YouTube TV subscribers are about to (really) lose Fox Sports North

In late February/early March, right before our country plunged headfirst in the coronavirus pandemic, YouTube TV was on the brink of dropping Fox Sports North and other regional sports networks.

In announcing a decision to drop those channels, the streaming service said, “This is a reflection of the rising cost of sports content. You may have noticed several other TV services have also decided to remove FOX Regional Sports Networks from their lineups.”

But a few days later, YouTube TV and RSNs reached a temporary agreement to keep the channels on at least through the 2020 NBA, NHL and MLB seasons regular seasons. The tentative date of expiration was Oct. 1 — otherwise known now as Thursday.

And, well, that temporary agreement appears to have been just that. YouTube TV announced this week that it is indeed planning again to drop FSN and other regional sports networks on Thursday.

This was sent to subscribers: “Starting Thursday, October 1, 2020, FOX Regional Sports Networks will no longer be available on YouTube TV, and you will no longer have access to any previous recordings from FOX Regional Sports Networks. This was a difficult decision made after months of negotiations. We hope that we can bring FOX RSNs back in the future.”

That does leave open the possibility of re-adding those channels, and it should be noted that with the NBA and NHL seasons obviously not starting in October like they normally would (since, you know, the NHL just ended and the NBA is still finishing its old season) there isn’t nearly as much local pro sports programming on those channels set to air in the next few months.

But this does have an immediate impact on YouTube TV subscribers — with an estimated 2.5 million subscribers nationwide — wanting to watch Minnesota United on FSN. The channel also carries some Gophers sports.

More than anything, this continues an unfortunate trend. Sling TV and DISH dropped the regional sports networks more than a year ago and haven’t added them back. Hulu + Live TV (the package I get) has them, but the options for “cord cutters” who love sports but don’t want more expensive long-term subscriptions via cable or satellite are again taking a hit.

Vikings right in the middle of NFL’s first big COVID situation

If your temptation after an 0-3 start for the Vikings was to ask, “What else could go wrong?” then Tuesday provided a bleak answer.

The Vikings now find themselves right in the middle of the NFL’s first COVID situation, after they were forced to shut down their facility Tuesday following news that eight members of the Titans — three players, five staff members — were reportedly confirmed to have tested positive for the virus.

Those two teams played at U.S. Bank Stadium less than 48 hours before that announcement, a 31-30 loss for the Vikings.

The Titans reportedly have been shut down until Saturday, which would make it VERY difficult to conceive of them playing their scheduled game Sunday against the Steelers.

The impact on the Vikings — and the overall NFL schedule — remains to be seen, though the Vikings released a statement Tuesday saying they haven’t had any positive tests since Sunday’s game.

Silver linings for eternal optimists: Maybe the Vikings will still be able to play. Or: You can’t lose if you can’t play.

In the bigger picture, though, this underscores the challenge of playing an NFL season in a pandemic without a bubble. Major League Baseball had major outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals but managed to (mostly) make it through a 60-game regular season.

Baseball’s challenge was the sheer volume of games needed to make up with teams playing almost every day. But that was mitigated somewhat by the ability to play doubleheaders — the Cardinals played 11 of them in the final 44 days of the season — that were shortened to seven innings each.

The NFL can’t exactly have teams play twice on the same day, with games shortened to three quarters. (Right?)

Those who pay closer attention than me are already concocting ways things could be reconfigured if the Titans vs. Steelers game is postponed. It involves several shifting byes and moving pieces, but it appears to work.

If the Vikings develop positive tests and have to postpone their game Sunday at Houston? Things get trickier. The Vikings have a Week 7 bye week. The Texans play that week but then have a bye the following week.

Maybe there’s a complete schedule rearrangement? Maybe they squeeze a game in on a Thursday? Maybe they say two 0-3 teams don’t make up the game unless it means something at the end of the year?

