A large foam finger.
Nov 15, 2021

Axios Sports

πŸ‘‹ Good morning! Pickleball, so hot right now.

Today's word count: 2,079 words (8 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: πŸ’₯ The pickleball explosion

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Pickleball β€” a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong β€” surged in popularity over the past two years. But the sport's rapid rise is much more than a pandemic-fueled fad.

State of play: Pickleball participation grew by 21.3% between 2019 and 2020, prompting the Economist to declare it "the fastest growing sport in America." 4.2 million Americans now play at least once a year.

  • Demand for courts is exploding, with cities building new facilities and private clubs replacing tennis courts.
  • Professionalization has expanded, with newly-launched Major League Pickleball joining the APP and PPA tours. Country clubs are also hiring their own pros to teach members.
  • Commercialization is happening fast, with equipment/apparel brands like Recess and publications like In Pickleball banking on the sport's continued rise.
  • A youth movement is underway, as more schools add pickleball to physical education classes. Most "core" players (play 8+ times per year) are still 65+, but most "casual" players are now in the 8–34 age range.

What they're saying: "Pickleball is the only sport where my whole family β€” from my kids to my parents β€” can play together and have an absolute blast," says Dave Fleming, 54, a senior pickleball pro.

  • "At the same time, people are starting to recognize that it can be played at a crazy high level, in huge venues, in front of tons of fans."
  • "Celebrities are playing. Athletes from other sports are playing. It was just on the 'Today' show. It's an incredibly exciting time."
Courtesy: USA Pickleball

How to play:Β Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island (near Seattle) by three dads, including future Rep. Joel Pritchard.

  • Games are generally played to 11 (win by two) on a surface roughly a third the size of a tennis court (20 feet x 44 feet) with whiffle balls and paddles. You can play doubles or singles.
  • PointsΒ are only scored by the service team. VolleyingΒ is allowed as long as it's not on the service return or the return of that return β€” and as long as it's not in "the kitchen," a seven-foot-deep area on each side of the net.
Playing pickleball on the street in Charlotte, N.C., during the pandemic. Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Between the lines: While tennis remains a country club tradition, pickleball's low-profile and relative ease makes it more accessible β€” a sport that almost anyone can pickup fairly quickly.

  • "If you've ever swung any sort of a racquet before, you can become competent in an hour," Stu Upson, CEO of USA Pickleball, tells Axios.
  • That's part of why it gained traction during lockdown, when families β€” desperate for outdoor activities β€” put up courts on their driveways and streets.

Of note: Pickleball hasn't fully shaken the elitist image often associated with racquet sports. It's become popular in the Hamptons and is, naturally, all the rage in Hollywood.

"Leonardo DiCaprio plays every day ... George Clooney says his wife, Amal, routinely torches him on their home court in L.A. ... 'Survivor' winner Tyson Apostol has parlayed his reality-TV fame into a career as a pickleball influencer ... This year's Sun Valley Conference, also known as the 'summer camp for billionaires,' featured pickleball."
β€” Craig Coyne, Vanity Fair
A Major League Pickleball match in Austin, Texas, this month. Photo: Ryan Dawidjan

What's next: The world's best pickleball player, Ben Johns, makes roughly $250,000 a year, but most pros can't sustain a living (next month's USA National Championships has a total purse of $90,000).

  • That could change if participation growth keeps up. After all, more players means more fans means more media means more sponsors means more prize money.
  • Bold prediction: "In a few years, I think you'll see tennis players on the cusp of the pro tour opting to pursue pickleball as a viable career," says Fleming.

πŸŽ₯ Watch: How to play pickleball (YouTube)

2. 🎾 Chinese star "missing" after assault claim

Photo: Fred Lee/Getty Images

The Women's Tennis Association has called for an investigation into the case of Peng Shuai, who disappeared after accusing a retired Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official of sexual assault.

State of play: Peng, a former top-2o player, has not been seen in public or heard from since making the allegations in a since-deleted post on Weibo (China's version of Twitter) two weeks ago.

