Surely, you noticed quite a bit of overlap between our top ten sports media stories of 2022 and the ten stories we anticipate will impact sports television in 2023. From media consolidations to expiring rights deals, the benefits and consequences of the last several years will show themselves in the next twelve months. However, those are not the only trends and decisions that matter in the new year.
Here are five stories that may seem under the radar but might jolt your senses in 2023.
Baseball: Bigger bases, bigger ratings?
Major League Baseball will have a few more tweaks to its product in 2023 to shorten the length of games and curtail some of the trends that have led to the current ‘three outcomes’ of play. The pitch timer will be the most impactful change as it relates to how long games are played – it has already shaved off 28 minutes from games in the minor leagues.
That should be a welcomed tweak not only for fans at the stadium and at home, but potentially for advertisers who could see increased returns on investment for their TV spots. Save for some diehard fans and degenerate gamblers, speeding up the game can keep viewers from tuning away during the late innings. Even Yankees and Red Sox fans, whose teams were notorious for milking the clock over the last 20 years, have grown weary of four-hour matchups in the middle of May.
Even if there are fewer minutes per game, putting the ball in play must make any time the game takes more worthwhile. Changes to how defensive shifts are deployed, the count on disengagements (pickoff and cutoff attempts), and bigger bases are meant to encourage more movement on the infield, whether we see more stolen bases, legging out bunts, or plays at home plate.
When it comes to baseball, the ‘timeless’ game, change angers people. Commissioner Rob Manfred isn’t well regarded by baseball fans at-large, but if the new changes lead to more engagement with the game, even his most ardent critics will have to admit that he’s done something positive. But it’s a HUGE if.
Boxing: Will Crawford/Spence happen or become another superfight that never came to be?
Out of the purview of casual fans, boxing had a rather fascinating year in 2022. Women’s boxing reached new heights thanks to the sensational fight in New York between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano and the all-women card in London that was headlined by Claressa Shields. More people became aware of Dimitry Bivol and Oleksandr Usyk thanks to dominant performances over Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Anthony Joshua, respectively. And Tyson Fury keeps doing Tyson Fury things, for better or worse.
Being that this is boxing, the one fight that people hope to see hasn’t come to fruition for a laundry list of reasons, real and imagined. A bout between undefeated welterweight champions Terence “Bud” Crawford and Errol Spence Jr. would harken back to the 1980s where nine separate fights involved combinations of the legendary ‘Four Kings’ – the late Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, and “Sugar” Ray Leonard. Chatter over the summer seemed to indicate that Crawford and Spence would meet at the end of 2022 or at least the spring of 2023 but posturing on all sides have put the potential superfight in jeopardy.
For all of boxing’s inherent problems, media of all stripes tends to rally around the superfight in ways that doesn’t happen for most other sporting events. Beyond negotiations for which media company wins pay-per-view rights, major outlets devote significant coverage in the lead-up, social media buzzes with viral interviews from independent outlets, and even morning shows get in on the act.
Right now, at least in the US, 2023 lacks that massive single-day event outside of the Super Bowl. Will Crawford and Spence – a title unification fight featuring two superb boxers in their prime – fill that void before it becomes a fight that passes its expiration date?
Hockey: TNT’s first go-round with the Stanley Cup Final
Among the Big Four male pro leagues, only the NHL had given telecasts of its championship series to a cable network. In fact from 1995-2021, two Stanley Cup Final games in every series were shown on cable, whether on ESPN or OLN/Versus/NBC Sports Network. The streak ended when the NHL granted Disney and Warner Bros Discovery broadcasting rights before the 2021-21 season. Last year, Disney put all six of the ’22 Final on ABC instead of ESPN – the first time a Final series aired entirely on broadcast television.
There was nothing but complaints about ESPN’s coverage of the NHL last year, with seemingly the only positives to critics the use of the network’s old NHL on ESPN theme and the decision to air the entire presentation of the Stanley Cup to the champion Colorado Avalanche on ABC.
On the flip side, WBD’s Turner Sports drew mostly strong reviews from start to finish in its first season with NHL rights. TNT will air the 2023 Final, a historic one since it’ll be the first series to air solely on cable. Comparisons to ESPN’s first Final in 20+ years will be rampant, especially after less than sterling reviews for Bristol.
TNT inherited a lot of the essence of NBC’s coverage, staffers included, while adding the right notes from how it has managed the NBA for the last three decades. Its studio show is much more robust, so it’ll be interesting to see how it looks and feels at the Final locations in addition to having the usual duo of Kenny Albert and Eddie Olczyk on the call.
Motorsports: Will Formula 1’s American momentum continue?
Though the 2022 season didn’t have the ‘made for TV’ drama of prior seasons, F1 could call ’22 a rousing success when it comes to its American aspirations. According to Sports Media Watch, F1 smashed US ratings records with an all-time average 1.21 million viewers per race. The inaugural Miami Grand Prix was the most watched race ever in the US with 2.58 million viewers. Blackbook Motorsports reported that 1.3 million people on average tuned in to watch the United States Grand Prix in Austin, peaking at 1.6 million.
2023 might be the most critical season yet for F1 in the States. With the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November, the racing circuit will have three races in the US for the first time since 1982. The timing of that race could not work out better as it’s the second to last race of the season, and it would compete with the NFL for eyeballs. As proven with the men’s World Cup and the NBA on Christmas in recent weeks, a rising tide can lift all boats when it comes to sharing a Sunday with the NFL.
In addition, Williams Racing signed the Florida-born Logan Sargeant, making the 22-year-old the first American racer to compete in F1 since 2015. Sargeant comes with some hype as he’s the only American to ever win a race in F2 – he won two races in 2022. He may not compete with the likes of Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton as Williams isn’t in the same league as Red Bull or Mercedes, but he’ll have the attention of a country in ways unseen in decades.
Soccer: The NWSL wants to cash in
With the support of its brother league, the WNBA is the most successful women’s pro sports league we’ve ever had in the US. Nearly three decades old, its presence remains a model for women’s sports. Following those footsteps, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is also poised to become a blueprint as it’s ready to cash in on greater valuation of teams, the overall popularity of soccer in the US, and the constant race for networks to add live sports with discernible audiences.
The league’s broadcast deal with CBS is set to expire at the end of 2023 and Serena Williams’ husband says that the pact made in 2020 is undervalued. “When we were given CBS as the stage, we either competed with – matched or even outperformed – the MLS,” Reddit founder and Angel City owner Alexis Ohanian told Reuters. “Facts over feelings. When we’re put on that stage, the fans show up. So I think we’re going to have a lot of good ammo to go into that negotiation.”
Per usual, the women’s World Cup this summer will be viewed as a gateway towards the professional club products offered around the world and the potential bidders are numerous. The NWSL has done rather well for CBS and Paramount+, but its leadership will undoubtedly look at how FOX presents the global tournament, especially after so much criticism was levied at Rupert Murdoch’s network for how it chose to cover the recent men’s Cup in Qatar. With Comcast’s relationship with the Premier League, it’s not hard to imagine the NWSL having its own connections with NBC, USA and Peacock. ESPN and ESPN+ are certainly in play, as the most prominent linear and digital platforms in sports are always in need of content. Scripps Sports has already expressed interest in the league for local rights as well. (In theory, Warner Bros Discovery would consider bidding, but that’s hard to imagine given the company’s cost-cutting strategy throughout 2022.)
There’s no question that someone’s going to write a bigger check for the NWSL’s TV rights. It’ll be another good sign in the mainstreaming of women’s professional sports.