The US Open and every freelancer’s worst nightmare

OpenIf you’ve always known the security of an employment contract, you might want to move on to the next story. This one may strike you as cheeky, perhaps borderline naughty, but you’ll probably wonder why I’m digging it up after almost 15 years.

If you’ve ever worked for yourself, on the other hand, and known periods of your life when no pay cheque could be taken for granted, you may well share my view that the naming and shaming should never stop when it comes to the biggest pile of steaming dung ever put in front of those of us who ply our trade in the creative sphere.

“We can’t afford to pay you as such but it will be good publicity for you.”

Whenever they find a freelance journalist/photographer/entertainer et al with a smoking gun in his hand, standing over a motionless body, rest assured those were probably the deceased’s last words.

Every freelance creative is spun this line, especially early in his career, when he pitches for work. They see you coming a mile off: young, hungry and probably desperate enough to fall for anything in order to get your foot on the ladder.

In time, you learn to employ one of two ripostes to this flagrant try-on…

1) “If publicity paid the rent, I’d sprint naked down Bond Street.”

2) “The companies providing your business with stationery, electricity etc – you’re paying them with publicity too, right?”

The sting of being played, however, is a scar on the memory that might fade but never vanishes. So whenever you hear that this ruse remains alive and well, you’re like an old war horse that starts pawing the ground at the sound of distant drums.

The United States Golf Association should have been beyond such a graceless stunt when they looked to hire a course architect for the 2002 US Open. Their ‘mark’, designer Rees Jones, would have certainly considered it to be a thing of the past for a man of his stature, with more than 20 golf courses on his career portfolio by the time the USGA’s executive director David Fay approached him in the mid-1990s.

For the 2002 renewal of their flagship tournament, the USGA had chosen a municipal as opposed to private golf course for the first time in Open history. Designed in 1936 by A.W. Tillinghast, one of golf architecture’s greats, Bethpage Black was a daunting monster of a course which carried its own health warning alongside the first tee and which clearly had Open potential. Heavy public use over the years had stripped the course of much of its shine and definition, however, and the USGA wanted Rees Jones to restore both.

Master storyteller, sportswriter John Feinstein, recounts how the job was pitched, in his book Open, which is where it recently came to my attention.

“Jones…was a bit nonplussed when he and Fay – good friends for many years – sat down to discuss the project and negotiate the fee.

“Because it’s a public golf course and I know you guys are picking up all the costs, I’ll give you a discount on my normal fee,” Jones told Fay. His normal fee was about $1 million.

“Damn right you’ll give us a discount,” Fay said. “I’m not going to pay you.”

Fay laughs as he retells the story. “Once he picked himself up off the floor, I think he got it right away,” he said. “I told him it was already going to cost at least $3 million just to move all the earth around. Plus, I said it would enhance his reputation not only…because this was the ultimate redesign project, but because he had been so magnanimous in donating his services. It would be great PR for him all the way round.”

Oh my. But then that’s what friends are for, right, David Fay?

Now, in fairness, it should be added that in agreeing to take ‘publicity’ to the bank, Rees Jones was playing the long game. Bethpage cemented a career niche that has earned him the label ‘Open Doctor’, as the USGA’s go-to guy for similar course restorations on the Open schedule, an arrangement which I’m sure has rewarded him many times over for this initial forbearance.

And I have every confidence that David Fay, like any other businessman, would have gladly given away a million dollars of his own time for the betterment of Society, had only someone asked.

Nonetheless, it is a salutary reminder to any freelancers reading this, whatever their own field, that there is no stone so lofty that the dreaded ‘publicity’ ploy won’t crawl out from beneath it and attempt to work its grubby magic.

[Sits back…slowly unclenches fists…breathes…]

Advertisements

It’s the product, Formula 1, not the window dressing

14586218216_aaa6479b61_z
Pic courtesy of Roderick Elme

New owner, same misplaced enthusiasm. That was the conclusion I reached as I read of Formula One’s latest proposals to sex itself up.

