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πŸ‘‹ Good morning! Let's sports.

  • 🎟️ Win free tickets: On Friday, we'll be selecting five readers to receive $200 StubHub gift cards. To enter, refer at least one person to Axios Sports using your referral link at the bottom of this newsletter.
  • 🎾 Just in: Maria Sharapova, one of the richest and most celebrated female athletes of the 21st century, is retiring from tennis at 32.

Today's word count: 1,539 words (5 minutes).

1 big thing: πŸ‘Ÿ The race to catch Nike's magic shoe

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios

Four months ago, on the very same weekend, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human to run a marathon in under two hours and fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei shattered the women's marathon record.

  • Kipchoge and Kosgei were both wearing Nike's controversial Vaporfly sneakers, which many believed would be banned because of the performance boost provided by a carbon-fiber plate in the midsole that acted as a spring and saved the runner energy.
  • Instead, World Athletics, track and field's governing body, published new rules last month regarding sole thickness and carbon-fiber plates that effectively rendered the Vaporfly legal.

Driving the news: Competing brands are now scrambling to build their own shoes to compete with the Vaporfly, and the clock is ticking.

  • The U.S. Olympic marathon trials are this weekend in Atlanta, and shoe companies are still playing catch-up as they adjust to the new norm.
  • The Tokyo Olympic marathons are in August, and any prototype that a runner wants to wear must be available at retail by April 30 β€” a deadline that has grown increasingly difficult to meet as Chinese manufacturers combat the coronavirus.

What they're saying: While rival companies are confident that their carbon-fiber plate designs will eventually be on par with the Vaporfly, Nike's formidable lead has forced them to acknowledge the gap that currently exists.

  • The head of Saucony even went as far as to say she would be open to allowing one of her sponsored runners to wear a competitor's shoes if he felt he'd be at a disadvantage without them.
  • "We would have to consider that," said Saucony president Anne Cavassa, per WSJ (subscription).

The big picture: Running, the most elemental of sports, now faces the same "human ability vs. technological innovation" challenge that other sports like tennis (rackets) and swimming (full-body suits) have encountered.

The bottom line: The running industry is in the midst of a high-tech shoe revolution, and the outcome will affect everything from shoe sales and stock prices to who wins Olympic gold.

πŸŽ₯ Watch: The controversy behind the Vaporfly, explained (YouTube)

2. πŸ€ LeBron-Zion lives up to the hype
Screenshot: @espn (Instagram)

LeBron James, whose play defined the last two decades of NBA basketball, scored a season-high 40 points in his first matchup against Zion Williamson (29 points), whose play could define the next two decades.

  • πŸŽ₯ Highlights: Lakers 118, Pelicans 109
  • Fun fact: LeBron has now faced a fellow No. 1 overall pick 356 times β€” and he's finished with the scoring advantage in 297 of those games, per ESPN.

The big picture: LeBron and Zion have so much in common β€” game-breaking athleticism, unparalleled hype β€” yet the experience of watching them play basketball is "fascinatingly different," writes The Ringer's Brian Phillips:

  • "Something about watching Zion really, really makes people want to describe him in cartoonishly evocative, absurdist-poetic language. ... When Zion tears the sole of his shoe, venerable organs of sports journalism like Sports Illustrated tweet that his shoe 'LITERALLY EXPLODED,' in all caps."
  • "[T]he language we use for LeBron tends to evoke something more like an 18th-century sovereign, or maybe a Roman general. ... An incredible dunk from LeBron will rarely be described as a rose blooming inside a cyclone of lasers; it will be described, instead, as 'an incredible dunk from LeBron.'"
  • "LeBron's career coincided with the apex of a post–Michael Jordan tendency to represent the league in terms of organized macro-narrative and all-time rankings."
  • "Zion has come along at a moment when our experience of basketball is shifting back toward the fun mess of one present moment: the highlight, the GIF, the second of shareable chills."
  • "In a pretty natural, unforced way, then, the two players seem to personify the dominant tendencies of an era in transition."

More NBA scores:

  • Bucks 108, Raptors 97: In Milwaukee's first trip back to Toronto since losing Game 6 of last year's Eastern Conference finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo (19-19-8) and the NBA-best Bucks got some revenge and won their 50th game.
  • Thunder 124, Bulls 122: Oklahoma City won its ninth straight road game (franchise record), while Chicago's Colby White (35 points) became the first rookie β€” and third player overall β€” to score 30 points in three straight games off the bench since starters were first recorded in 1970.
  • Pacers 119, Hornets 80: Indiana is the second team in NBA history to go from a 35-point loss (Sunday at Raptors, -46) to a 35-point win in consecutive games.
3. πŸ“Έ Champions League in photos
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

NAPLES, Italy β€” Napoli supporters pose amongst street art featuring ex-Napoli star Diego Maradona ahead of the club's round of 16 first leg match against Barcelona, which ended in a 1-1 draw.

Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

LONDON β€” Thomas MΓΌller and Bayern Munich destroyed Chelsea, 3-0, and it could have been much worse β€” a reminder of the huge gulf that exists between Europe's elite and the 2012 Champions League winners, who are rebuilding.

