Inside the Montreal Canadiens’ Drought

The name is ceaselessly evocative. The jersey is borderline sacred. The history is intoxicating. To the outside world of casual sports fans, the Montreal Canadiens are the hockey team. From the Original Six heritage to twenty-four Stanley Cups glistening in the cabinet, this is an illustrious jewel on the sporting landscape, operating in that rarefied circle with Real Madrid and the New York Yankees. It’s the hallowed Forum, the rabid fanbase; the implacable mystique and the indelible memories. It’s Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau, Patrick Roy and Guy Lafleur. It’s the essence of all that hockey once was.

However, times change and eras drift away. Power shifts and new chapters are written. Unfortunately for Habs fans across the globe, the relevance of their beloved team is now fuelled only by the fruits of former glories. The Canadiens are still by far the most successful team ever to grace the ice, but the Stanley Cup hasn’t returned to Montreal since 1993. Indeed, the Habs have only won two championships in the last thirty-six years, a far cry from bygone hegemony.

An entire generation has grown up worshipping the idea or notion of Canadien dominance, rather than experiencing it first hand. I was born a year after the Habs’ last triumph, which is extremely disconcerting. I adore the sweater, so ingrained with meaning. I love the stories, passed down from tribe elders, about Canadien class and dignity. I appreciate the phenomenon, all while dealing with the frustrating reality of modern Habs hockey.

That frustration is largely born of a yawning chasm between past and present, then and now, perception and reality. As fans, we’re proud of the tradition and history. Winning twenty-four Stanley Cups provides a licence to gloat, a reason to be confident. But, in my lifetime, the Montreal Canadiens have been decidedly mediocre in almost every facet of the game. Since 1993, twelve franchises have won more games, and thirteen have scored more goals. The Habs have only had three MVP winners in the last thirty-eight years, and one forty-goal season since Jean Chretien was Canadian Prime Minister.

For the past twenty-three years, so bland and unforgiving, the Montreal Canadiens have been an ordinary team trapped in a legendary body, an average assemblage weighed down by La Sainte-Flanelle. That is cause for nagging disappointment.

When the impenetrable Patrick Roy led the Habs to their twenty-fourth Cup, causing celebratory riots throughout Montreal, very few people could have foresaw the impending drought. The favoured sons offered a fairly weak defence of their championship in 1994, falling in the Conference Quarter-Finals, before missing the playoffs entirely a year later. That was the first postseason shorn of the Canadiens in twenty-five years, and fingers were swiftly pointed towards infighting between rich players and poor players, French players and English-speaking players. It was all quite unsavoury, as head coach Jacques Demers lost control and, ultimately, his job.

However, a new nadir was authored by his successor, the vastly inexperienced Mario Tremblay. Despite no previous coaching experience, Tremblay seized control of the most powerful hockey team in the world. It was rather like a rookie Priest becoming Pope, tasked with leading a global faith despite lacking the requisite tools. Naturally, it ended in disaster, as the players struggled to respect Tremblay, who wielded unbelievable autonomy and stoked disputes with several players.

The sorry situation boiled over on 2nd December 1995, one of the darkest days in Canadiens history. The Habs were dismantled by the Detroit Red Wings, who ran out 11-1 victors in the Forum. Roy, a legendary goaltender, was left in to allow nine goals on twenty-six shot, as fickle fans jeered mercilessly. This thorough degradation was yet another episode in the saga between Roy and coach Tremblay, who almost came to blows on several occasions.

When Roy was eventually pulled from the worst game in Habs history, midway through the second period, he stormed past Tremblay and approached team President Ronald Corey. “This is my last game in Montreal!” barked Roy, who was subsequently traded to the Colorado Avalanche, where he won the Stanley Cup on two further occasions.

Meanwhile, the Canadiens were plunged into an extended stretch of mediocrity without their franchise cornerstone. Between 1995-2003, Montreal missed the playoffs on four of eight occasions, as their birthright was snatched away. At the beginning of that run, Corey purged the front office, with Rejean Houle, a communications man within the Molson Brewery, becoming GM. Unfortunately, he was ill-equipped to run a team of this magnitude, and things unravelled swiftly for the Canadiens.

Where once patience and pragmatic construction led to repeatable success, Houle oversaw a transient philosophy lacking in conviction and clarity. Essentially, it was boom or bust, with only infrequent booms. The Habs traded away numerous marquee players, namely Pierre Turgeon and Vinny Damphousse, for minimal return, as Houle resembled a troubled gambler chasing his money in Vegas. A series of poor draft choices compounded the misconceived trades, as a talent vacuum opened up in Montreal. The NHL’s expansion from just six teams prior to 1966 to twenty-four teams by 1992 also contributed to the demise, as the Habs’ empire crumbled, one myopic move at a time.

In 1996, the Canadiens moved into a new arena, the Molson Centre, leaving behind the original cathedral of hockey. Many fans believe that part of the Canadiens’ soul was damaged irreparably in the move, as an intrinsic part of Habs mystique was lost. Indeed, the team managed to win just one playoff series in its first five years at the new barn. A new divisional alignment made the Stanley Cup even more elusive, and Tremblay eventually resigned, only for his replacement, the obscure Alain Vigneault, to mastermind the Habs’ worst statistical season in forty years in 1998-99.

On the ice, Montreal lacked a distinct identity. However, those problems were accentuated by a changing business landscape within the wider industry. “The Canadiens balance sheet was also a mess,” writes D’Arcy Jenish in The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory. Molson Companies Ltd. announced that its sports and entertainment division – which essentially consisted of the Canadiens and the Molson centre – had lost $3.8 million in the year ended March 31, 1999.

“Free agency and rising salaries were driving costs through the roof. The low value of the Canadian dollar compounded the problem. The team earned its revenues in Canada, but paid its players in US dollars. Then there was the tax burden. The city of Montreal charged the Molson Centre $9.6m annually in property, business and water taxes – more than the combined bill of the NHL’s twenty-one American clubs.

“Once, hockey decisions alone – draft choices, trades and the capabilities of those hired to coach and manage – had determined how the team performed. Now, an onerous tax burden and unfavourable economics were undermining the organisation’s ability to compete.”

In January 2001, a Wisconsin businessman named George Gillett bought an 80% stake in the Canadiens and their arena for US$185 million. By most measuring sticks, this was a considerable bargain for such a flagship franchise, but Molson needed to cut its losses and the Canadiens were judged as little other than a faltering business. Gillett had a pretty murky past, with bankruptcy cases blighting his reputation, and many Habs fans were sceptical of American ownership. However, he did restore the franchise to a sound footing, with clear signs of commercial growth, even if problems persisted on the ice.

During the 2001-02 season, the Habs were inspired by influential centre Saku Koivu, who overcame a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to help Montreal secure a playoff place. The Finn wasn’t expected to return that season, and was showered with an eight-minute ovation by the faithful crowd upon his early return. That night, the new arena discovered its soul. That night, some of the grand Canadiens lustre returned. That night, a sense of building momentum was palpable.

With Koivu leading the way, Montreal beat the top-seed Boston Bruins in the Conference Quarter-Finals, only to exit abruptly against the Carolina Hurricanes. Nevertheless, people began to believe in rookie coach Michel Therrien, and hope for a bright future was tangible. In retrospect, that just made the subsequent struggle even more arduous.

In 2003, Bob Gainey, a beloved Habs icon, returned as General Manager. The move was lauded by fans and the media, as better times seemed to lurk around the corner. Yet, Gainey inherited a fairly mediocre team, and most of his attention was dedicated to extinguishing real time fires, at the expense of long-term planning. Ever prideful, Canadiens fans wouldn’t tolerate a full-scale rebuild to lose profusely and accrue high draft picks, so a melancholy stasis pervaded in Montreal.

