Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Memphis a Fitness Friendly City?

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2012 at 2:20 PM

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Surveys of America's fittest and fattest and park-friendly cities are a dime a dozen, and I see about one a week. Here's one that came in today from the Trust for Public Land. I don't read most of them any more. But public sports facilities — that means anyplace you can use for free or by paying a fee — have played a big part in my life and they are part of our lifestyle and our personal and municipal budgets.

Most surveys lie. Fat cities are not fat due to a lack of public facilities. The problem is diet, personal motivation, and access. Ours is a disposable city, and the facilities and the people are not always in the same place. Here's my Memphis survey. It is personal, subjective, anecdotal, and uninformed in some categories, less so in others. But in most cases I have seen 'em and and used 'em, which is more than most of the surveys can claim.

Public parks: Oversupplied. Shelby Farms is four times bigger than Central Park. Overton Park is getting better year after year. There are riverfront parks from Mud Island to Tom Lee Park to Crump Park near the Ornamental Metals Museum, some of them rarely visited. Mud Island River Park is closed half the year. Greenbelt Park on Mud Island is the best of the lot. Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds is for the football crowd. Kennedy, Willow Road, Bellevue, and Leftwich/Audubon serve multiple needs. There are probably too many parks for a disposable city to maintain adequately.

Walking trails and running: Adequate. Put your shoes on and take off. True story: a former colleague was so obsessed with training for a marathon that he ran hundreds of laps around his living room when it rained. There are oval tracks at the fairgrounds and many high schools. There is an organized race of some kind nearly every weekend.

Fitness machines and structured programs: Unbalanced. Suburbs oversupplied with clubs and community facilities, inner city Memphis is undersupplied. Kroc Center, Streets Ministries, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and Church Health Center are helping a lot.

Tennis: Oversupplied in both indoor and outdoor courts. High schools and colleges that emphasize tennis build to tournament capacity, which leaves a lot of courts unused at other times. The University of Memphis has moved its tennis operations to the Racquet Club, leaving several perfectly good courts on campus for everyday players. Memphis has more public indoor tennis centers than Chicago. There are unused and deteriorating but still playable courts at Frayser Tennis Center. There is no single public center to compare with the biggest public centers in Little Rock, Mobile, Murfreesboro, and Nashville but overall Memphis is still oversupplied.

Racquetball. Oversupplied. A dying sport that thrived in Memphis 30 years ago, but plenty of courts remain at University of Memphis, Racquet Club, downtown YMCA, and some of the fitness clubs and community centers.

Outdoor basketball: Adequate. The cheapest sport around, requiring only nets, backboards, level rims, and a ball.

Indoor basketball: Adequate. Schools, churches, and community centers meet the need.

Bicycle riding: Oversupplied. If you want to ride a bike, there's nothing stopping you, assuming you can afford one, and if you can't there are organizations that will help. The dedicated bike lanes, bike paths, and sharrows are nice but a city-wide grid is unnecessary. Memphis is mostly flat and the weather is more conducive to riding than in the Snow Belt.

Football: Oversupplied. Liberty Bowl Stadium is used nine times a year. Football defined the fairgrounds. Most high schools have a field, and some of them are putting in artificial surfaces.

Baseball and softball: Oversupplied. Baseball is a suburban game, and teams migrate to the suburban baseball fields for tournaments and leagues. An unkempt field and backstop is a typical scene at most Memphis parks and high schools, a relic of another day. Good fields like the ones at Rodney Baber are expensive to light and maintain and lightly used.

Soccer: Equals suburban, although some of the world's greats came out of poor Third World countries. Adequate to oversupplied, thanks to Mike Rose Fields.

Golf: Adequate. Memphis had to close public courses, which are magnets for wasteful spending and political squabbles on the City Council. Galloway serves the high end, and if you are willing to spend $40 you can play just about anywhere. Overton Park needs real greens.

Swimming: Undersupplied, but expensive, seasonal, and fraught with liability. The Kroc Center will help when it opens next year. Closing the Mason YMCA hurt. High marks for suburbs, downtown YMCA, University of Memphis, and Rhodes College which offers a summer membership.

