Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester rivals whet US appetite for elite game | Bryan Armen Graham

American fans flocked to the International Champions Cup but there is concern that while enriching top European clubs it may not be helping the domestic game

On Saturday night a sellout crowd of 66,014 spectators footed between $240 (183) and $3,500 (2,665) to watch a pre-season friendly between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Miamis Hard Rock Stadium, the pice de rsistance of the two-week summer exhibition tour featuring high-profile European clubs known as the International Champions Cup. The rights holder ESPN delivered the type of blanket coverage more typical of a Super Bowl or World Cup final, committing no fewer than 25 on-air personalities to south Florida and broadcasting live on location throughout the week.

This is to say nothing of the 35,728 fans who paid $20 to $30 plus parking to watch both clubs training sessions on Friday night.

The breathless mania surrounding the so-called Sunshine State Clsico the first meeting between the two Spanish arch-rivals to take place outside Europe in 35 years was hardly an outlier. Behold the eye-popping attendance figures in the past fortnight to watch clubs from thousands of miles away work off their offseason cobwebs: 65,109 for Real Madrid v Manchester United at Levis Stadium in Santa Clara; 67,401 for the first Manchester derby off English soil at Houstons NRG Stadium; 82,104 for Barcelona v Juventus at MetLife Stadium outside New York better than the average attendance of all but one National Football League team during the 2016 season.

This is heady stuff in a nation with an alleged hereditary aversion to the worlds most popular sport.

For decades Americans have been drilled for the day, always just around the corner, when soccer would graduate from cult interest buried in the agate type of newspaper sports sections to the mainstream realm of baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey: the traditional major leagues that comprise the national sporting conversation. First it was the North American Soccer League of the 1970s that augured the shift. Then the 1994 World Cup, the first in the US. And any number of plot points in between.

But if the enthusiastic public response to these off-season friendlies is any indication, that day is here.

These exhibitions, brought together in a loosely organized tournament format spanning 11 days and 12 venues, have only grown bigger and more numerous in recent years.

The man behind the enterprise is the soccer promoter Charlie Stillitano, who has made a cottage industry of organizing the pre-season tours of the worlds top clubs over the past decade and a half. The companies have gone through different financial backers and names remember the ChampionsWorld or the World Football Challenge? but the constant has been Stillitano, the former Princeton soccer captain and general manager of Major League Soccers New York/New Jersey MetroStars, who has finally discovered his calling as a dealmaker and power broker.

Today Stillitano serves as chairman of the International Champions Cup, seducing European clubs on the promise of fertile commercial soil and appearance fees reportedly in the $25m range while selling American sports fans on the allure of the megawatt stars and top-flight soccer that MLS cannot offer. The ICC is in its fifth summer and, reportedly, a profitable enterprise after operating in the red for previous editions.

The gradual success of these exhibitions can be chalked up to a couple of factors. First, the annual midsummer jaunt is scheduled during the badlands of the American sporting calendar. The NBA and NHL have wrapped up months ago and the NFL and college football are only just starting training camp, leaving only mid-season baseball on the radar. That and the MLS, which cant be thrilled about sharing the spotlight with its European brethren as it struggles for a foothold in its own domestic market.

Second, and perhaps more crucially, the ICC sells their English and Spanish media rights in a single package, a rarity in a trade that typically hawks them in separately in order to maximize value. The bilingual package gives ESPN a chance to own a major US soccer event in both languages.

For marketing purposes the International Champions Cup bristles at the characterization of these matches as friendlies or exhibitions. Still, the fact Americans are turning out in vast numbers to watch glorified scrimmages is proof theres an appetite for elite soccer from the coastal elites to the heart of Texas. This is nothing like the NFLs ongoing foray with regularseason games in London. Yes, the star players are contractually obliged to play a designated number of minutes in ICC matches. But unlimited substitutions can mean an entire half (or more) watching second- or third-team players fight for their spots. And the results themselves: they dont count in the standings.

But that has not stopped the people from turning out in droves, even during a tour that on four occasions went head-to-head with Gold Cup knockout stage matches, conflicts that directly undercut a crucial source of fundraising for Concacaf, which funds age-group championships and development programs in 41 member countries. But have we reached a point of oversaturation? Might the trend finally have plateaued?

The US is a large market for sport in general and soccer specifically, Concacafs general secretary, Philippe Moggio, said in a statement last week. The interest we see for exhibition matches and other friendly games demonstrates the tremendous and growing overall demand for soccer in this country.

The closing match of this years ICC takes place on Sunday when Roma faced Juventus at Gillette Stadium, home of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. MLS will no doubt be happy to be relieved of the competition, but whether a rising tide truly lifts all boats and doesnt merely fill the coffers of already outrageously rich superclubs remains to be seen.

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PSG to hold talks over 196m deal to capture Neymar from Barcelona

Paris Saint-Germain will hold discussions with Neymars father over a potential world-record 196m deal to buy the forward from Barcelona

Paris Saint-Germain are preparing to hold talks over a world-record 222m (196m) deal to buy Neymar from Barcelona. Although Bara are insisting the forward will stay, PSG are getting more optimistic they may be able to sign him.

PSG are not getting carried away, having thought they had secured a deal for Neymar last summer only for the Brazil striker to sign an improved contract to remain at the Camp Nou.

However, they intend to hold discussions with Neymars father and believe an agreement may be possible. They can easily meet the 222m release clause and the huge salary Neymar would demand.

Nasser al-Khelaifi, the PSG chairman, has reopened the door to the transfer and Antero Henrique, the sporting director, is in line to talk with Neymars father, who has stayed in touch with the club despite last summers events. PSG felt used then and vowed not to be duped again. There had also been flirtations the previous summer.

Neymar represents everything PSG need: a top signing who would propel them into a new dimension on and off the pitch. His marketing value combined with his talent would catapult them on to the global stage and take them closer to their aim of winning the Champions League.

The 25-year-old knows he can expect to continue playing second fiddle to Lionel Messi for several years at Barcelona as the Argentinian recently renewed his contract to 2021 A club statement described him as the best player in history.

PSG feel they are given hope by Neymars desire to be the main attraction and his knowledge that he will struggle to win personal accolades in the same team as Messi.

The Barcelona vice-president, Jordi Mestre, has said he is 200% certain Neymar will stay.

