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Key Vikings to Watch in Training Camp

July 21, 2022 - (0) comments

 

Asked to name several Vikings that fans should evaluate this summer, Jeff Diamond began his list with tight end Irv Smith Jr. who missed all of last season because of a knee injury. Diamond, the former Vikings general manager who was the 1998 NFL Executive of the Year, talked with Smith during mini-camp and believes the 2019 second round draft choice is healthy.

Irv Smith Jr.

Diamond sees a “load of talent” in Smith. He predicts a potential “huge year” as a pass catcher not only because of Smith’s skills but the wide receiver duo of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen commands so much attention.

Center Garrett Bradbury is working to increase his weight and trying to fulfill the potential expected when the Vikings selected him in the first round of the 2019 draft. “He’s just got to be more consistent and a better player,” Diamond told Sports Headliners yesterday. “He’s got the talent to do it if he does put on the weight. He’s really a key guy in that offensive line.”

Diamond said there is intrigue at right guard to see who will start.  The candidate pool could include newcomers Jesse Davis, Ed Ingram and Chris Reed.

Not only is there an injury watch with Smith on offense but on defense, too with pass rushing demons Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, both outside linebackers. “If those guys are healthy, then the pass rush is going to be there,” Diamond said. “If they’re not, it’s really going to be hard for the secondary to be able to hold up.”

Players in the secondary fill out Diamond’s list of intriguing personnel for fans to watch as training camp opens next week and preseason games are played in August. Andrew Booth Jr., the cornerback from Clemson, had his college progress slowed by a series of injuries. The Vikings selected him in the second round of last spring’s draft but Diamond wonders if Booth has first round talent and might start at corner as a rookie replacing Cameron Dantzler.

Diamond also said to watch who emerges as the team’s second safety along with Harrison Smith. Camryn Bynum has a year of NFL experience but there are high expectations for 2022 first round pick Lewis Cine.

Worth Noting

Depending on how the tight ends, including Smith, look the first week or so in training camp the Vikings might have had interest in signing Kyle Rudolph. The former Vikings starter played for the Giants last year but has signed as a free agent with the Bucs as of yesterday.

Rudolph, 32, replaces retired legend Rob Gronkowski and will be catching passes from GOAT Tom Brady. Diamond could see Rudolph in Tampa Bay with the Bucs before it happened. “I wouldn’t be surprised. I think he could potentially be a good fit there.”

Former Vikings wide receiver standout Stefon Diggs now with the Bills and his brother Trevon Diggs, a star cornerback with the Cowobys, are on the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. Stefon’s career was controversial with the Vikings where he wanted a bigger role in the offense.

In the article Stefon said he has no problem with his former team. “I just needed a change in scenery,” he said.

The Vikings sent a news release today announcing 99 percent of season tickets have been renewed. Single game tickets go on sale July 28 and can be purchased on the team’s website. https://www.vikings.com/tickets/single-game-tickets

Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, whose home run gave the American League a ninth consecutive win over the National League Tuesday night, is hitting .216 this season. That has to be among the lowest batting averages ever for a starting player in the All-Star Game.

Yahoo.com reports TV viewership at 7.51 million was the lowest ever for baseball’s showcase but still higher than the 2022 NFL Pro Bowl and NBA All-Star Game.

Chet Holmgren, the former Minnehaha Academy prep All-American, has signed a reported four-year deal with the NBA Thunder that could be worth over $44 million. If Holmgren, the 2022 No. 2 overall NBA draft pick, has an all-star career he could eventually approach $1 billion in salary earnings based on how compensation is accelerating for top players.

The Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, who this summer signed a reported $224 million super max contract extension, isn’t the best player on the team, according to The Athletic. The authority’s rankings of top 125 NBA players has newly acquired center Rudy Gobert at No. 16. Towns, Minnesota’s veteran power-forward and center, is ranked at No. 35.

Gobert, acquired in a block buster trade this summer with the Jazz, has a reported $205 million deal he signed with his former team. Gobert is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and averaged a career-best 15.6 points last season.

Local fans have been waiting since 2019 for news Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson would one day headline the 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities. They won’t be here for the 2022 tournament this week and likely not in the future either. Both legends are aging, with Woods having a difficult recovery from his severe auto accident and Mickelson now aligned with golf upstart LIV.

