Jul 18, 2019

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning!

  • Happening now: The Open is underway at Royal Portrush (time differences, man). More info below.
  • Stat of the day: Kevin Durant will earn the same amount of money in 2019 as the entire Baltimore Orioles current 25-man roster this season ($38.2M), per Spotrac.

Today's word count: 1,372 (~5 mins)

1 big thing: 🏈 Clemson vs. Bama takes center stage at media days

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Heading into the 2019 college football season, Clemson and Alabama have once again separated themselves from the pack.

  • Driving the news: The two schools battled for the spotlight yesterday, as both held court — and traded barbs — during their respective conference's media days.
  • The backdrop: The two schools have met in the national championship three of the past four seasons, with Clemson holding a 2-1 advantage. (They met in the semifinals the other year and Alabama won).

The intrigue: Clemson won last year's title game in a dominating fashion, 44-16. As a result, the Tigers are the faces of college football and appear to have the upper hand over the Tide heading into this season in a way they haven't in years past.

  • As CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd puts it, "Alabama has lost before [but] losses like the one to Clemson tend to stand out as landmarks."

Clemson's outlook:

  • Good news: Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers will likely run away with the ACC again. They've won 34 of their past 36 conference games and outscored opponents by an average of 31+ points last season.
  • Bad news: While they're still loaded, the Tigers must replace four all-world defensive linemen (Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant) along with their top three linebackers.

Alabama's outlook:

  • Good news: The Tide had the most efficient passing game in the nation last year and pretty much everyone is back … and a year older. QB Tua Tagovailoa's top two targets, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, are both elite NFL prospects.
  • Bad news: This is one of Coach Nick Saban's least experienced teams. Plus, they have to play Auburn at their place, where they've lost two of their previous three meetings.

P.S. ... Five of the 10 best players in the country play for either Clemson or Alabama, according to SI's recently released rankings. No other school has more than one player in the top 25, let alone the top 10.

  1. Trevor Lawrence, QB (Clemson)
  2. Tua Tagovailoa, QB (Alabama)
  3. Jonathan Taylor, RB (Wisconsin)
  4. Jerry Jeudy, WR (Alabama)
  5. Derrick Brown, DL (Auburn)
  6. Grant Delpit, S (LSU)
  7. Travis Etienne, RB (Clemson)
  8. Rondale Moore, WR (Purdue)
  9. Chase Young, DL (Ohio State)
  10. Raekwon Davis, DL (Alabama)
2. ⛳️ For Rory McIlroy, this week is about more than golf

Rory McIlroy. Photo: Matthew Lewis/R&A/R&A via Getty Images

Throughout the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast, "a grotesque tangle of concrete, steel, metal, brick and barbed-wire fencing" separates neighborhoods, writes ESPN's Ian O'Connor.

  • These walls serve as a reminder of the tension that still exists between the "unionist and loyalist Protestant majority and the republican and nationalist Catholic minority in support of a unified Ireland."

Why it matters: "Until the walls come down — and there is no plan for their removal — the youth of Northern Ireland need role models who refuse to be defined by the beliefs or causes that segregate them," O'Connor writes.

  • This is why Rory McIlroy — who has refused to pick sides publicly and has handled an impossible situation with grace — had already won this week's tournament before he even showed up.

The bottom line: The 148th Open Championship is arguably the biggest sporting event Northern Ireland has ever seen, and the hometown kid — now a 30-year-old man — will be playing for much more than himself.

More players to watch:

  • Brooks Koepka: It's a major, so you know Brooks is ready to roll. A possible advantage this week: His caddie grew up in Portrush and knows the course better than just about anybody.
  • Tiger Woods: Good news: He's done well on major courses he's never played before (four wins, including the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool) … Bad news: Lower temperatures, like those expected this week, have left his back "achy" this year.
  • Jon Rahm: The 24-year-old Spaniard is winning at a historic rate (only Tiger boasts a higher win rate over the first two seasons of his career) … but he's yet to win a major.
  • Dustin Johnson: According to EAGLE, the Economist's statistical prediction system, Johnson is the favorite (7.4% chance to win).

⚡️ Update: McIlroy got off to a rough start, recording a quadruple bogey on the first hole.

3. Quick hitters
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⚾️ MLB: Kid catches ball in stands. Kid gives ball to another kid instead of keeping it for himself. They high five and hug. Love this.

🎬 Hollywood: LeBron's agent, Rich Paul, has been named the head of United Talent Agency's new sports division — a hire that shows the growing trend of athletes being at the helm of entertainment.