While additional American centres will help (after the way it spat in the USA’s face in 2005, the sport is lucky it still has a foothold there at all) I fear a triumph of hype over cool heads when I read about the vision of Super Bowl equivalency and plans to make each Grand Prix a week-long ‘event’.

This sounds like a fixation with brand and placement, when it’s the sport itself that is turning people off. Anyone who grumbles about soccer’s Premier League being a closed-shop is clearly a stranger to F1 – a form of motorsport where overtaking in the hierarchy is now as rare as it is on the track.

So underwhelmed was I by the nature of the “radical changes” being envisaged, I shaved and showered one morning last week while mulling over a few radical changes of my own. I warn in advance that I’m usually hopeless at devising Grand Plans – my enthusiasm for the bigger picture nearly always blinding me to snags with the small print – but what the hell. I throw this out there: shoot it down in flames if you will – I’m just happy to get it off my chest.

I propose essentially just one radical change – that Formula One drivers go from being employees to freelancers. Teams continue to design, build and refine cars. They take two to every race and at the start of the week, a draw is made to decide which driver gets which car.

One proviso – no driver can race for a team more than twice a season. Match the number of drivers and cars to the number of Grands Prix contested each season and everyone gets to drive each team’s car. Points are awarded as they are now to drivers and constructors alike, the champion in each category being those who made best use of the same resources as were made available to everyone else.

Three objections I have already envisaged: first, driver’s remuneration. I propose that each team pays into a salary kitty at the start of the season a sum equal to twice the average F1 driver’s salary in the previous season ( with an inflation top-up, if appropriate). Each driver is entitled to draw a guaranteed base salary throughout the season ($1m, $2m?) – the rest is divvied up after the final race and awarded proportionally, each driver collecting an additional amount directly linked to where he finished in the championship table.

Secondly, cockpit requirements. I’m no engineer, so I acknowledge that this could be an insurmountable problem, unless it’s possible to build a cockpit surround tailored to each driver’s build, which can then be fit into whatever car he is drawn to drive.

Third, new driver intake. I’m thinking here of a system similar to that in professional golf, where the top 125 or so in the money list at the end of each season are guaranteed what are known as Tour cards, which grant them entry to the next season’s tournaments, while a limited number of additional Tour cards are competed for by those outside the top 125, along with newcomers to the pro ranks, at a tournament known as Qualifying School or ‘Q-School’.

Translating this to F1, say the top 16 points finishers in the Drivers’ Championship qualify to compete in the  following season’s events. The bottom six take their chances with those newcomers eligible for an F1 licence at F1’s own version of ‘Q-School’, held over several days during the close-season, when each driver takes turns to drive 10 or 15 laps in the same car, with the six fastest aggregate times earning an F1 ‘card’.

All sorts of commercial and vested interests will ensure that my proposals are never more than that, of course. After all, they would bring to the sport concepts that no self-respecting big business can countenance – surprise, uncertainty and all the entertaining possibilites of a level playing field. It’s the logistical objections I’m interested in. What  practical objections did I miss in my bathroom musings?

Over to you.

Fault – tennis and bastardised English

7305445390_06744d65eb_z
The impossible dream? Roger Federer – pic courtesy of Yann Caradec

If I blogged every instance of people in professional sport talking nonsense, I would never be away from my laptop, but I refuse to let tennis off the hook for the garbage it continues to spout when discussing its four biggest titles.

Roger Federer can win another Grand Slam, says former coach Paul Annacone. Oh he can, can he? Win the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open all in the same calendar year? That would be some achievement, undoubtedly, from a 35-year-old.

Only that’s not what Annacone has in mind, of course. In reporting his opinions, the BBC is simply falling into line with the imprecision common to everyone involved with pro tennis, it seems – applying the term ‘Grand Slam’ to a mere component of a Grand Slam. Annacone simply thinks Federer has one more big-four title in him.

