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February is Women's History Month!

Saturday Sports: 2023's greatest hits

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SELYUKH: Looking back on a year. Women running the show. College sports - are they still amateur? And a wild ride for the NFL. We're talking to Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media. He joins us now. Good morning.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning. How are you? Happy new year.

SELYUKH: Happy new year. OK. Let's begin with women in sports. Lots of big moments this year the Women's World Cup in soccer. Brittney Griner returned to the basketball court after a long detention in Russia. A stellar March Madness tournament. I could keep going on. It's not like these stories don't happen in previous years, right? But are we - I don't know - maybe paying more attention now?

BRYANT: Yeah, Alina. I think we are paying more attention. And I think it's about time because the stories have always been there. Two years ago, we had Serena Williams and her fantastic end of her career at the U.S. Open which was the story. The very next year, this year, Coco Gauff wins the U.S. Open for the first time. So it's not like we haven't had great stuff. I think the difference is, is that for so many years we've had the men who run the world, who run the networks continuously tell us that women don't sell. They're not stars, and we have no reason to watch. And this year, just time after time after time, the women had proven that they were the stars; they were the ones to watch.

And whether it was Coco Gauff, whether it was Simone Biles this year, whether it was the - Iowa and LSU with Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, or even in defeat, the women's soccer team in the World Cup - not medaling, but they were still the story. But my hope is, is that we'll continue to listen and recognize that the viewer wants to see greatness. And the greatness this year, the women were leading it. And that's what we want to watch, and that's why we watch. And they gave us everything we could have hoped for in 2023.

SELYUKH: OK. Let's switch gears to another huge story. The landscape of college sports really changed dramatically this year. Student athletes became able to sign huge sponsorship deals. The big college conferences are becoming even bigger. How does all of this fit with the long understanding we have of college sports as amateur?

BRYANT: It's over. To the - our long national nightmare of lying to ourselves that college sports isn't a multibillion dollar industry - it's all gone. The only difference is that the players are engaging now, that the players have a chance, whether it's the Caitlin Clarks and the Angel Reeses or whether it's Arch Manning in Texas, that the athletes are going to share in this multibillion-dollar pie. We see the destruction of the NCAA in terms of the college football landscape. And the one good thing out of all of this is that the players are the - they are the show. They are why we're watching. And I think that they deserve compensation, and they're getting it.

SELYUKH: OK. Now to the biggest sports league in America, the NFL had a really roller coaster year, began with a player, Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills, suffering cardiac arrest during game in January. Seems like so long ago. It sparked a whole conversation about what we ask of players, the physical risks that they take for, you know, our entertainment. But, you know, here we are at the end of the same year. America still cannot get enough of the NFL. What does that tell us about the league's enduring popularity?

BRYANT: Yeah. It tells us that we've made our deal. This is the most popular sport, whether it's gambling, whether it's what we see on the field. The NFL is expecting revenues over the next decade to be at 25 billion or somewhere - some ridiculous number. But let's not forget that a player's heart actually stopped on the field and that he was resuscitated. And there was an ambulance on the field. And we all watched this on "Monday Night Football." And as much as we talk about the ratings and we talk about the excitement and the Super Bowl and the rest of it, the dangers of the sport cannot be diminished, even though we begin the season with Damar Hamlin, and then people are talking about Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift.

SELYUKH: It's a whole other parallel universe we live in. Before we let you go, Howard, is there anything else, another story, another theme that caught your attention this year in sports?

BRYANT: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that caught my eye was the number of climate protests this year. Organizations like Climate Defiance held protests whether it was the the British Open in golf, whether it was Wimbledon three times, whether it was the U.S. Open in tennis, whether it was baseball this year shutting down, having to delay games because of the Canadian wildfires. The environment is a real thing. And I think that climate activists are recognizing that sports is the place that has the eyeballs, and this is the place where people may actually be forced to pay attention to the real issues when it comes to the climate.

SELYUKH: That's Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media. Thanks, as always.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.