Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Yet Another Olympic Wrapup

Another Olympiad is in the books, so it's time for (yet another) wrapup.

The 2018 Winter Olympics may have been held in PyeongChang, South Korea, but they absolutely belonged to Norway. The Scandinavian country of 5 million people utterly dominated the games with 39 total medals (including 14 golds). Germany came in second with 31 medals (14 golds), while Canada came in third with 29 medals (11 golds). The United States ended up with 4th place with 23 medals, including 9 golds.

This is the lowest medal haul for Team USA since 1998, and is reflective of what for at least the first half of the games was a poor performance by the Americans. Team USA did manage a late rally to at least make a respectable showing; that rally included, notably, USA's first-ever medal in womens cross county skiing, the womens hockey team besting Canada for the gold medal for the first time since 1998, and the US Curling Team's improbable comeback to win the county's first gold medal in the sport. And before we spend too much time criticizing Team USA for underachieving, it's worth remembering that, before the advent of the so-called "extreme sports," the United States pretty much sucked at the Winter Olympics. At the Winter Olympics in Calgary 30 years ago, for example, the United States won a grand total of 6 (!) medals.

The Netherlands came in sixth with 20 total medals, because speedskating. Rounding out the top ten were Sweden, South Korea, Switzerland, France and Austria.

Honorable mentions go to a handful of countries that don't usually figure in winter sports: Both Spain and New Zealand won two medals in PyeongChang, the first time either country has medaled since 1992. Hungary won their first medal since 1980 and their first gold medal ever in the Winter Olympics. Belgium won its first medal in twenty years, and little Liechtenstein won its first medal in 30 years.

Tina Weirather's bronze medal in the Womens Super-G, in fact, was enough to give Liechtenstein the highest number of medals per capita, according to this handy website, with one medal per (the beautiful - and expensive - Alpine principality's total population of) 37,531 inhabitants. Norway came in second, winning one medal per every 133,228 inhabitants, while Switzerland came in third, with one medal per every 552,465 inhabitants. The United States came in 24rd, winning one medal per every 13,974,731 inhabitants. Those rankings don't change significantly if you re-rank the medals by weight. Lichtenstein also tops the rankings of medals per GDP, simply because the microstate is ridiculously rich; Norway comes in second on that list as well, while Belarus comes in third and the United States comes in 25th.

Ecuador entered the Winter Olympics for the first time, with a single athlete: cross-country skier Klaus Jungbluth came in 112th (out of 116th) in the Mens 15-Kilometer Freestyle, beating out the famous Shirtless Tongan by two spots. Despite finishing poorly, Ecuador can now claim as many medals in the Winter Olympics as Chile or Argentina (both of who have at least some winter sports infrastructure): zero.

Finally, a follow up from my previous post, wherein I actually gave some praise to NBC's Olympics coverage. Apparently, I'm not the only person who thinks they did better job this time around. It's enough to make Vox's Todd VanDerWerff at least somewhat optimistic about 2020:
None of this suggests that NBC is off the hook forever. The 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo will have many of the same benefits of the 2018 Games, especially when it comes to an advantageous time differential with the US. But the Summer Olympics, where the US is generally more likely to sit atop or near the top of the medal count, often lead NBC to chase its own worst impulses of relentlessly pushing predetermined narratives. (It also won’t help that the Summer Games often schedule major events — especially in track and field — for the cooler evening hours, which will be the early morning in most of the US.) 
But I’m choosing to let the 2018 Olympics give me hope that NBC is finally addressing some of its most persistent criticisms. The network still has a long way to go, and it has to stop assuming that the best way to tell human stories at the games is via packaged profiles straight out of Dateline, rather than letting those human stories unfold in the midst of the competition itself. But maybe the network is moving in the right direction at long last. We’ll find out in two and a half years.
On to Tokyo...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Another winter's end

A few days ago, Eric Berger declared that Houston "in the midst of transitioning from winter to spring:"
A lot of people have asked whether we are done with freezes. (My wife, a gardener, especially wants to know). We think so. Typically, the last freeze for central and southern parts of Houston (think Harris County and areas closer to the coast) occurs in mid-February, and for northern areas (think Montgomery, Waller, Liberty) it is late February or early March. This year it seems highly unlikely that the region will see a freeze for the next two weeks, which gets us to March. There are always outliers—for example, Hobby Airport recorded a freeze on April 13, 1940—but the odds at this point favor no more freezes for the winter of 2017-2018.
Between Berger's pronouncement, the fact that the crane flies are beginning to appear, the fact that rodeo season begins with Cookoff next weekend (oh, how I wish I could get my hands on some tent passes!), and the fact that local establishments are already advertising their crawfish boils, I think it's safe to say that, yes, winter is over.

If you hate cold weather, this is music to your ears. It was an eventful winter, with a snowfall in December and an ice storm a few weeks ago that kept a lot of us home from work for a couple of days. I know a lot of people are tired of the cold (although, as Berger notes, the end of winter doesn't mean that there won't be a few more chilly days in our future) and are ready for a couple of months of optimal outdoor weather before the summer heat sets in.

