Apr 28, 2020

Axios Sports

πŸ‘‹ Good morning! Let's sports.

  • πŸ’¬ Tomorrow at 2pm ET, I'll be answering your questions via Twitter Video Q&A on how the coronavirus is impacting the sports industry. Tweet your questions using #AskAxios or #AskAxiosKendall and tune in tomorrow to see my answers. (@thekendallbaker)

Today's word count: 1,816 (7 minutes).

1 big thing: πŸ’ The battle over women's hockey

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios

The battle over the future of professional women's hockey is heating up, with the NWHL expanding to Toronto and the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) continuing its boycott in hopes that a new league emerges.

  • Why it matters: Women's hockey takes the world by storm every four years at the Winter Olympics β€” and then basically falls off the radar. The outcome of this ongoing feud could change that, especially if the NHL gets more involved.

Meet the NWHL: The U.S.-based league was established in 2015, and when the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) shut down last year after 12 seasons, the NWHL became the only women's pro hockey league in North America.

  • Six franchises: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan (N.J.) Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps and now Toronto (no name yet).
  • Signs of growth: The 2019-20 season was the NWHL's most promising yet, with the league increasing its salary cap (top players made around $15,000), introducing a 50-50 revenue split for league-wide sponsorship and media deals and signing a multi-year media rights deal with Twitch. The Whitecaps also became the NWHL's first profitable team.

Meet the PWHPA: After the CWHL shut down last May, roughly 175 women's players β€” including some of the sport's biggest names β€” announced that they would forego participation in any North American league "until we get the resources professional hockey demands and deserves."

  • A month later, the PWHPA was formed to provide a unified voice for the boycotting players and push for the creation of a new league.
  • Since that has yet to happen, the PWHPA is planning counter-programming for the second straight season (think: exhibition showcases, youth clinics, etc).

The big picture: Four of the NWHL's six teams have partnerships with NHL teams, but the NWHL ultimately believes that a women's professional hockey league "should be built from the ground to stand on its own."

  • Conversely, the PWHPA is widely believed to be holding out hope for the creation of a so-called WNHL β€” modeled after the WNBA and directly tied to the NHL, which has been sitting on the "WNHL" trademark since 1998.
  • "We believe there needs to be an affiliation with the NHL," PWHPA leader Jayna Hefford told CBC Sports last week. "History tells us the only women's leagues that survive are aligned with established men's leagues."

The bottom line: "It's hard to ignore 200 athletes forgoing the primes of their careers because they believe it's what's best for their sport. But if a new league doesn't emerge soon, the PWHPA may see many of its players defect and return to the NWHL," Just Women's Sports founder Haley Rosen tells Axios.

  • On that last point: Toronto's first five signings were all initially part of the PWHPA β€” a reminder that the clock is ticking.

πŸ‘€ Coming tomorrow: Examining the "WNBA model" (and dispelling some myths)

2. ⚽️ Soccer 'round the world
Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England β€” The proposed $370 million takeover of Newcastle United by a consortium largely financed by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund has attracted its fair share of controversy.

  • What they're saying: "Weeks ago there was a national outcry about players' refusal to take salary cuts [but] it is apparently fine for a club to be owned by a regime that has beheaded a journalist, tortured political prisoners and caused a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen." (Henry Mance, FT)
  • In related news: The Premier League hopes to return by June 8, with the season ending on July 27, per Sports Business Daily. Those dates definitely won't change 14 times by next week, nope, definitely not.
Photo: M. Donato/FC Bayern via Getty Images

MUNICH, Germany β€” Bayern Munich and other Bundesliga clubs have been practicing for nearly a month and the league hopes to resume play β€” in empty stadiums β€” as early as May 8, pending government approval.

  • Elsewhere: Italy has set May 18 as a target date to resume training, with games expected in June and July. Meanwhile, the Netherlands on Friday became the first European country to call off its season.
Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

LISBON, Portugal β€” Rui Pinto, the hacker who published soccer's darkest secrets, is scheduled to stand trial in Lisbon this summer. The judge overseeing his case is a supporter of Benfica, Portugal's biggest soccer club β€” and one of the clubs Pinto exposed. Conflict of interest?

