How One Player Helped Angelenos and the Dodgers Bridge Their Divide

Fernando

On the opening day of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1981 season, a baby-faced rookie — just 20 years old — took the mound for his first major league start. The Dodgers never intended to start Fernando Valenzuela to open the season. He was, after all, third in the pitching rotation behind Jerry Reuss and Burt Hooton. But both were sidelined with injuries, so Valenzuela got the call — and proceeded to throw a complete-game, five-hit shutout for a Dodgers win over the Houston Astros.

It would end up being one of the most pivotal games in the Dodgers’ tenure in Los Angeles. When Valenzuela, a native of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, earned his first start, Latino players made up just 11.1 percent of MLB teams, according to data from SABR (which did not distinguish between Latino and Hispanic players). For comparison, in 2016, Latino players made up 27.4 percent of the league.

Players of Mexican birth appeared in MLB as early as 1933, and Mexican-born Bobby Avila was the batting champion of the American League in 1954,” says MLB official historian John Thorn. “Yet Mexico’s first national star was Valenzuela, in part because Los Angeles could command more media attention … and because his debut string of shutouts was so sensational.”

Given that the population of Los Angeles was 25 percent Hispanic when the Dodgers arrived, according to census data, the team understandably yearned to be embraced by that demographic. But the relationship had less than auspicious beginnings.

‘Fernandomania’ was a national thing, but he was a Dodger, so those fans were particularly engaged and rooting for him.

Lincoln Mitchell, author

Eight years after real estate mogul Walter O’Malley acquired majority ownership of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team was on the move to Los Angeles. Though the Dodgers are beloved in L.A. now, a large swath of the city’s population was reluctant to embrace its new team. When it was built in 1962, Dodger Stadium displaced a large segment of low-income, largely Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine, a valley near downtown Los Angeles. Chavez Ravine was largely composed of the Mexican-American neighborhoods La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop — which housed families who had moved there due in part to facing housing discrimination in other L.A. neighborhoods.

In 1950, the Los Angeles City Housing Authority earmarked Chavez Ravine as a site for a new housing project, Elysian Park Heights. Using eminent domain, the city purchased the land from the inhabitants — many of whom would never receive compensation. But when Norris Poulson was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1953, he invoked the anti-Communist fervor of the time to label the housing project as “un-American” spending.

The federal government sold the Chavez Ravine site back to Poulson at a reduced price with the contingency that it must be used for a public purpose. So city officials began to solicit sports teams to relocate to Los Angeles, and in 1957, they found their man in O’Malley. The Dodgers owner faced no shortage of resistance to and controversy about his plan to develop the Chavez Ravine land, but ultimately, he and his supporters won a public referendum — by just 3 percentage points.

 

On April 10, 1962, Dodger Stadium opened. Twenty years later, Valenzuela would help repair relations between the community and the team.

“Once upon a time in baseball, national origin and especially skin color were determinants of access and possible success,” says Thorn. “Slowly, since the advent of Jackie Robinson, it has not mattered to fans or front-office people where you came from … what mattered was if you could play.”

And could Valenzuela ever play.

After Valenzuela burst onto the scene with his five-hit shutout on opening day, 1981, he encored with an 8-0 start to the season with five shutouts and an ERA of 0.50. He broke multiple MLB records, becoming the first player to win the Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in the same season and also the first rookie to lead the National League in strikeouts.

“He’s hot out of the gate and by late April, he’s a national phenomenon,” says Lincoln Mitchell, author of Baseball Goes West: The Dodgers, the Giants and the Shaping of the Major Leagues. “‘Fernandomania’ was a national thing, but he was a Dodger, so those fans were particularly engaged and rooting for him.”

But, most important, Valenzuela helped give fans in Los Angeles the greatest prize in baseball — a World Series title. In 1981, the Dodgers triumphed over the New York Yankees in six games for their first title since 1965.

The Dodgers had lost four consecutive world series — ’66, ’74, ’77 and ’78. “There’s a generation of fans who are seeing their Dodgers just lose in the World Series, and that’s frustrating,” says Mitchell. “If they had lost the 1981 World Series, that changes the feel around the Dodgers. And they don’t win that without Fernando.”

The timing of Valenzuela’s arrival in Los Angeles feels too perfect — that the team would not only scout a Mexican star and give him a starting shot as a rookie but also that he’d develop into a Cy Young–caliber pitcher. But it’s not as orchestrated as it seems. “The Dodgers didn’t flood Mexico with scouts trying to find somebody,” explains Mitchell. “It was not a strategy in that sense.” At the time Valenzuela joined the Dodgers, the team was getting older — in need of an injection of youthful talent. The Dodgers just happened to have the perfect player in the pipeline.

The Dodgers had Spanish-language radio broadcasts before Valenzuela arrived, but they increased exponentially after Fernandomania took off in 1981. “El Toro,” as he was affectionately known by Dodgers fans, continued to pitch at a high level in Los Angeles until his release in 1991. These days, he’s a color commentator on the Spanish-language SportsNet LA feed. But the impact of his connection with the city’s Mexican-American community is reflected in the present-day relationship between the team and its fans.

Skateboarding’s Super Agent Helps Clients Soar as Brands Too

Yulin olliver

It’s the semifinal of the women’s skateboard street contest at X Games Minneapolis 2018, and agent Yulin Olliver is sitting at the edge of the course, cheering on her clients. She’s also gently rolling a stroller that holds her 18-month-old daughter, who is, somehow, sleeping through all of this.

With her flowy polka dot skirt and chic stroller, the petite brunette’s profession — action sports agent at Yunexis Agency, which represents the world’s top female skateboarders — isn’t immediately obvious. But the former snowboarder has managed to keep her shred cred intact while becoming one of action sports’ most powerful super agents. And in the process, she’s doing more than anyone to elevate female skateboarders into marketable megastars — by making them think about their brand as much as their athletic feats, and building a production house to make sure they pop on America’s screens.

