Axios Sports

A large foam finger.

December 17, 2020

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

Today's word count: 1,891 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: 🎧 Bringing on-field audio to fans

Illustration of a soccer ball wearing headphones

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When LAFC fans attend home games in the future, they'll want to bring a pair of headphones. Otherwise, they won't be getting the full matchday experience.

Driving the news: Mixhalo, a wireless networking technology that delivers high-quality audio in real-time to event attendees, has partnered with LAFC to bring in-ear audio to Banc of California Stadium.

  • Mixhalo was founded by Incubus guitarist and songwriter Mike Einziger and his wife, acclaimed violinist Ann Marie Simpson-Einziger.
  • They already work with bands like Aerosmith to enhance live music; now they're honing in on live sports.

What they're saying: "The idea is to transport someone in the back row down to the action on the field," says Einziger, who originally founded Mixhalo to allow concertgoers to experience what he and other musicians experience on stage.

How it works: Mixhalo will live in LAFC's free smartphone app, allowing fans to tune into audio channels including home and away play-by-play and Spanish-language radio.

  • The club also plans to experiment with things like mic'd up players and coaches, celebrity commentary and exclusive behind-the-scenes content.
  • Unlike the "transistor radio guy" you often see at baseball games listening to a delayed feed, Mixhalo's audio is perfectly in sync with the on-field action.

The big picture: The sports world has been dealing with attendance declines in recent years, partly due to how good the at-home viewing experience has gotten.

  • The Mixhalo-LAFC deal is an example of how teams can compete with the couch through customizable experiences that are only available in-stadium.
  • This kind of innovation will be particularly important in the months and years ahead as teams try to convince fans to return to games post-pandemic.

Looking ahead: Mixhalo's network can deliver all types of data, so they've already talked to LAFC and others about powering things like in-venue betting.

  • "Anything that needs to be in real-time is our specialty," says CEO John Vars. "Right now, we're focused on audio, but once we're wired into a stadium and working with a team, the question becomes: what else can we do?"

2. 🎓 Knives out for the NCAA

U.S. Supreme Court building

The U.S. Supreme Court Building. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The NCAA's strict limits on college athletes' compensation get less tenable every day, Axios' Sam Baker writes.

Driving the news:

  • The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the NCAA's ban on certain education-related benefits, like laptops and scholarships for graduate school.
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is set to introduce a "College Athletes Bill of Rights" today that would, among other things, require revenue-generating sports to share their profits with athletes.

The backdrop: Booker's proposal is the latest effort in Congress to let college athletes share in the profits they generate, but it's not the first, and several states have passed or considered similar bills.

  • "The NCAA is basically juggling flaming knives right here," Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, told WashPost.

Between the lines: These various shots across the NCAA's bow may not succeed individually — the association could very well win the Supreme Court case, and action in Congress is still an uphill climb.

  • The NCAA has so far managed to fend off nearly every formal effort to chip away at its tight restrictions on player compensation, but the pressure just keeps mounting, and that alone is already making a difference.
  • An NCAA committee is slated to vote next month on proposals to let some athletes profit off their name, image and likeness.

Details: The case the Supreme Court agreed to take up yesterday — a suit filed by former West Virginia RB Shawne Alston — doesn't deal directly with cash payments to athletes, but rather with the NCAA’s ban on other benefits more directly tied to education.

  • The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this spring that those rules violate antitrust law, because they give universities the power to "artificially cap compensation at a level that is not commensurate with student-athletes' value."
  • The ban on cash payments, the court said, might be essential to the NCAA's branding as an amateur league, but allowing schools to give athletes a study-abroad scholarship, or to cover the cost of science equipment for a class, would not make them professional athletes.

The other side: The 9th Circuit's ruling "will fundamentally transform the century-old institution of NCAA sports, blurring the traditional line between college and professional athletes," the NCAA said in a brief to the high court.

What's next: The court will likely hand down a decision by June.

3. 🏈 NFL Power Rankings: Week 15

Table: Axios Visuals
Table: Axios Visuals

Week 15 is upon us, and with it comes the season's first slate of Saturday games. In the immortal words of Bart Scott, "Can't wait!"

