Free throws and a high-tech basketball net

25 02 2012

NBA All-Star Saturday Night typically values style over substance, so it makes sense that a new technology incorporated into its main event follows along those lines. I came out with a story yesterday for Wired.com’s Playbook about the basketball net that will measure the force of dunks at the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. The project to develop the net was a collaboration between Turner Sports, whose TNT channel will broadcast all All-Star Weekend events, and MIT Media Lab, which works on these kinds of hair-brained projects.

I found out about this idea by reading a Reggie Miller Q&A in the L.A. Times. Miller stated in the interview that Sport Science was developing the net for the NBA’s dunk contest. (Sport Science is the TV series that airs occasionally on ESPN.) I read that on Tuesday, February 21, and I emailed a guy connected to Sport Science to find out if that was the case. He said it wasn’t. At the same time, I went to a contact at Turner, who stated that there was a high-tech net. However, the person said it wasn’t Sport Science and didn’t tell me initially who the net developer was. But I did get an interview with Pete Scott, an executive in Turner Sports Digital.

The room where I conducted the interview.

I knew that I had to get this interview quickly given that the dunk contest would be on a Saturday. As is usually the case with these  quick-turnaround stories, I had to settle on the first available time, which was at virtually the same time I was to attend a Nike event on NYC’s Lower East Side. So, as the event crawled to an end on Wednesday, I snuck into a room for the phone interview. Twenty-five minutes later, I had most of my details. I wrote the story on Thursday – with a few follow-up answers from Scott – and it posted Friday. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

Are you curious about the force with which a player dunks a ball? Does this serve value to you, as a basketball fan? Hit me up on Twitter or Google+.

New Net Rates the Force Behind Monster Slam Dunks

I also had a free throw-centric story on SLAMonline earlier this week. The idea for this one originated during the NBA lockout, when I was thinking of what I would want to cover once the work stoppage ended. An article documenting how NBA players devised their free throw routines seemed like a fun topic.

Do a Google search on free throws and observe the number of stories that delve into how players came up with their routines. There aren’t many of them. The free throw isn’t a sexy topic – I get that. But I’m always interested in how professional athletes develop their games, including from when they were kids or teenagers.

The free throw routine is sort of a sacred thing for every serious basketball player. It’s called a routine for a reason – the key is to do the same thing every time. In thinking that through, I realized there was more to a free throw story than to simply document the when and why a group of NBA players started their routines. I had to consider the psychology of the shot. Free throw coaches and sport psychologists play a role in helping players, particularly those in the NBA, refine their shots.

After speaking with about 12 NBA players throughout various locker room visits to Nets and Knicks games, I found a pair of free throw coaches and a couple of sport psychologists. The story can be found at the following link.

Are you curious about how NBA players have developed their free throw routines? Let me know.

The Art of the Free Throw





Super Bowl Metrics

6 02 2012

A social TV analytics company called Bluefin Labs provided a range of data on the Super Bowl. (Their Twitter feed is here.) Let’s get into it.

Game and halftime

Social media comments made during the Super Bowl rose from 1.8 million in 2011 to (wait for it) 12.2 million on Sunday. That’s a  578 percent increase. Last night’s Super Bowl also set the record for social media comments made in any kind of TV event. The 2011 MTV Video Music Awards was the previous record holder with 3.1 million. The fact that this year’s Super Bowl had 12.2 million should tell you why TV advertising rates are so expensive. On no other stage will a company be able to have so many eyes and ears on its product.

Of the game’s 12.2 million comments, 862,000 of them came during halftime. That nearly matches the number recorded for the 2011 Academy Awards, which inspired 966,000 comments. The halftime show on its own would rank fourth all-time for entertainment-related social TV comments – behind the ’11 MTV Video Music Awards, the ’11 American Music Awards and the ’11 Oscars.

