Axios Sports

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February 03, 2021

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

📆 Upcoming event: Axios Sports has partnered with The Aspen Institute on a series called "Future of Sports," and our first virtual event of the year is this month.

  • When: Friday, Feb. 19 (2–3pm ET)
  • Topic: Future of College Sports
  • Speakers: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence and longtime college football coach Tony Franklin.

Wanna come? Register for free.

Today's word count: 1,466 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: ⛳️ Combatting golf's distance boom

A golf driving range sign reading 'Dayum'

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio

Professional golfers are hitting the ball such long distances that courses can't keep up. Now, golf's governing bodies appear ready to act.

Driving the news: The USGA and the R&A (Europe) jointly announced Tuesday that they will explore four potential changes intended to curb distance gains:

  • Changing the specifications of equipment
  • Changing how manufacturers test equipment
  • Limiting the maximum club length to 46 inches
  • Allowing tournament organizers to implement equipment standards

What they're saying:

"Golfers need to understand that this every-generation-hits-the-ball-farther is affecting the game negatively. ... We're just trying to fit the game of golf back on golf courses."
— USGA CEO Mike Davis, via Golfweek

The backdrop: Three key factors in determining hitting distance have undergone significant advancements this century: the swing, the club and the ball.

  • It's put the game at a crossroads: Should courses expand to keep up with the modern golfer, or should equipment be altered to reduce distance?
  • A year ago, the USGA and R&A stated that the continuing increase in length was "detrimental" to the game.

By the numbers: In 1990, the average PGA Tour driving distance was 262.8 yards. In 2020, it was 296.4 yards — an increase of nearly 13%.

  • Bernhard Langer, who plays on the PGA's senior circuit, drives the ball farther at age 63 (273.5 yards) than he did in his prime (269.7 yards in 1985).

The big picture: If distance-related changes are made at the professional level, it could lead to a bifurcation of rules like we have in baseball.

  • Just as metal bats are used at every level below the majors and minors, certain golf equipment could be permitted for everyday players, but not pros.

What's next: There's no timeline for when the proposed changes, if adopted, would be implemented.

  • But it likely won't be for at least another year, as the USGA and R&A gather research alongside manufacturers and other stakeholders.

2. 🏟 Expanding beyond the ballpark

Red Sox rendering
Courtesy: WS Development

Red Sox owner John Henry is seeking city approval to build 2.1 million square feet of office, residential and retail space on eight acres of land near Fenway Park, the Boston Globe reports.

  • The project includes plans to permanently shut down Jersey Street (currently closed on game days) to create a pedestrian plaza alongside the ballpark.
  • A mixture of storefronts and taller buildings would line Jersey Street, according to renderings (see above).

The state of play: If approved, the Red Sox would be the latest in a long line of sports teams that have expanded beyond their stadiums and into surrounding neighborhoods through real estate development.

  • MLB owners have been particularly active on this front, as baseball's 162-game season generates heavy foot traffic and buzz throughout the summer.
  • Plus, ballparks have a certain charm that most stadiums and arenas can't touch. Fenway has an aura; you can build an entire district around that.
  • Recent examples: The Braves built the Battery next to Truist Park, the Cubs invested heavily in the Wrigleyville expansion, and the Cardinals built Ballpark Village next to Busch Stadium.

The big picture: Sports stadiums used to be standalone venues (think: in the middle of a parking lot). Nowadays, teams are increasingly treating them as anchors for larger real estate projects.

  • Team owners have leveraged their way into redesigning entire areas of American cities, becoming landlords along the way.
  • They then generate revenue through things like rent and parking fees, and watch their franchise valuations soar accordingly.

3. 😷 NBA to require higher-quality masks

KN95 mask

A KN95 mask. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The NBA will begin requiring players to wear KN95 or KF94 masks in all instances where masks are required (i.e. on the bench during games).

Why it matters: Many Americans are still grabbing the most available or comfortable masks, but not necessarily the most effective ones. Having the NBA's most visible stars wearing them could help send a message.

  • Plus, for a league that spent millions of dollars on daily testing and has rigorous protocols in place, not requiring high-quality masks is foolish.

The big picture: Don't be surprised if you start seeing more high-filtration masks like the KN95 and KF94, as experts push for increased production and usage.

"I think we should be making a harder push to boost manufacturing of high-quality masks and do more to get better masks in the hands of consumers. ... The new variants increase the urgency here."
— Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner, via WSJ

Go deeper: The difference between KN95 and K594 masks (NY Mag)

4. 🎙 Super Bowl "radio row" is a ghost town

Super Bowl media center

The Tampa Convention Center ahead of Super Bowl LV. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

During the week leading up to the Super Bowl, athletes and celebrities can typically be seen cruising "radio row," where they sit down with local and national media to talk football and, of course, shill for brands.

This year, the circus has been replaced by a much more muted affair.

  • Due to the pandemic, only 35 radio stations and podcasts — mostly from Kansas City and Tampa — were granted media access for radio row, roughly a third of the usual crowd.
  • Instead of a frenetic cluster of humanity, this year consists mostly of virtual interviews. The star so far? Andy Reid's ring lighting.

A reminder of more normal times...

Media before Super Bowl LIII
The Rams media session ahead of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

5. ⚡️ Lightning round

Illustration of sports and gaming

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

🎮 EA Sports is rebooting its college football series, which was last released in 2013. It will be called "EA Sports College Football," rather than "NCAA Football," but most other details still need to be ironed out.

