We're heading toward an interregnum for North America's four major pro sports. The NFL season ends next Sunday with the Super Bowl -- and we don't know if we'll see pro football next fall, with a threatened lockout. The NBA is in midseason doldrums and also might not have a season in 2011-12 due to possible labor action; the NHL just ended its All-Star break and MLB is still a couple of weeks away from having pitchers and catchers report for spring training.
There are plenty of things that we as fans complain about all the time regarding our favorite sports. Thus I present these modest (and some not-so-modest) suggestions on how to improve each sport so it would be more enjoyable and, hopefully, more competitive. Why only five suggestions per sport? Because otherwise, this would be an unbelievably long article; there are clearly more than five things wrong with some of the sports we love (and, it fits our "Top Five" weekly format). I offer these as a starting point. These are things I'd do if you put me in charge of each of the leagues, and let me make decisions that would stick. If you agree with some of these, vote in the poll, or leave your suggestions in the comments.
1) "This Time It Counts" -- one of Bud Selig's worst ideas, in response to the tie that didn't have to happen in Bud's own Miller Park in Milwaukee in 2002. The All-Star Game should not decide home field in the World Series; it's largely irrelevant to the rest of the season, since it's played pretty much as a split-squad spring training game would be. You can have one of two choices for home field in the World Series: either give it to the team with the better record -- and don't give me excuses, Bud, about "we can't find enough hotel rooms"; the NBA and NHL do it for their Finals -- or, give it to the league that wins the most games in interleague play.
2) No more TV blackouts -- the current MLB TV territorial map is a hodgepodge of areas carved up in the 1970s when teams had regional broadcast TV networks. Those no longer exist, yet teams like the Royals use this map to prevent Cubs and White Sox telecasts from getting to certain parts of Iowa -- where they no longer broadcast games. This is beyond stupid. Solution: if you are willing to pay to watch a game, whether it's local cable, satellite, MLB Extra Innings or MLB.TV, you can watch it. Period. No blackouts, no matter where you are. For Fox regional games, if you want to watch a game that's not in your region, you can do so on your computer -- with the commercials from your local Fox station inserted, thus preserving their local rating.
3) Replay review would be instituted immediately for the following plays: fair/foul, safe/out and trapped/caught, in addition to the home run reviews that already exist. To accomplish quick reviews, a fifth umpire would be added to every crew; this umpire would sit in the press box and review any close play. A set of lights would be put on the press box to indicate a play is being reviewed; white light means it's being reviewed, green light means the call on the field stands, red light means the call on the field is reversed. The crew chief on the field could have a radio system like NFL referees have to communicate with the press box umpire in case clarification is needed. In conjunction with this, managers would be allowed to request replays, but no extended arguments would be permitted -- any of those would result in automatic ejection. In this way, games would not only not be slowed down by review, they could actually be sped up.
4) The DH Rule. I'm not a huge fan of the DH. I like National League baseball, with its strategy and double-switches (if they're done right, and yes, I'm looking at you, Dusty Baker) and the occasional pitcher who can hit (Carlos Zambrano, at times). But it's ridiculous to have different rules for the two leagues, especially since they play each other about 10% of the time. It would be like allowing free substitution in the NBA Eastern Conference, but limiting it to two per game in the Western Conference. Either put the DH in both leagues or get rid of it in both leagues. It's been around for nearly 40 years, so the best solution is probably to adopt it in the NL, even against my personal distaste for it.
5) Expand the playoffs. As usual in the Bud Selig era, a good idea was floated and then ignored. The idea of a second wild card team in each league is a good one. It would make the winning of a division more meaningful; let's say the two wild card teams have to play a play-in game or a three-game series. You can bet the division winners would want to avoid those. Play-in games would create great drama, but might be unfair, putting the 162-game season down to a single game. I still like the idea, though, and it would eliminate the divisional tiebreakers (you'd decide the division winner in the case of a tie by head-to-head play, then the other team would play the play-in game).
There are more things that need to be fixed in baseball (making the draft worldwide, having a better slotting system for draftees, etc.) but I promised to limit myself to five. On to the...
1) The league is headed for a lockout; part of the reason is that NFL honchos think the league pays too much money to untested rookies. Packers president Mark Murphy makes the case pretty convincingly in this article. A slotting system for rookies as suggested in that article, while not reducing the total percentage of revenues that players get -- something the NFLPA is very worried about -- would be fair.
2) Change the idiotic "entire process of the catch" rule that gave the Bears a gift victory over the Lions on opening day of the season on Sept. 12. Was it great that the Bears got this win gifted to them? Sure, for all of us who are Bears fans. But it's clear to anyone looking at that play objectively that Calvin Johnson caught the ball and the Lions should have won the game. Incidentally, if that call had not been made and the Lions had won -- the Bears would have missed the playoffs this year, as the Packers would have won the tiebreaker with the Bears at 10-6 to win the NFC North, and the Giants would have won the tiebreaker for the wild card.
3) Dump the Pro Bowl. Sure, it's great to give the players a trip to Hawaii -- they all love it. But now that the game is played before the Super Bowl, players from those teams don't participate, and many others beg off. So it's become the "NFL All-Star Game Between Players From 30 Of The 32 Teams Who Don't Have Anything Better To Do". Solution: choose NFC and AFC All-Pro teams, give the players a trip to Hawaii as a reward, and don't bother playing the game.
