Saturday, 4 July 2020

An Exhaustive Analysis of the Performance of Athlete-Inspired Breakfast Cereals: 2015-2020

There was an embarrassingly long period of time when I legitimately believed that Doug Flutie was the best quarterback ever. This did not result from watching him lead underdog Boston College past Miami in 1984, but rather this epiphany came in 1998 after learning of the existence of Flutie Flakes cereal. Sure, I knew that Steve Young and Troy Aikman were pretty good, and Brett Favre even graced the cover of my copy of Quarterback Club ‘98 on the Nintendo 64, but none of those schlubs had their own cereals, or even any kind of foodstuffs inspired by them. QED. 

In my defense, I was 8 years old and delusional enough to expect non-mediocrity from Jeff George, the decidedly non-elite quarterback of my beloved Oakland Raiders that year (and thankfully no further than the 1998 season). Kids are dumb. But I feel like my logic was actually somewhat reasonable here. After several years in the food industry I can say that it takes an absurd amount of work to launch a product and you better have a decent amount of confidence that your R is going to justify that I in terms of time and resources. That means if you’re going to hitch the wagon of your boxed breakfast staple product to an athlete you should choose wisely. And for the most part manufacturers seem to have heeded that advice. Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens are among the handful of NFL players who had their own cereals at one point. Ironically enough Doug Flutie and Tommy Maddox (Tommy Gun Flakes) were probably the worst NFLers with their own cereals. 

I’m not going to provide an exhaustive overview of all the cereals inspired by NFL players. That has been done before and I can’t add anything on the subject. It’s not like there are secret boxes of Kordell Krunch or something lying around the deepest recesses of General Mills’ R&D facility; we know what is out there. Additionally, all of the cereals are pretty similar. These products are made at external manufacturing plants (i.e. there is no plant solely devoted to churning out Flutie Flakes in massive quantities) and the focus seems to be on getting decent margins and not making things too complicated. This is a sensible approach given that Flutie Flakes donated a large chunk of its profits to autism research and other athlete cereals tended to have similar charitable aims. If you’re donating most of the profits to a charity you like you might as well act like a good capitalist and maximize them. So I’ll spare you a post where I hunker down and eat years-old boxes of these cereals and reach the quite obvious conclusion that they all taste rather bland and probably tasted similarly poor when they were fresh(-er). 

Instead, what I’m interested in instead is how much these cereals actually sold while they were on the market. Thanks to my big fancy job in food I am able to pull this data and I hope this can serve as at least a semi-pleasant diversion as we all bide our time until the NFL (maybe?) comes back in a few months. 

Establishing Stuff I Have Data For

This data is all coming from Nielsen, which aggregates store scan data and allows folks like myself to use this data to understand category sales and whatnot (and write stupid posts like this). Nielsen is not going to capture everything and the date range is only going to cover June 2015 through May 2020. During this period I found sales data for the following cereals:

Flutie Flakes(?!) - Doug Flutie 

Gronk Flakes - Rob Gronkowski

Witten’s Lucky Stars - Jason Witten

Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes - Jordy Nelson

And just for fun I also found data for Chicago Cub Anthony Rizzo’s RizzOs Honey Nut Toasted Oats. 

No one is buying these cereals based on taste, so their sales are going to be a function of the player and team’s popularity and the size of the market he plays in. I would expect Gronk Flakes to have the highest sales, followed by Witten’s Lucky Stars, then Flutie Flakes (Buffalo fans are very intense) and with Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes bringing up the rear because Green Bay is simply too small a market. Given that this time period covered the Cubs winning the World Series I’d expect RizzOs to fall slightly behind Gronk Flakes but ahead of all the other football cereals. 

Here is what the sales actually looked like. Good thing I do this kind of stuff for a living because I was wildly off with my predictions:

I’m not too surprised that RizzOs sold like crazy. I lived in Chicago when the Cubs won the World Series and can attest that the city went nuts, and that insanity could certainly induce many Chicagoans to plonk down too much money for a Honey Nut Cheerios ripoff. The Gronk Flakes sales were less surprising when I learned that the product launched in 2012 and these sales just came from small batches for the starts of the 2015 and 2016 NFL seasons. Flutie Flakes had a very brief 20th anniversary edition run in December 2019 (check your math Doug, the OG Flutie Flakes came out in 1998). The big surprise to me was Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes pulling in so much money. 