New coach Claude Julien led the Habs to another Conference Semi-Final defeat in 2004, before an ugly lockout wiped away the 2004/05 season. During the intense labour negotiations, a salary cap was instituted across the league. In times gone by, the Canadiens relied on the Reserve Clause and player loyalty to keep their teams together, only for the advent of free agency to blow that modus operandi apart. Theoretically, the salary cap should have helped a franchise still feeling the effects of a turbulent economy, but the rule placed greater emphasis on quality drafting and player development, areas in which the Habs struggled mightily.

Accordingly, the wait for a Canadien renaissance was fairly long. It almost came in 2007-08, when coach Guy Carbonneau secured the Habs’ first division title in fifteen years, with a team featuring future building blocks like Carey Price, Andrei Markov, Alexei Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec. But, in a familiar tale, the Habs couldn’t progress beyond the Conference Semi-Finals, where the Philadelphia Flyers beat them in five games.

In 2009, the Molson family regained ownership of the franchise, with Geoff Molson and his brothers Andrew and Justin paying around $575 million for the Canadiens and their arena, by then known as the Bell Centre for sponsorship reasons. Unfortunately, the new group couldn’t inspire success in its first season, as the Canadiens took a step back in losing at the Conference Quarter-Finals stage once again. Increasingly, this was becoming a problem more of hunger and pride rather than skill and semantics. Quite frankly, the Habs lacked that invincible belief of yesteryear, to the chagrin of fans.

Gainey finally hired an experienced coach in Jacques Martin, who steered the Habs to an unlikely Conference Finals showdown with the Flyers. Nevertheless, Montreal was demolished in five games, by a combined score of 17-7, concluding a mediocre decade of Habs hockey. Indeed, it was the first decade since the 1900s in which Montreal failed to win a single Stanley Cup.

At that point, Gainey stepped aside, to be replaced by Pierre Gauthier, a former scouting director with the team. Montreal reached the Conference Quarter-Finals in 2011, before the Bruins halted their less than convincing progress. Increased playing time for heralded prospects like defenceman PK Subban and left winger Max Pacioretty informed of a bright future, even if extreme teething problems were felt in 2011-12, when the Habs finished last in their division.

Gauthier was subsequently fired, and Marc Bergevin seized control of hockey operations. He inherited something of a mess from a salary cap standpoint, but at least had a tangible core with which to work. Though inconsistent, Price, Pacioretty and Subban were widely considered jewels in the next Canadien crown, and that notion was justified in 2012-13, as the Habs won their division in a lockout-shortened campaign. A crushing Conference Quarter-Finals defeat to Ottawa seemed painfully predictable, but it was great to see the Canadiens back in contention. After bottoming out, they finally had a new bedrock. The next problem was rebuilding the mansion and crashing through its ceiling of expectation.

In 2013-14, the Canadiens felt like a team of destiny. Price was growing; Subban was more effective; and Pacioretty was a constant danger. The Habs qualified for their second successive postseason, and managed to topple the Bruins before facing the New York Rangers in a tense Conference Final. In many ways, that was one series too far for this precocious team, which battled with refreshing vigour but came unstuck in six absorbing games.

The following season, Price morphed further into the planet’s greatest goalie, winning the Vezina and Hart Trophies. On many nights, he seemed almost impenetrable, and his phenomenal performance created a genuine buzz among Canadiens fans, who saw Price as a throwback to former glories. With Carey acting like a one-man blockade, the Bell Centre became a trendy destination again. And with Subban, Pacioretty and Plekanec providing enough offensive ammunition, the Habs became relevant once more. They won the Atlantic division, amid excited Cup chatter, only to meet a buzz-saw in Tampa Bay as injuries and fatigue crept in. It was all over before it ever really begun.

This season, any notion of a playoff hangover was dispelled as the Canadiens enjoyed a phenomenal start. They won their first nine games, and were one victory short of equalling the best start in league history. Montreal talk radio was alive with optimism; the papers waxed lyrical about the outstanding nucleus driving this team forward; and Habs fans began to dream of a resurfacing juggernaut.

Then, the bottom fell out.

On 25th November 2015, Price sustained a lower body injury against the Rangers. The initial assessment called for a six-week absence, which dragged on for months. At the time of writing, he still hasn’t returned. Removing an all-world player from any team in any sport for that length of time will cause major problems. However, these things are sent to test teams, and the best find ways to rise above individual loss. Take the St Louis Cardinals of baseball or the New England Patriots of gridiron. They fill the void, share the load. The next guy steps up. Yet, for the Montreal Canadiens, that simply never happened, as a vacuous culture was exposed, intensified by managerial paralysis.

From a skill standpoint, Mike Condon and Ben Scrivens weren’t adequate replacements for Carey Price. But, from a leadership standpoint, Pacioretty didn’t do enough as captain, while Subban, though exceptionally talented, embodies the Habs’ current irascibility. Also, veterans like Plekanec, Markov and Brendan Gallagher struggled to make an impact.

Therrien was exposed as a poor tactical coach without Price’s magnificence to counteract his chronic mistakes. His man-management skills may be even worse, as his repeated criticism of core players has contributed to a fairly poisonous environment. Similarly, Bergevin was seemingly stuck in a state of paralysis as the wheels fell off. He didn’t acquire a better goaltender or fire Therrien or upgrade the roster, when all those things would have improved the Canadiens’ situation.

The result? Montreal has played atrocious hockey for a very long stretch. After leading the Conference for a fleeting period, the Habs have plunged so low that even a Wildcard berth appears improbable.

Accordingly, the future, seemingly so bright even a year ago, now appears rather uncertain. It’s logical, although far from guaranteed, to expect a new coach next season, and Bergevin probably deserves an opportunity to resuscitate his project, but the baseline of hope is blurry at best. The core is still in its prime years and under team control for the medium-term future, so optimism can be found. The major question is whether Price, Pacioretty and Subban can skate on the ice together for any sustained regularity. If they can, the Habs are an instant contender. If they can’t, the riddle continues unabated.

At the Bell Centre, still a mystical seat of hockey tradition, numerous banners hang from the rafters. Nineteen denote those legends whose numbers were retired, while twenty-four hang in perpetual homage to the championships captured by this storied franchise. However, none of those cherished players ever skated a single minute for the Habs at the Bell Centre, and exactly zero of the Cups were won there. Therefore, it’s almost like a monument to a different team, a bygone era. Montreal yearns for a Cup, if only to unite the Canadiens’ illustrious past with its disconcerting present, and restore order where chaos reigns.


The Sad Demise of Free-to-Air Sport

With every passing year, I feel more grateful for the era and surroundings in which I grew up. The 2000s were a golden time for sport, which was more accessible and less hostile than today. On any given night, I could flick through the portable TV and be transported to alternate worlds of lush escapism, totally free of charge.

I might have stumbled across Martin Palermo and Juan Roman Riquelme playing for Boca Juniors on Channel 5, or become engrossed by Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz batting for the Boston Red Sox. I may have found a glorious rerun of Ajax against PSV from Amsterdam, or highlights of the Stanley Cup playoffs, without signing my life away for the pleasure.

As a kid, I fell in love with obscure and wonderful sport through these means. I was particularly besotted with Major League Baseball and football from the Netherlands and South America. Similarly, Champions League nights were some of the most magical of my childhood, from the Milan-Juventus final at Old Trafford in 2003 to the unforgettable majesty of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola.

