Football and the NFL

A Beautiful Game

The game of (American) football may be one of the most inscrutable popular pastimes ever devised. Unlike other games, such as baseball or cricket, which test athletes’ finesse and timing, or like basketball or (association) football, which are mainly contests of stamina, American football is subject to chaos like few other sports. In some ways, it’s the purest real-world realization of the concept behind J.K. Rowling’s wizard’s chess.

For football teams playing at a high level, each play is a match of wits between the offensive and defensive coordinators. Both rely on schemes designed to create and take advantage of mismatches, and for both — this is important — the scheme has to be developed around the available talent. (This is of course true in any sport, but even more so in a sport as complex as football, where, say, a single blown coverage assignment results in a sack.)

This is not to say the sport is easy on its players. In fact, part of its draw is its strange combination of finesse and brutality, of beautifully executed plays like deep throws contrasted with setbacks like sacks. It is, in essence, life in 60 minutes on a field.

And a huge part of that is the need to cooperate in football. In most goal sports — like basketball or association football or hockey — giving the ball (or puck) to the most athletically gifted talent on your team is usually a good way to win games. The Lakers were the most dominant team of the early 2000s because they had Kobe Bryant. (Traitor.) The Bulls were the mid-90s’ most dominant team because they had Michael Jordan. Wherever Wilt the Stilt went, his team was dominant. And so on.

Quarterbacks — football teams’ offensive leaders — are, by contrast, not necessarily the most athletically dominant person on the field. In fact, player roles are so varied that it’s hard to say who, exactly, the most athletically dominant person on the field is. Players like Brian Dawkins or Warren Sapp, who set themselves apart by their athletic dominance even for their positions, are at least as rare to come by as their counterparts in other professional sports. Instead, quarterbacks exert leadership by being intellectually dominant — the most skilled person on the field.

The best quarterbacks have to absorb, analyze, evaluate, and act on a tremendous amount of information, all in a jaw-droppingly short time. They have to communicate the play they’re supposed to be running from their coaches to their teammates. They have to read the opposing defense and adjust as they see fit. Sometimes, they’ll even change the play at the line of scrimmage — Peyton Manning excelled at this kind of cerebral quarterbacking. And they have to do all of this in the half-minute or so allotted between plays.

Stereotypes aside, it’s not at all surprising that football is becoming an increasingly international sport. For all that soccer styles itself the beautiful game, there is something truly beautiful in the way a football game is play — something truly beautiful in the way, any given game day, an athletically inferior team can dominate an athletically superior one, through smart coaching and smart play.

Outside the US (and Canada)

The NFL is largely saturated in its core markets. Theoretically, any 2-million-man metropolis can support an NFL team, and most of them have one. The only place the NFL can go, therefore, to expand its product and its brand is out of the US.

Canada has the CFL. There was a time, a while ago, when the CFL ran an American division that largely concentrated on those media markets the NFL ignores — cities like Memphis, Salt Lake, and Las Vegas. So, if not Canada, where else?

The answer has, increasingly, been London. It seems like two minor NFL teams play in London any given week. Wembley is regularly sold out for these affairs. (They’ve also been looking at Mexico City.)

The problem with this, however, is that — it’s London. There’s a 6-hour time difference between there and anything on the East Coast, a significant logistical hurdle. Mexico City represents a natural place for the NFL to begin franchising because games between “Aztecs” and NFC/AFC West teams on a regular schedule are feasible. The solution to this quandary is almost certainly a British league of some kind.

A “BFL”

British athletics have long operated under promotion and relegation — good teams rise to the top while bad ones sink down. It’s an effective system for managing parity (for the most part) while allowing managers to dream title dreams.

This is, in all likelihood, unworkable for a British American football league, however. There are few cities that can profitably support such a team to begin with; a deeper problem is that the support infrastructure (layers and layers of progressively more minor leagues) isn’t remotely as extensive for American football.

