The Biggest Sports Controversies of 2011

Eldrick and LeBron

For any number of reasons, sports fans have a lot to look forward to in 2011. There will be new champions to crown, new records to set, and new athletes to marvel at. But there will also be some controversial moments to watch for that reflect the less noble side of pro sports: greed, egoism, race, and the use of banned substances.

First up is the looming football strike. In 2010 the golden zeppelin that is the National Football League continued to rise with viewership is at an all-time high, driven in part by the estimated 29 million Americans who participate in fantasy football leagues. Twenty-seven NFL games this season have captured 20 million or more viewers, a milestone reached by only nine non-football TV programs this fall—seven of them being episodes of Dancing with the Stars. And 15 NFL games have thus far cleared the 25 million-viewer mark, compared with a total 9 NFL games during the 2009 season.

Alas, all indications point to an NFL work stoppage in 2011, as the owners and the players' union are nowhere near coming to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, and the current contract expires Mar. 3. The main issues at stake, according to officials from both sides who have commented on the process, are how future revenue will be divided, whether an 18-game season is viable, and escalating personal conduct policies.

Forget the TV honchos. Forget the fantasy player. Forget even the Joe Six Pack Sunday fans. How will this affect the "little guys" in the NFL's 31 communities, and elsewhere, whose livelihood at least partially piggybacks on the NFL? Especially in the league's smaller markets, such as Green Bay, Jacksonville, and Buffalo? Whatever else it is, the high-flying NFL is at heart a multibillion-dollar cottage industry.

What the Losses Could Entail

In late November, obviously hoping to drum up widespread support for the players, National Football League Players Assn. President Kevin Mawae sent letters to mayors and governors in every NFL market to give them a sense of what losing football could mean to their local communities and regions. According to the letters Mawae sent out, "each NFL city could lose more than $160 million in jobs and revenue if football shuts down." The NFL responded in a statement posted on that read in part: "Now that the union leaders have … issued press releases about their letter-writing campaign to mayors and governors, we are hopeful that they might find more time to talk to us. The union's request for state and local political leaders to intercede in the negotiations ignores and denigrates the serious and far more substantial problems that those leaders, and that state and local workers across the country, face. We can resolve our own issues, as we have done many times in the past, but the NFLPA has to want to participate in resolving them."

On a local level, tens of thousands of workers and businesses could be affected if an NFL work stoppage actually occurs and the 2011 season is cut short or even lost. Seasonal stadium workers, parking lot attendants, public safety officers, transportation providers, restaurants and bars, retailers, and even the banks that service stadium and infrastructure debt would experience losses. The absence of the $4 billion fantasy football market would affect hundreds of other websites, most of them homespun. Even your local bookie would feel the pain, as the estimated $100 billion wagered on NFL games each season, both legally and illegally, would go elsewhere (and not necessarily into your 401k).

The New York Times has noted that even now teams are "having trouble getting local sponsors to negotiate deals because of the uncertainty about next season, and once the season ends, the fallout will affect season-ticket and suite renewals, too." League-wide sponsors are certainly next, and then, those TV honchos may want to pay the NFL headquarters on Park Avenue a call.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was accused of murder. Now he stars in a popular Old Spice ad. Lakers MVP Kobe Bryant was accused of rape. Now he hawks six-digit watches and just signed a two-year endorsement deal with Turkish Airlines.

In sports marketing, what, exactly, defines a villain? That black cape currently sits squarely on the shoulders of Miami Heat forward LeBron James , with Eldrick "Tiger" Woods a short putt behind him.

The year 2010 saw Woods' infidelity and James' decampment to Miami writ large, garnering worldwide coverage by mainstream news media far beyond sports. This year will just as closely follow the parallel tracks of our antiheroes.

From an audience perspective, whether Woods wins another tournament or James leads the Heat to the NBA finals is almost pointless. As we saw once he returned to the course in April 2010, after a brief absence to deal with his personal problems, Tiger moves the Nielsen needle just by virtue of being in the field. Case in point: NBC's coverage of the Dec. 2-5 Chevron Challenge was up 170 percent over last year, when Woods didn't play.

