July 18, 2006
USA Softball:
Beats nemesis Japan, 5-2, for World Cup of Softball title. And the Yanks didn't need a shootout or OT (or head-butt ejections) to pull it off.
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:

What makes "the next poker?"

In other words: What competition is poised to leverage TV to become the next trendy breakout sports-cultural hit?

It's a worthwhile question, given tonight's return of the 2006 season of "WSOP," not to mention the premiere of "World Series of Darts."

Well, what made poker POKER?

I'd argue a combination of at least five elements:

• Novelty
• Accessibility
• Tangible stakes
• Mythology
• TV-friendliness

How does darts compare?

Novelty? Check.
Poker was a game played in your den or frat house or casino (or local illegal poker club). Seeing it on TV offered validation that your weekly waste of time/money was legitimate. Darts has a similar effect.

Accessibility? Check.
Just like poker, you've probably played darts before. And, similar to poker, you probably overestimate that the gap between you on a good night at the bar and the best dart players in the world ain't all that far.

"Accessibility" allows you to watch darts on TV, and -- just like poker -- say, "Hey, I could do that." The question is whether there will be an Everyman poster-guy for darts like Chris Moneymaker was for poker.

Tangible stakes? Hmm.
Unless there's going to be a couple grand individually staked to each throw, it's hard to replicate poker's direct connection to winning and losing money, the game's raison d'etre.

Mythology? Not yet.
Perhaps there's a stretch of pubs in London that replicates the mystique of Binion's in Vegas, but poker has had decades to cultivate its distinctly American mythology of high-stakes meritocracy with a touch of outlaw charm. Darts is starting virtually from scratch here.

TV-friendliness? We'll see.
Poker needed the innovative "card-cam" to take the game mainstream and make it TV-friendly. Darts will have cameras on the board, with a "Coming right at you!" feel. But I'm still waiting for the "pint-cam."

The show also needs a breakout TV "character"; poker had several. Word has it that Phil "The Power" Taylor has a made-for-TV glare. ("Tiger meets Joe Montana," according to series creator and Page 2 soccer savant Michael Davies. "And he might even be sober.")

Final analysis: It doesn't have to be as big as poker to be the "next poker," but I'm curious to see how it translates to TV -- and whether college kids will ditch the felt table and chips for the board on the wall.

World Series/Darts: 7 p.m., ESPN
World Series/Poker: 8 p.m., ESPN

MLB: Bonds Ban?
What should MLB do if Barry Bonds is indicted later this week?

MLB execs are weighing their options, according to various reports.

Suspension is on the table, but the move lacks precedent. (Fergie Jenkins' ban after a 1980 arrest for drug possession was overturned by an arbitrator, because it had to do with something unrelated to the game.)

Fred Whitfield: Jordan buddy hired as Bobcats prez/COO
Paul Pierce: Finalizes 3-year extension with Boston ($59M)
Replay in tennis: Makes its debut in the U.S. Open Series
Jeff Weaver: AL to NL, still stinks in STL debut (4 IP, 6 R)
Dodgers: Lose 5th straight, still oh-fer-MLB-2nd-half
Auburn: Inquiry into academic scandal draws NCAA attention
I say: Do nothing. An indictment isn't a conviction. It's a nasty precedent to suspend based on a charge, no matter how badly MLB seems to want to "get" Bonds.

Let the government proceed with its indictment; there's plenty of punishment waiting for Bonds (via the feds) if it wins a "guilty" verdict.

MLB Hit List
Braves sizzling: Win sixth straight, a 15-3 pummeling of the Cards in St. Louis. Wild stat from Elias: The Braves are the first team ever to score 10-plus runs in four straight games against first-place teams.

A-Rod injury? Sore left big toe takes him out of last night's Yankees win, but not before he can bungle a career-high three errors, plus a K with the bases loaded to cap an 0-for-4 night. Sure: Blame the injury.