Coming up:

  • Tonight: Chargers at Raiders (-3)
  • Saturday: Bills at Broncos (-6); Panthers at Packers (-9)
  • Sunday, 1pm: Bucs (-6) at Falcons; 49ers (-3) at Cowboys; Lions at Titans (-11); Texans at Colts (-7); Patriots at Dolphins (-2); Bears at Vikings (-3); Seahawks (-5.5) at Washington; Jaguars at Ravens (-13)
  • Sunday, 4pm: Jets at Rams (-17.5); Eagles at Cardinals (-6.5); Chiefs (-3) at Saints
  • Sunday night: Browns (-5) at Giants
  • Monday: Steelers (-12.5) at Bengals

4. ⚾️ The Negro Leagues are finally "major"

Baseball player slides into home

Josh Gibson slides into home during the 1944 East-West All-Star Game of the Negro Leagues at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Photo: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

The Negro Leagues have been elevated to "major" status by MLB, righting a wrong that's long overdue, but no less welcome, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Why it matters: Their statistics and records — kept separate from MLB's for half a century like the players who produced them — will finally take their rightful place in Major League history.

The backdrop: The Negro Leagues — comprised of seven distinct leagues lasting from 1920 to 1948 — were not some low-level circuit comprised of inferior players, but rather supremely talented Black and Hispanic players who were barred from the segregated American and National Leagues.

  • In 1969, the all-white, five-man body known as the Special Baseball Records Committee met to discuss which leagues should earn major league status.
  • They decided on four fledgling leagues (in addition to the AL and NL). The Negro Leagues' candidacy therein was never even discussed.

The big picture: The highly irregular 2020 season — which, of course, still counted as a "major league" — made it harder to defend the exclusion of the Negro League on account of scheduling quirks or inconsistent formats.

  • Add in the season-long celebration of the Negro Leagues' centennial, plus a summer filled with the most passionate fight against racial injustice in a generation, and the league finally did the right thing.

The last word: While this change is welcome to the few living Negro Leaguers and the families of those that have long since passed, there was never any doubt among those players that they belonged.

"They didn't need the validation. They knew how good they were. They knew their league was as professional as any. But for history's sake, this is significant."
— Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

5. 🎮 HS esports league adds "Madden" and "FIFA"

Illustration of a game controller morphing into a football

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

PlayVS, a startup that allows high schoolers to compete on varsity esports teams through their schools, will add "Madden 21" and "FIFA 21" this spring.

Why it matters: These are the first true sports titles available on PlayVS, which has leagues in 23 states that compete mostly in strategy and combat games like "League of Legends" and "SMITE."

How it works: Each "Madden 21" and "FIFA 21" team will have three players. Teams will play three 1v1 matches, and whoever wins the best-of-three series is declared the winner.

Go deeper: High school esports goes mainstream (Axios)

6. ⚡️ Catch up quick

Roberto Firmino
Photo: Peter Powell/AFP via Getty Images
  • ⚽️ Liverpool 2, Spurs 1: In a game decided by fine margins, Roberto Firmino's 90th-minute header gave Liverpool a home win and possession of first place.
  • 🏈 Herbstreit rips CFP: "Our postseason is as bad as there is and we have to figure out a system that opens up opportunities," said ESPN's lead college football analyst.
  • ⛳️ The Woods family: From Earl to Tiger to Charlie, here's how golf is passed down from Woods to Woods.
  • 🏈 Hokies end streak: Virginia Tech has opted out of a bowl game, ending the nation's longest bowl streak at 27 straight years.

7. 🇦🇺 Field trip: Sydney, Australia

Thanks for choosing Axios Airlines. Sit back and enjoy the flight.

Google Maps screenshot
Screenshot: Google Maps
  • Location: Blacktown International Sportspark
  • Coordinates: 33.77°S, 150.8544°E

Welcome to Sydney, where 48-year-old Manny Ramirez (yes, that Manny Ramirez) and the Australian Baseball League's Blue Sox begin their season today against the reigning champion Melbourne Aces, Jeff writes.

