Could these guys finally win the big one? Photo: Don Wright/AP/Shutterstock
On December 31, 2009, we had no idea who Mike Trout was; Giannis Antetokounmpo was a 15-year-old kid hawking watches on the streets of Athens, Greece; and Tom Brady … well, okay, Tom Brady was doing exactly the same thing he’s doing now. The last ten years of sports have given us the rise of Barstool and the fall of Grantland and Deadspin, the implosion and resurrection of Tiger Woods, and not a single Yankees World Series game. In 2007, LeBron James could respond to news of a gay former NBA player by saying he wouldn’t find him “trustworthy”; by the end of the next next decade, he was one of the most prominent voices on social justice in the sports world. For what it’s worth: In 2009, Colin Kaepernick was a promising quarterback prospect at the University of Nevada. Three years after that, he’d be in the Super Bowl. Three years after that, he was out of football. Sports moves very fast.
Thus, trying to guess what sort of major sports events will happen over the next decade is a fool’s errand. But we are those fools, and this is our kind of errand. Spinning off New York’s Future Issue — in which a couple of these predictions are included — here are ten wild guesses as to what might transpire by 2029. If we all survive that long, of course.
We haven’t had a major work stoppage in one of the major North American professional sports in more than eight years, and we haven’t had a season canceled since 2004. But it sure looks like a looming possibility. Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA are all fortifying themselves for a labor apocalypse in the next three to four years, with owners locking up hard-line stances on their collective-bargaining agreements and players already stowing away game checks for a presumed labor nuclear winter.
The illusion of cooperation between labor and management to work together for the greater good of the game has long evaporated. Both sides treat each other as enemies and are dug in, willing to wait each other out. But if they don’t have the game’s best interests in mind, no one else will. You have multiple kamikaze actors, convinced the other side is dead wrong, in an industry that’s likely to become less profitable, in a world that’s on fire. If that’s not a recipe for mutual self-destruction, I don’t know what is.
In 2017, the most recent year we have data on the phenomenon, actual ticketed attendance made up a mere 15.95 percent of NFL revenue. It’s safe to assume the percentage has only decreased since then, since it had dipped every year of the decade before that. The NFL, like most sports leagues, makes the vast majority of its money from television and licensing deals, and increasingly it does not matter how many people sit in the stands. If you have been to an NFL game recently, this is obvious to you, because the stadium experience — waiting through endless timeouts, infinite concession lines, nonstop pumped-in noise — has gotten almost too miserable to tolerate. You’re not the target audience; the people watching at home are. You are merely atmosphere, extras the camera occasionally catches.
So why wouldn’t leagues and networks take the next step and just let the games take place on a soundstage that maximizes the watching-at-home experience? Imagine the angles and access they could get if they didn’t have 40,000 people sitting in the way of the cameras. Eliminating fans would eliminate atmosphere, but TV can always manufacture that. Losing spectators means losing unpredictability, and no television producer — and that is what leagues essentially are now — likes unpredictability. They’re putting on a show for the fans at home. No one else matters, and that includes the poor schmoes in the stands. Get them out of the way, and these games become the pure home-entertainment spectacle they ultimately want to be.
This could happen very soon, with the Spurs’ Becky Hammon a perpetual candidate because of her experience and her place alongside Gregg Popovich, considered one of the greatest minds in the sport’s history. (Frankly, it’s difficult to argue a male coach with credentials similar to Hammon’s wouldn’t have already gotten a job.) But the NFL has ten full-time female assistant coaches, the NBA has 11, and the Yankees have a hitting instructor who’s a woman. The momentum for this is so overwhelming at this point that it’ll be shocking if it hasn’t happened by 2029.
The most popular basketball league in the United States is obviously the NBA, and college basketball, with its traditions and with its status as a feeder league, is easily the second. But college basketball is in existential peril. Its amateur status is under attack from legislators, and the NBA is likely to soon do away with its one-and-done rule, taking away future Zion Williamsons and Kevin Durants from the world of college hoops. So what might take its place? How about BIG3, the emerging pro basketball league that, essentially, is an old-timers game for retired NBA players, former superstars like Allen Iverson and Amar’e Stoudemire and Metta World Peace? The league, co-owned by Ice Cube, has been a smashing success, and is in the midst of expansion in the wake of a new television deal with CBS Sports.
