Thursday, 28 January 2010

Living the Dream

Last week I wrote about how the world is shrinking for pro athletes. In that article, I focussed on those athletes at the top of their chosen sports, and decided that Tennis probably gives an athlete the best chance to travel the world while competing at the top.

You don’t have to be at the very top of the tree for sport to give you the opportunity to work in other countries however. You don’t even necessarily need to be an athlete.

A friend made a comment in last week’s blog about Formula One drivers travelling the world in pursuit of the F1 championship. While the majority of the races are still in Europe, they also travel to North and South America, Asia and even my home town of Melbourne, Australia.

While this would be a perk for the drivers, it’d also be a lot of fun for the support crew, of which Formula One teams have many, including pit crew, engineers, mechanics etc. While many of these guys would likely never have considered that they could be a pro athlete, they’re getting a chance to travel the world because of their chosen career.

With my own lack of athletic ability – combined with chronic laziness as a youngster – I always knew I was unlikely to ever make a career as an athlete. I have, however, been given the opportunity to get a job at one of the biggest sporting events in the world – the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver starting next month, as one of the 50,000 strong work force helping the games go off smoothly. While my role is not directly related to any of the events, to be a part of such a big event is something I’ve always wanted to do.

There are, however, plenty of people who do manage to make a living while actually competing in their chosen sports. While living in the UK and Ireland, I came across a number of Australians (and New Zealanders) playing Rugby in the lower level leagues across the British Isles. They were all paid, but for some it was not much more than room and board, and others who were merely set up with a good job in return for playing. The thing they all had in common was, they’d prefer to be in another country playing the sport they love, rather than going home and getting a “real” job.

Two team sports in particular, offer opportunities for players to ply their trade all over the world – basketball and football (Soccer).

Football, being the world’s most popular sport, is played everywhere and offers players at many levels, the chance to make some kind of an income playing almost anywhere in the world. The majority of players chosen for Australia’s national team – the Socceroos – at the coming FIFA World Cup will be players based outside of Australia. However, as this list of Aussies playing football overseas shows, for every Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka or Tim Cahill, there is another five guys you’ve never heard of playing in the lower leagues of Europe and Asia, and even in the MLS in the USA.

Basketball has offered Americans who weren’t good enough for the NBA to play professional basketball around the globe for over 30 years. As noted last week though, with the standard of play in Europe and other parts of the world increasing, the flow of players between countries is now at its highest level ever.
My favourite example of a guy who has made an enviable career out of basketball, without ever dominating, is David Patrick.

Patrick was born in Bermuda, raised in Australia and received a scholarship to one of the top schools in NCAA Division one basketball, Syracuse University. He didn’t get a chance to play much in his one season at Syracuse, but the team had great success as the fairytale story in the 1996 tournament, making it all the way to the 1996 NCAA final, before eventually losing to Kentucky. After his freshman season, he transferred to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette where he was given more playing time and earned himself his degree.

Patrick then embarked on a professional basketball career, where he played in the Australian NBL for the Canberra Cannons, before heading overseas where he played several seasons in England and Spain.

Since retiring as a player, David Patrick has continued to make a living in basketball as an assistant coach with the St Mary’s “Gaels” in Division one college basketball back in the USA.

While David didn’t have the sort of career you dream about as a kid, he has managed to make a career out of the sport he loves, while playing professionally in three countries and also converting his talent into a degree. To me, that’s an incredibly successful career, and one that many other young Australians currently playing basketball in the US college system could look to emulate.

Some will of course go on to have long professional basketball careers, and others will choose a career outside of the sport. Those fringe players that wish to prolong their careers, however, now have a better chance to do that than ever, and they can do it while competing all over the world.

For mine, that’s living the dream.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The World is Shrinking for Pro Athletes

In my initial post on this blog, I posed the question, “what could possibly be better than travelling and watching the best sports in the world?

While for me, the above is my life - and I love it - you can probably go one better, with those that get to travel the world to participate in sport.

This week, I came across an article about former NBA player Michael Dickerson, which caught my eye. Dickerson, who was by all measures a successful player in the worlds top basketball league, was forced into retirement at the age of 28 due to injuries. He’s since come out of retirement to play the Spanish second division.

According to the article, he has spent the six years of his retirement travelling the world, and has now decided to have another go at playing basketball. The emergence of basketball as a genuine world sport, along with his final $43 million contract have allowed Dickerson the opportunity to combine his two passions of sport and travel.

This, my friends, is living the dream.

While not every athlete will have the kind of money Dickerson does to play with, the opportunities for athletes to travel the world to compete in their chosen sport are greater than they’ve ever been.

The NBA is learning about this quickly, with the emergence of European basketball leagues in the last 10 years with the flow of players back and forth over the Atlantic at an all time high. This year NBA opening day rosters had a record 83 international players spread over the 30 teams. The flow isn’t one way, however, with more high profile US players being lured to play in Europe than ever. Americans playing basketball in Europe is nothing new, however the players crossing the ditch were generally players not good enough to make it to the NBA.

