Ari Emanuel, Chief Executive Officer, Endeavor
The completion of a long-awaited IPO at a valuation of $10 billion in April of last year and the highest grossing and most profitable nine-month stretch in the history of the UFC were two of many highlights for Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel. He has spearheaded the expansion of what began as a Hollywood talent agency into a sports and entertainment behemoth that also creates and licenses content, operates events across a range of sports and, most recently, has plunged headfirst into the global sports betting ecosystem.
Additions to the talent representation business included No. 2 NFL Draft pick Zach Wilson and No. 4 NBA Draft pick Scottie Barnes. Endeavor also represented six coaches from the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, both men’s and women’s singles champions at the U.S. Open, and the PGA Tour’s FedExCup champion.
The breadth of the business was on display at Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles, where Endeavor represented both quarterbacks and one head coach, more than 50 broadcasters covering the game and 25 clients featured in Super Bowl spots, including Serena Williams, Peyton Manning, Larry David and Guy Fieri. Endeavor-owned hospitality provider On Location delivered entertainment for 20,000 fans, including corporate tailgates for guests of NBC and both teams and its third Super Bowl Music Fest.
It was an emphatic reminder of Emanuel’s staying power. It was a bit more than two years earlier, in September 2019, that he pulled the plug on the company’s first run at an IPO, frustrated, and infuriated, by bankers’ tepid response. Six months later, COVID shut down both entertainment and sports, threatening his company from its core to its perimeters.
Ari Emanuel survived. And then thrived. Again.
Cathy Engelbert, Commissioner, Women’s National Basketball Association
Cathy Engelbert took charge of the WNBA in 2019, and in less than three years has helped change the business perception of a league long overdue for recognition and respect. The last 12 months alone speak to Engelbert’s reputation as a change agent, as she has spearheaded a variety of efforts to increase the WNBA’s visibility and secure its long-term future stemming from the momentum of an eight-year CBA reached in 2020.
Last May, Engelbert and her executive team welcomed Google to the WNBA Changemaker program roster as part of an all-encompassing sponsorship deal to develop marketing initiatives and new product experiences. Google became the fourth company in the WNBA’s Changemaker program, joining AT&T, Deloitte and Nike.
Meanwhile, the WNBA this February raised $75 million in a groundbreaking capital investment round from a strategic, diverse group. The funding will go toward two bullet points Engelbert has focused on: Improve the league’s marketing efforts and, in turn, elevate its status globally.
The makeup of the investor group was chock-full of seasoned, successful executives (some outside the sports industry) who are buying into Engelbert’s vision, including Laurene Powell Jobs, Condoleezza Rice, Ted Leonsis, Micky Arison and Mark Walter (just to name a few). That capital has brought the league labor stability as well as an opportunity to work with its players to deploy the funds and grow the sport before the next media deal and CBA.
Engelbert wouldn’t rule out a second funding round in the future, but said in February that the focus for now is making the most of the money raised.
Roger Goodell, Commissioner, National Football League
The good times keep rolling for the NFL under Roger Goodell, who oversaw a near-perfect pandemic bounce-back season after keeping the league from missing a single game in 2020. Goodell started the offseason by locking in $110 billion in long-term media rights, securing big increases from longtime partners and the first streaming-exclusive package with Prime Video. That new money will soon flow throughout the league, accelerating the financial recovery from the pandemic for both players — in the form of big salary cap increases — and team budgets.
In the season, the NFL posted a 10% television viewership gain and saw a Super Bowl audience larger than any since 2017. Two new stadiums opened to fans for the first time, generating rave reviews and the league’s first increase (albeit slight) in attendance since 2017. In sponsorship, the always conservative NFL fully opened up gambling categories in the past year, securing $1 billion in new fees from three sportsbook deals, and loosened restrictions on cryptocurrency sponsorship rules faster than many expected. Also, the NFL made its biggest international strategic shift since the first overseas games, giving 18 teams commercial rights in eight foreign countries.
In perhaps the clearest sign of his continued excellence, Goodell is now in talks about a contract extension. “He’s at the top of his game right now,” said one owner. “Why would we want him walking out the door?”
Oak View Group
Tim Leiweke, Chief Executive Officer, Oak View Group
Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke oversaw the opening of two billion-dollar arenas, in Seattle and Long Island, while OVG’s Global Partnerships group landed 12 naming-rights deals during the selected awards period, worth more than $560 million, including a $328 million deal to put Caesars’ name on the Superdome in New Orleans.
Climate Pledge Arena’s opening in October 2021 gave OVG and Leiweke a flagship venue, one clearly focused on sustainable operations and featuring a novel approach to naming rights that convinced Amazon to get involved through its corporate sustainability challenge, even though the Seattle-based tech giant didn’t need additional brand recognition help. UBS Arena followed about two months later, giving OVG valuable further proof of concept.
