Sports Innovator of the Year 2015

Sport is not short of billionaires with bottomless bank accounts aiming to make their mark on the industry.

However, with the number of expensive failures far outweighing the projects that pay off, the premium on creative ways to spend that money has never been higher.

Our Innovator the Year ranking recognises the sports executives who have made the most original business decisions throughout the past 12 months.

Last year the title was won by Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, for spearheading a revolutionary change in one of sport’s biggest markets by leading a successful Paralympics at the 2014 Sochi Games.

With the help of our readers and an expert judging panel, we will count down the top 20 pioneers who have helped to change the landscape of sport for the better in 2015.

As ever, one of the hardest challenges has been establishing exactly which person, working within a multi-national, multi-faceted sports organisation, was the original voice behind a groundbreaking business move, but our panel has used its contacts and inside knowledge of the industry to pinpoint exactly which individual is deserving of credit.

One principle, many methods

Over the next few pages, you will see innovation recognised in a number of different forms, whether it is being the first business to gamble big on eSports, arranging a flagship event in just two months, or ripping up a rights model that has previously led to lucrative benefits for a couple of rights-holders in order to achieve greater success for the collective.

One interesting trend is the way that the public side of sport is now doing its best to keep up with its commercial counterparts when it comes to innovation and finding new revenue streams. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, has done more to revamp the Olympic Movement in the last 12 months than predecssor Jacques Rogge did during his 12 years in charge. Also, as they showed by winning our 2015 Ultimate Sports Federation of the Year award earlier this year, IFs (International Federations) such as Fiba are reaping the rewards of investing in rebrands to stand out.

Finally, there are those who have implemented real change despite the fact that they have a lot of money at their disposal. Too often in the past we have seen unlimited funds prove to be a hindrance rather than a help for companies looking to break new ground. There is no better example of this than our winner, Lei ZhenjIan, CEO of Le Sports.

By his own admission, his company were relative unknowns 12 months ago, but by creating a new kind of player in the market, part-hardware manufacturer, part-event organiser, part-sports marketing agency, part-media company, LeTV has revealed their hand and then bet big on it. Everyone can throw money at a situation, but it is the ones who use it wisely that really make a difference. Congratulations to everyone who made it onto our list.


20. Michael Davies and Roger Bennett Co-creators, BlazerCon

Bennett and Davies are the first people to commercialise the business of fandom in sport, emulating the business models of ComicCon and VidCon from the entertainment industry.

BlazerCon is a fan forum with a business agenda, with the likes of Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore, AS Roma chairman Jim Pallotta, Christian Seifert, CEO of the Bundesliga and Everton manager Roberto Martinez on the bill.

More than 1,400 fans turned up to the Brooklyn Centre last month, with its business-led programme it was half academic conference and half cultural happening, a place for football fans to mingle, eat pies, drink Guinness talk about football.


19. Bob Bowman, CEO, Major League Baseball Advanced Media

A regular name in our Innovator of the Year rankings, Bowman runs MLB Advanced Media, the league’s technology arm and a pioneer in online sports video.

2015 has seen the focus shift to MLBAM handling media rights and online streaming for other companies and partners, including the National Hockey League, HBO’s online video service HBO Now, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.’s streaming channel and Sony Corp.’s Vue online pay TV offering.

This latest strategy led to media reports that MLBAM could now have a market value of up to $5bn. According to Bowman, next on the agenda will see the company bid for media rights and develop new models of distribution for sports and other television sectors.


18. Ary Graça, President, International Volleyball Federation (FIVB)

2015’s solution to beach volleyball’s lack of physical legacy was to split the venue-hosting into four. At this summer’s World Championships in Holland, the event was split between four of the major cities to host: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Apeldoorn and The Hague, where the finals were held.

At the heart of this creative new format was a floating 5,500-seater stadium built on the Hofvijver pond in The Hague, while Rotterdam’s 2,000-seater had the SS Rotterdam cruise ship as its backdrop. Amsterdam’s 2,000-seat temporary venue was constructed in Dam Square, while the market square was the location for Apeldoorn’s 2,000-seater venue. “The idea of one host using four different stadia was given to me four years ago, but my people were too conservative at the time to accept it. Now we have tried it in Holland and it is a big success,” Graça said.


17. Mark Waller, Executive Vice President, NFL International

2015 was the year that the NFL had to turn a few years of temporary success in London into making it a permanent home.

As a result, hosting contracts were agreed with Premier League side Tottenham Hotspour to host a minimum of two games per season in their new stadium once it opens in the summer of 2018. Waller then agreed a three-year deal with the Rugby Football Union to stage a minimum of three American football matches at Twickenham, starting in October 2016.


