Mar 30, 2020

Axios Sports

πŸ‘‹ Good morning! Japanese organizers and the IOC decided this morning that the Tokyo Olympics will now open on July 23, 2021, and run through Aug. 8.

Today's word count: 1,778 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: πŸŽ₯ Basketball while quarantined

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios

Sports are on pause and there's no timetable for their return. In the interim, leagues, teams and athletes are getting creative with ways to keep fans engaged.

  • The latest: A "quarantined reality show basketball tournament," courtesy of the BIG3, the upstart 3-on-3 basketball league founded by Ice Cube and his longtime business partner Jeff Kwatinetz.

Driving the news: The BIG3 has joined forces with Endemol β€” producers of popular reality shows like "Big Brother" and "Biggest Loser" β€” to create a hybrid reality show and preseason tournament, starring 16 quarantined players.

  • The show is tentatively titled "Big Brother: BIG3" and is expected to debut the first week of May. If things go well, it could become an annual event for the league, which still plans to open its fourth season on June 20 in Memphis.

How it will work: After receiving a negative test result, 16 players and a set number of referees will be quarantined in a Los Angeles-area home where they will live together and compete in a three-week tournament.

  • The daily lives of the players and officials will be captured on camera and used to create drama and build narratives around the on-court action.
  • But the BIG3 "won't do anything that takes away from the credibility of the games themselves," Kwatinetz tells me. "It will be real competition. You will see it live."

The big picture: While leagues all around the world wait until it's safe to return to sports, the BIG3 is creating the safe conditions themselves. Whether that's admirable, smart, opportunistic or irresponsible β€” or some combination of the four β€” is a question worth asking. So I did. Here's Kwatinetz's answer:

"Ice Cube and I, we entertain. That's what we do. It's certainly not as important as what doctors or others do, but that's our contribution to society. So, if we can keep people healthy and safe and also give them things that make them happy β€” like sports and entertainment β€” we're going to do it."
β€” Jeff Kwatinetz, BIG3 co-founder

What to watch ... As the NBA weighs how to resume play in a safe and timely manner, it's considering its own version of quarantine basketball.

  • One of the ideas that has been floated is to use a "sprawling casino property in Las Vegas, where everything could be held under one roof," per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
  • "Others have suggested playing in the Bahamas, where a ballroom could be converted into a playing court specifically for broadcast. There has even been talk of taking over a college campus in the Midwest, where reported cases of COVID-19 are lower for the moment."
2. ⚽️ Liverpool's title could be in jeopardy
Data: Premier League; Note: Manchester City facing two-year Champions League ban; Table: Axios Visuals

When the Premier League season was suspended, Liverpool had a 25-point lead atop the standings and was two wins away from securing the league title, which would have been the club's first in 30 years.

Driving the news: Multiple Premier League clubs want to end the current campaign immediately and replay it in full once it's deemed safe, which would deny Liverpool the league trophy it so clearly deserves, The Athletic's David Ornstein reports (subscription).

  • Worth noting: Ornstein cites anonymous sources, so this report should be taken with a grain of salt considering the self-interest involved (there's a reason why Liverpool and Leicester City officials and fans want to play out the season while those from Arsenal and Everton don't).

The state of play: A voided season would present the Premier League β€” and all soccer leagues that participate in international competitions and use promotion/relegation systems β€” with some unique challenges.

  • Champions League: If the season is voided, and therefore never actually happened, who would get the four Champions League spots? The top four from the 2018-19 season?
  • Promotion/Relegation: Norwich City was headed for relegation to the EFL Championship (one tier below), while Leeds United was headed for promotion to the Premier League. If the season is voided, both clubs would presumably stay put, fundamentally altering their futures (the financial gap between the two leagues is massive).
3. πŸ€ The shady world of African hoops recruiting

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Joel Embiid. Pascal Siakam. Serge Ibaka. Those are three of the 15 active NBA players from Africa, and they represent an ever-strengthening link between African talent and American hoops.

  • Yes, but: According to a year-long "60 Minutes" investigation, countless other African players who have come to the U.S. as teenagers to chase their hoop dreams have been lost in a tangled web of deception, writes Axios' Jeff Tracy.

What they're saying: The Africa-to-U.S. basketball trail "is littered with corrupt fly-by-night high schools and shadowy middlemen and academies that mislead families, run roughshod over immigration rules and sometimes commit federal crimes," per SI, which published an accompanying report.

How it works: For African teens to come to the U.S. legally, they must secure an I-20 visa, which allows them to study at a specific high school. But only certain institutions β€” like the since-shutdown Evelyn Mack Academy in Charlotte β€” are authorized to distribute these visas, making them hubs of illicit recruitment.

  • There have been 75 cases in which a middleman paid Evelyn Mack $1,000 per visa to get a certain player into the country.
  • Once the teenager lands, they're whisked away to another school in another state (whichever school the middleman works with/for) and then they're on their own. It's awful.

Horror stories:

  • Blessing Ejiofor of Nigeria arrived in 2014 at the age of 15, "so excited" to attend such a beautiful school, which Evelyn Mack purported to be on its fake website. But when she got off the plane, a coach met her and took her to East Side High School in Paterson, New Jersey. Somehow, Blessing landed on her feet and is now a junior starter at West Virginia.
  • Christian Mulumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived in 2016, headed for the West Virginia Prep Academy. Turns out, it was fake. He and others in his position "had little food and were forced to sleep on the floor of a tiny, unfurnished apartment." Christian ultimately left with nothing but a terrible experience.
  • One middleman in the Midwest became the legal guardian of the two players he recruited. Once they arrived in the U.S., he made them sign contracts entitling himself to 40% of their future earnings.