Olliver’s action sports roots run deep, but they don’t begin with skateboarding. While attending college at Indiana University, Olliver, who declined to reveal her age, took up snowboarding as a hobby — and it changed everything. Though she was accepted to Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, she left after her first year, packing up her Toyota Tercel and relocating from Boston to Oregon to pursue pro snowboarding. 

 

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Olliver snowboarding at Bear Mountain, California.

“You have to jump in with both feet,” Olliver says of her sudden career change, all the more true for someone starting to compete at a pro level in her early twenties. Because she had missed the years of honing technical skills such as performing tricks on halfpipes, Olliver specialized in backcountry snowboarding. “Whenever my sponsors needed a shot of a cliff drop or a backcountry pow slash or kicker, I was that snowboarder for them,” Olliver says. “I could get them photos for their catalogs and for their ads.”

We’re breaking through the glass ceiling of even what we thought was possible when we created this game.

Yulin Olliver

Four knee surgeries, one broken collarbone and one dislocated AC joint later, however, Olliver — who was simultaneously earning her MBA at the University of Utah — knew she needed an exit plan. She had gotten in three solid years of pro snowboarding and had completed her bucket list: getting her picture in TransWorld magazine and earning a paycheck and free equipment from sponsors.

Eventually, she relocated to Los Angeles to finish her MBA at Pepperdine University and intern for Circe Wallace, one of action sports’ most successful agents. Her year with Wallace helped Olliver come to believe the measure of an agent’s success doesn’t come down to money; “it comes down to you believe in this person’s contribution to this world, and you’re going to be on their team to elevate them.”

 

Her introduction to the skateboarding world came during a marketing job at FUEL TV, when she worked with Dew Tour. In 2010 she left to run event marketing for pro skateboarder Rob Dyrdek’s new venture, Street League Skateboarding.

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Olliver in Transworld ads with Betty Rides Outerwear.

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One of Olliver’s clients, Mariah Duran (left) has won back-to-back X Games gold medals and has made history as the first woman signed to Mountain Dew’s skate team,  Duran, Oliver and Lacey Baker at the Super Crown World Championship in 2017.

She struck out on her own in 2014, founding Yunexis with the goal of helping skateboarders develop their personal brands. When Olliver signs a client, she asks her to describe what the pinnacle of her career looks like. They jot it down and then work backward, identifying each step along the way. While contests — and medals — often take center stage in those dreams, building clients’ marketability is a core part of what Yunexis does. Take Lacey Baker, one of the world’s most accomplished female skateboarders. “Lacey went from $0 in sponsorships to being the face of Nike global,” Olliver says, referencing a buzzy recent Nike ad featuring Baker and Colin Kaepernick, among other athletes. “We’re breaking through the glass ceiling of even what we thought was possible when we created this game.”

Another of Olliver’s clients, Mariah Duran — fresh off back-to-back X Games gold medals — echoes that sentiment. The sponsorships Olliver has secured for Duran have “put me on the map,” she says. “At this moment, everything in this industry is growing.” In January, Duran made history as the first woman signed to Mountain Dew’s skate team, a tangible result of Olliver’s dealmaking.

Immediately after signing a client, Yunexis will clean up the athletes’ social media accounts and ensure they don’t have to pay for any of their boards, wheels and apparel through brand and sponsor partnerships. A growing number of female-focused (and fronted) skateboarding brands are emerging to partner with the female skaters whose brands are blowing up. For instance, Meow Skateboards, which sponsors Olliver clients Duran, Baker, Vanessa Torres and Savannah Headden, was founded by female skateboarder Lisa Whitaker. 

Olliver can’t share what male skateboarders earn from sponsors as compared to their female counterparts; agents and athletes are bound by contract not to reveal those figures. But she stresses the case-by-case nature of these deals — within and between genders.

“I like to remind my clients that it’s not a conversation about your self-worth,” says Olliver. “However much you can move the bottom line for them is how much they’re going to pay.” She adds that, while the buying power of female consumers is stronger than males, skateboarders have long been mostly male. That means brands rely on male skateboarders to sell products to other male skateboarders. Tony Hawk and Bam Margera are household names. Lacey Baker and Mariah Duran? Hopefully, soon. 

Olliver’s business is not without its challenges. She only works on commission, and she’s not yet cutting herself a salary after the cost of doing business. She is trying to increase and diversify her 11-client roster, potentially by partnering with other small agencies that don’t service skateboarders. Olliver’s husband, Brian, runs Yunexis Production House, which produces films with the agency’s clients — a huge way for the skaters to increase their visibility.

Male and female skateboarders do at last enjoy equal prize purses at the X Games. (ESPN declined to confirm those figures.) That’s thanks in part to former pro skater Mimi Knoop, who works closely with Olliver’s clients. Knoop created the Women’s Skateboarding Alliance, which acts as the official sport organizer at X Games and advocates for the athletes. The female skateboarders Olliver represents now have an opportunity to dramatically increase their visibility as skateboarding makes its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The first-ever USA Skateboarding National Team will be announced on March 19.

“Internally, we’ve been building that market up, whether it’s through brands or media or collaborating with leaders in the space,” says Knoop, who refers to Olliver and herself as “stewards of the sport.” Adds Olliver, “It wasn’t by chance that I created a representation system for these athletes so that they’d be in position and ready to go when I realized the Olympics might include skateboarding.” Quietly thinking several steps ahead has produced unprecedented results. “What’s worked,” says Olliver, “is that people don’t pay much attention to us.”

That’s not really true anymore. And it certainly won’t be next summer in Tokyo.

Read more: The Skateboarder Hoping Meditation Can Net X Games Gold.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect year for when Olliver joined Street League Skateboarding.