That such an array of sport could be watched on terrestrial TV was a privileged that still touches my soul. It was sheer bliss, a gift for which I’m eternally thankful. It was, quite simply, a halcyon age of freedom, when people didn’t take themselves too seriously and conglomerates were yet to create a gaping casm between sport and its fans.

By contrast, my sport-watching experience as an adult has been very dissatisfying. Much of the enchantment has been lost beneath a mountain of bureaucracy, the meaning obscured behind an imposing paywall. A teenager of modernity would struggle to comprehend just how much sport was once available on free-to-air TV, which speaks to a landscape that has been altered almost beyond recogition.

It’s sad that many children can no longer switch on the TV and simply enjoy sport. Sure, we have Match of the Day and major events every two or four years, but most elite sport is now inaccessible without negotiating a minefield of subscriptions and appeasing companies who’ve interjected themselves into the process just for the sake of profit. For example, it would now cost more than £900 per year to watch the sports that were free on my childhood TV. How are working class families from a similar background supposed to afford that? For many, it’s not even worth considering.

Capitalism has made sport a thing to be guarded and hid, rationed mainly to the wealthy. But I believe sport shouldn’t belong to any one person. Governing bodies should not act like businesses, and genteel pastimes should not be obfuscated by commercial machinery. Football, once a game for the masses, is now a product, a brand, an asset bound by copyright, rather than something we can all enjoy freely and socially. Frankly, the world of sport TV rights has outgrown the world of sport, and very few people are standing up for the little man. By all means, have stewards and guardians for sport, but they have to take a more realistic and compassionate outlook rather than caring solely about the bottom line.

Obviously, subscription channels have a right to operate and make profit, just like any person or entity. If people are willing to pay, their system is seemingly validated. Furthermore, the increased revenue from pay TV has contributed to better facilities and standards in many sports, which deserves adequate recognition. However, there’s a proud history of sport on terrestrial TV in this country, and I feel that tradition has largely been lost.

The bygone boom began in the 1980s, with Channel 4 introducing Britain to Dan Marino, Joe Montana, and the colourful world of American football. The success of that innovation led Channel 5 to follow a similar path in the nineties, and it’s sporting commitment created something of a nirvana. At various times, Five held the rights to all four major North American sports leagues, with baseball, presented by the immortal Jonny Gould, becoming its longest running show. Late night sport on Five was a phenomenon, and people simply fell in love with the coverage and culture.

Mark Webster was a major part of that. A veteran sports presenter, Mark fronted the basketball coverage for Five after an earlier stint with Channel 4. “All the terrestrial channels will dip in and out of seeing sport as good for ratings, credibility and revenue,” he explains. “During that period, Channel Five really went for it, and I’d assume for all three of those reasons. They certainly put themselves on the historical map as a crucial part of building a profile for North American sport.

“To essentially be the fan in the hot seat, and then get to pick the brains and swap giggles with fellas who really knew their onions was great,” Webster continues. “I really got to spread my wings by including so much of the cultural element of basketball coverage. For instance, having Coolio in the studio in the middle of the night, talking about sport and music, was marvellous.”

Unfortunately, free-to-air coverage of such variety and appeal is now consigned to memory. The decline of terrestrial sports coverage, in both quality and volume, has felt almost inexorable for a whole generation of people. The present landscape, bland and dissatisfying, can be traced directly to 1990, when BSkyB was formed at the forefront of a satellite revolution. Many consider it sport’s Big Bang moment, the singular explosion that set beloved hobbies on course for a different commercial stratosphere. Certainly, things haven’t been the same since.

When the football season finished in 1991, first division clubs voted unanimously to break away and form the Premier League, a competition that allowed its members greater commercial autonomy. Most notably, clubs wrestled control of their negotiating rights with regard to TV, as Sky outbid ITV to make a £304 million investment.

“Sky’s acquisition of Premier League rights was the first time that a pay TV broadcaster had a top sporting event in the UK,” says Julian Moore, a sports rights lawyer at Pinsent Masons. “In terms of the sports broadcasting market, it was the game-changer. Had that deal failed, perhaps things would have been different, but it was a success, and one that led to Sky’s dominance of the market.”

Indeed, Sky built an empire around its Premier League hub. It paid £670 million to renew the contract in 1997, before a further outlay of £1.1 billion in 2001. By that point, Sky was racing far ahead of its major competitors, with its vast budget far outstripping what anybody else could afford. The channel dabbled with early NFL coverage, while the Champions League was another lucrative product. In time, wise people tried to replicate the Sky model, with channels such as Setanta Sports, ESPN and BT Sport forming from a pool of residual envy. This was a major blow for terrestrial sport, which struggled to survive amid constant pressure from the big boys who set the new market precedent.

Back in 1991, Home Secretary Kenneth Baker foresaw the dystopian eventuality, and suggested ring-fencing certain sports solely for terrestrial coverage. This was the genesis of a movement that led to the Independent Television Commission drawing up a list of protected events that would remain free-to-air, away from the juggernaut poachers. The list was subsequently revised in 1997, and currently states that sacrosanct events – such as the FIFA World Cup and Olympics, among others – must be shown live. The legislature also ensures that highlights of other events – home cricket internationals and the like – are shown on terrestrial channels.

The protected events list has been challenged on numerous occasions by companies that yearn to erect a paywall around its contents. However, at this point, it’s pretty much our only guard against the total loss of sport on terrestrial TV. Elsewhere, we’ve seen that Sky and BT have infinite budgets, which they’ve used effectively whenever rival channels have fallen on hard times. Therefore, the protected events list offers some salvation for those who cannot afford subscription TV.

In many respects, the success of pay TV is an extensive mosaic, compromised of tiles from the failure of terrestrial stations. For instance, when the global financial crisis put a strain on Channel Five in 2008, it was forced to cut costs, and its legendary North American sports coverage didn’t survive. Game 5 of the 2009 NBA finals, won by the Los Angeles Lakers over the Orlando Magic, was the final US sports event covered live by Five, bringing a sad end to a wonderful era that began with a New York Yankees-Seattle Mariners baseball game in 1997.

As millions mourned the loss of a magical late-night sports strand, ESPN seized an opportunity by moving into the British market and hoovering up the MLB and NBA rights. Sky expanded its NFL portfolio, although that league was admirably defiant in its desire for a terrestrial footprint in Britain, as Channel 4 enjoyed a renaissance between 2010-15.

Essentially, from 2010 onwards, it became an uphill battle to watch elite sport in this country without paying exorbitantly for the pleasure. My love for baseball was so intense that I purchased MLB TV, granting me access to every game, but the intimacy of Five’s coverage is still sorely missed. Moreover, my ability to follow gridiron, basketball and ice hockey has been severely hampered by the migration of rights to pay TV, and hope of any return is diminishing. Sky holds the rights to all NFL games until at least 2019, which is incredibly disheartening for those who cannot afford to pay.

However, the loss of mainstream sport to pay TV is perhaps even more worrying. BT paid £897 million for the rights to Champions League coverage this season, taking it off terrestrial TV for the first time since the competition was rebranded in 1992. Admittedly, the channel has made a handful of games available for free via its Showcase service, but the lack of viewer freedom is concerning.

Meanwhile, the BBC is haemorrhaging sport as it attempts to plug a £150 million black hole in its budget. With its allocation reduced by £35 million, the sports rights department has been forced into making a string of difficult decisions. In terms of rights, it has lost horse racing, French Open tennis, Football League highlights, Open and Masters golf, and Formula 1 in the past three years, while the contracts for darts and snooker may not be renewed beyond 2017. Even the Olympics will only be sub-licensed to the BBC from 2022, after it was outbid by the parent company of Eurosport.