So why not say so? Golf has found a way of avoiding such mangled nomenclature, by referring to each of its own principal championships – Masters, US Open, The Open and USPGA Championship – as ‘a Major’ (collectively as ‘the Majors’). Why on earth couldn’t tennis adopt this same label (as occurs elsewhere in the article, ironically) and save the term ‘Grand Slam’ for when it is actually warranted?

We have grown sadly accustomed to the ‘all must have prizes’ mentality seeping into Society. This ‘all must have the ultimate prize’ presumption, however, is a distortion too far.

New words, please.

Blur of managerial merry-go-round no longer hides the real villains

Bob Bradley c/o Doha Stadium Plus Qatar
Bob Bradley (pic courtesy of Doha Stadium Plus Qatar)

As always, much chatter accompanied the dismissal of yet another football manager, yet in the spare time now available to him, Swansea City’s latest ex-boss, Bob Bradley, may reflect that there has never been a better time to be fired in his line of work.

For more and more these days, the chatter revolves around those behind the gun, rather than the hapless soul in front of it.

What on earth passes for due diligence at Swansea City? In a era when senior recruitment is an industry in itself, awash with gurus and number-crunchers, how can a multi-million pound organisation’s grasp of research and strategy be so abysmal that they are showing the door to a manager just 12 weeks after attaching his name to it?

Who checked this man over and how and why did that person arrive at the conclusion that Bradley was the best man available to take this team forward, in conjunction with the three- or five-year plans so beloved of pontificating ‘suits’ these days?

But maybe I get to the gist of this fiasco with that last sentence, for such long-term vision, I suspect, is the sole preserve of those clubs at the opposite end of the league table from Swansea City right now. The Welsh club currently belongs to that nervous enclave for whom the long-term is measured in weeks rather than years. Were it otherwise, Garry Monk, their manager just over a year ago and now doing admirable things with Leeds United, might still be at the helm and the club in calmer waters, his bosses doubtless congratulating themselves on not letting fickle form blind them to enduring ability.

That such steadfastness seems rather archaic nowadays reflects poorly on a professional game that has allowed the stakes to become too high. Relegation used to be a maddening inconvenience but it has become something seen as tantamount to the fall of Pompeii; an enforced separation from the Premier League’s money-engorged tit, that simply cannot be contemplated.

We have all become so giddy with this notion that were any chairman to declare such belief in a new manager that not even a relegation season would threaten the latter’s job, it would be a race as to who threw the first stone at him – fans, media or the club accountants.

So erratic and scattergun has the managerial merry-go-round become that the kind of boardroom shenanigans in the game’s Latin quarter that once amused us so greatly are now moving dangerously close to home. Remember Atlético Madrid’s hothead owner Jesús Gil? Thirty-nine managers in 17 years? How much longer before he might have begun to feel right at home in the Premier League?

First we see Crystal Palace stump up heaven knows how much in severance pay to be shot of Alan Pardew, only to replace like with like and now this farce in south Wales, an indictment not only of those who purport to ‘run’ the clubs concerned, but also of those who preside over a league that has lost all sense of perspective.

Enjoy your weekend, Bob Bradley. You’re well out of it.

Are you listening, politicians?

2729099025_f3d6681242_z
Joe Flacco (pic courtesy of Keith Allison)

What a refreshing change from that tired old cop-out beloved of politicians beating a tactical retreat before the brown stuff hits the fan.

“…is leaving politics to spend more time with his family…”

Yeah, right.

Good on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, then, for keeping it real when explaining why he looks forward to the widely-perceived chore of the NFL’s de-camping to Wembley Stadium next year, as part of an expanded International Series.

It mightn’t do much for his New Man credentials, but you can’t fault his honesty.

“I have four kids now. That’s probably why I’m looking at it a bit more optimistically. It’ll be good to get away from them.”

Golf-haters need to spit it out

We are all this guy. Except me, because I’m not dumb enough to go golfing atop a frozen pond, and I’m not self-loathing enough to enjoy golf in the first place.”