🏈 NFL: The Broncos became the first team to open training camp when rookies and veterans reported for work yesterday. Camp dates for all 32 teams.

🎮 Esports: 100 Thieves, an esports organization and lifestyle brand co-owned by Drake, just raised $35 million. Some of that capital will go toward a 15,000-square-foot training facility in L.A. that's basically a giant man cave.

4. 🏀 The WNBA's offensive drought
Expand chart
Data: Basketball-Reference; Chart: Axios Visuals

Last season, the WNBA's 105.6 offensive efficiency rating was its highest in 20 years. This season, that number has dropped all the way down to 99.2, writes Axios' Mike Sykes.

What's happening:

  • Dying by the three: Just like their male counterparts, WNBA teams are shooting a ton of threes (19.3 attempts per game). Problem is, they're only making 33% of them — the fourth-worst percentage ever.
  • Stars are missing: Six All-Star starters from last year have either missed time (Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi), are out for the season (Breanna Stewart, Angel McCoughtry, Sue Bird), or are taking the year off (Maya Moore). In a 12-team league, missing that much talent has a huge impact.

Why it matters: Offense and star power are the two things we know put butts in seats. The WNBA is lacking a bit of both right now, which isn't ideal for a league trying to grow its audience.

  • Yes, but: Basketball is a make-or-miss sport, and the spikes in offensive efficiency that the WNBA has seen in recent years suggests that this season could just be a blip.
5. Good reads

🏈 Baker Mayfield Isn't Afraid of the Hype (ESPN)

"His height, his flaws, his story — it all makes Mayfield seem more real to them, like he's a human playing a position normally reserved for superheroes."

⚾️ What Made Roy Fly (SI)

"Roy Halladay's father taught him two things: to pitch, and to fly. One gave Roy life. The other killed him."

💨 The World's Fastest (Old) Man (NYT)

"Running next to Allie can be a humbling experience. From the moment he starts, he just goes away, sprinting off, as if on air. Septuagenarians are not supposed to go this fast."
6. July 18, 1976: 🥇 Nadia's perfect 10.0
Nadia Comaneci. Photo: Rzepka/Getty Images

43 years ago today, Romania's Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast in Olympic history to score a perfect 10.0 following her performance on the uneven bars at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

  • Fun fact: Comaneci, who was 14 at the time, was so good that she broke the scoreboard. The display wasn't programmed to show a 10.0 because judges believed it was literally impossible, so her score appeared as "1.00."
  • The big picture: Comaneci went on to record six more perfect scores during the '76 Games and remains the youngest Olympic gold medalist ever.

Watch: Comaneci's 1976 performance

7. ⚾️ MLB trivia

On Tuesday, the Nationals' Juan Soto hit his 39th career HR, breaking a tie with Ken Griffey Jr. for the fourth-most dingers before turning 21.

  • Question: Soto, 20, needs four more homers to pass which active player for third on that list?
  • Hint: He's currently 26 years old.

Answer at the bottom.

8. The Ocho: 🏁 Peking to Paris

A classic car gets flagged off from the Great Wall of China during the 2013 "Peking to Paris" race. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

"First run in 1907, the Peking to Paris race was originally intended to test the endurance of the newly emerging automobile," writes NYT's Noele Illien.

  • "Political obstacles made the race impossible in later years ... [but] road rally enthusiast Philip Young revived the race in 1997, and since 2007 it has taken place every three years."
  • "The participants this year raced through 12 countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Poland. … The teams encountered dirt tracks, river crossings and mountain passes intended to push them and their cars to the limit."

Go deeper.

9. ❤️ Fathers, daughters and fireworks
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On Monday, I asked you to share a memory that illustrates the power of sports. For the next few weeks, we'll be sharing your stories.

Tom Dayvault (High Point, N.C.) writes:

My family was in Atlanta watching the Braves play at Fulton County Stadium on the 4th of July in the late 80s. My eight-year-old daughter learned how to score the game and recorded every pitch.
The Braves won — definitely not guaranteed in those days — and they turned the lights out for a magnificent fireworks show. I had a longneck in one hand, leaning back in my seat, fireworks exploding and my daughter in my lap when she turned and whispered ... "Dad, it doesn't get any better than this." Sports, man.
Kendall Baker

See you tomorrow,

Kendall "Now THIS is a home run" Baker

Trivia answer: His former teammate Bryce Harper