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Jan 14, 2022

Axios Sports

πŸŽ‰ Happy Friday! You made it.

πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ Scheduling note: We'll be off Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. See you back here Tuesday morning.

Today's word count: 1,726 words (7 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: 🏈 America's NFL obsession

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The NFL has had a banner season in terms of ratings and engagement, thanks in part to the return of fans to stadiums and a slew of suspenseful games, Axios' Sara Fischer, Neal Rothschild and I write.

Why it matters: The 2021 viewership spike has quieted concerns regarding 2020's COVID-related decline, while also justifying the $100+ billion media deals the league signed with its partners in March.

By the numbers: Viewership for the NFL's 2021 regular season was up 10% from 2020, its highest-rated season average since 2015, per Nielsen.

  • The NFL accounted for 41 of the 50 most-watched broadcasts of 2021, per Sportico (subscription), and 75 of the top 100.
  • Games averaged 17.1 million viewers (TV/digital), per the league, and 370 billion total minutes were consumed, up 18% from 2020 and the second-highest total since 2015.
  • Higher interest in games was a boon for pregame shows, per Sports Business Journal. NBC's "Football Night in America," for example, averaged 7.1 million viewers, an 18% increase from 2020.

Between the lines: A few close games and an extended season may have helped drive more viewership, and having fans back in stands enhanced the TV product.

  • A record 34 games were decided on the final play, and 64% of games were within eight points (one score) in the fourth quarter.
  • 2021 was the first 17-game season in NFL history, with the league adding an additional 18th week to the schedule.

Zoom out: Online, the NFL was the second most-read news topic in November and December. It trailed the coronavirus, but was ahead of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, per page views data from Taboola.

  • Interest then took off in January, quadrupling from the week prior as the Week 17 slate included seven teams clinching playoff spots, fantasy football championships and Antonio Brown's dramatic exit.
  • Google search interest in the league hit its season-long peak this past Sunday when the playoff field was hammered out, culminating in a dramatic Raiders-Chargers finish with millions rooting for a tie.

The big picture: It's great timing for the NFL, which is looking to renegotiate its Sunday Ticket package while also exploring strategic partners for some of its media networks, like NFL Network and RedZone.

What to watch: Sports executives don't expect CBS to experience the same dramatic viewership declines for this year's Super Bowl as last year, when viewership fell to a 10-year TV low.

The bottom line: Though the pandemic still lingers, the NFL clearly benefited from the semi-return to normal in 2021. Packed stadiums drove more overall interest, and fans fell back into their weekly routine of watching games on Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays).

2. 🎾 Timeline: The Djokovic saga

Novak Djokovic during a Friday practice session. Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

The Australian Open begins Monday (Sunday in the U.S.), and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic's status is still up in the air, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Where it stands: Djokovic faces deportation after his visa was revoked for a second time by the Australian government on Friday. His lawyers are expected to appeal the decision as they successfully did the first time.

How we got here: The past 10 days should have been about the World No. 1's quest for a record-breaking 21st major victory. Instead, they've snowballed into one of the biggest off-court tennis sagas ever.

  • Jan. 4: Djokovic, who is unvaccinated, announces he's heading to Australia with a medical exemption. Days later, we learn he got the exemption because he tested positive for COVID in December.
  • Jan. 5: Upon his arrival in Melbourne, he's held in the airport β€” in a room guarded by police, according to his father β€” due to a mistake with his visa application.
  • Jan. 6: After eight hours of airport detention, Djokovic's visa is canceled and he's denied entry to the country for failing to meet the exemption requirements.
  • Jan. 9: While he is cooped up in an immigration detention hotel β€” and inadvertently drawing widespread attention to refugees β€” Djokovic's parents join a rally in Belgrade, Serbia, demanding his release.
  • Jan. 10: Djokovic's visa is reinstated on appeal after arguing that his positive test in December superseded the country's vaccination requirement. Hours later, he's out on the courts practicing.
  • Jan. 12: In a statement, Djokovic blames his agent for "tick[ing] the incorrect box" on his travel declaration, which falsely claimed he didn't visit any countries in the prior two weeks.
  • Jan. 12: In the same statement, he admits to having attended an in-person interview after his positive test in December. He calls the breach of protocols "an error of judgement," while the Serbian Prime Minister calls it "a clear violation."
  • Jan. 13: The tournament draw is revealed, and it features Djokovic as the No. 1 seed, even as immigration officials continue to investigate him.

The bottom line: 255 men and women are currently looking at the draw and preparing for the year's first major tournament, but the 256th is all anyone can seem to talk about.

Go deeper: Djokovic's strange Australian odyssey (New Yorker)

3. πŸ’ Unveiled: NHL All-Stars; USA Olympians

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The NHL revealed its All-Star rosters on Thursday. Hours later, USA hockey announced its Olympic men's roster, which won't feature NHL players due to league policy.

