Axios Sports

A large foam finger.

March 08, 2022

๐Ÿ‘‹ Good morning! Happy International Women's Day. To celebrate, we begin with some breaking news from ESPN and the WNBA...

Today's word count: 1,932 words (7 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: ๐Ÿ€ ESPN to launch WNBA fantasy

WNBA logo at midcourt

Betnijah Laney in action during the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game. Photo: David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

ESPN is launching Fantasy Women's Basketball ahead of the 2022 WNBA season, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: It's the first season-long, full-scale fantasy game dedicated to a major women's sports league. The game will be available in early April ahead of the season opener on May 6.

The backdrop: This comes on the heels of exponential viewership growth for the WNBA in 2021, and is the latest example of women's sports gaining investment and exposure.

  • The WNBA raised $75 million last month in what it called the "largest-ever capital raise for a women's sports property."
  • Disney networks will broadcast 25 regular-season games during the 2022 WNBA season and a record-tying nine will air on ABC.

The big picture: Fantasy sports is a multi-billion dollar business, with 20 million players on ESPN alone. It's especially popular among younger fans, who tend to follow players more than teams and seek direct engagement over passive consumption.

  • Daily Fantasy Sports platforms like DraftKings and FanDuel have offered WNBA action since 2017, but season-long games are uniquely immersive.
  • Groups of friends and colleagues often turn draft night into a social event and millions have come to rely on their fantasy leagues as a way to stay in touch. Now, WNBA fans get to experience that.

The bottom line: Managing a fantasy roster for a full season increases awareness of โ€” and interest in โ€” live games, which ESPN and the WNBA hope ultimately leads to more viewership and engagement.

Of note ... Shoutout to Sports.ws, a niche fantasy basketball site that has offered season-long WNBA games since 2019.

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Bonus scoop: ๐Ÿ€ ESPN extends Doris Burke

Doris Burke

Courtesy: ESPN

ESPN is signing Hall of Fame broadcaster Doris Burke to a multi-year extension. She'll continue as a top NBA analyst for regular-season and postseason coverage.

The big picture: Burke, who became the first female full-time NBA game analyst in 2017, has been with ESPN for three decades.

"Doris is recognized and admired across the media industry and in the NBA for her ability to educate, inform, entertain and teach the game. Doris is a star and we are thrilled to continue with her trailblazing career."
โ€” Tim Corrigan, ESPN vice president

2. โšฝ๏ธ Changing how winners are crowned

Illustration of a soccer ball wearing a crown

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Champions League knockout stage resumes today with two second-leg matches: Inter Milan (down 2-0) at Liverpool and RB Salzburg (tied 1-1) at Bayern Munich.

State of play: For the first time since 1965, away goals won't be used as a tiebreaker. UEFA abolished the rule this summer.

  • In the past, if the aggregate score after two legs was tied, the team with more away goals advanced. If both teams scored the same number of away goals, extra time (and a possible shootout) ensued.
  • Now, in the case of a tie, there will be extra time (and a possible shootout) no matter what. Away goals don't matter.

For example: Let's say RB Salzburg plays Bayern Munich to a 2-2 draw today, making the aggregate score 3-3. In the past, Salzburg would have advanced because they scored two away goals to Bayern's one. But now, they'd have to win in extra time.

Between the lines: The away goals rule was meant to incentivize road teams to attack instead of sitting back and defending โ€” presumably leading to a more exciting match.

  • But UEFA believes the rule outlived its usefulness and was actually holding back home teams from attacking for fear of giving up an away goal.
  • Playing on the road simply isn't as difficult as it used to be: Beforeย 1980, home teams in UEFA competition had an advantage of 1.06 goals per game. By 2018, that had fallen to 0.51, per SI.

The bottom line: Scrapping the away goals tiebreaker changed how Champions League teams approached their first-leg matches, and could mean more shootouts in this week's second-leg action.

3. ๐Ÿˆ NFL combine: A historic year for speed

NFL combine

UAB's Alex Wright during a combine drill. Photo: Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The importance of the NFL combine may be up for debate, but one thing is undeniable: It still drives plenty of buzz, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

By the numbers: The 40-yard dash is the combine's crown jewel, and this year's event โ€” which ended Sunday โ€” featured the fastest average time ever (4.71 seconds) and a record number of players under 4.40 seconds (31).

