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Have team, will travel: Central Arkansas and college football’s strangest schedule ever

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Brad Teague has heard your jokes. Central Arkansas’ athletic director knows they’re the go-to Twitter suggestion when a team has to postpone a game (and many teams have had to postpone a game in 2020). That’s what happens when a relatively unknown school puts together one of the most unusual schedules in college football history, reminiscent of the old World War II traveling squads that played anyone, anywhere. Twice, if they had to.

“I saw somebody say they should kick Rutgers out and bring in Central Arkansas to the Big Ten,” Teague said of his FCS team from Conway, Arkansas, with a laugh.

Don’t tempt Teague, the dealmaker who has kept his team playing this year even when the Southland Conference opted to postpone football until the spring.

His goal was to play a full fall schedule and “opt out,” in his words, of the spring.

“Let’s try it as long as we can,” he said.

Just as playing in the spring didn’t make sense to Teague, he understands the scrutiny over playing at all. He said he made clear his intentions didn’t matter unless the coaches and players took the situation seriously and were able to hold up their end of the bargain.

“Of course a lot of people would say, ‘Well, you’re playing in the middle of COVID. How does that make sense?'” Teague said. “And I get that. I thought, we may have a vaccine [in the spring], but it may be worse. I mean, who knows what the spring would look like. We knew there would be a lot of scrutiny.”

Head coach Nathan Brown said Teague faced those questions inside the building before pressing on, saying he met with the team to ask for their input. “He had them ask tough questions,” the coach said, in seeking their blessing.

“When we actually found out we were going to have a season, the day we found out, I had mixed emotions, like, ‘OK, how are we going to get tested, how are we gonna do this?'” senior defensive lineman A’Javius Brown said. “We were excited and a bit nervous, like anybody would be in a pandemic. We don’t have a cure for the virus, you know? But we’re here doing what we’re supposed to do.”

Breylin Smith, the Bears’ starting quarterback, said the school’s support would work only if the players stayed safe.

“You see a lot of stuff on social media and a lot of worries, but I have full confidence and trust in our leadership,” Smith said. “I knew that if and when we were going to play that it would be safe. As hard as our leaders were working to get us games, I just took it as our duty to be ready to play.”

Central Arkansas is testing its players once per week on Wednesday afternoons, with results back on Thursdays — in accordance with NCAA guidelines.

“We’ve been very detailed,” coach Nathan Brown said. “It’s not easy as a college student to stay socially distant from people, and it’s not easy as a college student to stay at home. We know what’s at stake, and our players have really bought into it, and really those are the guys that deserve the credit.”

So Teague set out to play the maximum number of games he could. To do so, he hoped to find 10 and, if we’re being honest, recoup some of the $425,000 his department’s budget lost when Missouri had to cancel its scheduled game for this season. The resulting schedule will be one for the books. Thus far, the Bears have already played:

  • The season’s first FCS game, a 24-17 win over Austin Peay in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff game in Montgomery, Alabama, before a national audience on ESPN. Payout: $100,000

  • The season’s first FBS game, a 45-35 loss just five days later against UAB in Birmingham, Alabama. UAB put Central Arkansas in a bubble of sorts after their game 90 miles away in Montgomery, keeping the team in Birmingham for the days prior to the game and paying for its COVID-19 testing. Payout: $200,000

  • Missouri State, which is playing a three-game fall lineup that includes Oklahoma (a 48-0 loss), at Central Arkansas (UCA won, 27-20) and … Central Arkansas again at home on Oct. 17. Teague said it’s a short trip with no overnight stay, so it’s a money-saving way to get two games. An added bonus for local intrigue? “Bobby Petrino is their head coach, and of course he had quite the career in Arkansas.”

  • Perennial FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, a 39-28 loss in Fargo in NDSU’s only game of the fall season. The Bison have won eight of the past nine FCS national championships and feature Trey Lance, one of the top quarterback prospects in college football. The two schools agreed on a $200,000 deal. Central Arkansas will visit Fargo twice for $100,000 each game, and they’ll get one game at home in the future. “It’ll be great to have the Bison in Conway, so that that was cool,” Teague said.

And still remaining, they have:

  • Arkansas State, an FBS team 130 miles away in Jonesboro, this Saturday. “They offered us $100,000, and we’re just gonna drive over and drive back,” Teague said. This game has already been postponed once due to coronavirus cases at A-State.

  • Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, twice. The teams will meet on Oct. 24 in Richmond, Kentucky, and on Nov. 14 in Conway.

  • An Oct. 31 game against Missouri Western, a Division II team from St. Joseph, Missouri, that is playing four games this fall. Teague explains: “The dominoes are crazy, but Arkansas State postponed our game on Sept. 19 and said really the only date they could play us again was Oct. 10. So to do that, we had to move our Eastern Kentucky game to Oct. 24. That put us playing Eastern Kentucky back-to-back weekends, and that seemed awkward, so then we moved our other Eastern Kentucky game from Oct. 31 to Nov. 14, which moved us off of homecoming. We wanted to continue to have a home game on Oct. 31, so the only opportunity to bring someone to Conway would be to pay them, and the cheapest games you can get are Division II schools, so we found Missouri Western and they will be coming to us.” Got all that?

  • Current No. 23-ranked Louisiana, on Nov. 21 in Lafayette, but Teague added that Louisiana has already asked about flexibility in case they need to move their game up. Payout: $150,000.

So how did Teague do it? He was already respected for helping turn Central Arkansas into a winner. He has also served as a member of the FCS playoff committee for several years, including being the chairman in 2018-19, so he had a lot of contacts.

“It took work, it took relationships, but it didn’t take as much as you might think,” Eastern Kentucky athletic director Matt Roan said. “Your student-athletes, your coaches and your fans, they wanted football, and if we thought we could do it responsibly that’s what we were trying to do. Both of us.”

Teague didn’t take a completely mercenary approach. After losing nine conference games, he could’ve loaded up on all paycheck games. He said head coach Brown didn’t rule any teams out but thought it wouldn’t be fair to the program.

“Not only did I reach out to a lot of people, but I got a lot of calls from a lot of people,” he said. “This may be an exaggeration, but I bet we could have played 11 guarantee games in Conference USA and the Sun Belt on the road. Obviously, we didn’t need to play 11 games on the road against the FBS. So we started picking and choosing.”

The juggling hasn’t stopped entirely. When the Arkansas State game scheduled for Sept. 19 was postponed four days ahead of game day, Army called 15 minutes later asking Teague to bring the Bears to West Point that weekend. The short notice wouldn’t work, as much as Teague lamented not getting to play at storied Michie Stadium.

And he’s still hustling. Teague just recently got clarification from the NCAA that he’s allowed to play one more game up until mid-December.

“We could play Dec. 5 or Dec. 12, if we chose to,” he said. “So we’re kind of talking to another FCS school about maybe trying to play a quote-unquote bowl game in Dallas, so that that may be on the horizon.”

Teague, a former pitcher at Delta State in Mississippi who is in the school’s athletics Hall of Fame, still has that competitive fire, and he used it to try to recreate a football season from nothing.

“One of the most difficult things I think we do as administrators is building a football schedule,” North Dakota State athletic director Matt Larsen said. “Usually you’re doing it a couple of years out, and to be able to do it in a matter of a couple of months, sometimes you have to be willing to go on the road or be flexible, and Central Arkansas was willing to do that. He just continued to pound the pavement. I think it’s a real credit to him just working hard and getting after it.”

To Brown, the chaos of the 2020 season has ended up being an exciting time for his program, calling it “essentially the toughest schedule in the history of University of Central Arkansas football” and saying the exposure will be a lasting benefit.

“In the history of college football, you probably don’t have a program that’s played two games before most teams have played one, and we were able to do that and to play two games in five days to start the season,” he said. “I saw plenty of social media posts saying, ‘Hey, call Central Arkansas, they’ll schedule you tonight.'”

Teague has been encouraged by the improving availability and lower cost of testing. He said the fact that basketball is returning this fall with testing multiple times per week will make some teams wonder why they didn’t play football under the same scenario.

“I’m hopeful, come December, that we can look back and see that it was still the right decision. I think it will be,” he said. “The FCS doesn’t get a lot of spotlight. People have reached out and are very intrigued with our story and situation. Our football coach has been on a lot of programs. Our coach was on [The Paul Finebaum Show]. It’s really elevated our brand. It’s been fun.”

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Sources: Bucs’ Godwin out with broken finger

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TAMPA, Fla. – Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin suffered a broken index finger Sunday at the Las Vegas Raiders and is undergoing surgery Tuesday, sources confirmed to ESPN.

He will not play in the Monday Night Football game at the New York Giants.

The news was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

Godwin fractured his left index finger making a fourth-quarter touchdown catch on a 4-yard strike from Tom Brady, leading to a 31-20 Bucs lead.