All of these are hypotheticals at this point. I’m sure we’ll gain some clarity as the week goes on — and perhaps be able to answer the question of whether the Titans should have played Sunday in the first place after a defensive coach was placed in COVID protocol.

For now, though, this sure feels like one of those situations the NFL hoped would never happen and won’t be able to make a perfect plan to mitigate.

For the Vikings? It’s hard not to think about past seasons like 2010 where things have gone from bad to worse and never stopped.

With Twins set to face Astros, it’s time to renew your hate for cheaters

Way back about a decade ago, the hottest story line in sports was the cheating Houston Astros, their punishment (or relative lack thereof) for stealing signs and how much they were going to get booed by fans.

(Wait a second: I’m being told that was actually not a decade ago, but earlier this year. That can’t be right, but people are insisting it is).

Regardless: The Astros cheated their way to the 2017 World Series title. They were still being accused of cheating in 2019, when they made it to Game 7 of another World Series.

They were villains and were going to get yelled at in every city. In spring training, they were hearing a smattering of it. And players from other teams were seemingly on a rotating daily basis ripping the Astros.

And then … well, you know. Coronavirus shut everything down, and when baseball resumed again it was in front of zero in-person fans in a truncated season.

The Astros went about 2020 in relative silence. Fans couldn’t boo in person. And most of us were more concerned about other more pressing subjects.

And Houston kind of stunk. The Astros went 29-31 in the regular season. Coincidence or not, a team that led MLB in slugging percentage (.495) in 2019 was 16th in that category (.408) this season. Maybe it was the small sample size. Maybe it was the fact that they didn’t know what pitches were coming.

But they were good enough to finish second in the bad American League West, which was good enough for the No. 6 seed in these revised playoffs — which puts them into a postseason matchup with the Twins.

It’s just a three-game series, all of them at Target Field, and no chance still to boo.

The Astros are not the Yankees, with all the postseason baggage the Twins would carry into that series. But if you’re a Twins fan, don’t underestimate your capacity to dislike Houston.

The Astros haven’t even come close yet to paying in full for their actions, and now is a great time to remember that.

Jimmy Butler and Stefon Diggs: Kindred spirits who got away

Jimmy Butler, playing for his fourth NBA franchise since 2017, has led the Miami Heat on a surprising run through the Eastern Conference all the way into the NBA Finals against the Lakers. In Sunday’s clincher, Butler had 22 points and eight assists — a trademark Butler game.

Stefon Diggs, playing for his second NFL franchise in two seasons, has helped the Buffalo Bills to a 3-0 record after a thrilling win Sunday over the Rams.

The Wolves and Vikings, who traded Butler and Diggs after both players became disenchanted with their situations here, are … well, they are not playing in the NBA finals nor 3-0. They are both instead looking at uphill climbs, to say the least, when it comes to being competitive.

It is too reductive to draw straight lines between the success and failure of each player and/or team after the trades. While it’s fair to say the Wolves would be a better team with Butler on their roster and the Vikings would be a better team with Diggs on their roster, both received talent in return that might lead to success in the future.

And really, I’m not here to pour salt in these wounds. Rather, I continue to be struck by just how similar Butler and Diggs are — initially by their relationships to our local teams, but increasingly in their personalities as distance allows more examination.

Both have a playful side and are quite engaging in interview settings when they want to be. Both are underdogs — Butler as a late first-round pick, Diggs as a fifth-round pick — who play like they constantly have something to prove while also maintaining outsized egos even by athlete standards.

Both forced their way out of Minnesota not in the midst of failure but after success: Butler led the Wolves in 2017-18 to 47 wins and their first playoff appearance since 2004; Diggs co-authored a miracle in the 2017 playoffs and was a huge driving force behind getting the Vikings back to the postseason last year.

Sure, both of them in actions and words made it clear they didn’t want to be here and clashed with teammates — most notably Kirk Cousins for Diggs and Karl-Anthony Towns/Andrew Wiggins for Butler. But their beefs (beeves?) seemed to be primarily professional and not personal.