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Sponsors dragged into pay dispute as Australian players pursue rival deals

Cricket Australias corporate partners have joined the ranks of aggrieved parties as a result of the cricket pay dispute

Cricket Australias corporate partners have joined the ranks of aggrieved parties as a result of the cricket pay dispute. Key sponsors KFC and Toyota are among a number of commercial backers left exposed by the failure of administrators and players to come to a speedy resolution, while financial asset manager Magellan has baulked at signing on as naming rights sponsor for upcoming Test summers until a new pay deal is signed.

According to a Daily Telegraph report, Big Bash League naming rights sponsors KFC, who throw between $3m and $4m into Cricket Australias coffers each year, are among a number of top tier sponsors currently wary of the ability of uncontracted players to sign endorsement deals with corporate rivals. Had a new memorandum of understanding (MoU) been negotiated by the June 30 deadline, KFC and others would have been protected from such exposure to ambush marketing.

The dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers Association is unfortunate and one we hope will be resolved amicably as soon as possible for the benefit of the game, a KFC spokesperson told The Daily Telegraph.

In what could prove the first of many similar deals in weeks to come, Australian fast bowler Mitchell Starc has signed a sponsorship contract with an Audi dealership in Western Sydney an agreement that will not please Cricket Australias automotive category sponsors Toyota. It is expected that several other players will sign third party commercial deals in the absence of Cricket Australia contracts.

Two weeks ago Magellan emerged as the surprise contender to take on the Test series naming rights sponsorship vacated by Commonwealth Bank Australia (CBA), who decided to redirect their budget to backing womens cricket but the asset management company is considered unlikely to ink a deal until the pay dispute is resolved.

That leaves Cricket Australia without a sponsor for the upcoming Test and one-day international summers, after Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) ended its sponsorship deal for the latter. The Australian estimated that CBA had paid in the region of $50m for its four-year sponsorship of Test cricket, while longtime backer CUB kicked in approximately $65m over five years. The current market rate on the Test deal is estimated to fall in the region of $6-8m per season. No clear contenders have emerged to take on the one-day international and Twenty20 international deals.

According to an ESPNCricinfo report, prior to the 30 June expiry of the MoU Australian players were warned by CA team performance manager Pat Howard that they faced six-month bans for participating in unsanctioned matches, and that they were not to sign sponsorship deals that conflicted with CAs commercial partnerships. News of Starcs Audi deal indicates that key players are willing to defy CAs demands until a new pay deal is signed.

In addition to the scramble for major sponsors, CA is facing serious hurdles in its attempt to sign a lucrative TV rights deal. At times in the last 18 months they had hoped this sum would push the $1bn mark for a five-year agreement, but the financial troubles of Big Bash League broadcaster Ten and a flatlining commercial TV landscape have added unwelcome commercial pressure on CA.

Most pressing of all for Australian administrators is the looming spectre of a cancelled Ashes tour. Last week, the ECB confirmed in a statement to ESPNCricinfo that unless CA and the players association reached a new agreement, England would not travel to Australia for the marquee series. CA responded swiftly, saying they are 100% confident that the Ashes will go ahead.

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‘His worst game ever’: Lonzo Ball underwhelms in Summer League debut

The No2 overall pick finishes with five points on 2-for-15 shooting in his NBA Summer League debut with the Los Angeles Lakers

It took Lonzo Ball 20 seconds to get a near-capacity crowd off its feet in his first summer league game.

Just like LaVar taught him.

Balls highly anticipated Los Angeles Lakers debut on Friday night started with a flourish on a perfectly timed lob pass to Brandon Ingram. But that was one of the few bright spots for a player Magic Johnson has dubbed as the new face of the Lakers in a 96-93 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The No2 overall pick scored just five points and missed 13 of his 15 shots, to the disappointment of a near-capacity crowd that came out to see him. Leave it to his father to sum up the night with some of his trademark straight talk.

He dont be discouraged because thats the worst he can do, LaVar Ball said. He cant go but up. And he still kept them in the game playing his worst game ever. Thats what I like about it.

Lonzo Ball was 1-for-11 from three-point range, including a bad miss from well beyond the line the kind of daring pull-up the Ball family is known for with 1:16 to play in regulation.

He was also a little slow to react on defense, including when Brice Johnson made a quick spin past him for a dunk. The Clippers posted the highlight on their Twitter account, calling it a pretty baller move.

Thats the kind of target that LaVars antics have painted on his sons back. And its much bigger than the purple No2 under his name.

Tough game. We didnt get the job done, Lonzo Ball said. I need to be better.

Lonzo Ball managed a scant five points on 2-for-15 shooting in his NBA Summer League debut.

Scouts do wonder how that unorthodox shooting stroke will translate to the NBA game. What is not up for debate is the Lakers return to must-see status with the pass-first point guard on the trigger and his carnival barker father on the mic.

While LaVar Ball has dropped hints that he could tone down the bombastic comments and unending marketing of his Big Baller Brand apparel that turned him into an internet villain of sorts during Lonzos lone season at UCLA, he was totally in character for his sons debut.

The Lakers fans are coming and my boy is gonna bring em out, LaVar Ball crowed at halftime. Because theres excitement for the game. Its entertainment. That boy is going to entertain. Hes been doing it all his life.

LaVar Ball entered the Thomas & Mack Center to a raucous ovation, flanked by more than a dozen family members. They watched the game from a raised stage behind one baseline, and as he ascended the stairs for the first time, he raised his hands and pumped his fist to the crowd.

Lonzo Ball got off the bus wearing a black Big Baller t-shirt, red shorts and black Big Baller ZO2 shoes yes, the ones with the $495 price tag and did two television interviews before he even changed into his Laker uniform. A bedazzled, patent leather backpack draped over his shoulders and established NBA players including DeMar DeRozan, DAngelo Russell and Isaiah Thomas were all in attendance for the game, while Johnson, the new Lakers president of basketball operations, sat courtside.

Lakers games have always been well-attended here in Vegas, just a four-hour drive from Los Angeles. But this one reached another level, with fans piling into the arena three hours before game time and sitting through a Bucks-Cavaliers game before finally getting to the main attraction. And when Lonzo found Ingram for the alley-oop on his first possession, it looked like things were going to come easy.

I always said get em out their chairs on the first play, LaVar Ball said. Thats how we used to play with his brothers. Either hit a long three-pointer from halfcourt or a dunk.