How does this stack up to the category as a whole? Well I think it’s telling that most of these cereals have a charitable bent. Feast your eyes on a nice breakdown of how these products compare to the rest of the cereal category during the period: 

That’s about as “Germany-Brazil World Cup 2014” as a side-by-side cereal sales comparison can get. 

This comparison is also absurdly unfair and akin to comparing Apple Jacks and Orange Creampop Crunch. These were all limited-edition cereals circumscribed to small markets. I should really drill down to when these cereals were actually available and focus on the markets they were sold in. I’m sure there are some diehard Packer fans in Anchorage, Alaska but unfortunately they won’t be able to schlep to their local supermarket and pick up a box of Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes. These were all (sensibly) local plays.  

As I just mentioned, almost all of these cereals are limited to very small regions. 98% of Witten’s Lucky Stars sales came from the Dallas/Forth Worth metro areas, 91% of RizzO’s volume came from Chicago, and 97% of Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes came in Wisconsin. It is safe to assume that the remainder probably came from ecommerce. Flutie Flakes and Gronk Flakes appear to have driven a proportionately high volume from ecommerce, and Flutie Flakes has the added factor of catering to a pretty small market in Buffalo/Rochester. 

Witten’s Lucky Stars, RizzO’s, and Jordy’s Farm Flakes have sufficient sales to warrant a few more lines of musings about how they performed in their markets so let's get into that.

Witten’s Lucky Stars

Witten’s Lucky Stars, inspired by then-Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, launched in September 2015 and was available for most of the football season (the last month of sizable sales came in January 2016). Maybe not the best timing as he was starting to slightly decline but he was still putting up respectable numbers and the Cowboys will always figure prominently in the hearts and minds of most Texans. I especially like this product because it had the ambition to emulate the marshmallow bits (“marbits” to the cereal cognoscenti) found in the always outstanding General Mills staple Lucky Charms. Probably deleterious to its margins, but also likely made for more tasty fare than a blander Cheerios or Corn Flakes copycat. 

Witten’s cereal launched at the start of the 2015 NFL season and was basically in market for the entire regular season. There were 1,540 cereal products with over $100 in sales in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area from September 2015 through January 2016 (when Witten’s Lucky Stars did the bulk of its sales). Over this period, the tight end-inspired cereal ranked 239th on that list. That put the product slightly behind Post’s Shredded Wheat Spoon Size 16.4oz and ahead of Grape Nuts 29oz and Trix 14.8oz. Note that cereal brands are obsessed with producing a billion different sizes. Rest assured that Trix is doing massive numbers in sales (hear that, General Mills shareholders?) but this “tail” product in its portfolio was outsold by Jason Witten’s cereal in the Dallas metro while in market. It still lagged Wheaties 15.6oz (the most popular Wheaties size) but not by a humongous margin. For further context, Frosted Flakes 26.8oz was the top cereal product by sales during the period in the metro area with $1.9 million in sales. Altogether a rather strong showing for Mr. Witten. 

And actually I’m still being a little unfair to Witten (which is not particularly nice of me given that for some silly reason the Raiders decided to sign him this season). There is another way to assess in-market performance that helps out little products a little more: turns. 

I’m not going to get in the weeds of marketing metrics but turns basically control for how widely available a product is. Take the Frosted Flakes product I mentioned earlier that had the highest sales in Dallas during the period. That had 85 points of distribution in Dallas during the period while Witten’s Lucky Stars only had 7 points of distribution. “Dollar Turns” measures how many dollars a product generates for each point of distribution it has. This helps level the playing field a little bit for Witten. 

Let’s look at all products in the Dallas-Forth Worth metro with over 5 points of distribution (go any lower and things get wonky) and see where Witten’s Lucky Stars ranks for September 2015 through January 2016. Out of 825 products matching that criteria, Witten’s Lucky Stars came in 21st with $2,476 in dollar sales per point of distribution. Not bad at all. The cereal ranked in line with products from Honey Bunches of Oats, Lucky Charms, Honey Nut Cheerios, and Frosted Flakes and it absolutely crushed the biggest Wheaties size in dollar turns. 

Things get even more bananas if we isolate our data to October 2015 when Witten’s Lucky Stars reached full distribution and generated over a third of its entire total sales. During that month Witten’s Lucky Stars had the third-highest dollar turns in the entire cereal category, behind only General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios 24oz and Cinnamon Toast Crunch 49.5oz (naturally). That’s insane. It did better turns than any Honey Bunches of Oats, Frosted Flakes, or yellow box Cheerios product in Dallas that month. And you’ll notice that most of these top products are massive sizes (most boxes in grocery stores are around 11-14oz in size and the larger your product the higher the price and the easier it is to drive dollar turns). Witten’s Lucky Stars is 11.5oz and has to move a lot more units than something like a 49.5oz Cinnamon Toast Crunch box (this is what you would find at a club store like Sam’s Club or Costco) to generate the same dollars. 