Commercials

Bluefin Labs measures commercial comments from when they air live to the 45 minutes following it. The commercial altogether received 985,000 comments, which is ahead of the ’11 Oscars. Here the top five commercials for parents, students and sports fanatics:

Parents – CareerBuilder (“Business Trip”); Teleflora (“Adriana Lima”); Best Buy (“Phone Innovators”); Honda CR-V (“Matthew’s Day Off”); Budweiser (“Prohibition”)

Students – ‘Hunger Games’ trailer; Planet Fitness (“I Lift Things Up”); Sketchers (“GO RUN Mr. Quiggly!”); Doritos (“Sling Baby”); M&M Wars (“Miss Brown”)

Sports Fantatics – Chrysler (“It’s Halftime in America” featuring Clint Eastwood); Bud Light (“Rescue Dog”); Doritos (“Man’s Best Friend”); ‘Act of Valor’ trailer; Chevy (“Happy Grad”)

Top 10 commercials with social media comments – Samsung (“Next Big Thing”, 26K); Bud Light (“Rescue Dog”, 29K); Sketchers (“GO RUN Mr. Quiggly”, 35K); Doritos (“Sling Baby”, 41K); Chevy Silverado (“2012”, 41K); Pepsi (“King’s Court”, 45K); Doritos (“Man’s Best Friend”, 74K); NBC The Voice (“Vocal Kombat”, 90K); Chrysler (“It’s Halftime in America”, 96K); H&M (“David Beckham Bodywear”, 109K)

My three favorite were the Chrysler Halftime in America spot, the NFL evolution piece and then the Volkswagon one with the golden retriever who gets in shape. Laughs are always worth points, but ultimately humorous commercials don’t typically have much takeaway value. (Save for Bud’s “Rescue Dog” commercial, which promoted a worthy cause.)

Ultimately, I want commercials to mean something. I want value. That’s why I was so intrigued by the Halftime and Evolution spots. The Halftime was my favorite because it hit the deepest emotional chord it realistically could during a sports event. Most of us in this country have known some sort of suffering since 2008. Most of us have had to dig for some sort of inspiration or perseverance to progress our lives – professionally, personally and in other ways.

Chrysler has embraced the “serious” side of commercials with its Eminem-laced spot in last year’s game, and now this year with Eastwood. Even though he’s 81. There’s something strangely relatable between Eastwood and people of my generation who are in their mid- to late 20s. We think of Eastwood as being a badass because of Dirty Harry. More than that, Eastwood seems “real”. He’s authentic, doesn’t bullshit and we respect that. That’s why his words brought so much value, even if they were written by other folks.

The NFL Evolution commercial piqued my interest obviously because I’m a sports lover at heart. The evolution of sports is a particular interest, from how equipment changes to the types of player who mark specific eras in a league’s history. I believe that commercial captured it appropriately.

I’ll show three very good visuals that Bluefin Labs provided along YouTube videos of my three favorite commercials.

     





A Renovated Australian Open

31 01 2012

I realize that tennis’ Australian Open ended this past weekend, but I want to address the renovated complex at which the world’s best players participated. Kansas City-based Populous, a renowned sports architecture firm, helped lead the charge – in concert with COX Architects – on the Melbourne and Olympic Parks Redevelopment.

The AUD$363M project added several new features – a 16,000-seat center court, a 6,000-seat court with a  retractable roof, and a facilities building for Tennis Australia, among other structures. New landscaping features and public squares were created to promote outdoor circulation. I have a slew of renderings of the redesign that I would like to share. I’m not writing a story on this project, so I don’t have very many notable details. But this project sure does look outstanding.

             






Curt Schilling The (Video) Gamer

27 01 2012

Say ‘Curt Schilling’ and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Bloody sock, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Phillies, World Series, outspoken. Plenty of word associations can be made, and many of them are baseball-related. For good reason, since Schilling is an all-time great starting pitcher. Two-hundred sixteen wins, a 3.46 ERA and 3,116 strikeouts are one hell of a career. Don’t forget the six All-Star Games, three Cy Young runner-ups and three World Series rings. (An 11-2 record, 2.23 ERA and 8.1 K/9 rate in 133 1/3 postseason innings isn’t too shabby, either.)

All of this is to say that Schilling is a really impressive baseball pitcher. Which makes it understandable that the competitiveness and determination he displayed on the mound might carry over to another part of his life. In this case, it’s his ownership in a video game company – 38 Studios. I recently interviewed Schilling about 38 Studios (38 representing his former jersey number) for ESPN The Magazine. The story is in the issue that comes out today. I thought it would be helpful to include on here the full 30-minute interview we conducted. So, you can read the story that is posted below this line and then turn to the interview. Enjoy and let me know what you think of Schilling’s mindset. Does he inspire you? Does he turn you off? Get at me through @KyleStack or +KyleStack.