But it became clear very quickly that things wouldnt always go smoothly. The sophomore Ingram shined with 26 points in 31 minutes, playing with more assertiveness than his celebrated rookie teammate. Lonzo finished with five assists, four rebounds and two steals.

Its got nothing to do with him, LaVar Ball said. Hes going to make this team come up and make everybody start passing the ball. And thats when that chemistry comes in and thats when that winning comes in. Thats when the winning comes in. Once you start winning, everybody starts feeling good.

In that way, LaVar is right on the money.

Lonzos clothes are flashy, and the first play was quite a highlight. But the rest of his game was decidedly understated, much like his personality. Magic may have dubbed him the new face of the NBAs marquee franchise and his father says the rookie is on the Lakers because he spoke it into existence. But there is nothing look-at-me about him.

He speaks quietly and with a straight face, nothing like the mega-watt smile Johnson brought to Hollywood from Michigan State. Surrounded by cameras after the game, he couldnt wait to move on.

The only way to go now is up, Lonzo said. Thatll probably be the worst game Ill have all week so hopefully I keep getting better.

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US women’s hockey team strike ‘historic’ pay deal and agree to end boycott

Players and federation announce agreement on pay and conditions, meaning team will play in world championships, which begin on Friday in Michigan

USA Hockey and the womens national team reached a wage agreement Tuesday night to avoid a boycott of the world championships.

Players and USA Hockey announced the deal in a joint statement just three days before the tournament begins in Plymouth, Michigan. Its a four-year agreement that pays players outside of the six-month Olympic period.

Its historic, its new and different, and the players are happy, said John Langel, the players lawyer.

Team captain Meghan Duggan said: Our sport is the big winner today. We stood up for what we thought was right and USA Hockeys leadership listened. In the end, both sides came together. Im proud of my teammates and cant thank everyone who supported us enough. Its time now to turn the page. We cant wait to play in the World Championship later this week in front of our fans as we try and defend our gold medal.

After more than a year of negotiations over wages and equitable support, players announced March 15 that theyd boycott the International Ice Hockey Federation Womens World Championship on home ice if significant progress wasnt made toward an agreement. The sides met for 10-plus hours in person last week and continued conversations before striking a deal Tuesday.

USA hockey president said: Today reflects everyone coming together and compromising in order to reach a resolution for the betterment of the sport. Well now move forward together knowing well look back on this day as one of the most positive in the history of USA Hockey.

Over the course of the public dispute, unions from the NHL, NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball and 16 US senators voiced support for the players. NHL agent Allan Walsh tweeted that mens players were considering boycotting their world championship in solidarity if a deal didnt get done.

It took until almost the last minute, but a deal did get done that includes the formation of a womens high performance advisory group with current and former players like Hockey Canada has had for some time. The groups goal is to advance girls and womens hockey programing, marketing, promotion and fundraising to augment existing grassroots programs.

Players are set to travel to Plymouth on Wednesday and open the defense of their gold medal Friday against Canada. The US has won six of the past eight world championships.

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Ultimate Fighting Championship: the fight of our lives?

Mixed martial arts is the fastest-growing sport on Earth. Beloved by Vladimir Putin and its so-called godfather, Donald Trump, what does this bloody spectacle say about the world we live in? We took a seat cage-side

For an event that presents itself as the most exciting combat sport in the world the Ultimate Fighting Championship involves many long minutes in which, to the untutored eye, nothing much happens at all. The UFC is the dominant promoter of mixed martial arts, the fastest-growing sport on Earth, measured both by participation and audience. At the O2 arena in London last Saturday I sat in a sellout audience of 16,000 people and tried to work out why exactly that might be the case. There were, it turned out, plenty of moments for such stray thoughts.

The combatants in a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight are permitted not only to punch but also kick, elbow and knee their opponent within the octagonal cage in which they fight. In an effort to avoid any of those eventualities fighters can also wrestle their opponent into powerlessness, mostly using the technical holds and joint locks of jiu-jitsu. Like the change of overs in a cricket match, the resultant longueurs, which can go on for minutes, allow you to step out from the action, think about what it is exactly that you are watching.

During one of those interludes early last Saturday evening, while Tim Johnson, a hairy 18st man from Fargo, North Dakota, held Daniel Omielanczuk, a flabby Pole, in an awkward-looking embrace against the mesh fence a hug that involved him thrusting his head into the Poles armpit while occasionally trying to force a knee into his thigh, or slap a fist into his paunch I looked around at the faces of the audience. Though the real action of the night hadnt got going, I was surprised to see that the majority of these 16,000 people who had paid an average of 100 for their tickets seemed happily gripped by the spectacle of the two overweight men in Bermuda shorts pressed against the cage wall.

I had come to the O2 as a UFC virgin to try to see what they see. Id not witnessed the sport in the flesh before, but I had, in preparation, along with apparently every other youngish male on the planet, watched more YouTube clips than seemed healthy. These clips 2bn views and counting tend not to show the minutes in which the fighters are in deadlock. They show instead, on a concussive loop, the many bloody ways in which UFC fights come to a brutal end, dwelling in particular on the knockout blows of the sports superstars: the Irish lightweight Conor McGregor, Jon Bones Jones (currently suspended for a failed drug test) and the former Olympic judo medallist Ronda Rousey (who has singlehandedly popularised womens UFC). The UFC is a sport made for the internet. Fights are short and do not offer much in the way of narrative, but they can deliver in terms of gifs. The clips do not need subtitles. As Lorenzo Fertitta, one of the brothers who bought the UFC brand for $2m in 2000, explained: What makes UFC so great is that every single man on the planet gets it immediately. Its just two guys beating each other up. Last June, the Fertitta brothers proved that lucrative point by selling UFC to Ari Emanuel, chief executive of WME-IMG for $4bn. The new owners have the ambition to make their championship bigger than the World Cup.

The entertainment we choose to watch tells us something about the world in which we live. Id come to the O2 with a theory that, in the same way that Victorian rules of football and rugby codified an attitude towards team play that made sense in the factory and on the battlefield, so the UFC looked something like a symbol of a more atomised, red-in-tooth-and-claw society. Within its cage MMA emphasises a binary, zero-sum world: for one man to succeed, another must be humiliated. It seems, along the way, to appeal to that unreconstructed nostalgia for a time before political correctness: when men could say what they wanted, and watch what they wanted, and celebrate the fact.

