Aug 7, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

πŸ‘‹ Happy Friday! We'll be introducing some new sections next week, including one called "Friday Film Room." That's right, folks β€” now that sports are back, it's time to break down some film.

πŸ“† Coming up: Next week will also feature the most loaded lineup of stories in the history of Axios Sports. So now is a great time to invite your friends. They can sign up here: sports.axios.com.

  • Monday: 🚌 The cost of kids losing gym class
  • Tuesday: 🏟 The busiest owner in sports
  • Wednesday: πŸ’΅ Sports betting in the age of COVID-19
  • Thursday: πŸ₯€ BodyArmor vs. Gatorade
  • Friday: 🚲 The biking boom

Today's word count: 1,700 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: πŸ“Š The pandemic's impact on gameplay

Damian Lillard shoots a free throw during one of the NBA's restart games. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Sports are back, and on the surface, the actual gameplay looks fairly similar to when we last saw them, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

  • Yes, but: Beneath that facade of normalcy lie some interesting trends spurred on by fan-less environments, long layoffs and condensed schedules.

πŸ€ NBA: Free throw attempts β€” and percentages β€” have risen.

  • Before the shutdown, the 22 bubble teams attempted 23.05 free throws per game and made 77.65% of them. In the bubble, those numbers have risen to 27.91 and 79.42%, respectively (through Wednesday).
  • Officials are calling more fouls because they can actually hear the contact, and players are shooting better without a wall of fans trying to distract them.
  • "I feel like it's a hooper's gym," said Suns guard Devin Booker. "It's easier to shoot in here with less depth perception." (Worth noting: Overall shooting percentage among the 22 teams is down in the bubble.)

⚾️ MLB: Pitchers are getting injured at an unprecedented rate.

  • During the season's first 10 days, there were 30 pitcher arm injuries, which is 2.5x more than in any previous season's opening stretch (12). In the three days since then, four more pitchers have landed on the shelf with arm injuries.
  • The culprit appears to be the stop-and-start nature of spring training, which has led to a disconnect between fine-tuning mechanics and building the muscle required to execute them.

πŸ€ WNBA: Pace of play is at an all-time high.

  • In the past three seasons, six teams surpassed 80 possessions per 40 minutes. Through Wednesday's bubble action, nine teams were north of that mark.
  • Pace has been rising for years now, but this season is faster than ever in part because players' legs have never been so fresh. Those who play overseas normally enter the WNBA season right after their abroad seasons end. But this year, those campaigns were shut down in March, so they're well-rested.
2. πŸ’΅ Map: Where you can bet on sports
Reproduced from American Gaming Association; Cartogram: Axios Visuals

2020 was poised to be a big year for sports betting. Some of that momentum was lost due to the shutdown, but the industry is still surging ahead β€” and holding out hope for a massive fall.

  • The state of play: Sports betting is now legal and fully operational in 18 states, plus Washington, D.C.
  • Another four states β€” Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington β€” have passed bills legalizing it this year, but are not yet operational.

Driving the news: William Hill opened a temporary sportsbook at Washington, D.C.'s Capital One Arena last Friday, making it the first pro sports stadium or arena in the country with a full-service sports betting operation.

  • A permanent sportsbook is being built inside the arena, but with construction delayed, the ticket box office area was converted into a temporary site.

Coming Wednesday: Sports betting in the age of COVID-19

3. 🏈 Clemson tops preseason Coaches Poll
Table: Axios Visuals

Clemson was named No. 1 in the preseason Coaches Poll for the second season in a row, while defending champ LSU sits at No. 5 after losing QB Joe Burrow.

  • The SEC and the Big Ten each have six teams ranked in the top 25, while the Big 12 and ACC (which includes Notre Dame this year) have four.
  • The only Group of Five schools ranked in the top 25 are UCF (No. 21) and Cincinnati (No. 22), both from the American Athletic Conference.

Looking ahead: The challenge for voters this season, to whatever extent a season is possible, will be producing a weekly poll that rewards the best teams while also accounting for conference-only schedules and coronavirus-related disruptions like missing players and canceled games.

