Aug 11, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

📆 Coming up: Tomorrow's edition will feature a post titled, "The busiest owner in sports." Who do you think it is? The first person to respond to this email with the correct answer gets lunch on me.

Today's word count: 1,855 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏈 Factions form in college football

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With college football on the brink, Monday saw an outpouring of support for playing a fall season from numerous parties, including President Trump, Ohio State coach Ryan Day and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

  • Yes, but: Monday also saw the Mountain West Conference become the second FBS league to postpone fall sports, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 are expected to make the same decision as early as this morning.
  • What to watch: A rare heart condition that could be linked with COVID-19 is fueling concern among Power 5 administrators. Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in several college athletes, ESPN reports.

The state of play: "Adhering to its fractured nature, the NCAA's five richest conferences formed factions over the idea of playing a season this fall," SI's Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde write.

  • The Pac-12 and Big Ten are both meeting today, and the expectation is that they will postpone their seasons.
  • The SEC and ACC would like to play.
  • The Big 12 is "really split," per SI.

Between the lines: In addition to conferences being on different pages, battles are also raging between coaches and administrators, and athletic departments and universities. All the while, players are demanding their voices be heard.

  • For any conference to hold a fall football season, it would have to reckon with the demands of players. And if it did, the sport would never be the same.
  • In fact, multiple people I spoke with believe the push to postpone football is not entirely due to COVID-19, and that conferences are hoping to slow momentum around players organizing, while buying themselves time to respond to mounting attacks on amateurism rules.

The bottom line: Today could be one of the most consequential days in college sports history, and the decisions made by the Big Ten, Pac-12 and others will affect every campus — and every sport. Remember, football funds everything.

Go deeper:

2. 🏟 Call to action: Stadiums as voting sites

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Dormant sports stadiums have been repurposed in a variety of ways during the pandemic, and with the national election fast approaching, some are being converted into voting locations.

  • Driving the news: More Than A Vote, the voting rights organization launched by LeBron James and other Black athletes like Patrick Mahomes and Sloane Stephens, has established a bipartisan arena voting advisory group.
  • The goal is to connect teams with local elections officials and convert arenas into voting sites, leveraging their size (good for social distancing) and location (easy to access/find on a map).

The backdrop: The Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Hornets are among the NBA teams that have already established such partnerships.

  • In a memo obtained by Axios, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell encouraged teams to "consider allowing their stadiums or indoor practice facilities to be used as election centers on Election Day."

What they're saying: "American Democracy does not have a pause button," the advisory group wrote in a Front Office Sports op-ed.

  • "During a civil war, two world wars, natural disasters, and domestic crises, we have managed to provide our citizens with the tools they need to fulfill the most fundamental civic duty."
  • "In this instance and in the absence of live sports, some of our most treasured civic institutions — our sports teams — can still open their doors to ensure that voting is convenient and safe for all."
3. ⚽️ MLS is Back final: Orlando vs. Portland
Screenshot: @MLS (Twitter)

The MLS is Back Tournament began 34 days ago, with a 26-team field that would soon contract to 24, as FC Dallas and Nashville SC withdrew amid COVID-19 outbreaks.

  • As the group stage progressed, and MLS consistently reported zero positive tests, the focus shifted to what was happening on the pitch.
  • What emerged was a competition full of late drama and stunning upsets, best exemplified by hometown Orlando City's presence in tonight's final.

The final (8pm ET, ESPN): After five weeks of unpredictability, MLS will crown a champion at Walt Disney World, concluding with a matchup that exactly no one would have predicted before the tournament began.

  • Orlando has never reached the postseason in five full seasons of existence, and it had the longest odds of any team entering the quarterfinals (+1200).
  • Portland is playing in its third cup final in the past six seasons: 2015 MLS Cup winner, 2018 MLS Cup runner-up and now MLS is Back finalist.
4. 📺 Today' slate: NHL playoffs, big NBA games

Stars goalie Ben Bishop. Hello, Ben. Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

In addition to the huge MLS game, the NHL playoffs also get underway this afternoon, and we've been gifted some crucial NBA matchups, too. Sports!

🏒 NHL playoffs: Here we go. All games on NBCSN.