Curt Schilling – The Reckoning

Kyle Stack: Why did you choose to start 38 Studios?
Curt Schilling: It’s just something I’ve always done – gaming. I’ve been doing it 30 years now; I’ve been gaming since 1980. And when I looked at my post-baseball career, I knew I was going to want to stay busy. I didn’t know it would be this busy. This was kind of a natural fit for me. I’ve always had a passion for it, always been interested in it and I’ve developed some relationships with athletes. It’s become a much bigger thing now. You won’t find a team where half the players don’t have a console; they have to have a laptop when they travel. But it was just something I’m interested in. It seemed like a natural fit once everything was said and done, and I wanted to put my energy into something else.

Kyle: What was your vision for the company when you started it?
Curt: I wanted to take a shot at being the best in the world at something else. I think I’ve always played with the ‘Go Big Or Go Home’ mentality. I think there were some chuckles at first – a lot of chuckles at first, I’m sure. I’m sure the company and I were the butt of a lot of jokes for a couple years, but I think, The Reckoning, the response that it’s getting…the conversation used to be 38 Studios the game company Curt Schilling started and now when they mention me as a part of this, it’s at the end of an article. The games have opened people’s eyes. I wanted to take a shot at doing something better than everybody else did it. In a job or an industry where nobody gave me any good odds.

Kyle: Has that vision changed now that 38 Studios has begun releasing games?
Curt: The end goal: no. But everything and nothing has changed in the meantime. The carryover from my former job and career as it relates to team and team-building and culture, and then this is a totally different work environment. That’s different.

Kyle: What do you spend most of your day doing?
Curt: I get in here anywhere from 7 to 8 o’clock in the morning. A lot of meetings, a lot of email. [Laughs] A lot of play testing. Every day is kind of a little different challenge. That’s been probably the hardest, most unsettling thing for me is being ADD and ADHD and all things that go with that…the thing I loved about starting pitching was the routine. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday all went the exact same and then I pitched on Saturday. This is the exact opposite of that life. Every day is a dice roll.

Kyle: When you email, I’m sure that includes a whole range of subjects – marketing, game development…
Curt: I’m on the periphery of all that stuff. I used to be the point man for all those emails, and I’m now a guy who’s cc’d. The best managers that I played for and played against weren’t the best tacticians. That always helps. But for me the best managers – the guys I was most committed to be around – were the guys who understood where to put their 25 players in the best position to succeed. Managing a baseball team, managing a football team, it isn’t as much about X’s-and-O’s; it’s about managing people. When you got Manny Ramirez and Tim Wakefield in the same clubhouse, or Jason Varitek, the same rules don’t always apply.

Kyle: Were your experiences with your managers primarily what helped you in learning how to run a company?
Curt: It’s one of the many things that helped me, absolutely. I’ve always believed that when you talk about the upper one-half of one percent in the world, you’re talking about a minute percentage of the multi-billion people on this planet. You could make an argument that for a couple years in my career I was one of the five best people in the world at what I did. What I tried to find out was why. I played with a lot of players who were physically gifted but most of them didn’t make it to the big leagues and didn’t succeed. I realize that when you talk about the upper one-half of one percent of people in the world, you’re talking about I think 95 percent of it is above the shoulders. They think differently, they do things differently. I think there’s a tremendous fear of failure. There was always for me.

And I think the other thing is I was incredibly coachable because I wanted to be the best. I wanted to learn about my craft, and this is no different. I sit in a lot of meetings and I’m around a lot of situations that it’s more important that I listen than talk. That’s obviously a challenge for me at times. But that’s what I’ve had to learn. The company is better and performs better in a lot of places when I don’t have input because these are really smart people [who work here].

Kyle: I’d think that the way you interact with people at 38 Studios is a lot different than how you interacted with teammates and coaches in baseball because of the differences in work environments.
Curt: It is and it isn’t. One of the things that I noticed is everybody wants to matter. Whether it’s the 25th guy on the roster or the ace; everybody wants to be important and have input. There are a lot of similarities if you look at the end goal: best in the world or world champions. It ends up being about everybody. A lot of people don’t get that, especially in the business world. In the business world, the priorities are who do I manage, who reports to me. It’s almost about lack of accountability. People don’t want to get in trouble for stuff.

