2014 Sports Innovator of the Year: 10 to 2

The SportBusiness International Sports Innovator of the Year recognises the sports executives who have made the most original business decisions throughout the past 12 months. This is the countdown from 10 to 2.

10. Adir Shiffman
Executive Chairman, Catapult Sports
Sometimes as a start-up company whatever you can do on your own isn’t enough to make a breakthrough, and sooner or later you have to reach out for help.

Such was the case for wearable technology entrepreneur Adir Shiffman at the beginning of this year, when his Australian-based company, Catapult Sports, went searching for a star name investor to join the company and help crack the United States.

In March, Mark Cuban, owner of National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise the Dallas Mavericks, invested part of his $2.6 billion fortune into Catapult, with Shiffman telling the Australian industry that Cuban was “like Donald Trump, but bigger and better”.

The signing of Cuban not only led to greater exposure for the brand in the United States, but also the momentum to set up a north American office in Chicago in the summer.

Melbourne-headquartered Catapult specialises in wearable tracking equipment that records an athlete’s performance. It currently works with around 400 elite sports organisations around the world, including English football clubs, several Olympic sports and six NBA teams.

9. Nenad Lalovic
President, United World Wrestling
It’s been a very busy year for Lalovic. Throughout 2013 his sport faced the potential hammer blow of losing Olympic status, but 2014 has been all about change for his federation.

Lalovic, who led last year’s Save Olympic Wrestling movement, announced the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) was to change its name to United World Wrestling in June this year.

“Of course it gives us a fresh start and the chance to atone for mistakes made in the past,” Lalovic told SportBusiness International. “We have to continue in this positive direction and never be complacent when it comes to moving the sport forward.

“For the long term we’ll have a marketing plan that provides a clear path of added value for sponsors that invest in wrestling. We’ll have a communications plan that will continue to develop. We’re optimistic that we have the start of something special.”

United World Wrestling has been working alongside agency Olive Grove to develop its revamped brand, which was ultimately rubber-stamped at the federation’s September congress. Chinese sports equipment manufacturer Taishan signed up as the first sponsor post adopting the new moniker, partnering through to 2020.

Lalovic was elected to a new six-year term in office in September.

8. Dana White
President, UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)
The 2013 Innovator of the Year has continued where he left off this year.

Firstly, there was the launch of a UFC Fight Night event at the O2 in London at the beginning of the year, which was followed by similar events in cities across the world from Singapore to Stockholm.

In the spring, the UFC targeted the gaming community through a partnership with EA (Electronic Arts) Sports, releasing the official UFC console game. As part of their marketing push, the UFC and EA asked fans to vote online to decide who should appear on the front cover of the game, resulting in Swede Alexander Gustafsson making it onto the packaging.

As one judge said: “You could pretty much name Dana White Innovator of the Year every year and it would be difficult to argue with.”

7. Sir Keith Mills
Chairman, Invictus Games
The former deputy chairman of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games this year managed to put on a brand new international showpiece event with less than 12 months of organisation time.

The Invictus Games are a multi-sport event that allow wounded armed services personnel to compete in sports including indoor rowing and wheelchair basketball. With the help of Prince Harry – who had been impressed by attending the United States’ Warrior Games in 2013 – the event took place in September.

But 2014 was not just about the Games for Mills, as he also helped launch a bid to bring America’s Cup racing to UK shores, working alongside Olympic sailing gold medallist Ben Ainslie to create a team to compete for the 2017 trophy.

6. Bob Bowman
CEO, MLBAM (Major League Baseball Advanced Media)
Bowman and his team at MLBAM are considered industry leaders in monetising digital content in United States professional sport.

MLBAM’s open attitude towards embracing technology has been the foundation of its success, with Bowman streaming baseball from MLB.com as far back as 2002, and hiring two staff in 2005 to promote content on mobile.

This year, however, saw MLBAM unveil its latest innovation, new play-tracking system Statcast, at March’s MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Statcast allows fans, analysts, and all 30 teams to gain precise information on a range of in-play factors including the jump an outfielder gets on a fly ball, the route he takes to that ball, and the speed with which he runs it down. It also records base-runner speed and the trajectory of the ball off a bat.

MLBAM expects to install the Statcast system in all 30 major league stadia this off-season in time for the 2015 campaign. Already, it’s doing research and development in the off-season Arizona Fall League to determine how best to use the numbers in the MLB’s online GameDay interface and At Bat app.

“This system is more evolved, and easier to track,” says Bowman. “First, you’re capturing all these pieces of data at 32 frames per second. That’s easy. Then, you’re capturing video. That’s easy. Like any cake you bake, it’s how you put the ingredients together.”

5. Michel Platini
President, UEFA
Announced at the beginning of the year, Michel Platini’s ‘Week of Football’ idea has seen European national team qualification matches spread over six days, from Thursday to Tuesday, to help reinvigorate national team football.

The instant reaction from many was that the restructure would devalue the attractiveness of international football by dragging out the experience for too long. However, instead of audiences turning off, early indications are that the increased exposure has helped breathe life into the continent’s international games, helped by one or two shock results from minnows such as Faroe Islands and San Marino.