NASCAR Drives Millennial Viewership Through Fantasy Sports

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We’ve all been there. A friend hosts a watch party for the big game, putting out a tasty spread and rustling up extra seats in front of the TV. And yet, once the action begins, everyone is glued to their phones, playing fantasy games. If you uttered the terms millennials and fantasy sports in the same breath, no one would bat an eyelash. Of the 59.3 million people who played fantasy sports in the U.S. and Canada last year, the average age was 32, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA). Millennials and NASCAR, however? That combination might raise some eyebrows. Not for much longer, though, if NASCAR has its way. 

The racing giant has long struggled to capture the attention of a younger demographic. In the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship — the sport’s crown jewel race — only 22 percent of the 4.66 million viewers were between the ages of 18 and 49, the key demographic. But the organization is hoping that an embrace of digital — and fantasy sports in particular — will help drive that number up.

Way up. TV ratings alone don’t tell the full story of how many people consume the product. According to NASCAR’s digital media department, the total consumption of content on NASCAR’s digital platforms on race day has increased by 29 percent in 2018 compared to 2017. NASCAR introduced its first fantasy product back in 2001, but when the association made significant changes to its race structure in 2017 and moved to a stage-racing format, it decided to revamp its fantasy product as a result. Add in the fact that fantasy sports giant Yahoo decided to cease its NASCAR offering last year, and the racing association realized it had an opportunity to dramatically increase its stake in the fantasy sports market. 

It’s a tested route to success. The FSTA confirms that players watch more live sports if they play fantasy — to the tune of 64 percent. It stands to reason that if NASCAR can reach millennials where they are — playing fantasy football, baseball, hockey and basketball on multiple platforms — then it can develop a new audience of viewers through its fantasy game. Though NASCAR declined to disclose its user numbers for NASCAR Fantasy Live, it saw the number of players more than double in 2018 with the new game, as opposed to the average over the past three years under the old format, says Tim Clark, vice president of digital media at NASCAR.

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“We certainly have the data and the research that suggest that younger fans on our platform who have fantasy as an entry point can use that as a way to kick off … or enhance their fandom,” says Clark. Anecdotally, per Clark, the demographics on the social and video platforms are younger than the TV audience.

NASCAR’s new turn and the early success it’s seeing are part of the larger explosive growth of the fantasy sports industry. The number of people playing fantasy sports in the U.S. and Canada has grown by 23.4 million in the past five years, and has tripled in the past decade. But the move to embrace fantasy sports is also resonating with drivers, who see NACAR’s decision as a smart bet aimed at securing the sport’s future. 

“I love fantasy sports; it’s something that we definitely need to keep continuing to grow,” says NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano. “People really get into it and become a student of the sport.”

 

To ensure wider appeal, NASCAR.com has sought to simplify its fantasy offering. “We spent a lot of time talking to fans and getting feedback from current players and ones who had played more inconsistently or who have never played,” says Clark. “What we learned is as much as we tried to be true to the nuances of the sport, from a fantasy perspective, we needed to make a simple game. The first step was making the gameplay and the scoring more simple.”

In the new format, players select five starting drivers for their team each week. These selections don’t carry over from week to week, and players may only use a single driver up to 10 times over the course of the 36-race season. And because the association now scores drivers on a points system in conjunction with its move to stage racing, the fantasy product, for simplicity, works exactly the same: Points earned in fantasy are the same as the points drivers earn during the race.

One thing fantasy players across multiple sports want is the ability to swap out a player after an event has begun, and NASCAR added that feature to its fantasy game, with the option to select a “garage driver” and swap him or her into the race at any point. It’s one element that gives NASCAR a leg up on many other fantasy sports products, which tend to lock starting lineups after a game, match or race begins.

“It’s fun and interactive, and it makes you feel more like you’re part of the sport than just watching it on TV,” says driver Martin Truex Jr., who calls the fantasy game “definitely a positive thing for the sport.” 

If NASCAR’s initial gains with fantasy sports continue to grow, they could provide a blueprint for other non-major sports leagues and associations to follow as they all target the ever-important 18-to-49-year-old demographic, say experts. Internationally, there is an increased demand for fantasy leagues for soccer and cricket. Daily fantasy sports leagues have attracted an arguably even more passionate following than traditional season-long games, partly because of their breadth — players can submit lineups in sports as diverse as golf, MMA, tennis and, of course, NASCAR, without being familiar with their intricacies. If fans get hooked on these sports through fantasy, the leagues can build toward commanding the kinds of lucrative TV deals that sports’ big dogs — football and basketball — do. 

The legalization of sports betting on a state-by-state basis is expected to only add fuel to the fantasy sports fire. “When betting operators are looking for customers, their first stop will be fantasy sports companies,” FSTA President Paul Charchian said in a press release. “This research strongly suggests that the value of most fantasy sports companies will rise significantly, even when the companies themselves don’t take legal wagers.”

NASCAR is already “evaluating the sports gambling space and will look for opportunities to evaluate the audience and better serve the fan in that regard,” Clark said. “Fantasy will be a big part of that.”

Gone are the days when fans simply sit on the couch to watch a game, match or race on television — but it’s up to the leagues to meet the fans where they’re at, and keep them coming back. NASCAR is starting to do that. 

The NBA 2K League Is Ready to Go Coast to Coast … to Coast

2k

The NBA has come up with a game plan for building robust fan bases in places like Berlin and Shanghai without having to fly any players across any oceans or find suitable arenas to host games — and resources are being devoted to the strategy like a basketball team pressing its man advantage in a fast break. 

This endeavor doesn’t actually involve shipping the NBA’s primary product — basketball games — overseas at all. Instead, the NBA is looking to broaden the horizons of its newest product, the NBA 2K League. On the heels of its inaugural season, the professional esports venture built around Take-Two Interactive’s NBA 2K video game series has already seen some growth.

The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves recently joined the 17 initial NBA teams to sponsor NBA 2K League franchises. Getting a 2K League franchise in Los Angeles is huge for the league, giving it a presence in the second-biggest market in North America. There is still work to be done on this continent, however.