What I’ve tried to do here is to create a very different environment. I don’t care if you don’t make a mistake if there’s effort in it and positive intent behind it; just don’t make the same mistake twice. That’s absolutely a baseball lesson. There are two types of players: those who are afraid to fail and those that are paralyzed by failure. The world has a lot of people who are paralyzed by failure because they don’t want to lose. They don’t want to get beat. But you make people understand losing and failing are two very different things. I played a job where you started the season in your head 50 and 50 and what you do in those other 62 games kind of determines how good you are. In a job where 30 percent success rate was Hall of Fame material, that’s a challenge. People don’t understand the difference between losing and failure. The only way you can actually fail something is by quitting. I’ve never quit anything in my life. I’ve lost a lot, but I became who I became and I did what I did because I hated losing so much that I didn’t ever want to feel it again. That’s what pushed me. So, I wanted to create an environment bought into the future of what we do and who we are.

It’s funny because six or eight months ago I had jerseys made for the company. Majestic made these jerseys, we put a 38 Studios logo on it and everybody’s name was on the back and it said 38 Studios on the front. I did it for two reasons: one, I thought it looked kind of cool. Two, I wanted to use the thing I had always heard in sports, that you play for the name on the front and not the name on the back. And that’s a very easy way to get a 23-year-old person who’s just come out of the Rhode Island School of Design as an artist to understand one of the core concepts of every world champion team there’s ever been. The more examples and the more times I could talk about those things…I was a field guy. Don’t tell me what the manual says to do; tell me what it feels like. And I think there’s a lot of that here. Explaining that to these people, I can give you a text book answer for it. But there’s an emotional piece that you need to understand.

Kyle: What makes The Reckoning unique among games?
Curt: Everything. I saw a review last week where a couple guys were going through the game. They were marking off where they felt like the game kind of felt like something else, where we had done something from God of War or Oblivion. It ended up being 14 or 15 games out of the RPG genre that they felt like we took some stuff from and at the end, it said, ‘This game isn’t a bit of this or a bit of that. They’ve taken the best pieces of everything and turned it into something we’ve never played before.’

This is God of War meets Oblivion. Those are probably the two most-referenced titles as you talk about [The] Reckoning. We’ve created combat that is, second to second, as deep and immersive as you choose it to be. If you just want to mash buttons, you can do that, too. We’ve created 10,000 years of history and lore where you can lose yourself for 100 hours reading the books and the lore and the history of the world or none. We’ve given both genres – the action-fighting combat player and the deep, questing RPG player – a game where they can get immersed in and I believe we’re the first company to ever succeed in its execution. I know others have tried it but I think we’re actually the first to do it.

Kyle: What type of person will enjoy this game?
Curt: If you’ve played any of the Oblivion series, you’re going to love it. If you’ve played God of War, if combat is something you enjoy, then you’re going to love it. Everything about the quest system and the combat system is easy to learn but very difficult to master. You look for that magic elixir when you’re creating entertainment and the team in Baltimore nailed this one. If you loved Fable, you’re going to love this game. I’ve heard a lot of people say this is what Fable 3 tried to be. In addition to being stunningly gorgeous – the world is amazing – I don’t think fans of any of those titles will have a problem putting hours and hours of time into this product.

Kyle: What is it about the Fantasy and RPG genres that appeal to you?
Curt: Well, I think fantasy is inherent in all of us, to some degree. When you were a kid, you were a cowboy or astronaut or a knight, a hero. We all grow up believing in fantasy as one of the things that carry kids through their childhood, in a good way. And I don’t think we ever grow out of it. I think it matures.

It used to be a hidden indulgence for people. To find out somebody in Hollywood plays Dungeons & Dragons – publicists don’t say those things about players. You have athletes openly admitting to spending…now, if you at professional sports now, what’s the coolest thing these athletes can do? They can get a commercial for PlayStation or Call of Duty; it’s hilarious. That, to me, is kind of how much entertainment has invaded and is so pervasive in our lives. How we get entertained is different and what we entertain ourselves with is very different. We’re growing up with a generation of kids who have the Internet as their playground and has been since they were 7, 8 or 9.

