The Penguins won the Stanley Cup, capping off a great NHL playoffs. Note the playoff beards, a staple for every NHL playoff team.

Without an NHL team out where I live in Seattle, it is hard for the local people to get into hockey.  Even for other Americans it has proven to be difficult with the allure of flashier sports such as basketball and football taking place around the same timeframe. For me it wasn’t that difficult.  Without a particular team to care for I don’t follow the NHL religiously like I do with the NFL and MLB, but I do usually watch about one-two games a week during the season.  During the playoffs though, I watch as much as I possibly can.  Watching the Penguins, a team with two young stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, march through the playoffs in dramatic fashion after being 5 points out of a playoff spot when they changed coaches on February 15th has been spectacular.

After taking care of the Flyers in 6 games in the quarterfinals, they had a matchup against the Washington Capitals and their own young superstar Alexander Ovechkin.  Crosby and Ovechkin facing off against each other is akin to if  Lebron James and Dwyane Wade went against each other in the NBA playoffs.  It took seven hard fought games, but the Penguins dispatched the Capitals before rolling through the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals in a sweep. After this, a finals rematch from the prior season was set.  The Red Wings had taken the Stanley Cup last year against the Penguins, but now it was their turn. After the home teams won each of the first 6 games, the Penguins were the obvious underdogs coming into Game 7 in Detroit.  Coming into the 3rd period, they were up 2-0, despite losing Sidney Crosby for a period of time with injury. After a Jonathan Ericsson goal put the Red Wings within 1 goal of a tie, the Penguins had to hang on until the final seconds when goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made a spectacular save on a Niklas Lidstrom shot.  The Pittsburgh Penguins then began what to me is the greatest championship celebration you can watch.

While every championship trophy has its own history and appeal, none is more unique than the Stanley Cup.  It is the only professional trophy with the name of every team, player, coach and owner engraved on it.  While other sports have exuberant celebrations of spraying champagne all over each other in the locker room, watching every one on the team take their skate around the ice with the Stanley Cup is something special.  The Cup, which weighs about 35 pounds, is hoisted by all of the top contributors on the team, starting with the team captain. I can imagine that every ache and pain they feel from the playoff series goes away in this moment of joy, and you can see it on the players’ faces.  The trophy probably feels lighter than it actually is at that moment.  From the youngest player on the ice Jordan Staal to the oldest Bill Guerin, who last won a Stanley Cup 14 years ago, they all understand the special unique moment they are taking part in, as they will now have their names engraved in history, on a trophy that has been in existence since 1892.  Now each player can enjoy their own day with the cup to do whatever they feel with it, whether they want to drink out of it, take it around town, or even let their dog eat out of it,  they can have their own unique experience with it, something you can’t really say for any other trophy.

While the NHL still has a ways to go in gaining popularity in America, they have an opportunity to do so with a team like the Penguins.  With a number of young stars such as Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury, they could become like the dominant Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s when they had stars like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr if they choose to stay together.  If more people know about how exciting a game hockey is and the NHL can market its young stars, the NHL could see a gain in its popularity as they attempt to rise above niche sport level. Even if it starts with turning someone who follows the playoffs like me into a religious regular season follower, like I could become with a move to an NHL market in a few months, it is a start.

Chris

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According to Sports Illustrate, Game 2 of this years NBA Finals are down compared to last year (Game 2 Finals ratings down slightly). No surprise there, expect the ratings to slip if the Magic don’t put up a fight.

Dimitri

No. 8: Mark Parker, CEO of Nike

No. 8 Mark Parker, CEO Nike, Inc.

No. 8 Mark Parker, CEO Nike, Inc.

With total revenue over $18 billion dollars, the worlds most notable athletes sporting its goods and the most recognized logo in the world, Mark Parker is at the helm of an empire. After taking over the regins of Nike, Inc. from William Perez- who did a two year stint after Co-Founder Phil Knight stepped away at CEO in 2004- Mark Parker has grown Nike’s presence in the sports world profoundly. Parker started out as a footwear designed in Nike’s R&D Department in New Hampshire. He worked his way up to be co-president of the Nike brand, before becoming Nike’s CEO.

With a solid foothold in basketball, track and football, Parker made an effort to gain a share of athletic appearal for the world’s most popular sport- soccer. In March 2008, Parker and Nike aquired United Kingdom soccer apparel maker Umbro for $600 million. This gave Nike a stronger share in the European soccer market- a market that Nike serverly trailed. It also put Nike as the majority owner for the United Soccer League- North America’s lower division of soccer. In addition to soccer, Nike has established itself with other less popular sports such as handball, cricket, cycling and rugby.