16, Andrew Wilson, CEO, EA Sports

Wilson, a surfer who also practices Brazilian jujitsu, has won a number of fans through the implementation of his “player-first” approach and the continued success of the Fifa franchise in 2015, despite its real world rights-holder counterpart permanently in crisis.

“As I think about the evolution of technology and devices, if you fast forward 36 months, my belief is when you combine fundamental human needs with interactive entertainment, what we call games will permeate our lives in the same way digital music does today,” he said earlier this year.


15. Chris Burton, Former vice-president of global sponsorships, SAP

Analytics are big business in the industry, and that was confirmed by SAP and City Football Group’s global, multi-year partnership earlier this year, that will deliver data analytics to every level of CFG and its international football clubs, from business operations to fan engagement to player and team performance.

Burton, whose company are credited with providing the ‘secret sauce’ behind Germany’s 2014 World Cup success, said they will ‘co-innovate’ with CFG over a wide variety of cloud-based solutions powered by the SAP HANA in-memory platform. The solutions will be used to simplify world-wide operations and scale CFG’s business.


14. Frank Leenders, Director General, Fiba Media and Marketing Services

Leenders spearheaded the repositioning of Fiba World Cup to help the sports release its undoubted massive potential, in the same year that Fiba won SportBusiness International’s Ultimate Sports Federation of the Year award in Sochi.

National teams will play regular home and away games over a four year cycle from 2017, which will be used as qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup and the 2021 Continental Cups.

The aim is to increase exposure of the sport by giving fans across the world more opportunities to see their teams compete on home soil.


13. Brett Gosper, CEO, World Rugby

The 2015 Rugby World Cup was the rubber stamp on the success of creative funding and coaching strategies introduced by Gosper to make his sport more competitive. The performances of Georgia, Tonga, Samoa and, most notably, Japan’s shock victory over South Africa, were the highlight of the sport’s flagship event this year.

“We’re obviously going to keep working to close those gaps between tier one and two to sustain the competitiveness of world rugby. The calendar is fixed for the next four years – we have increased the number of tier one versus two encounters and the tournaments against their peers as well,” said Gosper.


12. Ferran Soriano, CEO, City Football Group

In October 2015, City Football Group reported record annual revenue of £351.8m and a seventh successive year of growth, moving into profit following “the retention and recruitment of a variety of regional and global commercial partners”. One of those being SAP earlier this year.

Earlier this year, City Football Japan was launched to manage the group’s operations in Japan. It will oversee its parent company’s commercial operations in Asia and work closely with Yokohama F-Marinos – the J-League team in which CFG holds a minority stake. Alongside Yokohama F-Marinos, CFG is a stakeholder in Australian A-League team Melbourne City and Major League Soccer newcomer New York City.


11. Nigel Melville, CEO, USA Rugby

Melville spearheaded an initiative that will result in the launch of the first-ever professional rugby union league in the United States, capitalising on its Olympic return next year.

The Professional Rugby Organisation (Pro Rugby) competition will begin in April 2016 and comprise six brand new teams in major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, the Rocky Mountains and California, which will face each other twice over the course of the three-month season. Melville was also instrumental in bringing the London Irish versus Saracens Premiership game to New York (see pages 22-23).


10. Ari Emanuel, Co-CEO, WME-IMG

Ever the risk-taker, Emanuel is about to find out whether live video-game competitions are ready for primetime television, after his WME-IMG company teamed up with Turner Broadcasting to form a new eSports gaming league, with TBS set to broadcast 20 live events over the course of 2016.

Through the venture, Turner and WME-IMG will deliver competitive gaming events for all platforms including live fan experiences, televised coverage airing exclusively on TBS, and live digital event coverage and content extensions. Turner Studios in Atlanta will host. WME-IMG will facilitate ad sales and sponsorship opportunities surrounding the new league.

And continuing the apparent theme of thinking outside the box, Emanuel’s agency also furthered its presence in the live event productions market by agreeing to acquire Professional Bull Riders (PBR), the world’s premier bull riding circuit, with WME-IMG reportedly paying around $100m for ownership of PBR.


9. Hicham El Amrani, General Secretary, Confederation of African Football

El Amrani began 2015 without a host of his flagship event, the African Cup of Nations tournament, and only a few weeks to find a new home to avoid commercial disaster.

