SportBusiness International

Analysis and insight for the global sports business

The SportBusiness Executives of the Year | Numbers 10 to 1

The SportBusiness Executives of the Year | Numbers 10 to 1

Ben Cronin's picture
By: Ben Cronin

Robin Jellis's picture
By: Robin Jellis

Counting down the executives who have taken the sports industry by storm in 2017 (IMAGE: Jacob Wackerhausen)
1 Dec 2017
  • LinkedIn
  • Print

The judges have convened and the votes are in for the 2017 SportBusiness Executive of the Year Awards. Ben Cronin and Robin Jellis report on the executives who have taken the industry by storm in 2017, with numbers 20-11 listed here. Click here to see the list's #20-#11.

10. Joe Tsai, Vice-chairman, Alibaba

Alibaba vice-chairman Joe Tsai came to prominence in October this year when he acquired a 49-per-cent stake in NBA team the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that valued the team at around $2.3bn.

You might have thought 2017 was the year when the Chinese government had put a brake on lavish overseas sports investments, but having been born in Taiwan, Tsai is exempt from these restrictions. In fact, he is closer to being considered a Westerner: he attended boarding school in the US and studied at Yale before later taking on Canadian citizenship.

Tsai’s fortune is estimated to be $9bn and much of it is reckoned to sit outside of China since Alibaba is listed in the US. The wealth is largely built on his role in turning the firm into one of the most significant players in e-commerce and the Chinese internet community. In the most recent fiscal year, the company earned $6.3bn in profit and $23bn in sales.

Tsai reportedly bought the Brooklyn Nets with his own money and it was not the only sports investment he made this year. A collegiate level lacrosse player at Yale, he also purchased the new expansion team in the National Lacrosse League (NLL), the San Diego Seals for $5m.

SportBusiness International’s China correspondent, Mark Dreyer says: “I think he’s the perfect sports team owner from a fan’s point of view. He is very smart, he is genuinely passionate about sport and he’s obviously stinking rich. He’s still new when it comes to being a sports executive but he’s got a pretty good pedigree when it comes to the rest of his CV.”

With connections in North America and China, Tsai represents the perfect intermediary between the two sports markets. He is a strong proponent of college sport and was said to have been instrumental in bringing the Pac-12 NCAA basketball games to China. Contrary to what Donald Trump might say, he is also rumoured to take a share of the credit for liberating three college basketball players from a Chinese prison after they were accused of shoplifting during a visit to China for an Alibaba-sponsored exhibition match in November.

9. Ferran Soriano, Chief executive, City Football Group

Football Executive of the Year in association with Globe Soccer

As the highest-ranking football executive in our list, Ferran Soriano, chief executive of English Premier League club Manchester City (City Football Group), wins SportBusiness Football Executive of the Year Award. He will be presented with the award by the publication’s founding editor, Kevin Roberts, at the Globe Soccer conference in Dubai from December 27-28.

The award is recognition for a year in which the City Football Group began to reap the benefits of the work that Soriano has done in franchising the club’s brand. Success on the pitch delivered by fellow FC Barcelona graduate Pep Guardiola has been met with success in the boardroom as the club announced a glut of new local, global and regional partnerships – including the first sleeve patch sponsorship deal in the English Premier League.

The financial windfall can in part be attributed to a more data-led sponsorship approach, both in terms of pitching to brands and also in creating highly engaging, targeted activation pieces with existing partners. But it also owes a lot to the club’s increasingly global footprint.

Soriano has previously described how he admires the global franchise model of the Walt Disney Corporation and how it blurs the lines between entertainment, retailing and theme parks. With clubs in Australia, Japan and the US, the City Football Group is well on its way to duplicating the model.

The club has also taken an innovative approach across digital media, striking a £10m partnership with Amazon Prime to create a four-part behind-the scenes documentary about the club. This year it also became the first EPL team to reach one million followers on YouTube.

A 21-per-cent hike in revenue to £473.4m and a ranking of No.5 on the Forbes list of the most valuable football teams, with an estimated value of $2.08bn, shows that the club is forging a reputation as a truly global sports property.