  • Yes, clearly, but replacing the judge could be difficult given Benfica's vast influence and power over Portuguese society (some refer to the club as the "Octopus").
  • Go deeper: The soccer club as a sovereign state (Tariq Panja, NYT)
3. πŸ“Š Finance news up, sports news down
Reproduced from SimilarWeb; Chart: Axios Visuals

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, finance and business news websites have seen a 42% increase in web traffic compared to the same time last year, while sports news websites are down 22%.

  • Counterpoint: Axios Sports' open rate is at an all-time high! Good work, team.
4. 🏎 Real racing in South Dakota

Photo: Jim Steffens/Getty Images

On Saturday evening in South Dakota, IMCA Racing treated us to Open Wheel Nationals β€” a real, live sporting event and a sight for sore eyes, writes Axios' Jeff Tracy.

Why it matters: With sports mostly on pause since mid-March, this small, dirt track event in North Sioux City offered a potential blueprint for successfully restarting sporting events across the country.

The state of play: There have been just seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Park Jefferson International Speedway's county, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem never issued a stay-at-home order, making the circumstances for this event favorable compared to other parts of the country.

  • The stands at the Speedway were empty, and all 64 teams were capped at 10 people, including driver, crew and family.
  • Pit crews were separated by at least 10 feet, masks and temperature checks were required before entering the track and positions were computer generated, eschewing the standard "pill draw" (think: choosing tiles from a Scrabble bag).

What they're saying: NASCAR and IndyCar have postponed their May races, and while they've both attempted to fill the void with iRacing, at least one writer has finally reached his breaking point:

"I can't cover [iRacing] events the same way as real races anymore. It makes me feel a bit guilty to say that, because a lot of people have worked hard to make iRacing on television a suitable replacement for actual racing ... but after four of these things ... I'm sorry. I just can't do it."
β€” Jeff Gluck, The Athletic

πŸŽ₯ Highlights: Races lasted just a few minutes due to the short track, and were action-packed and highly entertaining.

5. ⚑️ ICYMI
Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
  • 😷 Coronavirus update: The good news is that the number of daily coronavirus tests is going up again. The bad news is that it's still not nearly enough for the country to safely reopen, writes Axios' Caitlin Owens.
  • πŸ₯‡ 2021 or bust: In an interview published Tuesday morning, Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori said that the Olympics would be "scrapped" if they could not take place in 2021 and needed to be pushed back further.
  • 🏈 Heckuva career: Patriots FB James Develin is retiring following an incredible football journey that saw him go from Brown (where he played DE) ... to the Florida Tuskers of the UFL ... to the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the AFL ... to the Bengals practice squad ... to the Patriots practice squad ... to one of New England's most respected players and a three-time Super Bowl champ.
6. April 28, 1923: 🏟 Wembley Stadium opens

Photo: S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

97 years ago today, the original Wembley Stadium opened at Wembley Park in London to host the 1923 FA Cup Final (Bolton Wanderers 2, West Ham United 0).

"As a player, my biggest regret is that I have never played in the cathedral of football: Wembley Stadium, in London."
β€” 73-year-old Pele in 2014

The backdrop: Wembley was originally constructed as the centerpiece of the British Empire Exhibition, a post-WWI display intended as a reminder of the British Empire's standing on the world stage.

  • The Prince of Wales (later, Edward VIII) headed the Exhibition's organizing committee, and one of his imperatives was building "a great national sports ground."
  • Built in exactly 300 days at the cost of roughly $800,000, the stadium was completed a full year before the exhibition was set to begin in April 1924, and thus was able to host the 1923 FA Cup final.

"The White Horse Final": The stadium, already boasting an enormous capacity of 127,000, was completely overrun with excited fans who'd flocked to the brand new grounds.