In fact, there are just three conurbations with more than two million people in the British Isles: London, Manchester, and Birmingham. If we’re generous and ask about urban areas with more than one million, there are just three more: Dublin (actually just shy of 2m), Leeds — yes, Leeds — and Glasgow. That’s six cities.

Let’s take a look at the other end. An eight-team league would have optimal scheduling: the league is split into two 4-team divisions, playing division rivals twice, the other division once, and an alternating slate with one of the NFL divisions (4) teams for a 12-game schedule. The division winners would then play each other for the championship.

So we can put two teams in London — of opposite divisions, of course — and then one each in Manchester, Birmingham, Dublin, Leeds, Glasgow, and … somewhere else. (Liverpool? Belfast?)

There is a subtle beauty in this system. First of all, eight teams is probably the smallest you can field to maintain a competitive league (at least, in American football). Second, you guarantee that each team plays an NFL team twice at home each season. This serves two roles — two games that are guaranteed sellouts for every BFL team every season (c’mon, a mediocre AFC South divisional game sold Wembley out this year), and secondly, a degree of legitimacy for the expansion teams (because they are given the opportunity to win against NFL teams). It’s an excellent setup for converting known intermittent popularity into permanent new fanbases.

It’s also an expandable system. Is the BFL entrenched and profitable? Perfect, let’s launch the same program in France — Italy — the Iberian peninsula — greater Germany — and so on. Something similar can be applied in Latin America and the Far East. Over time, the Super Bowl simply becomes the oldest of a set of regional championships and a dedicated world championship is needed.

But the thing is — whatever your opinions about the game — as a business, the NFL needs to expand its markets, sustainably. And that means figuring out how to develop secondary leagues abroad. It’s already a continental-scale league as things stand.

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Switch Thoughts

Last week, Nintendo announced their next-generation console: the Switch.

Nintendo is in an intriguing position in the console wars — technically, the Wii U was the first console of the current generation, which makes the Switch the last console of its generation. By having two consoles out in a single generation, Nintendo now has a clear innovation edge on its competitors. The Switch will have to compete with the PS4 and Xbox One for, most likely, its entire run.

Like the Wii, though, the Switch is something different. Sony and Microsoft consoles are little-changed from the strategy that won them success in the late 1990s and early 2000s: being little more than stripped-down gaming towers. But the Switch is a bipartite system with a console component and a mobile component. This alone makes its competitors look dated, if not outright obsolete.

The core of the system is a thin tablet. Augmenting that are four key peripherals: (1) the dock, which functions as a hybrid charging port/TV data transmitter (probably with 720p-1080p upscaling), (2) left and (3) right “Joy-Con” controllers, and (4) a Joy-Con grip. (A fifth peripheral is a Pro Controller that looks visually identical to the ergonomic Xbox controller layout.)

After the primary tablet unit, the Joy-Cons are the Switch’s second most arresting feature. They can be slotted into the dummy grip for console play, or into either side of the Switch itself to play like a classic mobile gaming system. They can also be used independently, like the Wii’s motion-based control layout, or even be split into two controllers for local multiplayer. This gives the basic system unparalleled versatility, natively supporting every gameplay style any Nintendo game has ever used.

Except for one. The Switch doesn’t seem to currently support DS-like gameplay.

The Switch’s Potential

My goal here, however, is to suggest a potential design philosophy behind the Switch. Obviously, the semi-mobile platform makes traditional console gaming obsolete. It implies that the next video game generation will see the merger of the Xbox and Surface, and between the Playstation and Xperia, as the most effective way to compete with the Switch and its derivatives. That is: the Switch is leading the way in a tablet-console merger.

Here we must ask what the Switch will run on. Initiating the merger is one thing; following through, quite another. Nintendo must be well aware the kind of mergers the Switch will precipitate — PC and Xbox games will merge, and Sony’s Xperia tablet line will by necessity run Playstation games. A video game system that looks like a tablet is different from a tablet system that plays video games, and Nintendo’s competitors will be able to offer the latter. What about Nintendo?

