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Keith Strudler: Sports in 2020

The end of any year is a reasonable time to either look back or look ahead, depending on your perspective. Such is especially the case in sport, even though seasons tend to run across traditional calendar lines. But as sport is inherently tied to the passage of time and comparative analysis, it’s hard not to use New Year’s as a moment for reflection one way or another.

Since I’ve already done more than enough analysis of the year’s past, I’d rather take this time to look at the year ahead in sport, in its broadest terms. And given my fairly abysmal record picking games, I’ll stay more off the field of play, addressing the larger social framework of sport in 2020. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to accurately predict the future – particularly when it comes to athletics. So as always, this is purely for entertainment purposes only.

Many folks will remember 2019 as the year the US Women’s World Cup team took bold steps towards equal pay for equal work, building a case around the disparity between their pay and that of their US male counterparts. That led to some success and, at the very least, put FIFA and USA Soccer on notice to justify their practices. But if you’re assuming 2020 will see significant fruits of the labor of Megan Rapinoe and Billy Jean King before her, I’d suggest this fight is far more marathon than sprint. 2020 will likely see nominal gains at best as women’s soccer tries to build a professional model in the US without the backdrop of the World Cup. Which means professional women’s soccer will grow, but significant pay hikes will take more time.

Another group of athletes hoping for more fair compensation in 2020 are elite college athletes – namely those in major Division I football and men’s basketball. 2019 forced a proposition that will allow college athletes to make money of their name and likeness, something they can’t do now. Which supposedly would mean that top football and basketball players will soon sign lavish deals that would make playing college sports a more fiscally prudent holding pen for the pros. As appealing as that may sound – to college athletes, at least – I predict we’ll see little if any movement in 2020, especially as the NCAA recognizes the Pandora’s Box that is anything resembling free market in college sports. In 2020, the NCAA will committee this thing to death, and by the end of the year, I’d guess there’s more exceptions than a standard phone contract. This issue will eventually come to a head – but that’s far more likely 2021 or 22 than next year.

I predict we’ll see another year of NBA athletes using their growing power to increasingly determine the balance of power in the League, deciding where to play and whom to play with. It may be hard to replicate 2019 in terms of movement and volatility, but I’d suggest its far more the new normal than an aberration. All of which makes teams and locations far less relevant than ever, something our on-demand spectator environment allows.

This might be a bit specific, but I do think Tom Brady will play another year after this one. Whether that’s a good idea or not is another question. But in the modern NFL, particularly at quarterback, it’s harder than ever to say no to that kind of money.

Speaking of football, I don’t see any change in the trend of young athletes looking elsewhere for their competitive buzz. Until the sport – and really the NFL – can articulate a better answer to the concussion question, families on the coasts (and sometimes in between) will remain cautious. And for what it’s worth, and as the parent of two boys, there are just too many other options, from lacrosse to soccer. Now mind you, football is not going away – and I expect college and NFL ratings to continue to thrive next year – but fielding youth and high school teams will continue to be a challenge.

There’s more. I think Russia might ban all its athletes from the 2020 Olympics in protest. I also think the sports broadcast model will reach epic overbidding in an attempt to save television

— before an entirely new model takes hold a couple of years from now. I think more athletes will skip the White House than go, and I think Trump might ruin the Super Bowl like he ruins everything. And not that you should care, but I think the Rockets will win the NBA title. And that’s not only because I’m from Houston and hate the Lakers.

I predict that at least some of these guesses will be right. But I’ve been wrong before. And as they say every year in sports, that’s why they play the game.

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