There were 1,247 cereal products that sold over $100 in October 2015 and Witten’s Lucky Stars ranked 76th on that list, coming in front of Cocoa Pebbles 40oz and generating 36% more dollars than the largest Wheaties product during the month. Witten's cereal commanded a 0.32% market share in Dallas-Fort Worth in October 2015 which is very respectable given how crowded the category is. 

Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes

Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes is an ersatz Frosted Flakes with a way-too-complicated name, though it does hearken back to Nelson’s childhood working on his family's farm. It came out at the start of the 2016 season, coming off a campaign where Nelson tore his ACL in preseason and missed the entire regular season. Nelson had a very strong bounceback year in 2016 with 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns and that may have helped sustain sales a little bit. 

There were 1,582 cereals with over $100 in sales from September 2016 through January 2017 in Wisconsin metros tracked in Nielsen and Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes ranked 74th. This was behind the largest Wheaties size but in line with Frosted Flakes 10.5oz and the product did more in sales than any Cocoa Pebbles size. It also boasted a 0.35% category share in the metro during the entire period while it was in market, which was higher than Witten’s Lucky Stars in Dallas-Forth Worth during its peak sales month. The takeaway here is that Winsconsinites really enjoy their Packers, and I’m sure that the inherent dairy/cereal complementarity made Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes especially appealing to cheeseheads. 

Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes ranked 24th in dollar turns out of 838 products with over 5 points of distribution from September 2016 through January 2017 in Wisconsin markets. This is excellent (the general rule of thumb is that turning in the top third of products in a category is “good”). It turned better than any Life or Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds product in Wisconsin during that window. 

Now let’s see how Jordy Flakes did during its strongest month, October 2016. It commanded a very impressive 0.59% category share during the month, and you can be sure that if I was the Associate Brand Manager on Jordy Farm Fresh Flakes (I am almost certain such a position did not exist) I would round that sucker up to 1%. The product ranked 33rd out of 1,267 products by dollar sales in October. It also severely laid the hurt on both Wheaties products sold in Wisconsin that month, temporarily unseating the brand from “cereals with athletes on its boxes” supremacy. 

Dollar turns were especially crazy. Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes drove the fourth-highest turns of any product in the category in Wisonsin in October 2016. It trailed only 2 Honey Nut Cheerios sizes and the top Cinnamon Toast Crunch size. This put it ahead of any yellow box Cheerios, Honey Bunches of Oats, or Frosted Flakes product for the month. 


I don’t follow baseball enough (i.e. at all) to have an opinion on Anthony Rizzo and his on-field exploits and whether they are cereal-worthy. But I can say that Chicago went bonkers after the Cubs ended their World Series drought and RizzO’s sold very well. RizzO’s aped Honey Nut Cheerios and launched in April 2017, the following spring after the Cubs defeated the Indians in the World Series and was effectively in market during the entire 2017 season. 

RizzO’s did $304,000 in the Chicago market during the 2017 MLB season. This ranked the product 118th out of 1,615 cereals over the period. It performed in line with sizes from Apple Jacks, Cocoa Puffs, and Wheat Chex, but trailed the largest Wheaties size which generated over $427,000 in dollar sales during the period. It ranked 38th out of 764 products during the period in dollar turns. 

RizzO’s had its strongest month in May 2017. Similar to Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes and Witten’s Lucky Stars it took a few weeks to amass distribution, interest and sales peaked shortly thereafter and then petered out over the rest of the season. RizzO’s had a remarkably strong May 2017, seeing the 15th-highest dollar sales in the category. This put it ahead of any Reeses Puffs, Apple Jacks, or Fruit Loops product in Chicago for the month. RizzO’s also drove a 0.85% market share in May, which is quite impressive. 

RizzO’s had the sixth-highest turns of any product in Chicago in May, ahead of any yellow box Cheerios, Honey Roasted Honey Bunches of Oats, or Fruity Pebbles size during the month. 


