Long Tail Sports

February 19, 2012

Neymar-mania vs. Lin-sanity?

Lin-sanity notwithstanding, this is a time of year when I always find myself wanting more as a sports fan in America. The memories of the Super Bowl and BCS Championship game have already started to fade; March madness remains a long way off; pitchers and catchers have yet to report for Spring Training; and both the NBA and NHL have just passed the midpoint of their respective regular seasons. Add that it’s the middle of Winter (even an historically mild one), and these factors combine to make mid February a less than thrilling few weeks.

Lately, I’ve partially solved my urge for non-stop sports entertainment by turning to leagues that have much less popularity and almost no visibility in mainstream U.S. media coverage.

First, during a brief trip to Brazil for a conference, I enjoyed watching some early round action in the Paulistão, or the elite soccer league of São Paulo state. With historically dominant teams like Corinthians, Santos, and Palmeiras, São Paulo boasts one of the most competitive state-level championships within Brazil and usually includes several young players who will become international superstars with household names within a few years (e.g. if you haven’t heard of Neymar yet, just be patient, the teenage phenom will likely figure prominently in the Brazilian national team’s efforts when the country hosts the World Cup in 2014).

Then, the week after I returned from Brazil, I spent a few afternoons watching the final games of the Serie del Caribe, an international tournament that wraps up the Winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The games were tight, competitive and included a number of Major League players who seemed either to have chosen to return home as triumphant stars or to hone their skills among Latin America’s most competitive leagues.

Despite the fact that you’ll never see your local ESPN network cover either of these events, both have a ton of history behind them and tremendous fan-bases (ESPN’s Brazilian and regional Latin American affiliates cover both). They are also extraordinarily competitive and played at a very high skill level.

Latin American soccer and baseball are not the only options. There are also a whole range of winter sports that never show up on U.S. television schedules until the Olympics. In other words, the only thing preventing you from watching terrific, exciting sporting events in the middle of the annual mid-Winter lull is the fact that you would probably either need to pay an inordinate sum for satellite coverage or seek out unauthorized streams on websites that serve sketchy advertisements and mal-ware along with the game.

At the risk of making a very Ethan Zuckerman-esque point, the Internet makes it theoretically trivial to solve this problem, but that theoretical triviality only underscores a much bigger problem in the way our attention is distributed and canalized by a combination of cultural habits and incumbent media networks. In other words, maybe you’d be more likely to watch Neymar and Santos take on Palmeiras if either your local television network would it or if you could easily find a high quality stream broadcasting in English (I also enjoy watching these things online because I get to listen to Portuguese and Spanish language announcers). Indeed, as long as somebody is streaming a broadcast of any of these games anywhere around the world, there’s no practical reason that it isn’t possible to watch that stream anywhere else. But for a whole variety of reasons that I don’t fully understand, that just doesn’t happen yet.

My point is that American sports fans live in a media ecosystem that has not yet figured out what to do with its (long) tail. There has to be a better, less monopolistic solution than satellite and cable providers charging high rates for access to particular sports packages or leagues. This model ensures that only existing fans who are willing to pay to watch teams they already like will ever subscribe to such services, condemning these sports and teams to continued obscurity. Instead, it would be great to see some affordable way for fans to take advantage of existing Internet streams to experiment with new sports, new leagues, and new cultures by tuning into otherwise less popular or less well-known events when their hometown favorites are not in season.

Time for the shameless promotion of a cool project run by some of my friends in São Paulo:

PontoLivre is a very exciting new site that combines critical social theory, political engagement, information technology, and digital culture.

If you, like me, find such things totally exciting, get out your portuguese dictionary (or fire up Google Translator) and head on over.

As it happens, this is also a shameless self-promotion since, the top story on the site right now is a transcribed version of a short presentation I did at the PUC-SP back in September. I haven’t had time to translate it into English yet, but I am nonetheless somewhat proud of my gringo-tacular attempt at bringing together the work of the great Karls (Polanyi and Marx) to think about the future of free (as in freedom) and open knowledge.

Kudos to the two brains behind the pontolivre operation, Tiago Soares and Rafael Evangelista,  for pulling it all off!

Brazil as Petro-economy

November 23, 2008

Ever since the announcement of the discovery of Brazil’s Tupi oil field earlier this year, I haven’t really taken the time to think about the political implications of the new-found reserves. This article from the Christian Science Monitor is suggestive in that regard. Unfortunately, the piece hews to a decidedly optimistic storyline about how the income will pay for new social welfare programs. That’s all well and good, but let’s take off the rose-tinted glasses long enough to consider at least a few of the less attractive alternatives.

I share the view that Brazil’s new-found oil wealth will bring about transformative changes within the country’s economy, its state, and its society. The infusion of cash will indeed open up untold opportunities for closing Brazil’s notorious wealth gap. It will also further entrench Petrobras – already one of the largest firms in the Global South – as a worldwide energy-production leader. To the extent that these opportunities are managed effectively, Brazil will gain in influence, wealth, and international prestige.

However, to the extent that the Petrobras windfall is managed poorly and generates unanticipated spillover affects, it could easily produce a catastrophe. The sudden surge in income will likely give Petrobras executives and investors even more political clout than they already have, leading to increased opportunities for corruption (already a neverending problem in Brazilian politics), graft, and nepotism within the state. Furthermore, only an immense amount of well-channeled political goodwill can prevent the expansion of Petrobras from encroaching on the political interests of Brazil’s other burgeoning industries and its most vulnerable citizens.