8. Tom Harrison, Chief executive, England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB)

Tom Harrison was appointed as the new CEO of the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in October 2014, beginning his role at the start of 2015. But 2017 has been the year of reckoning for the former IMG media rights salesman.

This year Harrison has pushed through reform to introduce a new T20 competition from 2020 onward; finalised a significantly more valuable domestic TV rights deal with pay-television broadcaster Sky, which includes free-to-air coverage on public-service broadcaster the BBC; agreed several significant sponsorship deals; and continued to push ahead with the ECB’s marketing and grassroots campaigns.

Although the media reception to the addition of a new, city-based T20 competition has been mixed, ECB members voted overwhelmingly in favour, with 38 of 41 members voting for the change. Many cricket experts regarded the change as necessary given the increasing popularity, and commercial success of Australia’s Big Bash League and the Indian Premier League.

The new media rights deals with Sky and the BBC, worth a combined £1.1bn over five years from 2020 to 2024, represent an increase of almost 180 per cent on the ECB’s previous domestic TV deals, and safeguards the future of the sport in the country. In May, Harrison told local media the ECB had “no ambition to be the richest, most irrelevant sport in this country”. The BBC/Sky deal guarantees revenue and will see the return of live ECB content to free-to-air television for the first time since 2005.

7. Bobby Kotick, Chief executive, Activision Blizzard

As CEO of Activision Blizzard, Bobby Kotick has built and will oversee the company’s newly-created Overwatch League, the first major global professional esports league with city-based teams.

After a slow start in which it looked like it would struggle to persuade investors to stump up the $20m needed to buy a team under the league’s franchise model, Kotick has surpassed expectations with the launch of the 12-team competition.

The league’s major investors read like a Who’s Who of the world of traditional sports. These include such luminaries as Robert Kraft, Jeff Wilpon, Stan Kroenke and David Scott, as well as endemic gaming powerhouses such as Cloud9, OpTic Gaming, Team Envy, NRG and Immortals.

The Overwatch League owners now hope to unlock untapped local revenue streams in advertising, merchandising, sponsorships, concessions, ticket sales and amateur events, driving esports growth and fan engagement both locally and globally.

The judges were impressed with the way Kotick has elevated esports industry standards by creating player-friendly league-wide mandates that require Overwatch players to earn a minimum $50,000 salary, minimum one-year guaranteed contract, health and retirement benefits, and other benefits that are common in traditional sports leagues.

“That part of esports desperately needs a professional angle to it,” says SportBusiness International’s digital correspondent, Richard Clarke. “At the lower levels, there are huge gambles that players will have to take and there are going to be some sad stories if players aren’t looked after properly.”

In recent weeks major global tech giants HP and Intel signed deals to be the first league-wide sponsors of Overwatch League. In the last year, Kotick has also overseen development of Blizzard Arena Los Angeles – a dedicated esports facility and global broadcast studio in Burbank, California, that will host the inaugural season of Overwatch League – as well as other major Blizzard Entertainment esports initiatives, from game franchises including Hearthstone, StarCraft II, Heroes of the Storm, and World of Warcraft.

6. Lisa Borders, President, WNBA

Lisa Borders has had a transformative effect on the fortunes of the WNBA since she became the league’s president in February 2016. Attendances for the 2016-17 season were at their highest level for five years, TV viewership on ESPN recorded double-digit growth and the league achieved record growth in audiences across social media. When the league tipped off again in May this year, it was announced that 31 per cent more games would feature on television this season versus the last, with 222 local broadcasts.

Borders has been clever to partner with the NBA, the league’s “Big Brother” as she calls it, to grow the popularity of the WNBA, and advertising campaigns around the men’s league have delivered tangible results.

Yet there are some respects in which the women’s league is also acting as a pathfinder for the more established men’s equivalent. WNBA teams, for instance, have been allowed to feature a sponsor logo on jerseys since 2009 – eight years before the men’s league – and in November the league made a new patch available to sponsors and sanctioned on-court sponsor logos for all games not televised by ESPN. Borders was also heavily involved in the relocation of the San Antonio Stars franchise to Las Vegas, marking the first time that the city would have a professional basketball team.