Mientkiewicz's Fenway return: Mixed reception for Doug M. last night, even after he ripped Sox prez Larry Lucchino to the media before the game about the stupid World Series ball. I think RSN has reached "Ball Fatigue."

(Perhaps in a sign of solidarity for their boss, the Red Sox came back from being down four runs to beat the Royals 5-4 -- and boost the naturally panicky fan base … for now.)

Trade Talk: Will the Yankees trade for Bobby Abreu? Shawn Green? Jose Guillen? Reggie Sanders? Craig Wilson? (My bet is on one of those last two, if only because the asking price doesn't seem particularly high.)

Detroit Showdown
Hot Series: White Sox/Tigers. MLB's top two teams meet for the third time this season, Chicago having won five of six, making them by far the most successful team against the Tigers this season.

The Sox are four and a half games back, and still play 10 more vs. Detroit in Aug/Sept. But can't both teams agree their best plan is to break up the AL East wild card hegemony?

Collusion is a GOOD thing: They can simply divvy the division and wild card, squeezing out the AL East runner-up. Who cares who gets what? (Just ask Indians fans.)

No one has any idea what will happen when/if the Red Sox or Yankees miss the playoffs, but the speculation is that it would be enough of a seismic freak-out that any over-correction likely will benefit the rest of the AL.

T.O.: "Misunderstood"
Predictably, T.O. claimed the media uses him "to gain viewers' attention," according to a new interview on HBO's "Real Sports."

Interesting: In my experience with fans, T.O. coverage is a turn off, if anything.

So as T.O. whines "Why me?!" you can bet that most fans are replying "Why HIM?!"

Canseco: All-Star
Critics who think that MLB puts marketing over merit when it comes to its All-Star Game really need to see things in perspective:

The indie Golden Baseball League added Jose Canseco to tonight's GBL All-Star Game roster as a pitcher, despite the fact Jose hasn't pitched since his infamous outing a decade ago.

Give GBL execs some credit: Their business is attracting attention and selling tickets. And they've got our attention on this one.

New "Contender"
As far as sequels go, I'm trying to figure out whether any of the guys on the second season of "The Contender" (10 p.m., ESPN) could compete with Sylvester Stallone in the new Rocky film.

Stallone is gone from Season 1 (to work on his new movie, undoubtedly), but Sugar Ray Leonard is back as the "Mentor." Frankly, I think he could whip all these dudes. Maybe he'll try a Rocky-like comeback in "Contender VI."

(By the way, have you seen the trailer for "Rocky Balboa?" They might as well have called it "Rocky On a Plane," because it gives "Snakes" a run for its money for unintentional hilarity.)

NFL 'roid coach:
James Shortt sentenced to 366 days in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to illegally prescribe steroids. He'll be a HUGE hit in the joint.
Today on ESPN.com
Quickie Live
Page 2 Index
MLB Short Hops
Past "Next Poker" Contenders
Fantasy sports
Way bigger than poker
Bass fishing
More like "next NASCAR"
Has yet to really bust out
But the rules still mystify
Spelling bee
Cachet erodes with age

If Tiger needed a jump-start to his competitiveness, being paired with Woods-critic Nick Faldo for the first two rounds of the Brit Open should do it.

Tour de France: Watch out for American Floyd Landis now that the riders are back in the mountains for the L'Alpe d'Huez stage.

Congrats to Jeff Madsen, who became the youngest player ever (21 yrs, 1 mo.) to win a W.S. of Poker bracelet ($2K buy-in no-limit hold 'em).

NBA Summer: Sonics' first-round project Saer Sene is shining in Utah. Last night: 13 pts (5/8 FG), 6 reb, 5 blocks. He has 12 blocks in 3 games.

MLS United: Seven of the 18 MLS All-Stars who will play Chelsea on Aug. 5 will come from D.C. United, including late All-Star add Freddy Adu.

What a relief to hear that Peter Gammons has been released from the hospital and is continuing his recovery from a brain aneurysm.

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