  • Blue Jackets vs. Lightning (3pm ET): Revenge will be on Tampa Bay's mind after Columbus made history by sweeping them in last year's first round.
  • Flames vs. Stars (5:30pm): Calgary won two of three meetings this season — although all came before Christmas.
  • Hurricanes vs. Bruins (8pm): Boston is the better team but went 0-3 in round-robin competition, while Carolina went 3-0 in qualifying.
  • Blackhawks vs. Golden Knights (10:30pm): Max Pacioretty (undisclosed injury), who led Vegas with 66 points this season, has arrived in Edmonton and is expected to play in Game 1.

🏀 NBA: The Grizzlies (33-38), Trail Blazers (33-39), Suns (32-39) and Spurs (31-38) are all within one game of each other in the race for eighth in the West. All four are in action today, and the best two will make Saturday's play-in game.

  • Rockets vs. Spurs (2pm ET, NBATV): James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle) won't play for Houston, which could still finish as high as third in the West.
  • Suns vs. 76ers (4:30pm): The Suns are the bubble's only undefeated team (6-0) and will face a Sixers team that could be without its entire starting lineup.
  • Celtics vs. Grizzlies (5pm): Memphis has lost five of six games in the bubble and desperately needs a win.
  • Trail Blazers vs. Mavericks (6:30pm, TNT): Portland has looked great since the restart, while Dallas can still play its way into the No. 5 seed.
5. ⚾️ MLB roundup
Data: MLB; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
  • What to watch: Unless they can play 55 games in 47 days, it's going to be virtually impossible for the Cardinals to fit in a full 60-game season. A few other teams are also in danger of playing fewer than 60 games, and it's still unclear how that will be handled.
  • Stat du jour: MLB teams are currently hitting .230, which would be an all-time low by seven points. Teams have combined to hit under .240 just three times: 1888, 1908, 1968.
Screenshot: @BlueJays (Twitter)
  • Baseball in Buffalo: The Blue Jays will "host" the Marlins at Buffalo's Sahlen Field this evening, the Jays' home away from home for the rest of the year. It will be the first big-league game in Buffalo since 1915.
  • Playoff bubble: The league has had preliminary discussions about holding its postseason in a multicity bubble-type format (like the NHL), ESPN reports.
Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images
  • Photo of the night: Mets outfielder Jeff McNeil couldn't get to a home run hit by Nationals infielder Asdrúbal Cabrera, who went 4-for-4 with two HR and five RBI in Washington's 16-4 win.
  • Big departure: MLB deputy commissioner Tony Petitti is departing after 12 years to become president of sports and entertainment for Activision Blizzard, a video game and esports company.
6. 🥍 Interview: Whipsnakes coach Jim Stagnitta
Jim Stagnitta. Courtesy: PLL

There have been two Premier Lacrosse League championships, and the Whipsnakes have won them both — one in Philadelphia last September and one in the Utah bubble on Sunday.

🎙 Interview: I spoke with Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta, who's been coaching lacrosse for nearly three decades, about the quarantine experience, and his team emerging as a dynasty.

  • How this title compares to last year: "Definitely different. Last year was exciting — so much fun. This year felt like more of an accomplishment. One of the hardest things, if not the hardest thing, to do in sports is to repeat. To do it under these circumstances — it's a credit to the guys in that locker room."
  • How he approached the bubble: "My main goal was to make sure my guys were healthy, so we never went longer than 90 minutes in practice. This was a grind, and we got pretty banged up, but we didn't have anyone miss a game."
  • On MVP Zed Williams: "What a guy. I coached against Zed in college, so I knew his abilities. What I didn't know was how amazing of a person he is. Everyone says he's a great kid — well there's a lot of great kids. Zed is special. He tried to give me his MVP trophy on Sunday, saying, 'This is for the team.' He's humble and loves the game more than anyone I've ever been around."
  • On Joe Nardella, who won 72% of his faceoffs: "I recruited Joe to Rutgers and nobody else was recruiting him. He's got a chip on his shoulder and works so hard at his craft. That's what's great about this league: players are reaching their potential when they should be — as pros. It doesn't end in college."
  • On the Whipsnakes dynasty: "I can tell you, it doesn't feel like a dynasty. There's just so little that separates teams in this league. We won four OT games last year, and another OT game the other night. Going back-to-back makes for a great storyline and nobody wants the same team to keep winning. But I don't see one team dominating the PLL for any period of time."
  • On what the PLL means for lacrosse: "Giving parents and kids a chance to see lacrosse at its highest level is having a real impact on growth. And this event was huge for fans of the sport, who really haven't seen lacrosse since last year due to the NCAA season getting canceled. I coached college for 27 years, and nobody knew who I was. I go out now, people want to take pictures. It means we're hitting the right people and it's making a difference."
7. Aug. 11, 1919: 🏈 The birth of the Packers

