Lawyers, Runs & Money: A look back at the chaotic, sprawling world of sports in 2023, including You-Know-Who

There’s something appropriate about the fact that 2023 began with college football in a moment of complete uncertainty. As the clock struck midnight in the Eastern Time Zone, an Ohio State field goal attempt was in the air. If it sailed true, Ohio State would be on to the national championship. If it flew wide, Georgia would have the chance to defend its title.

The kick trickled off to the left, Georgia went on to win its second straight national championship, and college football established itself from the first seconds of 2023 as the most significant and compelling sport of the year. The NFL drew more viewers, women’s college basketball experienced more growth, Major League Soccer drew more worldwide attention, but no sport embodied the year’s dominant themes — money, celebrity and controversy — quite like college football.

[More top moments from 2023: NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB, college football, men's college basketball, women's college basketball, golf, soccer]

Story of the Year: College football tears itself apart, tries to rebuild

Throw a dart at a map of the United States, and you’ll hit a fascinating college football story: Washington and Oregon bailing on the Pac-12 for the Big Ten … California teams joining the Atlantic Coast ConferenceDeion Sanders (briefly) making Colorado the center of the college football universe … Texas most definitely coming back … Michigan (perhaps) using stolen signals to (perhaps) buttress its three straight playoff runs.

The entire college football whirlwind led up to the year’s most controversial moment: Florida State going undefeated, yet being left out of the playoff while two one-loss teams got in. Just try to explain anything about college football this season to a non-fan, and see how long it takes for them to point out that there is no logic whatsoever behind this sport. Exactly, and that’s why America loves it.

Pasadena, CA - October 28:  Head coach Deion Sanders of the Colorado Buffaloes prior to a NCAA Football game between the UCLA Bruins and the Colorado Buffaloes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, October 28, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Deion Sanders' debut as head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes proved to be one of the biggest stories of the year in college football, if not all of American sports. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Fame over talent: The power of celebrity

Sanders — sorry, Coach Prime — perfectly illustrated another thread running through the American sports ecosystem: the perpetual, inexhaustible power of celebrity. Sanders held all of college football in his grasp in the opening days of the season, but as his team lost, so too did he lose his grip on the nation’s attention. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift began dating Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, leading two energized and engaged fan bases to suddenly realize the other existed. Swift got more airtime on early season Chiefs broadcasts than anyone this side of Patrick Mahomes.

Americans got a taste of the mania the rest of the world has experienced for years when Leo Messi made his debut with Inter Miami over the summer. Sellout crowds, intensive security protocols and hype rarely seen in sports followed Messi everywhere he went. But even he couldn’t raise the woeful Miami club out of its mediocrity. Another international icon, Shohei Ohtani, is hoping for better results with his new club. Ohtani, now with the Dodgers, is on pace to become baseball’s first breakout superstar since Ken Griffey Jr. two decades ago. And Ohtani came at a bargain price of $2 million per season … for now.

It’s always about the money, except when it’s about more money

Ohtani’s mammoth contract — 10 years, $700 million, with $68 million per year deferred — is the most obvious evidence of the incomprehensibly large sums now whirling around the sports world. See also: LIV Golf, which dished out hundreds of millions of Saudi Arabia’s money to a handful of pros, despite not having a significant broadcast presence or, really, any nationwide interest. The A’s left Oakland for Vegas, and the Capitals and Wizards will leave D.C. for Virginia, in pursuit of ever-greater piles of taxpayer-backed cash.

But there are warning signs. The bankruptcy of Diamond Sports Group, a local sports broadcaster, and the reported softness of the market for other sports seeking broadcast deals seem to indicate that a market correction could be in the works. And if that broadcast money goes away, a whole lot of assumptions about the business of sports will need to change very quickly.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 22: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets celebrates with teammates after receiving the Most Valuable Player Trophy following game four of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers at Arena on May 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Nikola Jokić didn't win MVP this past NBA season, but he did lead the Denver Nuggets to their first title. (Harry How/Getty Images)

The world is knocking on our door

For the first time in more than a decade, the U.S. Women’s National Team failed to win the World Cup. It was the most obvious sign that traditional U.S. dominance has waned in even our best sports. Spain’s Jon Rahm captured the Masters and led Europe to a thorough demolition of the United States in the Ryder Cup. (To be fair, Brian Harman brought the British Open’s claret jug back to Georgia.) Ohtani’s dominance in baseball is indisputable. Foreign-born players such as Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, Victor Wembanyama and Giannis Antetokounmpo now dominate the NBA. When flag football makes its debut at the Olympics in 2028, it could set off an entire new wave of international superstars, the same way the Dream Team did for basketball in 1992.

At least we’ll always have college football. No other country on Earth is foolish enough to try to challenge that.

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 29: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) and the offense prepare to run the 'brotherly shove' during the Philadelphia Eagles game versus the Washington Commanders on October 29, 2023, at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. (Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Philadelphia Eagles devised what has become the most notorious play in the NFL: The Brotherly Shove. (Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The highlights of a remarkable year

Every year has its highlights, but a few stand out so brightly that you know you’ll be watching them for years to come. LeBron James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to claim the NBA’s all-time scoring record. Coco Gauff authored one of the most inspiring moments of the year when she won the U.S. Open on the same court she once attended as a young girl. This was also the year of the Tush Push (a.k.a. The Brotherly Shove) in the NFL; you can decide for yourself if that’s a highlight or not.

The Braves’ Michael Harris made perhaps the most spectacular play of the entire baseball season, but the Texas Rangers walked away with their first World Series title. Alabama’s Jalen Milroe kept the Tide’s hopes alive — and, as it turned out, kept Florida State out of the playoff — by converting an all-or-nothing, fourth-and-31 desperation play in the Iron Bowl.

LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark battled for the NCAA women’s basketball title in an edgy, controversial matchup that ended with LSU raising the trophy. Over on the men’s side, Fairleigh-Dickinson became just the second 16-seed to knock off a No. 1, busting brackets all over the country by topping Purdue.

For all the talk of money, celebrity, franchise relocation and off-field frustration, sports always come back to the games. This year started out with one of the best, and we’ll end the year anticipating some more heavyweight battles on New Year’s Day. Bring on 2024!