The 10 Influencers for 2018
Published: 29 Jan 2018
Ahead of what could be another 12 months of unprecedented disruption, our partners SportsPro profiles ten figures whose work will direct the conversation and the action in the sports industry year.
Jeff Bezos is the self-made US$100 billion man, one of the wealthiest humans alive whose net worth exploded by more than US$6 billion in a single day last year. If Amazon feels like an unstoppable force, it is the architect of the online retailer-turned-technology juggernaut’s astounding growth who appears out to conquer all.
Amazon’s far-reaching influence is such that the ripples produced any time Bezos splashes his cash radiate far and wide; indeed, even the promise of Bezos-backed investment sets minds racing. Last autumn’s news that his Seattle-based company would be opening a second headquarters sent its corporate rivals’ stock price into a spin and sparked a ferocious bidding war among cities across North America, with many drawing up elaborate proposals in the hope of landing the 50,000 jobs ‘HQ2’ will create.
Across e-commerce, cloud-computing, live video content, digital streaming hardware and online ticketing, Amazon has already found many avenues into sport. Its 2014 purchase of Twitch, the ultra-popular online gaming platform, positioned the company at the forefront of a burgeoning esports community that others are only now clamouring to be part of. All the while Amazon Prime Video harbours the means to become a true ‘Netflix of sport’ if it so wishes, just as firms across myriad sectors vie to become the Amazon of their respective industries.
In truth, however, nobody really knows what Bezos has up his sleeve. What is perhaps more certain is that Amazon’s willingness to experiment is matched only by its founder’s penchant for exploration and ambitious, over-the-horizon ideas. Having bought The Washington Post in 2013, Bezos has taken on America’s political elite in their own backyard while his aerospace company, Blue Origin, is pioneering space travel. More recent investments in the terrestrial businesses of brick-and-mortar retail and voice-controlled assistants have inserted the Amazon brand further into the lives and homes of millions.
Those moves continue to garner surprise and scrutiny in equal measure, but as the all-seeing, all-powerful Amazon keeps on coming, there is a growing sense of inevitability that sport, in whatever form it takes, is just another design within the Bezos masterplan.
It was some time ago that Fifa decided to make its bed but Gianni Infantino is the man who now has to lie in it. While it would have been difficult for the president of soccer’s global governing body to create a bigger mess than his disgraced predecessor Sepp Blatter, the 47-year-old’s jolly exterior can only paper over the organisation’s ever-widening cracks for so long.
Infantino’s first two years at the helm have been a constant grapple between restoring public faith in Fifa’s ability to properly govern and enacting his personal agenda. Having succeeded in pushing through his promise of expanding the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 onwards, Infantino has sought to restore credibility to a much-maligned office through extensive politicking and regular public appearances.
But 2017 brought more pressing matters into view. The Swiss was first forced to overcome an ethics complaint of his own, while close scrutiny of ongoing preparations for this year’s World Cup in Russia – the first edition of Fifa’s flagship tournament to take place during Infantino’s presidency – have done little to help his cause.
Beyond those persistent challenges, Infantino has yet to convince the world that he’s the firm leader needed to truly reform Fifa. Accusations of interfering in confederation elections and blocking ethics investigations continue to cast a long shadow over his name, while his all-too-chummy relationships with tarnished figures such as Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s deputy prime minister who has been banned from all future Olympic Games, and the indicted Brazilian official Marco Polo Del Nero have hardly inspired confidence among the international soccer community.
Nevertheless, 2018 offers a shot at redemption for both Infantino and Fifa. A clear stance on Russia’s alleged doping violations should any concrete evidence come to light would help offset any lingering distrust, while a successful World Cup will go some way to bolstering Infantino’s reputation with an election campaign on the horizon in 2019.
Every role has its challenges, but few executive positions in sport are as burdensome as overseeing marketing efforts at an outsized, often polarising media juggernaut like the National Football League (NFL).
Dawn Hudson has, however, risen to that challenge admirably. Since joining the league in 2014 at a time of crisis following the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal, the 58-year-old former PepsiCo executive has made a name for herself as a champion of diversification, garnering widespread acclaim for having introduced an NFL-sponsored conference for women as part of Super Bowl week activities and working on programmes to draw more women into the league at all levels. Still, it will take every sinew of her branding and storytelling powers to switch up the narrative that surrounds the NFL heading into 2018.
