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The condition of MLBPA Exec Dir Michael Weiner, who is battling a brain tumor, is "not improving," and union officials have "discussed the possibility of a return" of Donald Fehr, according to sources cited by Jeff Passan of YAHOO SPORTS. Fehr held the top spot with the baseball union from '83-'09, and whether he "would consider rejoining the union in a senior management role or as an advisor is unclear." Sources said that Fehr has "neither discussed a return nor has any inclination to leave the NHLPA," where he currently serves as Exec Dir. However, sources said that Fehr's name has "surfaced as baseball union officials aim for the delicate balance between hatching a contingency plan and respecting Weiner's continued work on MLBPA business." Both Fehr and the MLBPA declined comment. Passan noted Fehr is one of a "number of names being considered" if Weiner's health worsens. A source said that Weiner "plans on attending" both Monday's Home Run Derby and Tuesday's All-Star Game at Citi Field (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 7/11).
There has been growing concern in the NHL over the past several years about the "possibility of top European players opting to remain or return overseas," and Devils RW Ilya Kovalchuk appears to be the "first elite talent to make the move," according to Katie Carrera of the WASHINGTON POST. Kovalchuk Thursday announced he was retiring from the NHL and "walking away" from $77M in future salary "that he was to receive over the final 12 years of his contract." Russian magazine Sovetsky Sport reported Kovalchuk will "play in the KHL for SKA St. Petersburg, where he played during the lockout" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 7/11). CBSSPORTS.com's Adam Gretz noted Kovalchuk will be the "biggest name in the NHL to bolt" for the KHL and the "only top-line player to do so in the prime of his career other than" Predators RW Alexander Radulov (CBSSPORTS.com, 7/11). USA TODAY's Kevin Allen writes Kovalchuk's "defection likely will affect young Russian players for years to come." Over the last few years, there "seems to be a growing reluctance to draft Russians, for fear that they will return home to play or will use the KHL for negotation leverage." Last month, Russian RW Valeri Nichushkin was drafted No. 10 overall by the Stars "when many scouts believed he had the talent to land in the top five" (USA TODAY, 7/12).
COLD WAR: In Toronto, Kevin McGran notes Kovalchuk has already signed his retirement papers, "exploiting a loophole that will prevent a KHL-NHL war, keep the 30-year-old Kovalchuk eligible to play in the Olympics and maybe even save the financially struggling New Jersey Devils a ton of money." Had he "bolted, the Devils simply could have suspended him, retaining his rights." Had he signed with a KHL team "while still under contract with the Devils it would have violated rules governing an agreement between the NHL and KHL not to poach each other’s players." It is a "coup for the KHL." Other big names have "played there, mostly through the lockout or because they didn’t have an NHL contract" (TORONTO STAR, 7/12). NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly in an e-mail wrote, "There would be no [contractual] conflict. (He’s) free to sign and play in another league" (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 7/12).
DEVILS IN THE DETAILS: THE HOCKEY NEWS' Ken Campbell wrote under the header, "Kovalchuk Retirement A Little Too Convenient For All Involved." With "one stroke of the pen, Ilya Kovalchuk gets out of the last 12 years of his 15-year deal with the New Jersey Devils to go home and play in the KHL and the riddled-in-debt Devils break free from a burdensome contract they could neither afford to pay or buy out." Campbell: "And everyone seems to think this is just fine and dandy, that this is an acceptable way to do business. Well, OK. Carry on then" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 7/11). In Newark, Steve Politi writes this is "an absolute disaster." The Devils "went all-in on Kovalchuk when they acquired him" in a '10 trade with the Thrashers. They "gave up three players and their first-round pick in that draft to rent the high-scoring forward for the rest of the season." Then they signed Kovalchuk to "a massive contract as a free agent that offseason, essentially picking him over fan favorite Zach Parise as the face of the franchise." Meanwhile, the contract to Kovalchuk "so infuriated the NHL for circumventing the salary cap that the league docked the team a first-round draft pick" (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 7/12).
Major League Lacrosse is in Charlotte this weekend for its annual All-Star Game, presented by Moe’s Southwest Grill, and MLL Commissioner David Gross spent an hour with the SBD/SBJ editorial staff Thursday afternoon discussing the state of the eight-team league. Gross tackled several different issues, including expansion, TV exposure and expectations for Saturday’s game.
On emerging markets:
“We see the South as an emerging market for lacrosse and we’ve done everything we can, really since 2008, to plant our flag in the Southeast. We played a game in Cary, N.C., in 2008 and went back in 2010. We put the team in Charlotte last year. Also in our Southern expansion plans, we put our All-Star Game last year in Boca Raton, the first time we took All-Star to a market where we didn’t have a team. The whole reason was to test it out. For years, people have been saying, ‘Come to Florida. It’ll do so well.’ Boca was a positive experience. So this year we took (regular-season) games and played them in Boca, Tampa and Atlanta. Our next expansion is going to be in the South for the next couple of teams. There’s no better way to test it.”
On expansion plans:
“Sixteen teams. That’s what we’d like to grow to. The one thing we’ve learned is that you can’t expand for expansion's sake. The most important thing for us right now is stability rather than more teams. Every young league, teams come and go. We’ve got to show stability. … We thought St. Louis was ripe for a team. We took a game there and it bombed. It took us three games in Columbus before we put a team there. We want to keep testing before we make a move like that.”