Nike's sponsorship in soccer increases

Nike's presence in soccer increases

Parker is also committed in increasing Nike’s environmental presense. Coming out with the first ever, “Green Shoe” in 1998, that was named “Trash Talk.”  It was basically a comfortable, quality shoe made up of scraps of older tennis shoes. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns debuted the shoes at the All-Star Game that year. The Jordan XX3 that were last year were also made being enivornmentally conscious- with materials that produced less toxins and curbed waste.

Nike has come a long way since its first professional sponsor of Romanian tennis player Ilie Nastase. Nike sponsors some of the most well-known athletes, including but not limited to, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Brandon Roy, Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Tom Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson and hundreds of others in many sports (Complete list of Nike sponsors). Notable college institutions and major league teams are also under contract with Parker’s Nike. With this many athletes all wearing and playing in the apparel it is no wonder why Parker’s decisions influence the world of sports.

Nike's top two baseball sponsors display their Nike sweatbands.

Nike's top two baseball sponsors display their Nike sweatbands.

Number 9. Brian France, CEO and Chairman of NASCAR

brian france

No. 9: Brian France, CEO and Chairman of NASCAR

Between the 1972 and 2003, William France, Jr. turned ordinary stock car auto racing into an empire- with the highlight being a record setting $2.4 billion television contract for the 2000 Season. When France stepped down from the NASCAR reigns in 2003, he handed the operations over to his son- Brian France. Brian now presides over one of the most powerful sports governing bodies in the country, with thousands of fans, billions of dollars in revenue and the ever present room to expand.

NASCAR has long been known to be advertiser’s dream. No other sport has had as much brand loyalty with sponsors as NASCAR fans have exhibited over the years. According to a survey conducted by Sports Business Daily, “nearly 50% of NASCAR fans are more likely to use a  specific product or service if that product or service is a NASCAR sponsor, and over 55% of those fans have more loyalty and brand affinity toward that product or service if it is a NASCAR sponsor.” This has enabled France and the rest of NASCAR to reap huge revenues from sponsorship sales. More Fortune 500 companies sponsor NASCAR than any other sport and as a result, NASCAR also enters extremly large television contracts- with the highest now being a $4.5 billion deal- twice the size of Brian’s fathers contract.

The last couple of years has shown that NASCAR is vunerable, despite their huge success with sponsorship sales. Television ratings are down across the board. The bad economy has hit attendance- where now fans were not willing to trek hundreds of miles to the nearest race track. Sitting on a machine with enormous potential, France has been brainstorming of ways to increase NASCAR’s popularity and connection with its loyal fans. France started an office in Los Angeles to connect NASCAR with the entertainmet industry(ever heard of Ricky Bobby). He has established an online presence with NASCAR as a way to connect fans to the sport and, more importantly, to the sponsors. This is most important in the road ahead as NASCAR tries to regain control of its extremely loyal fanbase.

U.S. Army is one of NASCAR's many sponsors. Paying $11.4 million earlier this year to get in front of NASCAR's loyal fans.

U.S. Army is one of NASCAR's many sponsors. Paying $11.4 million earlier this year to get in front of NASCAR's loyal fans.

Today I would like to introduce  The Breakdown’s first series. Chris and I have done some discussion and in an effort to branch out from newsworthy topics would like to hit on the overall link of sports to business and everyday life. To get things kicked off I proudly present The Breakdowns Ten Influential People of Sports. The focus of this will be on those currently active individuals who’s presence and decisions make a strong impact on the sport they are associated with. There is no particular rank or order to this list, it is just a list of ten people who have been essential to today’s world of sports- in my opinion. Anyway, please  feel free to comment with your opinions on the topic.

Number 10. LeBron James

Number 10 Most Influential People in Sports

Number 10. Influential People in Sports LeBron James

January 13, 1999 Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls following his sixth NBA Championship. The NBA was at its peak with the 1998 Finals having the highest TV ratings in Finals history and Game 6 still holds the highest TV ratings for an NBA Game. What followed was a drastic drop for the National Basketball Association- a players lockout in 1999, declining TV ratings, a public spat between two of the NBA’s top players (Kobe and Shaq), lowering ticket admissions and then the infamous Pacers-Pistons Brawl. The NBA’s public perception was shattered. The team element was gone from the game and replaced with selfishness.

