You're a man who doesn't follow sports. You're a mysterious, endangered beast… like a Sports Panda. You're fine with this unique wrinkle in your personality. But you have a job and a family. Colleagues and bosses. Friends and relatives. And most of them do follow sports. For most of the year, you can dance around the athletic topic of conversation, wrapped up more in which summer blockbusters lived up to the hype or perfecting that grad school application or your big move to a new apartment or deciding which new television shows you feel are worth recording.
However, during the holiday season, social interaction is cranked up to “11” and all the major sports take turns dominating the headlines for months… you must brace yourself for more sports talk than to which you are accustomed. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's parties will serve as an obligatory conversational gauntlet from which there is no escape (you can't reasonably “miss” ALL of those gatherings).
You're smart and capable enough to survive these trying times. You just need the ammunition. As a lifelong sports junkie (see also: nerd), I'm here to help. Listed below are encapsulated guides to each of the four major sports. No longer will your party experiences be remembered most for your puzzling praise of Dwyane Wade's commercial acting capabilities rather than his quick first step (although he is quite good in his commercials). Say goodbye to that uncomfortable moment at your Super Bowl party when a female friend asks a very basic football question and all you can produce are bits of dialogue from Little Giants. You're better than that.
Print this out, transcribe it onto index cards, laminate it, hang it on your wall… whatever you do, you need to read it to ensure an extremely pleasurable holiday season.
Read, learn, and remember: take it slow.
Major League Baseball
Season dates: April Fool's Day through Halloween (162 regular season games, three rounds of playoffs)
Biggest change from when you were a kid: players are in much better shape, players make a lot more money, nobody collects trading cards in 2008, there are fewer mustaches, and television ratings are way down.
- different set of rules for each league (designated hitter in the AL vs. pitchers batting in the NL)
- no salary cap
- playoff game start/end times
Staples of the game: players actually chewing tobacco during a game, coaches inexplicably wearing uniforms, crotch-grabbing, and long stretches of time without action.
Why you should watch: people throwing things at 100 mph, home runs, and there's very little else to watch during the summer.
Five fun facts:
- The Commissioner's Trophy is the only championship trophy of the “Big Four” leagues that is not named after a particular person.
- Jackie Robinson's #42 was retired by all teams in 1997 (on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's first game), meaning no player anywhere can ever wear #42 again in baseball.
- There was no World Series in 1994 due to a players' strike. Don't let anyone try to trick your novice mind with the “who won the World Series in 1994?” routine.
- The Green Monster, the name given to the left field wall in Fenway Park (Boston), is 37 feet tall.
- The Triple Crown (awarded to a player when he leads the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in) has not been claimed in 41 years.
Most telling statistics you may not know about: OBP (on-base percentage) and WHIP (Walks + Hits divided by Innings Pitched)
Best everyday players: Albert Pujols (Cardinals) and Alex Rodriguez (Yankees)
Best pitchers: Roy Halladay (Blue Jays) and Johan Santana (Mets)
Names you need to learn how to pronounce: Albert Pujols [poo – holes], Dustin Pedroia [puh – droy – uh], and Mark Teixeira [tesh – air – uh]
Team of the decade: Boston Red Sox — .563 winning percentage, two AL championships, two World Series titles since 2000
Most titles in the last 25 years: Yankees (four), Blue Jays/Marlins/Red Sox/Twins (two)
Commissioner: Bud Selig, since 1992 – regarded as the most out-of-touch commissioner currently serving.
Team breakdown: 30 teams divided into two leagues (American and National) with three divisions (East, Central, West) in each league.
Postseason business: three division winners and one wild card team make the playoffs in each league; first round is best-of-five, all other rounds are best-of-seven.
Name of championship/trophy: The World Series – “The Commissioner's Trophy”
Where you can watch, nationally: ESPN, FOX, MLB Network (coming 2009), TBS, and WGN
|Average player salary: $3.15 million||Average ticket price: $25.40|
|Average length of game: 2.5 to 3 hours||Average stadium size: 44,234|
|Average attendance: 32,600||Average player age: 28.9 years old|
International flavor: 28% non-American – players from countries including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Australia.