Godwin, who finished with 1,333 receiving yards last season – third-most in the NFL despite missing the last two games of the season — has had horrible luck with injuries this year. He missed Week 2 with a concussion and Weeks 4-5 with a hamstring injury.

A source close to the situation said Godwin could return for the Bucs’ Week 9 game against their divisional rival, the New Orleans Saints.

The Bucs are still dealing with injuries to their receiving corp, which is why the team signed Antonio Brown. Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans has been limited by an ankle injury since Week 4 and Scotty Miller has been dealing with a hip and groin injury, although he managed his first career 100-yard receiving game.

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Cowboys’ Jones has terse exchange, apologizes

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FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones had a testy exchange during his weekly radio segment on Tuesday when asked if the team has a leadership void.

Jones became curt on his appearance with the Shan & R.J. Show on 105.3 The Fan as one of the hosts attempted to answer when Jones asked the question back.

“Well, just shut up and let me answer,” said Jones while interrupting Shan Shariff’s attempt to explain. “No (he doesn’t see a leadership void).”

As Shariff attempted to re-frame the question about what Jones sees when he walks into the locker room, Jones said, “You’re not asking me that. I gave you the answer. When I go into the locker room, there’s no leadership void in my eyes. Now that’s your answer. Let’s move on.”

Jones later apologized for the exchange.

He is frustrated with the Cowboys’ 2-5 record as well as multiple players out for the season due to injuries, including Dak Prescott, tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins and tight end Blake Jarwin. He has noted in his last two radio appearances that the Cowboys have roughly 40% of their salary cap not on the field because of injury.

Jones was asked how much blame he deserves as general manager for the Cowboys’ record.

“As much as you give me when you’re talking about how great the talent is,” Jones said. “I think you basically step up there that it’s a joint effort, has been forever. And it’s a joint effort, have a lot of input, have input from some of the best there are in terms of opinions, in terms of deciding what to do. Have lived a life of being able to determine when there’s too much input but don’t confuse the ultimate decision with just a single-minded decision.

“That’s not the way it works. Never has worked that way. Didn’t work that way from the first day I walked through this door. And I’ve had the last say on everything since I bought the team in 1989. Period.”

Jones said he anticipates some “personnel changes,” but he was not asked to elaborate. The trade deadline is Nov. 3. He did back head coach Mike McCarthy on multiple occasions.

“One of the reasons Mike McCarthy is the coach is because he’s been through it,” Jones said. “He’s had tough times and he’s had disappointing times. … Certainly we couldn’t have wanted to be at this stage with our team this year, but if I’m going to hire a coach that will be at this stage and work through this for the betterment for the rest of the year and for what’s in the future, I’ve got my man.”

McCarthy made the playoffs in nine of his 13 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, made it to the NFC Championship Game four times and won a Super Bowl. Aside from the injuries, his first season with the Cowboys has been impacted by a lack of an offseason program, full training camp and preseason games due to the ongoing pandemic.

“You wanted someone in case the you-know-what hit the fan that had the credibility and had the do-ability to do what? Stand tall and strong as the head coach. And he’s doing that,” Jones said. “In answer to your question, he’s doing that in the face of adversity.”

Jones closed the interview with an olive branch to the hosts.

“If I were a little abrupt there, then I really don’t want to have our day start that way. You’re too good of men for that,” Jones said. “This certainly isn’t my most tactful time, you might say, with this thing, as we discuss these matters. I’m disappointed for our fans. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. It was not the plan at all.

“We certainly want to point to things, but they’re not excuses. This is football. I’ll assure you right now we’ll put our head down. We haven’t spent the time, the years, the money, the effort and everything for the Dallas Cowboys to be where we are right now. There will be better days.”

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Betting battleground: The fight over where people bet in the future

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A battle to be the place to watch and bet on sports is raging around the country, and the Las Vegas casino owner sitting on his corner barstool chuckling like Norm Peterson from “Cheers” is very much in the fight.

Whether drinking with guests at Longbar at The D hotel casino, or making big sports bets with competing bookmakers around town, Derek Stevens has emerged as the most approachable casino owner in Las Vegas since arriving from Detroit in the 1990s. Now everyone is watching his next move, as if the future of sports betting in Sin City depends on it.