  • In her Weibo message, Peng claimed to have had a 10-year intermittent relationship with China's former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who is married. She says he "coerced" her to have sex.
  • "That afternoon, I was very afraid," wrote Peng, one of China's most recognizable tennis players. "I didn't agree to have sex with you and kept crying that afternoon."
  • Peng's whereabouts are unknown, her Weibo account is blocked, and "wangqiu" (Chinese for tennis) has been censored on the platform.

The big picture: Peng's allegations are considered the most serious "Me Too" issue in China to date β€” and the first to involve a high-ranking CCP official, notes Yahoo Sports.

What they're saying: WTA CEO Steve Simon issued a statement calling for a "full, fair and transparent investigation" and an "end of censorship."

  • Simon's comments could endanger the WTA's relationship with China, where it has 11 events and a long-term deal to hold its tour finals in Shenzhen, per NYT.
  • "I think everybody fully understands what's at stake here on many different fronts," Simon said. "[We're] fully united that the only acceptable approach is that of doing what is right."
3. 🏈 NFL Sunday: Superman returns

Source: Giphy

The highly-anticipated Packers-Seahawks matchup fizzled into one of many duds on Sunday, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Around the league:

  • Superman returns: Cam Newton didn't start in his Panthers return, but his first two touches were scores. He's baaaack!
  • Diggs bros ball out: Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs made his league-leading eighth INT and Bills WR Stefon Diggs went off against the Jets (eight catches, 162 yards, TD).
  • The gunslinger: Patrick Mahomes threw for 400+ yards and 5 TD for the third time in his career, tying Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Dan Marino for the most such games in history.
  • Titans on a roll: The 8-2 Titans beat the Saints, 23-21, to win their sixth straight game and improve to 7-0 against 2020 playoff teams: Seahawks, Bills, Chiefs, Colts (2x), Rams and Saints.
  • Still winless: Even when the Lions don't lose, they still can't win. After nearly emerging victorious in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1955, Detroit had to settle for a tie.
  • Jakobi finds the end zone: Entering Sunday, Patriots WR Jakobi Meyers had the most catches (134) and receiving yards (1,560) ever without a TD catch. In the fourth quarter, he finally scored.

πŸ“† Tonight: Rams (-3.5) at 49ers

Go deeper: Winners and losers (The Ringer)

4. ⚑️ Lightning round

Screenshot: @brfootball (Twitter)

⚽️ NWSL semis: The Washington Spirit upset OL Reign, 2-1, and the Chicago Red Stars upset the Portland Thorns, 2-0, to advance to the NWSL final on Saturday in Louisville.

πŸ’ Ovechkin passes Hull: Alex Ovechkin scored his 742nd career goal on Friday, passing Brett Hull for fourth place on the all-time list.

πŸ€ Down goes Stanford: Texas women's basketball upset defending champion Stanford, 61-56, on Sunday, snapping their 21-game win streak and ending a rough weekend for Longhorn Nation on a high note.

πŸ₯‡ Gold, nine years later: American high jumper Erik Kynard will finally get his gold medal from the 2012 Olympics after the IOC approved reallocating results involving Russian doping cases.

🏈 Good read: "We all thought that he would be the one" (Michael Lee, WashPost)

"In 1968, Eldridge Dickey became the first Black quarterback picked in the first round of the draft. What happened next derailed his life."
5. πŸŽ“ Sweeping changes coming to NCAA

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios

The NCAA's summer of change is bleeding into what should be an equally impactful winter, Jeff writes.

  • Driving the news: The NCAA and leaders across each division will meet today to discuss the association's newly-drafted constitution, with the goal of gathering feedback ahead of a final vote in January.
  • The backdrop: The college sports landscape is evolving, with NIL changes, conference realignment, and CFP expansion talk. A new constitution will help determine the NCAA's role in this new world.

What they're saying: "This is not about tweaking the model we have now," said NCAA president Mark Emmert. "This is about wholesale transformation."

Data: NCAA; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: Once details are ironed out, the NCAA is expected to cede much of its control to Divisions I, II and III β€” allowing them to govern themselves in ways that make sense for their constituents.

  • Rather than pretend Alabama ($189.3 million in 2020 revenue) and D-III Finlandia (400 students) exist in the same universe, the new constitution would let divisions create their own bylaws.
  • The proposal also gives student-athletes more power. NIL would be written into the constitution, and athletes would sit on the NCAA's new Board of Governors and each division's Board of Directors.