Butler and Diggs, being hypercompetitive and not given to complacency, appraised their situations in Minnesota and seemingly decided: Sure, we accomplished something. But this is as good as it’s going to get with this cast of characters.

Butler first went to Philadelphia, where the 76ers lost on a second-round, Game 7 buzzer beater to eventual champion Toronto. But again it seemed he sensed that wasn’t the right fit. Maybe he didn’t want to share the spotlight with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. More likely he didn’t think that was the right mix to win a title.

So Butler went to Miami, and some of us assumed he was taking a step back in his quest for a title. And now here he is in the finals during his first season there.

Jimmy is not for everyone. But he is a shrewd — maybe even ruthless — evaluator of what is best for him.

Diggs has more to prove to show he’s in the same category, but a 3-0 start in Buffalo during which he has caught 20 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns is an impressive beginning.

If he needs any more motivation to keep pushing, Diggs can just watch Butler — his kindred spirit — trying to take down LeBron in the finals.

Would a lopsided loss Sunday mean Vikings’ worst 3-game start ever?

This is the 60th season of Vikings football, a winding historical path of extraordinary highs and unbelievable lows.

But even if this franchise has taught us to expect the unexpected — and despite my skepticism about their prospects for this year before any games had been played — I did not imagine that two games in I would be writing a headline comparing this year to some of the darkest in Vikings history.

But here we are, as discussed in detail on the latest Access Vikings podcast. After losses to the Packers and Colts — neither of them particularly competitive, even if the score against Green Bay (43-34) was more flattering than the on-field product — I was sent scurrying into Pro Football Reference in search of an answer to this question:

Would a lopsided loss Sunday make this the worst three-game start in Vikings history?

The short answer: No.

But let us rephrase the question: Would a lopsided loss Sunday make this the worst Vikings three-game start in at least a half-century?

The short answer: Yes.

Consider:

*To be eligible for worst start ever, I only considered seasons in which the Vikings were winless after three games. That’s only happened six times in their history — 1962, 1966, 1967, 2002, 2011 and 2013.

Those three seasons in the last two decades might feel worse by comparison to this year — particularly the 2011 Vikings, who finished 3-13 — but one could easily argue that all three of those teams were at least somewhat unlucky to start 0-3.

The 2002 team had an overtime loss to the Bills after Buffalo tied it with a 54-yard FG at end of regulation (and Doug Brien missed 2 extra points). Another loss was 27-23 at Chicago when the Bears scored two late touchdowns.

Similarly, the 2013 team had two losses that came on a touchdown allowed in final minute of game.

And the 2011 Vikings? Sometimes it’s easy to forget how competitive they were early on with Donovan McNabb at quarterback before rookie Christian Ponder took over. In the first three games: They had halftime leads of 17-7, 17-0 and 20-0 … and still managed to lose all three.

This year’s Vikings could only dream of blowing big leads. I think that if they lose a non-competitive game to the Titans on Sunday, this will qualify as their worst three-game start since at least the 1960s.

*Of those three long-ago teams: The 1966 squad at least had a tie, so throw them out.

The 1962 Vikings were truly bad, though. They lost their first three games by a combined margin of 89-21. And the 1967 Vikings started 0-3, losing by a combined score of 83-31. All 31 points came in the 4th quarters of games they were losing big.

It would take a lot for this year’s Vikings to match that. So let’s say they probably ONLY have the potential to have the worst start in 53 years.

*But what about The Les Steckel Year (TM) of 1984?

Yes, that team was truly awful. But they were at least competitive early on. That squad started 1-2, and one of the losses came on a late touchdown by Philadelphia.

*That said, I think by the end of this season we will judge these Vikings less harshly. I don’t *think* they are Steckel-esque. It would be an awfully long way to fall from 10-6 last year and the general stability they have enjoyed under Mike Zimmer to a conversation about the worst teams in franchise history over a full season.