The contours of this cultural shift were neatly exposed at the end of last year in the brief war of words between Meryl Streep and Dana White, the bullish president of the UFC. Streep, you will remember, had used her Golden Globes acceptance speech to take a stand against the America that was emerging under the 45th president. Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, youll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts, Streep said.

Conor McGregor stands on a scale during a weigh-in. Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

To Dana White, that sounded like fighting talk. He came out from the opposite corner in that perceived cultural divide, throwing punches of his own.

The last thing in the world I expect is an uppity 80-year-old lady to be in our demographic and love mixed martial arts, White said (referring to the 67-year-old actor). Of course [MMA] is an art, he added. These fighters, these men and women, are so talented. They train their whole livestobe the best in the world.

Though some of the fighters on the undercard at the O2 offer scant evidence of that latter claim, as the night progresses you begin to see some of that art and dedication on display. The thoughtfulness and strategy of some of the UFC fighters seems at odds with the attention-deficit tone of the presentation. I find myself intrigued by the style and charisma of the bearded Icelander Gunnar Nelson, who feints and fends for a round or two, upright and alert, before laying out his opponent with a single judicious blow.

White and his organisation have worked very hard, at least on the surface, to emphasise such skills. In the early days of the UFC the sport made a virtue of its lawlessness. The UFCs first show was in Denver in 1993. Taking its cue from videogames like Mortal Kombat, it threw fighters from different traditions and weights into a ring and had them fight until someone was beaten to a standstill, or worse. In the first tournament, a French kickboxer struck a sumo wrestler so hard in the face that two teeth had to be removed from his foot. Hardly anything was off-limits. In 1996 Republican senator John McCain, the Vietnam war hero and 2000 presidential candidate, branded UFC human cockfighting and it was banned almost everywhere.

White, who was installed as president of the organisation by the Fertittas, strived to change that perception, enforce rules, get the UFC licensed and recognised. The new rules outlawed butting, eye-gouging and striking the throat, groin, spine or back of the head. Weight categories were imposed. Women, excluded from UFC in its first two decades, became headline acts in the sport, led by Ronda Rousey. Even McCain was eventually won over. The UFC now makes much of its safety record. The fact that fighters only wear rudimentary gloves (mostly to protect their hands from being crushed against the cage) is presented as a virtue. The absence of padding makes knockouts cleaner, the argument goes, as opposed to the repetitive pounding of boxing, and unlike in the latter sport there are no 10-second counts; any loss of consciousness ends a fight.

The marketing genius of the UFC seems to lie in the fact that despite making itself acceptable to almost every regulatory code (only in France does MMA remain banned) it retains, in a few ways, the tone of its original streetfighting roots. For one thing, if a fighter is cut, blood is allowed to flow. And if a fighter is knocked down, but not knocked out, his opponent can continue to rain blows down on his head while he is on the floor.

In spirit, the UFC exists somewhere between the rigour of traditional martial arts and the contrived drama of pro wrestling. The fights are not fixed, but the narrative of them seems to be. The UFC has 520 fighters contracted to it from 45 countries, and unlike the complicated world of boxing, where fighters from different federations can avoid each other, it insists on the matches that are made. In this way, it builds up heroes and villains, trades on a sense of us and them.

During a fight at the O2 between Irish Joe Duffy and an Iranian fighter with Swedish nationality called Reza Madadi, all of that intention seems clear. Early in the fight Madadi suffers a bad cut above the bridge of his nose after Duffy has straddled him while on the ground and landed punches to his head (the ground and pound tactic that is the UFC at its most brutal). For the remainder of the fight a great deal of blood flows out of Rezas wound and into his eyes, making his best defence to hold the free-swinging Duffy in a desperate clinch. As a result, by the end of the bout Duffys pale skin is bathed in Rezas blood, a sight that all other sports have outlawed for 30 or more years, but in which the UFC appears to revel.

In large part, the crowd, mostly men, seemed nonplussed by the spectacle. For a few, however, the sight of blood seems to loosen inhibition. Unfortunately I am seated in front of one of the more vocal of those individuals, who keeps up a running commentary that relies on two observations the first a general plea for Irish Duffy to fuck that motherfucker up; the second, slightly more precise in its demands, is a suggestion to put him on disability and Ill pay your bail, son. (In between rounds, the same character, a man in his mid-30s, cant seem to contain himself at the sight of the bikini-clad woman who holds up a sign for the number of the next round. No matter how often she circles the ring, he offers the same pair of thoughts: I want your babies! Dont tell the wife!)

Not everyone attracted to MMA shares those particular passions, but sitting beside the cage it seems hard to ignore the idea that the tremendous popularity of the sport speaks to something of a crisis in masculinity, a nostalgia for more traditional gender roles, a nostalgia that also fuels populist politics.

Grayson Perry, in his recent television quest to define British masculinity, talked to some MMA fighters in the north-east. Their stories were framed by the annual Durham Miners Gala, and Perry made the argument that the demise of the old masculine ideals, rooted in physical work to put food on the table, had left a vacancy that had not been filled. Watching one of the mixed martial arts fights on a more brutal, local scale than the UFC the artist suggested persuasively that hard labour [had been] reinvented as leisure spectacle. In a place in which men had gone in a generation from digging coal underground to packing sandwiches in a factory, there was a desperation for the heroicnarrative.

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in David Finchers 1999 film of Fight Club. Photograph: Allstar

The narrative that the UFC presents is a carefully stage-managed form of heroism, one in which its not hard to see the artifice. Whenever there is a lull in the action in the O2 cage, big screens around the arena run through their concussive highlights packages. The effect is a bit like going to watch Grimsby Town and having shots of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo playing on a loop. Conor McGregor may not be here in person, but we see almost as much of him on screen as we do of the fighters in the cage. Those in the crowd who wear full beards in the style of the Irishman, the undisputed cock of the walk, seem to enjoy the virtual proximity in the same way as if he were here.