Which will be great. Then, come August, we'll all be ready for the chilly weather to come back again.

My bi-annual post about NBC's Olympics coverage

Regular readers of this blog (both of them!) know that I am generally not a fan of NBC's Olympics coverage. But, one week into the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, I can actually list two things to like about NBC's coverage this time around.

First, I'm generally liking the live primetime coverage. Given the time difference, NBC is broadcasting events in primetime in the US that are happening late the following morning in South Korea, and while this has been a challenge for athletes, as they've had to adjust to competing in the mornings rather than afternoons or evenings, it's also created some compelling viewing. Live television, by its nature, cannot be heavily edited or interspersed with the stupid human interest features that NBC loves to force upon its viewers. It's also not quite as US-centric as edited, tape delayed events tend to be, either. To be sure, there have still been some of those elements during the primetime broadcast, NBC still can't help but focus on the "narrative" aspect of the athletes, and don't even get me started on all the commercials. However, where NBC appears to have made live events - figure skating, alpine skiing, snowboarding - the focus of their primetime coverage, it's actually been halfway decent. (I can't speak to the quality of the parallel live coverage on NBC Sports Network, since I no longer have cable, but I haven't read any major complaints so far.)

Second, I'm liking the fact that Bob Costas has relinquished his duties as host, handing them off to Mike Tirico. Tirico might be a bit bland, but at least he's not insufferable the way Costas was. I'm not having to mute the TV every time Tirico comes on, as I was prone to doing every time Costas and his hectoring smugness graced my TV screen. He truly was one of the worst things about NBC's Olympics coverage, and I don't miss him.

This isn't to say that everything has been great for NBC; they've made a few gaffes, and their ratings continue to decline (it should be noted that the US Winter Olympic team itself is performing relatively poorly, which may be part of the problem). Furthermore, I admit that my expectations for NBC's Olympics coverage are so low that even minor adjustments to their coverage count as improvement.

However, NBC's done at least a couple of things right this time around, and for that they deserve a (small) tip of the hat.

Astrodome, again

Last week, Harris County Commissioner's Court voted to spend $105 million to renovate the venerable and vacant Astrodome. This vote, which was actually the second step of an action that the Commissioners took two years ago, seeks to transform the derelict structure into parking and event space.

As readers of this blog know, I've been following the saga of the Astrodome for several years, and although I have a soft spot in my heart for the Eighth Wonder of the World, I'm also highly skeptical that it can be renovated and put to use in an economically viable fashion. This may be a $105 million money sink for county taxpayers. Furthermore, the optics of this spend are especially bad in light of the damage this county suffered from Harvey, as the Press's Cory Garcia notes:
Houston needs flood reform. Just the idea of another Harvey-level storm crashing into the city is enough to make the skin crawl. And yet every time the idea of flood reform comes up it seems like it’s followed by the question of “where will the money come from?” Now sure, $100+ million is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to make sure the city doesn’t drown again, but at the very least it can be acknowledged that any excitement about what’s going on with the Dome — especially after voters decided against saving it back in 2013 — is tone deaf.
I get it: Houston is a city that is often seen as one that doesn’t respect or take care of its history. The Astrodome has sentimental value for many sports, sports entertainment and music fans. The building is the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” or at least the coolest contender on the list; no offense to the Palm Islands intended. It makes sense that some people think preserving it for future generations makes sense.
And yes, in the future your kids and your kids’ kids might park their car under it on the way to go see Brad Paisley play his 60th RodeoHouston show and think to themselves, “wow, I bet a ton of people got concussions here!”
That may be harsh, but I’m just not sure that turning the Astrodome into the “8th Wonder of the Convention Hall Circuit” is something worth celebrating while people are still rebuilding their lives and hearing that only so much can be done to prevent it from happening again. I’m sure we’ll host some grand conventions and meetings in the future, but the optics of it all still suck.
The Chronicle's Lisa Falkenburg, on the other hand, thinks that the county's investment in the structure is wise:
To some, investing in the dome seems a nostalgic indulgence in the face of urgent needs. Harvey victims are hoping for a tax break on properties that lost value. Those who use the criminal courts are calling for swift action on the flooded courthouse - either massive repairs or relocating the ill-planned complex once and for all. 
All of the above should be priorities for County Judge Ed Emmett and the four commissioners. 
But here's the thing: leaders have to balance today's needs with tomorrow's. The long view has its virtues. And frankly, it's been all to absent in the decision-making of Houston and Harris County. Shortsightedness has gotten us into a lot of trouble - from poor investment in flooding infrastructure to irresponsible growth that increased the region's vulnerability during storms and rain events. 
It has led us to pave over prairies. To bulldoze historic architecture and old trees and character. And yes, to leave an expensive, beloved, world-famous landmark with a lot of tourism potential rotting away in full view of visitors and homefolk alike. 
So, sure, it may seem tone deaf to pour money into the Astrodome right now, but the decision seems to be in tune with Houston's future needs. 
And critics of the decision either don't understand the facts, or willfully ignore them.
Falkenberg then launches into a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments made by opponents of the renovation project, including the claim that Harris County voters decided to demolish the Dome in a 2013 bond referendum (she's technically right; the vote was to issue bonds to refurbish the Astrodome and said nothing about tearing it down; however, it was clearly intimated by elected officials that, if the vote were to fail, the structure would be demolished). And, while Falkenburg concedes that the optics of this vote weren't particularly good, she correctly notes that this action is the second step on a path that the Commissioner's Court had begun back in 2016, and would have been taken regardless of Harvey. 