Draft information: Held in June, over 1000 picks made of high school and college players; draft order determined by winning percentage.
Minor leagues: 240 teams in five different levels — Triple-A, Double-A, Class A, Class A Short-season, and Rookie.
All-Star Game info: Held in July, fans and coaches/players/managers help select final rosters, every team has at least one representative, and homefield advantage in the World Series goes to the winner of the game.
Tortured franchises (years without a World Series championship):
- Chicago Cubs (100 years)
- Cleveland Indians (60 years)
- San Francisco Giants (54 years)
- Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
- Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals
- Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants
Non-players/coaches you should look up on Wikipedia: Hank Steinbrenner (owner, Yankees), Billy Beane (general manager, Athletics), and Omar Minaya (general manager, Mets)
Best play-by-play voices: Vin Scully, Harry Kalas, and Jon Miller
Best fans: Cubs, Red Sox, and Giants
Worst fans: Marlins, Royals, and Rockies
Best places to see a game:
- AT&T Park – San Francisco
- Citizens Bank Park – Philadelphia
- Petco Park – San Diego
- PNC Park – Pittsburgh
- Safeco Field – Seattle
Best foreign player name: Kosuke Fukudome (Cubs)
Most bizarre mascots: Phillies, Athletics, and Reds
Celebrity fans: Bill Murray (Cubs), Jerry Seinfeld (Mets), and Billy Crystal (Yankees)
Best places to get informed: Buster Olney's Blog, Baseball Prospectus, Big League Stew, and Fire Joe Morgan
National Basketball Association
Season dates: Halloween through Father's Day (82 regular season games, four rounds of playoffs)
Biggest change from when you were a kid: Michael Jordan no longer plays, the international players are far more plentiful and talented than they used to be, there are many more tattoos, and there's no team in Seattle anymore.
- poor officiating
- an overseas marketing campaign that dwarfs the attention paid to middle America
- most owners now care more about making/saving money than winning championships
Staples of the game: freakishly athletic giants, headbands, baggy shorts, chest pounding, guys accomplishing more by age 22 than most people do in their entire lives, trades that are actually interesting, and human beings defying gravity
Why you should watch: buzzer beaters, the chance of seeing a single player dominate a game more than is possible in any other sport, and NBA players' personalities are far more entertaining than those of any other professional athletes
Five fun facts:
- Jay-Z is a partial owner of the New Jersey Nets and is a big champion of moving the team to Brooklyn in 2010
- Legend has it that the silhouette in the league's insignia is that of Laker Hall of Famer Jerry West; this assumption is so rampant that West is now referred to as “The Logo”
- The Boston Celtics have won 17 championships in their history, including 11 from 1957 to 1969
- Michael Jordan missed a game-winning shot 26 times
- The shot clock was introduced in 1954 and the three-point line was introduced in 1979
Most telling statistics you may not know about: True Shooting Percentage and Team Point Differential
Best players: Kobe Bryant (Lakers), Lebron James (Cavaliers), and Chris Paul (Hornets)
Names you need to learn how to pronounce:
- Deron [dare – in] Williams
- Amare [uh – marr – ay] Stoudemire [staw – duh – my – err]
- Monta [monn – tay] Ellis
Teams of the decade (tie): Los Angeles Lakers — .605 winning percentage, five Western Conference titles, and three championships since 2000; San Antonio Spurs — .715 winning percentage, three Western Conference titles, and three championships since 2000
Most titles in the last 25 years: Lakers/Bulls (six), Spurs (four), Celtics/Pistons (three), Rockets (two)
Commissioner: David Stern, since 1984 – regarded as one of the more effective commissioners to have ever served
Team breakdown: 30 teams divided into two conferences (Eastern and Western), with three divisions in each conference
Postseason business: teams with the eight best records make the playoffs in each conference; all playoff series are best-of-seven
Name of championship/trophy: NBA Finals – “The Larry O'Brien Trophy”
Where you can watch, nationally: ABC, ESPN, NBA TV, and TNT
|Average player salary: $5.3 million||Average ticket price: $49.47|
|Average length of game: 2 to 2.5 hours||Average arena capacity: 19,201|
|Average attendance: 17,141||Average player age: 26.9 years old|
International flavor: 17% non-American – players from countries including France, Argentina, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Canada, Brazil, and Senegal
Draft information: held in June, 60 picks made of college and international players; draft order determined by a lottery related to winning percentage
Minor leagues: 16 teams in one league – the National Basketball Development League (NBDL).