The argument for ritualised, rule-bound martial arts has always been that it helps fulfil a Darwinian need in men to test themselves against each other while minimising the carnage. It gets them off the streets. The UFC not only trades on those impulses, however, it also trades on the idea that they are essential features of manliness. While the rules of traditional martial arts were social constructs, demanding submission, the mythology of MMA feels closer in spirit to the nihilistic tenor of Chuck Palahniuks book Fight Club, written in 1996, and David Finchers subsequent 1999 film, starring Brad Pitt as the no-holds-barred hero Tyler Durden. Durden presented a world in which only in fighting did men truly find status: Were the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great Wars a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. Weve all been raised on television to believe that one day wed all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we wont. And were slowly learning that fact. And were very, very pissed off

Palahniuks novel, and Finchers film, in part satirised this anger and the anarchy that resulted but they also seemed prophetic of a powerful impulse in western societies: the impulse of insecure alpha males to reassert their strength. It is no surprise that the so-called alt-right likes to quote liberally from Tyler Durden to give their bigotry a Nietzchean veneer. The catch-all insult to liberals snowflake, for example, derives from Durden, a hero for whom men are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. Like the UFC, Fight Club dramatises a life of instinct above one of thought. It suggests that man is at his best when he is in thrall to his animal nature, and what is wrong with that?

Read through this lens, the rise of Donald Trump his special adviser Steve Bannon refers to the campaign and the administration as his own personal fight club might be viewed as an expression of this reasserted biological determinism. Trump makes no effort at all to hide his masculine urges, and is rewarded for it. He is all instinct. He boasts about sexual assault. He licenses beauty pageants because he likes to display his control over a harem. And, inevitably, perhaps, he is celebrated as the godfather of the UFC.

When Trump accepted his nomination as Republican candidate, Dana White offered the GOP convention a public endorsement. White explained how, in the darker days of the sport, after Senator McCain had criticised the UFC as cockfighting and no one would license or put on MMA bouts, Trump stood alone in support of it. He personally hosted and endorsed two UFC shows in 2000 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, a commitment that probably saved UFC from bankruptcy. State athletic commissions didnt support us, White recalled. Arenas around the world refused to host our events. Nobody took us seriously. Nobody except Donald Trump.

Donald Trump in action against Vince McMahon at WrestleMania in 2007. Photograph: Sam Greenwood/WireImage

Trump not only embraced the sport, he explored the possibility of himself developing a rival to the UFC called Affliction. He signed up a famous Russian fighter, Fedor Emelianenko, close friend of Vladimir Putin, to star in his events. The experiment ended after a couple of promotions but for all his efforts, Trump was inducted as a visionary into the New Jersey State Martial Arts Hall of Fame (Trump is known to have fought just once in public himself: at WrestleMania XXIII in 2007, he body-slammed the wrestling promoter Vince McMahon outside the ring before, bizarrely, shaving his hair (an encounter preserved for historians on YouTube).

In the opening skirmishes of his political war on nuance, Trump seems to have identified the UFC, or at least fans of it, as likely fellow travellers. Its sort of like somebody dies! he said, when asked about the sports appeal. Ive never seen anything like it Its not like, Oh, how are the judges voting? Its like, you know, somebody just succumbs.

That particularly adolescent now presidential fantasy is never quite as simple in reality. Watching the UFC up close, without the edits and the highlights, you have a strong sense of the vulnerability of the fighters as well as their prowess. They look as likely to have been bullied as to be bullies. The strangest moment in a long evening at the O2 comes with the farewell fight of 38-year-old Brad Pickett, a native East Ender, who has been a stalwart of the UFC for nearly a decade, and who has earned the nickname One Punch.

In case you were in any doubt of his cockney connections, Pickett enters the arena to Chas and Daves song Wallop, wearing a string vest, braces, his customary trilby, and reading a paper (Im guessing not the Observer). He is, given the valedictory nature of his performance, also in tears. He is fighting a lithe Ecuadorean kickboxer, Marlon Vera, who is at least a foot taller than him and just over half his age. For a couple of rounds the farewell fight seems to be going to plan; in the third, however, as Pickett tries to land a trademark punch, Vera knocks him out with a vicious kick to the jaw. Pickett tries to get up and fight on, but is stopped by the referee. In tears again, he leaves his trilby in the centre of the Octagon. Later in his press conference, he is still bemoaning the way that the fight ended. He doesnt believe he had lost consciousness. Hed told the referee: If you are going to stop it make sure Im stiff, but he hadnt listened. Still choked, he speaks a little about his long history with the sport, how at his first MMA fights on Portsmouth pier he didnt even get paid: Just a free seat for my mum and dad. It wasnt even a sport really, at all then, he says, but look at it now, all around the world.

Pickett is not wrong in that evaluation. In its apparently unstoppable growth, the UFC now broadcasts in more than 152 countries to more than a billion households worldwide. In Europe, more people, 237 million, watch the UFC than Formula One. New owner Ari Emanuel bought the organisation with a view to extending that reach still further.

Brad Pickett of England punches Marlon Vera of Ecuador in their bout at the O2. Photograph: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

To this end, in the months since taking over the sport, he has been doing the rounds of key political figures. Emanuel has history with Trump: he bought the Miss Universe Organisation from him in 2015, and prior to that acted as his Hollywood agent. When the pair met two weeks after the presidents election in November, on a golf course in New Jersey, Trump referred to his friend as the king of Hollywood.

Emanuels immediate ambition appears to be to expand the UFCs reach into what has become a spiritual homeland of MMA, Vladimir Putins Russia. Like Trump, the Russian president is a great admirer of the sport for what it reveals about men. A former judo champion himself, he has often watched bouts at ringside, particularly those involving his great friend Fedor Emelinenko. His enthusiasm is outdone perhaps by the hardline leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was recently chastised for staging a televised MMA night in Grozny in which his three sons aged 8, 9 and 10 prevailed in one-sided bouts against terrified-looking schoolboys. Kadyrov cheered them on at the side of the cage, in an event aimed at popularising the sport in Chechnya. Though there are no childrens cage fights in Russia itself, the appeal of creating a generation that grows up fighting finds ready advocates in a parliament that has passed laws allowing wife-beating and considered the proposal of turning football hooliganism into a recognised sport.

In December Emanuel had a productive meeting with the Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko, and a deal for a UFC event in Moscow seems likely. Theyve shown me their presentation, Mutko said. I was shocked when I saw what they were doing. The revenues, how much they get from the TV The march of UFC shows no signs of stopping.

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Leicester Citys Premier League title brings in record 129m income

Leicesters accounts for 2015-16 show a 24% income increase on the previous financial year, with the clubs wage bill increasing over 40% to 80m

The financial context for Leicester Citys sacking of Claudio Ranieri has been highlighted in the clubs 2015-16 accounts, which show record income of 129m over the year City sensationally won the Premier League title.

