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From Tiger Woods' troubles off the course to the New Jersey Nets trouble on the court, the best and worst sports business moves of 2009
1. Tiger Woods: Athlete of the Decade and Tabloid King As America was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner less than four weeks ago, it was inconceivable that another American icon, Tiger Woods, would soon become the nation's biggest turkey. His Thanksgiving night car accident began a flood of tabloid stories about serial extramarital affairs even the famously controlling Woods and his top handlers couldn't contain. Accenture (ACN) became the first sponsor to drop Woods amid the scandal; Gillette and Tag Heuer soon scaled back their ad campaigns centering on Woods as well. As the Woods scandal continues to unfold, his popularity plummets. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than four in 10 Americans now hold an unfavorable view of Woods. And more than a third of Americans, golf fans or otherwise, believe that companies should no longer use Woods as an endorser. Yet his illicit off-course activities didn't stop sportswriters from naming Woods Athlete of the Decade … and EA Sports (ERTS) insists that sales of his "Tiger Woods PGA Tour '10 video game appear to be holding up fine." 2. Jerry's World Opens for Business In September, Jerry Jones' new HKS-designed, $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium opened in Arlington, Tex., to international acclaim, albeit without a naming rights partner. With its massive scale and elegant presentation, Cisco (CSCO)-driven technology, huge center-hung video boards, and museum-worthy art installations, Jones and HKS principal architect Bryan Trubey raised the bar on sports architecture. What's more, Cowboys Stadium's flexibility allows for mega-events beyond the 2011 Super Bowl it has already landed. The building will host the NBA All-Star Game in February, and Jones is bidding for the Pacquiao-Mayweather heavyweight bout in March as well. But the most impressive feature of the tony building may be its most egalitarian concept—the $29 SRO Party Pass, likely to be emulated in new pro sports facilities everywhere. 3. Labor, Lost Major leadership shakeups within pro sports unions mean it's no longer business as usual at the MLBPA (Don Fehr retired and Michael Weiner steps in), NFLPA (outsider DeMaurice Smith was elected into office after longtime head Gene Upshaw died in 2008), and NHL (Executive Director Paul Kelley was ousted, and the league has begun the search for a new leader). But as is usually the case in the sports industry, all eyes are primarily on the NFL, as a series of formal collective bargaining sessions will determine whether the 2010 season will be an uncapped one (unless a new collective bargaining agreement is reached beforehand) and whether supplemental revenue-sharing will stay in place. 4. The Empire Strikes Back The New York Yankees had a banner year to end the decade—the Steinbrenner family's changing of the guard, opening of the $1 billion Yankees Stadium, the World Series win, and Derek Jeter named Sportsman of the Year. Yes, the $2,500 field-level seats behind home plate remained empty for most of the season (even when they were reduced to a "bargain" $1,250). Yes, Alex Rodriguez admitted to having used steroids. But having the biggest payroll in sports pays off on and off the field, and thanks to their World Series title, the Yankees have reportedly secured new sponsorship commitments for next season that will surpass sponsorship revenue in 2009.