And why not? Why sit through a college game played by a bunch of unpaid teenagers you don’t know when you can relive your youth by watching your favorite players from college? Maybe they don’t look like they once did, but hey, you don’t either, pal. As the world grows more and more complex, and we have so many more competitors for our entertainment dollar and attention span, it’s perfectly reasonable that our limited bandwidth will only allow us to pay attention to athletes and sports we’re already familiar with. Sports nostalgia is easier than keeping up with the new. Who’s the more popular player right now: Mike Trout, the best active player, or Barry Bonds, who retired 12 years ago? Your average ticket-holder likely knows the latter far better than the former.
The relentless success of ESPN’s “30 for 30” franchise shows the pocketbook power of aging sports fans all yearning for the way things used to be, just like their parents did. Eventually you won’t need to watch a game at all. You’ll just need to read the eventual oral history of it.
I think really taking a close look at evaluating whether a school is really benefiting from college football is strong leadership. As costs, not only in financial, but opportunity as well, rise, every leader of a school that can’t compete for championships ought to ask themselves some tough questions. What are we really trying to get out of this program? Is it exposure? If so, how do we measure that? Is it alumni engagement? Is it political engagement? Can we achieve those goals in other ways? What are we willing to go without in order to continue our football program?
When you add in the expected increase in insurance costs for collegiate programs — which could go up even more with further research about the short- and long-term effects of playing such a violent sport — and the activist nature of college campuses in the first place, at what point does a college decide it’s not worth it? Imagine this trend beginning in the Ivy League, or the Patriot League, and working its way up. Is, say, Connecticut really better off for having college football? Someone, at some point, will decide that it isn’t.
California’s “Fair Pay for Play” law — which allows players to get paid for the use of their own likeness —has inspired a series of similar statutes throughout the country, and it seems inevitable that the NCAA will have to acquiesce eventually, even if the organization is dragging its feet more than it might appear. It feels like at some point, college athletics will become the officially sanctioned minor leagues for the pros that, in some ways, it already is. But there’s probably too much tradition and inertia in the sport for that to happen in the next decade. Still, Fair Pay to Play opens the door for EA Sports’ NCAA Football and NCAA Basketball games to return to the market. This might sound like a reductionist way to look at something as potentially monumental as college players finally getting paid for the money they’re making for universities and television networks. But understanding how player welfare is connected to entertainment the public has shown itself eager to spend money on is just the sort of thing that makes eventual change more inevitable. When you are physically paying for, say, Madden 2020, you now understand that the players are getting some of that money, and why. We might not have made this connection as we were playing collegiate video games 15 years ago. But we sure are now.
This is already a reality in college sports, where you can watch individual BYU and Texas and Oklahoma games. And if you’re an MLB or NBA fan, you can simply subscribe to your team’s package. The NFL gets too much money from DirectTV for them to let this happen yet, but AT&T has shown signs it might not want to continue its DirectTV deal. The Super Bowl and other major events will never be pay-per-view, but an age where you just dump three bucks in a PayPal account to watch an individual game appears close.
He’ll be 42 years old in a decade, and now that the NFL appears to have shut the door on the possibility that he’ll return to the game, Kaepernick’s legend (or villainy, if that’s where you’ve decided to land on this particular cultural moment, and congrats to you on that) will only grow over the next decade. His advocacy will keep him in the conversation — you can imagine him becoming a go-to talking head every time sports and politics intersect (that is to say, all the time) as the years go on — and he’d instantly become a fundraising magnet the minute he threw his hat in the ring. History is likely to remember Kaepernick more warmly every year, and he’s smart and savvy enough to take full advantage.
This past decade gave us the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, those sad-sack losers finally allowing their fans, as the saying goes, to die in peace. The only two teams left in North American sports with suffering bona fides to match the Cubs are the Browns and the Bills. One of them has to end the relentless torture this decade. The world wouldn’t dare be cruel enough to deny them both … would it? Actually, considering how openly cruel the world was this past decade, it is perhaps best for us not to hold our breath.