Top performers:

  • Jordan Davis (DT, Georgia): We knew he was a freak, but not this freakish. At six feet six inches, 341 pounds, he ran a faster 40 (4.78) than Patrick Mahomes, and his broad jump (10'3") set a record for 300 pounders.
  • Kalon Barnes (CB, Baylor): His 40 time (4.23) was the second-fastest in history, and he headlined a cornerback class full of speed demons.
  • Malik Willis (QB, Liberty): He showed off his cannon with the throw of the weekend, scored well on the Wonderlic Test and proved his character when a random act of kindness was caught on camera.
  • Ikem Ekwonu (OT, NC State): Not only did he glide through his on-field drills, he also benefited from Alabama OT Evan Neal skipping the workouts. He could go No. 1 overall to Jacksonville.
  • Matt Araiza (P, San Diego State): The "punt god," who set the NCAA record with a 51.19-yard punting average last season, showed off his leg and even his speed in Indy. Could he be the first punter since 2012 drafted in the first three rounds?

The big picture: When COVID canceled last year's combine, teams relied on videos of pro days and private workouts. Draft prep didn't appear to suffer, leading some to question the future of the in-person event.

  • Yes, but: "The interview I think is where I get the most value," 49ers GM John Lynch told The Ringer. "Looking at 'em in the eye and feeling their energy ... That's really what the combine is all about."
  • Plus, it's big business for the league. Four days of programming, millions of social media views and lots of headlines.

Looking ahead: The combine has been held in Indianapolis since 1987, but could move to Dallas or L.A. as soon as next year in an effort to make it an even bigger spectacle.

4. โšก๏ธ Lightning round

Twitter screenshot

Screenshot: @CalvinRidley1 (Twitter)

๐Ÿˆ Ruh-roh, Ridley: Falcons WR Calvin Ridley has been suspended for the 2022 season and possibly longer for betting $1,500 on NFL games while away from the team last season.

๐Ÿ€ Pop ties Don: Gregg Popovich tied Don Nelson's NBA record with his 1,335th career victory on Monday. He can set the record tomorrow night at home against the Raptors.

โšฝ๏ธ Everton in danger: Everton have been in English soccer's top flight since 1954. But Monday's 5-0 loss to Tottenham has put the club in danger of being relegated.

๐Ÿˆ NFL salary cap: The salary cap for the 2022 NFL season has been set at $208.2 million, up from $182.5 million last season (impacted by COVID) and $198.2 million in 2020.

โšพ๏ธ Good read: MLB's stars have already lost a chunk of their careers, and the lockout could make it much worse (Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight)

"If MLB's current crisis ever gets to the point of costing its biggest names the equivalent of 1.2 additional Really Good Seasons, something would have gone horribly wrong. But then again, it already has."

5. ๐Ÿ€ Men's poll: Zags still team to beat

Data:ย AP; Table: Axios Visuals
Data:ย AP; Table: Axios Visuals

Gonzaga's regular season ended the same way it began: as the No. 1 team in the country, Jeff writes.

  • Coaching tree: No. 2 Arizona's first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd spent the previous 20 years under Mark Few at Gonzaga. Must be something in the water up in Spokane.
  • In and out: No. 25 UNC is ranked after beating then-No. 4 Duke. No. 23 Colorado State also joined, while Alabama and Ohio State fell out.

Player of the year: Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe, one of the best rebounders ever, is the favorite among the 15 Wooden Award finalists.

  • Big Ten (5): Kofi Cockburn, C (Illinois, Jr.); Johnny Davis, G (Wisconsin, So.); Jaden Ivey, G (Purdue, So.); E.J. Liddell, F (Ohio State, Jr.); Keegan Murray, F (Iowa, So.)
  • SEC (3): Tshiebwe, F (Kentucky, Jr.); Walker Kessler, F (Auburn, So.); Jabari Smith, F (Auburn, Fr.)
  • Pac-12 (2): Johnny Juzang, G (UCLA, Jr.); Bennedict Mathurin, G (Arizona, So.)
  • West Coast (2): Chet Holmgren, C (Gonzaga, Fr.); Drew Timme, F (Gonzaga, Jr.)
  • ACC (1): Paolo Banchero, F (Duke, Fr.)
  • Big 12 (1): Ochai Agbaji, G (Kansas, Sr.)
  • Big East (1): Collin Gillespie, G (Villanova, Sr.)

