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10 different teams have represented the NFC in the Superbowl over the last ten years. It has been 7 years since a team repeated as Superbowl champion. This competitive parity is loved by fans and the NFL has been prospering as a result, becoming America’s undisputed number 1 sport. This most recent Superbowl became the most-watched show in US television history, beating out last year’s Superbowl to set a new record of 111 million viewers.

Just like societies, the outcome you get in sports league is a result of the rules you put in place. You can design around the principal of equality, trying to give everyone an equal chance at success, or you can allow the advantages of geography and history to predominate.

Of all the professional sporting leagues in America the NFL has the most progressive structure, underpinned by a socialist split of TV revenue on an equal basis between all 32 teams regardless of the size of their local market. No one exemplifies the possibilities of this structure more than the Green Bay Packers.

The town of Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of just over 102,000, or about 3,000 fewer than watched the Superbowl live at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. It is amazing that it can sustain a professional team at all, let alone a champion. But with an equal split of the NFL’s billion-dollar TV deal and a salary cap which restricts all franchises to the same rough salary budget it is possible, and one of football’s original and most storied teams has continued to thrive into the present.

And it’s not just the Packers. The Pittsburgh Steelers may have been the losers of this past Superbowl but have won more Superbowls overall than any other team. Pittsburgh may be much bigger than Green Bay but is a very modest-sized city by sporting standards with a population of 311,000. Compare their success to their baseball brethren, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pittsburgh Pirates last won a World Series in 1979. Unlike the NFL baseball is a world most Republicans would approve of. Teams in bigger markets reap disproportionately (or proportionately, depending on your viewpoint) the TV revenue associated with the sport, and are allowed to spend whatever they choose in the pursuit of success. This allows the New York Yankee’s to outspend the Pittsburgh Pirates by 5-to-1, over $200 million to about $40 million in 2010.

This does not necessarily condemn the smaller-market teams to perpetual disappointment – the San Francisco Giants won their first pennant in 2010 for instance, but after 54 years of trying. But almost everything has to go right for a small-market team to win while the powerhouses of New York, Philadelphia and Boston re-load year-after-year, expecting to win it all every time.

Many will argue ideologically that this is all well and good. That as in other sectors sports businesses should do what they must to maximize profits, that the Yankees should raise the revenue being in New York affords them and spend as much of it as they choose, overpaying for pitching as often as they like. But the end result is a less-valuable product than that created by the socialistic structure of Football. And this isn’t my opinion, this is dollars-and-sense and TV viewership.

Just as extreme inequality in a country eventually undermines the trust necessary to make capitalism function so too does extreme inequality in a sporting league eventually undermine the competition necessary to make the sport compelling.

And if all this wasn’t enough Green Bay’s actual ownership structure is more akin to Australian Rules Football teams than the businesses that surround them in the sporting landscape. They are in fact the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States, which is what has allowed them to remain in Green Bay when so many other teams have been bought and moved.

So according to many on the right of American politics this makes not only America’s favorite sport but its current champion un-American. Awkward.

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So there was this little sporting contest on last week in Vancouver. They called it the “Winter Olympics”. It’s just like the Summer Olympics except it’s all rich white people from the Northern Hemisphere.

I guess it’s my general lack of experience with snow and ice but I can’t get enormously excited by the Winter Olympics. It all seems kinda contrived, increasingly made-up, as compared to the ancient and almost-elemental human skills which form the core of the Summer Olympics: running, jumping, throwing, lifting, swimming, wrestling.

I mean, how did the luge even get invented? Let alone curling. Winter sports are leisure sports, things people with money can afford to do. They represent not only far less geographic diversity than the Summer games but less class diversity as well. And way less teams sports. Only ice hockey is a “big (ie. more than four members) team sport, and the only others I can  think of off the top of my head are curling, speed skating relays, a couple of cross-country team variants, various forms of sledding and figure skating/ice dancing, if you count two as a “team”. While I’m here, ice dancing so clearly isn’t a sport. I mean, just unpack the name. “Dancing”. I rest my case.

Some of the recent additions to the Winter Olympics like snowboarding and aerials are undoubtedly pretty cool, but what I’d really like to see is some combining of the disciplines. Why are cross-country skiing and shooting, of all things, along with super-combined in downhill, the only combined disciplines? Why not a triathlon involving downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and speed-skating? You could even throw a jump in for good measure. That would be a really amazing set of combined athletic skills and a good winter analog for the summer triathlon. A downhill relay would be pretty amazing too.

Speaking of downhill, I love that they have events called the Slalom, Super Slalom and Super-Giant Slalom. Who was in charge of naming these, a seven year-old? I can’t wait for them to add the Mega Enormous Super Giant Slalom at future Olympics.

It did make me happy to see Canada defeat the US for gold in ice hockey. It’s “their” sport (although in Canada it’s just “hockey”, the ice goes without saying) and it’s always lovely to see a country go deliriously happy for a little while. Kinda like how I can never begrudge New Zealand their victories over Australia in rugby. I always think, let them have this one, it means so much to them. Canada kinda rocked out in general, winning more gold medals than any nation had in a single games previously. The US team was also happy, winning the most medals overall, also the most ever. And Australia had our best winter games ever, with two gold and a silver, so that’s nice. Yay us.