A huge part of this will hinge on the OS. While Android is the dominant smartphone OS, the tablet game is a 3-way race between it, iOS, and Windows. And Nintendo has little brand recognition as a generalized tech company the way Apple does. That is: a custom OS essentially locks the Switch (and its successors) into a video game system that looks like a tablet, but an Android-based OS makes it a tablet that plays video games — a critical competitive edge once the innovation’s worn off.

The reason is: running Android unlocks a lot of doors with relatively limited downside. With it, the Switch automatically comes with full access to Google Play and its wealth of apps. Without it, Nintendo must either develop substitutes in-house or admit that, at the end of the way, the Switch is fundamentally a toy. With it, your Switch becomes the only tablet you ever need carry with you. Without it, it’s sharing space with your favorite Windows/iPad/Droid tablet.

Yes, running Droid raises the specter of easily-ported games. But this can be overcome with a custom peripheral that the games themselves are loaded on to — is this the reason behind the cartridge’s return? But consider this: Porting games is essentially a rewriting job. For the last three generations or so, Nintendo has lagged in the porting game because of its often-inferior specs, a deal-breaker in a market where porting a game is expensive.

Running the Switch on Android makes porting games cheap. Not in this generation, but the next, when the Playstation and Xperia are likely to merge. A third-party title written for the Switch can have its core be built around a generalized Android release, with extra features for the Switch’s unique capabilities. Switch games become, in this environment, Android games with extra features. And, if Playstation games soon follow, this leaves the Xbox at a tremendous disadvantage: while it may be cheap to port releases for Nintendo and Sony (remember, they’re the same core for the same OS in the same languages, just with slightly different specs, storage media, and peripherals in mind), it’ll be tremendously expensive to do so for Xbox (same core on different OSes in different languages for similar specs, storage media, and peripherals).

Needing to spend less on tedious porting overhead, Japanese developers — those most inclined to eschew the Xbox — have a competitive advantage in this environment, while American ones — who usually have to co-develop for Sony and Microsoft to begin with — have a competitive disadvantage. There is a very real risk embedded in the Switch that Microsoft becomes the 2000s Nintendo of the 2020s — dependent on its first- and second-party IP, as few new third-party houses are willing to expend the resources on developing for both it and its Japanese competitors.

A Path Forward for Nintendo

If the Switch is a true tablet, what does that imply for the DS? Nintendo has some twenty-five years of portable device experience embedded in its Game Boy/DS product line, long the most dominant in the market. And recall that the Switch does not seem designed to support DS-style gameplay (where the Wii U was an experiment to bring it to the console).

There are a lot of companies that run phones and tablets. Apple may be the most famous, with its iPhones and iPads, but nearly every major Android smartphone maker also makes tablets. Windows tablets don’t have nearly the market reach Microsoft wanted precisely because most tablet makers develop their tablets from their phones’ core architecture — not from their towers’. (And how many makers even make towers anymore, anyway?)

Recall here that, while the Switch may be a mobile platform, it isn’t as mobile as the pocket-sized Game Boy/DS line. And if tablets are often matched with smartphones … hmm …

Phones and tablets usually have similar architecture bases. So an Android Switch isn’t just a well-positioned gaming tablet — it’s also the same basic architecture that you would need for a smaller platform. The 3DS is an aging system. Could we see a “Nintendo Phone” in the cards?

It really makes sense, if you think about it. A Nintendo Phone gives them presence in the smartphone/tablet market that computer-derivative devices are converging on. It forces Sony to essentially integrate similar functionality into its smart-devices. And it deals Microsoft another setback — the Windows Phone’s failure still stings — as it’s unable to fully migrate to the new video-game-enabled devices that Nintendo is producing.

