The Sport With No Spectators
The past weekend brought the news that you can now pay $149 to get your child's DNA tested to determine whether you've got a future Olympic athlete or NFL Hall-of-Famer on your hands ... or a first class couch potato.
(It also brought the news that Plaxico Burress, who caught the winning touchdown in the New York Giants' Super Bowl victory last year, and who has a seven-year contract for $35 million, shot himself in the thigh at a New York City nightclub early Saturday morning with a Glock semiautomatic pistol that he was not licensed to carry in New York ... but I see no need to comment on that.)
The focus of the genetic test is the ACTN3 gene, which instructs the body to produce a protein, alpha-actinin-3, that is found specifically in fast-twitch muscles ... the muscles most valuable in power and speed sports. In brief, the makeup of the gene helps determine whether a person might be better suited for sports that require power and strength, or endurance, or general activity ... or none of the above.
The test's not perfect, of course. Some top athletes succeed with none of the favorable markers. And some people with good genetic makeup are decidedly unsporty. But there's no question that the makeup of a person's ACTN3 is a major factor in athletic ability. So the availability of this test adds one more chapter to the new era of genetic medicine, while adding to the growing debate about using DNA evidence to classify people.
And what do you get for your $149?
A description of your child's DNA, and a list of sports that would be most appropriate. In other words, you'll be able to guide your child into the sports where he or she is most likely to succeed ... and maybe even make big bucks!
On one hand, I see nothing wrong with that. In general, I'm a fan of information and knowledge. On the other hand, I don't care for the narrowing of focus such a test would promote. Too much focus on chasing the money means that children might not be exposed to a wide variety of sports. Furthermore, increased focus on the top moneymaking sports might mean even less focus on peripheral sports where there's little or no money.
For example, in the U.S., the top four sports are football, baseball, NASCAR racing and basketball. Together, they bring in annual revenues exceeding $20 billion per year. If you watched football over the past four days, you helped.
But there are numerous less popular sports that are ignored by masses of Americans, and my favorites tend to be the sports that reward intelligence and careful planning more than speed and strength. Today I'm going to touch on three of them.
First there's curling, a sport that I've never played but love to watch in the Winter Olympics. Curling involves sliding a polished lump of granite, which weighs up to 44 pounds, down a sheet of ice toward a target circle, while a couple of teammates with brooms sweep the ice in an attempt to guide the stone's progress. To the uninitiated, curling looks plain silly.
Curling was probably born in Scotland. The first written reference dates to 1541. Immigrants brought the game to Canada, which now counts the world's greatest number of curling players. It's also played in the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland and Japan, all of which compete in the world championships.
The first curling club in the United States was organized in 1830 only 30 miles from Detroit, at Orchard Lake, Michigan. The game was played in the Olympics of 1924 (but not officially), and then returned to the Olympics as an official sport in 1998.
The rules for curling are fairly simple, and similar to those for shuffleboard, bowls (boules, pétanque and bocce) and horseshoes. But as easy as the sport is to learn, it's hard to master.
In fact, some have called it chess on ice, because strategy is more important than strength, accuracy is more important than speed, and experience is more important than stamina. As a result, the average "expert" curler is older than most athletes.
Further distinguishing the sport is that fact that good sportsmanship is an integral part of curling ... in part because there's so little money in the sport. You can't even make a living at it. Players call their own fouls and the winning team traditionally buys a round of drinks for the losing team after the game.
(I'm guessing that sometimes they even start drinking before the game is over.)
Then there's croquet, a game that many Americans have played in the backyard. This one I have played. In fact, I actually got rather serious about croquet for a while, and even today we play six-wicket croquet on my lawn a few times during the summer.
Basically, nine-wicket croquet (with two wooden posts) is the typical American backyard game. To many Americans, the best part of that game involves putting your foot on your own ball while "sending" your opponent's ball into the bushes.
Six-wicket is the professional American game. In it, the blue and black balls always form one team, while the red and yellow form another. The one wooden post stands in the center of the court. And instead of "sending," the professional player "takes croquet," which means putting his ball on the ground in contact with the opponents' ball, and then hitting his own ball so that both balls move; ideally the opponent's ball heads for the bush while the professional's heads toward a wicket ... or another victim. Good professional players can complete the entire circuit in one turn by using the balls of their teammate and opponents.
Interestingly, croquet is gender-neutral; men and women compete and are ranked together. Far more important than speed and power are physical skill and careful strategy, but perhaps most important of all is a cool assessment of risks and probabilities.
Croquet was an event at the 1900 Summer Olympics, and roque, a variation of the game, was played in the 1904 Olympics, but it hasn't been back since. The sport has particularly strong followings in the UK, U.S.A., New Zealand and Australia.
Finally, there's sailing. I've sailed since I was a child and I've owned several sailboats, though I own none today. Today, my attention is on one of the sport's premier events, the Vendee Globe, which is a single-handed non-stop race around the world.
Founded in 1989, and run every four years since, the Vendee Globe is the ultimate ocean sailing race. Beginning in France--in fact, the majority of competitors are French--the fleet races down the Atlantic, heads east under Africa, sails under Australia, sometimes dodging icebergs, passes under South America, and then heads back up the Atlantic to France, having sailed perhaps 27,000 miles in 90 days.
The casualties are substantial. In the past five races, 43% of the racers have failed to finish. There have been two deaths. And the race keeps getting faster, reflecting the advances in boat technology as well as the growing expertise of the participants. The first two races lasted 109 and 110 days, while last year's was over (for the winner) in just 87 days.
This year, 30 boats started the race on November 8; six are already out. The remaining 24 boats are just now entering the Roaring 40s (below 40 degrees of latitude) in the South Atlantic, where the winds and waves start to get big.
And what does it take to win? Not brute power and not raw speed, that's for sure. What's key is the ability to stay mentally sharp day after day, night after night, for roughly three months while continually adjusting the boat to sail fastest, choosing the best course, and doing it on minimal sleep. And while the skippers today are in constant communication with their support teams on shore, the fact is that there are no cheering crowds to applaud heroic moves. While you can track their progress online, these brave men and women are truly alone on the ocean.
And I don't know any genetic test that can predict who's capable of surviving--let alone winning--a contest like that.
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But I do applaud the age of genetic medicine, so I'll take this opportunity to mention one of my favorite genetic stocks again.
It's Myriad Genetics (MYGN), and its business is developing and marketing tests that help assess the risk of disease based on a person's genetic structure. Already, the firm has products that assess the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, hereditary melanoma, adenomatous polyposis syndromes, hereditary colorectal cancer, and the risk of toxicity of 5-FU chemotherapy.
Revenues have been growing strongly since 2004. The company turned profitable in fiscal 2008, which ended June 30. And it's projected to grow earnings 44% in 2009 and 35% in 2010. In short, it's a real growth business.
And the chart is supportive, too. When I last mentioned this stock in July, it was trading at 65. Today, it's at 58, which is excellent considering what the broad market has done. The long-term trend of the chart is clearly up, and I think buyers who get on board here and wait patiently will likely be rewarded.
Yours in pursuit of wisdom and wealth,
Cabot Wealth Advisory
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