  • Look: NHL All-Star rosters, which consist of 10 players from each division (soon to be 11 due to the "Last Man In" fan vote). The All-Star Game is Feb. 5.
  • Look: Team USA's roster, which features 15 NCAA players, eight European pros and two AHL players. It's the youngest team since 1994.
4. ⚑️ Lightning round

David Culley. Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images

🏈 Culley out in Houston: The Texans fired David Culley after one season, leaving the NFL with one active Black head coach: Mike Tomlin.

⚾️ MLB talks resume: MLB and its players' union met Thursday for the first time since the lockout began on Dec. 2, but little progress was made during a bargaining session that lasted about an hour.

πŸ€ Reddish to NYC: The Knicks acquired Cam Reddish from the Hawks in exchange for Kevin Knox and a 2022 first-round pick, reuniting Reddish with 2019 Duke teammate R.J. Barrett.

⚽️ Good read: Rocco Commisso bought a football club. Then the trouble started. (Murad Adhmed, Financial Times)

"The U.S. cable billionaire purchased Fiorentina for €170 million. The emotional cost? He's still counting."
5. πŸ‡¨πŸ‡³ Beijing snapshot: Three weeks out

A man ice skating on an outdoor rink in Shenyang, Liaoning Province of China. Photo: Huang Jinkun/VCG via Getty Images

With the Beijing Games beginning three weeks from today, ultra-strict lockdowns in Chinese cities provide a glimpse of what the Olympics protocols will look like, Jeff writes.

State of play: China may be the last country on Earth still adhering to a "zero COVID" policy. Rather than relying on vaccines and carefully reopening, China's goal is still to contain the virus via lockdowns.

  • More than 20 million people across five cities, including Xi'an, remain confined to their homes, per AP. But COVID has made its mark despite those measures.
  • The port town of Tianjin is experiencing an outbreak that has Olympic officials worried because of its proximity to Beijing (just 80 miles away).

The big picture: Protocols for Olympic athletes and the thousands of other people involved in the Games are similarly stringent.

  • All athletes must test negative twice within 96 hours of their flight, and unvaccinated athletes must quarantine for 21 days upon arrival. Masks are required and testing will occur daily.
  • There are four separate bubbles for athletes, media, observers and local workers, with closed-loop transportation systems for travel between venues.

The last word: "If they can pull this off without causing any major outbreaks, it would be another gold medal that China would be happy to claim," Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall, told NYT.

6. πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ Photos across America
Jacob Young celebrates a basket in a mostly empty Pauley Pavilion. Photo: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES β€” Jacob Young scored a season-high 23 points to help Oregon upset No. 3 UCLA, 84-81 (OT), and give head coach Dana Altman his 700th career win.

  • The backdrop: Only families of coaches and players were permitted in Pauley Pavilion due to surging COVID-19 cases.
Team USA's Eric Loughran competes during the Freestyle International Ski World Cup at Deer Valley Resort. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

PARK CITY, Utah β€” "Yup, that's me. I bet you're wondering how I ended up here..."

Tuukka Rask reacts as fans scream his name. Photo: Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

BOSTON β€” Tuukka Rask, the winningest goalie in Bruins history, made 24 saves in his season debut (hip surgery) to lead Boston to a 3-2 win over Philadelphia.

7. 🌍 Photos around the world
Photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

WADI AD-DAWASIR, Saudi Arabia β€” U.S. biker Ricky Brabec powers his Honda through the desert during Stage 8 of the 2022 Dakar Rally.

Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

SURFERS PARADISE, Australia β€” Horse racing on the beach > horse racing not on the beach.

Photo: David S. Bustamante/Getty Images

SANTANDER, Spain β€” Natxo Gonzalez is thrown from his board during La Vaca Gigante, a big wave surfing event in northern Spain. Gonzalez, who grew up near Bilbao, went on to win the event.

8. πŸ“Ί Watchlist: Wild Card weekend

Source: Giphy

The NFL playoffs have arrived, with six games running through the holiday weekend.

  • Saturday: Raiders at Bengals (-5.5), 4:30pm ET on NBC; Patriots at Bills (-4), 8:15pm on CBS
  • Sunday: Eagles at Buccaneers (-8.5), 1pm on Fox; 49ers at Cowboys (-3), 4:30pm on CBS; Steelers at Chiefs (-12.5), 8:15pm on NBC
  • Monday: Cardinals at Rams (-4), 8:15pm on ESPN

More games:

Go deeper: The key to every NFL wild-card matchup (The Ringer)

9. 🏈 NFL trivia

This man deserves a playoff win. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since beating the Houston Oilers, 41-14, on Jan. 6, 1991. That's 31 years ago.

  • Question: Who was their starting QB in that win over the Oilers?
  • Hint: Played college football in the ACC.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🦈 1 music thing: "Baby Shark!"

Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Baby Shark

"Baby Shark," the viral children's song that became the Nationals' anthem during their 2019 World Series run, is the first video to rack up 10+ billion views on YouTube.

Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo...

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "Now that song's stuck in my head" Baker

Trivia answer: Boomer Esiason

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