While many of those contracts have been taken up by free-to-air rivals, some haven’t, as the range of options dwindles for casual fans. As Moore explains, terrestrial channels are restricted both by their budget and lack of advertising flexibility, which blunts their effectiveness in the war for sports rights. “The terrestrial channels simply can’t compete with the sums that Sky and BT Sports can,” he says. “That situation has been exacerbated by increased competition for rights, particularly amongst the pay TV broadcasters, which has driven the asking price even higher. I’m convinced that, amongst the terrestrial channels, the appetite exists to broadcast sport, but, for real premium content, they don’t have the budgets.”

Ultimately, terrestrial channels have a duty to provide diverse and well-rounded content for a large strata of society. We all like different things, and we all want to watch different shows. On the contrary, subscription sports channels are unburdened from that responsibility, and they have licence to throw their entire resources at one area. They don’t have to worry about crime documentaries when contemplating a run at NFL rights, or soap operas when pursuing the Champions League bounty. Accordingly, in the war for premium sports rights, they will always have the heavy machinery, while terrestrial executives can only muster spud guns.

So, what does the future hold? Well, our viewing habits have changed considerably, as the digital age eats at our time and more content is consumed on demand. But live sport seemingly overrides that concept and still has the power to unite us like little else. For instance, 17 million people watched Andy Murray win Wimbledon in 2013, while 90% of the British population watched part of the Olympics coverage a year earlier. Therefore, the appetite for elite sport on terrestrial TV is still definitely there, but it may go unsatisfied as with the simple machinations of finance.

Sport still enables the BBC to fulfil some of its key public purposes, and what coverage remains is typically of a high quality. Yet, in a post-broadcast age where the destination of sports rights is determined by crude money, it will be increasingly difficult for them to compete. The corporation is also set to make a £600 million commitment to cover the cost of TV licences for people over 75, which is a noble cause, but one that will tighten the margins even further.

Accordingly, we may require government legislation to maintain and possibly expand the breadth of sport on terrestrial TV. In all likelihood, subscription channels will continue to attack the listed events law, so we need it to remain robust, otherwise sport may disappear entirely from free-to-air screens.

Will we ever see the baseball World Series or extensive Champions League football return to terrestrial TV? With a heavy heart, my intuition says no. That boat has seemingly sailed, leaving only memories of a glorious age which may never be repeated.

Why We’re Fascinated By Al Capone

Hillside, Illinois, a sleepy village of 8,000 souls, is a fairly unremarkable place. There is little to do there, other than sample the classic trappings of small town America. Yet nestled near its heart is Mount Carmel Cemetery, the resting place of the most notorious gangster who ever lived, making this a highly unlikely tourist destination.

The grave is obscured by shrubbery, but one imposing slab of concrete dwarfs the rest in a symbolic tribute to the man buried beneath. On the ground, the words Alphonse Capone are chiseled with grand simplicity into a headstone, followed by the dates of his lifespan, the years of his reign: 1899-1947

People take photographs beside this grave like teenagers at a concert or backpackers near a famous landmark. The headstone is often littered with gifts, ranging from cigars and beer bottles to flowers and notes of thanks. Cemetery staff are forced to clear the mementos regularly, maintaining an unintended shrine to a man of incredible evil.

This appetite to be near Al Capone, to celebrate his life, isn’t confined to a sleepy graveyard fifteen miles west of Chicago. On the contrary, entire industries have spawned to feed this disconcerting desire. In June 2011, Capone’s personal handgun sold for $110,000 at auction. The following year, a Cadillac model 341 fetched $341,000 on the strength of testimony from one man who vaguely remembered his father tailoring the car for Scarface. 

Our culture is simply obsessed with Al Capone, whose iconic image and everlasting charisma inspire awe to this day. People collect paraphernalia related to his business, have tattoos depicting his likeness, and wear merchandise bearing his legendary quotations. Some open restaurants and imitation speakeasies in homage to the man, while others foster his taste in clothes or liquor. An entire genre of film and literature glorifies his work, and in Iceland, there is even a contest for the best Al Capone impersonator. 

So just why are we so fascinated by a man who saw killing as part of some grand business plan? Why does a brutal gangster who died sixty-nine years ago stimulate devotion from fans? How did Al Capone become such a powerful icon, and what does that say about our society?

The most simple answer is pure nostalgia. Our attempts to recreate Capone through film, music and literature can be seen as a yearning for that bygone age of American advancement when Babe Ruth hit homers, Charles Lindbergh flew planes, and Henry Ford built cars. There was something magical about that era, defined by fedora hats and city slicker confidence. It was a time of freedom, of fertile dreams, of unending possibility. Perhaps we realize those things aren’t true in our modern context, and thus relics of a glorious epoch are held dear to our hearts. Al Capone presiding over his self-made empire is one such relic, and one by which we’re fittingly intoxicated.

“He fits the mold of a complete gangster,” says Mario Gomes, the owner of a virtual Al Capone museum. “His name, his looks, his ability to hold Chicago in his grip for many years. I think it’s what Capone represented that makes him popular to this day. He represents respect, lawlessness, corruption, power and death.”

In many respects, Capone is a transcendent oxymoron. He left a trail of murder and destruction, but did so in compliance with an underworld code of honor that won him respect. He would remove anybody who stifled his omnipotent vision, yet often paid hospital bills for innocent people caught in the crossfire. Al Capone was a celebrity, perhaps the only gangster ever to stage press conferences. People loved his charismatic image, even if it was a contrived facade for selfish gain. Quite aside from his despicable acts, Capone became synonymous with opulence and success, wealth and class, serenity and confidence. Those traits are highly admirable and deeply persuasive.

“It’s bad to look up to any criminal,” Gomes explains. “But I think it’s important to differentiate between, say, Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer and Al Capone. We look at these old-time gangsters in a different light as the years distance them from their misdeeds. 

“Hollywood helps glamorize these historic figures into icons. Capone had other gangsters killed; the same gangsters who would have killed him. The romance with the gangsters of that era is based on the respect towards the unspoken rules of the game back then. When a gang wanted to kill an opposing gang member, they made sure he was alone and not with his family. If he was with his family, then they would wait for another opportunity. Today, a gang will kill everyone in sight just to get their prey, killing many innocent people.”

Indeed, part of Capone’s popularity has always been a consequence of circumstances. Gangsters of his ilk were spawned from within society and not simply its rebels. The Depression created a void within the hierarchy of American power that represented fertile ground for Capone, who with codified brutality positioned himself to become a hero. Many people felt that, if hard work and sensibility didn’t ensure financial safety, why should they abide by the same old rules and live the same jaded lives? In commanding figures like Al Capone, they saw that lawlessness paid, essentially, and many applauded his independence. 

The illegal production and trade of alcohol during Prohibition allowed that notion to germinate. It put mobsters in good faith with the communities they served. After all, they were willing to stand up for the little people and combat what many believed to be unnecessary laws. Of course, it was self-serving for those gangsters involved, as Capone’s extreme wealth illustrated, but the general public didn’t really care about what lurked beneath the veneer. 

The mainstream wasn’t involved in the circles dominated by mob rule. The majority, which didn’t take drugs, gamble or borrow money, found there was a certain epistemic distance between themselves and Capone, a glass window that enabled people to marvel from a distance without getting involved. That’s why he was cheered at Cubs games and held in esteem by some journalists. From a safe distance, there was little to fear but plenty to admire.

Almost a century later, in an unfair modernity, Capone’s modus operandi, or at least its pop culture silhouette, is a parallel metonymy for the American Dream. Al Capone defied the machine for personal and familial gain, which many deem commendable. Subconsciously, we may be fascinated by him because, in the crudest terms, he was everything we aspire to be: a self-made American man of incredibly foresight, unbeatable determination and rampant optimism. In popular culture, the means by which he reached that point, and his eventual demise, have subdued into the background like one tile in the wider mosaic of an icon. We need the mythology he provides for our own escapism, to nourish our yearning for difference. Enigmas beguile in all walks of life, and Al Capone was chief among them.

