Photo: Ron Vesely/Getty Images
Nearly everything in sports in 2023 felt like it was about to end. It isn’t, of course: The Super Bowl is still happening next year, even if having it in Las Vegas does seem a little on the nose, end-of-days-wise. But an industry whose foundations are consistency and tradition — the idea that no matter what’s going on with the rest of the world, sports will always still happen — has been acting as if the future is highly precarious.
Baseball players are signing contracts that will pay them $68 million in the year 2043. College football is hoovering up every dollar it can with the understanding that the golden goose could croak at any second. The sports-media business has devolved into its crawling–across–the–parking–lot–at–the–end–of–The Wolf of Wall Street phase. There’s a nonzero chance the Saudis will own half our sports teams in a decade (if we even make it that long as a country). Right now, the whole sports business is looking over the horizon and seeing nothing but uncertainty. The motto seems to be “Grab what you can while you can.”
Here, a look at the ten biggest sports stories of 2023.
For the third consecutive year, athletes, coaches, and, especially, leagues stayed as far away from politics as they possibly could. LeBron James disbanded his More Than a Vote organization. Major League Baseball gave the All-Star Game back to Georgia. The NFL’s strongest statement on social justice was painting “End Racism” in end zones. (This does not seem to have ended racism yet.) I haven’t read the word “Trump” in a sports-related story in months. The unprecedented political activism of 2020, a year in which players actually refused to play postseason games because of racial injustice, has almost completely evaporated, allowing leagues and players to stay out of the political discourse. They should enjoy it while they can — as should the rest of us — because this is going to be impossible in 2024. But they’ll still give it a try. I wouldn’t expect LeBron to be hosting any Biden rallies this time around, that’s for sure.
It has been a long time since Major League Baseball made any sort of decision that didn’t end with everybody screaming at it. So it must have been disorienting for the league when its much-ballyhooed rules changes, from banning the shift to making the bases bigger to — most dramatically — adding a pitch clock — weren’t just accepted by the public but in fact celebrated. The average length of game was down more than 25 minutes from last year, and it felt that way, too, with more stolen bases, more balls in play, and a crisper pace of play that reminded many of why they fell in love with the game in the first place. Now that this sweeping set of changes has been embraced, prepare thyself: More reforms are on the horizon, and they may be even more dramatic. Robot umps: They are coming.
As someone who has surfed the highs and lows of the sports-media racket for 20 years, I’ve learned that nothing is stable, that you can never get too comfortable, that in a year nothing will look the way it does right now. But even in that context, this business is completely upside down right now. ESPN is shedding jobs and appears to be at the weakest position in its history. Sports Illustrated is publishing AI writers. The only thriving media personalities are essentially doing a series of extended wrestling promotions. My God, they’re making up sideline reports now: Is nothing sacred? I used to mock parents, including my own, who told their children not to go into sports media. Now if either of mine even think about it, I’m kicking them out of the house. Save yourselves, kids.
Travis Kelce was already one of the most famous players in the NFL. But neither he — nor, really, the NFL — knew what fame was until the Chiefs tight end started dating the planet’s biggest pop star. Suddenly, Swifties were diagramming plays, Aaron Rodgers was trying (and failing) to pick a vaccine fight with Kelce in order to restore his fading clout, and networks were broadcasting more cutaway shots of Swift celebrating in the skybox than they were instant replays. Be as cynical about this relationship as you want, but all told, they both seem like pretty nice people who enjoy each other’s company. That the NFL and Swift both got bigger from this surprising, and surprisingly still ongoing, union — well, that’s a happy coincidence, I am sure.
To be fair: The NFL didn’t really need Swift’s help. It continues to set every TV ratings record imaginable — the top-three-rated shows of the year were all NFL programming — and that’s not even accounting for all the streaming platforms, most notably Prime, that have paid the league billions to air its games. The league skated past every potential controversy with no problem at all, even turning the tragic Damar Hamlin story into something you could feel good about. It has separated itself from the rest of the sports world so dramatically that every other sport is starting to feel like something people only kind of pay attention to just because there isn’t any football on. The NFL may expand and expand until it is the only thing left.
The sports world resisted for a while, but eventually you can only pass up that much money for so long. This was the year the Saudi Arabian government’s long-standing efforts to break into sports finally worked. The best soccer stars, save for Messi, were happy to play in front of nearly empty stands in the Saudi league if it meant they’d make nine figures. More and more teams fell under Saudi ownership. The NBA refused to rule out potential Saudi investment. And, in the biggest coup, LIV Golf, the direct competitor to the PGA that vivisected the sport in 2022, shocked the world by announcing plans to merge with the PGA, making everyone who stood against it (including Tiger Woods) look foolish for thinking anything else would happen. You think Steve Cohen is a controversial owner? Wait until a Saudi fund buys a baseball team or an NFL team. It’s coming and soon.
Ohtani began the year by striking out teammate Mike Trout to win the World Baseball Classic. He ended it by signing the biggest contract in sports history. In between, he won his second MVP, dominated baseball the way no one ever has (including Ruth) and … once again failed to make the playoffs. That’s why he’s a Los Angeles Dodger now. There are serious downside risks to Ohtani’s new contract, but he’s the most famous baseball player on the planet and one of the most recognizable athletes. He’s doing something no one has ever done. Who cares how much longer he’ll be able to do it? Just soak it all in: We’re so lucky we get to witness his greatness.
For years, fans of women’s sports have been arguing that if executives and television networks would just give their leagues exposure, audiences would follow. That sure seemed to be the case this year. The Women’s World Cup was a massive success, even if it didn’t go well for the United States. The University of Nebraska hosted a volleyball game that featured the biggest crowd to ever see a women’s sports event (92,003 people!). Stars like Coco Gauff, Simone Biles, and A’ja Wilson gained stature and championship trophies. The most fun women’s sports moment might have been the women’s basketball Final Four, when Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese, the sport’s transcendent talents, squared off in a battle that got millions of people who had never watched a women’s basketball game before to tune in. (It was much more interesting than the men’s Final Four.) People will watch. They always would have.
UCLA and Oregon are in the Big Ten. Texas and Oklahoma are in the SEC. Colorado and Utah are in the Big 12. There are 12 playoff teams now. Players are getting paid millions and transferring wherever they want to go. The NCAA is being sued by everyone. Coaches are telling the NCAA to buzz off and no one cares. College football has learned that there’s gobs of money to be made by becoming NFL-Lite, a revelation that has led the sport to dissolve itself in front of our eyes. No sport is taking more end-of-days attitude right now than college football. Who knows what it will look like in a decade, if it even exists? For now, it’s riding a bomb, Slim Pickens style, waving its cowboy hat and whooping until everything goes black.
FanDuel. MGM. Caesars. Barstool. ESPN Bet. The experience of watching a sporting event is not dissimilar now to watching one of those old house channels in a Vegas hotel: Just a bunch of creepy scam artists flashing numbers at you and screaming. The Supreme Court’s decision to make gambling legal (in states that wanted to legalize it anyway) opened the door to the betting industry spackling itself over every inch of every sport, everywhere. Now it’s not just networks that are governed by gambling but the leagues themselves. This is going to end disastrously. It’s possible it already has.