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State of American Sports in 2012

Editor's note: In advance of President Obama's State of the Union address next week, RCP is rolling out daily "state of" reports to better frame the issues facing the nation. Today: The state of American sports.

On so many levels, most sports fans are happy to see 2011 in the rearview mirror. Both the NFL and NBA had prolonged work stoppages that threatened their seasons. Two major college programs - Ohio State and Miami - were exposed for rampant cheating involving criminal elements. And on top of all that, the alleged child rape scandal at Penn State not only obliterated its football coaching staff, but shook the entire university to its core.

So 2012 should be a stroll in the park then, with a restoration of the usual fun and games, right? While things can’t possibly be as bleak as they were last year, there are some dark clouds looming. Here’s a look ahead:

PROFESSIONAL SPORTS

The NFL resolved its labor crisis with no loss of regular season games, and its perch as king of American sports was not threatened by the lockout - in fact, it might have become more entrenched. The $9 billion industry now is guaranteed labor peace for the next decade, and has further stuffed its coffers with a nine-year TV contract extension, worth $3 billion per year. Interest in the league is at an all-time high, buoyed in recent weeks by Tebow-mania, which just adds an embarrassment of riches to a league that hardly needs more publicity.

So the rest of the sports leagues will have to fight for the NFL’s leftover scraps. Major League Baseball managed to secure its own long-term labor peace without any rancor, though performance-enhancing drugs continue to cast a shadow on the sport, both in terms of Hall of Fame enshrinement of alleged PED users and the recent revelation that NL MVP Ryan Braun had failed a drug test.

The NBA had its own labor dispute, with the season saved by a last-minute deal that still came with a cost: the loss of about 20 percent of the games. But the sport with trouble ahead is the NHL, which already had one entire season wiped out in 2004-05. Donald Fehr, who spearheaded several of baseball’s labor wars, is now the head of the NHL players’ union. He had fired a shot across the owners’ bow last week by rejecting a realignment proposal, setting the stage for turbulent times ahead as the current deal is scheduled to expire in September.

COLLEGE SPORTS

NCAA President Mark Emmert might just have the most thankless task in sports. He has to navigate a billion-dollar industry masked as amateur athletics. The scandals at Ohio State and Miami (among others) demonstrated that the difficulties of maintaining a flawed system whose entire labor force is undercompensated 18-to-22-year-olds who can easily fall prey to nebulous outside influences.

A new proposal is on the table to pay compensation to college athletes in the form of a $2,000-per-month stipend. But that’s akin to patching up a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid. Emmert is considering more sweeping reforms that may more adequately address systemic issues facing the NCAA, which still operates an antiquated model that is no longer compatible - economically or otherwise - with the times.

College football, the real cash cow in college athletics, has specific problems to address that fall outside of the purview of the NCAA. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is universally derided, with criticism only intensifying after the most recent championship game that pitted two schools (Alabama and LSU) from the same conference. The BCS also has done its part to destroy century-long rivalries by ushering in a conference realignment frenzy. With its current TV deal scheduled to expire after the 2013 season, the BCS will be forced to contemplate a dramatic shakeup, likely as soon as this summer.

THE OLYMPICS

If it’s a leap year, it must be time for the Summer Olympics. The 2012 London Games are facing numerous challenges, not the least of which is measuring up to its predecessor. The 2008 Games were orchestrated nearly flawlessly by China’s communist government, which spared no expenses or manpower to make sure everything went smoothly in Beijing, including an event-best 51 gold medals for the Chinese.

The U.S. team finished a distant second with 36 golds, though it did garner a Games-high 110 total medals. The Americans are favored to top both standings this year in England, with high hopes for a number of athletes, particularly swimmer Michael Phelps, who is expected to add to his record 14 gold medals in his final Olympics. 

SPORTS MEDIA

For the first time since 1988, the Olympics broadcast will not have Dick Ebersol at the helm, and that’s a good thing, as his insistence on tape-delaying live events had caused a steady decline of TV ratings on NBC, for both Summer and Winter Games.

NBC’s new owner Comcast will instead use the Olympics to increase viewership and visibility for its family of networks - especially the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) - and Web properties by making nearly every event available live, either on TV or via live-streaming. 

NBC, as well as Fox and CBS, are trying to maintain their influence in a sports media landscape increasingly dominated by ESPN, which raked in $8.5 billion in revenue in 2010 for parent company Disney. ESPN has been able to dramatically increase its cash flow by extracting ever more subscriber fees from cable and satellite operators to supplement its advertising revenue. 

As a result, bidding wars for sports programming have caused rights fees to skyrocket. In just the last year, NBC paid $4.3 billion to the International Olympic Committee (for four Olympics through 2020); Fox, CBS and NBC paid $28 billion to the NFL while ESPN paid $15.2 billion for its own separate “Monday Night Football” deal (through 2022); ESPN also paid $500 million to the NCAA for non-football and non-basketball championships (through 2024); and CBS and NBC paid an undisclosed amount to the PGA Tour (through 2021).

All that cost of doing business will eventually be passed on to the average sports fan, even if he or she decides to forego paying escalating ticket prices and instead watches everything from home.

But the good news is that - other than, potentially, the NHL - there will be plenty to watch in 2012. And if we’re lucky, we won’t have to deal with learning a new household name, as we did in 2011 with Jerry Sandusky.

Samuel Chi is Editor of RealClearSports. He may be reached at sam@realclearsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @BCSGuru.

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