But really, I just couldn’t get all that excited.

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The handball that lead to the match-winning goal

I’ve been meaning to comment on this for the last week. For those that missed it, last week Ireland and France played for the final European spot in the World Cup finals. The game was decided by a blatant handball by French star Thierry Henry (two, in fact, in addition to the fact he was offside) in extra time which led to a French goal. Video is here.

This is exactly what is wrong with soccer (or, depending where you live, football). Referee’s make mistakes in every sport, but in soccer the low-scoring means these mistakes are too-often decisive. No matter how beautiful the sport may be, a 1-0 or 2-1 result as a result of blown call by a referee is an unsatisfying result for everyone. (On a related note, this is also why soccer is so easy for corrupt ref’s to fix – UEFA is currently investigating 200 possibly fixed matches in Europe).

The whole incident reminded me of the heart-breaking way Australia was eliminated from the last World Cup, an obvious dive for which Italy was awarded a penalty with less than a minute to go in extra time, giving them the win in the group of 16 match:

Here’s a nice re-enactment.

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American money = broken

New American $5 Bill

New American $5 Bill

Having just returned to America having visited Australia I’m struck once again by how poorly designed American money is. By this I don’t just mean the design of the money itself, although that is pretty woeful, but more importantly the monetary spacing between coins and notes. In both cases they’re pitched way too low given the value of today’s money. You routinely end up with a pocket full of worthless metal and a wallet full of near-worthless paper. I recently had the feeling of considerable wealth as my wallet was full of cash but upon counting it it turned out to be 14 $1 bills. The notes themselves are dull and easy to destory.

Compare this to Australia. Australian bank notes are plastic which is untearable and can withstand going through the wash. They are actually quite beautiful, each with distinctive colours and design. But, more to the point, Aussie money is spaced out to be more convenient to consumers.

Useless 1c and 2c coins have been eliminated and it was recently announced that 5c coins would no longer be minted either. There are $1 and $2 coins, meaning that when you have a bunch of coins in your pocket you almost always have enough for a cup of coffee or even lunch. This leaves the lowest value note as $5, so if you have several notes in your wallet you know you have real money to get you through the day.

The American penny is being redesigned in 2010 but a more much logical course of action would be to eliminate it all-together. Apart from its general inconvenience it actually costs more than 1c to mint each penny, so the government is losing money on them, and since 1982 they have been 97.5% zinc, a highly toxic metal. This means pennies can cause damage to the stomach if swallowed and can actually kill dogs.

To break it down:

Australian coins: 5c (being eliminated); 10c; 20c; 50c; $1; $2.

American coins: 1c; 5c; 10c; 25c.

Australian notes: $5; $10; $20; $50; $100.

American notes: $1; $5; $10; $20; $100.

While I have no hope this is ever going to happen: get it together America. It’s the 21st Century with both 21st century printing technology but also 21st century prices. You can’t go down to the shop for 1c candy anymore, and it actually costs more to make pennies than they are then worth, so why have them at all?

Australian notes

Australian notes

Images from Sean Hackbarth and Joshua Aaron via flickr, both on attribution no-derivates Creative Commons license.

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On Sunday the Tour de France finished for another year. I love the Tour so its ending is a bit like Christmas for me: filled with excitement but also with the knowledge that it’s a long year until it comes again. Given the time zone I’m currently in I couldn’t watch it as avidly as I have done on previous occasions but I managed to catch most of the major mountain stages, including the epic battles on Mont Vontoux (with it’s 23 kms of continuous uphill) and Le Grand-Bornand. It was amazing to watch the young and brilliant Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck fight it out over the mountains, a sight I’m sure we’ll see for many Tour’s to come, and it was inspirational to see Lance Armstrong return to the hardest race in the world after a four year break and finish third overall. It was fantastic to see the greatest riders of their respective generations ride together and I can’t wait for them to go head-to-head on opposing teams in 2010.

I like the Tour de France because it is so absurdly brutal that it becomes a race of the heart as well as the head; because it demands such manic strength of will and determination to keep going when the body is screaming for you to stop, to keep accelerating even as the gradient increases and mere mortals must bend to the will of the mountain. I love it because it also takes smarts; because it is much more than simply riding from A to B as quickly as possible but is rather a complex strategic and tactical game of knowing when to preserve and when to spend your energy; because while the honors are mostly individual it is still clearly a team sport and many riders sacrifice individual glory for the good of their teammates.

Since the race finished I’ve been thinking about how many of the themes of the Tour de France, and the reasons I so love to watch it unfold, are true in other parts of life also, and how we can take lessons from this the Tour as we can from almost any arena of human accomplishment.

