- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In many ways, 2008 was one of the most memorable years in sports business history, beginning with the highest-rated Super Bowl and ending with tremendous uncertainty about the impact of the economic collapse. In between were an epic Olympics, Roger Clemens on Capitol Hill and a decision by NFL owners to opt out of the existing labor contract.

Here’s a look at a few of the biggest sports business stories of the year, nationally and locally:

The economy — Sports leagues probably have not yet felt the full brunt of the recession because most tickets and sponsorships were sold before the harshest economic news. But the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball all have announced layoffs and are struggling with the rising cost of their debt, while smaller organizations like the Arena Football League and WNBA are suspending operations or folding franchises. The Giants, Yankees, Cowboys and other teams building new stadiums have found they will cost more than planned. And whole sectors of advertising, including automakers and banks, have cut spending.

Economic questions for 2009 — How will sports leagues, particularly NASCAR, deal with the decline in support from U.S. automakers? Will teams see a decline in ticket and merchandise sales? Will the economy play a role in looming labor negotiations?

Beijing Olympics — The 2008 Summer Games will go down as one of the most memorable in history because of the performances by such athletes as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and for the sheer enormity of the event. The roughly $40 billion dollars spent to hold the games may never be matched, and the level of corporate support was unprecedented as foreign companies saw an opportunity to enter the Chinese market. Meanwhile, NBC broke into new territory by offering thousands of hours of online coverage.

Questions for future games — Can future Summer Games match the gargantuan scale of Beijing, and will midsize cities like Barcelona and Atlanta ever host again? Will ESPN, CBS or other networks make aggressive bids to cover future games?

Washington Nationals — Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run March 30 opened the 2008 season in the team’s new ballpark. Nationals Park received generally positive reviews from fans and the media. But the good feelings passed quickly as the team floundered on the field and the Lerner family withheld rent payments from the city, claiming the ballpark wasn’t substantially complete. Attendance came in at about 29,000 a game, one of the lowest totals ever for a new ballpark, while television and radio ratings were embarrassingly low. Meanwhile, development around the ballpark stalled thanks to the credit crisis.

Nationals’ questions for 2009 — Will the aggressive but unsuccessful push for free agent slugger Mark Teixeira convince fans that the team is willing to devote the resources necessary to win? Will the economy have an impact on ticket sales and sponsorships? And will there be any place to grab a beer before the game?

Washington Capitals — Purely from a business perspective, the Caps’ run to the playoffs laid the groundwork for what may be the most successful season in team history. Interest in the team remained high, even in the offseason, as thousands of fans flocked to open-house events at Verizon Center. The team launched a clear, consistent campaign around the color red signifying Caps hockey, and many new fans bought season tickets despite a price increase. After years near the bottom of the NHL in attendance, the Caps now rank 13th with Verizon Center sold to near capacity each game.

Caps‘ questions for 2009 — Will the economy put the brakes on the momentum the Caps have built up in the past year? Will team owner Ted Leonsis be able to increase revenue enough so that he’s no longer losing money on the team?

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