With little under two months’ notice, Morocco asked to postpone hosting the tournament due to fears that it would lead to the Ebola virus spreading to the country, so El Amrani showed his quick-thinking by finding new hosts, Equitorial Guinea to take over hosting responsibilities at the last minute.He has helped to transform African football from grassroots chaos into a billion dollar export.That status was secured earlier this year when Lagardère Sports and Entertainment paid a $1bn renewal premium for the media and marketing rights to six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments in 2017, 2019, 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027.

All of which means El-Amrani can put on his CV that he pulled the strings behind the most expensive rights deal ever struck in Africa, representing a 343-per-cent increase on the current deal.


8. Loretta Lynch, Attorney General of the United States

The driving force behind the biggest news story of the year: the downfall of Fifa and its long-serving president Sepp Blatter.

More than a dozen plain-clothed Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel at 6am to arrest seven of the defendants charged in the US Department of Justice (DOJ) indictment. A total of 14 people were named in the indictment on charges including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy in relation to marketing and media deals over a 24-year period.

Lynch said in May “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks…”

As one of our judges commented: “Easier done if you’re not from the industry and you have the powerbase they have, but it’s about time someone sorted out Fifa.”


7. Patrick Drahi, Founder, Altice

Drahi changed the French telco’s focus to acquire broadcast rights – it agreed deals for Premiership Rugby international rights and domestic top-tier basketball rights. Both relatively small properties, but show signs of intent for 2016.

Drahi, who lives in Geneva and founded the Israel-headquartered news channel i24news in 2013, was relatively unknown until 18 months ago, but now his Luxembourg-based telecom conglomerate Altice has become France’s second-largest bundled operator, offering television, Internet and telephone services, following the acquisitions of Numericable-SFR and Portugal’s MEO/Portugal Telecom.

In an interview with a company insider earlier this year, it was revealed that Drahi’s ambition is to increase Altice’s US assets from 15 per cent to 50 per cent in the near future. A big step towards this goal was the acquisition of Cablevision, another US cable operator, for nearly $18bn.


6. Thomas Bach, President, International Olympic Committee

If 2014 showed Bach’s ability to devise a new vision in an ancient framework with his Agenda 2020 proposals, 2015 has been about showing what to do when your ideas are challenged and still come out on top.

At the 2015 SportAccord Convention in Sochi, Bach was blindsided by then SportAccord president, Marius Vizer, in a very public attack in which he called the IOC “expired, outdated, wrong, unfair and not at all transparent”.

It was the first major duel the Olympic winning fencer had come up against since becoming president of the Olympic Movement in 2013. However, three months later and an intense period of political lobbying by the German, all but one of the Olympic federations had voted with their feet and joined Team Bach, while Vizer was left with no alternative other than to resign.


5. Simon Denyer, CEO, Perform

Digital media company Perform Group is aiming to break ground in the media market by launching its own OTT (over the top) service next year.

Perform was formed in 2007 following the merger of Premium TV and Inform, and for the next four years it built a business on hosting sports websites and audio content. It floated in 2011 and generated additional funds to become a digital and media business, running its own websites.

Denyer told SportBusiness International earlier this year that the time has come to create a third revenue stream in 2016. Perform will emulate the Netflix model – even bringing in former Netflix employees – using the approach of a gradual market-by-market launch, beginning in Japan next spring and then in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the summer.

“Because Netflix is reasonably priced, nobody is churning off,” he said. “They still buy Sky, but they just have Netflix on top. If you priced Netflix at €50, nobody would go for it. We still fully expect people to continue to pay for Sky in markets like Germany, but we want them to buy our service on top.”


4. Dana White, Ultimate Fighting Championship

The 2013 Innovator of the Year continues to lead the conversation in the industry. His promotion of Ronda Rousey has endorsed his sport’s appeal to both genders, achieving a record UFC crowd for the Rowsey V Holm fight in Melbourne, (56,214 at the Docklands stadium), and putting her on the cover of the EA UFC game update released this year.

White also made strategic moves to elevate UFC’s Olympic credibility through a strategic partnership with USA Wrestling, and also the news that it is to partner with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as part of a major drug testing programme that will be rolled out across the mixed martial arts series.

Under the new partnership, the USADA will independently administer multiple, unannounced tests to fighters when the new UFC programme begins on July 1. Confirmation of the initiative comes after the UFC in February pledged millions of dollars to its anti-doping efforts.

As one of our judges said: “You could make a case for Dana winning this in any of the last four years.”


3. Peter Hutton, CEO, Eurosport

Hutton has overseen dramatic change in just four months of stewardship of the Discovery-owned broadcaster, including a rebranding of pan-European giant that was finalised last month (see pages 16-17).