Moreover, the Nintendo Phone gives full capability for single-screen touchscreen games. And it works as a second-screen peripheral for the Switch. With its own miniaturized Joy-Cons, the Nintendo Phone and Switch can work in concert to produce DS-like gameplay

Two devices able to produce three (console/portable, touchscreen, DS) game types — as well as being go-to devices for your daily life. No doubt, Nintendo sees how Apple has achieved near-total vendor lock-in. How better to market your devices to similar effect when your killer apps are essentially built into your brand?

Negative Charisma

Perhaps one of the downside of republican governments is that their politics are dependent on charismatic politicians. Rule in republics is by the consent of the ruled (rather than by e.g. force, as in a dictatorship, or heredity, as in a monarchy), and every republican system — both historic and modern — has a periodic reaffirmation of that consent. This is an excessively technical and theoretical way of talking about elections.

Politicians depend on charisma to get elected and re-elected. An uncharismatic politician will never be able to convert oratory into votes. And charisma is not a learned skill: there is a distinct difference between naturally charismatic people and people who have learned to mimic naturally charismatic people. However, at the same time, all charismatic people — by simple dint of standing out in the crowd — will win both adorers and adversaries. In republics, having enough adorers to cancel out adversaries and then some is what gets you elected.

In 2007, the Huffington Post published an opinion piece suggesting that Hillary Clinton has “negative charisma”, in the sense that she has the opposite of charisma. He is right: Hillary is not exactly charismatic. She runs tough elections but is consistently highly rated once in office. For her, elections are — for all intents and purposes — a tedious chore to get through before returning to the real business of government, i.e. governing. She has largely succeeded so far by more skillfully mimicking naturally charismatic people than nearly anybody else in existence. But she is not naturally charismatic.

This is not, however, the sense I have in mind when I suggest “negative charisma”. If the positive effect of charisma is an innate ability to win friends and influence people, then the negative effect of charisma is an innate ability to win enemies and influence people. That is, a negatively charismatic person is someone whose natural charisma acts to their detriment rather than to their benefit. A negatively charismatic person is inherently, deeply self-sabotaging.

Donald Trump Is Negatively Charismatic

While the Constitution outlines the bare minimum to be qualified for the Presidency — according to Article II, a President must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, at least thirty-five years old, and an American resident for at least the past fourteen years — in practice we also expect our Presidents to have significant political experience, the ability to fund a campaign, and the charisma needed to win. Governors and Senators most frequently win major-party nominations for this reason. They fulfill both the implicit and explicit skillset needed for winning the Presidency, having successfully run for — and held — statewide office.

Obviously the septuagenarian New York-born Trump, who has held primary residency in Trump Tower’s penthouse suite for about as long as I’ve been alive, fulfills the Constitution’s explicit requirements. He does not fulfill the usual implicit requirements. He has never held public office — nor did he ever seek to prior to announcing his candidacy. CEO of an ostensibly real-estate company and media personality, he has never demonstrated the ability to hold public office of any sort, much less the most public public office in the US. Most “candidates” like him go away quickly, and if he was — indeed — running as a publicity stunt for his brand (as most in the media seem to think), he had no reason to expect the course of his candidacy to run any differently.

Something different happened. By tapping a regressive-populist core and running against a monumentally divided field, Trump was already galloping towards the nomination by the time Ted Cruz was able to mount a counterattack. It wasn’t enough. And so the Republican establishment, the whole infrastructure built around the declining Reagan coalition, had to grit its teeth and nominate someone who had — remember, with zero experience — developed an Appalachian coalition with extensions into the Old South’s unreconstructed whites and North’s undereducated ex-workforce. Of these, only one voting block was even R when Reagan was President.

This is evidence of powerful natural charisma. But for the negatively charismatic, the self-sabotage kicks in long before the ultimate goal is reached. And it’s inextricably linked to their personality. See, charisma requires treating other people as people to work. Outside of other white males, Trump can’t do that. He has repeatedly demonstrated failure to connect to people emotionally — a recent New York Times opinion piece suggests he has “narcissistic alexithymia” (not an easy-to-spell word!), an “inability to understand or describe the emotions in the self”. And so Trump treats people who do not look like him like, well, objects.