A win over the Titans would go a long way toward getting back on that track. But a loss? At least through three games, it would put the 2020 Vikings in some very unflattering company.

Those glorious Twins robes: A gimmick worth cheering for

The Twins rallied to walk off the Tigers with two runs in the bottom of the 10th, right around the same time Cleveland was doing the same thing to the first-place White Sox. The combination moved the Twins within a half-game of the division lead.

But during and after those developments, the only thing many Twins fans wanted to talk about was … bathrobes?

As our La Velle E. Neal III reports, Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson gave custom robes to his teammates — some casual elegance as they enter a strict quarantine period heading into the postseason.

Nelson Cruz, who didn’t play in Tuesday’s win, kept busy by bestowing his robe upon teammates during the game. Max Kepler got the robe treatment twice — once when he tied the game in the eighth with a wall-scraping, game-tying home run and again in the 10th when his flare fell in for the game-winning hit.

“I hope we keep it going because it brought some luck today,” Kepler said. “But I can’t wait to lounge in it in the bubble. I’m going to be doing a lot of that from now on.”

Donaldson’s robe gambit is a little silly and basic — akin to a corporate team-building outing to play Laser Tag or a family buying matching ugly holiday sweaters.

But things like that work for a reason: they are enjoyable unifiers. Laser Tag is awesome and fun — just like the robes.

A week ago, Donaldson was being criticized from many directions after getting ejected in a game the Twins eventually lost. If reactions from those like former Twins first baseman and current FSN analyst Justin Morneau were any indication, Donaldson’s dirt-kicking ejection had the potential to cause clubhouse problems.

The robes are just the opposite: A unifying force in a strange season and a small down payment on potential future success.

Do these gimmicks always work? Of course not. Johnny Damon bought all the Tigers players robes in 2010. They finished 81-81.

Then again: The last time the Twins won a playoff series in 2002, their dream season came to an end at the hands of a mysterious Rally Monkey.

They even seem to have unified the toughest base in the world to crack: Twitter. Support in the poll I’m running is close to 90% for the robes and should sweep the electoral robe college.

A smattering of reactions to the robes:

I guess the only question left is this: Where can I get one?

Twins starting pitching is set up for a trip to World Series if …

While there is still some final-week playoff sorting to do, the most likely Twins outcome in this 60-game regular season is gaining either the No. 4 or No. 5 seed and facing the Yankees in a three-game wild card round — all at the home ballpark of the higher seed.

The Twins have lost to the Yankees in a five-game series (five times) and a one-game playoff (2017), so why not give a three-game series a try?

Here’s the thing: While home field advantage would mean a significant amount in that series — since the Twins are 21-5 at home and the Yankees are 21-7 at home while both have losing road records — the biggest edge in a short series might come down to starting pitching.

The Yankees’ rotation is front-loaded, particularly with No. 1 starter Gerrit Cole. The Twins have moved closer to having a true No. 1 with the acquisition of Kenta Maeda — who almost certainly will be their Game 1 playoff starter — but their rotation strength lies more with depth.

That leaves them in a peculiar position: Getting past the first round will be difficult — particularly if it’s against the Yankees, for both historical and practical starting pitching reasons.

But if the Twins can manage to finally slay that dragon, they could be in a position to really take advantage of their rotation depth all the way to the World Series.

The strange format this season in the California bubble has the division series (five games) and ALCS (seven games) being played without any off days.

That will require teams to go with a full five-person rotation (or tempt fate and tiring out arms in a series without off-days with a bullpen game).

The Twins can throw Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda and Rich Hill, then pick from either Jake Odorizzi (if healthy) or Randy Dobnak (if he’s back to being a ground ball machine again).

That sort of depth doesn’t typically come into play in a long series with off days for travel since teams typically shorten up to at least a four-pitcher rotation and sometimes three.

This could be the Twins’ best chance to make the World Series in a long time*.

*If, of course, they can beat the Yankees.

