Oct 1, 2020

Axios Sports

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

  • 🚨 Coming soon: Axios is expanding into local news to get you smarter faster about where you live. Read more about what's next here.
  • 😷 NFL postponement: Sunday's Titans-Steelers game has been pushed to either Monday or Tuesday as the Titans continue monitoring their COVID-19 outbreak.

Today's word count: 2,186 words (8 minutes).

1 big thing: 💵 Barstool jumps into sports betting

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Barstool Sports was founded in 2003 as a free gambling newspaper. It later became a sports blog before growing into a media empire, and now things have come full circle with the recent launch of its own branded sportsbook.

Driving the news: The Barstool Sportsbook app saw a record 21,000 downloads per day during its first weekend (Sept. 18–20), breaking DraftKings' and Fanduel's daily records despite Pennsylvania being the only state where it was operational.

  • While other sports betting companies rely on advertising and sponsored content to spread the word, Barstool tapped into its own passionate and loyal audience to get its sportsbook trending all weekend on Twitter.
  • It's that one major difference — brute force marketing vs. audience engagement — that sets Barstool apart. After all, this is a media company foraying into sports betting, not a sports betting operator trying to do media.

The landscape: When betting operator Penn National bought a 36% stake in Barstool for $163 million back in January, it was making a bet that Barstool's brand and following would help them cut through in a crowded marketplace.

  • DFS giants: DraftKings and FanDuel already know how to efficiently acquire users who want to risk money on sports because they've been doing it for nearly a decade with Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS). They've spent hundreds of millions of dollars on DFS advertising, so they have significant head starts.
  • Casinos: Brands like MGM and Caesars — which acquired U.K. bookmaker William Hill for $3.7 billion on Wednesday — have huge player databases and industry expertise.
  • Media giants: Fox Sports and The Stars Group launched Fox Bet last September. They're able to promote their betting platform during live football games and integrate into shows like "Fox Bet Live," which is a huge advantage.
  • Offshore books: Costa Rica-based sportsbook 5Dimes just reached a $46 million settlement with the U.S. government and can now pursue opportunities in the legal U.S. market. Look for more offshore books to follow suit as they try to "go legit.”

The big picture: Barstool is controversial, has its fair share of critics and is perhaps more known for podcasts, pizza reviews and viral stunts than it ever will be for its sports betting platform.

  • It's also entering a highly-regulated space that will likely not tolerate its brash approach, which could create problems for Penn National or, perhaps of greater concern to Barstool's loyal following, force the company to tone it down.

Yes, but: Barstool has 16.4 million followers across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — and knows how to get them to read, watch and listen to things and even spend money. If the mission is to create content and drive betting activity, they have the tools to do it.

  • Just as DraftKings and FanDuel have spent years mastering the science of acquiring customers, Barstool has mastered the science of engaging an audience.
  • If sports betting is ultimately entertainment, that's their advantage.
Bonus: 🎙 Interview with Erika Nardini
Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy and CEO Erika Nardini. Courtesy: Barstool Sports

I spoke with Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini about the company's expansion into sports betting. Some highlights from our conversation:

  • On the sportsbook launch: "We brought the launch to life in a way that's just really different from everyone else. Like, we don't have television. We're not running during the live game. We sent 25 people and our two biggest personalities to Pennsylvania, watched games all weekend and brought that experience to life on social."
  • On the "Philly House": "Essentially what we've done is created a content house where we're watching games, making videos, doing podcasts and recording live shows. We're bringing all of our biggest personalities down there every week for Saturday college football, Sunday NFL, baseball, basketball, you name it."
  • On sports betting content: "If you think about a traditional media company, they have studios, talent goes to those studios and they produce shows in those studios. Our studio is us watching a game. Our show is a room full of people — some took the over, some took the under. It's authentic, relatable and not that dissimilar to what's happening in living rooms around the country."
  • On Barstool's target audience: "If you're looking to be entertained, Barstool does that better than anybody. You can watch a show like 'Barstool Sports Advisers' and not even bet and think it's hilarious. If you're looking for betting models, stats and 'insider tips,' like, we're not for you."
2. 🏆 NBA Finals: Lakers cruise to Game 1 win
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The NBA Finals couldn't have started much worse for the Heat, who got blown out 116-98 in Game 1 and lost Goran Dragić (torn plantar fascia) and Bam Adebayo (shoulder strain) to potentially series-altering injuries.

  • Lakers: LeBron James recorded 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists, Anthony Davis added a game-high 34 points and L.A. cruised to victory after stretching their lead to as many as 32 points in the third quarter.
  • Heat: Miami got out to an early 13-point lead, but Dragić left in the second quarter and could miss the rest of the Finals, Adebayo left in the third and Jimmy Butler (23 points) fought through a twisted ankle.