4. ⚑️ Catch up quick
Screenshot: @MLS (Twitter)
  • ⚽️ MLS: Nani scored two first-half goals six minutes apart to lead Orlando City to a 3-1 victory over Minnesota in the semifinal of the MLS is Back Tournament. Orlando will play the Portland Timbers in Tuesday's final.
  • 🏈 NFL: The NFLPA announced that 56 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since the opening of training camp β€” a figure that represents ~2% of the approximately 2,600 players on training camp rosters.
  • ⚾️ MLB: In his first game since deciding to opt back into the season, Braves veteran Nick Markakis hit a walk-off home run to beat the Blue Jays.
  • 🏈 CFB: Multiple star players including Purdue WR Rondale Moore, Penn State LB Micah Parsons and Miami DE Gregory Rousseau announced that they will opt out of the season to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft.
  • πŸ€ CBB: Texas Tech has fired women's basketball coach Marlene Stollings following a USA Today report in which players accused her and her staff of fostering a culture of abuse.
5. πŸ“Ί Weekend watchlist

Another exciting, sports-filled weekend is upon us. We could get used to this, Jeff writes.

The Blue Jackets beat the Maple Leafs in overtime on Thursday to take a 2-1 series lead. Photo: Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

πŸ’ NHL: This weekend is going to be hockey heaven. By Sunday night, the 16-team playoff field will be set.

  • Today: The Islanders (lead Panthers 2-1), Coyotes (lead Predators 2-1), Canadiens (lead Penguins 2-1), Blackhawks (lead Oilers 2-1), Blue Jackets (lead Maple Leafs 2-1) and Canucks (lead Wild 2-1) all advance with a win.
  • Saturday and Sunday: The last four round robin matchups, and as many as six qualifying round Game 5s depending on what happens.
Bogdan Bogdanovic (35 points) and the Kings picked up a huge win over the Pelicans on Thursday. Photo: Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

πŸ€ NBA: With four games left, six teams are separated by 2.5 games in the race for eighth in the West.

  • No. 8 Grizzlies (32-37) play the Thunder today (4pm, NBATV) and the Raptors on Sunday (2pm).
  • No. 9 Trail Blazers (32-38, 0.5GB) play the Clippers tomorrow (1pm, TNT) and the Sixers on Sunday (6:30pm, NBATV).
  • No. 10 Suns (30-39, 2GB) play the Heat tomorrow (7:30pm).
  • No. 11 Spurs (29-38, 2GB) play the Jazz today (1pm) and the Pelicans on Sunday (3pm, ABC).
  • No. 12 Kings (29-39, 2.5GB) play the Nets today (5pm) and the Rockets on Sunday (8pm).
  • No. 13 Pelicans (29-39, 2.5GB) play the Wizards today (8pm) and the Spurs on Sunday (3pm, ABC).
Tiger Woods shot a two-under 68 on Thursday, his lowest opening-round score in a major since 2012. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

⛳️ PGA Championship: The first major in more than a year teed off yesterday at TPC Harding Park. After 18 holes, Jason Day (-5) sits atop the leaderboard.

  • Round two (today): Stream on ESPN+ (10am–4pm); Watch on ESPN (4–10pm).
  • Round three (Saturday): ESPN (1–4pm) and CBS (4–10pm).
  • Final round (Sunday): ESPN (12–3pm) and CBS (3–9pm).
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (L) greets Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane. Photo: Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

⚽️ Champions League: The round of 16 concludes five months after it began. Each match is in its second leg, with the better aggregate score determining who advances. All games are being played in Lisbon, Portugal.

  • Today, 3pm: Juventus (trailing 1-0) vs. Lyon (CBS All Access); Manchester City (up 2-1) vs. Real Madrid (CBSSN).
  • Saturday, 3pm: Bayern Munich (up 3-0) vs. Chelsea (CBS All Access); Barcelona (tied 1-1) vs. Napoli (CBSSN).

Elsewhere:

6. Aug. 7, 2007: ⚾️ Bonds breaks the record

Photo: Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images

13 years ago today, Barry Bonds sent home run No. 756 deep into the night, passing Hank Aaron for the top spot on the all-time list.

The big picture: Bonds didn't exactly come by the record honestly, but his talent was otherworldly nonetheless, winning seven MVPs and eight Gold Gloves across his 22-year, not-yet Hall of Fame career.

By the numbers: As you can see, Bonds' home run distribution through the years illustrates a perfectly normal aging curve.

  • Age 21–25: 117 HR (one in every 22.2 at bats)
  • Age 26–30: 175 (13.8)
  • Age 31–35: 202 (12.1)
  • Age 36–42: 268 (8.9)

What they're saying: In his book "For the Good of the Game," former MLB commissioner Bud Selig recalled how miserable he was during the summer of 2007, as he waited for Bonds to break the record.