Kyle: Did you get a lot of your teammates in your playing days to play video games?
Curt: Oh, absolutely. The last year I was in Boston 2007, I had J.D. Drew and Coco Crisp playing World of Warcraft. It’s funny because Coco ended up going to Kansas City and Zack Greinke is a hardcore World of Warcraft player, and they were running a guild of 60 people. All of the people were Major League Baseball players.

When I was in Arizona and then Boston, I had two gaming console units packed up in bags that we would take on the plane with us with portable TVs and play Madden or whatever on long flights.

Kyle: Well, as a baseball player and a pitcher, you’re always on the road and you have some downtime, right?
Curt: Oh, yeah. If you look at a potential nirvana for a gamer, I had the perfect life. I had a lot of disposable income, I had a lot of free time and I was by myself a lot. And that was part of the reason I became such an avid gamer. The other reason was you guys. When you look at the proliferation of sports media and media in general, you didn’t have to look far to get a story about an elite athlete doing something wrong. Being in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, whatever. I was in enough situations – or a couple situations – early in my career where I wasn’t actually involved in anything that happened. I was just in the area and the event ended up being a story on SportsCenter. And when I met my wife and got married, I realized I was a bad choice away from jeopardizing my marriage. I had kids. This is what I did on the road. This was my social life.

When you look at MMOs – Massive Multiplayer Online games – I had the ability to “hang out”, meet people. The stereotype of living in mom’s basement: that’s not the gamer anymore.

Kyle: Does having this studio satisfy your competitiveness?
Curt: It’s different. The challenge is in baseball, as a starter, that every five days I got my fix. I would lose and spend four days being more miserable than anybody on the planet and then I could do something about it on the fifth day. The wins and losses right now are much further apart. You have to find those daily wins. My favorite part of this company is being on the floor and hanging out with the team in the dugout, so to speak, talking about what we’re doing, where we want to go and what we want to be. Being able to empower these kids to do things they never thought possible. That’s kind of my job here is to inspire these people to do things they never even considered, much less considered they could do.

Kyle: Was there one facet of your industry that you learned about more than anything else during development of The Reckoning?
Curt: One of the things I had an idea of early on is how little value is placed on people and their families. This is an industry of very high turnover and a lot of attrition. They don’t place a premium on the people. It’s all about fiscal quarters and shareholder meetings, much more so than it is about the health and well-being of their families. Coming from a profession where they say a happy wife is a happy life, I think it’s something I’ve tried to bring here.

Valuing not just the employees but their families and making their families understand they’re every bit a part of this company as the employees themselves. I went to work for 20-something years in professional baseball, and I don’t ever remember whether it was making $700 per month in Rookie ball or $15 million, I don’t ever remember my paycheck being the reason why I was happy or sad. I was miserable and happy for all the same reasons you are. When my family was healthy and good and the team was winning, life was good. When my wife not healthy or my kids were sick or we were arguing, it wasn’t good; it didn’t matter how I was pitching. I don’t think a lot of people understand that.

And obviously it’s easy for me to say, because I did make a lot of money, but I didn’t start out making a lot of money. I didn’t sign for a big bonus; I didn’t make a lot of money as a young player. And I took the same risks and chances everybody else did. But even after getting to the pinnacle of the game – world championships and things like that – my happiness had to do with my faith in God and the happiness and health of my family.

Kyle: It seems like part of your outlook on how you treat people at 38 Studios is because you didn’t get that while playing baseball.
Curt: I would agree with that. You think about, I played 20-something years. The amount of people I played with as teammates is well over 1,000. I probably legitimately talk with less than ten. You don’t become close with a lot of people because the life is not conducive to it. You’re forced to be with people; you don’t have a choice. You do here. To me, that’s the value. This is not a place to work. It’s a place to belong. I think it’s a very different outlook and approach. Being apart of this team is different. It matters.

