2013 was full of the unexpected, ranging from the glory of the Iron Bowl to the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing to the utter insanity of the Manti Te'o fake girlfriend scandal. We saw the emergence of certain athletes (Yaisel Puig, Paul George), memes (Dufnering) and issues that have been years in the making (the concussion crisis threatening to take over the NFL, the PED frenzy threatening to take over everything fun about baseball).
As a sportswriter, it's my job not only to point out current trends but also to predict future ones. It might be fun to simply predict champions, but the real challenge is to guess where sports might be headed … what we'll be talking about this time next year. (Though, for the sake of discussion on that champions point … MLB: Cardinals, NFL: Seahawks, NBA: Heat, NHL: Blues, NCAAF: Florida State, NCAAB: Arizona, World Cup: Brazil.)
Thus, a look forward at what's likely to emerge in 2014.
This will be the last year all golf coverage focuses on Tiger Woods. When Woods last won a major, in June 2008 at the U.S. Open, George W. Bush was president; just a week before Woods' win, Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic primary race to Barack Obama. So, it's been a while. Tiger turns 38 years old today. Tiger insists he still has plenty of time to catch Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors -- he's four behind -- and while history says he's correct, Nicklaus never went five years between majors until his last one at age 46. If Woods doesn't win this year -- and remember that every golfer is a huge underdog to win even one particular tournament -- it's going to seem a bit silly to keep pretending he'll ever resemble the old Woods again.
Challengers to ESPN will continue to gain ground. It has been a fun parlor game to mock the ratings of NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports 1, the three biggest competitors to grab a share of the cable sports cash cow that ESPN has been dominating for the last decade-plus. And sure, the numbers are low -- but this was always going to take time. NBC Sports Network has dazzled with their soccer coverage, CBS Sports Network has tons of college sports talent it hasn't tapped much into yet and Fox Sports 1 has the power and full commitment of one of the largest media companies on Earth behind it. The goal doesn't have to be to overtake ESPN; it just has to be to chip off a few pieces of the pie. You can expect more progress in 2014.
U.S. Soccer will get even bigger. If you went to any of the U.S. Soccer qualifiers in 2013, you know how intense the American Outlaws fan group has become, and how this is quickly growing behind a small niche curiosity. (SI.com's and Fox Sports' Grant Wahl has chronicled this extensively.) But it'll all come down to the World Cup. Despite a brutal draw, the U.S. and the Outlaws are expected to be a major presence at the event, and if the USMNT can somehow slip into the round of 16 (BetFair gives them a 22 percent chance), it could be the biggest moment yet for U.S. Soccer. No matter what, every sign is pointing up.
Baseball will face serious replay backlash. Fans have been screaming for replay in baseball for years -- but this season, you should probably expect them to spend much of the season grousing about it. Much of this will be because of MLB's weird challenging system -- which puts the onus on manager strategy rather than getting the calls correct, inherently -- but don't overlook how much the flow of baseball relies sometimes on not always following the letter of the law. Replay is going to change baseball far more than we might be ready for it to.
The locker room will get less private. When we -- you, me, fans, media -- talked about the Richie Incognito scandal, we couched it in terms of conflict: Maybe you saw Incognito as a villain, or maybe you saw him as just someone trying to toughen a guy up. But players didn't look it at it that way: All that mattered to them was that Jonathan Martin had broken the clubhouse code by taking it outside. This sanctity of the locker room is paramount for athletes … and it cannot last. We are a far more open society than we have ever been, and we do not allow secrets. (And neither does the law.) The locker room is going to become more open, whether players like it or not. The question is whether or not they will adjust.
More non-athletes will have more prevalent television analyst roles. We've all watched Emmitt Smith and other former athletes struggle with both basic diction and any coherent perspective on the games they played. We're starting to see the answer to that: People like us. ESPN's Bill Simmons, who might have helped push out Magic freaking Johnson and is now essentially the centerpiece of ESPN's NBA coverage, is the zenith of this, but you're seeing the trend everywhere, from Tom Verducci working the booth during playoff games to the Basketball Jones guys with their own show on NBA.tv. (They're "The Starters" now, a name I'm still not used to.) Viewers are tired of ancient anecdotes from the locker room; expect to see more non-players like Simmons featured, not less.
The UFC will get its boxing moment. Those who love the UFC and mixed martial arts have always praised it, justly, for being safer than boxing. But now it's going through the same problems that ailed boxing, from inconsistent judging to imperialist money-grubbing promoters putting their fighters' health at risk and superstars having their careers cut short, by injury, by choice or both. This is a compelling sport that is in danger of losing all its momentum.
"Playing the game the right way" will come one step closer to death. As Jorge Arangure has argued on this site, much of the old-school vs. new-school debate in baseball -- best exemplified by the Yaisel Puig backlash and Brian McCann not letting Carlos Gomez cross home plate -- is, in fact, cultural. And, like the rest of the country, that cultural shift is going away from cranky conservative white guys. Facts:
- The number of Latino players is increasing.
- The number of white players is decreasing.
- The number of Latino fans is way up.
- Fans, regardless of ethnicity, love excitement and love watching players enjoy themselves.
- Games grow when they shed the skin of their past, not when they wrap themselves up in it.
Someday, we're going to laugh at this Brian McCann stodginess. Baseball is moving toward fun. Thank heavens.
No major sports athlete will come out. Again. Every year, some analyst tells you that the dam is about to burst in professional sports, that this is the year sports finally catches up with the rest of the country in terms of an openly gay player. (I should know: I've been one of them.) And then it never happens. Jason Collins comes out … and then can't find a team. A useful NFL player is widely rumored to be gay … and he can't find a team either. Few expect major protests from active athletes at the Sochi games despite oppressive laws against gays. Sports as a whole has dug in its feet on this issue. It has yet to be dragged into the mainstream. I see little reason to think 2014 will be any different.
Almost everything you read during the last fortnight of 2014 will be a list. This is the easiest pick on this board.
Have a great New Year everyone. I can't wait to see what else 2014 has in store for us.