That is changing now, with European sides offering money comparable to that of NBA teams, as well as a chance to get outside their comfort zone and test themselves with a very different style of basketball.
The first big name to choose Europe over the NBA was former Atlanta Hawks high flyer, Josh Childress. The Hawks were playing hardball with their restricted free agent, however NBA rules failed to take into account the option of playing outside of the NBA, and Childress was able to get himself a more lucrative contract.

The next big name was that of high school star Brandon Jennings, who chose Europe over going to college for the one season the NBA demands after high school before entering the big time. Jennings says he learnt a lot during his year in Rome, both on the court and off it appears a year living in and learning about another culture has helped keep this kid stay grounded and focussed on his goals.  I watched Jennings drop 55 points on the Golden State Warriors in November, and his maturity, for a 20 year old appeared much greater than those rookies who went through the US college system.

Brandon Jennings on his way to 55 points

It’s not always easy adjusting to your new surroundings however, as a recent story on Nathan Jawai has shown. Jawai has been traded three times in the 18 months since he was drafted into the NBA by the Indiana Pacers in June 2008. Now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jawai has struggled to gain confidence with limited opportunities.

Basketball isn’t the only sport to provide opportunities to compete internationally, of course. Football (Soccer) is by far and away the most popular sport worldwide, and as such has talented players from all over the world plying their trade in leagues throughout the globe. Australia’s national team, the Socceroos, will fill the majority of their squad for the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa from players playing in the top flight leagues of Europe.

That’s not to say that big names wont play outside of Europe though. Former Aston Villa and Manchester United standout Dwight Yorke spent a season in Australia, playing for Sydney FC before heading back to the English Premier League, showing that clubs throughout the world take notice more than ever of what is going on in foreign leagues.

Of course, there are some individual sports, where world travel is a big factor, most notably, Tennis and Golf. Make it to the top level in these sports, and world travel is a given.

There are probably no pro athletes that cover more ground than tennis players who have their four Grand Slams in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York each year, with other major tournaments in all other parts of the world including Asia and South America. And the best part? The follow the sun. The world’s best Tennis players are currently in my home town of Melbourne for the Australian Open where it is the middle of summer, for the first Grand Slam of the year. The worlds best then continue to follow the summer north to Europe and North America for the remaining three Grand Slam tournaments later in the year.

I think few would disagree that tennis players’ combination of travelling the world, playing the sport they love and constantly chasing summer is one that is hard to beat.

What could be better than travelling the world to watch sport?  I think I have my answer.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

It's All About Hockey

Growing up as a kid in and around Melbourne, whenever anybody asked which team you follow (in Australia the question would be “who do you barrack for?”) you knew exactly what they were asking. It wasn’t about which basketball team you supported, or which Rugby League team you liked. It was about football – Australian Rules Football. To many people it was – and to some still is – the only sport worth caring about.

It’s a little bit the same here in Canada, except instead of football, its all about Hockey.

I am of course, talking about Ice Hockey, as it is known everywhere else in the world, not field hockey which is more popular in Australia and the non iced over parts of Europe.

Don’t get caught calling it ice hockey in Canada though. You’ll just end up looking foolish. They cant get their heads around the fact that anyone would ever play field hockey – that’s a girls game isn’t it?

Coming to Canada, I knew I would have to embrace hockey. I’d only ever been to one hockey game before – a second tier game in Olomouc in the Czech Republic, and while it was a fun night, it didn’t exactly hook me in.

Within days of arriving in Canada, I would realise that I would have no choice but to enjoy this game. Like Aussie Rules footy in Melbourne, if you’re not watching the hockey, you’re kind of left out. Your team plays every couple of days, and everyone meets up at the pub to cheer on their local team. This is something I could learn to love. Hockey you say?

While I do love watching the games at the pub, nothing does it for me like seeing the game live, so I bought a couple of tickets and went along to watch the Montreal Canadiens host the New York Islanders.

Ok, I’m hooked.

The game is awesome. I was a little worried about being able to even see the puck on the ice, but that wasn’t a worry at all. What I loved about the game more than anything was that, unlike all other major North American Sports (American Football, Baseball, and NBA Basketball) the action is virtually non stop. Its fast paced end to end action with virtually no let up, and with our game going to overtime – with the home team Montreal winning in sudden death – the crowd was amazing.

Me & a Buddy at the Canadiens game

The Montreal fans are known for being some of the most passionate in the NHL, and its any wonder considering they have won the league a record 24 times. It really is the only show in town, and sports wise it’s the only thing of interest to anyone. Montreal actually won the Canadian Football League this season, and yet I didn’t meet one person in Montreal who would choose a football game over a hockey game. The game on ice wins every time.