πŸ“Ί Today's slate ... Real Madrid (Spain) hosts Manchester City (England), and Lyon (France) hosts Juventus (Italy). Both matches kickoff at 3pm ET.

4. 🍿 Bob Iger stuns media with sudden CEO departure

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

In a shocking announcement yesterday, Bob Iger said he would be stepping down from his role as Disney CEO after leading the entertainment giant to unprecedented success during his 15-year run on the job.

Why it matters: Iger is credited with leading Disney through a series of risky yet highly-successful acquisitions that not only solidified the company's dominance, but ultimately reshaped the entire media landscape around it.

Expand chart
Data: Yahoo Finance; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

What they're saying: Iger leaves a lasting sports legacy at Disney, writes Axios' Sara Fischer.

  • Iger was originally a weatherman turned ABC sports producer who arrived at Disney through the acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC in 1996.
  • He led Disney cable networks, which includes ESPN, through a bumpy ride during the cord-cutting era and brought ESPN into the streaming fold with the launch of ESPN+ in April 2018.
  • Today, ESPN+ boasts more than 7 million subscribers, a feat for any subscription service, let alone a specialized one focused solely on sports.

Zoom out: Quite the tenure...

  • 2019: Launches Disney+
  • 2018: Buys Fox assets for $71 billion
  • 2018: Launches ESPN+
  • 2016: Opens Shanghai Disneyland
  • 2012: Buys Lucasfilm for $4 billion
  • 2009: Buys Marvel for $4 billion
  • 2006: Buys Pixar for $7.4 billion
5. ⚽️ U.K. bans children from heading soccer balls
Giphy

British youth soccer players will no longer be allowed to head the ball in practice, according to new safety guidelines for kids aged 11 and under.

  • And even after they leave primary school, headers "will remain a low priority when compared to other technical aspects of the game."

Why it matters: The new guidelines are in direct response to a 2019 study that found former pro soccer players were 3.5 times more likely to die of dementia compared with a control sample, and five times more likely to die of Parkinson's.

6. πŸ“Š By the numbers
Photo: Justin Casterline/Getty Images
  • πŸ€ 15.1% of attempts: Led by national player of year candidate Obi Toppin, No. 5 Dayton is enjoying a breakout season β€” and the Flyers are dunking on everybody. In fact, 15.1% of their two-point field goal attempts are dunks, the highest rate of any team in the country.
  • 🚎 $0.00: Seattle's new NHL team will offer free public transportation (bus or light rail) to attending fans when the stadium opens in 2021 β€” an initiative that will both reduce car-based pollution and save fans money. I love it.
  • πŸ€ 113 points allowed: With 1:15 left in regulation last night, No. 7 Duke led unranked Wake Forest by nine points and had a 98.4% win probability. But the Demon Deacons clawed back to win, 113-101, in a double-OT stunner. That's tied for the most points a Mike Krzyzewski team has ever allowed.
7. Feb. 26, 1967: 🏁 Andretti wins Daytona 500
Photo: ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

53 years ago today, racing icon Mario Andretti became the first driver born outside the U.S. to win the Daytona 500.

The big picture: Andretti, whose family moved from Italy to Pennsylvania when he was 15 years old, remains the only driver in history to win the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One World Championship.

πŸŽ₯ Watch: On-board lap with Mario Andretti (YouTube)

8. The Ocho: πŸ’ͺ Planking for eight hours
Credit: Guinness World Records (YouTube)

George Hood, a 62-year-old Marine veteran from Naperville, Illinois, recently set the Guinness World Record for longest abdominal plank at eight hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds.

What he's saying: Hood discovered planking a decade ago and quickly got hooked. "It was a static exercise. There was no movement involved. I could put music in my ears at the gym and lay on the floor and plank," he told WashPost.

  • "I did it every day. I would blow things off to get my planks in. It was like sugar," he added.
  • "My plank is my best friend. Do I have a social life? No, not one to really speak of, because all I do is train."

The bottom line: You will never love anything as much as George Hood loves planking.

9. πŸ€ WNBA trivia
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

Sue Bird will return to the Seattle Storm for her 19th season after re-signing with the team yesterday.

  • Question: Bird has scored the eighth-most points in WNBA history. Who has scored the most?
  • Hint: Her first and last name have the same number of syllables.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🏈 What the NFL combine is really like

Photo: Alika Jenner/Getty Images

With the NFL Combine underway in Indianapolis, it's worth re-reading Wright Thompson's terrific piece from last year on what this week is really like beyond the measurements, football drills and TV cameras.

"For reporters and coaches and scouts, the combine is part work and part play, like a legal convention in Las Vegas or something. Yes, there's combine stuff to do, but that all feels secondary on the ground to drinking expensive wine and eating big steaks at places like St. Elmo's β€” the emotional center of Indy during the combine, with its great light and high ceilings."

Keep reading.

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "My plank is not my friend" Baker

Trivia answer: Diana Taurasi