Aug 12, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

Today's word count: 2,036 words (8 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏀🏒 The busiest owner in sports

Ted Leonsis with his 2019 WNBA championship ring. Courtesy: Monumental Sports

The NBA, WNBA and NHL are currently in bubbled environments, each with their own protocols, living arrangements and schedules. One owner has a team in all three.

The state of play: Ted Leonsis is the founder and CEO of Monumental Sports, which owns the NBA's Washington Wizards, the WNBA's Washington Mystics and the NHL's Washington Capitals.

  • Leonsis also serves on the NHL's executive committee and is chairman of the NBA's media committee — a particularly demanding role at the moment, as the NBA and WNBA scramble to deliver on broadcast commitments, while networks adjust to unprecedented schedules.
  • Monumental also owns an esports organization, which has continued competing during the pandemic, and just opened a sportsbook at Capital One Arena in D.C., making it the first pro sports stadium in America with a full-service sports betting operation.

The backdrop: When the NBA and NHL halted play in March, "I took it very seriously because I'm a little bit older and can't afford to get COVID," Leonsis tells me.

  • "I've pretty much been in front of my computer since then, which has been a challenge for me as an extrovert. The good news is I love my wife, so that's been going great."
  • After months of meetings, the NBA, WNBA and NHL bubbles began to take shape, and Leonsis and his staff started preparing to send three teams to three similar, yet different, quarantined environments.
  • Monumental hosted things like virtual yoga classes and prepared daily meals, which players were able to pick up at their training facilities (the Wizards and Mystics facility is in D.C.; the Capitals facility is in Northern Virginia).
  • "We had to negotiate waivers with the city of D.C. and the state of Virginia, saying 'Hey, now we're going to have 10 people working out ... now 12 ... now 14.' They were both incredibly strict — and we're glad because it kept us healthy."

Between the lines: The Wizards and Mystics — along with the Wizards' G League affiliate, Capital City Go-Go, and their NBA 2K team, Wizards District Gaming — exist under the Monumental Basketball umbrella.

  • The teams share resources and some personnel — a collaborative approach that has helped them navigate similar bubble-related challenges.
  • Sashi Brown, the former Cleveland Browns VP who has been compared to Sam Hinkie is Monumental Basketball's chief planning and operations officer and has been working remotely.
  • Danny Medina, who spent the bulk of his career in European soccer, is Monumental's chief of athlete care and performance. He's in the NBA bubble, while his direct reports are either in the WNBA bubble or at home.

The big picture: Leonsis is thrilled about the success of the bubble format but says he's holding his breathe "because we're one misstep away." As for the NBA and WNBA player protests, he had this to say:

"Players want to be able to self-express, speak their minds and shine a light on subjects that are meaningful to them. And I think they've done it in a way that's very respectful.
"I believe it's created a greater partnership between the leagues, players and fans. We think we can amplify this moment because everyone is together, and it's our job to provide the platform and keep players healthy."
2. 🏈 Big Ten, Pac-12 postpone football; ACC, SEC, Big 12 don't

Photo: James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The slim prospects of a fall college football season have evaporated in a matter of days — but don't tell that to the ACC, SEC and Big 12, who are still trying to do this thing.

  • Out: The Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed all fall sports to the spring on Tuesday. No football, cross country, volleyball, soccer or field hockey.

Between the lines: For many college towns, Tuesday's announcements mean the prospect of huge economic hits.

  • Bars, restaurants and hotels will feel the pain extra hard, and many athletic departments will be forced to furlough or lay off most of their staff.

What they're saying: Here's The Ringer's Brian Phillips on the unique pain of watching the college football calendar evaporate:

"College football, compared to pro sports and the Olympics, operates within a denser and more complex network of local affiliations, and therefore straddles the line between the super-generalized Sports As a TV Show spectacle of the NFL and the more community-rooted everyday-ness of high school sports.
"For all college football's (many) problems, its loss will send more vibrations down more sensitive cultural threads than the loss of some objectively 'bigger' sports. It has a chance to have more of an impact on how we think about the virus and, perhaps in a subtle way, how we think about one another."

Keep reading.

3. 💵 Betting in the age of COVID-19
Reproduced from American Gaming Association; Cartogram: Axios Visuals

When the pandemic arrived, the sports betting industry funneled bettors toward the few sports that were actually happening (like ping pong).

  • Now that sports have returned, the industry has benefited from pent-up demand, while also capitalizing on a busier-than-usual summer, with baseball, soccer, hockey, golf and basketball in full swing.
  • By the numbers: The Action Network, a sports betting-focused media company, had its biggest week ever for golf and NHL picks last week, and its second-biggest week ever for the NBA.

