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Gauff, Kelce, and the Other Most Important Athletes of 2023

Photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It is perhaps telling that Google’s most frequently searched athlete of the year — actually, its most-searched person altogether —was not LeBron James, or Lionel Messi, or Tom Brady: It was a 24-year-old reserve safety for the Buffalo Bills. Damar Hamlin collapsed after suffering cardiac arrest during a Monday Night Football game on January 2, stopping the game and essentially halting the sporting world in its tracks. For a couple of hours, it felt like a pivotal moment for NFL player safety and maybe even for the future of the league. But Hamlin somehow ended up fine, and his brush with death quickly turned into a feel-good story that ultimately didn’t change anything. Improbably, he even returned to the field this year. Hamlin’s recovery is genuinely inspirational but also perfectly calibrated for the NFL PR machine. His arc speaks to two sports trends: Leagues reasserting control as the era of player empowerment fades and sports celebrities best known for their off-field endeavors.

In the first of two pieces wrapping up the sports year — we’ll look at the ten biggest stories later this week — here are the most important sports figures of 2023. Some were crowned champions, some just wouldn’t stop trending, and some were at the center of every conversation whether they wanted to be or not.

Two years after disclosing that “the mental is not there” and  bowing out of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Biles returned to form in 2023 as the most dominant, breathtaking athlete in her sport. Biles’s performance at the World Championships in October was staggering. She essentially lapped the field — most of which was made up of gymnasts years her junior in a sport that has traditionally put a premium on youth — for her record sixth championship. The hackneyed “debate” that surrounded her Olympic exit — over whether she somehow abandoned her team by taking care of herself — has faded with Biles emerging as a leader on the issue of athlete mental health. All this has set the stage for the 2024 Paris Games, where she has a chance to win Gold for the first time since 2016 and further cement her status as the greatest gymnast of all time.

In a standout year for women’s sports — more on that when we count down the year’s top stories — it was Gauff who rose the highest, both winning her first championship and ultimately becoming the world’s highest-paid female athlete. Her breakthrough moment came with her first-ever major championship at the U.S. Open in September, which no teenager had won since Serena Williams in 1999. With expectations high and the pressure on, Gauff managed to rally after losing the first set in four different matches, including the final (she also waited out a 49-minute climate-protester delay in the semifinal). Such mental strength speaks to her preternatural poise, which far exceeds that of most 19-year-olds. Gauff has been a fan favorite for years, and she looks more and more like the logical successor to Serena Williams as tennis’s global ambassador.

The league that most values charisma, style, panache, and megawatt celebrity is now completely dominated by an awkward Serbian guy who hates doing interviews, never smiles, and said he wasn’t looking forward to the parade celebrating his first NBA title because “I just want to go home.” There has never been a player like the Denver Nuggets center, a lumbering ox who can’t jump or run but whose ability to see the floor and understand the game has turned him into the game’s best pure passer and scorer, a two-time MVP and, as of 2023, a champion. His obvious disdain for the spotlight must drive NBA commissioner Adam Silver absolutely crazy, but you cannot say it is not hilarious.

What started as a joke about friendship bracelets on a podcast turned into a goofy rumor that felt like a publicity stunt before becoming, amazingly, one of the most intensely followed celebrity relationships on the planet. How did a grunt tight end from Ohio start dating Taylor Swift, the world’s biggest pop star? Doesn’t it just sound like a ’90s romantic comedy? Now you’ve got Swifties diagramming Patrick Mahomes plays, constant television cutaways to Swift pounding beers in sky boxes with Kelce’s mom, and all sorts of “exclusives” from the happy lovebirds. It would be exhausting, even irritating, if it weren’t, well, kind of wholesome: It turns out Taylor’s new beau is a pretty nice guy. Plus the song she ends up writing about all this — my suggested title is “Audible” —will be a huge hit.

The best baseball player in the world kicked off his year by striking out MLB teammate Mike Trout to give Team Japan a World Baseball Classic championship. He then put together his most jaw-dropping MLB season yet as one of the best pitchers and the best hitters in baseball for the third consecutive year. (That the Los Angeles Angels remained terrible with both Ohtani and Trout on their roster was another reminder that baseball is the ultimate team sport.) He did all this in a contract year, which allowed him to head to free agency, where he became the highest-paid athlete in sports history despite an arm injury that put his pitching career in peril. He’s about to suit up for the Dodgers, one of the world’s signature sports franchises, and even if they’re overpaying him, his presence will probably be a financial windfall no matter what. True global stardom is when you can go anywhere in the world and know that everybody knows your name. There are two people on this list who have it. Ohtani is one. The second is …

A year after winning his first World Cup, Messi, like Ohtani, became even bigger. His move to the MLS — he resisted the sulfuric call of the Saudi League, where longtime rival Ronaldo went and has subsequently disappeared — brought his celebrity (and brilliance on the pitch, of course) to America, where he has established himself as the guy whose jersey all of your kids’ friends are wearing. And the deal he signed with the MLS, which is tied to Apple TV subscriptions, may revolutionize not just soccer but the way people watch sports in this country and around the world.

Okay, his selection as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is much more about that sad publication’s lumbering, depressing, undignified hunt for clout than it is about what he did as coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, a team that ended up winning only four games. But Sanders showed the power of celebrity and virality to a sports world trying to maximize every eyeball and hoover up every dollar it can. In an era where college football is less a game than a line item on a television executive’s spreadsheet, that may make him more powerful than conventionally successful coaches. Sanders isn’t a bad guy, but he is a symptom of a bad thing: Sports hype without the sports, “content” that scales no matter what’s happening on the field. The only thing that the people who run his sport care about is whether he brings in more television viewers and page views. That’s depressing. Even more depressing than it was to watch his team lose its last six games.


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