It’s not only Montreal that loves hockey though, it’s a nation wide obsession. There are six Canadian teams in the NHL, however there used to be more, which is something of a sore point to the people of Winnipeg and Quebec City.

Everyone here can skate. Even those that say they cant, can. They’re just used to comparing themselves to the rest of Canada. Kids grow up wanting to be hockey players and as a result they’re one of the best teams in the world.

With the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics fast approaching – just one month away now – all of Canada is hoping their mens and womens hockey teams can take home the gold. The womens team is virtually assured a spot in the final against the USA who are obviously the number one rival. The men will have a more difficult assignment, with the depth of talent in the world much higher, and teams from Europe providing tough opposition along with the Americans.

The big game in the group stage will of course be the US against Canada on February 21st.  While other teams, such as world powerhouse Russia will come into it when the medals are handed out, the game against the USA is the one that all Canadiens want to win.

It's sometimes easy to forget that the Winter Olympics provide a chance for some of the minor winter sports of the world – such as curling – to have their moment in the spotlight, because everyone knows that in Canada, its all about the hockey.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Bring on 2010!

As I wrote about last week, 2009 was probably the best year of my life, especially when it came to my sport and travel, so 2010 will have to be pretty good to be able to compare. Luckily, it’s already starting to look like a great year for sport, even if I wont be able to get to the biggest event of the year.

2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games and Paralympic Games
The Olympic games are the reason I’m in Vancouver. Well, that and I’m afraid of the ultra cold winters in the rest of Canada. Olympic fever has well and truly hit the city of Vancouver, with now less than 40 days until the opening ceremony at BC Place.
I’m starting to get pretty excited about the coming games, having started training for my new job as part of the 50,000 strong work force of paid and volunteer workers here in the Olympic city making sure the games go off without a hitch.
While I don’t yet have tickets to any events, I’m determined to find a way to be part of the crowd and witness some of the games first hand. Even if it is curling.

NBA, NBA and more NBA
I’ve stated previously that one of my goals, over my next 2 years in North America, is to see every NBA team play, and to see a game in each city. So far, I’ve seen nine games in seven NBA cities, featuring 13 of the leagues 30 teams. With Patrick Mills looking likely to get some action soon, another trip down to Portland before the Olympics start could be in order.

With the success of my November NBA journey from Toronto to Minnesota, in which I saw a number of amazing games, I’m starting to plan another NBA road trip for next winter, this time hitting the South of the US in around December 2010 and finishing in early January 2011. Once again the bonus is avoiding the cold Canadian winter, and getting a chance to see games in 10 NBA cities, from Miami to San Antonio to Memphis to Charlotte.

2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa
No I’m not going. I wish I was, but then, maybe I’m just getting greedy? It is definitely an event that I do wish to get to at some point in the future though, and with Australia bidding to host in either 2018 or 2022, I may get the chance. It certainly wouldn’t be the same as travelling to some far off part of the world to see it, but having the biggest sporting event in the world come to me, would be pretty special too.

This years event, in June and July, sees Australia in a group with Germany, Serbia and Ghana, so I’ll be doing whatever I can to be in a bar showing these matches on June 13, 19 and 23.

With Canada not typically a “football country”, and having not made it to the finals, I expect the atmosphere wont be quite as good as the UK in 2006, where I watched the last World Cup Finals from. This is the world game, however, and if there is one thing you can be sure of is that you can find a football fan anywhere you go.

2010 FIBA World Championship, Turkey (Men) and Czech Republic (Women)
The Australian Boomers, once a consistent medal threat in international basketball, has struggled of late, however with the emergence of young players like Andrew Bogut, Patrick Mills, Nathan Jawaii and Joe Ingles, the current group looks capable of hanging with the best in the world when the championships get under way in late August
Australia’s womens team, the Opals, are the current World Champions, and despite having lost the 2008 Olympic gold to the Americans – once again – will feel confident of their ability to retain their title when the tournament gets underway in late September.

Like the FIFA World Cup, the two basketball world championships are two major events that I would one day like to attend in person, but at this stage will settle for watching them from afar.

"You got to know when to hold ‘em"
One of the few sporting events I will be partaking in for 2010 will be some Texas Hold ‘em Poker in (where else) but Las Vegas? While I’m certainly no Gus Hansen or Joe Hachem, I’ll be throwing my money down for a couple of small tournaments while in Vegas. As everyone knows, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas – I’m pretty sure my money will do that same

Is that all?
While I’ve started planning to get to sporting events for 2010 already, a lot of the time the best opportunities come when you’re not expecting them, and I’m sure I’m going to get to a few random events throughout the year. Among the other live events I’d like to get to are the US Open Tennis, an NFL Football game, an NCAA (College) basketball game and a WNBA basketball game.
Whatever way you look at it, its looking like being a big year in sport. Is anyone else planning any trips to see their favourite team play?