Yes, but: Sports betting operators and other businesses were still negatively affected, particularly on the user acquisition front. And with college football on the brink, the fall won't deliver the betting volume they hoped.

The industry buzz...

1. The benefits of being young: "For most major stakeholders in the U.S., sports betting was always a 2023 or 2024 story," says Chris Grove, partner at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. "So the industry appears to be shrugging off any concern about the long-term impact of COVID-19."

  • "You see a lot of operators and startups being able to take this in stride because the story has always been, 'Here's where we're going to be when this is a national market.' And the U.S. is still years away from that."
  • "That has insulated the industry from the kinds of material impacts you're seeing in more mature aspects of the U.S. gambling market like casinos and horse racing."

2. Online betting push: As a result of the coronavirus, some lawmakers and stakeholders who were on the fence about online sports betting (vs. in-person retail) are now more supportive of it.

  • Rhode Island passed a bill last month allowing residents to register for sports betting online instead of having to travel to one of the state's two casinos to do it in person.
  • Movement towards online betting remains slow in some states for political reasons, with casino lobbyists successfully killing bills.

3. All eyes on the NFL: March Madness is the biggest betting event in sports, so losing that this year was brutal. The next big "event" is the NFL season.

  • Driving the news: Penn National Gaming — which bought a 36% stake in Barstool Sports for $163 million in January — will launch the Barstool Sportsbook app in Pennsylvania next month, just in time for football.
  • This represents the next phase in Barstool's evolution from media company to sports betting brand, and there's lots of interest in seeing how it goes.
  • "In these crowded state-by-state marketplaces, you need something to cut through, and it's hard to do that on price, product or brute force marketing," says Grove. "I think the core bet Penn is making is that Barstool's brand will cut through."

Coming tomorrow: Today's story was about the business of sports betting. Tomorrow, we'll cover the actual bets being placed — and how the pandemic has changed them.

4. 📸 Bubble wrap: Timbers win, 5 OTs, Dame Time

The sports were very good last night.

Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Dario Zuparic's first goal of the season gave the Portland Timbers a 2-1 victory over Orlando City in the MLS is Back final, capping a wild month for the league, which played 51 matches in 45 days.

  • What's next: MLS will now attempt to resume the regular season and conduct the playoffs in home markets. The first game is tonight, with Dallas hosting Nashville.
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

TORONTO — After six hours, five overtimes and a combined 151 shots on goal, the Lightning won an epic Game 1 against the Blue Jackets. Final score: 3-2.

  • MVP: Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo made a playoff record 85 saves, topping Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey's previous mark of 73, set in 1987.
  • Bruins-Canes delayed: When the game went to a fifth OT, the Bruins and Hurricanes — scheduled to play at 8pm ET — were sent back to their hotel rooms. They'll play Game 1 this morning (11am, NBCSN).
  • Meanwhile, in Edmonton: The Flames beat the Stars, 3-2, and the Golden Knights beat the Blackhawks, 4-1.
Photo: Kim Klement/Pool/Getty Images

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Damian Lillard tied a career-high with 61 points and propelled the Trail Blazers to a 134-131 win over the Mavericks, giving them sole possession of the eighth spot in the West. I love this man.

  • History is made: Lillard joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history with three or more 60-point games in a season (Chamberlain had 15 in 1961-62 and nine in 1962-63).

Playoff race: The final spot in the West will come down to a weekend play-in game between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, which will be decided tomorrow.

  • Final matchups: The Blazers (34-39) play the Nets, the Grizzlies (33-39) play the Bucks, the Suns (33-39) play the Mavs and the Spurs (32-38) play the Jazz.
5. ⚽️ New-look Champions League
Bracket: Axios Visuals

The Champions League quarterfinals begin today in Lisbon, Portugal, with a matchup between Italian sleeper-favorite Atalanta and French giant Paris Saint-Germain (3pm ET, CBS), Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Quarterfinal schedule:

  • Today: Atalanta (Italy) vs. PSG (France)
  • Thursday: RB Leipzig (Germany) vs. Atlético Madrid (Spain)
  • Friday: Barcelona (Spain) vs. Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • Saturday: Manchester City (England) vs. Lyon (France)

The state of play: Rather than the standard two-leg quarterfinal, the pandemic has shifted the format to a single-elimination knockout tournament.