This is not about simple optimism or pessimism, but rather about the realities of imbalanced petro-economies. The reasons why other oil-rich nations have such a horrendous track-record in terms of political accountability, transparency, and inequality has a lot to do with the pressures that a burgeouning state-owned energy sector tends to place on the rest of the state and private sector. Just because Brazil has enjoyed sustainable growth and social progress since the mid 1990’s does not mean that it has somehow “advanced” beyond the point at which its oil might prove more troublesome than its worth.

Following up on my earlier post in response to this Guardian story that offered an un-attributed claim that Brazil was appealing to the IMF for loans, it now looks like the Guardian wasn’t so much wrong as just a little inaccurate fuzzy on the details. Whereas the original Guardian story had spun the situation as though the wealthy nations of the Global South had come to D.C. with hat in hand, it looks like a totally different situation is in fact unfolding. The new liquidity fund is meant to offer stable “A-list” economies of the South the chance to strengthen their currency reserves in the event that foreign investment flows continue to run dry. According to the WSJ:

The IMF’s new program, called the Short Term Liquidity Facility, would be used largely to pad a country’s reserves, which could help the recipient defend its currency. But the funds could also be used to help recapitalize banks or cover import bills.

The IMF plan is its clearest recognition that its insistence on tough conditions is driving away potential borrowers that might need its help. But the new plan also puts the IMF in the position of deciding who can have money with few strings attached, and who can’t.

The attempt to draw a bright clear line between “responsible” and “irresponsible” borrowers is certainly new. It will be interesting to see where it leads.

Back to Brazil, though.

Reuters (via the Economic Times of India) actually found someone in Brasilia to do some reporting and added the following:

Brazil welcomes a new liquidity fund proposed by the International Monetary Fund to help emerging markets but does not see a need to draw on the funds for now, a source close to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Wednesday.

“I don’t know if we will draw (on the fund) in the future. But we don’t need the money now,” the source said on condition of anonymity. The IMF board is considering a proposal for the Fund on Wednesday and an announcement is expected later in the day.

The Folha de São Paulo added even more critical details in its coverage, also noting that the IMF actions came in conjunction with an announcement that the US Federal Reserve will begin offering Brazil currency swaps at no cost in an effort to help the Lula government pump liquidity into the national economy:

The Central Bank [of Brazil] noted that, “these central banks of emerging economies with responsible fiscal policies and systemic importance,” will now be included in the global network of currency swaps.

The central banks of Australia, Canada, the Euro Zone, Denmark, the U.K., Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S. Federal Reserve are currently part of that network. (my translation).

The Folha’s account was reiterated by Bloomberg as well, although the New York-based financial news agency did see fit to print at least one offensive, infantilizing quote that portrayed the poor countries of the world as naughty elementary school students:

“The Fed is there to support large emerging markets that have done their homework over the past several years like South Korea, Brazil, Singapore and Mexico,” said Alonso Cervera, a Latin America economist with Credit Suisse Group in New York.

If the central bankers of the world just needed to do their homework in order to build stable economic systems, I’d like to think that Alan Greenspan wouldn’t have had such a hard time.

Anyhow, if I understand this correctly, the actions taken by the IMF and the Fed signal an effort to treat these four middle income countries with an unprecedented level of parity in response to a crisis that has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. The implications for the post-election day Global Financial Summit are intriguing: will the members of the G22 now have a more substantive place at the bargaining table with an embattled Europe and U.S.? If so, will the Southern super-powers use their authority to defend the interests of their less well-off neighbors or will they merely seek a bigger slice of the pie?

Didn’t see this story until after I had posted earlier today. The lede from the Guardian:

Asian and European leaders today called for more international regulation and a stronger role for the International Monetary Fund in response to the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

No surprise there. All the questions I outline in my post below still apply.

Meanwhile, the story goes on to include at least the second mention I’ve seen that Brazil is considering going to the IMF for funds in response to the crisis.

The problem is there is no attribution for this assertion, which (if it were true) would constitute a major about-face for the Lula government and a big news item in Latin America’s most populous nation and most globally integrated economy.

So, did the author just make it up? I don’t know, but I can’t find any evidence to support his claim in the financial section of Brazil’s most reputable paper, the Folha de Sao Paulo. Similarly, other English language publications, such as the Christian Science Monitor, have run stories suggesting that Brazil is among the best prepared countries to weather the crisis in terms of its cash reserves.

Given the sensitivity of global markets right now, I hope the Guardian editors will consider investigating this rumor before it gets out of control. Bond rating agencies read this kind of stuff and they won’t like it even if it is just an irresponsible slip.

Gotta love Brazilian politics:

Due to a quirk of Brazilian law, candidates are allowed to run under the name of their choice. As a result, at least six Brazilian politicians have officially renamed themselves “Barack Obama”

(h/t JB)

As reported a couple of hours ago by Brazil’s IG News Service via Último Segundo (my translation):

The artist has held the office of Minister [of Culture] since 2003, the year that began Lula’s first term, and he has already prepared to leave the position on more than one occasion. Every time, the president managed to convince Gil to change his mind as well as his post.

Despite considering his term as head of the MinC [Ministry of Culture] as “positive,” Gil lamented that the Commission on Ethics had prevented him from performing live while serving in the government during the past two years. According to him, the presence of a musician in command of the Ministry could have become an “international paradigm.”

“I hope that these four years [have been] important for Brazil and for the world, because many people came in with prejudices about having a musician for a minister,” he noted.

Gil is a beloved icon throughout the country and a passionate defender of Free Culture and Access to Knowledge. Breaking with historical precedent, he dedicated his time at the MinC to creating new programs that supported thousands of small and medium sized cultural projects nationwide.

His departure will undoubtedly raise questions about the future of these projects.