It’s also been the year Platini has seen his most prominent initiative to date, Financial Fair Play (FFP), deliver significant results, with fines for non-conforming Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, a hardlined approach many believed UEFA wouldn’t have the teeth to carry out.

“[FFP] is working, and it has taken hold,” said Platini’s second-in-command, general secretary Gianni Infantino, in October. “It is in the head of everyone involved in football. Football clubs are now thinking, ‘I cannot do whatever I like because of FFP’. We can see the result of this in the [financial] figures. When we started three years ago, the overdue payables of clubs was €57 million, today it is €9 million.”

In October, Platini also announced the host cities for the never-seen-before tournament blueprint of the European Championships, with 13 countries hosting the event in 2020.

4. Josh Harris
Principal Owner, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia 76ers
Harris sent tremors through the American sports industry in February when he green-lighted a $10 million, four-year sponsorship deal with online poker operator PartyPoker.

The deal saw the National Hockey League’s Devils and the National Basketball Association’s 76ers become the first two major professional sport teams in the United States to sign a sponsorship deal with an online gaming company. The teams both have fanbases in New Jersey, which prior to the deal had become the third state in the country to legalise online gaming.

Under the agreement, bwin.party-owned PartyPoker has become the official online gaming partner of the two teams and the Prudential Center, home of the Devils. The PartyPoker brand has since become incorporated with the two teams’ online presence, including on social media, and exposed to the American public through in-arena signage.

“This is our flag in the ground that we do things differently,” Scott O’ Neil, CEO of the 76ers, the Devils and the Prudential Center, said at the time. “We’re looking for ground-breaking opportunities with companies willing to take chances. As an organisation, we will continue to align with brands that aspire to grow with us.”

Rick Burton, former marketing director for the US Olympic Committee, told SportBusiness International following the deal that its importance should not be underestimated: “It’s fairly ground-breaking. For hundreds of years, gambling of any kind was viewed negatively here in the United States because of the country’s puritanical roots. But that perception has softened and the new reality makes a move like the one made by the 76ers and Devils more feasible.”

3. Thomas Bach
President, IOC (International Olympic Committee)
Major sports federations aren’t known for their ability to adapt, and often change direction about as quickly as an oil tanker in the ocean. So when former Olympic fencer Thomas Bach succeeded Jacques Rogge as the new leader of the Olympic Family last September, his speech about delivering on election promises with a root and branch review of the world’s biggest sports event was met with more than a few raised eyebrows.

However, as if he knew he was just about to miss out on making the top 20 of SportBusiness International’s Innovator of the Year rankings, last month Bach revealed the 40 proposals he would look to push through as part of the Agenda 2020 initiative, his strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement. The proposals are expected to be approved by the IOC membership this month in Monaco.

Changes to the bidding process and a reduction in the cost of both bidding for and hosting the Games have grabbed the most headlines so far; the global sports community called for more affordable ways of hosting the Games…and it seems that Bach is listening to them.

Innovation has also come in how Bach came up with his proposals, as in May 2014 he created 14 ‘working groups’ comprised of key stakeholders in the Olympic Movement, ranging from IOC members, athletes and representatives of international federations to experts from NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and the business world.

“Reforms have to happen when you are in the driver’s seat,” Bach said. “If you are hit by problems, then you are no longer in the driver’s [seat]. The moment to change is now.”

Change is needed. Four of the six cities that were in the running to host the 2022 winter Games cancelled their bids for a number of reasons, but when the host city of the 2022 Olympics is announced next year, Bach’s innovative approach to implementing change to the Olympic Movement will ensure a completely different landscape for all stakeholders involved in hosting The Greatest Show on Earth.

2. Ferran Soriano
Chief Executive Officer, Manchester City
One of the biggest questions in the business of sport this year is how football’s major European clubs would adapt to life under the scrutiny of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

Considering his team was fined €60 million by UEFA this summer for breaching regulations, it may seem odd that Manchester City’s chief of staff is placed second in the Innovator of the Year rankings. However, scratch beneath the surface and you will see that the English Premier League champions are devising strategies that are fundamentally changing the commercial outlook of football across the world.

Soriano has overseen the launch of City Football Group, an Anglo-Arabic holding company established to govern a network of linked clubs and operations, with Manchester City sitting at the top. City Football Group acquired Australian side Melbourne Heart in January this year, which was subsequently rebranded Melbourne City FC with a new home kit that incorporates a strip coloured in traditional City blue.

City Football Group also boasts Japanese club Yokohama F. Marinos – following a minority share investment – and a joint-venture with the New York Yankees baseball team will see New York City FC become Major League Soccer’s 20th franchise from 2015.

The network has enabled the City commercial team to go to sponsors with not only one club but four, and this July, City Football Group signed a global partnership with car manufacturer Nissan covering its sides in England, New York and Melbourne for a significantly enhanced rights-fee. Frank Lampard was also able to sign for New York City FC and be loaned to Manchester City before the start of the 2015 MLS season.

In October, meanwhile, City’s players moved into their brand new training base – an 80-acre site near the Etihad Stadium – which is the result of an investment that exceeds £100 million and includes 16 training pitches and a 7,000-seater ground for youth and reserve team games. Last month, City sold the naming rights for the bridge linking the training base and the stadium to SuisseGas, a first-of-its-kind sponsorship deal.

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