"When Barry hit No. 756 … I was in New York at a baseball meeting, watching the game on TV. I had planned to fly back to San Francisco the next day [in case he broke the record], but finally Barry did something I liked. He saved me one trip. It was the least he could do."
β€” Selig

Go deeper: What Barry Bonds' record really means (SI)

7. πŸ“š Good reads
Giphy

πŸ€ Inside the NBA bubble's unofficial wine club (Baxter Holmes, ESPN)

"C.J. McCollum's hotel room constitutes a wine fridge of sorts. He keeps the temperature around 60 degrees when he's inside it and in the mid-to-high 50s when he's not, all in an effort to protect the 84 bottles that he keeps in boxes, out of the light."

⚾️ What happened to MLB's elite first basemen? (Tom Verducci, SI)

"Every year since 1991 you could assume first base was the most productive position on the diamond. That is no longer the case. ... No first baseman has received any of the past 120 first-place MVP votes [and] no qualified first baseman hit .300 last season for the first time in 48 years."

⚽️ Whatever happened to Arda Turan? (Rory Smith, NYT)

"For months, Barcelona paid the finest player Turkey has ever produced not to play soccer. Why?"
8. The Ocho: β˜€οΈ Summer Spikeball training
Brothers Max and Cole Model of "Hilltop Spikes." Photo: Max Model

Roundnet is a popular lawn sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years and developed a surprisingly vibrant pro circuit thanks to Spikeball, the brand that manufactures the equipment.

  • Think of it like Kleenex. The product is tissues (roundnet) but everyone calls them Kleenex (Spikeball).
  • How to play: Spikeball is played 2 vs. 2. To start a point, the serving team hits the ball down onto the net so that it ricochets up. The returning team has up to three alternating hits (think bump, set, spike) to return the ball back onto the net. If they fail, the rally ends and the other team gets a point.
Photo: Max Model

Meet the pros: "Hilltop Spikes" is a professional roundnet team from Summit, New Jersey. It's made up of brothers Cole and Max Model, ages 19 and 20.

  • They started playing roundnet five years ago after seeing Spikeball on "Shark Tank," and quickly fell in love with the sport.
  • By the summer of 2018, they were the No. 3 team in the nation, the youngest team in the top 25, and had made their ESPN debut. Multiple companies now sponsor them, including popular clothing brand, Chubbies.

The state of play: With the season canceled and Cole and Max home from college and quarantined together, they've spent the summer training harder than ever.

  • Their training focuses on the four main skillsets of roundnet β€” setting, hitting, serving and defense β€” and they've developed specific drills for each.

πŸŽ₯ Watch: 30 days of Spikeball training (Hilltop Spikes)

9. 🏈 NFL trivia

Photo: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Chandler Jones thinks he can break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5 this year. "I don't think that's hard to get," said the Cardinals pass-rusher.

  • Question: Jones had the second-most sacks in the NFL last season (19). Who had the most?
  • Hint: NFC.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❀️ Why we love sports
Rae's Creek in front of the 12th hole at Augusta National. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Stewart V. (Washington, D.C.) writes:

"I'm a huge fan of almost every sport, but my love for golf stands above the rest because it's so social and can last literally a lifetime.
"My favorite golf story came at Augusta Country Club in 2010. I was playing with my son, Chase, and my uncle Pete, who was an excellent player for decades and remembers the Masters before it became a global phenomenon.
"The eighthΒ hole at ACC is a long, downhill par-5 that sits directly across the fence from Augusta National. The third shot has to clear Rae's Creek, which then crosses the border and fronts the famous 12thΒ hole at Augusta National.
"During this round in 2010, my then 11-year old son Chase and my then 81-year-old Uncle Pete both made birdies (Rae's Creek claimed my ball).
"I asked Pete at that point, 'How long have you been playing golf here?' His answer: 'Well, this was the first hole I ever birdied … 70 years ago when I was 11.'
"What other activity, or sport, allows a person to have the same beautiful outcome 70 years apart? That's the beauty of golf."
Stewart's son Jack (L), Uncle Pete and Chase. Photo: Stewart V.

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or a story about sports having a positive impact on your life? To share, simply reply to this email. We'll be telling your stories until they run out.

Kendall Baker

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "Team Koepka" Baker

Trivia answer: Tampa Bay's Shaquil Barrett (19.5 sacks)