Jul 26, 2019

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

🎉 Happy Friday! Today's word count: 1,202 words (~5 mins).

  • Stadium of the day: The Clippers unveiled renderings for a new 18,500-seat arena in Inglewood, California, that would be fully funded by owner Steve Ballmer.
  • Stat of the day: Larry Fitzgerald (No. 2 in all-time receiving yards), Terrell Owens (No. 3) and Randy Moss (No. 4) never led the league in receiving yards for a single season.
1 big thing: 🚲 Frenchman leads Tour with 2 big stages left

Julian Alaphilippe remains in the lead entering Stage 19. Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Image

"One big Alpine stage completed, just two more to go, and Julian Alaphilippe is still in yellow with France yet another step closer to having a first Tour winner since 1985." (AP)

Standings: Alaphilippe enters Stage 19 with a lead of one minute and 30 seconds over Egan Bernal, with defending champ Geraint Thomas five seconds further back in third.

  1. Julian Alaphilippe, France
  2. Egan Bernal, Colombia (+1:30)
  3. Geraint Thomas, Wales (+1:35)

Today's race: After a grueling day in the mountains (highlights), Stage 19 provides yet another test as riders continue their climb through the French Alps.

  • The route begins in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and heads towards the Col de l'Iseran. At 9,000+ feet above sea level, it's the highest point in this year's Tour (and any tour since 2008).
  • This is an ideal stage for climbers, such as Bernal and Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, who currently sits in fifth (+1:50). Expect both riders to be aggressive in trying to dislodge Alaphilippe.

Pre-weekend reminders:

  • This is a team sport: "Each of the Tour's 22 teams has five or six domestiques, men whose job it is to sacrifice for the greater glory of their team's lead cyclist," writes NYT's Michael Powell. They provide wind-cover, fetch food and water midrace, and will even surrender their bikes in a pinch.
  • There are unwritten rules: For example, if the race leader needs to go to the bathroom, he can take a bathroom break and the peloton either stops alongside him or slows down to give him time to catch up.
  • The Tour ends on Sunday: After another intense mountain stage tomorrow, the Tour will conclude in the heart of Paris.

Go deeper:

2. 🏈 The decline of the NFL punt return
Expand chart
Data: Pro Football Reference; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In 2018, NFL teams attempted to gain first downs on fourth-and-short (five yards or fewer) 401 times on 1,406 chances. That's a 28.5% mark — the highest the league has seen in 20 years, writes Axios' Mike Sykes.

  • Why it matters: As a result of this trend, punt returns plummeted last season (teams averaged 1.8 per game). Add in the fact that kick returns are on the brink of death, and it's clear that the role of special teams is dwindling.
  • Why it's happening: Today's pass-happy offenses can zip up and down the field like never before. This has made field position — and therefore punts — less valuable, permitting coaches to take more risks on fourth down.
  • The big picture: Less special teams makes the game safer. So, even if punt and kick returns are your favorite thing in the world, the steep decline in their importance could be a win long-term.

P.S. … Are you a data nerd? We partnered with Sports Reference on this story, and they actually have their own stats-centric newsletter. Check it out

3. 🥊 Boxing's terrible week
Screenshot: @loudibella

23-year-old Argentine boxer Hugo Alfredo Santillán died yesterday from injuries sustained during a recent bout near Buenos Aires.

Context: Santillán is the second boxer to die this week. On Tuesday, 28-year-old Russian boxer Maxim Dadashev passed away after suffering brain injuries during a fight that aired on ESPN+ last Friday.

"You have to ask yourself ethical and moral questions at times like this about supporting the sport. And yet … I love boxing. I'm glad it exists."
— ESPN's Max Kellerman, in response to Dadashev's passing
4. 🏀 USA Basketball's 16-year curse

Lamar Odom and Stephon Marbury during a loss to Puerto Rico in the 2004 Olympics. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images

The U.S. men's Olympic basketball team has failed to win gold three times, all 16 years apart (1972, 1988, 2004). And now, with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, the team appears to be in danger of keeping that 16-year curse alive.

Driving the news: The FIBA World Cup begins in China next month, and virtually every NBA star who was invited has declined (James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, the list goes on).