Even if you held a gun to his head, I’m not sure Barry Petchesky could even begin to explain this bizarre comment that he penned for Deadspin this week.

Self-loathing?

Reach for some dental equipment à la the interrogation scene in Marathon Man, however, and I have every confidence that between sobs, he would quickly blurt out the sad truth. It was the first derogatory label he could think of and it seemed as good an insult as any.

Self-loathing.

I played golf for 15 years, have enjoyed it and the company of golfers for all my adult life, and am yet to encounter anyone with even good reason to self-loathe, let alone a proclivity for it.

Had Petchesky attacked us for snootiness or bad-taste clothing, he would have shown himself to be somewhat behind the times in attacking a sport about which he clearly knows nothing, but historically at least, he could have mustered a little context for his contention.

“Self-loathing”, however, is such a random, out-of-thin-air criticism that it deserves to be met with another one. That resentment born of a possibly-subconscious jealousy means that Barry Petchesky hates middle-class people at play so much that any old slur will do in his desperation to make a point.

Not knowing the first thing about him, I have no evidence with which to back up my claim, but at least that makes two of us.

Chivalry? Just leave it, footballers…

 

15098324949_1f3826bb67_z
“Oh no…I think it’s his groin.” [pic by Cathy Baird]
I would never subscribe to the popular theory that all professional footballers are a bit dense. I have known some and seen plenty more who make a mockery of that claim. They mightn’t have letters after their name but their heads have undoubtedly been properly screwed on.

A significant proportion of professional footballers, on the other hand? Intellectually underwhelming?

Absolutely beyond argument.

Sadly, some of the latter were in evidence at the weekend. Just as you don’t let kids near a box of fireworks, so I believe professional footballers should be kept well away from social niceties, at least until they realise that ‘nuance’ isn’t just the name of a nightclub.

If you came ‘cold’ to Sunday’s Manchester City/Arsenal game, you could be forgiven  for thinking that City’s German international midfielder Ilkay Gundogan was dead at the age of 26. There were his team-mates, after all, lined up in the tunnel, all pointedly wearing shirts that bore Gundogan’s squad number.

A touching tribute to a player so cruelly snatched away from us, for, er, six months… Herr Gundogan, you see, suffered a knee injury midweek that will keep him off the field for the rest of the season.

Now this is undoubtedly sad, frustrating and regrettable. Unless you’re a 26-year-old with a terminal illness somewhere, in which case it is nothing more than a modest bump in life’s road. A sense of perspective they could have done with at Eastlands on Sunday.

In their defence, the City players are young men living in a slavishly touchy-feely world, thanks largely to many people of their generation who think that hugs and emoting are everything and that if you’ve gone 24 hours without changing your Facebook profile picture to a social justice slogan, why, you’re just not livin’ right.

But where was the voice of reason, even so? The voice reminding them that they’d all been to see their injured team-mate and had all resolved to keep him as involved as they could for the rest of the campaign. And that it was now time to go to work?

Unfortunately, however, this is a profession that has form when it comes to cack-handed etiquette: witness the knots they occasionally tie themselves into when working out to which team they should throw the ball after an injury; or the fact that any old injury now seems enough for everyone to stop playing, even if the stricken player is clutching his big toe rather than his head. That’s on them, that one – the workforce that can’t draw a distinction between gallantry and overkill.

Thankfully, the backlash for yesterday’s mawkishness has been profound, the ultimate condemnation inadvertently coming from Gundogan himself, his Tweet thanking his teammates for their gesture ending with the postscript, “Don’t worry – I’m still alive”. On the terraces, if not in the dressing room, it would seem the reality check is alive and well.

Whether the mockery will be enough to save footballers from themselves in future, we will have to wait and see. I still think clubs could take a lead here by removing whatever motivational message is painted over the players’ tunnel – This is Anfield etc – and replacing it with a four-word plaque; standard issue throughout the professional game.

Shut Up and Play.