Sports 2022: Power and money, money and power

(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports illustration)

As revolutionaries go, Phil Mickelson doesn’t exactly fit the traditional ideal. He’s in his early 50s, he’s absurdly wealthy, and he plays golf, the most conservative and establishment sport imaginable. But on June 9, at a golf club outside England, Mickelson took the first swings at what could become a sports revolution.

Before a sparse gallery of on-the-ground fans and a YouTube audience of, oh, a hundred thousand or so, Mickelson and 47 other players teed it up at the first LIV Golf event, a breakaway tour that split the entire golf world in two. LIV Golf isn’t important for its competition — the golf isn’t spectacular, certainly not to the level of the Masters or U.S. Open — but for what it represents: a fundamental change in the financial foundation of sports.

LIV is a product of the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, a vast, oil-backed reserve of cash designed to break down barriers and upend longstanding traditions by simply flooding them with money in torrents too immense to resist. Money has always fueled sports, but 2022 swept away any last pretense that sports were anything more than a for-profit enterprise.

LIV golfers willingly turned away from the longstanding traditions of the PGA Tour to chase eight- and nine-figure paydays. Universities walked away from decades-old conference affiliations and rivalries in the pursuit of ever-greater shares of a billion-dollar pie. International events aligned with authoritarian governments, the only ones willing to pay beyond-exorbitant costs to put on global spectacles, regardless of the impacts on their own populations.

This isn’t to say sports were joyless. The on-field competition was as transcendent as ever. The Los Angeles Rams saw their all-in gamble pay off as they won a dramatic Super Bowl in their own stadium. The University of Georgia, baseball’s Dusty Baker, the NFL’s Matthew Stafford, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Team USA snowboarder Lindsay Jacobellis, among many others, all ended decades or even entire careers of frustration by capturing well-earned championships.

We also saw the sunsets of legends. Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Albert Pujols, Shaun White and Sue Bird all wrapped up their iconic careers. Tom Brady flirted with the idea of retirement, and Tiger Woods acknowledged at last that the end is near.

The year saw games, matches and races that will rank among the greatest of all time. The World Cup final between Argentina and France was a triumph of tension and long-awaited celebration. The NFL’s divisional round was perhaps the finest playoff weekend ever in any sport, with all four games — highlighted by a Bills-Chiefs instant classic — ending on walkoffs. Rich Strike, an 80-1 long shot, captured the Kentucky Derby. Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge returned a much-needed charge to baseball. Tennessee defeated Alabama and unleashed 16 years of pent-up frustration on its own goalposts. And Ross Chastain advanced in NASCAR’s playoffs with the single most audacious athletic move of the year, wheeling his car along the wall like he was playing a video game — which is exactly where he came up with the idea.

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For all those thrilling moments, though, the exultation of sports now has a visible price tag attached, either financial or spiritual. Every sports fan, consciously or not, weighs conflicts, consequences and compromises, every game. The glittering new stadium vacuums up tax dollars that could be better spent literally anywhere else. The star athlete who runs afoul of the law or basic human decency finds their way right back onto the field soon enough. The reasonably competent shortstop signs a contract to play ball that could feed a thousand families. The league you love puts more and more of its games on streaming services and behind paywalls, requiring you to prove your devotion again and again with cold, hard cash.

The world’s two marquee athletic events — the Olympics and the World Cup — dropped any shred of pretending to be about anything other than money, power and prestige. The 2022 Winter Olympics took place in Beijing under what was effectively martial law — a government-imposed, militarily-backed closed loop in which the competitors performed like flakes in a snow globe. Qatar exercised so much financial muscle that it shifted the World Cup literally off its axis, moving it from summer to winter and cycling it through stadiums built by migrant workers effectively enslaved by the government, at the cost of thousands of lives.

“Stick to sports” just doesn’t work anymore, not when the real world intrudes on sports from every angle. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the case of Brittney Griner, the WNBA star arrested with trace amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage in Russia in February. Griner, like many WNBA players, had been competing in Russia to supplement her WNBA income. As Russia geared up for its invasion of Ukraine, it recognized the political value of a bargaining chip like Griner. Her story became a cultural wedge issue, dividing Americans between “bring home American citizens at any cost” and “do the crime, do the time” contingents. The United States eventually struck a controversial deal to trade an imprisoned Russian arms dealer for Griner, an agreement that did not include another American held overseas. Griner’s status as a notable athlete helped her cause in the eyes of some, devalued it to others. As with all collisions of sports and politics, there were no mild feelings on any side.

Griner’s story may be the most memorable sports-related event of 2022, but the feelings from the year will linger, too. The relieved happiness of Georgia fans reveling in a national championship after 40 years of frustration … the majesty of Aaron Judge homers sailing into the Bronx night … the on- and off-field grace of Olympians like Mikaela Shiffrin … the generational pride of watching Tiger Woods shepherd his son Charlie forward … the automatic brilliance of Steph Curry arcing yet another championship three … the relentless drive of Alex Ovechkin chasing a legend … the nostalgia of seeing Serena Williams unload a few more cannon forehands.

Cheering for all these and more is a feeling money can’t buy … even if every sport is now hellbent on finding ways to make you pay for it, one way or another.