Consider the way he keeps referring to African-Americans as “the blacks”. Not just “blacks”. The blacks. Consider what he is saying, at a deep level. The English definite article is a subtle demonstrative — it points out. It selects an object, or class of objects. Not “some blacks”. “The blacks.” In doing so, Trump is quite literally distancing himself from black people. He is saying, implicitly, that he does not, at a fundamental level, consider black people, well, people — English actually has (at least) two noun classes, and the class that refers to other people behaves quite differently than the one that refers to (inanimate?) objects like, say, rocks. Trump refers to African-Americans more like rocks than people, and in so doing, casts a noun-class distinction that we never realized was there into stark distinction.

At least he refers to women as people! It’s too bad his interest in them begins and ends with their appearance and genitalia. In Trump’s own little world, we can see a clear class progression, with white males at the top of the hierarchy, white females are naturally inferior but useful for *cough* certain tasks *cough*, and nonwhites — who might as well not even be human. This is fertile ground for rapidly building a populist coalition, one that may well only hold together as long as he’s leading them, but it flies in the face of the reality that is American demographics.

This is how charisma turns toxic. Real estate development was — and, in many ways, still is — a bit of an old boys’ club. Even a personality-driven show like The Apprentice can — and quite obviously did — mask elements of media personalities that would harm ratings. There is a reason why Trump is the world’s oldest adolescent. His dad was rich enough and he was just good enough a businessman to indulge in puerile power fantasies long past their natural sell-by date. His ephebophilia actually means his women, such as they are, are the ones with “sell-by dates”. Trump has never, in his life, ever needed to learn how to interact with other people as people and not mere tools.

Hillary is uncharismatic because she doesn’t intuitively know how to interact with other people as people. She knows this is important and works hard to overcome this weakness. But Trump has negative charisma because he does intuitively know how to interact with other people as people — what he does not see, or understand, is why it’s important. And it’s biting him in the ass.

EDIT 10/25: Note: I wrote this post just before Trump’s sex-assault allegations went public.

Lessons from Philadelphia Media

Philadelphia is shockingly barren of hard-hitting investigative journalism. The dominant newspaper, the Inquirer (locally the “Inky”) prefers to sit back, generally focusing its limited investigative resources on police issues. This is useful in its own way — because local media have a long history of holding the Philadelphia Police Department to the fire, police brutality issues here seem not to be as severe as those in e.g. Baltimore or St. Louis — but at the same time it has cast deep shadows for political corruption. Meanwhile, attempts at creating an alternative to the Inky (often with an investigative focus on political corruption) have not met with sustained success.

Perhaps the longest-lasting, the alternative weekly City Paper, sold to the much less interesting, but more profitable, alt-weekly rag Philly Weekly a few years back and was excised from existence. City Paper had been — by far — the best source for local political news, and its writing pool easily boasted the best journalists in the city. After it went under, attempts at online platforms intensified. Patrick Kerkstra led the charge at Philadelphia magazine, developing a suite of daily blogs that mimicked newspaper sections — the front page, sports, real estate — and poaching the city’s best reporting talent (mostly from the recently-defunct City Paper) to run them. Meanwhile, PlanPhilly‘s erstwhile editor, Matt Golas, got local PBS affiliate WHYY to pick it up, and began reorganizing both it and WHYY’s Northwest Philly-focused outlet, Newsworks, into a journalism platform to rival the Inky’s.

Despite City Paper‘s untimely departure, the future of Philly investigative journalism — at least online — looked fairly bright in mid-2015.

Then — just as his efforts at WHYY were bearing fruit — Golas was forced out in late 2015. Kerkstra would follow a year later, as Philly mag’s showrunners decided to go in a different direction, favoring advertiser-pleasing copy over high-readership stories. That fallout has only just begun. And Philadelphia is left bereft of a high-quality investigative-journalism outlet — again.