The 3M and other PGA Tour stops are impacted now because of LIV signing up players. The 3M doesn’t have a top 10 ranked player in the tournament. Ticket buyers may be as intrigued to see players with regional ties like Troy Merritt and Mardy Fish than they are to watch No. 14 Hideki Matsuyama and No. 17. Tony Finau.

Juli Inkster

One of golf’s best role models comes to town August 13-14 for the second annual Land O’Lakes Legends Classic presented by The Meadows at Mystic Lake. Defending champion Juli Inkster is a 31-time LPGA Tour champion with seven major championship titles.

Inkster, 62, is a past winner of the Patty Berg Award, named after the Minneapolis golf legend and given to players who exemplify the best in sportsmanship, goodwill and contributions to golf among women players. Inkster is a three time world champion and hall of famer who participated in nine Solheim Cups. She was honored by ESPN with the ESPY Award for Outstanding Women’s Golf Performer of the Year in 2002.

The Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon celebrates its 40th anniversary Sunday, October 2. Youth 18 and under can register at no cost. Organizers bill the marathon as the “largest sporting event in the Upper Midwest” with 300,000-plus spectators and several thousand runners.

 

Oliva Not Sweating Big Speech July 24

July 12, 2022 - (0) comments

 

What a July this will be for Tony Oliva. His 84th birthday will be July 20 and the experience of a lifetime comes four days later when the former Twins batting champion is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

“I think it’s exciting because only a few people are able to get into the Hall of Fame,” Oliva told Sports Headliners during a telephone interview.

A week from Sunday, July 24, Oliva will join other baseball legends as part of a seven-member induction class that also includes former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat, now 83 years old. Both Oliva and Kaat were elected by the Golden Era Committee after decades of waiting for the Hall of Fame call. The two first met in the Instructional League in 1961.

Oliva, who was an American League All-Star for eight consecutive seasons from 1964-1971, said several days ago he was still working on his acceptance speech that can be about 10 minutes long. Despite its importance, the easy-going Minnesotan isn’t over thinking the speech. “I think it’s going to be a piece of cake because I’ve been waiting 45 years,” he said lightly while referencing the Hall of Fame honor.

Oliva knows speeches can change on the fly when it’s finally time to deliver them. “People say when you get there the speech is a whole (lot) different.”

But he was clear during the interview that a focus of the speech will be other people, including fans. “I don’t want to speak about myself, about what I think of me.”

On that soon to arrive Sunday in upstate New York Oliva will express his gratitude for what has been a remarkable journey from his native Cuba to the United States where he saw his first professional baseball game in 1961 as a minor leaguer and faced not only challenges on the field but also learning a new language and acclimating to a different culture. “I think if I have an opportunity to say thank you, it’s going to be good enough, and the people understand the rest,” Oliva said.

His story is well-known to many Twins fans, particularly to older generations. He worked on the family farm in his native Cuba helping grow tobacco. In 1961 he made a splash as a first year prospect, hitting .410 with Wytheville, Virginia in the low minor leagues. Three years later he had a gold standard rookie season with the Twins as the club’s starting right fielder.

Oliva was honored as the 1964 American League Rookie of the Year after his .323 average won the league batting championship. He was tops in the majors in hits and total bases, and led the AL in runs scored and doubles. His hits total of 217 is the fourth highest in MLB history among rookies. He followed up in 1965 by again winning the AL batting title, the first player in MLB history to win the crown his first two seasons in the majors.

Tony Oliva

A three-time batting champion with a .304 lifetime average, Oliva played 15 MLB seasons and all of them were with the Twins. At about 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, the left-handed hitting terror was among the most difficult batters in baseball for pitchers to face. He not only could hit to all fields and knock the ball over the fence (career high 32 home runs as a rookie), but he also frustrated pitchers by putting balls thrown out of the strike zone into play with his trademark line drives.

Oliva’s career after baseball has all been with the Twins including as a coach, hitting instructor, color analyst on Spanish radio broadcasts and as an ambassador for his beloved franchise. A Bloomington resident, Oliva and his wife Gordette have made Minnesota home for more than five decades. With a ready smile and welcoming disposition, Tony-O seemingly has made enough friends among Minnesotans to fill Target Field.