  • An estimated 300,000 people crammed into the unticketed final, spilling onto the field before play began, and prompting a lone policeman, George Albert Scorey, to intervene atop his white horse and corral the crowd (bonus points if you can find him in the photo above).
  • The iconic image gave Wembley's inaugural contest a lasting nickname, and nearly a century later, the same grounds β€” albeit in a newly-rebuilt stadium as of 2007 β€” still play host to the FA Cup Final every spring.

πŸŽ₯ Watch: Footage from the White Horse Final (YouTube)

7. πŸ“š Good reads


πŸ€ Michael Jordan's top 23 commercials, remembered and ranked (Mark Selig, WashPost)

"If a coach could create the perfect basketball player in a lab, he might look like Michael Jordan. And then the advertising executives trying to create the perfect pitchman in the lab next door would ask to borrow the formula."

🏈 A blocker moves to the pandemic's front line (Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, SI)

"Less than three months after helping the Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory as their starting right guard, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is putting his doctorate in medicine to use: fighting the coronavirus outbreak at a longterm care facility in Quebec."

🏎 The secret life of Floyd Lippencott Jr. (John M. Glionna, SB Nation)

"For five long years, between 1962 and 1967, [Bob] Muravez protected perhaps the most closely-guarded mystery in modern sports: An alter-ego who took full credit for his thriving racing career."
8. The Ocho: πŸ‡©πŸ‡ͺ Schleuderball

Source: YouTube

Schleuderball originated in Northwest Germany and is now played at a handful of universities and high schools in the U.S. thanks to a former German professor at the University of Kansas introducing it to his students years ago.

How to play: Two teams of 2-8 players attempt to throw the "Schleuderball," a three-pound leather ball with an attached strap, into the opponent's end zone.

  • The primary throw, called a "schleuder," is performed by swinging the ball around by the strap, and releasing in the direction of the opponent's end zone.
  • If the ball is not caught by the defensive team, wherever it stops in bounds becomes the "line of schleuder," and is where the opposing team takes possession.

If the ball is caught by the defensive team, the player who caught it can throw the ball forward without using the strap. This throw is called a "shock."

  • The point at which the shock is stopped by the original offense becomes the new line of schleuder for the team who just threw the shock.
  • The original offense can also catch the shock and throw a return shock, so the best strategy for a shock is to throw it low (so the other team can't catch it) but also far (because you'll be throwing a schleuder from wherever it lands).

How to win: Teams alternate schleuders and shocks until one team gets the ball to land inbounds beyond the opponent's goal line. That counts as a goal, and whoever has the most goals at the end (typically two halves of fixed times) wins.

πŸŽ₯ Watch: Schleuderball (YouTube)

9. ⚾️ MLB trivia
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
  • Questions: Can you name all the World Series champions from the 2010s?
  • Hint: Four NL teams, three AL teams.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❀️ Why we love sports
Alexandre Bilodeau during his gold medal-winning run in 2010. Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Darryl P. (Vancouver) writes:

"Prior to 2010, Canada had hosted the Olympics twice (1976 in Montreal and 1988 in Calgary) without winning a single gold medal. So there was a feeling heading into Vancouver that this was the year we'd broke through.
"We finally did win that first gold in Men's Freestyle Skiing moguls, with Alexandre Bilodeau putting down an amazing run one night in Whistler. I have such a distinct memory of that moment β€” the smile he flashed at the top of the course, the emotion felt across Canada when he won.
"But the extreme 'sports, man' moment came when Alexandre went into the crowd to hug his older brother FrΓ©dΓ©ric, who suffers from cerebral palsy and could not have been more excited. Alexandre became a national hero and dedicated the medal to FrΓ©dΓ©ric, who he says is his."
Alexandre and FrΓ©dΓ©ric celebrate his gold medal at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Photo: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or an example of sports having a positive impact on your life? If you'd like to share, simply reply to this email. We'll be telling your stories all month.

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "The NWHL and WNHL should both exist just to confuse everyone" Baker

Trivia answer: Giants (2010, 2012, 2014); Cardinals (2011); Red Sox (2013 and 2018); Royals (2015); Cubs (2016); Astros (2017); Nationals (2019)