Despite generations of reporters trying to change it, Philadelphia’s status quo has never favored investigative journalism. The “corrupt and content” city’s dominant paper, for more than a century, was the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (often shortened to just the “Bulletin”). As its name implies, it never seems to have had much interest in investigative journalism, favoring instead a role as the dominant party machine’s mouthpiece. The Inky was merely a distant #2.

This all changed in the 1970s, when Knight Papers bought the Inky and heavily invested in it, modernizing its facilities and bringing in some of the country’s best investigative journalists. This new, more muckraking Inky quickly began to win Pulitzers — and readers. By the early 1980s, it had forced the staid Bulletin out of business entirely, and became the Philadelphia region’s paper of record. Knight Papers had believed in investigative news, and as the Inky’s editorial board was one of the last they had overhauled before selling to Ridder, it was one of the last that the new combined company would start tinkering with. Thus, the Inky carried on the Knight legacy through the 1980s — a period when it was arguably one of the country’s best papers.

By the early 1990s, however, the replacement of Knight editors with Knight Ridder ones had begun in earnest, and the paper’s quality had begun to suffer. Much like the Bulletin before it, the Inky stopped prioritizing muckraking. Investigative reporters moved on, into the alt-weekly scene or to friendlier paper-of-record locales. Readership and profitability began to suffer — unlike the Bulletin, the Inky did not have an enduring paper-of-record legacy, having only been the city’s dominant for a decade. Spearheaded by powers-that-be at the very top, the Inky turned away from the brand they had successfully built over the previous twenty years, and contented corruption returned to the very top of the local media.

So, by the early 2000s, the paper was treading water when the bottom fell out of its revenue stream. Most people attribute the rise of the Internet to the fall of American newspapers. This is only half-true: it was the rise of Craigslist, in particular, that led to the collapse of the newspaper revenue model — which depended on classified advertising. Easily half, if not more, of that revenue was lost — irrevocably — in every market Craigslist established a beachhead in — and it established a beachhead in every market. Quickly. The Inky’s parent, Knight Ridder, began losing money, shedding staff, and was forced to pivot its revenue model towards retail advertising (the circulars and other junk in the middle, as well as on-page ads) even as competition diversified.

Knight Ridder merged with McClatchy in 2006, and the new owners spun off most of their portfolio of either (a) weaker newspapers or (b) newspapers that did not fit the direction their corporate parent wished to take. The Inky was one of those. Coming under ownership of Philadelphia Media Holdings, its quality continued to worsen, sapping subscribers and readership revenue, in a penny-wise-pound-foolish attempt to trim its way to profitability. Finally, Comcast’s Gerry Lenfest stepped in and assumed control of the bankrupt paper, worried, perhaps, that it would go the way of the Times-Picayune and cease to be a daily affair.

It would be nice if the Inky became a bastion of investigative reporting again, but in all probability it won’t. Newspapers are not the only dominant media voices that tend to avoid investigation in the Philadelphia region. Action News, the dominant local news program, also follows Bulletin-esque editorial guidelines. Ironically enough, the best source for investigative local news is Fox 29, a position that so flagrantly opposes their national showrunners’ that almost every Fox 29-Fox News interaction rapidly becomes painfully awkward to watch.

But there is a strange lesson to be had here. Doubtless, Gilded Age politicians and robber barons disliked muckrakers’ nosing around. The idea of a corrupt and content city with enabling media must have been intoxicating to these people. As the TV replaced papers as the source of most peoples’ news, the trend towards showrunners replicating the ideas implicit in the Bulletin’s editorial guidelines — “the newspaper is the guest in the reader’s house; tell the news, nothing more, nothing less” — began to intensify in the more legitimate circuits. (It gave way to propaganda on Fox News; even liberally-focused MSNBC has yet to go so far down that route.) Corruption rages in the shade, and without muckraking, shadows grow deep.

So how do we monetize muckraking?