Sports biz: …And a Happy Sports Year to All

A tidy symmetry conjoins the year 2011 and Denver Bronco Tim Tebow: Both have passed, and with mixed results.

In his second NFL season, Tebow’s throws spanned a sprawling range, from fluttering mishap to unerring arc. In the sports-business world, 2011 was much the same: a mixed bag.

At one extreme were soulless reminders that the business of sports is very much that: a business. Too much of the 2011 scene took place around conference tables and in law firm offices as NFL and NBA team owners engaged in Greco-Roman wrestling matches devoted to determining how billions of dollars would be allocated. Don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough of David Stern and Roger Goodell at press conferences to last just about a lifetime. The only suits I want to see from now on are the kind with numbers writ large on the back, thank you very much.

By the time the NBA and the players union managed to reach agreement on a new contract, a fatigue had set in among fans. Was it just me, or did hardly anybody celebrate the news that a truncated version of the 2011-2012 NBA season would take place? The resumption of play is welcome, but it’s not going to make up for lost income and missed paychecks for those who work on the edges of the sport, collecting parking-lot fees, serving pre-game beers and guiding fans to their Pepsi Center seats. So enough labor nonsense, please.

The enduring story behind the business of sport in 2011 was macroeconomic: high unemployment and a shrinking of the discretionary income the sports business depends on. On the plus side, we saw ticket deals in 2011 that were unusually generous as teams scrambled to fill seats. But it was more difficult than ever for owners like Kroenke Sports to achieve the virtuous cycle once articulated to me by Kroenke President Paul Andrews: Full buildings create a home-court advantage that begets a winning team. And a winning team begets a full building.

And yet … there were moments. There is a school of thought that suggests in down times, people need places to escape more so than ever. For many of us, sports provide an essential release. Lukewarm economy or not, there is still an unmistakable vibe around going to a game. It seems like a long time ago, now, but you may remember the party atmosphere surrounding the Colorado Rockies’ home-opener against the Diamondbacks in April.

Sunshine, noise, crowds, anticipation, cracks of bats and looping doubles caroming off the outfield wall made up, at least for an afternoon, for whatever might have been ailing the 40,000-some fans who packed Coors Field.

Pick any sport, any game and the same is true. For a city that has struggled as the economy slowly revives, Tebow’s remarkable run as a Denver Bronco is especially welcome. There have been games this year at Sports Authority Field in which the collective spirit of the crowd seemed to rise to the level of grandeur of Bronco seasons past, when the team and its fans seemed fused at the shoulder pads.

Our wish for 2012 is every hometown fan’s wish: one more last-minute drive from Tebow, this time in a playoff game; a miracle three from Arron Afllalo that keeps the Nuggets in the hunt; a pennant run for the Rockies; and for the Avalanche, if not a post-season berth, at least an opening of the checkbook in 2012. That, plus rising discretionary income and cheap tickets for everyone. Enjoy the game.

And a tip of the hat to…SportsBiz puzzle-solvers Jeff Willson (Cyber Science Corp.), Tyler Johnson (Denver Nuggets) and Dave Dunn (Auto Nation), who correctly solved the riddle of last month’s column on social media and sports. Each paragraph contained exactly 140 characters (spaces included), which is the maximum count allowed for an individual message, or “Tweet,” using Twitter. Well done.

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