Notes:

  • James' teams had lost the series opener in eight of his previous nine trips to the Finals, so this was a rare easy Game 1 for The King.
  • The Lakers dominated the glass (62-40 rebound advantage) and got to the free throw line twice as often as Heat, making 25 of 27 attempts (92.6%).
  • Since the 1977 NBA-ABA merger, only Allen Iverson (48 points), Kevin Durant (36) and Michael Jordan (36) have scored more points than Davis in their first Finals game.

What they're saying:

  • Markieff Morris, Lakers: "It's easy for AD. Like I've been saying since I got on this team, honestly, if you ask me ... we got LeBron, but I think he's the best player in the world."
  • Erik Spoelstra, Heat: "We're better than we showed tonight. We have 48 hours to figure out what the next plan of attack will be."
  • Dan Devine, The Ringer: "Miami couldn't do anything to stop AD. ... While small ball got the Heat to the Finals, it also might be what does them in against the monstrous Lakers."
3. ⚾️ MLB Madness: Eight games, one day

All these months later, we're still recovering from the loss of March Madness, but baseball's wild, eight-game day — with nonstop action from noon to well past midnight — did its best to simulate the experience...

Freddie Freeman celebrates with teammates. Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Braves 1, Reds 0 (ATL leads 1-0): Freddie Freeman played the hero with a walk-off single in the 13th, but the story of the game was the unprecedented offensive futility that preceded his heroics, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

  • By the numbers: This was the first game in postseason history to remain scoreless through 11 innings, and it featured a playoff-record 37 strikeouts. Reds starter Trevor Bauer also set a postseason franchise record with 12 K's.

Elsewhere:

  • Marlins 5, Cubs 1 (MIA leads 1-0): The Fish pulled off the upset, but star CF Starling Marte may have been lost in the process, as he's day-to-day with a broken finger (hit by pitch).
  • Cardinals 7, Padres 4 (STL leads 1-0): The Cards jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, stopping a few late Padres rallies to move within a win of the NLDS.
  • Dodgers 4, Brewers 2 (LAD leads 1-0): Mookie Betts doubled twice in the first two innings and the Dodgers held onto an early lead to dispatch the Crew in Game 1.
Miguel Sano realizing his season's over. Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Astros 3, Twins 1 (HOU wins 2-0): The saddest streak in sports continues, as Minnesota has extended its MLB record with 18 consecutive playoff losses.

  • What they're saying: "I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don't want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?" said Astros SS Carlos Correa, who hit a go-ahead homer in the 7th. C'mon, man.

Elsewhere:

  • A's 5, White Sox 3 (series tied 1-1): Things got dicey at the end (White Sox loaded the bases), but Oakland won its first postseason game since 2013.
  • Rays 8, Blue Jays 2 (TB wins 2-0): Tyler Glasnow held down the Jays bats (6 IP, 8 K) and Hunter Renfroe hit the first postseason grand slam in Rays history en route to an easy sweep.
  • Yankees 10, Indians 9 (NYY wins 2-0): This slugfest was the polar opposite of the Braves game, with 19 runs on 18 hits while tying the postseason record for walks in a nine-inning game (19).

Today's slate:

  • 12pm ET: Reds at Braves (ESPN)
  • 2pm: Marlins at Cubs (ABC)
  • 3pm: White Sox at A's (ESPN)
  • 7pm: Cardinals at Padres (ESPN)
  • 10pm: Brewers at Dodgers (ESPN)
4. 🏈 NFL Power Rankings: Week 4
Table: Axios Visuals

Through three weeks, exactly half the NFL's teams have at least two wins, while six remain winless. The most unlucky team so far? That would be the 0-3 Texans, whose opponents (Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers) are 8-1.

Coming up:

  • Tonight: Broncos (-1) at Jets
  • Sunday's best games: Colts (-2.5) at Bears; Chargers at Buccaneers (-7); Patriots at Chiefs (-7); Bills (-3) at Raiders
  • Sunday night: Eagles at 49ers (-7)
  • Monday: Falcons at Packers (-7.5)

Go deeper:

5. ⚽️ Liverpool's secret weapon

Trent Alexander-Arnold takes a throw in. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

While it was contributions from stars like Mo Salah and Sadio Mané that powered Liverpool to a Premier League title last season, there's another man behind the scenes whose importance should not be discounted, Jeff writes.

  • That man is Thomas Grønnemark, who has spent the past two seasons as Liverpool's throw-in coach.
  • As of 2018, he was, to the best of his knowledge, the only thrown-in specialist working in professional soccer.

How it works: Premier League teams average ~50 throw-ins per game, but most lose the ball at least half the time when targeting a marked man. That's where Grønnemark comes in. "My philosophy is called the long, the fast [and] the clever throw-ins."

  • Long: Just like it sounds, he works on players' mechanics to increase distance. Star defender Andy Robertson improved from 62 to 88 feet, representing 6,100 square feet of additional reach.
  • Fast: It's not always about throwing the ball in quickly, but recognizing the situations when it's advantageous to do so. "Sometimes it's really stupid to throw fast if you're throwing the ball into pressure," he says.
  • Clever: Similar to set plays in other parts of the game, he preaches off-ball movement to create space and opportunity.