Thus, in many ways, it’s perfectly understandable that people post his famous quotes or create parody accounts on social media. There’s even credence given to The Mob Museum, located in downtown Las Vegas, which pays homage to what many consider a halcyon age of American violence. Ashley Misko, its public relations director, says that “organized crime, for better or worse, is woven deep into the history of this country. It cannot be ignored if one wants to understand the economic and political stories of the twentieth century.”

This is a sentiment shared by over a million people who have visited the museum since it opened in February 2012. And, unquestionably, artifacts relating to Capone are a main attraction. “His iconic status endures because he was such a public figure when he was alive,” Misko concludes. “Therefore, we know a lot about him. Unlike other mobsters, he held press conferences with reporters and was photographed extensively. He was portrayed as something of a Robin Hood character, opening soup kitchens for the poor and frequently handing out money to friends and bystanders alike. His stature peaked during the height of Prohibition, the era that still resonates as the go-to image of the American gangster.”

Ultimately, Al Capone was a savage man in the underworld and a benevolent idol in public. That dichotomy, that genius duality of being, is what made him so elusive to enemies and so captivating to allies. Capone was the man of an era, the breathing symbol of personal determination trumping established rule, regardless of the consequences. By many, he was justifiably hated, for his reign left a trail of terror and woe. But by others, he is worshiped, at the confluence of adulation and nostalgia.

Has Twitter Ruined Sport?

In March 2006, a rudimentary micro-blogging website was launched in a quiet corner of cyberspace. We didn’t know it at the time, but Twitter, an immersive experience that allowed instant access to a wealth of information, would alter sports like little else in the previous century.

Even more than Facebook, it’s juggernaut predecessor, Twitter would knock down barriers but erect new ones. It would change the tone and texture of sporting debate by making everybody an expert, yet ultimately leave sport a more hostile and less tolerant place to be.

Twitter required a few years to get off the ground, but eventually mushroomed into the omnipresent force we know today. In 2007, some 400,000 tweets were sent per quarter. That figure rose to a staggering 100 million just twelve months later and, by 2011, over 140 million tweets were logged per day. In the subsequent four years, that number has almost quadrupled, to the point where over 500 million tweets are composed each day in 2015. Such statistics reveal the exponential growth of Twitter, which has transformed from a neat adjunct to our lives into an intrinsic part of them.

The Twitter phenomenon has undoubtedly enriched certain aspects of the human experience. The constant access to news and information at ones fingertips is a wonder to behold, a privilege our ancestors could hardly have dreamed of. Similarly, we’re now able to see in real time a full spectrum of opinions about any topic, which creates a global cauldron of discussion and aids our understanding of different world-views.

“The key benefit is that it’s instant,” says Jared Carrabis, a writer for Barstool Sports who relies heavily on Twitter to increase exposure to his work. “With Twitter, the people who follow you will see anything you post instantly if they’re online. Twitter is also great because you get to showcase your personality, which, if you’re interesting, funny or entertaining, will increase the odds of somebody clicking on your links.”

It didn’t take long for professional sports teams, leagues and news networks to take advantage of this dream marketing stream. Major League Baseball joined Twitter in December 2008, with the NBA and NFL following suit in early 2009. FOX Sports began funnelling content through the site in October 2008, while here in Britain, Sky Sports became socially active in 2010. The Dallas Cowboys were one of the early adopters in 2008, with Real Madrid coming aboard at a similar time, and the New York Yankees joining Twitter in the summer of 2009. 

By 2012, sport had been altered dramatically by social media. The growth in globally renowned teams using Twitter increased the site’s popularity, as it became a neat platform for sharing content, selling products and managing a brand. For instance, where teams previously drew a relatively small pool of customers to the stadium or online store, Twitter granted instant access to millions of fans, who became the target of more aggressive and sustained marketing. With one tweet linking to a new range of merchandise, a professional sports team could now make immediate and extensive profit around the world. The business of sport was thus propelled into an uncharted stratosphere. 

Similarly, the advent of social media changed the journalistic landscape more than anything since the Internet’s invention. The overwhelming focus of a newspaper or magazine shifted towards online content, which could be accessed by infinitely more people in a broader geographical sweep. Even for traditional organs such as the New York Times, web content became king, and social media, especially Twitter, transformed into a crucial part of the traffic-generating infrastructure.

This shift in direction led to a culture change within the sporting press, as outlets diluted their staid approach and focused more on stories that would interest mainstream consumers, who had shorter attention spans and more competition for their diminishing time than ever before. Intentionally or not, a whole click-bait culture was spawned within the sporting space, and even the most esteemed outlets saw their approach change, whether by design or mere osmosis. 

As Twitter morphed into a lifeline upon which millions of people relied for a myriad of different reasons, it’s expansion soared. The 2012 Olympics garnered 150 million tweets, while the 2014 World Cup yielded 672 million. The semi-final of that tournament, between Germany and Brazil, inspired 35.6 million tweets, the most for any one-day sports event in history.

The world was fast becoming hooked on Twitter.

I first signed up in 2012, at the age of 17. I yearned for a career in sports journalism, and Twitter offered an ideal platform from which to gain exposure for my writing and analysis. Indeed, it has been an indispensable tool in that regard, helping me make relationships that have led to some fantastic opportunities. 

Moreover, as a fan of North American sports, Twitter has removed some of the conventional barriers that existed in previous decades. For instance, I can now keep up with, and contribute to, the baseball news cycle in real time here in Britain, rather than waiting for web pages to load each morning. Going back even further, it must have been almost impossible to follow Major League Baseball from London in the 1970s or 80s, when cyberspace was rudimentary and domestic newspapers didn’t care to cover America’s National Pastime. Now, the time-difference still poses a challenge, but everybody has access to a relentless stream of information, an unquenchable arena of knowledge. And that’s a gift I’m truly grateful for.

Twitter allows us to discuss sports with like-minded people no matter where they’re located. In the space of a few moments, I could debate the FIFA scandal with friends here in England; the World Series with followers in America; and the genius of Carey Price with acquaintances in Canada. That such a wonderful tool exists is a wonder to behold.

However, when the gift of Twitter is misused, for the purposes of abuse and general negativity, the novelty can soon wear off. The general tenor of debate on social media ranges from sceptical to flat-out hostile. There is little recourse for positivity, typically speaking. By nature, Twitter is cynical and bitter, with many users thinking they’re omniscient. Now, people seemingly strive to make a negative comment about any event, diminishing great achievements with misplaced satire and assassinating the character of pretty much anybody who ventures into the public eye.

Thus, our world is now awash with people who exhaust themselves trying to provide sarcastic commentary on life rather than just enjoying it. The first instinct of these people isn’t compassion or empathy, but mockery and ridicule. This extends to sports, where as a collective fandom, we now devote more time to demolishing superstars to massage our own egos than just savouring the rarity and brilliance of their skill.

I would argue that, on the whole, people don’t actually think about the actual sport anymore. Rather, they think about the Twitter view of the sport; the way in which people will react online if a certain thing happens. When a trade is made, for instance, many fans don’t stop to think of the human consequences. Instead, they think only in video game terms, like these people are just avatars or online profiles easily swapped. People don’t form original opinions and arrive at authentic conclusions from watching anymore; they’re influenced by what other people say online, which is frequently lacking in factual evidence and often filled with bias. Twitter essentially thinks for too many people, stifling the sports-watching experience. 