All-Star Game info: held in February, fans choose starters and head coaches choose reserves. Players view the game more as an event to gather, take a break, and have fun while entertaining fans – occasionally players can get testy when game is close at the end. The All-Star festivities (taking place on the nights prior to the game), featuring the Rookie/Sophomore Game, Slam Dunk Contest, and Three Point Shootout are just as big a part of the weekend-long celebration of basketball.
Tortured franchises (years since last NBA championship):
- Sacramento Kings (57 years)
- Atlanta Hawks (50 years)
- Phoenix Suns (never in 40 year history)
- Cleveland Cavaliers (never in 38 year history)
- Los Angeles Clippers (never in 38 year history)
- Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Detroit Pistons
- Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
- Phoenix Suns vs. San Antonio Spurs
Non-players/coaches you should look up on Wikipedia: Mark Cuban (owner, Mavericks), Joe Dumars (general manager, Pistons), and The Maloof Brothers (owners, Kings)
Best play-by-play voices: Marv Albert and Hubie Brown
Best fans: Lakers, Pistons, and Mavericks
Worst fans: Grizzlies, Hawks, and Bobcats
Best places to see a game:
- American Airlines Center – Dallas
- Conseco Fieldhouse – Indiana
- The Pepsi Center – Denver
- Staples Center – Los Angeles
- US Airways Center – Phoenix
Most bizarre mascots: Thunder, Jazz, Heat, Magic, and Nets
Best foreign player names: Kelenna Azubuike (England – Warriors), Yakhouba Diawara (France – Heat) and Andrea Bargnani (Italy – Raptors)
Celebrity fans: Spike Lee (Knicks), Eva Longoria (Spurs), and Jack Nicholson (Lakers)
Best places to get informed: TrueHoop, The Basketball Jones, and Hoopshype
National Football League
Season dates: Labor Day through Groundhog Day (16 regular season games, four rounds of playoffs)
Biggest change from when you were a kid: the Cowboys are hyped more but actually win less, a different team wins the championship just about every year, wide receivers are largely now assholes by default, and the word “Fantasy” will come up in broadcasts at least once per quarter.
- steroid use is not demonized by the NFL itself or the media (as in baseball)
- the salary cap usually yields mediocrity rather than entertaining balance and parity
- violence is simultaneously glorified and condemned
- the League Pass television package is only available through DirecTV
Staples of the game: tall fat guys who can run like gazelles, men with really long hair, plays so unlikely to succeed that they are dubbed “Hail Marys,” and guys in full athletic gear getting paid a lot of money to do nothing but hold clipboards (backup quarterbacks).
Why you should watch: some of the most phenomenal athletes in the world play in the NFL, it's the most popular sport in the country – by far (so, the more you watch, the more friends you'll instantly have), and while any average person could probably last one game in some minor role in any professional sport… such is not the case in the NFL, where one's athletic ineptitude would be immediately obvious and painfully exploited.
Five fun facts:
- Coaches can challenge officials' calls twice (potentially three times) per game.
- No team has ever gone 0-16 in a single season.
- The quarterback and one defensive player, per team, are permitted to have headsets built into their helmets so that coaches and coordinators can speak to them from the sideline.
- There is no NFL franchise in Los Angeles.
- No Super Bowl has ever gone to overtime.
Most telling statistics you may not know about: Turnover Differential, Net Yards Per Pass Attempt, and Net Red Zone Possessions.
Best players: Tom Brady (Patriots), Adrian Peterson (Vikings), and Albert Haynesworth (Titans).
Names you need to learn how to pronounce:
- Troy Polamalu [pole – a – mah – loo]
- T.J. Houshmandzadeh [hoosh – man – zah – duh]
- Paul Posluszny [puzz – luzz – nee]
Commissioner: Roger Goodell, since 2006 – regarded as a young, strict disciplinarian who inherited the empire built by Paul Tagliabue.