That revenue, a 24% increase on 104m made the previous season, was boosted by 95m in TV income alone, with much of the extra millions earned from the additional money paid to clubs for each place they finish in the table.

Having made a 21m loss when achieving promotion from the Championship in 2013-14, incurring an undisclosed sanction from the Football League under financial fair play rules which they continue to dispute, Leicester made a second successive pre-tax profit in the year ending 31 May 2016 (16m) following a profit of 26m in 2014-15.

The clubs wage bill for Ranieris title-winning season was 80m, an increase of over 40% from 57m in 2014-15, and the accounts state that last summer Leicester agreed fresh contracts with key players and spent a net 48m on new players, with Islam Slimani, the Algeria striker bought from Sporting Lisbon, the most expensive at 30m.

This season is the first of the Premier Leagues even more lucrative three-year TV deal until 2019, in which its 20 clubs are sharing 2.8bn per season, estimated to be worth 100m even to the club finishing bottom.

That figure drops spectacularly for clubs relegated into the Championship, with parachute payments from the Premier League to ease the financial shock in the first year worth only around half of the previous seasons TV income, and dwindling after that.

The financial importance to Leicester of retaining their top flight status is emphasised throughout the accounts, as is a willingness to sack a manager when prospects are dropping.

Membership of, and finishing position in, the Premier League have a highly material impact on the revenue streams and cash generation of the club, the accounts state, noting the club has to make prudent budget assumptions and guard against the risk of underperforming. The directors also monitor the performance of both management and players and have a proven record of making changes where required.

A run of five straight defeats in the Premier League after a 0-0 draw at Middlesbrough on 2 January had sunk Leicester to just above the relegation places when the directors, led by the chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the owner of the King Power group of Thai duty free companies, decided to sack Ranieri, a move widely met with outrage at its perceived ruthlessness.

Since then, the caretaker manager, Craig Shakespeare, has led the team to two straight 3-1 victories, over Liverpool and Hull City, which have lifted the club to 15th, five points clear of the teams in the relegation zone.

The accounts note Leicester continue to challenge in an arbitration process the Football Leagues sanction for the loss recorded in 2014, which was reduced from 34m the previous year largely due to an upfront payment on a sale Leicester announced of its marketing rights to a company called Trestellar Ltd. That company was set up by the son and daughter of the former Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards, who had previously been reported to be advising Leicester on complying with financial fair play rules.

Trestellar sold the naming rights to the stadium and shirt sponsorship to King Power, which had already previously been paying directly for those rights. Leicester are not specifically contesting the Football Leagues assessment of its 2013-14 accounts, which is presumed to include the Trestellar deal, but challenging the legality of the FFP rules themselves.

The clubs directors believe [the regulations] to be unlawful and the directors are confident no material liability will arise from this process, the accounts state.

A Football League spokesman confirmed the legal argument is ongoing but said he could not comment further; footballs arbitration rules require parties to keep the proceedings permanently confidential.

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LaDainian Tomlinson, Jerry Jones and Kurt Warner elected to Hall of Fame

ll unstoppable in their own way, LaDainian Tomlinson, Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner earned their spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

The running backs were known simply by their initials: LT and TD. The quarterback served as ringmaster for The Greatest Show on Turf. All unstoppable in their own way, LaDainian Tomlinson, Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner earned their spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Joining them are Jason Taylor in on his first ballot, the same as Tomlinson and Morten Andersen, the NFLs all-time leading scorer, who joins Jan Stenerud as the second pure placekicker to make the hall.

Seahawks safety Kenny Easley made it as a senior nominee, while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is in as a contributor. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue did not make it, with his role in downplaying the severity of the leagues concussion problem playing a role.

In nine years with the Chargers, then two with the Jets, the 5ft 10in Tomlinson reset the template for what had been known as a scatback, proving someone of his size and speed could be a game changer, not merely a change of pace. As dangerous catching the ball (4,772 career yards) as he was running it (13,684), in 2003, LT became the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes. He was hard to keep out of the end zone, too. He had at least one rushing touchdown for 18 straight games between 2004-05 and finished his career with 145 touchdowns, not counting the seven he threw on halfback options.

In giving the thumbs-up to Davis and Warner, the 48 Hall of Fame voters answered Yes to the question of whether a few truly dominating years are enough for someone to be enshrined. (They said No, however, when it came to Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli, who didnt advance beyond the final 10.)

Warners heyday was 1999-2001 with the Rams, whose offense was known as The Greatest Show on Turf. Warner quit his job bagging groceries, first for a stint in the Arena League, then landing in the NFL after getting a tryout with St. Louis.

An injury to Trent Green put Warner in the lineup for 1999. Sharing the backfield with future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, and throwing to Torry Holt and Issac Bruce (who was a finalist this year but did not get in), Warner won two overall MVPs and one at the Super Bowl to close the 1999 season, when the Rams captured their only Lombardi Trophy. The 1999 and 2000 teams are still among the top 10 in most points scored in league history.

Davis was a sixth-round pick out of Georgia in 1995 who caught Broncos coach Mike Shanahans eye with a big hit on special teams in a preseason game. Davis became the starting tailback, and from 1996-98 he complemented John Elway, helping the Broncos to 45 victories and finally pushing Elway over the top with two Super Bowl titles. In 1998, Davis became the fourth runner to surpass 2,000 yards, with 2008.

He suffered a career-changing knee injury in 1999 while making a tackle after an interception, and played only 17 more games before retiring in 2001. His 78 career games spanned seven seasons, meaning Davis lasted the same number of years as Hall of Fame runner Gale Sayers, who is often held up as Exhibit A when voters are debating short bursts of greatness versus longevity.

On the other end of the spectrum was Andersen, the kicker who lasted 25 seasons, played in 382 games and scored 2,544 points for five teams. He is the all-time leading scorer for both the Saints and the Falcons and was among the first to make the 50-plus-yard field goal routine. His 40 kicks of 50-yards plus were the most in NFL history at his retirement.

Taylor was Defensive Player of the Year in 2006 with 13.5 sacks and finished his 15-year career, most of them with the Dolphins, with 139.5 sacks, eight interceptions and 29 fumble recoveries.