Kyle: Was there one challenge you faced in developing The Reckoning that you proved difficult to overcome?
Curt: The game is built on proprietary technology. It’s our own engine and all things that go with it. But for me, the biggest challenge has been in the marketing and advertising [of the game]. Players of both genres – the combat-action genre and the RPG genre – neither of them believe the other aspect is actually there. Our combat players, when you look at this game it’s very hard to believe that a quest, stat-driven system is what drives the gameplay. For questing and RPG players, it’s hard to believe that it has a true meaning or impact on the combat. Explaining to people what it is has been the biggest challenge.

The development piece…they cut it, they figured it out, they knew what they had to do and they committed to it. They busted their asses and wore themselves out over the past year and a half on insane schedules to do that. They always worry and I’m sure there was always concern about actually delivering different pieces. In the end, we actually did what we set out to do and it’s been very challenging to tell people exactly how we did it or what we did.

Kyle: You obviously have to know your customers very well.
Curt: That’s the challenge is we’re asking EA to market something they’ve never marketed. They truly don’t believe it’s been done before. I don’t think anybody has made this game before. Other people have tried but we’ve executed. You were asking EA to market something that traditional standard marketing and PR advertising campaigns aren’t going to work. It’s been a challenge.

Given the economy we’ve been in the last five or six years, I’ve been able to help save and create 400-something jobs. And that means 400 families have had their lives changed by being involved here, which is a pretty powerful and cool thing.

Kyle: It’s good to see that you think that way. I wish other companies had the same approach.
Curt: I mean, honestly, I have $30 million-plus of my own money in the company. I have my own skin in the game, so there’s a personal piece to this that [other companies] don’t have. I’ve gone all-in; I’ve bet all-in on these people. And companies generally don’t bet on their people. They bet on their products and there is a big difference.





Nike’s Hyper Elite Platinum Uniforms

25 01 2012

Nike has fused low uniform weight with environmental conservation. Who isn’t going ‘green’ these days? In an increasingly critical and informed society, the pressure is on companies to practice social responsibility.

A company’s ability to lighten its environmental footprint resonates with customers. People want great products, but many are placing value on how those products are made. Another good example of that came from a Nike event I attended this morning for their Hyper Elite Platinum college basketball uniforms.

Within the bowels of the Hudson Hotel on NYC’s Westside, Nike unveiled why these uniforms are unique: they’re the lightest basketball uniforms ever made, according to them. The unis clock in at less than a pound – five ounces for the shorts and roughly the same for the jerseys. Nike said a pound of weight was removed from their previous college basketball uniforms. Other design techniques, such as laser cutting holes in the side panels of the jerseys and shorts and removing stitching in favor of bonded seams, cuts out miniscule amounts of weight.

The jerseys are made with at least 96 percent recycled polyester with 12 plastic bottles, on average, comprising the material. The shorts are 100 percent recycled polyester and are made from 11 plastic bottles, on average. Nike said that 440 million plastic bottles that would have made their way to landfills were diverted from there to their manufacturers to create these uniforms. There is your social responsibility. Improve the environment and (hopefully) make a great product at the same time.

Rather than bore you with more tech and design chatter, I figured I’d display a group of thumbnails. This way, you can see what the jerseys look like. I’m interested in what you think. Does a company practicing social responsibility matter to you? Does it affect the way you perceive them? Are you more interested in buying products from companies that do something good for the environment? And what do you think of the design of these uniforms?

                                                  





Under Armour Honors Gary Williams

24 01 2012

Nike is to Oregon as Under Armour is to Maryland, right? Uhh, not quite, although UA is making the connection with their local major university that Nike has established with its local college. UA’s dedication to making Maryland’s football team a test lab for its uniform designs and functions garnered attention this past college football season.

UA is further extending its relationship with Maryland to basketball by helping honor former men’s coach, Gary Williams. Williams retired from coaching college ball last May after a 33-year career, 22 of which came with the Terps. He’ll be honored January 25th at Maryland before their game against Duke. The university will name its court at Comcast Center by calling it Gary Williams Court, and Under Armour is finishing out the dedication with three shoes in honor of the coach.

Maryland players will wear the Bloodline and Juke while the Funk will be given to Williams in a commemorative box. Heck of a design job by UA to dress up these kicks. This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s one more way for Under Armour to deepen its association with the university that they probably hope becomes as identifiable with them as Oregon is with Nike.

(From L-R: Bloodline, Juke, Funk, Funk in the box)