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 top 10.
20. Lewis Hancock, Digital media editor, Yeovil Town
Growing your social media following might be relatively easy when you have the financial resources of an English Premier League, La Liga or Bundesliga side, but what if your media division numbers two people and your budget is tiny?
Lewis Hancock, digital media editor for League Two football club Yeovil Town, earns an entry on this year’s list for the ingenuity of the team’s player signing announcements on social media.
Hancock was the social media David putting some of the more generously resourced Goliaths of other teams to shame when his creativity earned the club 9.7 million impressions during the summer period.
The sports journalism graduate first grabbed the attention when Yeovil announced the transfer of midfielder Jake Gray through Snapchat’s new geolocation tool in June. The post zoomed in to reveal the player’s avatar at Yeovil’s Huish Park stadium before flipping to a video of Gray himself, who introduced himself from the centre circle.
Another post, in which the club signed new centre forward Olufela Olomola through the Fifa 17 computer game, earned 1.1m impressions, 210,000 engagements and a 20.1-per-cent engagement rate.
As player signing announcements became the digital trend of the summer, Yeovil were mentioned in the same breath as clubs like AS Roma, Manchester United and Liverpool. The trick for the team now will be preventing those same clubs from poaching their best player.
19. Heidi Browning, Executive vice-president, NHL
When Heidi Browning joined the NHL in October last year, she was trumpeted as the Silicon Valley specialist brought in to transform the digital fortunes of the 100-year-old North American ice hockey league.
She joined from music-streaming company Pandora, which uses data on customer’s musical tastes to personalise their services and offer them invitations to events that match their listening habits.
Since joining she has applied some of the considerable skills she picked up at the company and in a 25-year career in marketing to the task of growing audiences for the NHL.
Browning has placed a particular focus on reaching out to female audiences, casual fans and Millennials and took the unusual step of inviting an 11-year-old girl to give a presentation to the board after the fan wrote her a letter outlining how the league could appeal to the young female demographic.
The 100-year anniversary of the league provided her with the opportunity to ramp up its social media output and drive engagement through the NHL app. The momentum was all heading in the right direction in 2017 with Stanley Cup final ratings jumping 23 per cent year-on-year.
18. James DeLorenzo, Head of sports, Amazon Video
Just as linear broadcasters and cable networks thought things couldn’t get any worse, a new bogeyman came along to shake up the sports rights market in 2017. In one of the more significant developments of the year, Amazon, the fourth largest company in the world, started to use its considerable wealth to acquire sports content.
First, the ecommerce giant wrestled the rights to stream NFL Thursday Night Football (TNF) from Twitter. Then it outbid Sky for the exclusive rights to the ATP World Tour in a five-year deal starting from 2019. Both deals were feathers in the cap for James DeLorenzo, who was brought into the company to head up its new sports division after the retail giant lost out in the race to acquire TNF rights in 2016.
On that earlier occasion, Amazon found that its deep pockets weren’t enough to secure the most desirable sports content, having actually bid more than the eventual winner, Twitter. The NFL opted to choose the social media site’s lower $14m bid because the platform would provide greater reach. In landing the ATP and NFL deals this year, DeLorenzo has clearly done a good job in persuading both rights-holders that Amazon is a viable home for their content.
The internet company fired another shot across the bows of the traditional TV companies when it started to offer live television channels through its Prime Video subscriptions service – including Eurosport for £6.99 per month – allowing customers to subscribe to channels without paying for a bundle. The Silicon Valley firm also proved that it wasn’t only interested in live sport when it spent £10m on a four-part behind-the scenes documentary about English Premier League club Manchester City.
17. Joanna Adams, Chief executive, England Netball
Joanna Adams helped England Netball to punch above its weight in 2017 and overcome the setback of a 34-per-cent reduction in funding.
Adult weekly participation grew from 164,100 to 180,200 and the number of new participants in the sport increased by 44 per cent to 27,774.
The growth was driven by the Back to Netball campaign, which encourages people to return to the sport, and the Walking Netball programme, which is designed to appeal to older or less fit players.
In a year when women’s sport started to make a genuine impact across the board, England Netball partnered with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and England Hockey to seize on the fact that the country will host three consecutive women’s world cups in each respective sport between 2017 and 2019. The TeamUp project received a boost when the Wembley National Stadium Trust committed over £500,000 to promoting team sports to young girls in London.
Sophie Morris, director of Millharbour Marketing, says: “Considering the cut in funding and that netball is not played in the Olympics, I think they have done an incredible job with the sponsors and the TV coverage they have secured, and the increased participation numbers. They market the sport very well.