The bottom line: The NCAA has held the reins β€” rather tightly β€” for a long time. Its grip is loosening considerably.

6. 🏁 Hamilton closes the gap in Brazil

Photo: Peter Fox/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton claimed a huge victory Sunday in SΓ£o Paulo, Brazil, keeping his title hopes alive, Jeff writes.

Recap: Hamilton overcame multiple setbacks to win. He was DQ'd from Friday's qualifier, preventing him from earning points in Saturday's sprint, and started Sunday's race in 10th due to a separate infraction.

"It was one of the most fun races I've had in a long time. ... Success always feels sweeter when you face adversity."
β€” Hamilton
Expand chart
Table: Axios Visuals

Looking ahead: Hamilton (Mercedes) gained seven points on Max Verstappen (Red Bull), who finished second. The two rivals are now separated by just 14 points with three races left.

  • Nov. 21: Qatar Grand Prix
  • Dec. 5: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
  • Dec. 12: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The big picture: Hamilton has won four consecutive championships, one shy of Michael Schumacher's record of five straight (2000-04).

πŸŽ₯ Watch: Hamilton's winning pass (Twitter)

7. 🌎 The world in photos
Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

CINCINNATI β€” The USMNT beat Mexico, 2-0, in impressive fashion Friday night β€” the Americans' third straight victory in a storied rivalry that could look a lot different in the future.

Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

WACO, Texas β€” Baylor beat Oklahoma, 27-14, on Saturday, handing the Sooners their first loss and dropping them eight spots to No. 12 in the AP poll. Another week, another top-10 team goes down.

Photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

VALENCIA, Spain β€” Nine-time MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi said farewell on Sunday, finishing 10th at the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix to conclude his legendary 25-year career.

Photo: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

DUBAI, U.A.E. β€” Australia powered to an eight-wicket victory over New Zealand to win the T20 World Cup (cricket) for the first time.

Bonus photo: πŸ“Έ Curry magic
Photo: Jordan Jimenez

Put it in The Louvre.

8. πŸ“† Nov. 15, 1970: Brown beats Browns
Paul Brown, circa 1970. Photo: Paul Tepley Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

51 years ago today, Paul Brown's Bengals beat his former team, the Browns, 14-10, in what he called his "best victory."

The backdrop: When Cleveland got a franchise in the upstart AAFC in 1946, they hired Brown β€” a legendary high school and Ohio State coach β€” and named the team after him.

  • The Browns joined the NFL in 1950, winning three championships in their first six seasons under Brown's strong but notoriously authoritarian leadership.
  • In 1961, a young ad exec named Art Modell bought the team and quickly started butting heads with Brown, firing him in 1962.
  • Six years later, Brown returned to the game as the inaugural coach and GM of the AFL's Bengals, and when the leagues merged in 1970, the stage was set for a Browns-Brown rivalry.

The big picture: Brown's imprint on football goes far beyond a team name and an intra-state rivalry. He was the first coach to use film to scout opponents, and invented the modern face mask and the draw play.

Go deeper: The life and career of coach Paul Brown (Browns Nation)

9. 🏈 College football trivia

Photo: John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kansas' upset win over Texas snapped a 56-game conference road losing streak, by far the longest active streak in FBS.

  • Question: What school now has the longest such streak?
  • Hint: Power 5 program.

Answer at the bottom.

10. πŸŽ₯ Top plays: Weekend edition

Photo: Courtesy of South Dakota Athletics

  1. 🏈 Walk-off Hail Mary
  2. πŸ€ Now that's a dunk
  3. 🏈 High school beast mode
  4. ⚽️ You're a wizard, Harry!
  5. πŸ€ Allen bodies Garza
  6. πŸ€ CP3 nutmeg
  7. πŸ€ Curry dime
  8. πŸ₯Š Flying knee
  9. 🏈 What a grab
  10. πŸ€ Chase down block

Watch all 10.

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" Baker

Trivia answer: Vanderbilt (11 straight SEC road losses)

πŸ™ Thanks for reading.Β For more sports coverage, follow us on Twitter: @kendallbaker andΒ @jeffreytracy.