Team of the decade: New England Patriots — .710 winning percentage, six division titles, four AFC Championships, and three Super Bowls since 2000
Most titles in the last 25 years: 49ers (five), Cowboys/Giants/Patriots (three), and Broncos/Redskins (two).
Team breakdown: 32 teams divided into two conferences (American and National), with four divisions in each conference
Postseason business: four division winners and two wild card teams make the playoffs in each conference (top two seeds in each conference earn first-round Bye); all games are single-elimination
Name of championship/trophy: The Super Bowl – “The Vince Lombardi Trophy”
Where you can watch, nationally: ABC, CBS, ESPN, Fox, and NFL Network.
|Average player salary: $1.1 million||Average ticket price: $72.20|
|Average length of game: 3 hours||Average arena capacity: 70,000|
|Average attendance: 67,700||Average player age: 26.7 years old|
International flavor: less than 3% — mostly from Canada.
Draft information: held in April, over 220 picks made of college players; draft order determined by winning percentage.
Minor leagues: there are no official NFL-endorsed minor leagues; lower-level professional leagues like the Canadian Football League and United States Football League can sometimes be regarded as quasi-potential minor leagues. Generally, however, everyone who ends up in the NFL was drafted or signed as an undrafted rookie by an NFL team.
All-Star Game info: “The Pro Bowl” is held the weekend after the Super Bowl (mid-February), in Hawaii. Fans vote on all roster spots – players and coaches generally do not take the game seriously and very few people pay any attention, at all.
Tortured franchises (years since last AFL/NFL/Super Bowl championship):
- Arizona Cardinals (61 years)
- Detroit Lions (51 years)
- Philadelphia Eagles (48 years)
- Tennessee Titans (46 years)
- San Diego Chargers (45 years)
- Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers
- Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins
- Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
Non-players/coaches you should look up on Wikipedia: Jerry Jones (owner, Cowboys), A.J. Smith (general manager, Chargers) and Mel Kiper, Jr. (Draft guru, ESPN).
Best play-by-play voices: Dick Enberg, Mike Tirico, and Chris Collinsworth.
Best fans: Steelers, Packers, Raiders, and Redskins.
Worst fans: Dolphins, Falcons, and Lions.
Best places to see a game:
- Gillette Stadium – New England
- Heinz Field – Pittsburgh
- Invesco Field – Seattle
- Lambeau Field – Green Bay
- Reliant Stadium – Houston
Best foreign player name(s): Ebenezer Ekuban (Ghana – Broncos), Oshiomogho Atogwe (Canada – Rams), and Ashton Youboty (Liberia – Bills).
Most bizarre mascots: Texans, Packers, and Browns.
Celebrity fans: Ice Cube (Raiders).
Best places to get informed: National Football Post and Football Outsiders.
National Hockey League
Season dates: Columbus Day through Father's Day (82 regular season games, four rounds of playoffs)
Biggest change from when you were a kid: there are now NHL teams in cities historically known to support college sports and NASCAR, the player/game equipment is considerably more advanced, and recent rule changes have made the game faster.
- player salaries are rising beyond the economic capacity of the league
- America largely ignores the sport of hockey
- shortsighted overexpansion into several markets where failure is overlooked due to league revenue sharing
- marketing non-North American/non-English speaking superstars proves near impossible
- the accepted “goonery” in the game (fistfights, “enforcers,” excessive violence) automatically turns off many audiences
Staples of the game: many guys missing several teeth, a wailing siren after every goal, phenomenal athletes who – despite their impressive size – balance and maneuver perfectly at high speeds on two thin blades of steel, and fans getting within inches of players consistently during gameplay (albeit through plexiglass).
Why you should watch: the NHL combines the best things about the NBA and NFL but with many more bearded Canadians and cooler uniforms
Five fun facts:
- Every player on the Stanley Cup-winning team gets his own day to take the trophy wherever he wishes.
- The “Blue Jackets” (the nickname of the Columbus team) was originally related to insects but now carries with it a Civil War-Union Army connotation.