🏀 Fred VanVleet scored a franchise-record 54 points in the Raptors' win over the Magic — the most points ever scored by an undrafted NBA player.

⚽️ 9-0: There have been three 9-0 games in Premier League history, and Southampton has been on the losing end of two this season. The first came against Leicester City and the second came Tuesday against Manchester United.

🏋️ Mat Fraser, who picked up CrossFit on a whim and proceeded to win a record five CrossFit Games, is retiring from the sport at age 31.

🏈 Super Bowl ads: Bud Light, Amazon and Squarespace released their Big Game commercials on YouTube.

6. 🏀 NBA All-Stars: Our picks

Animated illustration of a star going through a basketball net

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The NBA All-Star Game, never a certainty in this pandemic-shortened season, is now looking increasingly likely to happen, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Driving the news: The league and union are nearing an agreement to play the All-Star Game in Atlanta on the weekend of March 6–7, and they could add a dunk and three-point contest, per NYT's Marc Stein.

Rosters: Starters are comprised of two backcourt players and three frontcourt players. Reserves have the same breakdown, plus two wild card spots.

Our picks...

East

  • Backcourt: James Harden (Nets), Jaylen Brown (Celtics)
  • Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Kevin Durant (Nets), Joel Embiid (76ers)
  • Reserves: Bradley Beal (Wizards), Kyrie Irving (Nets), Bam Adebayo (Heat), Domantas Sabonis (Pacers), Jayson Tatum (Celtics), Trae Young (Hawks), Khris Middleton (Bucks)

West

  • Backcourt: Luka Dončić (Mavericks), Steph Curry (Warriors)
  • Frontcourt: LeBron James (Lakers), Kawhi Leonard (Clippers), Nikola Jokić (Nuggets)
  • Reserves: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers), Mike Conley (Jazz), Anthony Davis (Lakers), Rudy Gobert (Jazz), Paul George (Clippers), DeMar DeRozan (Spurs), Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

🗳 Vote: Voting is open and will run through Feb. 16.

7. ⚾️ Snapshot: 2021 Caribbean Series

Baseball Stadium
Teodoro Mariscal Stadium. Photo: Luis Gutierrez/Norte Photo/Getty Images

The 63rd Caribbean Series, which pits the champions of six Latin American winter leagues against each other, is underway in Mazatlán, Mexico, Jeff writes.

Format: The top four finishers from a 15-game round robin will meet in the semis, with the winners advancing to Saturday's championship game.

  • Venue: Teodoro Mariscal Stadium
  • Attendance: 7,200 (45% capacity)
Yadier Molina
Yadier Molina celebrates a double. Photo: Luis Gutierrez/Norte Photo/Getty Images

The teams:

  • Dominican Republic → Águilas Cibaeñas: They're the favorites thanks to a stacked roster that includes Robinson Canó, Carlos Martínez, Jonathan Villar and Juan Lagares. Their five titles are tied for the second most all time.
  • Puerto Rico → Criollos de Caguas: They've also won five championships, but outside of Yadier Molina, there's no one on par with the stars on Águilas.
  • Venezuela → Caribes de Anzoátegui: They've never won the Caribbean Series. Can Minnesota fan favorite Willians Astudillo help change that?
  • Mexico → Tomateros de Culiacán: They're vying for a third championship behind former MLB journeymen hurlers Carlos Torres and Fernando Salas.
  • Panama → Federales de Chiriquí: Panama's season was scrapped due to the pandemic, so it put together a team of league veterans.
  • Colombia → Caimanes de Barranquilla: The nation debuted in the series just last year and has yet to win a game.
Baseball stadium
Photo: Alejandro Avila/Jam Media/Getty Images

8. Feb. 3, 2002: 🏈 The birth of a dynasty

Tom Brady after winning the Super Bowl

Photo: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

19 years ago today, the Patriots beat the Rams, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI.

  • Tom Brady (16/27, 145 yards, TD) won his first of six Super Bowls and four Super Bowl MVPs in his first season as the starter.
  • The Patriots were 14-point underdogs, making this the second biggest Super Bowl upset (the Jets were 18-point dogs against the Colts in Super Bowl III).

The game: The Rams outgained the Pats by 160 yards but committed three turnovers, including Ty Law's pick-six.

  • Still, St. Louis scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 97 seconds left. The problem? They didn't yet know what the guy on the other side was capable of pulling off.
  • Brady led the Pats down the field, compiling roughly one-third of his completions (five) and yards (53) to set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning, 48-yard field goal as time expired.

🎥 Watch:

9. ⚾️ MLB trivia

Nelson Cruz

Photo: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Nelson Cruz, 40, is returning to the Twins on a one-year deal.

  • Question: If Cruz hits 30 HR this season, he'll become the oldest player to have done so. Who's the current record holder?
  • Hint: Like Cruz, he's also Dominican-American.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🎥 Tuesday's top plays

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Tyler Toffoli's slick toe drag. Source: Giphy
  1. 🏀 Thunderous jam
  2. ⚽️ Nutmeg king
  3. 🏒 Holy Toffoli
  4. 🏒 Dangle city
  5. 🏀 Cole Anthony!

Watch all 5

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Basketball is art" Baker

Trivia answer: David Ortiz (hit his 30th HR in 2016 at 40 years, nine months and six days old)