Montreal on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports show, in a friend’s house, back in June 1970. I was visiting my buddy Albert Ottoni and his family when highlights of the 1970 World Cup being held in Mexico. As my hosts were Italians it would have been rude to root for anyone else and the game I saw highlights from was the classic semi final 4-3 extra-time win over West Germany. I also saw highlights from the final where that amazing Brazil team danced on Italy by 4-1. That didn’t bother me, I was an Italy fan from then on.

When I took up the game on my return to Ireland, as a goalkeeper , Dino Zoff soon became a favourite player . And the 1974 World Cup where the team, who in 1973 were on form no.1 on the planet defeating England, Germany and Brazil in friendlies, bowed out in the group stages still didn’t discourage me. Neither did the defeat to two long range goals at the hands of the Dutch in Argentina 1978.

In 1974 once Italy were eliminated , I hitched my wagon to the Yugoslavian star and the mercurial wing wizard Dragan Dzajic. His club Red Star Belgrade also wormed their way into my affections and I was thrilled in 1991 when they were crowned champions of Europe. I was probably the happiest person without any Yugoslav ethnic connections in the world at the time. The Yugoslavs (later Serbs) have been default position no. 2 ever since.

I got my best buzz as an honorary Italian fan in 1982 when against the odds they beat the best four other countries in the tournament to win the World Cup in Spain. My favourite player Dino Zoff captained the side to ultimate glory. Short of your own country doing the trick, it doesn’t really get any better than that. Mexico 1986 was another disappointing tournament and in Italia 90 I was rooting for my native country for the first time till we lost 0-1, in a quarter-final, to the Azzuri.

They then in turn let me down, despite being the best man for man team in the tournament, by losing to Argentina in the semi-final.
By World Cup 1994 when Republic of Ireland beat the Azzuri 1-0 but also bowed out early I was happy to see Italy make the final but Roberto Baggio “ The Divine Ponytail” missed the crucial spot kick after a 0-0 to deny Arrigo Sacchi the biggest prize a coach can win in World soccer. The France World Cup in 1998 was disappointing and in 2002 the Italians were cheated out of advancing to the latter knockout stages , in a game against South Korea, by a referee who was found to be corrupt later on. Said individual is currently languishing in jail for low level criminal activity.

While I enjoyed seeing Italy win in 2006 and seeing Zoff’s logical successor Gianluigi Buffon captain the side it was probably the flukiest of Italy’s four World Cup wins. More disappointment followed in 2010 but I didn’t and wouldn’t give up on them.
In 2014 it will be no different I will still root for the Azzuri. So you know where I stand this summer. And I hope I have been able to explain to you why I made that call. Who will you be rooting for?

Ice Hockey’s knowledge war hits the playoffs

Friday, April 18th, 2014

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs under way, Zoe Coleman McNair looks at the struggle for acceptance of advanced stats in the NHL and breaks down the match-ups.

In 2012, the LA Kings barely scraped into the 8th seed in the Western Conference, and proceeded to practically cruise through the playoffs, only dropping four games before winning their first Stanley Cup. Everyone loves a Cinderella run, and the Kings’ story seemed to tick all the boxes, except one: had they really been an average team that got good when it counted, or a good team whose bad luck disappeared when it mattered?

The answer isn’t as clear cut as that, but it definitely leaned towards the latter, putting the Kings squarely into the middle of the advanced statistics debate – or as they’re known in hockey, ‘fancystats’. Unlike in baseball, where analytics are common, hockey media (and many team organisations) have been reluctant to embrace anything more advanced than the most basic statistics. Part of the problem is that unlike in baseball, which is more easily distilled down to a series of single events, hockey is a messy sprawl where multiple things are happening at once, making it that much harder to track.

The movement towards embracing fancystats is growing, even though the stats themselves are imperfect. The problem is that the stats used in hockey don’t really correlate exactly with a team’s record. Instead, they can be used to look at the underlying strengths and weaknesses of a team, and if a team’s record is outperforming their underlying numbers, the stats will show us where the eventual crash back to earth will come from. Unfortunately they can’t tell us when that crash will happen, so many have dismissed them as useless.