The process of finding the best talent for the NBA 2K League is much more cost-effective than for basketball players, as it’s all electronic. 

 

Nine NBA franchises are still holdouts in terms of sponsoring an esports franchise, at least through the second season, which is slated to begin this spring. NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue expects the remaining NBA teams to join the fray soon. Donohue explained that all 30 teams have been “bullish” on the league since its inception, but some have had other priorities that have taken precedence.

It’s important for the NBA 2K League to encompass the entire NBA, for more than just the perception of the brand. Newzoo’s 2018 report shows that North America is the biggest cash cow in the esports industry, producing a projected $345 million in revenue. A presence in all of the NBA’s markets will let the 2K League garner as much of that revenue as possible.

It’s that potential that has Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin excited about the league. Koonin says the NBA 2K League allows the Hawks to fill in the gap between NBA seasons, and to connect to younger fans. Koonin also says the Hawks have already had discussions with new sponsors, which are aiming to reach esports’ young male demographic through its 2K affiliate Hawks Talon GC.

 

Those sponsorships are key. Newzoo estimates 40 percent of global esports revenues will be sponsorship dollars, with advertising coming in at 19 percent and media rights accounting for another 18 percent.

North America may be where the largest pile of cash can be found, but the actual reach is dwarfed elsewhere. Of the 380 million esports fans around the world, 53 percent reside in Asia and the Pacific, with another 18 percent in Europe. If the NBA 2K League remains confined to North America, it will miss out on huge opportunities elsewhere.

Esports fans are different from fans of traditional sports in that they are used to leagues that cross geographical and political borders. The most robust professional esports leagues, such as those engaged in Riot’s League of Legends and Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege, host competitions on multiple continents every year. Those investments are paying off, as revenues from Western Europe were expected to reach $169 million and China was pegged at $164 million for 2018. 

Donohue makes it clear that the NBA 2K League wants to emulate the trend of international competitions, but adds that the league needs to be selective about franchise ownership groups. Koonin sees the barrier to establishing international 2K League franchises as much lower than the one for international NBA franchises.

Koonin is correct. The process of finding the best talent for the NBA 2K League is much more cost-effective than for basketball players, as it’s all electronic. Additionally, you’d save money because no travel would be necessary for competitions. The biggest obstacle is finding potential overseas owners with enough money and interest in the league.

There’s no timetable yet for when fans should expect to see an NBA 2K League franchise in China or Western Europe, but it appears to be inevitable, as the league’s fast break rumbles toward the basket.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed to Brendan Donohue the sentiment that the NBA2K League’s biggest obstacle is finding overseas owners with enough money and interest in the league.

NFL Defenses Need to Be Quicker to Prevent the Flea-Flicker

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It was arguably the play that got the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2018. In the NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings last January, Philadelphia held a daunting 24-7 lead at halftime. Then the Eagles went in for the kill.

On the first drive of the second half, Eagles coach Doug Pederson called a flea-flicker for the first time that season — and quarterback Nick Foles, running back Corey Clement and wide receiver Torrey Smith pulled it off perfectly for the 41-yard touchdown.

The flea-flicker isn’t a commonly run play in the NFL, making it something of a spectacle whenever it does make an appearance. So, what exactly does it entail?

Flea-flicker: An American football play wherein the quarterback laterals the ball to another player, usually a halfback, who then laterals it back to the quarterback, who attempts to pass it downfield.

The flea-flicker is one of the NFL’s most enduring trick plays, and undoubtedly one of its best-named. All credit goes to former University of Illinois head football coach Robert Zuppke, who claimed to have invented the play while coaching at Oak Park High in 1910.

According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term was in 1927, when Zuppke was coaching at Illinois. As former University of Illinois archivist Maynard Brichford writes of Zuppke in Bob Zuppke: The Life and Football Legacy of the Illinois Coach, “Many sports writers credited him with inventing the spiral pass from center, the multiple passes of his flea-flicker play and the screen pass.” Zuppke’s 1927 Illini team was known for its “trick razzle-dazzle plays” like the flea-flicker, Brichford notes.

As for the play’s evocative name? Exactly what it suggests. In their 1967 book Football Lingo, Zander Hollander and Paul Zimmerman — better known as “Dr. Z” — wrote that Zuppke was inspired by the quick movement a dog makes as it tries to shake off fleas.

 

The play call is rare, with just five instances so far in 2018 and 40 in the past five years, according to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. And for good reason: It’s incredibly risky. When it goes right, it will often lead to a big gain, because the defense will have been successfully fooled into covering a running play. That leaves the receivers running downfield wide open — and the quarterback free from pressure. But when a flea-flicker goes wrong, it can result in fumbling the football and, even worse, a turnover. When players do get the chance to attempt it, it makes them a little giddy.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever run a flea-flicker,” Foles said in a postgame press conference after his successful attempt. “It was my first time, so I just tried not to smile.”

“You definitely perk up a bit after getting the call in — and see it with everyone when you call the play,” says former NFL quarterback–turned–Pro Football Focus analyst Zac Robinson. “Nothing extra is said; you try to almost play it cool. You get up to the line, and as soon as you see the defensive look you were hoping for, you know it’s on.” 

Something must have been in the water on Championship Sunday 2018, as two other teams in addition to the Eagles trotted out flea-flickers in their game plans. The Jacksonville Jaguars, feeling good about their 20-10 lead on the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter, completed a 20-yard pass off a flea-flicker. As they mounted a comeback near the end of the game, though, the Patriots pulled out a flea-flicker of their own as they eventually dismantled the Jaguars 24-20. Given how much is at stake, it’s unusual to see a risky trick play like the flea-flicker in the postseason.

So the next time your team’s quarterback takes a snap, watch carefully. He just might be preparing to engage in a bit of 100-year-old trickery.

