The NCAA Final Four is set. The playoff races for the NBA and NHL are heating up and Major League Baseball season begins in less than a week.
Yet, what sport is everyone talking about this week? NFL Football.
Yes, football, particularly the NFL brand, is still the king of sports in this country. The owners meeting in Phoenix this week dominated the headlines with the news that the Oakland Raiders will be moving to Las Vegas for the 2020 (and possibly the 2019) season.
It seems the Raiders as an organization can only stand Oakland for 22 years. Al Davis moved the team to Los Angeles in 1982 after 22 years in Oakland. And now Al’s son Mark is moving the team to Las Vegas after another 22 years.
When you count the 13 years the team spent in Los Angeles that means for more than 35 years the team has tried to get a new stadium in Oakland. No wonder NFL owners overwhelmingly voted to allow the move.
Like San Diego, which lost the Chargers earlier this year, Oakland deserved to lose the Raiders. I understand that taxpayers loathe the idea of helping billionaire team owners build new stadiums, but officials in Oakland and San Diego seemingly went out of their way to block the teams’ efforts to build new stadiums on their own.
And there is always a city (or state) somewhere that will step up to pay what is necessary to lure a team. Las Vegas, the 40th largest city in the country, is now among 30 cities that have an NFL team. New York — or is that East Rutherford, New Jersey — and Los Angeles have two teams each.
The move to Las Vegas will pay off for the Raiders. They have enough fans still in Southern California who will be willing to make the trip across the desert to see their team play. Heck, it isn’t that long a flight for the diehard Oakland fans to make.
Also, fans of the eight teams that will play road games in Las Vegas each year might want to mark that game for a road trip. Visiting Las Vegas and seeing your favorite football team equals a great weekend for just about any NFL fan.
For years, professional sports teams avoided Las Vegas because of the gambling. But sports gambling is so pervasive today throughout the country that it is now of little concern to the NFL, whose growth in popularity over the last 50 years can be attributed to how popular a betting sport it has become.
And fears that the Raiders players may be seduced by the nightlife of Vegas also is a phony issue. NFL players in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco and countless other cities have plenty of nightlife.
In the NFL, players learn quickly that if you don’t produce on the field your career doesn’t last very long. The nightlife will not be a distraction.
The Raiders have made great strides over the past couple of seasons. They are now one of the top teams in the AFC and could contend for a Super Bowl in the next year or two.
Can you imagine a Super Bowl title on their way out of town?
OPENING DAY: The Dodgers open the Major League Baseball season April 3 with a 1 p.m. game against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium. After four consecutive National League Western Division titles, the Dodgers have higher expectations this season.
Sports Illustrated has even picked them to win the World Series.
Whatever you may think of Andrew Friedman and the rest of the people running the Dodgers, they have put together a team that is built to go a long way. Even injuries last year (28 different players went on the disabled list) couldn’t keep the Dodgers from winning the division.
This year the team seems deeper everywhere, with the possible exception of the bullpen.
Hyun-Jin Ryu’s return to form after two seasons lost due to arm injuries has strengthened the starting rotation, allowing the Dodgers to keep Julio Urias under wraps in Arizona until mid-May or so. The Dodgers want to limit Urias to around 150 innings this year, but they also want him around for October.
Logan Forsythe will add right-handed pop to the batting order, which was lacking last season, and he is an overall improvement at second base from Chase Utley, who is starting to show signs of aging. Utley still figures to be a key figure off the bench this season.
The Dodgers still don’t know what Yasiel Puig is going to give them day in and day out but they have other outfield options if he struggles again and there aren’t as many holes in the lineup as there were last year.
Manager Dave Roberts should only get better in his second year as a manager and I have high hopes for the Dodgers winning a fifth straight Western Division title and — hopefully — making it to the World Series for the first time in 29 years.
WESTWOOD HEARTBREAK: It’s hard to beat a good team twice in one season. That’s a sad fact the UCLA Bruins learned March 24 when they lost to the Kentucky Wildcats, 86-75 in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins had defeated the Wildcats in Kentucky earlier in the year but they could not contain De’Aaron Fox, who scored 39 points and outplayed Lonzo Ball.
Ball scored only 10 points with eight assists and four turnovers in his final college game. He announced immediately after the game that he was headed for the NBA.
If there was a surprise after the game, it was the announcement that coach Steve Alford was staying at UCLA. Many national broadcasters and writers expected him to go home to Indiana and coach his alma mater.
Apparently Alford likes Southern California winters better than Indiana’s.
Alford needs to convince TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu to stay for their sophomore years in Westwood. Both are considering jumping to the NBA. Besides Ball, the Bruins are losing senior guards Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford, but coach Alford has another good crop of recruits, including Ball’s brother LaMelo.
The Bruins should be good next year, especially if Leaf and Anigbogu return.
STATE CHAMPIONS: Congratulation to the Lady Wildcats of Windward High, who won the state Division I basketball title March 24 with a 53-41 victory over McClatchy of Sacramento.
Sophomore Charisma Osborne led the Wildcats, playing all but 23 seconds of the game and scoring 26 points.
She had seven of her team’s nine first-quarter points and 15 of the 22 points at halftime.
She also shut down McClatchy’s top scorer, Jordan Cruz, who scored only 11 points and committed seven turnovers.
Osborne is already receiving scholarship offers from UCLA and USC with two years of high school remaining.
Windward will be tough to beat the next two years.
TANK JOBS: The Lakers obviously are tanking, hoping to hold on to their top draft pick. I’m not sure what the Clippers are doing. After scoring a crucial win over the Jazz March 25, they fell on their faces the next afternoon, blowing an 18-point lead with five minutes remaining and losing to the Sacramento Kings.
The Clippers were outscored down the stretch, 22-3. That’s bad basketball anyway you look at it.
Doc Rivers needs to realize that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are never going to win a title together and trade one of them — probably Griffin — before they both leave as free agents.
I’ve said several times this season that I like the young nucleus of the Lakers’ team, but as this season progresses I‘ve changed my mind on a couple of players.
Julius Randle plays with an aggressiveness many of his teammates could use, but he can’t score anywhere except around the basket, and at 6-7, that’s a major hole in his game. It’s been three years since he left Kentucky after one season and he still hasn’t developed a consistent outside shot.
D’Angelo Russell also has become a disappointment. He scored 28 points with nine assists in the March 28 loss to Washington, in which the Lakers blew a 95-82 lead after three quarters and lost 119-105.
But Russell had three of his four turnovers in the fourth quarter and could not stop John Wall or Bradley Beal defensively.
You can’t play two games a week in the NBA when your team is scheduled four times. You have to bring it every night and Russell and Randle aren’t doing that.