  • The bad news: Of the 11 Americans who were named to last year's All-NBA teams, only one, Kemba Walker, has yet to withdraw. It's gotten so bad that USA Basketball had to invite six new players yesterday (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Montrezl Harrell, Mason Plumlee, Julius Randle and Thad Young).
  • The good news: No matter how many players drop out, Team USA will still be favorites to win the World Cup. Plus, the superstars who declined roster spots are still eligible to play in the Olympics — and much less likely to turn that down.

The bottom line: "When the Olympics begin next year in Tokyo, it will be 16 years since the last Team USA Olympic basketball loss, which was 16 years after the previous Team USA basketball loss, which was 16 years before the previous Team USA basketball loss," writes The Ringer's Rodger Sherman.

  • "Maybe it's a coincidence, or maybe 16 years is just how long it takes U.S. basketball stars to forget that it's possible to lose on the world stage."

Troy Tulowitzki. Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

⚾️ MLB: Troy Tulowitzki has retired at age 34, concluding an injury-plagued career that leaves us wondering what could have been. "At his best, Tulowitzki was Mike Trout at shortstop," writes ESPN's Dan Mullen. Injuries stink.

🏀 NBA: The ex-wife of slain former NBA player Lorenzen Wright has pleaded guilty to facilitating his murder, "a surprise development in one of the biggest murder cases in the history of Memphis."

🏈 NFL: Most training camps are now officially underway. Here's everything that happened across the league yesterday.

👟 Running: India's "Hell Ultra" is a 298-mile race that takes runners through five different mountain passes that reach up to 17,500 feet — "equivalent to the higher of the two main Mt. Everest base camps." Yeah, no thanks.

🏀 WNBA: During the All-Star Game tomorrow night, the WNBA will experiment with hockey-style substitutions that will see players in a designated "check-in spot" wait for their teammates to tag them onto the floor.

6. July 26, 1972: 🏈 Colts-Rams swap

Photo: Diamond Images/Getty Images

47 years ago today, Chicago businessman Robert Irsay purchased the L.A. Rams and traded them to Carroll Rosenbloom in exchange for the Baltimore Colts.

The impact: This swap impacted the NFL in drastic ways, the effects of which can still be felt today.

  • Los Angeles: Seven years later, Rosenbloom died in a drowning accident after making a deal to move the Rams to Anaheim. That led to Al Davis bringing the Raiders to L.A. — something he likely would not have done if Rosenbloom was still alive.
  • Baltimore: 12 years later, Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis in the middle of the night.
7. 🏀 NBA trivia
  • Question: Only five players in NBA history have averaged 40 points per game in a playoff series. Can you name them all?
  • Hint: Their initials are RB, BK, EB, JW, MJ.
8. The Ocho: 🎳 Can bowling win over "Lebowski" generation?

"Fox Sports is certainly betting on it. And it just might have the stars to make it work," writes The Ringer's Bryan Curtis.

Go deeper.

9. Good reads

🏈 How Two Seattle College Students Created The First Fantasy Football Magazine (The Athletic)

"In 1986, Ian Allan and Bruce Taylor … made a life-altering decision: They started a fantasy football league. That doesn't seem like a big deal now … but back then the hobby was in its nascent stages. It was like a secret shared among associates."

⚾️ How The Atlantic League Became MLB's Laboratory (SI)

"The future of Major League Baseball is unfolding nightly in the Atlantic League. Players are stealing first base, umpires are using AirPods to call balls and strikes and defensive shifts are prohibited. This is what it's like to spend time in MLB's ever-changing laboratory."

🏀 Thunder GM Sam Presti: Looking Back, Thinking Forward (The Oklahoman)

"[S]mall market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. This in no way means we cannot be extraordinarily successful ... It simply means we must be thinking differently, optimistically, finding our advantages by other means."
10. 🏈 Most popular NFL team by county
Courtesy: Vivid Seats/opendorse

Ticket marketplace Vivid Seats teamed up with social platform opendorse to determine the most popular NFL team in each U.S. county, as well as the most impactful player on social media.

Explore the map.

Kendall Baker

Have the best weekend,

Kendall "MARK IT ZERO" Baker

Trivia answer: Rick Barry, Bernard King, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Michael Jordan (five times)