I wouldn’t say you can really draw any broad conclusions from this analysis. It does not seem that the sales of novelty athlete-inspired cereals can help us solve global inequality, how to market food products to Hispanic millennials, defend against Lamar Jackson, or anything else of societal value (even when we break out the data to the market level, alas). But I guess you can say that this further supports the rather uncontroversial notion that folks in the Midwest and Texas really love their sports (and cereal products based on them) and those cereals actually sell pretty well in their individual markets.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Soccernomics: 2018 Edition by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

The first edition of Soccernomics, published in 2009, is a fantastic read showcasing what the social sciences can tell us about soccer and what soccer can tell us about the social sciences. It is fascinating and thoughtful and it should be thoroughly enjoyable to anyone with even a passing interest in the game. So if you haven't read any edition previously and this sounds like your bag, get on that, and pick up this version given it's the most recent.

The rest of this review will assume that you've already read Soccernomics but it was probably over 5 years ago or more and you're wondering whether to pick up this new edition. I'm happy to report that Soccernomis: 2018 World Cup Edition is not merely a cash grab attempting to capitalize on the hype surrounding everyone's favorite quadrennial international sporting spectacle (sorry Olympics) but a thorough revamp with plenty of new material, updated data and research, and reflections on predictions that didn't pan out and speculation as to why that was the case.

The major sections from the first edition appear to be largely present, but they all have been updated to some extent, and not just with lazy references to flavor-of-2018 teams and players, there is some fundamental reworking. Some of the theoretical sections are similar (e.g. the rationale for investing in assimilating foreign players, how a penalty kick is game theory masquerading as a high-stakes tie-match-deciding device, the countries punching the highest above their weight in the sport) but many of the examples are new and sometimes the theories are amended in light of recent findings and there is analysis of recent crazy happenings such as how Leicester City won the Premier League.

Essentially, if you enjoyed reading Soccernomics the first time, I definitely recommend picking up this book as it is basically more of the same. Yes, some material will be familiar, but the update is comprehensive enough to warrant another purchase/borrow.


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Advance Book Review: The Performance Cortex by Zach Schonbrun

Release Date: April 17, 2018

Over the last few decades the athletic world has seem arms races across various disciplines as teams attempt to gain an edge on their competition. Understanding the complex linkages between the mind and the body is one of the biggest new frontiers for sports teams, and in The Performance Cortex Zach Schonbrun of the New York Times explores the territory and provides a surprisingly science-heavy account of the connection between neuroscience and sports.

The Performance Cortex is effectively two books in one. It oscillates between chronicling the exploits of deCervo, a start-up founded by two Columbia neuroscientists designed to aid baseball players and explaining the science behind the motor system and examples of how athletes are leveraging neuroscience to improve performance. The Decervo sections were engaging and it was interesting to see how the product evolved and sold itself to teams. It also provided Schonbrun with the opportunity to share research around the remarkably complex action that is hitting a fastball. It takes approximately 400 milliseconds for a 95 mile-per-hour fastball to cross home plate from the pitcher's mound, and in that time a batter has to anticipate a pitch, identify it, decide whether to swing, and put bat to ball (should he decide that to be a sensible decision) all within that lilliputian time-frame. deCervo eventually evolved into a program that allowed baseball players to assess and improve their pitch recognition skills. The firm's founders discovered that there was considerable variation in players' abilities to quickly recognize pitches, and that recognition skills were a large driver of success. deCervo billed itself as a valuable talent-assessment tool for teams and after gaining traction with college teams the company met with over 25 MLB teams to tout their product.  The notion that baseball players are better at identifying pitches and faster isn't groundbreaking. But what was useful is it gave managers an objective measure that appeared to explain variations in performance in teams.The use of a similar program called Neuroscouting encouraged the Red Sox to take a risk on an obscure outfielder from Tennessee named Mookie Betts in 2011, which seems to have worked out pretty ok for the franchise.

The non-deCervo chapters explain the various ways the motor system impacts sports and the current scientific research on the topic. These are science-heavy and primarily rely on summarizing boatloads of research studies. Sometimes these can be interesting, such as the finding that increased touching through behaviors such as high-fiving and chest-bumping early in the season were correlated with team cohesion and future success later on in the campaign (though you would think that a better team would have more opportunities for such celebratory behavior than a bad one) and the theory that the prevalence of right handedness a result from mothers holding babies near their hearts because it helped them sleep. Shonbrun also does an excellent job distilling concepts into digestible prose for the lay reader, such as likening neurons sending signals to the spinal cord to tourists attempting to navigate Times Square. There is a lot for Schonbrun to cover (this is a far more popular research topic than the psychology of fandom I wrote about in my Superfans review) and readers will learn about the speed-accuracy trade-off,  great localization debate and other major areas of motor skills research. Schonbrun will sometimes link research findings to their practical application and how players such as Neymar utilize them to their benefit, but sometimes Schonbrun will go in-depth into research around theories such as lateralization that were eventually debunked. This was one of the most science-oriented "psych/neuroscience applied to popular subject" books I read and Schonbrun really did his research and delved into the literature. This led to some dry sections, but it also meant that I learned way more than the average pop psych book.