Here, then, is my list of what we learn from the Tour de France:

It takes a team

While the sports reports only talk of individual placings and accomplishments (and, if you’re in America, mostly of Lance’s relative placing) the Tour de France is unquestionably a team sport, governed by team tactics and reliant on diverse contributions for success. The Team Manager is the primary strategist, deciding who the team will ride for and who will sacrifice themselves along the way. But to work everyone must play their part, from the ‘domestique’s’ who destroy themselves leading their star rider as far as they can to the lead-out guy who aims to set up their sprinter in a bunch finish. And the guys behind-the-scenes are crucial too, from the masseurs to team drivers to chefs.

The dynamic of individual glory built on team competencies is one we see regularly in the business and non-profit words. We glorify CEO’s and founders but the good ones always foster and build a team of individual and complementary talents around them. It is only through diverse contributions well-coordinated that change happens at scale. The last Presidential election is a great example of this. Undoubtedly Barack Obama is a once-a-generation candidate but he also built the best campaign organization, a team of rockstars who managed to work together without drama, out-strategizing, out-hustling and out-smarting his opponents. Obama was the leader but without David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, Joe Rospars, Chris Hughes and so many others Team Obama would not have had the success that it did.

It’s all about heart

Of course a unique physique and relentless training are necessary preconditions for success in the Tour but over the course of a three-week stage race heart becomes just as important as muscle. Those who succeed are those who refuse to give up, who have the mental fortitude to ignore their screaming body and push themselves past the brink of exhaustion. Sometimes this can go too far. British cyclist Tom Simpson literally died on his bike pushing himself too hard up a mountain, his final words were ‘Put  me back on my bike.’ That’s an extreme case, but all successful road cyclists, or any endurance athlete, must will themselves forward past the point when most of us would simply give up, our legs and our hearts drained of strength, our spirit broken. In other words it’s not enough to be a brilliant rider, you need to have a spirit which transcends physicality.

Issues come and go in prominence and as an issue becomes trendy thousands of new activists will jump in and get involved. This is wonderful and necessary but the true hero’s of any cause are those who stick with it, through thick and thin, shrugging off disappointment to continue forward, never waving in their determination to get to their goals.

I also see this as a reminder that spirit and intention matter in all that we do. In our dealings with others it is never simply about how well you write, how clever you are or how brilliant your idea is (okay, sometimes it is just about how brilliant our idea is, but it has to be pretty brilliant) it is about the heart and intention you put into your relationships. Social media embodies this. Those who are best at it are not simply clever, productive and forward-thinking, although all those things help enormously, they are usually also warm, open and generous. For social entrepreneurs and changemakers of all types empathy might be the single most important quality you can possess, as it allows you to understand the experience of others, which forms a platform for the collaboration, collective understanding and community so necessary to bring about social change.

When the going gets toughest real champions emerge

The leading contenders of the Tour almost never attack each other on flat or less intensively steep stages. It is on the mountains, and especially on stages which end with a mountain-top finish, where the real sorting out happens. In this year’s Tour it was the mountain top finish at Verbier which Contador won to leap into Yellow and then the incredible battle on the slopes of Le Grand-Bornand which solidified Contador in first and catapulted Andy Schleck to second which determined the results.  Similarly last year’s Tour came down to the legendary mountaintop Alp d’Huez where Sastre took enough time off Australia’s Cadel Evans to claim overall victory.

In life it is when things are hard that you often find the true quality of a person, and the true quality of your relationships. It’s easy to maintain friendships during good times, but in times of need you can often be surprised by who steps up, by who really cares.

In social change just as in the Tour de France it is great challenges that bring the greatest opportunities. The economist Paul Romer once said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It is when are society is under stress that there is an opportunity to create fundamental change. Otherwise inertia and apathy tend to prevent us from grasping the opportunity to build a better world; the current state of affairs being ‘good enough’. It’s when they are no longer ‘good enough’ that the clamour and the opportunity for change grows, when people’s appetite for risk and effort increases.

Success is created one day at a time

You don’t become a world class cyclist overnight and you don’t win the Tour de France in a day; it is through sustained effort that you reach your goals. This is true for all big goals: you need to be dedicated and you need to incrementally approach them, remaining motivated even if it’s hard to see the progress you’re making.

Chad Fowler, CTO of InfoEther, Inc. wrote about this in a fantastic guest post on Tim Ferriss’ blog recently:

You might not be able to see a noticeable difference in the whole with each incremental change, though. When you’re trying to become more respected in your workplace or be healthier, the individual improvements you make each day often won’t lead directly to tangible results. This is, as we saw before, the reason big goals like these become so demotivating. So, for most of the big, difficult goals you’re striving for, it’s important to think not about getting closer each day to the goal, but rather, to think about doing better in your efforts toward that goal than yesterday.

In other words, what did you do today to progress towards your goal(s)? Did you do more today than you did yesterday? Focusing on your effort each day, ensuring that you do something daily to advance your goals, is the key to completely large and complex tasks.

Got any other Tour de France lessons? Let me know in the comments!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Tour de France 2009 Showdown“, posted with vodpod

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