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The Year’s Biggest Headlines in the Business of Sports

  • 2023 saw the streaming invasion, the fall of crypto, and the phenomena created by Swift, Messi, and Coach Prime.
  • A media giant launched a betting app, a historic college conference collapsed, and much more.
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February 26, 2024 | Podcast

It was a transformational year. Deion Sanders turned Boulder into Hollywood. Las Vegas emerged as the next sports capital, and its newest attraction became its most fascinating landmark. Taylor Swift entered the NFL consciousness, and Lionel Messi made MLS matter.

Saudi Arabia splurged on sports, streaming giants invaded live games, and the Pac-12 blew up. Shohei Ohtani hit a $700 million homer, too, though he’ll only be paid $46 million per year (more on that later). Elsewhere, cryptocurrency took a nosedive, media rights got a facelift, and ESPN had its own plot twist. 

Here are the earth-moving moments that defined 2023:

The year the Prime Effect took over Boulder 

Every fan and media personality was talking about Colorado football from the moment Deion Sanders signed his nearly $30 million contract in December 2022. Coach Prime stirred controversy almost immediately when he told many of the players he inherited that they would be replaced by transfers. All was forgotten as Colorado athletics received record cash donations and saw their spring football game featured in a rare ESPN broadcast slot. A 3-0 start brought celebrities en masse to the new Hollywood of college football, while Fox’s and ESPN’s pregame shows battled for supremacy. Reality sunk in as Colorado struggled to a 4-8 finish, but star players Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter will return in 2024, along with what many believe will be a top transfer class.  —David Rumsey

The year the Pac-12 collapsed

Conference realignment reached a whole new level, effectively killing the Pac-12. The demise was a long time coming; for years, experts have talked about how increasingly lucrative media rights contracts motivated schools to try to join a select few of the richest conferences. That consolidation reached its peak this summer when all but two of the Pac-12’s members decided to flee for more profitable media deals. Washington State and Oregon State, the two leftovers, will try to chart a path forward that may or may not include a future with an entity called the Pac-12.  —Amanda Christovich

The year Messi arrived in Miami

After winning his first FIFA World Cup in late 2022, Lionel Messi was the center of the soccer universe for the bulk of 2023. Speculation mounted about the Argentinian legend’s future after a brief stint with Paris Saint-Germain; among his suitors: The Saudi Pro League attempted to lure him with a $1.6 billion offer. Ultimately, MLS—and the allure of playing in the U.S.—won out. Inter Miami, which owned the worst record when Messi joined over the summer, immediately received a boost in revenue. Despite missing the playoffs, Miami won its first-ever Leagues Cup title and was undoubtedly the most influential team of the year.  —DR

The year Taylor Swift mesmerized the NFL 

The NFL is on pace for its best television performance in eight seasons, with audiences growing 7% from 2022, to 17.5 million average viewers through Week 15. Did a pop star play a part in that? It’s hard to quantify how many Swifties embraced pro football due to the singer’s romance with Super Bowl champion Travis Kelce—and the chance to see her mingle with Donna Kelce from a luxury suite—but according to one national poll, 70% of respondents believe Swift has had a positive impact on the league.  —Michael McCarthy

The year we learned what RSNs and DSG are

The regional sports network model showed unprecedented strain in 2023, highlighted by Diamond Sports Group’s filing for bankruptcy in March. DSG, the parent of Bally Sports, reported nearly $8.7 billion in debt and has spent the past nine months steadily shedding programming assets, including cutting deals with the NBA and the NHL to return their rights after the 2023-24 season. As cord-cutting accelerates, the response to the local rights question has taken many forms, including the rise of several streaming platforms and an unlikely rebirth of local, over-the-air broadcasting, led by a rapid accumulation of team rights by Scripps Sports. But the 40-plus years of security that teams enjoyed from the cable bundle is giving way to a much more turbulent and uncertain future.  —Eric Fisher

The year streamers truly infiltrated live sports 

The long-expected invasion of live sports by giant streamers became a reality this year. Amazon Prime Video aired its second exclusive season of Thursday Night Football, Google’s YouTube TV took over NFL Sunday Ticket, and Apple began its 10-year, $2.5 billion MLS deal. (Netflix experimented with exhibitions like The Netflix Cup but remained focused on documentaries.) With Prime pulling near-broadcast-like audiences of 12.1 million viewers per game for TNF this season, the writing’s on the wall for legacy media companies.  —MM

The year Saudi money spread deeper into sports 

In 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund showed no signs it would stop pumping money into athletics. The biggest splash: In June, the Saudi Public Investment Fund, along with LIV Golf—backed almost exclusively by the PIF—entered into a framework agreement with the PGA Tour to mend golf’s divide. That deal, if finalized, would mean up to $2 billion flooding into a united pro golf effort. In the Saudi Pro League, Cristiano Ronaldo inked a contract with Al Nassr that pays him roughly $200 million per season through 2025. Also: Next year, the country will host its first UFC event. —A.J. Perez 

The year we learned Shohei Ohtani’s market value 

We waited over a year, but the price was finally revealed for the most unique and (arguably) best asset in MLB history. In the end, the answer was as singular as the player: Shohei Ohtani, fresh off his second AL MVP, signed a 10-year, $700 million deal in December with the Los Angeles Dodgers. An even more unique wrinkle: Ohtani will defer $680 million, so the league counts his salary as roughly $46 million per year for competitive balance tax purposes. He’s also tied to the front office in an unprecedented way: He can opt out after any season in which president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman or controlling owner Mark Walter leaves the organization.  —Owen Poindexter

The year of the Sin City sports migration

Las Vegas, home to Super Bowl LVIII in February, took center stage in 2023, hosting its first Formula 1 race in four decades, plus the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals and championship. Also: MLB owners approved the Oakland A’s heavily-criticized move to the desert, and speculation grew that an NBA team could be next. To cap it off, Vegas celebrated two championships: the Aces’ second consecutive WNBA title and the Golden Knights’ first Stanley Cup. And in case you missed it (which would be nearly impossible), MSG Entertainment’s Sphere opened, immediately becoming the most eye-catching venue in a city of spectacles.  —EF

The year that crypto crashed and burned

We kicked off the year with FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried and others at the failed crypto giant facing federal fraud charges. In November, SBF was found guilty. Current and former athletes such as Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, and Shaquille O’Neal—along with the Golden State Warriors—remain defendants in a civil case. In February, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge granted the Miami Heat and Miami-Dade County a request to ditch their $135 million arena deal with FTX ahead of a new 17-year pact with Kaseya. While Bitcoin and Ethereum saw major spikes in 2023, NFTs haven’t rebounded, and Dapper Labs (which produces NBA Top Shot and NFL All Day) underwent a series of layoffs.  —AP

The year of uncertainty for ESPN

During the first half of 2023, the looming threat of layoffs cast a pall over Bristol, culminating with the June 30 departures of well-known talents such as Jeff Van Gundy, Suzy Kolber, and Max Kellerman. When Disney chairman Bob Iger said in August that he was seeking minority investors for ESPN, the company looked vulnerable. But ESPN battled back in the second half. The network’s Monday Night Football audience grew 23% to 16 million average viewers through Week 15. ESPN pivoted to a few big personalities, like Stephen A. Smith, Pat McAfee, and Scott Van Pelt. And it grew into the most-followed brand on TikTok, with 44 million, while separately launching ESPN Bet. In October, Disney released data showing that ESPN generated more profits ($2.9 billion) than the Mouse House’s entire entertainment business in fiscal 2022. Bottom Line: However bad the year may have looked, it’s too early to underestimate the most powerful four letters in sports media.  —MM

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