Other firsts under Border’s stewardship in 2017 included a deal with Twitter to show 20 games a season exclusively – the first women’s sport to be live-streamed on the social media platform. So far, the games are registering an average of around one million unique viewers per game. Similarly, the WNBA’s deal with FanDuel was the first time a women’s professional sports league had partnered with the fantasy sports gaming company.

5. Jamie Graham, Chief executive, Team Marketing

It’s been a busy last 12 months for Team Marketing and Jamie Graham, who has led the commercial business of the agency in its sales of media and marketing rights for the Uefa Champions League and Europa League competitions.

Team began the sale of media and marketing rights for the next three-season cycle, which will run from 2018-19 to 2020-21, last December. The sales process was delayed as top clubs threatened to launch a European Super League, with that danger averted by the promise of four qualification places from Uefa’s four top-ranked markets, as well as greater revenue. However, the knock-on effect is that Team has a smaller window than usual in which to sell its rights.

The agency is targeting revenue of €3.2bn per season from these rights and its early deals indicate it will comfortably surpass the expectation. Team has struck TV deals in each of the big five European markets, including a 100-per-cent increase in France, where the rights were secured by telco Altice, and almost trebled its media-rights earnings in the Middle East and North Africa in a renewal with beIN Media Group.

Research from TV Sports Markets indicates that Team has already secured at least €2.25bn per season from media-rights deals alone for the next cycle. And despite the trend of switching more of its content exclusively to pay-television, Team has guaranteed revenue of about €160m per season in the new cycle from two sponsorship deals, with beer brand Heineken and carmaker Nissan, according to Sports Sponsorship Insider.

4. Rahul Johri, Chief executive, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)

You might think selling Indian cricket rights, especially in India, is not a difficult job. But that would be to underestimate the political pitfalls and the enormous pressure that comes with leading the sport’s pre-eminent body in a cricket-mad country.

Rahul Johri was appointed as CEO of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in April 2016, beginning the role on June 1. His first task was to organise a tender for Indian Premier League media rights that guaranteed a transparent process, rather than awarding rights to Sony Pictures Networks India in the pay-television broadcaster’s window of exclusive renegotiation.

Despite a legal challenge from the Supreme Court into the governance of the BCCI causing the postponement of the original tender process, global IPL media rights were awarded to Star in September in a $2.55bn deal from 2018 to 2022. This represented an increase of more than 550 per cent on the value of the previous deal with Sony, from 2008 to 2017.

The transparent process coaxed an enormous $600m bid from social media platform Facebook for digital rights in the Indian subcontinent – its biggest offer so far for media rights.

The Star media-rights deal was preceded by two sizeable sponsorship deals. In June, Chinese mobile manufacturer Vivo paid about $340m – a 554-per-cent increase – for IPL title sponsorship rights, while the BCCI in March agreed a lucrative deal with the Indian division of Chinese smartphone manufacturer Oppo to act as the main sponsor of India’s national team.

3. Tim Zulawski, Senior vice-president and chief revenue officer, AMBSE Group,

By the time the cutting-edge Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons (NFL) and Atlanta United (MLS) opened in August of this year, Tim Zulawski and the AMB Sport and Entertainment team had secured nearly $1bn in contractually obligated revenue from sponsors. The figure was a new record for a US stadium, and far exceeds revenue commitments for any other new sports venue anywhere in the world.

Although the design of the stadium provides a rare digital storytelling canvas for sponsors – including a giant ‘Halo Board’ circular LED video screen and 101-foot LED ‘Mega Column’ roof supports – Zulawski deserves credit for getting such an astonishing number of sponsorship deals over the line.

As AMBSE Group’s senior vice-president and chief commercial officer, Zulawski helped to strike partnerships with SunTrust, IBM, Equifax, Coca-Cola, NCR, Novelis, The Home Depot, American Family Insurance, SCANA Energy, AT&T, and Georgia Power. He also helped negotiate the naming rights deal for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which runs for 27 years, the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground (Atlanta United’s practice facility) and the ATLUTD kit.