The affection goes both ways. “Since I came in here to Minnesota the people have been very nice to me and I love Minnesota,” Oliva said. “My family is here. My wife is from South Dakota. She grew up almost here because she came out to Minnesota when she was 18. …”

At Oliva’s induction he will be joined by perhaps 50 family members but not many from Cuba where he still has siblings. A brother, Juan Carlos, is in Miami by way of Cuba and will journey to Cooperstown. But for most of Oliva’s aging siblings who still live on the Caribbean island, upstate New York is a difficult place to reach.

Expected to be in attendance will be a Twins delegation likely to include close friend and former teammate Rod Carew. In Carew’s autobiography One Tough Out he expressed what so many people feel about Oliva when he wrote:

“Tony has never met a stranger. The warmth he exudes could light a cigar from the lush tobacco fields he grew up surrounded by in Cuba. He taught me things like how to knot a tie and where to eat on the road. Any question I had, about baseball or life, he answered. Sometimes he provided advice before I even realized I needed it.”

A badly injured knee cut short Oliva’s legacy career, reducing him to a player who struggled to run and sometimes a role as a designated or pinch hitter. He had surgery on his right knee eight times in the last five years of his career.

Not only did injury rob him of his skills too soon, but he also played before the big money era of modern day baseball. He made $7,000 his rookie season and never earned more than $100,000.

Asked if he wishes he had played at a time like today when modern orthopedics might have sustained his success and career, you get a typical Oliva response—an acceptance of what was. “This was my time. I think my time was perfect.”

Oliva has a simple approach to life. He takes much of life as it comes, staying in the present, and doesn’t seem anxious about the future. Asked if he was concerned about losing control of his emotions during the speech he answered, “You know something like that I don’t worry about because I don’t know what is going to happen.”

This won’t qualify as breaking news but Oliva said that since last December when word broke about his induction he hasn’t changed, although fans may look at him differently. “Now they call me Hall of Fame. Before they used to call me T.O. or No. 6. I think for me, I still the same.”

 

Pay Coming for U Football Players, Others?

July 10, 2022 - (0) comments

 

It looks more and more like Power Five football players, including the Gophers, will in the future be paid for their services on the field. National and local authorities are talking about these athletes sharing in the riches of major college football.

“There will be pay-for-play, in my opinion, in the near future,” Joel Maturi told Sports Headliners. The former Gophers athletics director offered that view while making it clear he isn’t speaking for the University of Minnesota or other schools.

Former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu said the change to employee status could come as soon as the 2024 season. The timing will be driven by litigation in the courts versus voluntary change by commissioners and school leaders in the Power Five conferences.

New NCAA policy now allows schools to provide financial support to student-athletes for academic success. The Gophers plan to institute the policy in the fall and it goes beyond the scholarship benefits student-athletes have long received. Schools are allowed to pay out up to $5,980 per year to an athlete. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago opened the door for schools to pay athletes.

The times are changing fast in college sports and there is a wave of new found freedoms for student-athletes. The transfer portal allows athletes to become free agents on a whim, with thousands choosing new schools where they have immediate eligibility. The Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) phenomenon is allowing athletes to monetize their success on the field or the court with endorsements, personal appearances and other marketing.

The recent announcement of USC and UCLA to join the Big Ten starting in 2024 may provide momentum to the pay-for-play movement. “Yes, I think it puts pressure on them (the schools) to voluntarily collectively bargain,” Hsu told Sports Headliners.

USC and UCLA, based in Los Angeles, give a soon to be 16-member Big Ten a TV presence in the nation’s three largest markets, New York, L.A. and Chicago. The Big Ten’s media rights deal expires in 2023 and adding the two California programs, including an elite football brand in USC, only increases the riches expected in the next TV bonanza.

Hsu, an outspoken advocate for compensating athletes, said that before the Big Ten’s announced expansion there was speculation each Big Ten school could receive up to $110 million annually. Now there should be even more money coming into athletic departments including at Minnesota. “It’s the TV people driving all of this,” said Hsu who was an early advisor to the Minnesota-based College Football Players Association.

The new TV windfall could easily be double the $50 million or so payout the Gophers receive in the present Big Ten rights agreement. Maturi predicted the new deal will be a lot more than the entire athletic department budget of about $56 million in place when he was hired at Minnesota in 2002.