And the NBA MVP Crown Goes to …

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Two months into the season, the NBA standings are taking shape. We’ve seen the good (Portland), the bad (Washington) and the ugly (Cleveland), with an equitable mix of surprise and the predictable. What won’t be a surprise? The race for basketball’s most prestigious individual award: Most Valuable Player.

Year after year, NBA voters prove the most fickle and easily influenced of any major sport. From Steph Curry’s 2015 win over LeBron James; Russell Westbrook in 2017; Derrick Rose’s rise in 2011; or even to His Airness, Michael Jordan, in 1996, narrative can be just as much a deciding factor in the MVP race as statistics.

And that’s not always a bad thing. The NBA is arguably the most entertaining sports league in the world; there’s certainly no shortage of storylines and content. “It’s only natural for all of us to get caught up in the biggest storylines,” says Turner Sports analyst Reggie Miller. “But that’s what makes this league so great.”

Alas, this means on occasion the game’s greatest superstars can be overlooked come the league’s shiniest award (see: LeBron James in 2008, 2011 and 2015).

But we’re not here to argue for more hardware for Hollywood’s newest Laker. LeBron surely doesn’t need my help. Instead, understanding what the NBA awards voters look for in an MVP will better predict which stars have a legitimate shot to win the 2018–19 trophy. Who has that breakout potential, à la Rose in 2011? Which comeback narrative has the best chance of success and who is ascending basketball’s mountaintop at just the right moment? In short, what’s the MVP shortlist, and which players can we write off before New Year’s? 

Basic Tenets

The MVP must lead a relevant contender. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Westbrook is the best recent example of a loophole, but his was a special case. In the season after his former wingman, Kevin Durant, bolted for the rival Warriors, Westbrook played a full season of full-throttle hero ball, averaging a 30-point triple-double on the season. The voters could hardly contain themselves. This year, no comparable storyline exists. The MVP will come from a title contender. Sorry, Kemba Walker, you and the Charlotte Hornets are out.

Breakout stars earn bonus points. The voters love an underdog, and no recent winner exemplifies this more than Rose in 2011. At 22, Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history that season. He led his upstart Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals, then beat out LeBron and Dwight Howard, who both had better statistical seasons, for the award. That’s not to say Rose didn’t deserve the award, but narrative played a major role. This season, two Eastern Conference breakout candidates apply. Good news, Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee) and Joel Embiid (Philadelphia); your MVP aspirations live on. In the West, Portland’s Damian Lillard qualifies.

The realization of greatness must be recognized. Rose’s breakout season put him on the map, but he still hadn’t established himself as one of the greatest players of his era. But in the 2013–14 season, Kevin Durant did just that, averaging 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. It’s still Durant’s lone MVP award, but it established him as a top two superstar of his generation. This year’s candidates: Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis (New Orleans) and Kawhi Leonard (Toronto).

Sometimes a forceful reclamation of the throne is necessary. When all else fails, the greatest players in the game have to remind the voters who’re boss. Need an example? See Jordan’s fifth MVP run in 1998. Forget awarding based on best narrative; three of the best players in basketball are at the top of their games. Unfortunately for Durant, Curry is his in-house competition. Candidates: James, Durant and Curry.

 

Not Happening 

James Harden: Even if they rebound, Harden’s Rockets are suffering an embarrassing regression. My only word for last season’s MVP is … next!

Russell Westbrook: The Thunder are good, but for them to be truly relevant, Westbrook may need to repeat his 2016–17 triple-double heroics. Not happening.

The Boston Celtics: In addition to killing team chemistry, it turns out that having too many players kills MVP chances too. Sorry, Kyrie Irving.

Kemba Walker: Best point guard in the NBA? Perhaps. One of the 10 “must-watch” attractions in the league? You bet. Walker is a stone-cold assassin. Unfortunately, his Hornets will remain mediocre no matter how bright his star shines.

So, You’re Saying There’s a Chance?

Kawhi Leonard: Leonard will keep improving after missing most of last season, and voters will love what he’s bringing to the first-place Raptors. But it’s not enough.

Kevin Durant: Maybe … but if a Golden State Warrior wins MVP, you can bet it will be Curry.

Nikola Jokic: The unique centerpiece of the West-leading Denver Nuggets is giving the NBA fits this season. Jokic has triple-double ability on any given night. Unfortunately, in today’s NBA, he doesn’t score enough to secure the bag.

Top Five

Joel Embiid: Embiid’s biggest obstacle is his currently underperforming team. The 76ers’ addition of Jimmy Butler could change that, and Embiid’s stat line is a thing of beauty.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Greek Freak’s expected arrival as one of the three best players in the NBA is here. With the Bucks playing inspired ball, he’s a favorite for MVP.

Anthony Davis: A.D. has been a known commodity for a few years, but this feels like his best chance to lead the Pelicans to relevancy since being drafted in 2012. A run in the playoffs could sway voters in Davis’ direction.

Steph Curry: The return of Dominant Steph has been fun to watch this season. He may no longer be a top-five player in the league, or even the best player on his team, but he could certainly prove most valuable. If the Warriors win another title and Curry stays healthy, he’s in the hunt.

LeBron James: As if this requires explanation.

Winner

Giannis Antetokounmpo: Antetokounmpo ticks all the boxes. He’s a generational talent on the verge of a major breakthrough, and his Milwaukee Bucks are a major threat in the Eastern Conference. If he ever gets a three-point shot, Antetokounmpo will hoist way more than one MVP trophy.

The Next Generation of STEM Leaders Hails From … Nebraska?

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It often feels like a new tech startup promising to make our lives better and easier launches every day. Hudl aims to provide analysis tools for coaches and athletes. Alternative payment platform Sezzle helps consumers pay online merchants in interest-free installments. C2FO created the first market for working capital. But these companies aren’t based in the Bay Area or New York City, as you’d expect. Respectively, they’re headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska; Minneapolis; and Kansas City, Missouri. 