Only TV viewers heard authentic fake booing of Carson Wentz

The rabbit holes of this 2020 NFL season are endless, but the story of embattled Eagles QB Carson Wentz getting heartily jeered by … well … the echoes of past Philly fans, but being among the very few who didn’t get to hear it takes things to another level.

Here’s the deal: At least twice during Philly’s 37-19 home loss to the Rams on Sunday, loud boos could be heard after poor throws by Wentz — once on a third-down incompletion and another after the was intercepted in the end zone with the score just 21-16 in the third quarter.

The Eagles, of course, are among the large majority of NFL teams without fans in their stadium this year because of Covid-19. The boos, which came through loud and clear on TV, were produced by the in-game audio engineer in charge of creating the soundtrack for the viewing/listening audiences at home.

It was an authentic response, since Philadelphia fans — not known for being particularly pleasant — almost certainly would have let Wentz have it if the stadium was packed.

But as SI.com explains, the only people involved in the playing or watching of the game who didn’t hear the booing were those chosen few inside the stadium.

NFL games have two layers of artificial noise. In the stadium, the crowd noise that is piped through the speakers is a constant loop of an audio file the league provides to each team. Unlike the in-stadium noise, the broadcast sound is controlled by a human being and varies based on the game situation. So while fans at home were hearing Philly fans engage in the decades-long tradition of heckling their own players, the guys on the field just heard the same steady stream of white noise they’d been hearing all afternoon.

So Wentz didn’t know that real Eagles fans at home were hearing fake Eagles fans boo him, and real Eagles fans at home didn’t know that Wentz couldn’t hear the boos they were hearing.

Long story short: Wear a mask, hope for a vaccine and try to imagine a 2021 season where everyone can hear the real boos from real fans.

Are the Vikings entering their once-every-decade plummet?

The nature of the NFL, with a significant share of its small number of allotted games decided by a few key plays in close games, is for a great deal of parity from year to year.

The difference between 6-10 and 10-6 is much thinner, for example, than the difference between 62-100 and 100-62 in a regular Major League Baseball season. A bounce here, a missed or made kick there, an officiating decision everywhere separates the above-average from the below-average. Five of the 12 teams who missed the playoffs in 2018 made them in 2019. Among them was the Vikings.

Outside of that focused churn, though, we find larger truths about franchises: Periods of sustained success tend to be followed by relatively long periods of pain. Players get older. Trends change. And not even a salary cap ultramarathoner like the Vikings’ Rob Brzezinski can outrun the cap forever.

History shows us some clear and symmetrical trend lines when it comes to the Vikings. Two very bad games into the 2020 season, the Vikings’ play and the franchise’s history conspire to make us ask: Are they in the midst of exiting one of their patented stretches of stability and relative success and rapidly entering one of their similarly familiar stretches of subpar play and rebuilding?

I should note first that I’ve been fooled by early struggles by a Mike Zimmer team, and I’ve generally vowed not to judge one of his teams until at least four games into season because they tend to get better with time.

These questions wouldn’t be worth asking — at least not yet — if the Vikings’ first two losses of the season were more pedestrian, couldn’t-catch-a-break types of defeats. But the very nature of how the Vikings have seemingly been overmatched in every facet of the game makes this relevant now.

Two pieces of history first:

*From 1992 through 2000, the Vikings made the playoffs in eight out of nine years under Dennis Green, including NFC title game berths in 1998 and 2000. There were still high hopes in 2001, but that season quickly nosedived. The Vikings went 5-11 and Green was fired.

From 2001-2006, spanning three coaches (Green, Mike Tice and the first year of Brad Childress), the Vikings went 43-53, reaching the playoffs just once.

*But then from 2007-2009, the Vikings built to a crescendo. They went a combined 30-18 in the regular season, adding two wins to their previous season total every year, made the playoffs twice and reached the NFC title game in 2009.

