Ten Sports Stories to Watch in 2010

From tennis up-and-comer Melanie Oudin to soccer's World Cup in South Africa, these are the 10 stories that will shape the sports world in 2010

10. Melanie Oudin, Endorsement Darling

Even though Melanie Oudin has yet to win another WTA main-draw match after her joyous U.S. Open march through Russian seeds (Dementieva, Sharapova, and Petrova) before she was eliminated by a Dane (Wozniacki), the young American is still poised to be our newest sports endorsement sweetheart in 2010. As long, of course, as she makes it to at least the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. And keeps winning thereafter.

Oudin cemented one new six-figure multiyear sponsor, BackOffice Associates, during the Open, and veteran sports marketers are predicting that in the next few years the sky's the limit for the plucky blonde teenager from Atlanta. Oudin finished the year ranked No. 48 in the world and as the third-ranked American woman behind aging Serena and Venus Williams. Her career earnings to date are $351,710; look for that figure to triple in 2010.

9. Danica Debuts

On Feb. 6, racy IRL racer Danica Patrick will make her stock-car competition debut in the ARCA Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Media darling Patrick has confirmed that she will drive in as many as 13 races in Nascar's Nationwide Series in 2010. Sports marketers are revving their engines.

Outside of the speedway, the Go Daddy girl, who appeals to men and women alike, is launching her own line of perfume in the spring (presumably it will not smell like tailpipe fumes), and Patrick's likeness is being transferred to a Barbie doll as part of a deal with Mattel (MAT), according to her spokespeople at IMG.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway General Manager Jerry Gappens sums up Patrick's appeal well. "She could do for our sport," he told SportsBusiness Journal, "what Hannah Montana did for Disney."

8. CBAs on the Table in NFL, MLS, MLB, NHL

See No.3 on our 2009 Year in Review list. If the NFL is unable to come to terms on labor issues it's negotiating with the NFL Players Assn., look for a pronounced ripple effect to rock the other pro sports leagues, all of which are facing labor negotiations of their own in 2010 or shortly thereafter. (MLS is up first, as that league's current collective bargaining agreement expires Jan. 31.)

However, it's still unthinkable to envision a Sports Labor Armageddon in which all pro stick and ball sports are on strike at the same time, in 2010 or in any year. Tennis, anyone?

7. Comcast's NBC Acquisition

Announced in 2009, Comcast (CMCSA) buying a controlling interest from General Electric (GE) in NBC Universal will come to fruition sometime in 2010, depending on the whims and political inclinations of the FCC and other relevant federal regulators. The distribution giant's full-blown entry into the world of content generation will result in one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, one that could give ESPN its first true competition in the sports sphere, especially since the newly merged company would have the financial resources to bid on the rights to any and all of ESPN's current high-profile properties, including Bowl Championship Series games and Monday Night Football.

The new Comcast-run entity would also have a distinct advantage over such rivals as ESPN/Disney (DIS) and News Corp. (NWS): a cable television pipeline reaching nearly 25% of American homes.

6. Tiger and the PGA, Volume II

Tiger Woods went from Teflon in 2009 to being lampooned on Saturday Night Live. So did PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. Unlike his comedic late-night counterpart, however, Finchem continues to insist that with or without Tiger, the tour in 2010 is going to play on. Stopping short of saying the tour would be fine without Woods, Finchem emphasizes that the golf-fan demographic is what continues to attract sponsors to the sport, and that most corporations will continue to attach their names to tournaments and buy hospitality chalets whether Woods returns in 2010 or not. The continued recession and companies' reluctance to broadcast their marketing expenditures in fear of another TARP backlash, Finchem says, keep him awake more nights than do Tiger's multiple transgressions.

If Woods stays away from the tour for all or a substantial part of 2010, TV ratings will suffer, which in turn will damage Finchem's ability to negotiate rights deals at the levels that he—and the tour's well-compensated players—have grown accustomed to in the Tiger Era. And likely the biggest losers in the whole debacle will be the local nonprofits to which the tour donates tens of millions of dollars each year. (Woods' own foundation, which has already lost millions from lower Chevron World Challenge proceeds and the just-canceled 2010 Tiger Jam in Las Vegas, is at the top of this list.)

5. New Meadowlands Stadium Opens

Although it's scheduled to open in April with a regional lacrosse tournament and host Bon Jovi for a handful of nights in May, as was similar with the new Cowboys Stadium, the sports world won't really recognize the new $1.4 billion facility until it fields the Giants and Jets for their respective home openers in September.

The new stadium, a 50-50 partnership between the two NFL franchises administered by the New Meadowlands Stadium Co., is bidding to host the Super Bowl in 2014 after the NFL approved the holding company's application to bid (bucking the league's normal requirement that a Super Bowl host facility guarantee a climate of at least 50 degrees). The winning bid will be announced in May.

4. I'll Have a Pro Bowl-Super Bowl Combo, Please

For the first time on Jan. 31, the NFL is serving up a one-two punch of Pro Bowl and Super Bowl in the same facility, with the Pro Bowl serving as the warm-up act in Dolphins Stadium to Super Bowl XLIV a week later, instead of the low-rated Hawaiian dessert it normally is.

Will bridging the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl bring more viewers to the Pro Bowl than it normally receives? Will the game be an uncharacteristic sellout? Will the bookend events prove more of an economic boon to the region than ever before, even though Miami is celebrating its record 10th Super Bowl? (South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee Chairman Rodney Barreto estimates the economic impact on the region at $450 million.) Or will the Pro Bowl move be a failed experiment that will guarantee the event remains in Honolulu not just in 2011 as scheduled, but beyond? We'll get a sense of it on Feb. 9, when final Nielsen ratings are released.

3. Vancouver Winter Olympic Games

Less than a week after Super Bowl XLIV, 5,500 athletes from more than 80 countries will descend on Vancouver for the Winter Olympics. Total cost of the Games is $1.76 billion, up from $1.58 billion for the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee received more than $345 million in requests for tickets to the Games in sales Phase One alone; Canadians requested about four and a half times the value of tickets as the first phase of ticketing ($75 million) for the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the most recent Olympics held in North America.

Then again, we didn't have Stephen Colbert and the support of Colbert Nation in those days.

NBC Universal also reports it expects to lose about $200 million on the Vancouver Olympic Games. The network likely would have posted an operating profit in 2010 if not for poor Olympic ad sales.

2. American Needle Lawsuit

What started as a simple case of licensing rights is heading to the Supreme Court. American Needle v. National Football League could lead to sweeping changes in pro sports. At the center of the debate is whether the NFL is a single entity or a group of 32 separate businesses.

The case began in December 2004 when American Needle filed an antitrust suit against the NFL, claiming that the league was using its monopoly powers illegally to deprive the company of its share of the market for headgear bearing logos of NFL teams. The NFL won; American Needle then filed a request for review to the U.S. Supreme Court, in response to which the NFL asked for "total immunity from all forms of antitrust scrutiny"…that would then also apply to MLB, the NBA, and the NHL.

A Supreme Court decision is expected in spring or early summer 2010.

1. World Cup South Africa

No sporting event captivates the globe quite like soccer's World Cup. Beginning June 11, the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa will mark the first time that the tournament is hosted by an African nation. Total prize money is $420 million, with the winning country pocketing $30 million.

It will be interesting to observe how ESPN covers the world's biggest sporting event halfway across the globe, and whether the U.S. team's success, or failure, will continue to further the popularity of the sport in this country.