“Silicon Prairie” is a term that has become shorthand for how the Midwest is disrupting the grip on the tech industry previously held almost exclusively by coastal cities. Tech companies are increasingly being lured to the rolling plains by everything from lower costs of living to higher quality of life. But if tech companies are going to continue setting up shop in the middle of the country, they’re going to need to draw from a workforce similarly interested in putting down roots in the heartland rather than in California or New York. 

More and more, that workforce is materializing very close to home. We’re now seeing the first generation come of age in the Midwest knowing that a tech career is within arm’s reach. In fact:

Students in Omaha, Nebraska, are outpacing the national average for computer science tutoring requests by a factor of 14.

A recent study conducted by Varsity Tutors, a private online tutoring company based in St. Louis with more than 40,000 tutors and covering more than 1,000 subjects, found that the appetite for science, technology, engineering and math tutoring in Omaha outpaces that of any other location in the country. U.S. Department of Education data from 2015 found that fourth graders in Nebraska — kids who will be in eighth grade in 2019 — far outperformed most students in the country. Nebraska trailed only New Hampshire, Virginia and Vermont for science achievement in education. Also scoring ahead of the national public, according to the survey: students in North Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas and Michigan.   

While the San Francisco Bay Area saw a 3 percent decrease in STEM tutoring from 2017–18, eight of the largest Midwestern cities, including Cincinnati and Indianapolis, saw growth in the sector year-over-year that was more than twice the national average. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of Advanced Placement student test takers in Iowa taking the computer science exam increased by 28 percent. In Kansas, it increased 127.5 percent. 

 

The subjects STEM-oriented students want to learn more about, according to Varsity Tutors CEO Chuck Cohn, are artificial intelligence and machine learning, programming languages, robotics, biology and mathematics. From fourth quarter of 2017 to first quarter of 2018, Varsity Tutors saw 12 times the requests for C++ tutoring. 

“We started seeing a large number of sales in certain Midwest cities,” Cohn says. “Sure enough, the trends related to STEM education in the Midwest were way over-indexed, which was really interesting and not something I would have anticipated.” Varsity Tutors would have over-indexed in New York, San Francisco and other traditional tech hubs. But, as Cohn points out, Midwest cities are recognizing the potential to participate in the tech economy even if they’re not in a tech stronghold.

Maybe we should have all anticipated this trend. A whopping 25 percent of the nation’s computer science graduates hail from the Midwest. And once you look at cost-of-living data, tech’s Midwest expansion makes sense. According to the 2018 C2ER cost-of-living index, the average software engineer in Omaha makes $84,000 annually compared with his or her counterpart in San Francisco, who makes $124,000. But housing is 75 percent cheaper in Omaha, and utilities and groceries are each 25 percent less expensive. 

Of particular interest is the fact that the demand Varsity Tutors is seeing for STEM tutoring is diverse across racial and gender lines. “I’ve worked with enough students to say it’s roughly equal on gender breakdown,” says Chase McCloskey, a mathematician and private tutor with Varsity Tutors. Adds Cohn, “The gender stereotype associated with being a programmer is less than even five years ago. We’ve seen that in math and robotics tutoring.”

To make sure that students from all backgrounds have access to the kind of STEM foundation that can lead to high-paying jobs, Varsity Tutors partners with schools to provide scholarships and is working on providing more live courses that spread the cost out over 10 to 20 students in addition to one-on-one instruction.

Sixty-five percent of children in primary school will one day hold jobs that don’t yet exist, according to the World Economic Forum. And parents are becoming increasingly aware that computer science is a crucial skill that will allow their children to pursue those new career tracks, says Cohn. They may be onto something: According to a 2018 report from Microsoft, “Closing the STEM Gap,” only 36 percent of girls will, of their own volition and without parental encouragement, pursue computer science. 

“Technology has this feedback loop: It makes it easier for students anywhere and everywhere to learn STEM, and it makes tech better because they then possibly work in these fields and create innovation,” says McCloskey. But these fields still have massive racial and gender gaps to close. According to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, though women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, they are severely underrepresented in STEM fields of engineering (14 percent), computer science (25 percent) and physical science (39 percent). In fact, the percentage of women in computer occupations has decreased since 1990, when it was at 32 percent. And though Blacks and Hispanics make up 27 percent of the workforce as of 2016, they account for just 16 percent of those employed in a STEM occupation. 

Varsity Tutors isn’t the only firm that has swooped in to fill the gap — it’s joined by platforms StudyGate, TutorMe, Skooli, edX and Midwest-based Wyzant.

In the end, Amazon may not have chosen a Midwestern city for its new headquarters, but as the cost of living continues to rise in tech’s strongholds, more companies can be expected to look to the vast space and potential the Midwest offers. And when they do, an entire generation of future STEM leaders will be waiting for them.

The NCAA’s Dominance Is Weakening. Enter the G League

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Andre Ingram had spent a decade in the G League before finally getting a two-game shot with the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of the 2017–18 season. He shone. Ingram went 6 for 8 from the field, four of those shots being 3-pointers he sunk with quick-trigger aplomb. Not only was it the kind of performance that typified how he had earned a spot on an NBA roster, but it was the kind of performance that made you wonder where a player like this had been.

The G League — the NBA’s developmental league — was formed in 2001 to act as a minor league farm system for the NBA. For the first time since its inception, the G League is set to offer new “select contracts” for those players looking to make the jump into the NBA who haven’t yet spent a year outside of high school — a current NBA requirement that could be changed by 2022. Select players will receive roughly $135,000 per year in the G League instead of the current average salary for G League players, which is $44,000.

In North American sports, baseball has the most robust minor league system, with multiple tiers. Those in Triple-A, who are most likely to get called up into Major League Baseball, earn about $10,000 a month. Unlike the NBA, MLB recruits prospects right out of high school, allowing them to bypass the NCAA system altogether. The NHL sees a higher percentage of its talent come from the NCAA — 30 percent — while American football, which is only now starting to explore development leagues, drafts nearly all of its players from the NCAA.