OVG purchased Spectra, with the deal closing in late 2021, giving the company a much-needed food and beverage arm, and rounding out its venue operations capabilities. And OVG’s development spree continued, too, with new projects announced in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Hamilton, Ontario; Cardiff, Wales; and Baltimore.
Steve Phelps, President, NASCAR
NASCAR has continued a notable turnaround in recent years under the helm of Steve Phelps, as the sport looks to revolutionize virtually every aspect of its industry to make its product more appealing.
With attendance on the rebound and ratings holding solid, despite a tumultuous media landscape and changes in viewer habits, NASCAR remains a force in American sports business.
In 2021, NASCAR started making some of the biggest changes to its schedule in decades after allowing five-year track sanction agreements that ran from 2016-20 to expire. Among the initial moves were having the Cup Series race on a dirt track for the first time in decades; adding a race at Circuit of the Americas and Road America; and planning for the Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum, which debuted in early 2022. NASCAR is also in deep talks with the city of Chicago and Chicago Sports Commission to hold a street race there as early as 2023.
Meanwhile, Phelps has guided NASCAR as it approaches the start of formal media rights talks for its next deal that will start in 2025. NASCAR makes $820 million annually, and there’s speculation in the industry that the next deal could top $1 billion a year if multiple bidders emerge for the rights.
Courtesy of ESPN
Jimmy Pitaro, Chairman, ESPN and Sports Content, The Walt Disney Co.
It’s not just that Jimmy Pitaro renewed ESPN’s rights deal with the NFL. It’s that Pitaro negotiated a much smaller increase than his broadcast competitors, while becoming part of the Super Bowl rotation for the first time in nearly two full decades, introducing flex scheduling to “Monday Night Football” for the first time and making ABC a key component of ESPN’s NFL package. These moves paved the way for Pitaro to poach the top announcing team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman from Fox earlier this spring.
Pitaro also brought the NHL back to ESPN for the first time since 2004. He struck a forward-looking deal that was able to balance between banking on a streaming future with games on Hulu and ESPN+ while keeping linear TV as the most important cog in that deal.
Throw in a rights renewal with MLB, in which ESPN pays less than it had previously; buzzworthy programming from the popular “ManningCast” to the Tom Brady series on ESPN+ “Man in the Arena;” and even ESPN’s performance on TikTok, with more than 20 million followers, and you’ll see a media company that is succeeding in every area.
All of that comes before the ESPN+ streaming service is taken into account. Under Pitaro’s watch, ESPN has been the most aggressive company in the streaming business, and it shows. ESPN+ had 21.3 million subscribers as of February.
Michael Rubin, Chief Executive Officer, Fanatics
Pro spectator sports in America live happily in a goldfish bowl of their own design. There are far larger businesses, but former PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico once proclaimed, “Nobody roots for a six pack.’’
Within that ecosystem, it’s no longer an athlete, an owner or a commissioner that the sports business cognoscenti are tracking to ascertain the industry’s direction. It’s 49-year-old billionaire Michael Rubin, who deftly rolled up manufacturing, IP and retail rights within sports licensing over the past decade to become the unquestioned leader in that business.
More recently, he’s similarly rolled up rights in trading cards and NFTs, founding entities that, while still embryonic, Wall Street evaluated at $10.4 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively. Combine that with a recent $27 billion evaluation of Fanatics’ core business and Rubin’s built quite an empire. With Fanatics now targeting legalized wagering, media, and ticketing, he’s become the 21st century version of those E.F. Hutton TV ads. “Everyone’s listening” and watching as he attempts to extend Fanatics’ business into a more expansive digital sports empire, fueled by powerful connections at the top of pro sports and a data warehouse of 80 million sports fans.
Rubin says Fanatics will eventually dominate legalized sports betting to the degree it controls sports licensing. The list of those betting on it most recently includes heavyweights like BlackRock and Michael Dell.
Greg Sankey, Commissioner, Southeastern Conference
Conference expansion, rising revenue and continued competitive dominance have been hallmarks of Greg Sankey’s administration since he became the SEC’s commissioner in 2015, and those credits have never been more profound than they were in 2021.
While college conferences have sought ways to survive during the pandemic, the SEC has thrived. The conference added Texas and Oklahoma in perhaps the most dramatic shift of blue-chip brands in the last half-century. Indeed, the rich got richer and the strong got stronger.
Sankey also cranked up the SEC’s finely tuned machine to produce $833 million in revenue. The $55 million in per-school revenue — up $9 million from the previous year — came at a time when its schools needed it the most.
Then, Sankey, taking advantage of historically low interest rates, took out a loan in order to advance each conference member $23.3 million against future revenue distributions.
Sankey’s shrewd maneuvering contributed to his increasing influence in the college space. With little leadership coming out of NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, more of it fell onto the commissioners, who were tasked with filling the void. It was during this period in 2021 that Sankey’s influence grew, leading The New York Times to write that Sankey’s power is unmatched in college athletics.