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Wed, Sept. 18

Column: Sports stories to keep a close eye on in 2014

Last year I listed five sports business stories to watch in 2013. In no particular order, they were: The NFL Concussion Lawsuit, the O'Bannon Case, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to legitimacy in NASCAR, the continued popularity of soccer in the U.S., particularly MLS, and the Dodgers' quest for billions in TV revenue. All were newsworthy in their own right.

Here are my must-follow stories for 2014.

The continuing saga of concussions in sports will dominate the headlines. Although the NFL Concussion Lawsuit is on the verge of being settled, count on additional lawsuits being filed against the league this year. And the NFL isn't being singled out. A number of retired hockey players recently filed a concussion lawsuit against the NHL. Ryan Freel, a former MLB player who committed suicide in 2013, was diagnosed with CTE, a concussion-linked disease that has devastated hundreds of former NFL players. Freel's diagnosis may well lead to concussion lawsuits against MLB.

Concussion-related lawsuits have also been filed against the NCAA and individual colleges. This is seemingly a story without end, one that will ultimately change the way we play and consume sports.

Last year Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup title in seven seasons, dominating NASCAR's 10-race playoff. But teammate Dale, Jr. improved on his 2012 results, coming within one poor finish in the Chase of challenging for the title. If the sport's most popular driver can continue his climb in 2014, he may be in line for his first ever Cup.

Continuing with the theme from last year, the O'Bannon case will remain in the headlines. There were several significant milestones in 2013, including certification as a class action lawsuit and a partial settlement by Electronic Arts, which included their agreement not to use player likenesses in the future. Expect the courts to deny the NCAA's pending motion to dismiss. Short of a settlement, this case, which has major implications on college sports as we know them, is still a long way from being resolved.

While the summer Olympics garner the majority of sponsorship dollars and television eyeballs, their sister event, the Winter Games, will be staged in February in Sochi, Russia. These games are guaranteed to be the most expensive Olympics - summer or winter - in history. Marked by controversy - the latest and most controversial being the Russian parliament's recent passage of anti-gay legislation - the athletic performances are guaranteed to both amaze and surprise us.

Due to the growing backlog of what many believe to be deserving candidates, the process for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame will be a topic of conversation and debate throughout the year. Should the voting procedures be revised and/or clarified? Possible action could include, but not be limited to, some or all of the following: Expanding the ballot beyond the current limit of 10 names, providing guidelines or instructions on voting for steroid-era players, lowering the percentage of votes necessary for election, revising the qualifications for electors and specifically defining the meaning of the phrase "character, integrity and sportsmanship."

Attendance at the Hall continues to decline while annual operating losses mount. Clearly, something needs to be done to reverse this trend. It's not just the Museum that's hurting. Virtually the entire economy of the Cooperstown region is dependent on the number of visitors to the Hall. The election of more ballplayers from the latter half of the twentieth century would help.

While some see a sports bubble that will soon burst, don't count on it happening in 2014. As the recent $5.2 billion, 12-year TV deal between Rogers Communication and the NHL for the league's Canadian broadcast rights proves, there is still upside in league and team revenue. That revenue will serve to further escalate player salaries along with the value of franchises. Sports are more and more important to many - if not most - Americans and we prove it with our wallets. Although millions of people lost everything in the 2008 recession, the economy is beginning to show steady and consistent growth. That bodes well for everyone affiliated with sports.

And finally, a reluctant prediction: The Red Sox will not repeat as World Series Champions.

My sincere "Thanks" to all the loyal readers of this column. May you enjoy a healthy and prosperous 2014!

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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