Indeed, many people cannot watch a game without being glued to their phones these days. Now, people are watching two different events simultaneously: the actual game, and how Twitter reacts to the actual game. Accordingly, fans are missing the minutiae, which has given rise to a “dumbing down” of analysis. Nowadays, people aren’t listening to Vin Scully or John Motson with undivided attention like they used to. As a result, they’re not thinking about how a pitcher is attacking a certain hitter, or how Manchester United have made a subtle change in formation. Rather, they’re living an almost totally vicarious sporting existence; a fragmented, technological play-by-play through the opinions of other people. Thus, much of the tradition and soul of sport has been eroded.

Accordingly, I believe social media has expedited sport’s devolution from a genteel pastime to a capitalist jamboree; from an innocent outlet of enjoyment to a commercialised venture geared towards financial profit. Across the spectrum, professional teams now use social media as their main gateway to the bank accounts of loyal fans. In this regard, I wouldn’t be surprised if teams now sign players and make certain decisions just to appease their online fanbases, just to compose that grandiose tweet that will be catapulted across the globe, drawing new eyeballs, winning new customers. 

In July 2014, Sportscenter composed a tweet informing people that LeBron James had re-signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That one nugget of information was subsequently retweeted 86,400 times, as the online universe shook to its core. An Adobe study later found that, following James’ return, the Cavaliers’ Twitter mentions increased 37%, while those of the Miami Heat, his previous team, decreased 13% in the same span. This speaks to the capricious nature of modern sports fans, and also to the commercial impact of signing a highly marketable superstar. The Cavaliers’ revenue jumped 45% in LeBron’s first season back, a rise attributable to soaring merchandise and ticket sales, which are increasingly driven by social media outreach.

So, just where does a strong social media footprint rank in the priorities of modern sports teams? I spoke with Mark Ridgway, the club journalist at Blackpool Football Club, to find out. 

“At Blackpool, we cover Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as other self-promoting websites such as YouTube and AudioBoom,” explains Mark, who is responsible for the upkeep of these accounts. “We make a conscious effort to ensure each of our social media channels are updated on a daily basis, which is naturally easier in the build-up and aftermath of a match.

“In modern society, which is more reliant on technology each day, social media is a massive advantage to sports teams,” Ridgway continues. “It further promotes our output to a worldwide audience and gives us more scope to be creative and relay what is happening at the football club.”

Blackpool have over 67,000 followers on Twitter, which is undoubtedly an asset, in terms of marketing and communication, but which also presents unique challenges.

“A poor run can leave you hamstrung on Twitter,” says Ridgway. “Your content and output isn’t welcomed with open arms in the same way it would be when the team is winning. Results dictate everything for a media team.”

Thus, running the official profiles for a team comes with tremendous responsibility. “You have to be ultra-careful with what you put out there,” says Ridgway, “because the second you click ‘tweet,’ it’s out there for a global audience. We are often found discussing the wording of tweets to ensure they aren’t perceived in a different way to what is intended.

“The football environment can be negative when things aren’t going to plan, but I dare say that has always been the case. But Twitter provides a platform for the negativity to spread, and naturally, when a football club is losing matches, the option is on a plate for fans to reply negatively. 

“For a media team, it is part of the job to keep accounts updated regardless of the circumstances. You can’t ignore what is happening both on and off the field. All we can do is put a positive spin on things. And if the people who write the tweets on behalf of the club take abusive replies personally, they’re in the wrong job.”

Twitter has certainly become a forum for vitriol in recent years. The chronic abuse suffered by innocent people, often entirely unprovoked, is sickening and unjust. Trolls spend their whole day online, waiting for famous sportsmen, women and teams to post, so they can then reply with something vile or nonsensical. This has almost become a competition between warped people who derive a sense of satisfaction from being the first abusive respondent to often serious tweets. It’s almost as if Twitter has spawned, or at least amplified, a new subculture, which finds glory in complete stupidity.

Former England footballer and current broadcaster Stan Collymore is regularly the subject of nauseating racist abuse online. In 2014, he even took a case to the Police after receiving death threats through social media. Collymore has spoken out publicly against Twitter, which often acts as an impediment to authorities by refusing to handover user information. As Collymore has explained in various forums, this creates a “vacuum” for all manner of mistreatment and discrimination.

In a similar case, Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle took part in a question and answer session via social media last year, only to be bombarded with abuse from trolls, who posted horrific comments about her appearance, gender and career. Likewise, athletics hero Jessica Ennis-Hill received threats of sexual violence after criticising Sheffield United, her hometown club, for trying to sign convicted rapist Ched Evans. In a BBC interview, Ennis-Hill spoke of her disgust, saying “it was definitely a shock. It wasn’t very nice to read, but unfortunately, that’s the world we live in now.”

This is a statement of unending sadness. It’s tragic that, nowadays, online abuse has almost melted into our society. It’s just a normal, almost expected, part of our existence. Today, as a human race, we lack perspective. We have very little historical consciousness, and we react, full-blooded, to the most recent events and trends. When professional teams win a championship, we don’t typically use Twitter to celebrate or congratulate, but rather to laugh and desecrate those that lost. We now have greater access to sportsmen and women than ever before, which has led to a loss of awe and a vanquishing of respect. Our living rooms have become arenas of uniformed judgement, our phones tools through which to beam misguided opinion.

Of course, in the right hands, social media still has utility. The ability to communicate with athletes can be a fantastic gift, as can the receipt of key information in manageable chunks. Yet, famous sportsmen and women, and the clubs they represent, often create scandals and storms with what they post online, a problem that didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago. 

Now, it’s almost as if we live in two distinct universes: the real, human world, and the contrived, online version. The internet is one giant ether, complex and confounding, intriguing and amazing. You can do truly wonderful things within that ether, such as speaking with friends located thousands of miles away. But it is also an oppressive force, demanding more and more of our time, encroaching further and further into our normal lives.

Accordingly, we’ve now arrived at a difficult and worrying juncture, where elements of our two worlds are overlapping like never before, obscuring experiences, dulling feelings, and generally confusing us about life and the future of it. Now, we’re attached to electronic devices for practically every waking hour. We constantly have to update people in the ether about things that happened outside of it. Thus, we don’t actually enjoy experiences in real life; they just happen. We do things now almost solely to appease the ether, to keep up appearances online.

This extends to sports, where a lot of people no longer have actual-body reactions to great moments, but rather have a sudden and inexorable urge to tweet, espouse their views, and be seen to be reacting in accordance with their manufactured online persona. 

Ultimately, social media was created to enhance our daily lives, to be a helpful extension of our usual routines. But as time moves on, it is becoming our lives. It is becoming the dominant force over subservient users, not the other way round as initially intended.

We’re now living our real life in a virtual space, as time ticks by. One day, when Twitter and Facebook are long consigned to history, will we all look back and regret wasting so much time? I believe so, and that’s a frightening proposition. Seemingly everything we now do or think must have an imprint in the virtual world, otherwise it is somehow diminished. That’s incredibly egotistical and insufferably narcissistic. As a human race, are we comfortable with those traits blending into the natural order of existence?

On the contrary, Carrabis proffers a different view, in relation to sports. “The way I look at Twitter,” he says, “is that you’re watching the game in a room with thousands of people. All of my friends are hockey fans, so when I’m watching the Red Sox, I can’t make snarky comments or funny references because they won’t laugh or understand what I’m talking about. I tweet them because I know that people on Twitter will understand and appreciate a witty comment every now and then. It’s nice to have that instant connection to so many people who share the same passion as you if you don’t have people like that in your real life.”