Though hardly in the doldrums – US$14 billion in annual revenues is testament to that – one of the world’s most lucrative sports properties faces big questions about its future. Declining viewership, an overabundance of TV commercials, mounting public fears over the danger of concussions, sexual harassment scandals, and the political fallout from this season’s national anthem protests are all contributors to or symptoms of diminished popularity. Further compounding off-field matters, a recent survey conducted by Morning Consult found that the NFL is now among the most divisive brands in the United States.
For Hudson, then, the job of promoting America’s most popular sport – and appeasing her league’s cohort of billionaire owners – has never been tougher. Her role in helping to establish the NFL’s direction in the coming months could prove pivotal, but it will be the extent to which she is able to engage the next generation of football fans and reach an increasingly divided and fragmented audience that will ultimately define her value to a league in pressing need of a shot in the arm.
The sports business may only know Robert Kotick a little at this stage, but there are already those within it who will offer a glowing reference.
“Bobby Kotick is one of the great executives of our time – the Jack Welch of our time,” says Scott O’Neill, chief executive of Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils owner Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. “And not just in esports. He’s built a huge business and had great success.”
Activision Blizzard, the sprawling group of which Kotick is chief executive, has perhaps managed the transition to the online age of gaming better than any other independent publisher. Its World of Warcraft series gave millions a second life online and helped pioneer the micropayment culture that is now the bedrock of the videogame economy. Call of Duty is one of the top-selling titles of all time, with its annual instalments bridging the gap to Hollywood while also becoming an esports staple. Tournaments built on the StarCraft series gave an indication of the scale that competitive video gaming could reach.
In 2018, Kotick is primed not just to deliver on that potential but to bring the sports industry into esports as never before. Based on Overwatch – a hyperkinetic multi-player first-person shooter released a little under two years ago – the Overwatch League launched in January with the backing of a clutch of billionaire major league owners, each of whom had paid a US$20 million fee to take on one of 12 global franchises.
For Kotick, the Overwatch League is just one part of a strategy aimed at staving off the challenge of Electronic Arts – whose licensing activities have long given it a more traditional sports business role – among the world’s richest video game stables. Still, in a sector where rights fees remain the exception, a two-season, US$90 million broadcast dealwith Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch confirmed the heightened level of interest in the new venture. The attempt, meanwhile, to create a franchise model more familiar to sports industry players could have a telling legacy as these two worlds converge ever further.
It has become part of the natural rhythm of the global soccer calendar, a triennial staging post almost as familiar as the phalanx of international tournaments that mark out footballing generations. Every three years, the world’s richest league goes to market with its media rights; every three years, it returns more laden than ever with pay-TV booty, ready to launch another conversation about the proper relationship between money and sport.
For almost two decades, first as chief executive of the Premier League and now as its executive chairman, Richard Scudamore has conducted every crescendo. It seemed whatever changed conditions lay in wait– market flutters, new regulations, incoming players – his small team were not only equal to them but actively turned them to their advantage.
Repeating the trick in these uncertain times will be no mean feat. An expanded domestic rights package is first up in February, with the consensus suggesting that bigger growth may come from the international sales to follow. Last time round, the league exploited the enmity between Sky Sports and BT Sport to squeeze an extra 71 per cent out of the pair in the UK. This time, Amazon has emerged as a useful stalking horse, with its true intentions just opaque enough to inspire speculation as the incumbents seek to avoid a bidding war.
The result will be carefully scrutinised across the wider industry. The big hitters will know a little better how seriously to take tech money; the smaller fry will have a clearer sense of their place in the emerging ecosystem.
The next rights cycle runs through Scudamore’s 20th anniversary and in recent years, there have been signs of the Premier League considering its function beyond an instrument for revenue generation and a forum for its member clubs. A 2016 rebrand and commercial refit has let the league be more forthright in trumpeting its own activities, with 2017’s national TV advertising campaign for the Primary Stars community programme a subtle pitch for leadership of the English game in a year where the Football Association’s authority was compromised. However the balance of power shifts in the sport, Scudamore will be keen to maintain a strong footing.