Easley was the hard-hitting Seattle safety who also played only seven seasons, but made them all count. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981, Defensive Player of the Year in 1984, a four-time All-Pro selection, and helped Seattle to its first AFC title game in 1983. He finished with 32 interceptions.

Jones is still very much active in charting the leagues course in the 21st century. His $1.2bn stadium, dubbed Jerry World, set the standard for stadiums to follow it in New Jersey, the Bay Area, Minneapolis, Atlanta and, eventually, Los Angeles. He brokered TV and marketing deals that have helped turn the league into a $13bn-a-year business, all the while keeping a steady and some might agree, entertaining presence in front of the TV cameras.

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F1s Chase Carey: races should be Super Bowls, events that capture a whole city

The new chief executive of Formula One, Chase Carey, said he wants to turn races into week-long extravaganzas with entertainment and music, and also underlined the importance of the British Grand Prix

The new chief executive of Formula One, Chase Carey, wants to turn each of the sports 21 races into a Super Bowl and has reiterated the importance of a British Grand Prix to the calendar.

Carey, who is now in charge of F1 after Bernie Ecclestones exit on Monday night, has stressed the importance of the classic European venues while emphasising that the new owner, Liberty Media, intends to expand the sports appeal.

He wants to make the sport bigger, broader and better. Carey said: We have 21 races we should have 21 Super Bowls. They should be week-long extravaganzas with entertainment and music, events that capture a whole city.

After Silverstone voiced fears over the cost of hosting grands prix and considered dropping the meeting, he said: We will have a British Grand Prix. The foundation of the sport is western Europe.

Carey identified Monaco, Monza, the Hockenheimring and the Nrburgring as part of fundamental attractions and said: You have still got to maintain those traditions to have the values in F1.

Charging hosting fees to circuits are a key revenue stream for F1 and, notably, Carey stopped short of suggesting races could be made more affordable for tracks. Instead, he suggested Liberty would be aiming to make meetings more financially successful which is not the news circuits or fans may have been hoping for.

He warned, though, that there is much work to be done. We have great stars, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, he said. But we have zero people in marketing and we dont have a connection on digital media. We have to do a better job of enabling fans to connect to our stars. He added: In the last four or five years the sport really has not grown to its potential.

Carey also emphasised his desire to host another race in the US, citing New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas as destination cities where people would come for a week-long event, with the race at the centre.

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Kobe returns and Tebow thrives: our bold sports predictions for 2017

On the heels of a sports year that was chock full of surprises, Guardian US contributors make their bold predictions for the months to come

Here are our bold predictions for 2017. Please note the bold (or should that be bold?) in bold predictions these are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Especially the Tebow one.

Kobe Bryant will return from retirement

Few athletes are as prepared for a life after basketball than Kobe, a man of diverse interests and immense worldwide fame. Few athletes also are as ill-suited for retirement than Kobe, who burns to be on the court. These last few months away have to be killing him. He will mount a comeback, though probably not with the Lakers, who are building around a gifted young core of players. Hes always wanted to play for the Knicks. Would Phil Jackson dare drop him on the same floor as Carmelo Anthony? LC

Tiger Woods will win again

The notion that Woods could challenge for, let alone win, major championships was flawed even before his last and lengthy absence through injury. The depth of talent at golfs summit means Woods will always be overawed and outplayed in such environments now.

Still, he can and will win lower grade PGA Tour events. Woods has a propensity to prevail on the same courses, as shown by his record. He retains more competitive ability than some of those who win once or twice on Tour in any given year. If fitness troubles really are behind Woods, he will return to the podium. Then? Cue more major discussion. EM

An American not named Serena will win a grand slam title

Serena Williams did win Wimbledon six months ago, so lets not put her in the ground just yet. But shes now closer to 40 than 30 and theres no question her stranglehold on the womens tour was weakened during a year that saw the late-blooming Angelique Kerber win a pair of major titles to inherit the world No1 ranking on merit. The door has never been more open for the sports 90s babies. Garbie Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova took advantage in 2016; Madison Keys will follow this year. The 21-year-old from Illinois, who has played into the second week at the last six majors, has all the shots, and power on both wings. Look for her to put it all together and become the first American woman not named Williams to capture a major singles title since Jennifer Capriati in 2002. BAG

A wildcard team will win Super Bowl LI

The NFL playoffs do not favor wildcard teams. To win the Super Bowl as a wildcard you have to win on the road three straight weeks and beat three of the leagues top teams. That said, it has happened six times before. Three of the last 11 Super Bowl champions came into the postseason as wildcards and 2017s will as well. With no great, dominant team, the path is wide open. The Lions stumbled late in the season but still have a potent offense and the Patriots would rather forget their Super Bowls against the Giants and Eli Manning. LC

Villanova will finish the regular season undefeated

Villanova are looking hot again this season. Photograph: Steven Branscombe/USA Today Sports

The Wildcats have moved to No1 in the polls, but virtually no analysts predicted a repeat for a Villanova team that returned most of its title-winning 2016 team. Aside from a shaky performance against DePaul late in 2016, the Wildcats have been stellar this season. Josh Hart has been the best player in the country, Jalen Brunson generates offense at will when he has the ball and Villanova are hitting their threes something they didnt do until the tournament last season. Ken Pomeroys stats say the Wildcats have less than a 2% chance to go undefeated in the regular season, but with this team I like those odds. DM

Sebastian Giovinco will return to Europe

Arguably the best player in the history of Major League Soccer, Sebastian Giovinco has made himself a superstar at Toronto FC. But his success has come at a cost. Italy manager Giampiero Ventura, just like Antonio Conte before him, says the playmaker has no international future as long as he is a MLS player. And so Giovinco could be tempted back to Europe, especially with the 2018 World Cup coming into view. GR

Tim Tebow will thrive as a baseball player

At first glance, it seems that New York Mets farmhand Tim Tebow, super-athlete and light of all of our lives, sufficiently failed during his stint in the Arizona Fall League, and thats probably because of his measly slash line of .194/.296/.242 over 70 plate appearances. Tebow did not hit a single home run, but he did help save a fan having a seizure, staying with him until the paramedics arrived, and so its probably safe to say that the outfielder is more Moonlight Graham than Babe Ruth, right? Not so fast: Tebow was competing against some of the best prospects baseball has to offer, and picked up steam as he went, finishing with an 11-game stretch where he hit .281 and posted an OBP of.425. In 2017, the Mets defy all logic and expectations by their May promotion of a surging Tebow to help with their sagging mid-week attendance. The Wilpons sell a package they call Tebow Tuesdays, which promises at least one pinch-hit appearance per-game and private autograph sessions for the first 50 to sign up. Tebow not only survives, but prospers, becoming a cornerstone in the Mets lineup as they win their first title since 1986. DL