  • ABL teams: Blue Sox, Aces, Adelaide Giants, Brisbane Bandits, Canberra Cavalry, Perth Heat, Auckland Tuatara and Geelong-Korea.
  • League history: This is the ABL's 11th season, dominated thus far by the Bandits and Heat (four titles each).
  • Notable alumni: 41 MLB players spent time in the ABL before getting called up, including Aussie native and 2019 All-Star Liam Hendriks, 3x Gold Glove centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier and 2018 NL ROY Ronald Acuña Jr.
Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez. Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage via Getty Images

The backdrop: Baseball isn't a major sport in Australia. "It wasn't relevant to me growing up," says my Australian colleague Jonathan Swan. "Cricket was everything."

  • According to a former Blue Sox staffer, the ABL closely resembles the low-level minor leagues, combining MLB-caliber prospects with local talent.
  • "The in-stadium experience is similar to a Single-A game, with mid-inning entertainment and an on-field emcee," he said.

Enter Manny. The 12x MLB All-Star last played in the big leagues in 2011, with stints in the Dominican Republic, Japan and Taiwan in the years since. Now, he joins the Blue Sox as a player-coach.

"We moved heaven and earth where we needed to [and] looked after him more than we would any other import. We've now got ourselves an ambassador of our game like this country's never had."
— Blue Sox owner Adam Dobb

Just in this morning: Ramirez's debut has been put on hold due to medical reasons, the team said in a statement.

8. Dec. 17, 1920: ⚾️ The 17 spitballers

Burleigh Grimes
Burleigh Grimes demonstrating a spitball. Photo: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

100 years ago today, MLB voted to allow 17 designated spitball pitchers to be grandfathered into using the pitch — banned 10 months earlier — for the rest of their careers.

  • AL: Doc Ayers, Ray Caldwell, Stan Coveleski, Red Faber, Dutch Leonard, Jack Quinn, Allen Russell, Urban Shocker, Allen Sothoron
  • NL: Burleigh Grimes, Bill Doak, Phil Douglas, Dana Fillingim, Ray Fisher, Marv Goodwin, Clarence Mitchell, Dick Rudolph

The backdrop: Fans were enthralled by Babe Ruth hammering 29 HR in 1919 — a new record, and orders of magnitude more than the league leader in most prior seasons — so MLB wanted to promote offense however possible.

The pitch: Spitballs can be a catch-all term for any pitch thrown with a defaced ball (Vaseline, sandpaper, etc.), but mostly refers to the use of saliva to add extra movement to a pitch.

"Depending on what they smeared on the ball and how good they got at manipulating oozy substances, pitchers could make pitches drop, fade away, or ride in on hitters, all while using their same old throwing motions."
— Grantland

The big picture: Grimes' retirement in 1934 brought about the end of an era.

  • Spitballs have been outlawed ever since, though a handful of pitchers have been accused of — and admitted to — throwing them over the years, including Preacher Roe, Don Drysdale, Gaylord Perry and Joe Niekro.

Go deeper: What ever happened to the spitball? (Grantland)

9. 🏈 NFL stadium trivia

Allegiant Stadium

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Allegiant Stadium, host of tonight's Chargers-Raiders game, is one of five NFL stadiums with a fixed roof (20 are open and five have retractable roofs).

  • Question: What other four stadiums have fixed roofs?
  • Hint: Two north, one south, one west.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 💵 Listen: "Gamblers" podcast

Terry Rozier Player GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

"Gamblers" is a podcast series from The Ringer detailing the "extraordinary careers of six extraordinary gamblers." The final episode aired yesterday.

  • Episode 1: Gina Fiore, a single mom with a secret identity: beating casinos around the world for millions.
  • Episode 2: Scott "The Freezer" Frost, a local pool room hero who took his game on the road and never looked back.
  • Episode 3: Michael Sall, a gin player who went from sleeping on pool room floors to a midtown-Manhattan penthouse.
  • Episode 4: Emily Gullikson, a skateboarding renegade with a brilliant mind who found an unlikely home at the racetrack.
  • Episode 5: Phil Galfond, a man who mastered poker, then taught his secrets to hundreds of younger players, only to watch them leave him in their dust.
  • Episode 6: Joey Fortuna, a former bookie who learned how to move the point spreads and beat the house.

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Bills Mafia feeling good" Baker

Trivia answer: U.S. Bank Stadium (Vikings); Ford Field (Lions); Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Saints); SoFi Stadium (Rams/Chargers)