Perhaps no administrator in sport has a graver task ahead in 2018 than Kerry Perry, the former Learfield Communications vice president installed in December as chief executive of USA Gymnastics.
For around 20 years, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar embarked on a campaign of sexual abuse against over 140 national team members and minors. He has admitted several counts of assault and possession of child pornography and faces life in prison. The horrendous psychological toll of his actions is only really becoming apparent at the time of writing, as one victim after another steps forward to testify in a sentencing hearing in a Michigan court.
Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, and Simone Biles, the breakout star of the Rio 2016 Games, have all come forward with stories of their own suffering. The obvious question is how such a predator had been allowed to operate under the aegis of a major governing body for so long.
USA Gymnastics says it sacked Nassar in 2015 and informed the authorities after becoming aware of athlete concerns, but doubts persist over its handling of the affair. An investigation by the Indianapolis Star was damaging enough to claim the job of Steve Penny, Perry’s predecessor, last March.
London 2012 gold medallist McKayla Maroney filed a lawsuit in December seeking damages from USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic Committee and MSU, after signing a non-disclosure agreement as part of a settlement her counsel now believes to have been illegal.
Perry arrived at USA Gymnastics intent, she said, on “creating a culture of empowerment that encourages our athletes, our members, our families and our staff to have a strong voice” for athletes. There will be commercial concerns to address in due course, with key partners reviewing their commitments. More pressing is the body’s need to repair relationships with leading stars and completely rethink how it protects the young dreamers in its care.
These outrages, sadly, are not unique in recent history to this case but the scale of Nassar’s crimes and the profile of his targets means that USA Gymnastics can, and must, set an example in its response.
An awesome debt is owed to all too many young girls and their families.
An archetypal disruptor straight from the school of dot-com entrepreneurship, Michael Rubin has brought a startup mentality and technological innovation to the lucrative business of licensed sports merchandise.
After selling his e-commerce company, GSI Commerce, to eBay for US$2.4 billion in 2011, Rubin retained ownership of Fanatics, a GSI subsidiary he has since built into a business now worth an estimated US$4.5 billion. Fanatics has achieved that valuation in part by acquiring exclusive licensing rights to the who’s who of North American sport, including the continent’s four major leagues, the PGA Tour, Nascar and more than 500 colleges. Now, the company has its sights set on becoming a household name further afield.
With a vast yet nimble network featuring streamlined manufacturing processes and supply chains reminiscent of fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara, the Florida-based company is helping sports leagues, teams and organisations capitalise on surges in consumer demand by fulfilling orders within hours. No longer merely a retailer of licensed sports merchandise, it has grown into a full-service solution with market-leading design, manufacturing and distribution capabilities, one whose mobile-first, big data-driven, vertically structured ‘v-commerce’ business model has opened up a largely untapped market for branded fan gear.
Fanatics’ impressive growth has caught the interest of some big-name investors, including Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB). Each of those entities is betting that Rubin, 45, can replicate his company’s domestic dominance internationally, pumping millions of dollars into a business that has major markets in Europe and Asia squarely in its crosshairs.
If Rubin succeeds, the global sports industry’s approach to merchandising will have undergone its biggest evolution yet.
As the sports industry continues to find itself in a figurative tug of war between tradition and innovation, Adam Silver is reaping the benefits of prioritising the latter. The National Basketball Association (NBA) stalwart might not represent an agent of change, but his bold decision-making and shrewd negotiating skills embody the swagger and confidence of a league whose upward trajectory shows no sign of abating.
Since taking over the NBA’s commissioner role in 2014, the 55-year-old Silver has made the position his own, artfully guiding the NBA through something of a financial and popularity boom. Average regular-season attendances have increased each year during his tenure, while the 2017 NBA Finals was the league’s most-watched championship series since 1998.
Much of that owed to the all-star rivalry between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, but even with so-called ‘super-teams’ and a top-heavy league, NBA franchises are generally thriving under Silver’s stewardship. Forbes estimates that franchise valuations have shot up more than threefold over the past five years, while a steadily increasing salary cap has ensured players throughout the league have never had it so good.