Tom Brady will finally show signs of age

Tom Brady stays ahead of the youngsters … for now. Photograph: Reinhold Matay/USA Today Sports

Tom Brady will turn 40 before the 2017 season. Saying a 40-year old athlete in a contact sport will look his age doesnt seem especially bold, but in Bradys case, it is. In his age 39 season this year, hes the favorite for league MVP and is having one of the best seasons of his career. But Peyton Mannings performance fell of a cliff from his age 38 to 39 seasons and Brett Favres did the same in the only season he opened as a 40 year-old. Maybe Brady stretches his youth a year or two beyond that pair, but the end is coming. Soon. Time, unlike the 2007 New England Patriots, is undefeated. DG

Floyd Mayweather makes a face turn

No one believes hes really retired, even if more than 15 months have passed since he last climbed through the ropes. Not when one more fight could lift him to the singular mark of 50-0, one better than Rocky Marcianos recognized paragon of fistic perfection. Not when he can effectively name his own price as a free agent, having fulfilled his six-fight contract with CBS and Showtime.

Many insiders believe a rematch with Manny Pacquiao looms, which, despite the tart aftertaste of their first installment, would still be the second-richest fight in history. But it says here Mayweather will instead opt to fight Adrien Broner, an opponent who hardly deserves the opportunity but one who would allow Floyd to take on the unfamiliar role of good guy in the promotion.

Eight-figure paydays werent the norm for Mayweather until he turned heel, trading in his polite and humble Pretty Boy Floyd persona for a pantomime villain whom more fans pay to watch lose than watch win. But just because he made the business decision to break bad doesnt mean he doesnt care about people liking him. By going against the one fighter in the world more disliked than himself, Mayweather will exit the game as the cowboy in the white hat. BAG

Los Angeles will be awarded the 2024 Olympics

Maybe this doesnt qualify as a bold prediction, after all most of the other competitors have dropped out. But Los Angeles was once eliminated as a contender after the USOC chose Boston as the American city to push. It has never seemed like LA was a favorite of anyone to host the games for a third time. The other competitors Paris and Budapest are more appealing choices. And yet LA might be the perfect Olympic city. The facilities are already in place. It could probably host the Games next year. For this reason Los Angeles will be the safe choice. Probably the only choice. LC

Ronda Rousey doubles down … and wins big

After being embarrassed by Amanda Nunes in Las Vegas on Friday, many have speculated that Ronda Rousey wont fight again. Shes noncommittal but we say she will enter the octagon in the first half of the new year, before Conor McGregor even books another fight, and get back to her winning ways. It wont be at 135lbs, however. Rousey will venture up to the featherweight division and chase down a fight with Cris Cyborg Justino (presuming she available after a PED tussle with Usada) in a last ditch effort to rebuild herself as a competitor and secure one more big-money fight. JG

The Washington Nationals will miss the playoffs

Although the Nationals did win the NL East by eight games in 2016, repeating in 2017 will be substantially more difficult. They should not expect Daniel Murphy to have the monster season that he had in 2016. Washington was also reportedly chasing some bigger names this offseason including starting pitcher Chris Sale and closer Kenley Jansen, among others, but were unable to land them. While having Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper on a roster can make any team a playoff contender, there are questions surrounding their role players including an oft-injured Ryan Zimmerman and an aging Jayson Werth. With the Mets power arms returning from injury, and other NL teams including the St Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants making moves this offseason, the Nationals will have a rockier road to October. EF

An NFL player will come out as gay

Michael Sam was the first openly gay player drafted in NFL history. Photograph: Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

An active NFL player, one known to casual fans, will come out as gay. As of now, the specter of Michael Sam, the defensive end who came out prior to the NFL draft and ended up never playing in a regular season game, looms over the league as a missed opportunity. Sams story isnt one that anyone wants to see repeated. Because of this, I fully expect the first out athlete in the league to be someone who is already established as an NFL-caliber player and has had significant experience dealing with the national media, two advantages that Sam never had. HF

The NHL takes actual steps to increase scoring

Yes, I know. This is supposed to be a bold prediction, and suggesting that a pro sports league will try to boost offense doesnt exactly sound like going out on a limb. Every league knows that scoring sells, and every league makes sure the rulebook encourages plenty of it. Its sports marketing 101.

But this is the NHL were talking about. The league has been talking about boosting offense for over two decades literally but they never actually do it. This year, the decided theyd tweak the goaltending equipment. Then, whoops, they didnt make the adjustments in time, so nothing changed. Thats just how things go in the NHL.

But I think this year could be different. Maybe its wishful thinking, but todays NHL is packed with exciting young talent like we havent seen in a generation. Surely now is the time to let them shine. Surely now is when well finally get some forward thinking from a league addicted to its past. Surely we cant do three straight decades of plunging scoring rates while the powers that be twiddle their thumbs and wonder why ratings are down.

Or maybe we can. But you asked for something bold. In the NHL, sadly, this qualifies. SM

The Los Angeles Lakers will make the NBA playoffs

I can hear you rolling your eyes through the computer. Real cute, but these predictions are supposed to be bold, right? The Lakers are currently only two games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Granted, they are also only three games ahead of the cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns, but that just goes to show you how mushy and undefined the bottom of the West is right now. Anyone could catch fire for a few weeks and find themselves volunteering to be demolished by the Warriors in four games this spring.

The Lakers were hovering around .500 before Thanksgiving, then lost 12 of 13 during a brutal road trip made worse by injuries to Julius Randle, DAngelo Russell, Nick Young, and Larry Nance Jr. A healthy Laker team still cant play much defense, but they can score against anybody, as wins over the Warriors, Thunder, Rockets, and a short-handed Clippers team proves. Most importantly, they have as good a chance as anyone in the West basement. The Kings, Pelicans, Mavericks, Timberwolves, and Blazers all have true superstars, but what the Lakers can offer is something close to the team cohesion that defines the elite squads in the NBA. This is still a rough unit that is dragging a few ridiculous contracts down the court each night, but they have as good as chance as anyone right now. DS

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