  • Legs: In normal years, teams play a "home-and-home" series, with one game at each stadium and the team with the higher aggregate score advancing.
  • Knockout: This year, it's more like March Madness — or the World Cup — as teams compete at one of two neutral sites in Lisbon in a win-or-go-home elimination tournament.

Today's game: Atalanta vs. PSG is a battle of competing philosophies — team chemistry on one side and individual greatness on the other.

  • Atalanta plays a unique 3-4-1-2 formation, overloading the midfield with interchangeable players who can shift around instantaneously, wreaking havoc on opponents. Their 98 goals led Serie A and ranked third among the top-five European leagues, trailing only Manchester City (102) and Bayern Munich (100).
  • PSG relies on the star power and playmaking abilities of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, two of the few global superstars capable of taking over a game.
  • Fun fact: Atalanta's entire payroll ($123 million) is less than half what PSG paid to acquire Neymar in 2017 ($260 million).

Go deeper: The dark fairy tale of Atalanta (NYT)

6. ⚾️ Baseball: By the numbers

The Blue Jays and Marlins pregame. Photo: Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

  • 135 years: In 1885, big league baseball went extinct in Buffalo. On Tuesday, it returned, with the "hometown" Blue Jays beating the Marlins, 5-4, in walk-off fashion at a revamped Sahlen Field.
  • .500: Charlie Blackmon went 3-4 in the Rockies win over the Diamondbacks, raising his average to .500. He's the fifth player in the last 50 years to be batting .500 or better through 17 team games, joining Tony Perez (1970), Rod Carew (1983), Larry Walker (1997) and Barry Bonds (2004). In his last six games, he's 17-for-23 (.739) with zero strikeouts.
  • 9 years: Blackmon's teammate, Daniel Bard, earned his first save since 2011. A case of the yips completely derailed the now 35-year-old's career in 2012, but Colorado gave him one last shot this year and he's made the most of it. Hell yeah, Daniel. Rooting for you, bud.
7. Aug. 12, 1936: 🥇 Gestring wins gold
Photo: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

84 years ago today, American diver Marjorie Gestring won gold in the three-meter springboard at the Berlin Olympics.

Why it matters: At 13 years, 268 days, she remains the youngest athlete ever to win individual Olympic gold.

What came next: Gestring dominated her event for half a decade, following her gold in Berlin with wins in the 1938, 1939 and 1940 U.S. Nationals.

  • Unfortunately, her Olympic timing wasn't ideal, as both the 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled due to WWII.
  • By the time the 1948 Olympics rolled around, she was past her prime and failed to qualify for the team.

🎥 Watch: Archival footage (YouTube)

8. The Ocho: ⚽️ Binocular soccer
Source: atemzug8 (YouTube)

As it turns out, playing soccer while wearing binoculars is extremely difficult and produces hilarious "highlights" (and possibly multiple torn ACLs).

9. 🎥 Highlights: Tuesday's top plays
Giphy
  1. 🏒 Brayden ends it in 5OT
  2. 🏀 The other Greek Freak
  3. 🏀 Booker, again
Bonus: 🎾 Tennis trivia

Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Serena Williams won her first match in six months on Tuesday at the Top Seed Open, setting up a second-round match against her sister, Venus, on Thursday.

  • Question: Venus and Serena were born 15 months apart in two different states. Name them.
  • Hint: Different time zones.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
John Final stationed on Guam in 1989. Photo: John F.

John F. (Arlington, Va.) writes:

"In 1989, I was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed on the island of Guam during Desert Storm. Nancy Reagan's 'say no to drugs' campaign was running at the time, and spokesmen would travel and champion her cause.
"I grew up near Washington, D.C. and attended Redskins games with my father and grandfather in the 1960s (years later I became a season ticket holder). So when Super Bowl champion Joe Theismann held a clinic as part of the campaign that summer, I couldn't wait to meet him.
"I wore my Air Force uniform and brought along my 10-year-old son, hoping Joe would take a moment to talk to us. He graciously came over and talked to my son Michael and I, then invited us on the field for a picture.
"The clinic ended a few minutes later, and security began escorting people out. But Joe told them, 'Have this sergeant and his son stay behind.'
"He spent the next 30 minutes playing catch with my son, just the two of them. My 41-year-old son cherishes that memory to this day, despite spending his formative years in Texas and becoming a Cowboys fan."

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or a story about sports having a positive impact on your life? To share, simply reply to this email. We'll be telling your stories until they run out.

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Hard Knocks is back" Baker

Trivia answer: Venus was born in Lynwood, California, in 1980; Serena was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1981