Self-sacrifice: The conclusion of the Pop Tart Bowl on December 28 ended with the mascot sacrificing itself in a toaster © USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

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A teenage wunderkind, a fairytale run at the world championships, and thrilling final that transfixed a nation. Yes, we’re talking about darts.

This week the UK was awash with headlines dedicated to the kebab-loving 16-year old Luke “The Nuke” Littler, who demolished a string of top arrowsmiths (yes that’s what they are called) to reach the final of the Professional Darts Corporation’s world championships at London’s Alexandra Palace.

He looked set to go all the way, but threw away (sorry) a two set lead and ultimately lost to “Cool Hand” Luke Humphries. Nearly 5mn people tuned in to watch the grand finale of the three-week jamboree of booze and fancy dress.

PDC, part of the Matchroom sports business owned by father-and-son tandem Barry and Eddie Hearn, has been on a growth spurt. Since 2008, annual prize money has jumped to £12mn from £3mn. But where does the sport go next? You can read more from our catch up with PDC chief executive Matthew Porter here.

We start the new year with a look at how smaller events are breaking through the noise in the $10bn world of US college sports, and a late decision by Fifa to put its new football agent rules on ice. Do read on — Josh Noble, sports editor

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Pop Tarts and the changing fortunes of US college football

For the record: Kansas State were victorious in the US college football bowl but the game was overshadowed by the Pop Tart mascot © USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

By now, you’ve probably seen the Pop Tart.

If you haven’t (bless you), you’ll find it down in Final Whistle.

But for now a brief recap: on December 28, there was a US college football bowl game between two mid-tier universities sponsored by Pop Tarts, the breakfast pastry. Thanks to capitalism, and some very smart (or deranged) marketing geniuses, the Pop Tarts company put a human person into a life-size Pop-Tart suit, who, in a bit of snacking transfiguration, gleefully lowered himself into a supersize toaster in the middle of the pitch to be turned into a giant, edible Pop Tart for the champions’ consumption.

Yes, it was weird. No, no one remembers who won the game (it was Kansas State, for the record). But the Pop Tart became a viral sensation, nearly overshadowing the sport itself.

The Pop-Tart Bowl is staged by a Florida non-profit organisation (and until 2023, was sponsored by the pastry’s corporate sibling, Cheez-Its) as a consolation match-up between colleges in the ACC and Big 12 conferences that aren’t selected for the knockout round. The Pop Tart Bowl and others like it typically generate over $100mn in economic impact to their host cities, according to tax filings. Even in the crowded US sports landscape, a bit of marketing nonsense like a self-sacrificing pastry can make a small event stand out.

On Monday, US college football will crown a national champion, when the University of Michigan takes on the University of Washington. It will mark the conclusion of one of the most chaotic seasons in the history of the sport, beginning with the complete collapse of the Pac-12 conference (of which Washington is a member), the sign-stealing scandal at Michigan, and the long-awaited expansion of the College Football Playoff, a holiday-period knockout round extravaganza to which the Pop Tart Bowl is, tangentially, related.

Total annual revenues for the US college football bowl division totalled $10bn in 2022, according to data from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, roughly on par with the annual revenues of the NBA and MLB. Those revenues have grown 72 per cent since 2012, of which corporate sponsorships, ads, and licensing (like that of Pop Tarts) have nearly doubled from $433mn to $840mn.

Those figures are generally expected to rise sharply as the College Football Playoff expands. The organisers of the tournament are in negotiations for a new media rights contract, as its current exclusive agreement with Disney’s ESPN ends in two years.

It should be noted that American football and men’s college basketball media rights are negotiated separately from all other university sports coverage. In fact, on Thursday the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced it agreed a new deal with ESPN to broadcast virtually all of the other major college sports, from athletics to gymnastics to volleyball, for $115mn per year over eight years. (In somewhat of a surprise, that package includes women’s college basketball, whose championship game last spring yielded higher ratings than most of the World Series, prompting some speculation that the sport’s rights could be spun out. Stay tuned for more on those finances soon).

Football agents get last minute reprieve

Money spinner: the January transfer window opened up without the new fee cap coming into force © AP

Fifa has been trying to get a grip on the world of football agents for some time. It believes that too much money “leaves the game” through fees, while the quality and competence of representation varies greatly.

Just over a year ago, the governing body agreed a new set of rules it wanted to roll out globally — including an exam for those seeking a licence to operate as an agent and a controversial cap on the percentage cut an agent could take from a player’s salary.

The regulations came officially into effect in October, last year, setting up January’s transfer window as their first test.

Except in the end they didn’t. The talent management industry launched an array of legal challenges, and scored wins in Germany, Brazil, Spain and the UK. Agents hoped that those courtroom victories would force a rethink, and warned of potential transfer market chaos if Fifa ploughed on.

If the rules had been enforced, then an agent working for a player moving from Belgium to Portugal would, in theory, only be able to charge a maximum of 6 per cent of salary as a fee. But one moving from Germany to France could charge their usual 10 per cent. In the UK, a tribunal ruled that the Fifa fee cap was anti-competitive, but could still potentially be enforced for international transfers. Agents said the fee cap would have halved their income.

On December 30 2023, Fifa finally relented. It hit pause on all the new rules pending an appeal against a legal injunction in a German court. It hopes to get a hearing in the first four months of this year, but industry lawyers and agents expect the whole thing to end up at the European Court of Justice some time in 2025.

For now, agents can carry on as they were. Last year they earned just under $900mn collectively, according to Fifa data.

But it’s not an unqualified win for the big agencies, including Hollywood-based CAA and Wasserman, who have a clear, long-term advantage in a more regulated industry. Although they don’t have to worry about the fee cap, the barriers to entry in the industry are back where they were — on the floor.

Regardless of the outcome, it seems a good time to be a sports lawyer.

Highlights

Tough racket: Owner of Wilson looks to tap investors via an IPO © Bloomberg
  • Amer Sports, the parent company of tennis racket maker Wilson, hiking and skiing equipment company Salomon, and high-end outdoor gear brand Arc’teryx, has filed to list on the New York Stock Exchange. It is hoping to raise over $1bn so it can pay back a shareholder loan taken out to finance its acquisition by Chinese sportswear company Anta Sports.

  • Sir Jim Ratcliffe finally announced his deal to buy into Manchester United on Christmas Eve. Now the hard part begins. We look at how the chemicals billionaire has fared as owner of French club Nice, and what lessons he can draw as he looks to revive one of the most famous teams in sport.

  • The long boom in football broadcast rights appears to have ended. So what comes next? The FT’s data wonk John Burn-Murdoch has run through the numbers.

  • The Tom Brady era at Birmingham City is off to a bumpy start. The club, which is currently 20th in the second tier of English football, this week sacked Wayne Rooney as manager after a dismal string of results. Birmingham was taken over by US fund Knighthead in August, and brought in the former NFL superstar as an adviser and co-investor.

Final Whistle

Toast of the town: Giant Pop Tart helps cut through the noise

As promised, here’s the Pop Tart in all its glory. Enjoy!

Scoreboard is written by Josh Noble, Samuel Agini in London and Sara Germano in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team

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