Schonbrun focuses solely on the motor system. There is nothing on genetics or concussions as those topics have already been covered in-depth in other books. I appreciated this decision as it made the book feel more focused and original. There are a few books touching upon somewhat similar subject matter, such as Brandon Sneed's Head in the Game, but none with at much scientific rigor. Sometimes this makes the book drag in parts, but overall The Performance Cortex is an illuminating book that greatly improved my understanding of and appreciation for the motor actions involved in sports.

7 / 10 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Advance Book Review: Superfans by George Dohrmann

Release Date: February 20, 2018

60% of Americans identify as sports fans, and if you're reading this review you probably count yourself among the ranks of athletic partisans. Originally inspired by his experiences fielding calls from irate readers while working the sports desk at The Los Angeles Times at the start of his journalistic career, sportswriter George Dohrmann explores the most extreme depths of fandom in his new book Superfans and details the psychology behind such behavior. It is not as gripping or powerful as his absolutely fantastic Play Their Hearts Out but Superfans is a breezy and enjoyable application of pop psychology to the sporting realm.

Dohrmann is currently a writer for The Athletic and previously served as an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated and won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles revealing academic fraud at the University of Minnesota while at the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. He is a tremendously gifted writer with a knack for deep and engaging character portraits. Superfans has a bit more an educational bent than some of his other work but he still excels at bringing to life and colorful and outrageous fans he meets such as Steven Nevets, the founder of the Portland Timbers' Timbers Army and the eccentric forefather of fan psychology Dr. Dan Wann.

Superfans bounces around the major aspects of fandom including illusions of control, affiliation and identification, and hatred or rivals. Each chapter has a mix of profiles and a little detail on relevant studies. Given the minutia researched across a variety of academic disciples, I was surprised to learn the marginalized position of fan psychology within academia. Most of the leading researchers are concentrated in pedestrian universities and for whatever reason cluster in the Midwest. Dohrmann usually mentions the conclusions of each article, but I wish he provided more detail at the psychological concepts hypothesized as causing such findings. The book might have benefited from a co-author from academia to give the book a little more scientific heft. I realize it is intended for sports fans more than psychologists, but if you are looking for some meaty psychological and neurological explanations you may find yourself wanting.

The majority of studies in the space seem to be quirky and along the lines of "The Impact of Team Identification on Biased Ratings of Odors." Some of these studies are legitimately fascinating and it is great for them to be shared with a broader audience. However, a good portion of the research papers lean heavily on self-reporting and I would imagine that the approach could cause some issues. It doesn't take a PhD to acknowledge that sometimes passionate sports fans can be a tad biased, especially when reflecting on their own behavior. Sometimes the conclusions are essentially reaffirmations of common sense, such as the notion that fathers are hugely influential in shaping rooting interests and that many fans are looking for social acceptance and a sense of camaraderie. Dohrmann also largely ignores sports fans beyond America's shores, and I would have appreciated expanding the book's geographical scope, especially when it comes to some of the more soccer-mad countries.

Gripes aside, Superfans was still quite a fun read. Dohrmann writes with a sense of compassion and empathy for the fan and he gives his superfan subjects a sense of humanity that can be lacking in some accounts. It's a nice mix of sociology and psychology applied to the sports fan, a topic that for some reason has largely been ignored by the brobdingnagian pop psychology publishing world to this point. Sure, I would have liked some more scientific rigor in some of its explanations (a psych professor co-author could have done wonders) but I still had a good time with Superfans and think it will appeal to any sports fan with at least a passing interest in the social sciences.

7.5 / 10 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Advance Book Review: All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams

Release Date: February 13, 2018

The Wire has aged remarkably well. Almost 10 years after airing its final episode, the show's themes and subject matter are just as relevant as ever, if not more so. It has also played a huge role in ushering in the era of "peak television" and slow-burning narrative dramas like Breaking Bad and House of Cards. While there are plenty of encyclopedic volumes analyzing episodes and story arcs and critically assessing the show through various academic lenses, there are no comprehensive accounts chronicling The Wire's history and production. Jonathan Abrams' All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire adeptly fills this gap, providing an illuminating and insightful oral history of the groundbreaking series. With participation from co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns, studio executives, production staff, and essentially every major actor involved with the show, Abrams is able to cobble together a captivating history of the show that should delight all of its fans. 