A deep-thinking, always-articulate strategist who never shies from making the first move, Silver has helped establish a regular slate of virtual reality productions to complement coverage of live games, secured eye-catching media deals both at home and abroad, and was the driving force behind the creation of the NBA 2K League, the first esports competition operated by one of North America’s four major leagues.
All that has added further lustre to a global brand as innovative and tech-savvy as any in sport, positioning basketball’s preeminent league as the envy of its domestic football, baseball and ice hockey counterparts, not to mention many more properties besides. Whatever Silver’s next move, expect others to follow.
In a time of uncertainty and disruptive flux, Masayoshi Son is making big bets on the future – and making them quickly.
Japan’s richest man, the 60-year-old founder of telecoms-led conglomerate SoftBank Group, is sitting on what could be the most significant pot of money in the technology sector. Son has amassed a US$100 billion Vision Fund through contributions from the likes of Apple, Qualcomm, Larry Ellison, Foxconn and Sharp. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, according to Son, agreed to stump up US$45 billion from the country’s sovereign wealth fund after a 45-minute meeting.
Funds version two, three and four are apparently in the pipeline but already, Son has got to work spending the cash he currently has. SoftBank has long been used as a vessel for Son’s acquisitive ambitions, with stakes in the likes of Sprint, Yahoo and Alibaba in its portfolio. In the past 18 months, however, that process has moved into overdrive. Substantial stakes have been bought in some of the world’s most talked-about startups, from Uber and its Chinese rideshare counterpart Didi Chuxing to Slack and WeWork.
Investments have been made across the tech spectrum but robotics, artificial intelligence and particularly data are the main fields of interest. Son is reputedly a big-picture thinker, playing a central role in SoftBank’s biggest deals before withdrawing once a transaction is completed. Even within the realms of venture capital, the sums he is playing with are vast, and the nine and ten-figure injections of resources he is administering are sure to have a dramatic effect. Reuters described him last year as a ‘one-man bubble-maker’ – a tag his somewhat chequered track record may support – but his interventions should also significantly accelerate technologies which remain in the experimental stage.
For sport, this will mean marked changes in the way the industry works. Direct investment is also a possibility. WME | IMG was the beneficiary of a US$250 million investment from SoftBank back in March 2016, while the Vision Fund also sank US$1 billion into Fanatics in September. Ownership of baseball’s SoftBank Hawks Fukuoka, as well as backing for basketball’s B. League and Japan’s America’s Cup entry, suggests the appetite may be there if the angle is right.
First in line to the throne to Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, Mohammad bin Salman has come to be seen as the face of change in the staunchly conservative Islamic kingdom. The 32-year-old’s ‘Vision 2030’ programme, announced in 2016, sets out plans to reform and diversify the country’s economy, weaning Saudi Arabia off its long dependence on oil to become a more open global investment power.
In recent months, Salman has promised religious and social reforms, including the historic lifting of a ban on female drivers – a change forecast to add US$90 billion to the economy by 2030. He has also initiated plans to ease restrictions on female spectators in sports stadiums, a move seen as a significant early step towards his goal of embracing a more moderate interpretation of Islam.
Though welcomed within many quarters, Salman’s sweeping reforms have been fiercely criticised by some. November saw over 40 princes and government ministers arrested on Salman’s orders as part of a contentious clampdown on alleged corruption amongst high-ranking and wealthy officials, while some observers say his aggressive attempts to consolidate power have engendered a atmosphere of unease and paranoia throughout the kingdom.
Still, Salman means business. He has already approved major funding for foreign companies like SoftBank Group, while a big-money investment in IMG parent Endeavor has been rumoured. Meanwhile his provision to use some of Saudi Arabia’s vast sovereign wealth fund to drive the growth of private sectors such as tourism, technology and manufacturing could have meaningful implications for the development of sport at home. So too could his plan to build a giant 334-square km sports and entertainment city near Riyadh by 2022 – the Al-Qiddiya project will boast a range of cultural and sporting facilities aimed at promoting elite and grassroots sport whilst boosting Saudi Arabia’s ability to host major international events.
Regional political rivalries are also motivating Salman’s reforms, not least since Saudi Arabia’s closest neighbours continue to splash on sport around the world. Whilst his endgame is far from clear, a country that has been turned in on itself for decades is beginning to look beyond its own borders, suggesting that a Saudi advance into international sport could be on the cards.