“I think Twitter has had an amazing influence on Red Sox Nation,” Carrabis continues. “There’s a Red Sox Twitter community that I interact with on a nightly basis, and they’re from all over the world. I’ve been tweeting through three last-place seasons over the last four years, and I still see the same names every single night, watching every pitch of every game. It’s incredible. They literally do not miss a game.”

While this is undoubtedly a positive, and has been a true blessing for me as a diehard baseball fan living in England, I can’t help but feel that the game has lost some of its innocence in the Information Age. We now know everything about everyone within the game, so it’s difficult to elevate anybody to hero or icon status. These days, anyone can sit at home, type baseless criticism into a phone, and watch that negative view coalesce, consciously or not, into the wider mosaic of that player’s reputation. That’s why we’ll never have another hero like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, because the task of news-making, agenda-setting and legend-creating has now shifted to the mass public domain. Everybody is involved now. The public creates the narrative, rather than simply consuming and adoring it.

As a kid growing up before social media, I had heroes and role models. Manny Ramirez was almost like a God to me; Derek Jeter a paragon of comportment. However, I feel that the children of today have been robbed of the opportunity to believe in sporting legends. A 2014 Telegraph study found that, despite age limits, 59% of British children have already used a social network by the time they are 10-years old. In my opinion, that’s 59% of children unnecessarily exposed to a world of abuse and cynicism. Naturally, this leads to a loss of innocence, and a society in which children will question anything, believe in very little, and listen more to Twitter than their own parents.

Thus, I don’t really envy the children of today, because they’re exposed to a matter-of-fact culture with little room for mystery and mystique. In a sporting sense, I’m glad that David Beckham wasn’t on Twitter in 2001, when I idolised him as the captain of my national football team. I’m glad that, a few years later, I didn’t have access to a network informing me of Thierry Henry’s dinner choices or of Barry Bonds’ music tastes. When I was a kid, we didn’t care about all that real life stuff. It didn’t matter. There was a certain epistemic distance between ourselves and our heroes, which in retrospect was simply wonderful.

Of course, we all have different views on this matter, and as Carrabis illustrates, “social media has the power to expose athletes for who they really are, and gives us access into their lives that we wouldn’t normally see. Perhaps it’s better that way, so that the children of tomorrow are idolising the right athletes. Social media can expose athletes for being unworthy of adulation, but it can also give an athlete a platform, an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, to show how great of a person they are.”

This opens up an intriguing concept. Just imagine if Twitter was around when England won the World Cup in 1966. It would have been great to tell Bobby Moore how much we loved him. Similarly, Muhammad Ali would’ve been fantastic on social media in his prime. Yet even these romantic thoughts are tethered to a caveat, as is always the case online. Imagine, for instance, if Twitter was active and as popular when Steve Bartman interfered with that ball in the 2003 NLCS, or when Bill Buckner committed his infamous error in the 1986 World Series. The abuse and vitriol would’ve been unbearable.

Carrabis acknowledges this notion of social media diminishing key moments in the game’s history. If Twitter was alive when Aaron Boone hit his famous home run to snatch the pennant away from Boston in 2003, Jared says “I probably would’ve deleted my account instead of looking at my mentions,” which provides an accurate snapshot of the dangers that lurk ahead at the confluence of sports and social media.

Ultimately, Twitter has given people a platform to have their voice heard like never before. In that respect, it’s a great amplifier of free speech. For me, the site has opened avenues and created options that simply wouldn’t have existed a decade ago, which is a humbling gift. However, as with anything, there is another side to the story. Twitter can also foster cynicism, convey abuse, and create divisions within society. Moving forward, we must strive to eradicate these deficiencies and address these concerns. Only then will Twitter become a genuine force for good in an ever complicated world.

Using Maths to Choose Your NFL Team: A Guide for British Fans

When it comes to selecting an NFL team to follow, British fans encounter age old problems. Firstly, American football’s popularity on these shores is yet to reach beyond a third generation, which means there is rarely a strong family tradition of supporting a certain franchise. For instance, I cannot root for the Bears simply because my grandmother did, nor can I call upon childhood memories of attending Dolphins games with my father. Simply cheering for the local team is also out of the question, due to the basic geographical fact that a large ocean separates us from the main bubble of NFL activity.

This problem, of choosing an American Football team to support, has nagged at me for years. Baseball has been my main sporting obsession for over a decade, and that has naturally led to a causal interest in the NFL. I’ve watched games on Channel 4 and the BBC since early childhood, gaining an appreciation for the pomp and pageantry of gridiron, but have hitherto felt somewhat excluded owing to a lack of allegiance. Last season, I dedicated more time than ever to the NFL, and really began to understand its nuances and history, yet my lack of a team was still cause for frustration.

Thus, perpetually agitated, I set out to find a solution, once and for all. I dedicated the entire offseason to finding the perfect team for me. However, I didn’t want to make a blind decision out of emotional whim, or root for a team on the advice of other people. To the best of my ability, I wanted to produce a cold, hard, mathematical algorithm for selecting the NFL team best suited to my specific tastes. I wanted all thirty-two teams to be evaluated on equal terms, and for the best to distinguish itself fairly. Therefore, I did what no sane person should ever do past midnight on a midsummer weekend. I opened up a spreadsheet and began tinkering.

Initially, I typed in the name of each franchise, then proceeded to brainstorm as many different aspects of a team that came to mind. I ultimately arrived at sixteen overarching categories, ranging from team histories, payrolls and drafting success to stadiums, uniforms and logos. In between, facets such as geography, roster strength and head coach were also included, while I was also keen to involve some kind of category measuring each team’s connection to Britain.

Once in possession of this framework, I then considered a series of sub-categories within each overhead aspect, which would then be scored individually to give each team a final numerical value. Theoretically, the team which impressed me most would score the most points and, thus, ultimately differentiate itself from the rest.

For example, within my ‘power’ aspect, I would take into account a team’s Twitter followers, Facebook likes, stadium capacity, Forbes net worth valuation, and average payroll since 2005. Thus, the best scoring and most powerful team would emerge from the pack, as part of a process replicated for all of the categories, delivering a concise picture of my desired NFL landscape.

Each aspect and sub-category was weighted to suit my preferences and tastes. For instance, in terms of history, preference was given to Super Bowl wins and years in existence, because I ultimately want to root for a successful team with a strong heritage. Likewise, I would prefer to be part of a large British fanbase, so the number of Twitter followers possessed by the team’s unofficial UK fan groups was taken into serious consideration. I also placed huge emphasis on the Career Added Value of each team’s draftees since 2005; the lifetime statistics of each quarterback; and the occupancy percentage of each stadium for home games since 2008. These areas are all crucially important to me; sentiments born out in the configuration of my mathematical model.

The most intricate category was always going to be geography. Accordingly, I decided to eschew a subjective system and rely on pure mathematics instead. I wrote down my most desired attributes in a city, namely a large landmass; a scenic skyline; and a literate populous. Then, I wrote down the things I truly hate in a city, namely the threat of being stabbed; the spectre of pollution; and the likelihood of being confronted by unruly drug addicts. From there, I thought long and hard about how to represent these feelings in numbers, before settling upon the following formula:

((Population + Skyscrapers + Bachelors Degree % + Advanced Degree % + per Capita Income) – (Violent crime rate per 100k + Aggravated assault rate per 100k + Robbery per 100k + Poverty Rate + Co2 emissions per capita))

Finally, before embarking on the laborious process of inputting reams of data, I also opened my investigation up to the actual teams, emailing each to ask why I should ultimately root for them. I attached a fixed points bounty to any reply, and spawned a complex system for rating the appeal of each reply.