The book traces the history of the show from creator David Simon's experiences as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun through its five seasons and its enduring legacy. Proceeding largely chronologically, Abrams explores the show's influences, its major themes, turbulent relationship with HBO, and more, largely through the eyes of those directly involved with it. One recurring subject in All the Pieces Matter is the show's obsession with realism and the painstaking lengths it took to cultivate it. From the first day of shooting, actors and production staff were taking steps to present an accurate depiction of the streets of Baltimore. Actors such as Felicia Pearson (Snoop) were able to bring their personal experiences into the show and help foster its authenticity, and this verisimilitude actually compelled a real-life criminal in Baltimore to surrender himself to Wire actors portraying local cops, believing he had come into contact with the real deal.

Although this is a departure in both format and subject matter from Abrams' last book (the excellent Boys Among Men about the preps-to-pros era in the NBA)he wrote several definitive oral histories on Grantland about basketball (my personal favorite is his history of the 2005 Pacers-Pistons "Malice at the Palace" brawl). Abrams clearly admires The Wire and writes knowledgeably on the subject, to the extent that I was surprised to realize he basically exclusively focused on basketball during his time at Grantland. Abrams begins each chapter with some exposition but then lets his prose take a backseat, letting the players tell their stories. Additionally, Abrams is able to get his interviewees to open up to him, admitting mistakes and offering candid opinions that greatly enrich the reading experience, and he logically organized his book by keeping things reasonably chronological but diving deeply into particular broader areas when applicable. 

Staying consistent with its title, Abrams is able to hunt down virtually every major player involved with the show and the reader discovers the pivotal roles that supporting actors such as Andre Royo (Bubbles) and assistant directors had in the show's success. The only actor with a substantial role missing was Robert Chew (Prop Joe), who tragically died from a heart attack in 2013, and many of his castmates recounted stories about his valuable role as a mentor to younger actors such as the four young teenagers who were central to Season 4. Like many other fans who started watching The Wire after the show's conclusion (invariably after finally caving in after repeated fervid recommendations from friends) and it was strange to see how frequently the show flirted with cancellation. Not just after its languidly-developing first season or the dramatic departure from Season 1 to Season 2, but for virtually each of its 5 seasons (the city of Baltimore compounded matters by threatening to pull the show's shooting permits right before Season 2). Abrams is able to talk with several HBO executives about such matters and get their takes, but their explanations don't make this fact any less mind-boggling.

I have always enjoyed oral histories for their quick pace and colorful insider stories, but I also readily acknowledge their flaws. The two biggest problems with most oral histories is their disjointedness and limited participation. I Want My MTV was a fun read but plagued with random non-sequiturs and James A Miller's mammoth tomes on Saturday Night Live, ESPN, and Creative Artists Agency were generally entertaining but hindered by some key players such as Eddie Murphy sitting out. Thankfully, Abrams is able to avoid both pitfalls through herculean wrangling efforts and adopting a sound structure and format. Sometimes I wish Abrams would chime in a bit more and provide extra background in certain sections, but overall the book flows well, especially given its format. Talking with so many different players allows for multiple perspectives and opinions, and thankfully everyone seems to largely agree on most matters and stories and Abrams is not forced to mediate between multiple conflicting viewpoints. Simon and Burns and the actors (rightfully) are the biggest contributors to the book, but I also liked hearing from writers such as George Pelecanos and Richard Price about their roles in shaping the show. 

The book is packed with anecdotes and trivia (John C. Reilly was one of the early actors considered for McNulty and actors were often prevented from interacting with their real-life inspirations). Yes, some of the trivia such as Omar being originally intended as a bit player are likely familiar to fans, but the insights from David Simon about his thought process about whether a gay character would fit in his gritty, inner-city world and how actor Michael K. Williams interpreted his role add extra color and new revelations to such stories. There was a period in college where I became obsessed with the show and devoured virtually every piece of content related to the series, which like most pop culture minutia has remained moored in long-term memory and crowded out bank passwords and other far more important information, and the book was still quite revealing.