- High sticking will earn a player two minutes in the penalty box. High sticking that draws blood? That will earn him four.
- Tom Glavine (future baseball Hall of Famer) was drafted by the Kings in the fourth round of the 1984 NHL Draft. He was drafted ahead of two guys named Bret Hull and Luc Robataille, who ended up having something like a million career goals between them.
- Former Maple Leafs winger Sergei Berezin once lost his helmet on every shift he played in a November 1996 game.
Most telling statistics you may not know about: “Plus/Minus” explains the difference in goals scored and goals allowed by a team when a certain player is on the ice
Best players: Sidney Crosby (Penguins) and Alexander Ovechkin (Capitals)
Best goalies: Roberto Luongo (Canucks) and Miikka Kippursoff (Flames)
Names you need to learn how to pronounce:
- Vincent Lecavalier [luh – cav – eehl – yay]
- Jean-Sebastian Giguere [zhuh – gayer]
- Oli Jokinen [yoke – a – nen]
Team of the decade: Detroit Red Wings – four Presidents' Trophies (for most regular season points), two Stanley Cups, and a consecutive playoff appearance streak dating back nearly 20 years.
Most titles in the last 25 years: Red Wings (four) and Devils (three)
Commissioner: Gary Bettman, since 1993 – regarded as arguably the worst commissioner currently serving
Team breakdown: 30 teams divided into two conferences (East and West) with three divisions in each conference
Postseason business: eight teams with the most points (points determined by wins – worth two points each, and shootout losses – worth one point each) make the playoffs in each conference; all playoff series are best-of-seven.
Name of championship/trophy: Stanley Cup Finals – “Lord Stanley's Cup”
Where you can watch, nationally: NBC, NHL Network, and Versus
|Average player salary: $1.9 million||Average ticket price: $50.00|
|Average length of game: 2 hours||Average arena capacity: 18,443|
|Average attendance: 17,151||Average player age: 26.5|
International flavor: 83% non-American – half of the league is Canadian, many other countries represented including Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Czech Republic
Draft information: held in June, nearly 200 players drafted from Canadian Junior Leagues, US high schools/colleges, European pro clubs, and national development programs
Minor leagues: the American Hockey League (AHL) and United States Hockey League (USHL) are smaller professional North American leagues operated by NHL organizations (similar to Major League Baseball's system). The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is a league of amateurs and features junior clubs, which serve as the primary talent provider for the NHL Draft.
All-Star Game info: held in February, fans and coaches/players help select final rosters, each team has at least one representative. As in the NBA, players generally have fun at the game; the Skills Competition (held the night before the game) is usually more interesting.
Tortured franchises (years since last championship):
- Chicago Blackhawks (46 years)
- Toronto Maple Leafs (40 years)
- Los Angeles Kings (never in 40 year history)
- St. Louis Blues (never in 40 year history)
- Buffalo Sabres (never in 37 year history)
- Vancouver Canucks (never in 37 year history)
- Detroit Red Wings vs. Colorado Avalanche
- New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers
- Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Ottawa Senators
Non-players/coaches you need to look up on Wikipedia: Ken Holland (general manager, Red Wings), Peter Basille (future team owner; earned his fortune running the company that developed the Blackberry), and The Ontario Teachers Pension Fund (majority owner, Maple Leafs – as the organizational name suggests, their top priority is not winning).
Iconic play-by-play voices: in the States, it's Gary Thorne, Bill Clement, & Mike Emrick; in Canada, it's Bob Cole
Best fans: Maple Leafs, Canadiens, and Sabres
Worst fans: Thrashers and Panthers
Best places to see a game:
- Air Canada Centre – Toronto
- Bell Centre – Montreal
- HSBC Arena – Buffalo
- Madison Square Garden – New York
- Xcel Center – Minnesota
Best foreign player name: Miroslav Satan (Penguins)
Most bizarre mascots: Canadiens, Lightning, and Wild
Celebrity fans: Elisha Cuthbert (whatever team for which her current boyfriend plays), Lil' Jon (Thrashers), and Dave Coulier (Red Wings)
Best places to get informed: Puck Daddy