4) Put a team in Los Angeles already. Sure, they'd have to play in the Coliseum until a new stadium gets built, but how the NFL can ignore the second-largest city in the USA for 15-plus years is beyond me. Some LA football fans actually like not having a team, because that means they're not forced to watch away games for a team that might suck, and instead get the best TV games of the week. But there are teams that don't belong where they are -- the Jaguars, for one -- and teams in trouble, such as the Vikings and Chargers. Put one of them in LA and be done with it. The Chargers, in fact, would be moving back to their original home, where they played in their inaugural season in 1960 before moving to San Diego.
5) Realign the divisions geographically. Do we really have a Cowboys/Redskins rivalry? That's a product of the 1970s. Swap the Cowboys and the Buccaneers in the NFC -- that would make the "East" division truly eastern, and the "South" division more southern. In the AFC, switch the Colts and Ravens; Indianapolis isn't in the "South" (Okay, Baltimore isn't either, but it's closer than Indy). This would create a good divisional rivalry between Indy and Cincinnati (that is, if the Bengals are ever any good again).
1) This one will offend many fans of the game, but I'm tired of the fistfights. Yes, hockey is a rough sport. Players check each other hard, and that's an accepted part of the game. But too often, a scrum near the goal winds up with trash-talking leading to a fistfight. It's not a street brawl -- hockey is a beautiful sport when played cleanly. You don't see many fistfights in playoff games, because the stakes are higher. Solution: increase time penalties for hits or checks that cross the line into dangerous play, or maybe even eject players from games for that. Fistfights can be eliminated this way: first fistfight, ejection. Second fistfight, 20-game suspension. Third fistfight, season suspension. Fourth fistfight: ban from hockey. There's no reason doing something that would get you arrested outside the arena should be allowed inside.
2) No more "overtime loss" points: is it too difficult for anyone connected with the NHL to remember that the reason they started having tie games was because of World War II travel restrictions? Could someone please tell the NHL the war is over? I can understand why they wouldn't want to have the two or three OT games you sometimes see in the playoffs, but why does the loser get a point in the standings? The five-minute OT followed by a shootout determines the winner. Right? So if you lose, you lose. No points. Standings decided by wins and losses. This might make teams fight harder to not go into overtime to begin with. It's worked pretty well for the NFL -- the NFL has had only four tie games in the last 21 seasons.
3) Dump the All-Star game. It was brought to new heights of ridiculousness by making it a pickup game, reminding all of us of how bad it felt when you were the last kid picked on the playground for pickup games when you were growing up. No one plays defense; the goalies must feel like targets. Solution: pick conference All-Star teams, then have them meet for the skills competition, which can be more fun than the game itself. Add other skills areas to make more events; this would keep the break, which many players need. But ditch the game itself; the last two (this year and in 2009) had both teams score 10 or more goals. That's not hockey.
4) Revise the salary cap so that championship teams don't have to be broken up before they've even finished their Stanley Cup tour, as the Blackhawks were last June. It's great that 10 different teams have won the title since 1996, and different teams are in the Finals all the time (and probably will be this year, too). Perhaps cap exceptions like the NBA has, or maybe having "franchise" players along the lines of the NFL system would help give champions a chance to repeat, which they really don't have now.
5) Geographical divisional realignment is needed here, too. Why is Minnesota, a team in the Central time zone, in the "Northwest" division, a division that has three Mountain time zone teams and a Pacific time zone team (the Canucks)? Move the Canucks to the Pacific division and send the Dallas Stars to the "Northwest" division -- at least that way, you'd have two Central time zone teams and three Mountain zone teams there. It wouldn't be very "Northwest", but at least it would make more sense.
1) Competitive balance in the NBA is the worst of all four major sports. Of the 30 teams, about eight of them go into the season -- every season -- with zero chance of making the playoffs. This is related to another point, but with LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers, did anyone think they'd continue to be a playoff contender? Now, they are riding a 20-game losing streak and may be a decade away from being a serious playoff team, much as the Bulls were when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen left. While there is a salary cap in the NBA, it's much looser than the NHL, and that leads to...
2) Make a rule prohibiting players from doing what James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did. This is as bad as the pickup NHL hockey game. LeBron said he "wouldn't stop" until he brought a title to Cleveland. How'd that work out? While it's fine to have free agency after a certain length of service and allow players to play where they choose, basically dictating who their teammates are, forcing the Raptors to trade Bosh to Miami, that really goes against any sense of fair play.
3) So what's the real answer? Maybe in addition to the draft lottery, the NBA needs to have a dispersal draft of some kind every year, so that the really bad teams might have a shot at getting a player from one of the better teams and improve. Obviously, teams would be able to protect their stars from these drafts, but it would help spread the talent around more evenly.
4) Dump the All-Star Game. This is getting to be a theme of this post, but seriously -- the NBA All-Star Game is just like the NFL and NHL versions, a defense-free zone where the players put up shot after shot and the final score is somewhere in the range of 155-150.
5) Divisional realignment (this is getting to be another theme, but I'm almost done). What are the Portland Trail Blazers, a Pacific time zone team, doing in a division with the Thunder, Timberwolves, Nuggets and Jazz? (It did make some sense when the Thunder was the Seattle Supersonics.) You've got two Central time zone teams and two Mountain zone teams. Swap Portland into the Pacific division (where they belong anyway) and send the Phoenix Suns back in return -- you'd have to rename the "Northwest" division, but so what? At least it would make more geographic sense.