The coronavirus pandemic crushed Las Vegas’ gaming and tourism industry back in the spring. The sportsbooks sat dormant for months, and revenue plummeted. According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, gaming revenue in April suffered a 99.6% decrease compared with April 2019. Casinos are back open now, and crowds (of mostly locals) have returned to sportsbooks, which are operating at limited capacity during their most lucrative time of the year, football season. But the pandemic is just one of many challenges facing giant sportsbooks such as Caesars Palace, The Mirage and the SuperBook.

The professional sports leagues themselves have entered the bookmaking business and are aiming to lure fans out of the casinos and into placing bets inside their own stadiums and arenas. The location of sportsbooks, however, has become somewhat irrelevant. As regulated sports betting spreads across the United States, most bettors have access to bookmakers in their pockets, on their phones. The bulk of sports betting now takes place online, so it’s understandable that casinos outside Nevada are more often opting to build sports bars rather than the giant amphitheater sportsbooks that are so popular in Las Vegas.

Not so fast, Stevens says. He is going in the other direction, a contrarian play. On Wednesday, Circa, Stevens’ new resort in downtown Las Vegas, opens with what’s being billed as the “world’s largest sportsbook.”

“There’s still an awful lot of demand for watching sports,” Stevens says. “As much as everyone loves being on their phones, there’s still an element where people like to get together and watch a game.”

‘The screen is just massive’

The seat with Stevens’ name on it at Longbar is just a few steps from the entrance onto Fremont Street Experience, a tourist hot spot that combines an old-school Las Vegas look with a Mardi Gras feel. It can get crazy, and Stevens has a front-row seat to it all. The man has seen a lot, but he wasn’t prepared for the first time he saw the towering odds board at his new sportsbook at Circa light up.

“I was with a pretty big group, and when they threw all the screens on, we all just jumped back because it was so bright,” Stevens says with a laugh.

Circa is the first ground-up resort built in downtown Las Vegas since 1980, standing 458 feet tall. When completed, it will have 44 floors, 777 rooms, a 5,000-square-foot multitiered swimming pool amphitheater and a nine-story transportation hub dubbed the “Garage Mahal.”

Construction began on Feb. 19, 2019, with a target of opening in December 2020. Like all projects started before the pandemic, Circa faced significant hurdles in 2020, including what Stevens calls some “uh-oh moments.”

“If you’re a batter at the plate, and you’re sitting fastball, and you get a curveball thrown your way, you’ve got to make an adjustment,” Stevens says.

At its peak, there were 1,200 construction workers on site daily, before COVID-19 safety protocols were put in place in March. That created new challenges; for example, only three workers were allowed to ride together in a construction elevator. A round trip to the top of the tower in the elevator took five minutes. They struggled to get enough workers to the top levels in an efficient manner and were running out of time. At one point there were fears that workers would have to be furloughed, with no guarantee that they’d come back.

At the advice of his team, Stevens audibled, electing to have his workforce focus on the first five floors of the casino. That decision allowed Circa to open eight weeks ahead of schedule.

“Great call by the guys,” Stevens says.

Stevens is tight-lipped about the cost, declining to offer even a hint about how much he has invested in Circa. He is direct about his new sportsbook, though — it’s the main attraction.

Three stories tall, the sportsbook at Circa was designed so that it could be seen from everywhere on the casino floor. It features a massive video wall with 78 million pixels that requires 10 people to operate.

“I’ve been part of these meetings, seen the renderings and been a part of the process,” says Matt Metcalf, Circa’s sportsbook director, “and I still don’t think I anticipated how cool it is. The screen is just massive.”

There’s stadium seating, and a broadcast studio. And with an occupancy of 1,000, Circa is certainly upping the ante in the Las Vegas sportsbook game. But is it the last of its kind?

“If we’re very successful, there’s going to be more that come up,” Stevens says. “If we’re not, then there probably won’t be. It kind of depends on how we do.”

Stadium sportsbooks: ‘How do we get in there?’

On a Sunday morning in September, three time zones away from Las Vegas, a line has formed outside the box office at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. People are waiting to place bets.

Since no live sporting events are taking place at the arena because of the pandemic, the box office has been converted into a William Hill U.S. sportsbook, with betting windows and self-serve kiosks. It is the first retail sportsbook ever to take bets at a major American sports venue. In September, an average of 3,800 bets per day, totaling $12.2 million, were placed at the sportsbook.

With a permanent space inside the arena expected to open in 2021, hopefully alongside the return of the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, this is another reminder that competition is increasing for where people watch and bet on sports.