The Yankees transcend sport. According to Sports Illustrated, 551,230 NYY items traded hands on eBay (EBAY) this year, making the franchise the most popular pop-culture phenomenon on the site in 2009. 5. The Fury and the Sounders When asked "What's My Line," comedian and game show host Drew Carey now likely answers "successful MLS franchise owner." The expansion Seattle Sounders Football Club topped Major League Soccer in attendance (the squad drew 430,347 spectators throughout the season) and also leads the league in merchandise sales and overall revenues. The Sounders reached the MLS playoffs in their inaugural season, selling out tickets to their first match in half an hour. Although they didn't get to the finals, they played host to them, selling out their 67,000 seat stadium for the MLS Cup on Nov. 22. And the team proved a healing salve to Seattle sports fans still reeling over the departure of the NBA SuperSonics for Oklahoma City the year before. 6. Nascar Slows Its Pace, as Jimmie Johnson Builds His Legacy The economy continued to take a big bite out of Nascar attendance and sponsorship this year and led to more contraction (fewer cars and fewer teams) and layoffs within Nascar's Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. Nascar did have a few bright spots—while ratings were down by double digits for most races this year (mystifying execs and broadcast partner Fox, who figured that if attendance was down, ratings would soar), they were up considerably for the 2009 Sprint Cup Series Award show on SPEED—meaning that sponsors will likely be asked to pony up more for spots during that show in 2010. The confirmation of Danica Patrick as a part-time Nationwide Series driver created post-season buzz among fans, media, and corporate sponsors. And dominant driver Jimmie Johnson continued to build his legacy as he added Sprint Cup Series victory no. 4, a Nascar record, to his résumé. 7. Olympic Turbulence Even though the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver are more than two months away, the USOC has been heading downhill for most of 2009. The USOC's rough ride started in early summer, when its announcement of an Olympic cable network angered the IOC and longtime broadcast partner NBC. The poor timing of the announcement was widely viewed as negatively influencing the IOC voting bloc when, a month later, it awarded the 2016 Summer Olympic Games to Rio de Janeiro over Madrid, Tokyo, and Chicago—which failed to make it out of the first round. Critics immediately called for new USOC management. The organization has created a committee to examine its future and hopes to have a new CEO in place by the beginning of the Vancouver Games. Chairman Larry Probst vows to complete the three years remaining on his term even though leaders of the Olympics' national governing bodies called for his resignation. 8. NCAA: Myles Brand Passes, the BCS Lives In September, longtime NCAA President Myles Brand passed away after a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The first sitting university president to ascend to that office, Brand had helped move the NCAA and its 1,200 member institutions toward academic accountability via his Academic Progress Rate system, which held athletic departments publicly accountable for athletes' scholastic performance and graduation rates. A list of potential successors who could match Brand's passion for academic reform is slowly being whittled down.
In the NCAA's other corner is Bill Hancock, brand new executive director of the Bowl Championship Series and the "official defender of college football's status quo," according to the Kansas City Star. Atop Hancock's job description, at least in the minds of BCS conference directors, is protecting the existing system and its enormous fees for TV rights from Congress, fans, pundits, and anyone else who would like to see an American college football playoff. 9. Tennis Pitches a Fit as Federer Just Gets Grander Roger Federer is not just a tennis god. As of 2009, he's also a tennis GOAT. On Centre Court at Wimbledon in July, Federer won his 15th Grand Slam title, making him the Greatest Of All Time in tennis by besting Pete Sampras' 14-Slam record. (By winning the French Open in May, Federer also became one of only six men to have captured a Career Slam.) In his spare time, Federer and new wife Mirka had twins. No. 1 ranked Serena Williams, as predicted, received only a stinging hand slap after her ugly tirade at the U.S. Open. She was fined $175,000 in late November for her infractions (in addition to the $10,500 she was fined on site at the Open), which will be reduced to $82,500 if she behaves herself for two years. That's pocket change for someone with $28.5 million in career earnings—and Williams' sponsors didn't bat an eyelash. 10. Brooklyn to Add Russian "T" Room In 2009, the New Jersey Nets became the first NBA team sold to a foreign national owner, Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who has signed contracts to acquire, for a reported $200 million, 80% of the franchise and 45% of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards development. Lady Liberty on nearby Liberty Island couldn't welcome other foreign national would-be sports owners any better: Give me your tall, your point guards, your huddled masses yearning to break fast. And your billions, be they yuan, euro, or ruble. The team, which started 2009 with an NBA worst record 0-18, and its new owner will tentatively move into the Barclays Center in 2012. Meantime, the Nets are applauding Atlantic Yards owner Bruce Ratner, who just sold $511 million in bonds to finance Barclays Center construction, negotiating with Newark to play in the Prudential Center for two years, and trying to avoid getting slapped with a technical for on-court incompetence.
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