The most commonly referenced stats are Corsi and Fenwick, which (in slightly different ways) puck possession, counting how many shots are aimed towards/around the opposition’s net during a game. They tends to correlate with success, because the more times you aim the puck at the net the more chances it has to go in, and if you have the puck it means the other team can’t aim it at your net. PDO roughly measures how lucky a team is being, by taking two numbers that over enough time should add up to 100, and measuring how far above or below that a team is.

This year’s playoffs feature multiple teams whose positioning doesn’t correlate to their underlying numbers, which makes the early rounds ripe with potential upsets. Colorado have one of the best records in the league, finishing third in the regular season, but their possession stats are so bad that the only teams worse than them are outright terrible, and the only thing keeping them as alive as they are is both their goaltenders performing above and beyond. Montreal are ninth in the league though they’re barely ahead of Colorado in possession, but have the reigning Olympic gold-medal winner in their net, which has kept them alive enough to make the playoffs. Anaheim rode the second highest PDO to the top of the Western conference, but their possession stats don’t even break the top ten, which means they really don’t have any leeway for their shooting percentage (the amount of shots on goal that become actual goals) to regress very far before they could be in serious trouble, especially with a new question mark over their goaltending after their regular season starter put together a string of underwhelming performances.

The WWE and the GAA aka the 2020 vision

Monday, April 14th, 2014

What does scripted sports entertainment have to do with Gaelic Games aside from the obvious cynical digs? Oh nothing, just the road map for the future of broadcasting. Emmet Ryan explains.

The debate over the GAA’s deal with Sky didn’t take long to move on to the obvious question of what happens when the next deal comes up in 2017? Those opposed, or at least concerned, by Sky acquiring rights are asking what extra rights will go behind a paywall in three years’ time? This is the most pertinent and irrelevant question in the debate. The real issue at hand is where they will go.

There are three groups of players in the GAA rights war. The terrestrial broadcasters, like RTE and TV3, pay TV providers, like Sky and Setanta, and the rights holders themselves, in this case the GAA. As has been made abundantly clear the only two games protected for free to air broadcasters are the All-Ireland football and hurling finals. Sky could, if the GAA were willing, buy the rights to everything but those two games. There is a third option, rights retention.

Earlier this year the professional wrestling promotion WWE launched its own digital network, realising that a core subscriber base paying it directly could yield far more income than dealing with intermediaries. The company set a target of 1 million subscriptions by year end. It has already surpassed the 700,000 mark. While men in tights jostling to pre-arranged results may not seem like an immediately relevant business model, the US firm has taken a logical leap from formats established by professional sports leagues in North America. The NBA, NFL, NHL, and, most successfully, Major League Baseball all have digital offerings which are based heavily around partnerships with local broadcasters. All four leagues have owners willing to leave traditional intermediaries, aka TV channels, behind to sell directly to fans. Getting to that point requires bold moves, step forward the men in tights to lay a marker down.

Fundamentally this is about broadband and money, many things are about money but rights retention is a non-runner without good broadband. The infrastructure still isn’t there for a reliable live streaming service that won’t get fans and viewers complaining about buffering, eternal buffering. The WWE found this out with its broadcast of Wrestlemania and regular viewers of the services offered by LiveBasketball.TV, the main provider of Euroleague basketball, are well aware of the regular issues with their streams. If the infrastructure were there, this deal would have looked different. The difference between today and three years ago however is substantial. The difference between today and the broadband of three years from now even more so. By 2017 the possibility of selling games directly to fans without a middle man will be there. By 2020, the time of the subsequent deal, it will be hard to see the GAA not consider it a top priority.

Coffee with Creed: Episode 3 – Rocky III

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Like we could pick any other scene for the title image. Welcome once again to Coffee with Creed, our analysis of race and politics in the Rocky movies.

Emmet Ryan is joined by Paul Fennessy of TheScore.ie to discuss the contrasting portrayals of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang in the third instalment of the Rocky saga. Press play to hear their thoughts.


Sky Sports and the GAA, cui bono?