“I particularly like Joanna’s approach. She sees England Netball as an insight-led sports business, not a national governing body.”
16. Chatri Sityodtong, Chief executive/chairman, ONE Championship
2017 was another landmark year in the relentless expansion of ONE Championship, the pan-Asian mixed martial arts promotion, and the incredible story of its founder, chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong.
The entrepreneur with the rags-to-riches backstory once again played a prominent role as ONE launched its first event in Shanghai and built up the profiles of fighters from countries like Myanmar and the Philippines to expand the popularity of the MMA series.
The distribution footprint for ONE Championship broadcast grew from 75 to 128 countries year-on-year and ratings in key broadcast markets were reported to be up by 36 per cent. ONE Championship estimates that it registered 6.3 billion social media impressions and one billion video views in 2017.
This was also the year when ONE signed multi-market brand partnerships with Havoline and GoDaddy, and attracted fresh investment from venture capital firm Sequoia India and investment vehicle Mission holdings. Sityodtong said the Series C investments mean that the series has raised more than $100m (€87m) in funding since its launch six years ago.
15. Alejandro Agag, Chief executive, Formula E
Formula E might be only four years old, and yet to turn a profit, but 2017 was undoubtedly a watershed year for the electric racing series and its charismatic founder and chief executive, Alejandro Agag.
The sport resoundingly proved its relevance to the automotive industry as a series of car manufacturers announced that they were leaving rival motor racing events to run teams in seasons five and six of Formula E.
In March, Agag announced that Formula E had far surpassed its expectations by securing nine manufacturers for the 2018-19 season, having initially set a target of three competing companies by its fifth campaign. Since then, German manufacturers BMW, Audi, Porsche and Mercedes have also announced plans to join the sport.
Agag says 2017 was the first year that sponsors began to call Formula E rather than the other way round – as was the case when clothing brand Hugo Boss decided to end its 30-year involvement in Formula One and become the first apparel partner for the electric series. Agag was personally involved in negotiating the deal, flying out to Italy to meet representatives from the brand on the same day that they telephoned to express an interest in a partnership.
The sport might still be making a loss, but revenues of roughly €100m for 2016-17 represent year-on-year growth of 30 per cent. At a recent event Agag said: “We would now be comfortably in the black, but we have taken a decision to invest. If you ask if we are breaking even in the championship, we are. We have more money coming from sponsors than the cost of the championship. But then we are going to be throwing in 20, 30, 40 million euros a year on marketing. We believe now is the time to grow Formula E, not to take profit out of it.”
14. Peter Hutton, Chief executive, Eurosport
Eurosport bucked the overall trend in linear TV over the course of 2017, increasing its viewership by over 20 per cent and delivering similar increases in advertising and affiliate revenue.
CEO Peter Hutton was at the heart of efforts to invest in premium, local and exclusive content to grow the channel’s subscriber base.
An investment in free, short-form content – including the broadcaster’s memorable ‘explainer’ series of videos – drove audiences on social media.
As the sports channel rebranded as ‘The home of the Olympics’ in preparation for the Pyeongchang 2018 winter Games, it continued to secure deals to sub-licence its Olympic rights across Europe. The most notable success was in Germany, where Hutton managed to secure a monster deal with state broadcaster ARD/ZDF estimated to be worth around €250m ($262m) – after the parties had initially failed to agree a deal.
“It’s not just one deal, it’s just the steady accumulation of deals that are very sensible,” says William Field of Prospero Strategy. “Just for keeping the momentum going, especially for a complicated organisation, Hutton deserves a lot of credit.”
Further revenue streams were exploited when Eurosport struck an agreement with the Snap platform and became the first sports channel to appear on Amazon’s Prime Video subscription service.
The agreement with Amazon has contributed to the growth of the Eurosport Player, which is now Europe’s largest sports OTT service.
A new long-term agreement with the Tour de France gave Eurosport exclusive rights in 38 territories, after Hutton led the successful campaign to show every minute of the race live, replacing the previous limited coverage of the final hours. Audiences for the 2017 Tour de France were up 10 per cent compared to 2016 and for the first time Eurosport won the Best Live Event gong for its coverage of the race at the TV Sports Awards.
13. Yao Ming, President, Chinese Basketball Association
When the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) voted to appoint Houston Rockets legend Yao Ming as its president in February this year, it set the organisation on a path to reform. The former player was arguably not the preferred choice of the government, which meant he was exactly the right person to shake the organisation out of its bureaucratic torpor.
In his first press conference Yao gave a sense of the scale of the challenge in Chinese basketball when he said: “There’s no ‘biggest problem’, because there are problems everywhere.”