2010? A plummet to 6-10, half of their win total in 2009, and the start of a five-year stretch spanning three coaches (Childress, Leslie Frazier and the first season under Mike Zimmer) during which the Vikings went 31-48-1 and made the playoffs just once.

*From 2015-2019, under Zimmer, the Vikings made the playoffs three times — advancing in the playoffs in both 2017 and 2019 — and went 50-29-1 in the regular season.

The surprise isn’t that NFL teams like the Vikings suddenly go from contenders to bottom-feeders in the span of months. The surprise is that we don’t know when it’s going to happen.

We’re only two games into 2020, but the trend lines are sure telling us what has happened and what could happen. The Vikings are hardly alone in this, but when they fall they sure seem to fall hard. And that sure seems like what is happening.

If that is what’s happening, get ready for an ugly rest of 2020 — and probably a few seasons beyond as well.

Meltdown in Chicago puts Twins on collision course with Yankees

This Major League Baseball season features just 60 games, played without fans, with rules seemingly made up on the fly (seven-inning doubleheaders? Sure!) and playoff expansion that includes more than half the teams making it into the postseason.

It is, to be sure, a season like no other. But as the regular season heads toward the finish line in a little more than a week, it is nice to know that in these unprecedent times there are still signs of normalcy to which we can hope to cling.

Namely: If the season ended today, a sentiment that is only 8 games away from being true for the Twins, their first-round playoff opponent would be none other than the Yankees.

It’s amazing how this reality calcified around these two teams so quickly after being far off the radar.

As recently as a week ago, New York was sputtering badly enough to put a berth in this expanded postseason in jeopardy. But the Yankees have since won eight straight (outscoring opponents 71-20 in the process) — putting them at 29-21, enough for ESPN’s standings to list them at a 100% chance to make the playoffs.

As recently as a few days ago, the Twins were flying high after a sweep of Cleveland. The entered a four-game series with the White Sox just a game back of the AL Central lead. But three losses in those four games has left Minnesota three back with eight to play, and Chicago has the tiebreaker as well.

At 31-21, though, the Twins are also 100% locks to make the playoffs per ESPN, even if they haven’t officially clinched a berth.

The Twins are wedged into second place in the division, three games behind Chicago and three ahead of Cleveland. The Yankees are in a similar spot in the AL East – 3.5 behind Tampa Bay, 2.5 ahead of Toronto.

As it stands now, the Twins would be the No. 4 seed as the second place team with the best record. The Yankees would be No. 5, as the second-place team with the second-best record. Houston, the second-place team in the AL West, is just 25-25 and unlikely to catch either of them.

It’s far from certain that things will finish this way, but it would take some rather significant movement over the final handful of games to dislodge the Twins and Yankees from the 4/5 seeds – and a first-round playoff meeting — based on their current position. Perhaps the biggest drama is whether the Yankees will overtake the Twins record-wise and win the right to host that best-of-three opening series in front of their own cardboard cutouts instead of the ones at Target Field (before one lucky team heads to the California bubble).

We all know the postseason history between the teams, but just to recap:

2019: Yankees sweep

2017: Yankees single game wild card win

2010: Yankees sweep

2009: Yankees sweep

2004: Yankees won final three games in a 3-1 series win

2003: Yankees won final three games in a 3-1 series win

That’s Yankees 16, Twins 2 – including 13 consecutive postseason victories over the Twins.

Maybe it has to be this way. Maybe this odd season can’t have any other conclusion.

Maybe these revamped Twins can channel the passionate energy of Sergio Romo and Josh Donaldson – the latter getting ejected Thursday in an amusing, awesome but also inarguably damaging home plate display after a go-ahead home run – to finally take down the Bronx Bombers.

Or perhaps it will just be another frustrating chapter for the Twins.

Or maybe one of these teams will slump or surge and this whole thought exercise will be for nothing. It would be a shame, though.

If the Yankees fall to the Twins, and nobody is around to see it, would it still make a sound? I have to imagine it would be loud and clear in living rooms all across Minnesota.