All the Pieces Matter is designed with fans in mind, chock-full of spoilers and references that will fly over the head of the uninitiated, and it is a treat for those who have watched and enjoyed the series (even if they didn't care much for Season 5, like this particular reviewer). The Wire was one of the greatest television shows ever and All The Pieces Matter is the definitive history it deserves. Not only is it an excellent book, it also inspired me to restart the show on HBO Go with an even greater sense of appreciation for its craft and attention to detail. Perhaps this is a bit pessimistic given we're still in December 2017, but I would not be surprised (or bummed out) if All The Pieces Matter ends up being my favorite book published in 2018.

9 / 10 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Advance Book Review: Homogenic by Emily Mackay

Release Date: October 5, 2017

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Bjork's Homogenic, and while the album was not her most commercially-successful or ambitious release, it was her first truly thematically and musically-cohesive album and many fans (this book review author included, though Vespertine makes a strong challenge for the spot every now and again) believe it to be her best full-length. Clearly this is an important work deserving its own entry in Bloomsbury Press' long-running 33 1/3 series, which are generally light and breezy critical explorations of seminal albums. There is no set template for 33 1/3 books, leading to a good amount of diversity, but Emily Mackay, a writer for the likes of NME, The Guardian, and The Quietus, adopts the popular "let's briefly analyze this album from every possible relevant angle" framework and executes it quite well. Her end result is a highly readable look at a classic album that should offer insights and new material for even the most devoted Bjork enthusiasts.

Homoegenic is divided into nine chapters that each study the album from a different perspective. Mackay starts by examining how Bjork's turbulent experiences in the mid-90s, including receiving a letter bomb from a mentally-unstable fan and attacking a reporter at an airport, influenced Homogenic. The middle is devoted to the album itself, looking at lyrical and musical themes and how everything was constructed. The book ends with a study of Bjork's boundary-pushing music videos and experiments with virtual reality and how Bjork has always been at the forefront of technical innovations (her official website launched in 1994 on the same month as the U.S. government's) and places Homogenic in the context of Bjork's discography.

Mackay draws heavily from Bjork's interviews, and the book benefits considerably from Bjork being such a prolific interview subject and so open and honest with music journalists. In addition to the usual magazine interviews, Mackay also mines chat logs and other communications and all of the quotes she shares are relevant and thoughtful. A good bit of them were also new to me, which is a considerable achievement given I have devoured a substantial chunk of the content on the outstanding fansite (as Mackay did over the course of writing her book). That is not to say that this is just a rehashing of old interviews, as the author provides her own analysis when breaking down the album's lyrical and musical content and she also was able to interview major players who worked on the album including composer Eumir Deodato. Some 33 1/3 books fall flat with die-hard fans of the album because a lot of the content is old hat to them, but Homogenic does not suffer from this as there is plenty of original material.

The best 33 1/3 books cause listeners to increase their appreciation for their subjects and Mackay succeeds in that area as well. She identifies several subtle musical flourishes that such as how a short synth riff emulates whale noises during Bachelorette and how the electronic whines that open "Hunter" are actually distorted samples of an accordion that I wasn't aware of even after listening to the album tons of times. Homogenic made me want to jump back into the album and look for all the themes and elements Mackay touched upon in her book as well as look for other things I might have missed. Fans of Bjork will really enjoy this and Homogenic is one of the stronger entries in the series.

8.5 / 10 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback by Daniel Doctoroff

Release Date: September 12, 2017
Amazon / Goodreads

In some respects, Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback could appear to be the victim of bad timing. This summer the city has struggled with especially frequent subway delays, due in part to unprecedented levels of overcrowding. It should be noted, however, that the increased ridership is largely a result of the tremendous growth the city has enjoyed as it recovered from the September 11th attacks. At the start of the Bloomberg administration in 2002, the future of the city seemed much bleaker and the prospect of subway crowding far unlikelier. New York had lost 43,000 jobs in the wake of the attack, 18,000 small businesses were destroyed or displaced and vacancy rates in lower Manhattan skyrocketed. Fifteen years later, the city has seen tremendous development in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn has enjoyed spectacular growth in both population and purveyors of artisan mayonnaise, and new developments such as the High Line, Barclays Center, Hudson Yards, and Brooklyn Bridge Park have revitalized neighborhoods and driven sizable economic growth. Daniel Doctoroff served as the Deputy Mayor for economic development and rebuilding during the first six years of the Bloomberg administration, and in Greater than Ever he reflects on his tenure in the role and how the city achieved such impressive, subway-clogging growth. It is an enlightening and engaging peek into the messy world of urban politics and one of the better books I've read on the subject.