Looking ahead: The "60 Minutes" investigation, which helped lead to the closure of Evelyn Mack and the conviction of its owner, was undoubtedly a boon to kids like Christian and Blessing, and the NBA's soon-to-launch Basketball Africa League will hopefully bring more transparency and integrity to this pipeline.

  • There's more work to be done, but what began so innocently in the 1980s with Hakeem Olajuwon and reached its nadir in the 2010's with a vast network of nefarious middlemen, seems to finally be turning a corner.
4. πŸ”™ Time machine: The sports outage of 1994


Yesterday was the 18th straight day without MLB/NBA/NFL/NHL games, the longest stretch since Aug. 12–Sept. 3, 1994, during the MLB strike.

πŸ”™ Time machine: This is what the world looked like in August 1994, the last time American sports fans went this long without sports...

  • πŸ€ Sports backdrop: Brazil had just won the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted in the U.S. The Cowboys (NFL), Rockets (NBA) Rangers (NHL), Arkansas (NCAAM) and UNC (NCAAW) won titles earlier that year.
  • 🍿 In theaters: "Forrest Gump," "Natural Born Killers," "Clear and Present Danger," "Lassie," "The Little Rascals."
  • 🎡 On the radio: "Stay (I Missed You)" by Lisa Loeb, "I'll Make Love to You" by Boyz II Men, "I Swear" by All-4-One, "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" by Elton John, "Fantastic Voyage" by Coolio.
  • πŸ—ž In the news: O.J. Simpson, who had been arrested two months earlier after fleeing from police in his white Ford Bronco, dominated headlines.
5. πŸ“Έ Photos of the weekend
Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

FORT WORTH, Texas (virtually) β€” Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sang the National Anthem remotely, Troy Aikman told drivers to start their virtual engines and Timmy Hill took the checkered flag at NASCAR's second virtual race on Fox. With the sports world leaning into simulations, the ultra-realism of racing sims appears to be giving motorsports an advantage.

"Tom Brady doesn't play 'Madden' to get ready for a game. But Denny Hamlin, if his team doesn't have practice time and he needs to get ready for a race, he'll use iRacing. That realism is appealing to sports fans who are thirsty for content. If you told me a week ago that these races would draw 900,000 viewers, I would have laughed at you. There's something here."
β€” Scott Warfield, NASCAR managing director of gaming
Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

HALLANDALE, Fla. β€” Gulfstream Park ignored a Broward County executive order closing nonessential businesses and kept races going through the weekend, arguing that horses must remain active to stay healthy.

  • On Saturday, the biggest racing day of the year in the state, the Florida Derby happened with no fans and limited staff, all of whom were required to wear face masks and gloves.
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

ACROSS THE U.S. β€” To avoid golfers having to reach their hands into holes to retrieve their balls, some golf courses are raising the cups out of the ground and telling golfers to putt until they hit the elevated cup.

6. πŸ“Š By the numbers
Photo: Brian Ach/WireImage via Getty Images
  • πŸ€ 1,700 courts: The hoops at Harlem's legendary Rucker Park and at 79 other basketball courts around New York City have been removed as a coronavirus precaution. If people continue to play basketball despite the warnings, all 1,700 courts in the five boroughs could be closed down.
  • πŸ‡―πŸ‡΅ $6 billion: A one-year postponement of the Olympics could cost Japan as much as $6 billion, according to one expert, with the bulk being from actual costs (venue maintenance, hiring new workers) and the remainder coming from the broader blow to the economy.
  • πŸ’ 4 players: A second Avalanche player has tested positive for COVID-19, which means the NHL now has four confirmed cases.
7. March 30, 2001: πŸŠβ€β™‚οΈ Phelps sets first WR
Photo: Greg Wood/AFP via Getty Images

19 years ago today, a young Michael Phelps set the first of his 39 world records with a 1:54.92 in the 200m butterfly at the 2001 World Championships qualifiers in Austin, Texas.

  • At just 15 years, 9 months, Phelps became the youngest male swimmer in history to set a WR. No one younger has done it since.

Fast forward: Just last year, Hungary's KristΓ³f MilΓ‘k set a new WR in the 200m fly with a 1:50.73 at the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

Rewind: Between Phelps' 1:54.92 in 2001 and Hungary's KristΓ³f MilΓ‘k's 1:50.73 last year, the 200m fly WR was re-set seven times β€” all by Phelps.

Screenshot: Wikipedia

πŸŽ₯ Watch: Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak and the greatest relay in Olympic history (YouTube)

8. The Ocho: πŸ‚ Double backflip

Source: GoPro

3 ... 2 ... 1 ... send it.

9. ⚾️ MLB trivia
  • Question: Who had the most stolen bases from 2010 to 2019?
  • Hint: He played his first seven seasons in the NL before moving to the AL in 2018.

Answer at the bottom.

10. πŸŽ“ Click to vote: The coronavirus redshirt

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios

The NCAA will vote today on how to handle eligibility relief for Division I student-athletes who participated in abbreviated spring sports seasons.

Click to vote: What do you think they'll decide?

Coming tomorrow: We'll dive into the NCAA's decision and what it means.

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "OMG that photo of Phelps" Baker

Trivia answer: Dee Gordon (330)