State of play: It's conference tournament season. 32 champions will earn automatic bids, and five already have: Longwood (Big South); Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley); Murray State (Ohio Valley); Chattanooga (SoCon); Georgia State (Sun Belt).

๐Ÿšจ ICYMI ... Chattanooga's buzzer-beater to beat Furman.

Go deeper: Bracketology (ESPN)

6. ๐Ÿ€ Women's poll: UCF joins the party

Data:ย AP; Table: Axios Visuals
Data:ย AP; Table: Axios Visuals

South Carolina may have lost the SEC title game, but the Gamecocks remain No. 1 in the rankings โ€” the same place they've been every week this season, Jeff writes.

  • Poll debut: No. 25 UCF is ranked for the first time in school history thanks to a 10-game winning streak.
  • Comeback kids: Remember when injury-plagued UConn fell out of the top 10 for the first time since 2005? Now they're Big East champs, in the No. 1 seed conversation and Paige Bueckers is back. Watch out.

Player of the year: Iowa's Caitlin Clark (27.4 ppg) and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston (25 double-doubles) are favored among the 15 Wooden Award finalists.

  • SEC (5): Boston, F (South Carolina, Jr.); Destanni Henderson, G (South Carolina, Sr.); Shakira Austin, F (Ole Miss, Sr.); Rhyne Howard, G (Kentucky, Sr.); Khayla Pointer, G (LSU, Sr.)
  • Big Ten (3): Clark, G (Iowa, So.); Naz Hillmon, F (Michigan, Sr.); Angel Reese, F (Maryland, So.)
  • Big 12 (3): Ashley Joens, G (Iowa State, Sr.); Ayoka Lee, C (Kansas State, Jr.); NaLyssa Smith, F (Baylor, Sr.)
  • Pac-12 (2): Cameron Brink, F (Stanford, So.); Haley Jones, G (Stanford, Jr.)
  • ACC (1): Elissa Cunane, C (NC State, Sr.)
  • Big East (1): Aneesah Morrow, F (DePaul, Fr.)

State of play: 10 teams have clinched automatic bids so far: Belmont (Ohio Valley); Mercer (SoCon); NC State (ACC); UMass (A-10); Kentucky (SEC); Iowa (Big Ten); Stanford (Pac-12); Longwood (Big South); UT Arlington (Sun Belt); UConn (Big East).

๐Ÿšจ ICYMI ... Navy's buzzer-beater to beat Holy Cross in the Patriot League quarterfinals.

Go deeper: Bracketology (ESPN)

7. ๐ŸŒŽ The world in photos

Today's photo section speaks for itself. No captions, just stunning visuals. Let them flow through you...

Ja Morant
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Peace sign on soccer field
Photo: Boris Streubel/Bundesliga via Getty Images
Bike crash
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Hockey celebration
Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

8. ๐Ÿ“บ Watchlist: Hoop heaven

Illustration of a basketball hoop full of basketballs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

15 teams have punched their tickets to the dance, and nine more will join them today by winning their conference title games.

More to watch:

9. ๐Ÿ€ College hoops trivia

Tom Izzo

Photo: Lance King/Getty Images

Tom Izzo became the Big Ten's all-time winningest coach on Sunday, recording his 663rd career victory.

  • Question: Who did he pass?
  • Hint: Retired in 2008.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ๐Ÿ’ต 1 math thing: Billion vs. million

Illustration of money multiplying and getting larger

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Billionaires have been all over the news lately (Roman Abramovich, MLB owners, etc), but the extent of their wealth often gets lost when mentioned in the same breath as millionaire athletes.

By the numbers: It can be difficult to conceptualize how much bigger 1 billion is than 1 million. Some perspective: 1 million seconds is 12 days; 1 billion seconds is 32 years.

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Thousandaire" Baker

Trivia answer: Bob Knight

๐Ÿ™ Thanks for reading.ย Follow us at @kendallbaker and @jeffreytracy, and tell friends to sign up for Axios Sports here.