Over the next six weeks, I tinkered away, painstakingly filling in the spreadsheet, watching the weighted points tracker increase, and automatically ranking each team in my ideal order. I collected and manually entered over 6,500 individual pieces of data, before arriving at a final list of scores and teams.

The process was exceptionally rewarding. I learned a lot about each team, gaining new-found admiration for the Dolphins and their enormous fanbase in Britain; the 49ers and their fabulous new stadium; and the Giants and their deep, engrossing history. Moreover, the Packers’ iconic uniforms and unique fan ownership stood out, while the Bears, Chiefs, Giants and Falcons presented compelling cases as to why I should root for them.

Washington emerged as the best city in my study, and New England scored heavily with the most talented roster and best coach. Yet, the Dallas Cowboys ultimately won out, amassing a total of 237,823 points, compared with 230,909 for the second-place Patriots, 224,964 for the bronze medallist Packers, and 209,054 for the Bears in fourth.Overall Result

The average total was 172,894, but America’s Team won by scoring with impressive consistency across the board. Though many will disagree, my investigation found that the Cowboys have the most power, the greatest fans, and the most iconic logo and team name in the NFL. They also scored highly in terms of history, payroll expenditure, stadium and uniforms, building an insurmountable lead.

Incidentally, the lowest-scoring team in my study, and thus adjudged as the least desirable of all thirty-two franchises, was the Tennessee Titans who, with 127,056 points, finished below the Buccaneers, Jaguars and Panthers in order of ineptitude.

Ultimately, I was happy with the outcome of my extensive project. In the Cowboys, I wound up with a powerful, historic and classy team, which has a large fanbase in Britain, plays plenty of Sunday Night Football games, and inhabits one of the most awe-inspiring arenas in world sport. Moreover, Dallas has an exceptional record of success, but, at present, finds itself in something of a lull, with no Super Bowl championship in 20 years. This negates any allegations of being a bandwagon jumper.

Thus, following a lengthy process of discovery, I’m looking forward to a lifetime of Cowboys fandom; a lifetime of experiencing the thrills and spills of American Football from the inner sanctum. After years of roaming the gridiron wilderness in lonely, nomadic fashion, I finally have an allegiance, a community to be part of, an identity to uphold. I’m a Cowboys fan, and it feels fantastic.

Tennis, A Psychological War

Amid the titanic duel between Heather Watson and Serena Williams on centre court yesterday, one moment of distilled fascination rose from the roaring chaos. After hours of war in the gathering London heat; after rallies packed with yearning and exchanges fraught with peril; after wild oscillations of power observed by a partisan crowd of raw emotion, Heather, the home darling, was tasked with delivering a second serve to the great Serena, who hungered for match point.

The crowd, once raucous, settled to a gentle hush. Heather, once ahead, paused in the grim throes of furthest concentration. Imagine the pressure. Imagine the weight of a nation looming on your shoulders; the sense of impending doom nagging at the back of your mind. Defeat lingers closer than ever, replacing victory in the foremost enclaves of a hyperactive mind. Don’t miss, your conscience barks. Don’t miss.

Remarkably, Heather didn’t miss. Her second serve sliced tantalisingly over the net, flirting with oblivion, and landed fairly in Serena’s court, to our collective relief. Regardless of what happened next, I was totally immersed in the wonder of that moment; in the triumph of human discipline over primeval doubt. To me, a mere mortal possessing no such gene of athletic prowess, the act of completing that second serve, under such duress, was a minor miracle. It was totally engrossing, totally fascinating. It was a glimpse into the ineffable genius of the elite sporting hero.

Of course, Heather went on to lose, as Serena called upon unchartered reserves of determination, but my mind was still fixated on that wonderfully compelling moment. How did Heather do it?, I thought, furnished with a new perspective and deeper respect for tennis than ever before. How do they do it, these superhuman tennis stars?

How do they combat the pressure inextricably attached to every point? How do they suppress the native uncertainty, the inevitable skepticism, the fatalistic thoughts of humankind? How do they stand alone out there, cast in the shadows of an expectant stadium crammed with believers, and overcome the knocking temptation of self-implosion?

To the casual masses, Watson’s mesmeric feat was likely lost in the moment, the drama, the end result. In amongst the throbbing maelstrom of a pulsating encounter, filled with shining peaks and gloomy troughs, it was a needle in a haystack, a drop in the ocean. But, to me, it was inexplicably amazing. It was an act of untold bravery, nerve and courage beyond mortal kin. Right then, something clicked, and I realised that tennis is unquestionably the most gruelling ordeal in the sporting lexicon.

I was always aware of the physical excursion; of the need for impeccable fitness and outrageous stamina merely to survive. After all, tennis is a game of constant action, in which the combatants fly from line to line, pursuing a ball destined to bounce twice before meeting their racket. During the course of a match, players sprint forward, jog back, lurch right, chase left, leap high and stoop low, as the body endures a barrage of screaming abuse. Yet, now, I acknowledge that such a toll is at least matched by the mental aspect; by the almost traumatic psychology required to win, or at least to stave off defeat.

Tennis, ultimately, is a game of undulating texture, with capricious swings of momentum and innumerable false dawns on the road to final glory. It’s perhaps the only sport in which absolutely every moment is shrouded in skull-rattling pressure. In the flow of action, there’s pressure to reach the ball propelled awkwardly out of reach by the opponent. In the few quite moments, during changeovers and before serves, there’s pressure to perform, to deliver, to trust your arm to somehow hit that ball between those lines and over that net before thousands of those discerning eyes. Throughout, the spectre of failure is a constant companion, a devil in the heart. Don’t miss, he whispers. You’ll regret it.

Thus, to me, it’s a wonder that more tennis players haven’t succumbed entirely to the pressure; to the constant bombardment of thought and counter-thought, dream and counter worry. The game requires almost repulsive level of contemplation and discipline, for which I now have a fresh and genuine respect.

Heather Watson may have lost, but in her valorous tussle with the greatest woman ever to grasp a racket, she taught me something new about a sport I’d hitherto overlooked as mere entertainment.

Tennis is more than that. It’s a war between two rivals, but also a conflict with the voice within.

The Professional Lake Magazine Feature Articles of Ryan Ferguson

Since November 2014, I have contributed professional feature articles on a variety of local matters for The Lake, a general interest magazine serving coastal Wirral and Merseyside.

Thus far, my articles topics have ranged from the cycling career of local legend Chris Boardman, to the old Wirral football derbies between Tranmere Rovers and New Brigton AFC.

The following images illustrate my work for the printed magazine, which has a circulation of 12,500.

The Lake, November/December 2014 issue.
The Lake, November/December 2014 issue.
My feature on Chris Boardman's cycling career.
My feature on Chris Boardman’s cycling career.


The Lake, January/February 2015 edition.
The Lake, January/February 2015 edition.
My feature on the annual Hoylake Tug-of-War.
My feature on the annual Hoylake Tug-of-War.


The Lake, March/April 2015 edition.
The Lake, March/April 2015 edition.
My feature on the Wirral football Derby between Tranmere and New Brighton.
My feature on the Wirral football Derby between Tranmere and New Brighton.
The Lake, May/June 2015 edition.
The Lake, May/June 2015.
My feature on William Hesketh Lever and Port Sunlight.
My feature on William Hesketh Lever and Port Sunlight.


The Lake, July/August 2015 edition.
The Lake, July/August 2015 edition.




My feature on the future of Tranmere Rovers.
My feature on the future of Tranmere Rovers.





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The Lake, September/October 2015 edition
My feature on the history of Birkenhead Park.
My feature on the Hoylake golf resort proposals in the November/December 2015 edition.
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The January/February 2016 edition of Lake.
My feature on the history of Wirral shipbuilding.