Falcons executive vice-president and chief financial officer Greg Beadles has said that some of the contractually obligated revenue streams from naming rights, other sponsorship deals and suite sales have been pledged toward re-paying the stadium debt.

2. Ipsita Dasgupta, President, strategy & incubation, Star India

The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), brainchild of former cricket commentator Charu Sharma and industrialist Anand Mahindra, has been the under-the-radar success story of 2017.

Although the league was an instant success in its first season, drawing audiences comparable with the Indian Premier League cricket competition, this year’s figures have been even more eye-catching. Data from SMG Insight indicates that cumulative audience grew from 217 million in season four to 423 million in season five, the most recent instalment of the competition. This represents a 94-per-cent growth in reach. 

The larger audiences are the fruit of format changes and a new set of production standards instigated since broadcaster Star India bought a 76-per-cent stake in PKL management company, Mashal Sports, in 2015. These included extending the season to three months and increasing the number of franchises from eight to 12.

Ipsita Dasgupta, president, strategy & incubation, Star India, has been the engine room from a profit-and-loss perspective since founder Sharma began taking a less active role.

The changes she has led, and the increase in viewership for PKL, were rewarded in May when Chinese mobile phone manufacturer Vivo spent $50m (€43m) to become a title sponsor of the competition. According to Star India, the deal was the biggest title sponsorship deal for a non-cricket sport in India.     

Another Star India executive told the Indian Live Mint news service that sponsorship revenue for the Pro Kabaddi League had “risen 320 per cent and the number of advertisers has jumped three-fold in its fifth year." Star Sports India’s head of advertising sales & executive VP, Anil Jayaraj, said that the consideration of purchases for sponsorships increased from 59 per cent to 71 per cent after season four.

1. Ioris Francini, Co-president WME-IMG

Ioris Francini wins the award for SportBusiness Executive of the Year for being the undisputed driving force behind a storming year for IMG. Following his appointment to the position of co-president WME-IMG in late 2016, he was personally involved in a number of headline-grabbing deals in 2017, especially for the media division of the global agency.

“On the media-rights side of the business, they were far and away the outstanding large agency this year,” says William Field, Prospero Strategy.  

Among the most notable developments for IMG Media in 2017 were two landmark football deals: winning a four-year contract to market the commercial rights for South American football federation Conmebol in a joint venture with Perform, and securing a three-year deal for the exclusive global media rights for Italy’s Serie A. Francini was reportedly instrumental in the latter deal, having delivered a powerful presentation to the heads of the Serie A clubs in his native Italian.

“Serie A was a huge deal for them,” says Robin Jellis, editor of sister title TV Sports Markets. “Ioris has personally lobbied the clubs for years and was the driving force behind them getting that contract.”

Under Francini’s guidance, IMG also broke the sales world record for the international market for a boxing fight with the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor crossover event in Las Vegas. With just three and half weeks to sell the fight, the agency smashed through every one of its higher-end targets to agree 63 deals and arrangements, distributing across every single market on the planet. As the fight then introduced boxing fans and neophytes to McGregor and the UFC, the agency was a major beneficiary having purchased the mixed martial arts property in 2016.

2017 was also the year the agency took the decision to rebrand its sports archive business to IMG Replay to reflect the broadening scope of its services. The new platform includes the addition of daily sports clips from sports news video agency SNTV and mixed martial arts content from the UFC, with plans to expand with content from entertainment and fashion properties from the wider WME-IMG resources. 

Most recently, IMG partnered with the FIVB to launch the new Volleyball Nations League. The latter undertaking leverages the model of IMG's successful reformatting of Euroleague basketball, which has seen larger attendances and more competitive games. The wide-ranging optimisations and enhancements have resulted in larger TV audiences, better deals with sponsors and a number of improved media-rights contracts.

Click here to read the countdown from 20 to 11.

To find out more about the judging panel for the SportBusiness Executive of the Year Award, click here.

Back to top