LeBron James was in his second season during this low point in the NBA. Since his sophomore year in high school, LeBron- or “King James”- was touted as the next basketball superstar- the next “Michael Jordan.” Being the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, LeBron came out of the gates running. In his first games against the Sacramento Kings he had 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals. He has only risen and has lead his once lowly Cleveland Cavaliers into one of the most dominant teams in the league.

What makes LeBron influential is not only his extraordinary skill on the court but also his personality and wisdom that he brings. When watching LeBron playing it is clear that he enjoys the game. He has having fun out on the court and as a result is bringing the fun back to the NBA. If anyone caught his “60 Minutes” Interview with Steve Kroft, LeBron is a man who loves what he’s doing and is doing it for all the right reasons. LeBron’s wisdom is that unlike many other 24 year olds. He has reached out to billionaire Warren Buffet to seek financial advice and the two of them have become fast friends- with LeBron appearing in a Berkshire Hathaway video shown to shareholds and Buffett a frequent attendee court side at a Cav’s game.

73107136PB034_2007_NBA_All_It seems that with the rise in the NBA, the rise of LeBron James coincides with it. Players who once were not enjoyable  to watch  are now entertaining. This post-season, the Cav’s have dominated their competition- sweeping both the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks before succumbing to the Orlando Magic today in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron was the high scorer in all nine of these games. This NBA Postseason has seen record numbers- yesterday’s Nuggets/Lakers match up drew 8.1 million viewers- up 49 percent from last year. This postseason success and high interest level in professional basketball is an outcome of LeBron James. His personality, his athleticism and his character have molded him into a player who can once again build up professional basketball.

Dimitri

Earlier this week, the University of Washington Huskies unveiled a plan to assist football season ticket holders during these tough economic times. The Husky Athletic Department unveiled the “Dawgs Supporting Dawgs” program where fans donate money for season ticket holders who did not renew due to economic reason can purchase tickets. New Husky football coach Steve Sarkisian has thrown in $1,000 to the fund- enough to by season tickets for a family of four.  Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times details the story (Fan bailout: UW supporters asked to help others with season tickets).

Dimitri

Since we launched this blog in February, I’ve written a number of stories featuring various athletes and some issues they have been facing and trying to overcome.  Many of these have come from baseball, but there are a few others as well.  Since it has been three months, I decided I would give an update on a few of them so people can check the progress they have made.

In my first post, Sports and Life, I mixed in a conversation about two outfield prospects who came up in the Seattle Mariners system.  One, Adam Jones, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles and the other, Wladimir Balentien, was the new top outfield prospect for the Mariners.  Jones who was solid last season as mentioned, has blossomed at the beginning of this season and is beginning to show signs that he is going to be the superstar many projected him to be.  Meanwhile, Balentien seems to have put it together somewhat as well. While he began the season in a limited role, he has played his way into a regular position in left field with a far better approach at the plate as he is learning to become a solid major league player.  His confidence level this season is drastically different and it shows.  Last season he looked lost as he was flailing away and breaking pitches, but this season Balentien looks far more comfortable at the plate and in the field.

Another post I wrote comparing the actions of Jason Richardson of the Suns and swimmer Michael Phelps.  Not much has come of the DUI and reckless driving charges against  Richardson, but Phelps has returned to the pool this past weekend following a three month suspension and won his first two races. Despite only winning 2 of 5 he has overcome the embarrassment of the photograph of himself with a bong and returned to form as one of the top swimmers in the world.

I also posted a link about Mariners spring training hopeful Chris Jakubauskas.  Jakubauskas, a 30-year old independent league find, ended up making the roster as a reliever and was pressed into duty as a starter when fellow pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith went down with injury. While Jakubauskas has not had consistent success like he had in spring, he has had a couple of great outings that shows he can pitch at the major league level, although a role as a reliever could play to his strengths more effectively.

Finally, we get to Dontrelle WillisWillis has been on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder since spring training.  Willis was recently activated and now has two starts under his belt, including allowing only 1 hit over 6.1 innings last night against a powerful Texas Rangers lineup.  If his first two starts are an indicator, the time off to help himself seems to have worked, as Willis carries a 3.27 ERA with 5 Ks in 11 innings.  While it is still too early to tell, he has looked much better than he has the past two seasons.

If there are any other stories any of you would like us to update, feel free to leave a comment and let us know so we can track down some information for you. Thanks for reading!

Chris