Curly Lambeau goes over plans with his team circa 1943. Photo: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

101 years ago today, the Green Bay Packers were established by former high school football rivals Curly Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun.

  • Lambeau solicited funds from his employer, the Indian Packing Company, to purchase uniforms and equipment.
  • The canned meat company obliged on the condition the team was named after them. And with that, the "Packers" were born.

The big picture: Money problems nearly destroyed the franchise early on, but Lambeau was able to secure funding from local businessmen who incorporated the team as a non-profit and sold stock to anyone who wanted to be a part owner.

  • To this day, the Packers remain the only non-profit, community-owned major professional sports team in the U.S.

What they're saying: The Packers' unique setup has created a strong relationship between team and community, explains the New Yorker's Dave Zirin:

"Volunteers work concessions, with 60% of the proceeds going to local charities [and] during snowstorms, the team routinely puts out calls for volunteers to help shovel and is never disappointed by the response.
"It doesn't matter how beloved the Cowboys are in Dallas; if Jerry Jones ever put out a call for free labor, he'd be laughed out of town."

Take a look ... In 1935, the Packers offered future President Gerald Ford $110 per game to play center. Ford turned it down and went to law school, instead.

Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
8. The Ocho: 🪁 Kite skiing
Participants during the 2018 Siberian Snowkiting Cup. Photo: Kirill Kukhmar/TASS via Getty Images

Snowkiting, or kite skiing, is an outdoor winter sport where people use kite power to glide on snow or ice. It's similar to water-based kiteboarding, but with the footwear used in snowboarding or skiing.

🎥 Watch: Two kitesurfers try snowkiting in Norway (Red Bull)

9. 🎥 Highlights: Monday's top plays
Source: Giphy
  1. ⚽️ Nice saves, mate
  2. 🏀 Boucher throws it down
  3. ⚾️ Padres go glove-to-glove
  4. 🏀 Booker from the logo
  5. ⚾️ Pitchers are athletes, too
Bonus: 🏒 NHL trivia

NHL Network studio host Jamie Hersch interviews top prospect Alexis Lafrenière. Photo: Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

The Rangers won the NHL Draft Lottery and the opportunity to select the consensus top prospect Alexis Lafrenière, an 18-year-old wing from Quebec.

  • Question: Who was the last Canadian to go No. 1 overall in the NHL draft?
  • Hint: Happened in 2015.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
Isiah Thomas. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Andrew S. (New Jersey) writes:

"Despite being born in NYC and living in New Jersey, I have always been loyal to Detroit sports (with the exception of the Lions) because of my mom and her side of the family.
"So, when the Pistons played the Nets three weeks after my birthday, my parents were nice enough to take me and get really good seats, right next to the visitor's tunnel.
"I wore my Pistons hat and Isiah Thomas jersey, and it's hard to explain how exciting it was not only to see live basketball up close, but to see my favorite team play. NBA League Pass did not exist in 1989.
"After the Pistons won, my parents and I cheered the Pistons as they went into the locker room. We cheered especially loud for Isiah, who we loved. And right when we did, he stopped, looked right at me, saw my jersey, took off his wristband and tossed it to me.
"It was a pretty good throw as it hit me in the legs, but I wasn't agile enough to catch it on the fly and it fell back down to where the players were. Luckily, a security guard picked it up and handed it to me.
"I think I smiled from ear to ear the entire way home and for the ensuing 12 months. My parents actually made me write a letter to Isiah to thank him for the wristband, and a few weeks later, I received an autographed photo.
"Short of actually meeting him, I don't think any boy could've asked for a better experience with a sports hero, especially during a time when I couldn't check his Instagram or Twitter on a daily basis."

✍️ 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 "Geno's Myth" Baker

Trivia answer: Connor McDavid (Oilers)