The Big Ten’s expansion is further strengthening its position as a super conference. It’s a league with a great legacy and fan following, with more eyeballs likely watching its football teams in 2024 than ever before. Big Ten football has long been a business but it’s becoming more so, with Hsu and others wanting to see players compensated for their efforts.

“When you put players on airplanes to fly them six hours coast-to-coast to play games…to say they’re student-athletes and not employees—I think it’s going to put further pressure on that definition,” Hsu said in reference to Big Ten expansion. “I think it’s going to put further pressure on the fact that everyone is looking at where the money is going…the players are going to start realizing that really this NIL stuff is a joke compared to how much they’re worth actually to the teams that they’re playing for.”

Pay-for-play could take on various models. Hourly pay has been discussed as well as salaries. Bonuses could be part of how football players are compensated, too. Revenue sharing with the athletic departments will also be on the table. “I don’t think it’s going to be any one thing,” Hsu said.

Maturi said he can’t predict what form pay-for-play will take. “None of us knows what that means. Is it going to be open market where you can pay what you wish? …”

What is clear to Hsu is players will be employees and not independent contractors.
Why? Because football players operate in a year-round structured environment where they adhere to direction and rules, and independent contractors by definition have more freedom.

U football practice in 2021.

In a short time a lot will be decided about the college football model. There will be protests from other college sports if football players are receiving salaries and other athletes aren’t. Those differences, Hsu suggests, could even lead to schools like Minnesota selling off the football program to an outside entity that runs Golden Gophers football. Other sports could remain under University control and benefit as they do now from football profits.

There is speculation the Big Ten may further expand its membership. While schools are lined up at the door to join the conference, new members could reduce the slice of revenue pie for existing members. Applicants will have to bring considerable value monetarily and fit the academic pedigree of Big Ten institutions.

“Let’s face it, everybody wants to join the Big Ten now with the mega TV contract that’s coming up,” Maturi said. “And that’s gotta be decided by the commissioner (Kevin Warren) and the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.”

Looming as a big prize is Notre Dame, the juggernaut football independent that could make more TV money joining the Big Ten but would have to sacrifice controlling its schedule of opponents and perhaps lessen its chances of qualifying for the college football playoff.

“Right now Notre Dame is leaving money on the table,” Maturi said. “It already has. They don’t get the money from NBC that they would have gotten by joining a (major) conference, but they’ve kept what they believe is their mission, their values, their principles—and how long they’ll be able to continue to do that remains to be seen.”

Former Gophers football coach Glen Mason can see a Big Ten with 20 teams. “I don’t think we’re done yet (with expansion). I think there’s going to be two premier conferences. The way I see it as a fan, it will be the Big Ten and SEC. Probably both eyeing…to get 20-team leagues.”

Mason isn’t sure if he approves of pay-for-play but he recognizes players are in a far different world than when he competed for Ohio State in the early 1970s. “It was not a year round job,” Mason said.

In Mason’s day winter conditioning was minimal and after spring football practices ended players went home. Big Ten teams played 10 game schedules and only one team could participate in a bowl game. Ticket prices to watch conference teams was minimal and coach’s salaries were modest. Now college football players see coaches making $4 million to $10 million per year while athletic departments generate mega revenues via TV and other sources. “I think players said all of a sudden, hey, wait a minute,” Mason told Sports Headliners.

Mason looks at schools like USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and Texas jumping leagues and asks where is the loyalty to their conferences? The Sooners and Longhorns are leaving the Big 12 and bolting for the SEC, just like USC and UCLA are on their way out of the Pac-12. Those moves create a lot of problems and stress for the remaining members of their conferences.

When Mason coached at Kansas in the Big Eight the power players were Oklahoma and Nebraska. Those schools questioned whether they should share revenues in the same amounts as their Big Eight peers, or keep more for themselves.

“You can see the disparity in that,” Mason said. “Those discussions when I came back to the Big Ten, those never came up. You never had the big dogs on the block, Ohio State and Michigan, talking about that. They realized they were partners in the Big Ten and even though they might be the guys driving the train, that’s just the way it was.”

In the new world of college football it’s more business focused than ever. “We’re lucky we have the membership in the Big Ten,” Hsu said about Minnesota.

 

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