The impact of Latinos on sports has never been more evident than in 2011. After all, there’s a reason that nearly every sporting organization – from the NBA to NASCAR – has undertaken marketing and outreach initiatives to tap into the increasingly influential Hispanic demographic.

From the athletes dominating highlight reels to the fans filling the seats, the last 12 months have demonstrated just how much Latinos are changing the face of the game. Culling through the moments, milestones and memories of the last year, here’s a look at some of the sports stories that captured our attention.  

The Honeymoon Ends

New York is notorious for being one of the most difficult cities for an athlete to play in, but Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez seemed to be handling it with relative ease in his first two pro seasons behind center. That is until this season. Call it a “junior” slump.

Many questioned Sanchez’s abilities over his first two seasons in the NFL, but few could question the results. Leading the Jets to the AFC championship game for the second year in a row in January, he was hailed as a future face of the franchise.

Of course, the Jets were widely lauded for their defensive performances during those two years. But Sanchez deserves at least some of the credit for helping the Jets get the ball in the end zone often enough to secure wins.

The same can’t be said for 2011. With the Jets not yet mathematically eliminated from the postseason (but as close to it as you can get), some of the shine seems to have worn off Sanchez as well.

The truth is Sanchez’s numbers are comparable to his stats in 2009 and 2010. But things like quarterback ratings, second-half interceptions and late-game sacks can be overlooked when a team is winning. In the span of a season, Sanchez has gone from toast of the town to some going for as far as calling for him to be run out of town.  The reality lies somewhere in the middle, but 2011 didn’t help Sanchez solidify himself as the Jets’ franchise quarterback.

But before you start feeling bad for the young NFL star, keep in mind Sanchez still has two years left on a contract that was initially reported to be worth over $50 million ($28 million guaranteed) and is rumored to be dating a Victoria’s Secret model.

Breakout Performance

Heading into 2011, Victor Ortiz was virtually unknown outside of boxing circles. Although Ortiz long had been considered a rising talent – even being named ESPN's prospect of the year in 2008 – the Mexican-American welterweight had yet to emerge as a marquee fighter.   

That all changed with an upset victory over Andre Berto in April and a controversial defeat at the hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr. in September. The 24-year-old Ortiz proved himself capable of not only going up against one of boxing’s all-time greats, but of generating interest and pay-per-view income. Mayweather-Ortiz ranked as the second-highest grossing non-heavyweight fight in history, generating 1.25 million pay-per-view buys.

However, Ortiz was clearly playing second fiddle to Mayweather in 2011. 2012 will give the young fighter a chance to become a marquee name on his own.   

Getting up Off the Mat

Oscar De La Hoya found himself back in the spotlight this year. Unfortunately for the boxing-legend-turned-promoter, the attention was largely due to his personal struggles. In May, news broke that De La Hoya had checked into a rehab facility. Three months later, the former fighter made headlines again after appearing on Univision’s “Aqui y Ahora.” He admitted to alcohol and drug abuse, infidelity and suicidal thoughts, but confirmed that the infamous fishnet photos were not fake as previously claimed.

However, the sports businessman – in addition to Golden Boy Promotions, De La Hoya is part owner of the Houston Dynamo – had a slightly better year in the sporting arena. Victor Ortiz, who is a fighter with Golden Boy Promotions, had a breakthrough year in 2011 (despite his loss to Floyd Mayweather in September) and is headlining one of the more anticipated fights in 2012. And the Houston Dynamo advanced all the way to the MLS Cup before falling to the L.A. Galaxy.

From Gateway to the West to West Coast

Where Albert Pujols would end up once he became a free agent was a hot topic from spring training through the winter meetings. While the St. Louis Cardinals may have been been the World Series champions, the Los Angeles Angels emerged victorious in the offseason. The Angels landed the year’s biggest free agent with a 10-year, $254 million dollar offer – the second-largest contract in baseball history. Not a bad deal if you can get it.

Really?!

Turns out Juan Manuel Márquez may not have been the only one that lost when he stepped into the ring against Manny Pacquiao in November. According to reports, a Mexican court has ruled that Márquez wearing a political party’s patch on his shorts violated rules regarding campaigning. As a result, the court threw out the results of the mayoral election in the Michoacán capital of Morelia. A new election will be held in 2012.

As for what else 2012 will hold, it is anyone’s guess. When it comes to sports, from the highs to the lows to the offbeat, that's especially true. One thing, however, is a certainty. Latinos – from the sports personalities making news to the fans consuming it –will continue to play a major role in shaping the sports landscape.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz

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