On the league’s model organization:
“We’d be fools not to say the Denver Outlaws. They just had 31,000 people at their game on July 4. It was the largest-attended game in the country. When that team started in 2006, lacrosse wasn’t that big out there. … You’ve got great ownership, great management. They’ve been a sales-driven organization since Day One and they use every amenity they have available to them at Sports Authority Field. Not everyone walking into that stadium is a lacrosse fan; a lot of them went to see fireworks last week. But at the end of the day, (we do) whatever we have to do to bring people in. Because once you see it, you like it.”
On the importance of televising games:
“We’ve been huge believers in broadcasting. Starting in 2008, we made the commitment that we’re going to put every game on TV. Someway, somehow, people are going to be able to see it. We could run a national ad campaign for a couple of million dollars, but then in a snap, it’s gone. We could take that same money and produce all the games ourselves, so that’s what we did. When we started, we had some of the worst distribution imaginable. We couldn’t get on cable access at first. Now, of our 60 games, 43 percent are on national TV. You’ve got six on ESPN2, 20 on CBS Sports Network, we syndicate 19. We’ve got all 19 syndicated games on MSG now, and they wouldn’t take a game a couple of years ago. We have games syndicated in Kansas City, and we don’t have a team there. Then we have 15 games we experimented with on YouTube. We also take all the ESPN and syndicated games and stream those on ESPN3. Again, the whole philosophy is to let people see it. If they see it, they’ll like it, and it’ll help us grow.”
On the state of facilities hosting MLL teams:
“A lot of our teams play in college facilities. … We have a wide range of sizes. We have as few as 5,400 seats to a high of 68,000 in Denver. I’ve found what I would consider the ideal venue for the league at Kennesaw State University. It was built for soccer and is being renovated for the football program they’re starting up. It’s 8,500 seats, it’s built tight to the field, space around the field to hold tournaments and other events for kids, suites, video board, a great sound system. If I had my wish, we’d replicate that model in 16 different markets across the country."
On expectations for this weekend’s All-Star Game:
“Everyone asks what (attendance) number will make it good. To me, it’s more about everyone’s reaction walking out the door. If they sampled lacrosse and thought it was OK, that’s not a positive weekend. If they walk out saying they can’t believe what they just saw, that’s a great weekend. I like to stand at the gates as people come out. We’ll probably have 5,000 people there -- if the weather holds -- but it’s more the fans’ reaction. Anybody can do a one-off. Look at the XFL. I don’t know of anything that had the hype that thing had. They did a 10 rating that first game? And they were doing a 1 at the end? You’ve got to do these things organically.”
The independent Atlantic League is searching for a new president following a recent vote to restructure the baseball league's leadership. Current league president and Opening Day Partners Chair Peter Kirk, who operates five Atlantic League franchises, and league Founder & CEO Frank Boulton will remain as a league director and members of the Exec Committee. The league is seeking a new structure in which the president does not have business ties with any particular franchise. "It is time we assume a more traditional form of governance with a leader who is independent of team ownership," Boulton said in a statement. "This is a step the league has been considering for some time." The new president will oversee all business affairs of the league and spearhead ongoing national expansion plans. The Atlantic League last year grew from its traditional Northeast and Mid-Atlantic base with the creation of the Sugar Land Skeeters in suburban Houston.
In West Palm Beach, Brian Biggane profiles PGA Tour Honda Classic Exec Dir Ken Kennerly and writes that he has "simply outworked his rivals." Kennerly took over the role in '06 and gave the tournament "a permanent home at PGA National." When IMG "went looking for a tournament to align itself with in recent years," it was not "an accident it settled on the Honda." IMG took over the event in April with its acquisition of IGP Sports & Entertainment Group. IMG Golf Global co-Managing Dir Guy Kinnings said, "In the last seven or eight years, the Honda has improved on so many levels. We have a huge respect for the people that run that operation, and when we looked at it, we said, 'That's the one, it's perfect for us.'" Kinnings "promises little will change about the tournament going forward" as Kennerly assumes the new title of IMG North America Senior VP. Kennerly said that he has "been told the same, that the message has been 'Don't mess with the Honda'" (PALM BEACH POST, 7/12).
SENIOR MOMENTUM: In Omaha, Steve Jordon reports the U.S. Senior Open "ended up with 62 companies" spending $5.6M in sponsorship of the event, "a corporate support record for the senior golf circuit." Jordon: "From those millions in corporate sponsorships to the $9.76 million worth of new Lexuses cruising around Omaha and from the $2 million in spectator ticket sales so far to the high school kids making $9 an hour plus tips for selling lemonade, the Senior Open's success is measured not only by breaking par but also by banking pennies" (OMAHA WORLD-HERALD, 7/12).
IN IT FOR THE LONG RUN: In Toledo, Evan Brune writes LPGA Marathon Classic officials are "quick to debunk a rumor" that the event "will move to Cincinnati" in '15. Tournament Exec Dir Judd Silverman said, "Most ridiculous statement I've ever heard. We (Toledo Classic Inc.) have a multiyear contract with Marathon." LPGA Chief Communications Officer Kraig Kann said, "As for Cincinnati, we would love to find our way into that market as it is a fantastic sports community with great golf fans, but nothing is imminent at this time" (TOLEDO FREE PRESS, 7/12).