It’s clear that the G League is positioning itself to serve as an attractive alternative to college for such players. And, as it turns out, it might be a more reliable path to the NBA. 

The proportion of G League players who make it to the NBA has more than doubled since 2010. It’s now at 20 percent — far higher than the proportion of NCAA players who get there.

Consider this: Only 1.2 percent of 18,712 NCAA basketball players get called up to the NBA. And college basketball players can’t profit off their own likenesses, despite the fact that those same likenesses generate millions of dollars in revenue every year for their programs. 

This fact has led to an antitrust lawsuit in California, Alston v. NCAA. In it, plaintiffs allege that artificially capping the scholarships that can be offered to players prevents colleges from economically competing with one another to acquire talented young athletes. 

If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it could in effect turn the NCAA into a minor league system rather than a collection of amateur student-athletes. Even so, says Kevin Brown of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, if the injunction is granted to create a free market for college players’ services, it likely won’t “substantively change the concern about exploitation and potentially racial exploitation in the current amateur athletic model.”

 

So where does this case leave the G League’s select contracts?

“The fact that the G League is going to offer $135,000 doesn’t really affect the trust issues the California judge is going to decide,” says Matthew Mitten, a professor of law and executive director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. He notes that the NCAA pretty clearly has what’s known as monopsony power — instead of multiple buyers in a market, there is only one buyer —  and it’s “a primary source of demand of playing services of top high school basketball players.” 

So if the select contract is too small a force to pressure a school to change its ways, is it instead a leading indicator of how the sports landscape could begin to change if it were ruled that college athletes should be paid?

“Before the NBA adopted its age requirements,” says Brown, “you did have effectively an open marketplace for kids to come directly from high school — and it didn’t have an impact on the financial bottom line of college ball.” But in today’s “one and done” NBA system, where players must spend a year playing somewhere after high school, the G League can be a legitimate challenger.

Mitten notes that the 1984 case NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma echoes what’s happening with Alston v. NCAA. In the former, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA’s self-regulation of TV rights to college football games violated antitrust law. As a result, colleges began competing among themselves to acquire TV rights.

In this theoretical free market system, the G League select contracts could put pressure on colleges to begin to compete for athletes by offering prospects graduation bonuses or other financial incentives. But while the ruling in Alston v. NCAA looms, for now, the increasing appeal of the G League is part of a pattern of emerging competition for the best amateurs possible. That means future Andre Ingrams will have more choice as to where they can take their talents. 

How the Orange Bowl Gave Miami Its Groove Back

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The Orange Bowl, the annual college football bowl game held each winter, is as Floridian as sunshine. In fact, the trophy awarded to the winners of each year’s game — the second-oldest bowl game in America — is a large glass bowl filled with the tropical fruit. So you may be surprised to learn that Miami’s famous bowl game wasn’t always called the Orange Bowl.

The year was 1932, and Miami couldn’t catch a break. The area had been ravaged by the Great Miami hurricane in 1926 — to the tune of $75 million in property damage (1926 dollars) — which turned the city’s land boom of the 1920s into a land bust, threw developers into bankruptcy and portended the arrival of the Great Depression. The cumulative effects spelled bad luck for Miami’s businesses. Half of the citrus-bearing trees in the area were destroyed, impacting a huge export, and thousands of recent transplants drained their bank accounts and fled the state, sending the banks into bankruptcy. The city needed a way to generate revenue and promote tourism to hasten recovery from the depression. Miami’s most valuable commodity? Sunshine in the dead of winter.

“Miami was and is always a service community,” says Howard Kleinberg, author of Mad Genius: The Biography of Earnie Seiler and the Orange Bowl Stadium. “We have no factories, no major businesses. They had to rely on tourism. The weather worked with them.”

Today, the Orange Bowl is no doubt one of Miami’s most famous offerings, but many fans don’t know about its humble beginning.

 

Mid-winter festivals weren’t a new idea in Miami in 1932, but to that point, the city hadn’t achieved much success with them. In 1926, Miami had put on the Fiesta of the American Tropics, a modest exhibition football game and festival aimed at generating tourism. A group of local businessmen wanted to resurface the idea — but this time, they were thinking bigger, with an eye toward California. Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Game and Rose Parade, held annually since 1916, saw tens of thousands of tourists flock to Southern California in January. So why not Miami?

George E. Hussey, Miami’s official greeter — a PR director of sorts for the city — got the ball rolling. Hussey also worked as the recreational director of Florida Power & Light, where he organized social, musical and athletic events for company employees. As an extension of these roles, Hussey lent his talents to the organization of a football game between the University of Miami and the University of Oregon in December 1929, which Earnie Seiler, a former high school football coach and the recreation director for the city of Miami, had broadcast on local radio. Together, they teamed up with Coral Gables businessman W. Keith Phillips Sr. to plan a football game as part of the 1932 Palm Festival between the University of Miami and Manhattan College. The game was held at Moore Park in northwest Miami — now named Orange Bowl Field at Moore Park after the Orange Bowl committee donated funds to renovate it in 2011.

 

According to Kleinberg, the businessmen convinced some area hotels, such as the Floridian in Miami Beach, to open on the first of the year rather than their usual timing in late January. With Hussey elected president of the First Annual Palm Festival, the 1933 football game attracted an estimated 1,500 spectators — not quite the tourism boom the organizers had hoped. But the work they had done promoting the festival paid off. Journalists from New York papers had flown in to cover the Manhattan College team, and they reported the parade Seiler had organized as recreation director attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000. There were pigeons released from a parade car and a Palm Festival Queen, Marguerite Sweat, who, true to her name, arrived at midfield during halftime inside a cellophane football, completely drenched from the heat and humidity.

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An aerial view of Miami ‘s Orange Bowl Stadium, home of the University of Miami Hurricanes

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In its second installation in January 1934, the Palm Festival Game pitted the University of Miami against Duquesne University. The Hurricanes were not successful — they lost 33–7 — but the festival certainly was, drawing double the crowd of the first.

