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The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins the Chase for the Cup this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway with the sanctioning body still "trying to sort out suspicious radio traffic" from last Saturday night's race at Richmond and its stars "seeking clarity on what qualifies as unlawful etiquette after an unfolding scandal that has rocked the sport," according to Nate Ryan of USA TODAY. Radio transmissions surfaced Wednesday from the channel of driver David Gilliland that "hinted at a deal with fellow Ford team Penske Racing that allowed Joey Logano to gain a spot in the closing laps" of Saturday's race. Logano "pleaded ignorance of the communication Thursday, but the Penske Racing driver also downplayed the controversy because he would have finished 10th in the standings if he hadn't gained a position on Gilliland." Ryan reports some fans "didn't seem to agree Thursday, as Logano drew a smattering of boos while virtually all Chase drivers, including brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, roundly were applauded at a Q&A event." There also "was heckling" for Clint Bowyer, who denied spinning his car out intentionally during Saturday's event. When a question was asked of Bowyer about what people were expecting from him in the Chase, a fan yelled out, "To spin out!" Two Michael Waltrip Racing sponsors this week said that they were "re-evaluating investments with the team after NASCAR deemed it guilty of manipulation." Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of the penalties levied against MWR, "That was a heavy impact, and I think that sent shock waves through the sport. Once we get a little further past this and realize how big a deal that was for [Martin] Truex to be moved out, how big for his team, organization and sponsors. It's going to be profound. That's going to deter a lot of people from trying to manipulate a race going forward like that" (USA TODAY, 9/13). In Richmond, Billy Fellin writes under the header, "Black Cloud Hovers Over NASCAR" (RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, 9/13).
CHANGING TIMES: In N.Y., Ben Strauss writes the "outrage has put NASCAR's unwritten rules on trial." Drivers have "long allowed teammates to pass them, or even take the lead for a number of laps, to earn points in the standings." But the "difference with the reaction to Saturday’s race appeared to be a combination of the stakes of the Chase, the overwhelming evidence and the fact that the outcome of the race was affected." Driver Ryan Newman said, “It’s been a part of our sport for a long time, but manipulating the race to change the outcome is an entirely different perspective, an entirely different situation." Driver Jimmie Johnson: “If you’re bold enough to make that direct an admission on the radio, then you’re going to pay the price" (N.Y. TIMES, 9/13). Earnhardt said of the scandal, "It's gotten a ton of traction. Sometimes as much as it's been a tough week on NASCAR and having to make some tough decisions, it's definitely got a lot of people paying attention to this race this weekend." But USA TODAY's Ryan wonders if it is "potentially a death knell for its credibility that needs to be addressed immediately." Ryan: "Might it actually be a positive as another compelling curiosity of a sport fueled figuratively and literally by its car-wreck appeal?" (USA TODAY, 9/13).
Falcons Owner Arthur Blank is "in significant discussions" with MLS about "bringing an expansion franchise to Atlanta," according to Doug Roberson of the ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. Sources said that the recent approval of the Falcons' new stadium "accelerated the talks between Blank and the league." The construction of the stadium is scheduled to be finished in '17, and the two parties have "discussed opening the facility with an MLS game when the season begins in March." Included in the contracts for the Falcons’ new stadium "are provisions for a yet-to-be-established MLS team." MLS wants to "add four expansion franchises" between '15-20, which would bring it to 24 teams. MLS Commissioner Don Garber on Wednesday said three of those four franchises "are spoken for." A source said Atlanta's expansion fee would be close to $100M. Roberson reports the city has "long been considered a possible spot for an expansion team because it is a top-10 media market of more than 5 million people, and soccer is popular in the area." MLS does not currently have a franchise in the Southeast, and Garber has repeatedly said that the league "can't be considered national until it has a team in the region" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 9/13). SI.com's Brian Straus notes it is "unclear whether Blank’s MLS team would launch in 2017 or join the league earlier and play in a temporary home." The new stadium is "being designed with a wide, soccer-friendly field and MLS locker rooms," and it also may "feature a secondary retractable roof system that will cover the upper tiers, leaving approximately 27,000 seats available for league games." Blank was one of seven potential MLS owners who "bid for an expansion team" back in '08-09, but Atlanta lost out to the Timbers and Whitecaps (SI.com, 9/13).
SO KLOSE, YET SO FAR AWAY: FS1's Eric Wynalda noted German F Miroslav Klose has received offers from several MLS clubs to be their Designated Player when his contract with Serie A club Lazio expires and said, "He's 35 years old. This is not a retirement league, but the perception of reality will outweigh the reality of the situation if he comes and plays in this league." Wynalda: "I get it and all the things he has been as a player, but I'm sorry. He's a has-been. He doesn't belong in a league that's growing and going in the right direction and spending money on younger talent and players that -- let’s just quite frankly say it -- are American." FS1's Cobi Jones said signing Klose "would be a step backwards" because the MLS is at a point where the league "doesn’t want to go back to bringing over foreign players" that are in the downside of their careers ("Fox Soccer Daily," FS1, 9/12).
Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez, a player MLB would "rather vaporize than promote," has been named the "face of baseball," according to Turnkey poll data cited by Jayson Stark of ESPN.com. Turnkey surveyed 1,028 fans from Aug. 20-22 asking who they thought was the face of the league, and "without being offered any options, respondents gravitated first and foremost" to Rodriguez. The three-time MVP garnered 22% of the vote, far more than Yankees SS Derek Jeter, who finished second with 12% of the vote.
THE FACE OF BASEBALL
NAME% Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez22% Yankees SS Derek Jeter12% Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera9% Angels CF Mike Trout3% Red Sox DH David Ortiz2% Angels 1B Albert Pujols2% Reds 1B Joey Votto2% Baseball HOFer Babe Ruth2% Giants C Buster Posey1% Nationals RF Bryce Harper1% Mets 3B David Wright1% Yankees P Mariano Rivera1% Former Braves 3B Chipper Jones1% NOTE: Eleven percent of respondents chose "None"
Stark noted the timing of the survey "was everything," and "virtually all of the sports-business authorities we consulted for this piece agreed." The survey was "conducted during a period when A-Rod news was pretty much everywhere, from 'SportsCenter' to the 'Today' show." Only 17% of fans who lived within 20 miles of an MLB ballpark "picked A-Rod as their Face," compared to 25% of those who "lived more than 100 miles away." But when the survey was split into self-described avid fans versus casual fans, casual fans who "lived more than 20 miles from a big league stadium were more than twice as likely (30 percent) to choose A-Rod as their Face than avid fans who lived within 20 miles (15 percent)." Univ. of Oregon Warsaw Sports Marketing Center Dir Paul Swangard said the Rodriguez vote indicates the recent coverage of MLB's PED issues has "absorbed so much attention that baseball can't get out from under its own shadow." Stark noted Turnkey gave the same survey respondents a "list of 29 active players -- a list that did NOT include Alex Rodriguez -- and asked them to choose up to three players they would identify as the Face of Baseball today." Jeter "not only got the most votes, he got nearly as much support (38 percent) as the next two players combined" in Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera and Red Sox DH David Ortiz (ESPN.com, 9/11).
SELIG'S SCOURGE: ESPN N.Y.'s Wallace Matthews wrote Rodriguez' status as the face of baseball is "terrible news" for MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, because to Selig, "A-Rod is a four-letter word." The fact that "more baseball fans, casual and otherwise, consider him to be the ultimate representative of his game has got to be Selig's worst nightmare." Being the face of baseball "doesn't necessarily mean one is popular;" all it means is "when Americans think of baseball, the name Alex Rodriguez comes to mind" (ESPNNY.com, 9/12).
The NFL’s decision to expand to two games in London this season was based heavily on its data and analysis, according to the league’s Research Dir Alicia Rankin. In her address at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in Boston on Thursday, Rankin noted there are now 12.4 million NFL fans in the U.K. since the Int'l Series was first played in London in ’07, which she called “sizable growth,” while the “avid fan” base since ’09 has “almost nearly doubled.” Rankin: “Fans are just engaging more in the TV ratings side, buying merchandise, the websites; it’s actually been across the board. Game Pass, which is our international online product -- we’re seeing more usage, more subscribers in that.” Rankin hopes with the Jaguars committed to playing four games in London over the next four seasons, interest will grow around one team making repeat visits. “Having a favorite team is really critical in growing that fan base. You’re more likely to consume them on TV, more likely to consume their products, their merchandise,” Rankin said. Thus far, the league’s research shows the Jaguars' British-based fan club, the Union Jax, has grown to nearly 10,000 since its inception in April. While the NFL in recent years has made a push to diversify the fan base gender stateside, attendees at Wembley still largely skew male -- with 88% of those in the stadium men for last year’s game, which was consistent with previous years. In addition, most of those attending are repeat customers, with a total of 67% attending multiple games. Rankin hopes that trend continues with the Jaguars being a consistent team playing in London. “There’s an awareness that they’re going to be there for four years, which is important. There’s a significant number of fans who are starting to feel more interested in them as a team and feel more favorable to them as a team. It’s just a matter of having them come back every year and see their interest grow and see their sales continue to grow as well.”
ROOM FOR GROWTH ACROSS THE CONTINENT: Rankin noted room for growth exists across Europe, as the NFL is behind other sports that have long been invested in the continent. “We’re not number one, so it’s always a challenge to make sure you’re getting that media coverage that you want. Not just from the two games that are being played, but all year round.” But she pointed out that since the first Int'l Series game in the U.K., viewership has increased nearly 40%. She added of an additional challenge, “We’re trying to get people to understand the sport. It’s a lot about just education.” Outside of London, Rankin notes the next largest international fan bases are in Canada and Mexico. But she stressed the league currently is “focused on the U.K.” Rankin highlighted why the U.K. is ripe for NFL involvement: “There’s a great appreciation for American sports over there. I think we’ve done a great job of marketing the sport. They’re familiar with American football coming over from the ‘80s and ‘90s from our NFL Europe days, so it’s not a completely new concept to them. And the London Monarchs did quite well in their day, so it’s kind of bringing that back.” Moving forward, Rankin notes her department will focus on evaluating the decision to add a second game this year in London, analyze the impact of the Jaguars playing over four seasons and explore other U.K. venues in which to play.