Doctoroff's book is essentially a memoir of his tenure under Mike Bloomberg and touches upon all of the major projects he worked on. It details efforts such as re-zoning 40% of the city to foster growth in neighborhoods such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, building new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, attracting businesses to locate in the city, and improve the lives of New Yorkers through environmental regulations and pedestrianizing streets. The author was a political neophyte when he initially took on the role, having worked in investment banking and private equity before being tapped by Bloomberg. He quickly learned the importance of schmoozing and vote-trading and developed advanced politician mollification techniques to help manufacture the sausage known as urban policy. Doctoroff was at the front lines of many massive initiatives conducted by the Bloomberg administration and describes the often contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations with state and city politicians to get his ideas off the ground.

The book is not afraid to get into the policy weeds, and Doctoroff spends ample time analyzing the rationale for his redevelopment strategy and the intended effects of his policy interventions. Greater than Ever is intended for the lay reader, however, (basically if you are a regular reader of the "New York" section of The New York Times, liked The Power Broker or The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or have any interest in New York City or urban development in general, you'll really like this book and nothing is going to go over your head from a reading difficulty perspective), and Doctoroff is an amiable and intelligible guide through urban economic development concepts. While he may have a business background rather than an academic one, Doctoroff delves into topics such as tax increment financing and selling air rights with a clarity and lucidity that college students probably wish their professors had.

Greater than Ever also offers an account of life in the Bloomberg administration and some insight into how the mayor ran the city (very much like a business, it turns out). Calculating, analytical, and hyper-rational, Bloomberg comes off very well in the book and is portrayed as someone with the best interest of New Yorkers at heart. He was willing to make the tough call on politically-unsavory measures such as raising property taxes and restricting smoking if it meant that overall quality-of-life would improve for the city. The reader also learns about Bloomberg's management philosophy, which is largely based around finding smart, talented, and passionate people and trusting them to make the right calls, which is how Doctoroff had a brief stint as head of Bloomberg L.P. after stepping down as deputy mayor. Doctoroff acknowledges that Bloomberg had his flaws and wasn't the perfect mayor, and while he clearly admires the man Greater than Ever doesn't ever feel like a hagiography of Bloomberg or the city. Greater than Ever is fair-minded and objective throughout, quick to admit mistakes and Doctoroff and Bloomberg's foibles.

Doctoroff was criticized by some in the press as being too preoccupied with the city's 2012 Olympics bid, and his efforts at wooing the International Olympic Committee receive several chapters in Greater than Ever. While his Olympic role may seem unrelated to his deputy mayorship, he viewed the games as a way to galvanize action and development. The thinking is that every city wants to put their best foot forward while hosting the world and hosting the Olympics both motivates considerable new construction and improvements and creates a hard deadline for their completion. Doctoroff specifically wanted to leverage the games to get a new stadium and convention center built on what would eventually become Hudson Yards. The book covers all the wining-and-dining necessary in an Olympic bid and navigating through all the national governing bodies and greasing and/or fawning over them, as well as the campaign's pitches to the IOC and other bodies and how absurdly stubborn former MLB Commissioner and head of the 1984 Los Angeles games Peter Ueberroth was throughout the process (even Donald Trump comes off better in the book, as while he had a few petty spats with Doctoroff he sent him a nice thank you card (albeit with a typo) when he stepped down and was occasionally cooperative with Doctoroff). I'm not sure such extensive coverage of the selection process and other minutiae really contributed to the book's major topic, but the Olympics were central to some major redevelopment processes and I also am personally interested in all the work that goes into such a bid. Readers less enthusiastic about sports and/or associated selection processes in order to attract sporting events can find solace in the fact that these passages are interwoven throughout the book (because again, the Olympics was intended to serve as a catalyst for development to achieve Doctoroff's development goals) and it's not like Greater than Ever turns into a book about the IOC for 100 consecutive pages or anything.

Ultimately, Greater than Ever does a splendid job at outlining New York's economic comeback that began in the 2000's. Doctoroff worked tirelessly on New York's development and its Olympic bid and his passion for both areas comes through on every page, as well as his deep knowledge on such subjects. His book is an excellent read and benefits greatly from his prominent role in the rebuilding effort as an insider and trusted confidante of Mike Bloomberg. If you are looking for an enlightening and at times even engrossing read about urban policy and development you should pick up Greater than Ever. 

8.0 / 10