In May 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, the federal statute that had restricted regulated sports betting to primarily Nevada. The decision ended a six-year courtroom saga between the NCAA, NFL and other major professional sports leagues versus the state of New Jersey, and it altered the sports betting landscape in the U.S. Since the ruling, legal sportsbooks have begun operating in 18 states and the District of Columbia, which was the first jurisdiction to give sports venues the right to offer sports betting.

In January 2019, Monumental Sports, Ted Leonsis’ sports and entertainment ownership group, sent out a request for proposal regarding building a sportsbook inside Capital One Arena. The RFP landed on the desk of Dan Shapiro, vice president of strategy and growth for William Hill U.S. He took it to his boss, CEO Joe Asher, and asked for his thoughts.

“I wasn’t sure we should even respond to it,” Asher says, noting that competitor MGM has a casino in the D.C. area and that Leonsis had an established investment in DraftKings.

“We certainly thought it was a long shot,” Shapiro says. “But since this was unchartered territory, doing something at a professional sports venue, we wanted to take our best shot at it.”

It worked, and on Oct. 3, 2019, Leonsis and Asher sat side by side, announcing plans to build a physical sportsbook inside Capital One Arena.

“It just shows how times have changed, from litigating in court to putting a sportsbook in the arena,” Asher says.

Capital One Arena isn’t alone. The Chicago Cubs have announced plans to build a sportsbook at, or in the vicinity of, Wrigley Field with DraftKings, and more arenas are considering following suit.

Dwayne MacEwen, the principal and founder of DMAC Architecture, told ESPN in the spring that his firm was discussing stadium sports-betting spaces with multiple professional teams that were “ready to go when the world goes back to normal.”

MacEwen envisions sports-betting spaces eventually moving to the lower bowl of arenas, offering comfortable leather recliners and a private bar with a digital ticker featuring odds and scores scrolling across it.

“We want people walking in to stop, point and go, ‘What is that? How do we get in there?'” MacEwen said.

“I honestly think COVID-19 has accelerated where sportsbooks were going anyway,” he added. “They’re more about hospitality, entertainment spaces. They’re more accessible to everyone, not just the bookie.”

Back to the future

It’s mid-March in Las Vegas, and mostly dark and quiet inside the Westgate casino — an eerie scene, especially knowing how busy it should be during March Madness.

Lines typically form outside sportsbooks at 5 a.m., or even earlier, on the opening Thursday and Friday of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. This year, though, it was canceled because of the pandemic.

Today there are only a few flashes of light and a random jingle from a slot machine as Jay Kornegay, a 30-year Las Vegas bookmaker, strolls to his office at the SuperBook without seeing a soul. The SuperBook’s dazzling 240-by-18-foot LED video screen, which had run 24 hours a day since it was installed in 2015, is off.

On March 18, a day before the first full day of the NCAA tournament, the Westgate closed its doors for the first time since opening on July 2, 1969, as the Las Vegas Hilton.

“It was to a point where we didn’t even have locks on doors,” Kornegay says. “We had to make modifications to all our entrances and basically chain them up.”

They’re still not allowed to be at full capacity, but the demand for sports betting remains strong. With Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL all returning in August, more than $475.1 million was bet with Nevada sportsbooks, a record high for the month.

The majority of that money, roughly 63%, was wagered via mobile apps, though. In New Jersey, which is now regularly surpassing Nevada’s sports betting monthly handle, more than 90% of bets are placed online. Going to the window and handing over cash to place bets is nearing vintage status, but there are still a few holdouts.

“Call me weird or old-fashioned, but I like to have the ticket in my hand,” says Michael Jester, a 27-year-old data science consultant who lives 20 minutes from Capital One Arena in D.C.

No doubt, sports betting isn’t going anywhere. However, there are questions about where it will take place, how many people will be there and whether we’ll see another “world’s largest sportsbook” built in Las Vegas.

“Absolutely,” Kornegay says, “because I think sports betting is going to become more popular than ever. I think it’s an underserved market. I believe the sports-betting space is going to grow to numbers that we’ve never seen before, and I would suspect that not only are we going to see one but I think there will probably be a couple more of them built over time.”

It’s been just eight months since the Chiefs beat the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, but it feels like eight years ago. Kornegay thinks back to the standing-room only crowd he had for that game, right before the pandemic hit.

“I think it might take a little while before we get Super Bowl-like crowds again,” Kornegay says, “but I think they’re going to return eventually.”

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