When Seiler, Hussey and Phillips, among other boosters, met to make plans for the following year’s festival, it was Phillips who suggested that the organizers take a cue from the Rose Bowl and name their event after Florida’s own native bounty — oranges. And thus, the Orange Bowl was born.

The first two Palm Festival football games aren’t recognized by the NCAA as official bowl games, as one team — the University of Miami — was guaranteed a berth. But on January 1, 1935, the first official Orange Bowl game took place between Bucknell and the University of Miami. The Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, also launched on that day. The 1935 game drew a crowd of 5,134, all of whom paid $1 for their general admission tickets and watched the game from wooden bleachers. But on that same day, in Pasadena, 85,000 fans were in attendance at the Rose Bowl to watch Stanford take on Alabama.

The Orange Bowl needed to grow, and fast. So Seiler headed to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding to erect a proper football stadium. He was successful in acquiring a loan from the Public Works Administration, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933, to build a new stadium, and construction began on the Miami Orange Bowl in 1936. It would be the home of the Orange Bowl through 1996, after which the bowl game moved to Hard Rock Stadium. Miami would not fully recover from the economic devastation caused by the land bust and the 1926 hurricane until the 1940s, but the Orange Bowl was an enormous catalyst in that recovery. Estimates show Seiler and the committee’s decision to move Miami’s tourist season up by 30 days in January in the 1930s was responsible for generating $50 million in tourist dollars to Greater Miami by the 1950s. In 2015–16, the Orange Bowl brought $227.2 million in economic impact for South Florida. 

Today, the Orange Bowl is no doubt one of Miami’s most famous offerings, but many fans don’t know about its humble beginning. “It’s a very important institution in Miami, and we don’t have many that go back that far,” says Arva Moore Parks, a Miami historian and preservationist. “We were starting to come back together and get the tourists to come back too.” More than 80 years later, the tourists will be back, indeed, for the December 29 college football semifinal game — drawing 65,000-plus fans.

Love Music and Sports? Then ‘Players’ Is the New Podcast for You

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The pre-performance rituals. The anticipatory butterflies in the stomach. The steady roar of the crowd.

For musicians and athletes, there are a surprising number of parallels between a concert and a game. And when sports journalist and music lover Lindsay Czarniak realized that, she knew she had to find a way to dig deeper into what makes these larger-than-life figures tick. 

That’s the basis of her new podcast with Cadence13, Players With Lindsay Czarniak, which debuted in early November. In each episode, Czarniak sits down with a country music star — guests so far have included Cole Swindell, Chris Young, Lee Brice, Scotty McCreery and Darius Rucker — to discuss the significance of sports in their lives, as well as what motivates them to be a top music “player.”  

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Darius Rucker and Lindsay Czarniak.

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“I think a lot of what makes people feel inspired is when someone becomes relatable,” says Czarniak. She believes that Players talks to people whom some might perceive as superstars and gets “to the core of what has driven them and what they care about.” Essentially, the conversations are based around the topic of sports, “but this really is about people ‘making it,’” she says. 

Guests’ stories are punctuated by laughs, gasps and other asides from Czarniak.

 

It was years ago that Czarniak, a former ESPN SportsCenter anchor and broadcast reporting vet, started exploring her separate interests in both sports and music, and brainstorming the ways she might be able to get an artist and an athlete together to talk about the similar forces that drive them. “There are so many different themes that weave through both worlds,” she says. Podcast episodes so far have touched on everything from the similarities in athletes’ and musicians’ hype-up routines to handling rejection to the importance of parental encouragement in high-profile career pursuits.

 

Initially, Czarniak assumed the project would be within her traditional wheelhouse — television and sports. But when a friend in the industry told her that a lot of country music artists would love to talk about sports, she opted not to renew her contract with ESPN in 2017 and started exploring the idea of launching a podcast, a new medium for her. She fell in love with the format, where longer conversations inevitably take a different direction from the planned one. Guests’ stories are punctuated by laughs, gasps and other asides from Czarniak, keeping the conversation fresh and not overproduced. 

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Lindsay Czarniak records an episode of the podcast with Darius Rucker.

Source Lindsay Czarniak

To wit, in one episode, country star and former American Idol winner McCreery discusses his New England sports fandom — a topic you might expect given the podcast’s central conceit. But he also shares other stories about his life. After becoming Idol’s youngest male winner ever, McCreery returned to Garner High School in North Carolina for his senior year, where the public school system insisted on two armed guards accompanying him at every moment — which alienated his friends. “I was just trying to be normal again … and none of my friends would talk to me,” he tells Czarniak. Needless to say, McCreery soon dispensed with the security detail. 

As for what the podcast could evolve into, Czarniak says she and her creative team are “not going to say no to anything.” It’s possible that future seasons could feature athletes talking about their favorite musicians, or getting athletes and musicians together in the same room for a joint conversation. But five episodes in, Czarniak is “really excited about the concept as it is right now.” So too apparently are listeners — the 67 reviews on Apple Podcasts average 5 stars. They’re also offering suggestions — such as having the artists bring on an acoustic guitar and play a bar or two of a song. 

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Cole Swindell and Lindsay Czarniak.

Source Lindsay Czarniak

Sports fans will love Players for the insight it lends into which musicians share their rooting interests (Miami Dolphins fans, for example, may feel a particular kinship with Rucker). Music lovers will appreciate Players for the treasure trove of little-known personal stories the guests share. And if you happen to love sports and music? Well, this crossover podcast is currently the only one out there that incorporates both. 

Players With Lindsay Czarniak episodes are available to subscribe to and listen to for free through Apple PodcastsSpotify, Google Podcasts and more. Episodes range from 45 minutes to an hour. 

Want more podcast recommendations? Check out the rising trend of true crime satire and the feminist sports podcast that’s heating up