Within two months of Yao’s appointment, the federation chose not to renew its comprehensive media-rights and marketing relationship with Infront Sports & Media – a deal which looked decidedly more favourable to the agency than it did to the CBA.
Infront paid the CBA RMB330m (€44m/$48m) per season in its current five-season deal, from 2012-13 to 2016-17, but the CBA thinks it can generate media and marketing income of between RMB 7bn and RMB 8bn for the five seasons from 2017-18 to 2021-22, thanks mainly to a more competitive digital rights market in China. To give a sense of just how unfavourable the former deal with Infront was to the CBA, it’s worth noting that the agency exceeded its minimum guarantee with just one deal, a RMB400m-per-season sponsorship agreement with Chinese sportswear manufacturer Li-Ning from 2012-13 to 2016-17.
Yao demonstrated his appetite for change in his approach towards the professionalisation of the league. Informed by his experiences in the NBA he argued the case for a player draft, more player movement (via free agency) and proposed splitting the league into two conferences.
Where the Chinese national team was concerned, Yao also effected immediate reform, splitting the team into two parallel sides for the next two years to increase competition and give more opportunities to younger players.
Not all of the reforms will necessarily pay off, but Yao could hardly stand accused of letting the grass grow under his feet. The fact that he has been supported in his actions by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and David Shoemaker, CEO of NBA China, suggests he is on the right track.
12. Simon Denyer, Chief executive, Perform Group
It’s been another standout year for perennial award winner Simon Denyer and the Perform Group. The iconoclastic company kicked off its 10th anniversary by starting work on its $525m deal to manage the media output of the WTA Tour and has produced and delivered over 2,000 matches to the Tour’s broadcast partners across 47 tournaments in 2017.
The company’s media partnership with Fiba also became fully operational in January and since then the company has struck long-term broadcast deals in over 70 of the 80 competing countries in Fiba competitions.
In April, Perform agreed a deal with the NFL to market the American football league’s rights in over 100 territories around the world, and to market the NFL’s premium digital subscription product, NFL Game Pass, outside the US and Europe.
“The way Perform’s DAZN service is fitting into the broadcast landscape in a mature way is creditable,” says William Field, founder of Prospero Strategy. “They have struck broadcaster deals and shared rights rather than saying: ‘we are digital, we are streaming, we have got to have everything’.”
As if to prove the company's collaborative mindset, it entered into a consortium with IMG that in September was awarded the contract to advise Conmebol on the commercial rights for its club competitions – Conmebol Libertadores, Conmebol Sudamericana and Conmebol Recopa – for the four-year cycle spanning from 2019 to 2022.
“It’s not a one-size fits all approach,” says Robin Jellis, editor of sister title TV Sports Markets. “They are quite tailored in different countries. I think that’s an intelligent way of doing things.”
11. Ralph Straus, Commercial director, FEI
Ralph Straus, commercial director at the FEI – the world governing body for horse sports – kick-started a brand new commercial strategy in 2017 which has helped to secure four financially significant, sponsorship deals.
The success in tying down these sponsors can be attributed to Straus’ reorganisation of FEI inventory, which was the upshot of extensive research into the audiences for each of the federation’s different events. The strategy included the creation of unique brands for each horse-riding discipline and the bringing of the federation’s sales operation in-house and the centralisation of the FEI’s content management.
Jeremy Edwards, director of content at sponsorship intelligence firm Activative, says: “They put out a huge amount of content. Our spiders, which search for social and digital content, bring back something from them every day and last year that was not the case.”
Straus’ efforts have been rewarded with new partnerships with software company SAP, pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim and, more recently, with riding arena design firm OTTO Sport. A renewal of the FEI’s global deal with Longines secured the future of the flagship FEI Nations Cup.
Edwards adds: “If you make changes and you bring in new commercial partners on the back of it, plus you retain existing partners, that’s a positive sign.”
Additionally, the FEI’s digital engagement witnessed a 400-per-cent increase, with its channels attracting significantly higher engagement rates. There was a more than 184-per-cent increase in video views on fan site www.fei.org and the FEI now stands at the top of Alexa Global Traffic Rankings for International Federation websites thanks to a 50-per-cent increase in traffic.
Further afield the federation celebrated 30-per-cent higher impressions on Facebook, over 30 per cent more followers and a 64-per-cent increase in post likes on Instagram and an average 30-per-cent increase in media value across key FEI series.
Click here to see this year's top 10.
To find out more about the judging panel for the SportBusiness Executive of the Year Award, click here.