It has been widely reported that PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has asked Woods and other golf stars, such as Phil Mickelson, to play more tournaments in 2011, maybe mixing in a couple of the lower-tier events they normally wouldn't touch to boost local gate and economic impact. If Woods does so, it is far more likely to be out of self-interest than for the good of the Tour, to boost his reputation and increase his odds of winning.

The James Effect

On the basketball front, 10 million viewers watched James' Decision when ESPN broadcast the program in July, and 7.4 million watched his debut with the team on TNT soon thereafter. The Heat have regularly sold out their road games, with many fans showing up just to root against James and teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Opposing teams are delighted at the attendance surge (except in Cleveland), especially with the prospect of an NBA lockout next season.

Yes, 2010 was hard on the superstars' closely guarded brands. Woods lost AT&T, Accenture, Gatorade, and most recently, Proctor & Gamble's (PG) Gillette as sponsors, multimillion-dollar deals that likely gave the budding billionaire pause for thought even as he earned an estimated $55 million to $60 million in sponsorship deals this winless year. And with the poor execution of his Decision, James is widely viewed as having tarnished his reputation and diminished his off-court earning potential.

Is 2011 the time for Woods and James to embrace their controversial sides? While we won't see either doing "What happens in Vegas" campaigns soon, how about Tiger touting Chili's latest spicy dish … or James endorsing Manpower, the employment services industry leader that encourages people to take their talents to the next level?

Or better yet: they share a major sponsor, Nike (NKE). They both reside in South Florida. And almost beyond the point of believability, they share a birthday: Dec. 30 (Woods was born in 1975, James in 1984). Isn't about time they did a campaign together?

Bad Boys of Baseball

Major League Baseball's hot stove is currently buried under a cooling blanket of snow. Next spring, the baseball media machine will once again reach the boiling point, as Barry Bonds' trial begins on Mar. 21, and maintain a rolling boil well through midsummer, as the trial of Roger Clemens begins July 6.

Former San Francisco Giants slugger Bonds, who set the MLB career home-run record in 2007 with a total of 762, is accused of lying to a grand jury about his steroid use. He faces 10 counts of making false statements and one count of obstruction of justice, all of which allegedly occurred during federal grand jury testimony seven years ago. Among other counts, Bonds is accused of lying when he stated he never knowingly took steroids and never received testosterone or human growth hormone from his trainer, Greg Anderson, who has been linked to the shady Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or Balco. (Anderson has refused to testify.)

The Bonds trial will take place in San Francisco, under the auspice of the new U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, Melinda Haag, a former federal prosecutor appointed by President Obama.

The trial of Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young Award winning pitcher, on charges of obstructing the investigation of his alleged performance-enhancing drug use and lying to Congress has been moved to July 6 after a three-month postponement requested by the defense to review tens of thousands of documents shared by prosecutors. Clemens was indicted on six felony counts on Aug. 6, after he, under oath, refuted allegations by trainer Brian McNamee that Clemens used HGH and steroids before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2008.

It's a foregoing, going, gone conclusion that the respective trials of Bonds and Clemens will cast a deep shadow over MLB's rightful moments in the 2011 sun. The pair of trials—Bonds' coming mere days before MLB's Apr. 1 Opening Day and Clemens' on the eve of the league's annual All-Star Break July 10-12—will reopen the whole baseball PED controversy that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has done his best to move to the hot stove's back burner. If the African American Bonds and Caucasian Clemens receive different sentences for essentially the same crimes, the verdicts could, one way or another, bring race into the conversation. And in a year preceding a Presidential election—and accompanied by likely labor stoppages in two other major sports leagues—the issue of federal oversight of pro sports is bound to come up, like a slugger to home plate, again and again and again.

In sports in 2011, "don't make a federal case of it" will take on a whole new meaning.

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