Top Sports Business stories of 2023.

It was a transformative year in the sports business world. From layoffs and bankruptcies to major mergers, sales, and contracts there is more money and revenue changing hands than ever before. And it’s all taking place in an age where the entire sports media and business world is going through a massive transition with new technologies and platforms changing the landscape. While it might seem an impossible task, we’ve done our best to narrow it down to the Top 10 Sports Business Stories of 2023.

10) The PGA Tour tries to keep its enemies close?

The end of this story is still being written, with the December 31st deadline for the PGA Tour to reach a partnership deal with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund’s LIV Golf. Since the June announcement of their intent to align, the PGA Tour expanded its search for investors. This week it chose one group to continue talks with, a group that includes Fenway Sports Group, New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank who also owns PGA Tour Superstores, and others. The fury, within and outside of golf, that greeted the June LIV-PGA Tour announcement, rocked the golf world and led the PGA Tour to seek out other replacement or complementary investors. LIV Golf continues to poach from PGA ranks, the latest the reported $600 million deal for Jon Rahm. What this means for the prospective Saudi PGA deal is anyone’s guess. Sounds like the golf elites will not be taking the holidays off. 

9) NFL Sunday Ticket moves to YouTube

Sunday Ticket on YouTube TV

Speaking of entities that got kicked around a lot, this season was the first in the 30-year history of Sunday Ticket that DirecTV was not selling it to consumers. By most accounts, Google’s YouTube TV has been a more than adequate replacement. Many fans loved to hate DirecTV, and there has been a lot less of that in the brief YouTube era, notwithstanding a Week 8 glitch. In October, NFL executives said subscriptions were up 40%, hopefully, a sign that the customer service woes of DirecTV are in the rearview mirror. 

8) Washington Commanders’ mammoth sale

Because this is a media site, I will make two points about the record-setting $6.05 billion sale.  One, high NFL franchise values are in large part buttressed by the NFL’s gargantuan media deals. But also, the sale marked the end of the beleaguered Daniel Snyder tenure, which while pathetic, was a content manufacturing machine that fed the media beast. Not that the media pines for the Snyder days, but there is a lot less compelling content now that he’s gone. Now all the media has to moan about is officiating. 

7) Shohei Ohtani’s $700 million deal

At one time, $700 million could have bought you the LA Dodgers, now it gets you Shohei Ohtani with the largest contract in North American sports history. And it’s not one to be replicated anytime soon, as MLB unlike other leagues is unrestrained by a salary cap and the reported agreement defers a lot of the contract.  The LA Dodgers already have one of the most lucrative RSN deals in sports with Spectrum SportsNet LA, but the Ohtani deal is not about making dollars and cents logic.  The team is sure to bring in more revenue through high ticket prices and Japanese sponsorship, but this deal is about winning for Dodgers management.

6) The death of the Pac-12

A "Pac-2 Championship" sign from the Oregon State-Washington State game in September 2023.
Sep 23, 2023; Pullman, Washington, USA; Washington State Cougars fan holds up a Pac 2 sign during a game against the Oregon State Beavers in the second half at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium. Washington State won 38-35. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The disintegration of the once mighty conference is on its own obviously a major story and a sad one for lovers of the history of West Coast sports.  But it speaks to two trends: one the power of big media money to re-alter the collegiate sports landscape, and two not to assume digital players are riding into the rescue. The Pac-12 essentially waited too long to re-up its media deals and was left standing when the game of musical chairs ended. But its fallback option of going fully with a streamer imploded when only Apple showed up and offered well less than other conferences were getting. That led Pac-12 schools to jump ship and flee to conferences with reliable media money, even if geographically these moves were illogical.

5 NFL ratings continue to soar

So what’s new you ask with high NFL TV ratings? By now that list the NFL puts out every year showing nearly every top 50 rated show is an NFL game is old hat.  But that the NFL continues in an era of cord-cutting and continued media fragmentation to not only keep its lofty perch but raise it a little higher is no small feat. The NFL is averaging around 18 million fans per game.  And the ratings rise for Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime is a double-digit percentage so far this season, a sign of growing comfort with streaming sports.

4) Lionel Messi comes to America

Lionel Messi was a cultural phenomenon when the World Cup icon took his talent to Inter Miami. Tickets sold out at home and on the road, his pink jersey flew off the shelf, and by most accounts, Apple+ sold a lot more MLS subscriptions.  Apple won’t disclose subs or TV ratings, so whether this truly brought in significantly more viewers is unknown outside MLS and Apple’s hierarchy. And it doesn’t help that Messi made light of the quality of competition in MLS. But never before was MLS so in the mix of media and culture as it was with the arrival of Messi. And his contract, which gives him an upside on Apple+ subs and a piece of the team, is sure to be used by organized sports labor as an ask in future negotiations. 

3) The rise of women’s sports

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates with teammate Molly Davis during a NCAA college women’s basketball game against Fairleigh Dickinson University Knights, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

2023 may one day be remembered as a pivot point in women’s sports. The space really began to break through in 2023, whether it was higher ratings for the WNBA, a record price for an NWSL franchise, the focus on the Women’s World Cup, or Coco Gauff winning the US Open and taking over the mantle of Serena Williams. Even college volleyball had its day, as did women’s college basketball. Some of the top influencers are female college athletes. And don’t forget the owner of the LA Dodgers buying into and consolidating women’s ice hockey. While true equality with men’s sports is still not in sight (except arguably in tennis), women’s sports is now squarely in the mix when it comes to consumers and attention.

2) Bally Sports bankruptcy

It was long coming, but Diamond Sports Group, parent of Bally Sports Regional Networks, home to 19 regional sports channels covering more than 40 teams in the NBA, MLB, and NHL, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, and the process continues to play out (hopefully this won’t make a top 2024 story). The process spawned several teams, including the Arizona Diamondbacks and Suns, to ditch DSG and offer its games on local free over-the-air television.  While only a handful of teams are now doing so, making games available this way is a growing trend.  Meanwhile, it appears DSG is intent on only airing NBA and NHL games through the end of the ‘23-’24 season, and the termination of the ‘24 MLB season. Those leagues might consolidate teams’ rights into a single platform, transforming how many fans get the games.

1) ESPN reaches a crossroads

Bob Iger at a Spurs-Clippers game in October 2023.
Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To stream or not to stream, that is the question.  Or more precisely, when to offer a streamed ESPN, a move that could deliver a knockout punch to the cable bundle that is held together in part by sports.  It was an eventful year at ESPN, and perhaps nothing more eventful than the World Wide Leader’s commitment to eventually offer ESPN and its array of sister channels as a digital product. Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger emphasized this year that day is coming, and it is only a matter of figuring out prospective partners, timing, and pricing. Speaking of partners, ESPN’s alignment with Penn Entertainment to create ESPN BET also marked a major pivot point for the Mouse, whose wholesome image had long been cited as a reason not to get into the gambling space. Pshaw. Disney is now all in on sports gambling, another sign of how much the gambling worm has turned.  

About Daniel Kaplan

Daniel Kaplan has been covering the business of sports for more than two decades. A proud founding reporter of SportsBusiness Journal, he spent the last four years at The Athletic.