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

With Sky Sports purchase of the rights to 14 games per season over the next three years confirmed, Emmet Ryan looks at the wider implications for the market and its stakeholders.


The deal wasn’t exactly welcomed by fans online today, somewhat of an understatement, but in the wider context it’s understandable when you look at how the executive works today and how it has for the past two decades. Prior to the mid 1990s, there were only 6 live games certain to be aired annually. The early 1990s saw some dabbling with live games but mass TV coverage on any format, terrestrial or otherwise, is less than 20 years old.

From the executive perspective, we’ll get to the non-executive below, their objective is to find the deal that best fits their stakeholders. Putting 14 games behind a paywall may not seem like the logical approach but there are strong grounds for defence which, and this won’t make me many friends, hold up well. More than two thirds of inter-county games, including the bulk of the crown jewels (16 of the 18 most-viewed fixtures) remain free-to-air. In return one would expect the GAA to be getting a sizeable bump to their coffers which can be reinvested in the game, an issue that’s far from trivial given the issues facing some county boards and clubs. They gave up a relatively small amount of their property for a bump in TV money.


Of all the players here, Sky’s role actually makes the least sense on closer inspection. The initial appeal is obvious. Ireland punches above its weight in terms of market importance for Sky, the summer is a relatively quiet period for the broadcaster, and they can expect a subscription bump. The deal Sky have struck however doesn’t help them greatly on a deeper level.

The sum total of damage done to Sky’s competitors is nil. Every rights deal Sky makes or fights for now has to be taken in the wider context of their ongoing, albeit temporarily quietened, war with BT on the quad and triple play market. The consumer sees the front of that fight, between the two over sports, but every rights fight is a part of the clash over consumer broadband, telephony, and TV (triple-play or quad-play depending on whether you split the definition of telephony).

BT aren’t in that market in Ireland but, essentially in a form of guilt by not being Sky, UPC are the target for Sky in Ireland for this fight. UPC won’t be impacted in the slightest. If there was going to be a dedicated channel for GAA unavailable to UPC customers, as Sky have opted for with Formula 1, it would have been in the initial announcement. It’s likely, albeit not a certainty, that any plans of hiding games behind the red button would also have been made obvious by this stage.

The size of the potential subscription bump also merits scrutiny. They have locked down the quarter finals for the Ulster and Leinster champions for this year in football but, as I said above, Ireland already punches well above its market size when it comes to subscriptions. The gains here are negligible compared to a close-out option.

Coffee with Creed: Episode 2 – Rocky II

Monday, March 31st, 2014

In the second part of our series looking at race and politics in the Rocky movies, Emmet Ryan is joined by David Neary to discuss Rocky II.

This was the film where Apollo Creed, willingly or not, simply had to play the villain. In this episode we discuss how this was managed along with the change in portrayal of Italian-American characters for the better.


Coffee with Creed: Episode 1 – Rocky

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Welcome to a new series here on Action81.com. Coffee with Creed takes a look at race and politics across each of the Rocky movies.

Over the course of each episode I’m joined by a guest to discuss how these issues were addressed in each of the Italian Stallion’s movies. The title is named for the unique, especially for his era, character of Apollo Creed. Albeit inspired heavily by Muhammad Ali, Carl Weathers made the character much more than a caricature.

Watch the first episode where I’m joined by film archivist and critic David Neary to discuss the first movie in the series, Rocky.

Further analysis after the jump.

Is provincial loyalty really a thing?

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

While rugby makes it easy for sports fans to associate with their province, the lines are far more blurred elsewhere in sport. Declan Hughes discusses his experiences.

In early February 2014 I was at the under 21 Intervarsities hockey tournament being hosted at Grange Road home of Three Rock Rovers, and had just witnessed Ulster dispatching Munster by a 4-0 margin. Shortly after the match was over I met Leah Ewart who had just been playing for Ulster, her native province, in that match. Leah, plays her club hockey for UCD who I’ve supported across many sports for 33 years. Alongside Leah on the Ulster team was Katie Mullan, another UCD. Leah then asked me a question to which I had no answer at the time, “so Declan who are you rooting for today?” It got me thinking about the whole question of allegiance and whether one’s province has a pull on your affections the same way parish club, and county would in Gaelic games or indeed your local football team would in most normal countries.