One of Hutton’s first jobs was to sign-off his colleagues preparation of the billion dollar deal with the IOC In June, which will see all television and multi-platform broadcast rights in Europe for the four Olympic Games in the 2018–2024 period go to Discovery Communications, the parent company of Eurosport.

Having flirted with a number of different options since Discovery takeover, the strongest of which was seen with rights to Italian football last year, the Olympic partnership was a signal of intent for Eurosport, and a sign of the new direction Hutton will be taking them.

The pan-European TV channel was awarded the title of Best Sports Broadcaster at the TV Sports Awards in Monaco in October, while Hutton was named Media Executive of the Year and parent company, Discovery, secured the award for Best TV Rights Deal for its agreement with the IOC.


2. Javier Tebas, President, LaLiga

Tebas has taken the offensive in his attempt to keep up with the commercial might of the Premier League and the strategic success of the Bundesliga.

In a headline interview with SportBusiness International earlier this year, Tebas revealed his plan for reforming the media rights landscape in Spanish football which has seen widening revenue margins for Barcelona and Real Madrid, due to the previous individual rights-selling model.

But it is not just about taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Tebas has also led initiatives to create new kick-off timeslots to attract greater revenue from international broadcast deals.

“I have spoken to many international media operators and their reaction to the new time slots has been great”, Tebas said.

In its second edition of the LFP World Challenge in summer 2015, Liga teams visited Ecuador, Morocco, Australia and Colombia to try and reach new fans.

Tebas said that the World Challenge was “one of the main reasons why we are having such a growth in international rights” and that it helped in “the growth of foreign companies sponsoring Spanish clubs”.

As one judge said: “Tebas oversaw a one-season domestic deal worth €600m, and international rights revenue increasing by 177 per cent.

“That is impressive after switching from the model they had previously used.”


1. Lei Zhenjian, CEO of Le Sports

From unknown to market leader in one of the world’s leading economies. Le’s story is one of the most talked about in sport right now. It’s not so much about how much they are spending, but how they’re spending it and the conventions they’re breaking along the way.

Zhenjian has created a new kind of player in the market: part-hardware manufacturer, part-event organiser, part-sports marketing agency and part-media company.

Being best known as a sports video streaming platform in its original form, Le Sports – known as LeTV Sports before a rebrand announced in October – has morphed into an all-round sports company.

The company is “dedicated to establishing an ecosystem that features four services – sports event operation, content platform, smart hardware, and value-added services,” said Lei.

Created in February 2014, LeTV Sports has evolved from a page on the Leshi movie and TV website into an independent sports media entity that streams live sporting events.

The company has been aggressively purchasing various live streaming rights. In 2014, it broadcast live a total of 4,000 sports matches across 12 sports, including football, basketball, tennis, golf and marathon events.

Acquiring events’ IPs, especially introducing prestigious sporting events into China, is considered one of LeTV Sports’ primary strategies. Lei discloses that the company is also exploring their own events, that includes running and football.

“I would like to thank SportBusiness International for granting me this award. It is a recognition of and praise to the innovative eco-model of our company,” Lei said.

“Frankly speaking, Le Sports is still very young as it was established only a year and a half ago, but we are lucky to have the support from three sides.

“First, we have the support from China’s sports industry. Since the No. 46 Document was released in 2014, China’s sports industry has entered into an era of significant development with policies, resources and capital gathering in the industry.

“Second, the support comes from China’s Internet. As a nascent industry in China, the sports industry has a much higher starting point compared with many traditional industries with the support of the Internet and technologies.

“Third, our users have given us great support. Sports users in China have greatly changed in terms of lifestyle and attitude, which has led to a mass consumption era for the sports industry.

“Le Sports has been working to provide more and better Internet-based sports services to China’s sports fans, sports lovers and those who love life. Your participation, our goal.”

Lei also reveals that LeTV Sports plans to incorporate sports facilities in the future. “We are developing ‘smart sport venues’ which could enhance the connection between spectators and sporting venues.

In the past, sports fans only connect with venues on a single occasion; but with our services, users will easily connect with all the different services provided by facilities.

LeTV Sports is now negotiating with some sports venues in China regarding the incorporation of their ‘smart sport venues’, but Lei refuses to disclose more details about which sporting facilities they are planning to working with.

The company’s current plan also contains launching some smart products, such as super bicycles and sports cameras.

“We use the content provided on our website to attract users, and we hope they could continue to use our other products and value-added services,” Lei said.


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