At this point, I'm tired of all the political bickering and I'm tired of seeing the grimy, derelict Astrodome sit next to NRG Stadium; I just want the saga of the historic stadium to come to a final resolution. This vote hopefully accomplishes that. I can only hope that things turn out as planned, and that the repurposed Astrodome does indeed generate a return on investment for the County. It's worth noting that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo does seem much more sanguine about this project than they have towards previous renovation proposals; hopefully that's a good sign. 

The funding sources for the $105 million construction budget are general revenues (i.e. property taxes), hotel occupancy taxes, and parking revenue. Construction is expected to begin later this year and take about 17 months to complete. 

2018 Houston Cougar football schedule released

The 2018 University of Houston Cougar football schedule came out a few days ago:

     Sat Sep 01     at Rice
     Sat Sep 08     Arizona
     Sat Sep 15     at Texas Tech (Lubbock)
     Sat Sep 22     Texas Southern
     Sat Sep 29     (off)
     Thu Oct 04     Tulsa
     Sat Oct 13     at East Carolina (Greenville)
     Sat Oct 20     at Navy (Annapolis)
     Sat Oct 27     South Florida
     Sat Nov 03    at SMU (Dallas)
     Sat Nov 10    Temple
     Thu Nov 15    Tulane
     Fri Nov 23     at Memphis

There are things to like about this schedule, and there are things not to like. I like the fact that the Cougars get their week off in late September, between non-conference and conference play. I like the fact that this schedule has the Cougars leaving the state of Texas only three times during the entire season. I like that this schedule has only one instance of back-to-back games on the road.

What's not to like? Two Thursday night home games, for starters. These games are attendance-killers, especially given that they are against teams that don't command much interest in Houston: Tulsa and Tulane. Don't even get me started about the effect these games will have on tailgating. The Coogs will have a short week to prepare for an improved Tulane team that beat them last season, which is also not optimal.

This schedule is going to make it very tough for the Cougars to contend for the AAC West title. In addition to getting Tulane on a short week of rest, the Cougars have to face division foes Navy, SMU and Memphis on the road. And sandwiched between those road trips to Navy and SMU? A revenge-minded South Florida team that won 10 games last season.

Other tidbits: former UH head coach Kevin Sumlin returns to town with his new team, the Arizona Wildcats, on September 8th. He is unlikely to receive a particularly warm welcome from the UH faithful. The Cougars host Texas Southern as reciprocation for allowing UH's basketball program to use TSU's HP&E arena as a temporary home this season. The Cougars play three former SWC conference mates (Rice, SMU and Texas Tech) for the second year in a row.

Other than the Rice game (which really doesn't count as a "roadie" anyway), I probably won't be making any trips to away games this season. There just aren't any easy trips on this schedule, and although I definitely want to visit Annapolis someday, this year won't be the year to do it.

I'll have my customary season preview and prediction up in August, but as of right now I'm looking at this schedule and not feeling particularly optimistic. A lot of the teams the Cougars are playing this fall are improving, while the Coogs themselves took a step backwards last season.

Ryan Monceaux's thoughts on the schedule are worth a read.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Who's ready for some rugby?

Because it's coming to Houston:
Houston City Council has approved a $3.2 million deal to help the Houston SaberCats build a new rugby stadium. The stadium will form part of the redevelopment of the city-owned Houston Sports Park, just off the South Freeway. The money will reimburse team investors for putting up not only the stadium, but also a variety of improvements to the park for general use – including a new parking lot, lighting, and access roads.
In addition to the 3,500-seat stadium and associated improvements, the deal includes two practice fields. The SaberCats have committed to providing free rugby training camps to the community as well.

To be sure, rugby is a niche sport in this city. However, if there are enough fans in the region to support a professional team, then it certainly makes sense for them to have their stadium to call home.
Major League Rugby in the US is less than a year old. The Houston franchise is one of seven teams that will begin their first season in April. The SaberCats are currently playing exhibition games at Constellation Field, home of the Sugar Land Skeeters baseball team.
The spot of rugby has two major codes: rugby league and rugby union. The SaberCats and its fellow franchises will play the rugby union version the the sport, although the name of the organization itself - Major League Rugby - might suggest otherwise. Confused yet?

I can't say that I pretend to know all the rules about rugby, but I find it to be an interesting sport and I might try to attend a game or two once this facility opens. Kuff has more.