Looking at my own situation, I am a born Dubliner, I have lived here continuously since I was 9, but my mother and two of my four grandparents were born in Northern Ireland. A third grandparent was raised in Newtownards so that gives 3 connections with the province of Ulster. On the Leinster interprovincial teams were three UCD players Emily Beatty, Sarah Robinson and Orla Macken. Connacht had goalkeeper Natasha Cooke and Elaine Carey.

Even Munster had a UCD player in their line-up so depending on a number of factors as a UCD fan I could have really supported any of the four provinces. My choice would have been down to which individuals I preferred. I was unable to attend the final day’s action in the tournament which would have seen me at the Ulster-Leinster clash and forced to make a call. But it begs the question how loyal are we to our provinces in Ireland?

Neil Francis, you’re not helping

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Neil Francis appeared on Off the Ball on Newstalk on Sunday along with Eugene McGee to talk about Joe Brolly’s column in the Irish Daily Mail on Sunday about Donal Óg Cusack, the retired Cork hurler who was the first GAA player to come out. Francis, winner of sports columnist of the year at the NNI awards last year, was asked about Michael Sam who aims to be the first openly gay player in the NFL.

I’ve transcribed some extended highlights from Francis’ appearance. I was going to use bold for emphasis but, yeesh, this page would be just in bold font if I did. Cheers to Balls.ie for posting the audio. My comments follow after the Francis quotes.

A tale of two hockeys

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Declan Hughes went to two games of hockey on opposite sides of the Atlantic with rather different atmospheres. From Belfield and the Bell Centre, here’s how Declan experienced his two favourite hockey teams.

When I was 3 years old my parents emigrated to Canada. The city they chose was Montreal. An unusual choice given, Montreal is the largest French speaking city outside of France, but my mother’s brother Séan had spent a year there as an architectural graduate. Anyway we lived there for six years and I started primary school there. We came back to Ireland when I was 9 years old and I didn’t return to Montreal for 37 years.

What brought me back to the city primarily was hockey or as people outside Canada call it ice hockey. I had the good fortune to live in Montreal during a period when the local NHL team the Canadiens won 4 Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1971. I had no contact of any kind with the game from 1971 to 1985 bar the few years we received yearbooks to update our encyclopaedia but even they stopped in 1981. In 1985 I replaced our old black and white television with a portable 14 inch colour one. I got a cable TV package and one of the stations available at that time was called Screensport. This UK based channel had the rights to show NHL highlights and I watched packaged from NHL On The Fly regularly on the station. They also showed the occasional live game and I had the pleasure of watching the 1986 Canadiens win a surprise Stanley Cup largely due to goalkeeper Patrick Roy standing on his head for the entire play off series. I was able to follow the exploits of the 1993 Stanley Cup winning side more closely as there was a lot of live hockey on that season but then Screensport was merged with British Satellite Broadcasting and eventually subsumed into Sky Sports and ice hockey all but disappeared from Cable TV and became exclusively a Premium Sports Channel product.

A few years later when internet access became widely available I was able to follow the NHL watching highlights online. I was then able to tune into listen to the odd game live online from radio stations based in Canada.

In 2007 I found a website online called Classmates.com. I scrolled down through the dropdown menus and discovered they covered Canada and had the province of Quebec and the city of Montreal. I was amazed to discover not only my old primary school but a couple of former classmates looking to find fellow alumni. I made contact with one named Karl and made a decision to revisit Montreal in 2008. It was the centenary season of the Montreal Canadiens whom I had never seen play live until that point. I found a hotel downtown online near the home venue to which they had moved in 1996 called The Bell Centre. The vast bulk of the 24 of Montreal’s Stanley Cup victories had been won in their former venue The Forum in Atwater which is now sadly a shopping mall although they tastefully contain several reminders of the venue’s former role.

Anyway in November 2008 some 37 years after we left the city I finally got to see Montreal take on the Buffalo Sabres. It was an amazing experience and one I have tried to replicate on each of my subsequent visits over the years.