By the numbers: Grønnemark's tactics are working.

  • In his first season with Liverpool (2018-19), the Reds improved their retention rate on marked throw-ins from 45.4% (18th in the league) to 68.4% (1st).
  • During last season's title run, 14 of Liverpool's 85 league goals (16.5%) came from throw-in situations.

The bottom line: Some call potential throw-in improvements merely "marginal gains," which is probably why most teams don't even practice them, much less employ a specialist. To that, Grønnemark replies:

"If you're looking at the time spent on throw-ins or related situations, that's 15 to 20 minutes of a game. If you're calling that marginal — I would say you have misunderstood marginal."

ICYMI ... Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-1 on Monday to improve to 3-0. It's still early, but the Reds look like title favorites once again.

6. 📊 By the numbers
An empty Globe Life Field. Photo: Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images
  • ⚾️ 11,500 fans: MLB will sell up to 11,150 tickets to each game of the NLCS and World Series at Arlington's Globe Life Field later this month. 10,550 fans will be spread throughout the stands, while 950 will occupy suites.
  • 🏁 51 years: NASCAR announced major changes to the 2021 season, including four additional road courses and the Cup Series' first dirt race since 1970.
  • 💰 $55 million: Four former Harvard athletes have raised $55 million for their new institutionally-backed venture fund, Will Ventures, which bills itself as the first VC fund to focus exclusively on leveraging the power of sports, Sportico reports.
  • 🏇 +180: Kentucky Derby winner Authentic has opened as the favorite for the Preakness Stakes, set to run this Saturday at 5:36pm ET. Art Collector (+250) is the only other horse with odds better than 6-1.
Pimlico Race Track, home of The Preakness Stakes. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
7. 🏆 2020 Sports Business Awards

Giphy

Sports Business Journal handed out its annual Sports Business Awards on Wednesday night — virtually, of course.

Notable winners:

  • Best in social media: LSU
  • Best in digital media: Bleacher Report
  • Best in media: CBS Sports
  • Best event: 2019 NFL Draft
  • Executive of the year: Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN
  • AD of the year: Scott Stricklin, Florida
  • Facility of the year: Chase Center (Warriors)
  • Team of the year: St. Louis Blues
  • League of the year: MLS
  • Breakthrough of the year: Premier Lacrosse League
8. Oct. 1, 1903: ⚾️ The first World Series

Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Americans 1903 rosters. Photos: Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

117 years ago today, the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Boston Americans, 7-3, in the first World Series game ever played.

  • Notable players: Boston's Cy Young was the losing pitcher; Pittsburgh's starting shortstop, Honus Wagner, went 1-3 with an RBI and two walks.
  • Boston ultimately won the best-of-nine series, 5-3, with Young winning Games 5 and 7. In 1908, they changed their name to the Red Sox.

The backdrop: Prior to 1884, the team with the best record in the NL (or its precursor) was awarded the championship.

  • From 1884 to 1900, various attempts were made at playoff series between either the NL and short-lived American Association (1884-90), or between the top-two NL finishers.
  • But in 1901, the American League was formed, and after two years of posturing for business supremacy, they began cooperating with the NL.
Fans crowd around the field during the 1903 World Series. Photo: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

The World Series: Boston and Pittsburgh's inaugural matchup was one of many interleague series, but since the Pirates and Americans both won the pennant, it became the de facto World Series.

  • Fun fact: It was played at the Huntington Avenue Ball Field in Boston where Northeastern University now stands.

The big picture: There was no series in 1904, as more bitterness erupted between the leagues. But by 1905, the Fall Classic was here to stay. Since then, it's been played every year but 1994, when the strike wiped it out.

9. 🏒 NHL trivia

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Henrik Lundqvist's 15-year Rangers career has come to an end, with the team buying out the final year of his contract. He's now a free agent.

  • Question: Lundqvist's 459 career wins rank sixth all-time. Who are the five players ahead of him?
  • Hint: All goaltenders. One is still active.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
Screenshot: @TheBigE_21 (Twitter)

This grandfather's note on a bucket of baseballs is the absolute best.

Hope someone can use some of these baseballs in the batting cages. I found them cleaning out my garage. I pitched them to my son and grandson for countless rounds.
My son is now 46 and my grandson is 23. I am 72 and what I wouldn't give to pitch a couple of buckets to them. They have both moved away.
If you are a father, cherish these times. You won't believe how quickly they will be gone. God bless.
P.S. Give them a hug and tell them you love them every chance you get!

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Hey dad, wanna have a catch?" Baker

Trivia answer: Martin Brodeur (691 wins), Patrick Roy (551), Roberto Luongo (489), Ed Belfour (484), Marc-Andre Fleury (466)