Others: volleyball, skateboarding, squash, lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, bowling, Ultimate. You want to play it, you can find a place. It may require some effort and practice but that's the point. And it may require some cash and a car, but if you don't have those there are less expensive or free alternatives. It comes down to motivation and lifestyle. A new building or a new facility — or a survey — is usually not the answer.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What a Racquet: Prince is Bankrupt

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 2:57 PM

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To anyone who plays racquet sports, the news that Prince is bankrupt is like hearing that Wilson failed at footballs or McDonald's flopped at making burgers.

Prince may not have invented the oversized racquet, but for my money — a few thousand dollars in various racquets and other equipment over four decades — nobody tried harder or did it better. As a player, I appreciated the quality and durability of their products. As a fan, I am grateful for their sponsorships. And as a wordsmith, I marvel at their ability to make racquets that are virtually identical to other Prince racquets and other manufacturers' racquets seem exciting, cutting edge, different, performance-enhancing and, of course, new. Entire issues of tennis magazines are devoted to racquet hype.

The real advances in racquets in tennis, racquetball, and squash came when small wooden or metal racquets were replaced by ever-larger and ever-lighter composite racquets. Within eras, the racquets were more alike than different. The unenviable job of the Prince marketing and sales departments was to make each innovation of a few grams of weight, change in balance, a few inches more or less in head size, and different shapes seem as exciting as a new Corvette or the latest offering from Apple.

“After considering several business options, the board of directors and the senior management team firmly believe that the Chapter 11 filing is not only a necessary step but also the right thing to do to ensure a secure future for Prince,” said Gordon Boggis, president and CEO of Prince Sports Inc. “We have a long history, and are planning for an exciting future, focused on game-changing, product innovation, engineered to take players’ games to the next level. Securing this protection will help us to continue to focus on that vision.”

Now, about that vision. Can better equipment change your game or take your game to the next level?

Tennis coach Vic Braden, who is one part teaching pro and three parts psychologist, wit, and salesman, once said at a clinic in Memphis that "it's not the racquet, it's the turkey on the end of the handle." A killer marketing phrase, or rather a killer-of-marketing phrase, if there ever was one.

In his book "Open," Andre Agassi said the biggest change in the game in his final years was not bigger racquets or bigger players but the new elastic polyester string that imparts more spin on the ball.

Sarah Hatgas, tennis coach at Rhodes College, says "New tech in racquets makes it easier on the elbow! The game has developed into a power game from the baseline and volleying is becoming a lost art."

Senior player Nancy Gates says "I would in no way consider myself a racquet sports expert, but at my age my primary concern is about how badly my body gets destroyed by the sport, and how equipment may or may not exacerbate the pain. There are some racquets that are stiff and cause my elbow to hurt, so I stay away from those. Other than that, any racquet, once I get used to it, probably has no effect one way or the other on my game. I have one bad foot, so shoes are key for me. If I don't have the right shoes, I cannot play. In fact, I have given away two different pair of brand new shoes after only one wearing, because they weren't quite right - hundreds of dollars wasted."

Randy Stafford, a former racquetball pro, said that rule changes adopted by the sport in 1997 increased racquet size about 25 percent which resulted in 50 percent more hitting area for more power. "This change was made in racquetball due to the manufacturers' demands to increase sales and royalties. No question, the changes to the racquet size changed the game from a control and manageable power game, to one of excess speed that not only changed the original design and intent of the game, but increased the speed of the ball to a level that is quite unmanageable for the everyday player."

Ted Gross, former squash pro and editor of the Daily Squash Report, says, "Nothing to back this up but my opinion is racquets (assuming we are comparing only top-of-the-line models) make a difference in tennis but not in squash. Hitting a tennis ball well is substantially more complicated than hitting a squash ball well, and differences in frame stiffness and head balance and even grip shapes are therefore quite apparent. The grip over-wrap is the most important piece of equipment in squash, because before the invention of the Tournagrip you couldn't hold onto the racquet no matter what you tried."

I'm with Gross and Gates. The most underrated piece of equipment is a $2 roll of grip tape. I don't see how players did without it, especially tennis players in the hot and humid South back in the days of wooden racquets with slippery leather grips or gauzy overwraps. Second place is shoes with gum soles that are much lighter than those Goodyear-rubber soled clodhoppers you see on the tennis court. Gum-soled shoes are designed for indoor court sports but once you get used to them anything else is like putting on ankle weights.

To the extent that overgrips extend the life of racquets by making players less likely to discard them, Prince was doomed not by faulty marketing or Internet sales or all those fancy $200 racquets produced by its competitors but by a $2 piece of tape.

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