SBJ/20090525/Sports Business Awards

Sports Executive

George Bodenheimer - President, ESPN/ABC Sports

George Bodenheimer literally is changing the way Americans watch sports. No longer are big sporting events the sole domain of over-the-air broadcasters. Due to Bodenheimer’s deep pockets, cable is laying exclusive claim to some of the country’s biggest sports events.

While sports programming has been migrating from broadcast to cable for much of the past decade, the move accelerated last year thanks to three Bodenheimer deals.

The most significant one was signed late last year when ESPN outbid Fox by $100 million for the rights to college football’s BCS championship. ESPN committed to pay $495 million over four years for the BCS rights.

Earlier in the year, ESPN brought all four rounds of the British Open to cable, signing a seven-year deal worth about $25 million a year. And Bodenheimer committed $2.25 billion to wrap up SEC cable rights for 15 years, a deal that will help the company’s ESPNU gain more traction.

What we liked:

Brought some of the biggest events in sports exclusively to cable.

ABC’s “Saturday Night College Football” was more successful than anyone anticipated.

Unquestioned sports leader for non-TV platforms, like broadband and mobile.

But it’s not just television where Bodenheimer made his mark in the past year. His mantra is to try to be anywhere that sports fans congregate, which is one reason he’s been making such a big bet on broadband and mobile.

ESPN boasts one of the most popular sports Web sites in, which emerged from a redesign as a more reader-friendly and advertiser-friendly area. ESPN also retooled its broadband site, ESPN360, adding more mainstream sports like the NBA and MLB. Its mobile business was thought to be in shatters after Bodenheimer shut down Mobile ESPN two years ago. But ESPN’s mobile site has proved to be the most popular sports destination in the mobile arena.

With Bodenheimer, change is the only constant, and his reputation for making bold business moves makes him one of the most-watched executives in sports.

Dick Ebersol - Chairman, NBC Universal Sports & Olympics

When Dick Ebersol accepted his lifetime achievement award during the Sports Emmy Awards ceremony this month, he told a story about being fired from NBC Entertainment in the late 1970s.

Dejected and despondent, Ebersol wound up, days later, in the office of William Morris Agency Chairman Sam Weisbord. That’s where the legendary Hollywood agent gave Ebersol simple advice that reshaped his career:

Relationships matter.

Ebersol is quick to credit the strength of his relationships for the resounding successes he had in 2008. He points to the Beijing Olympics as the perfect example.

In 2001, Ebersol started a conversation with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge about moving the swimming meets into the prime-time window for the East Coast of the United States . That meant staging the events during the early morning hours in Beijing. After looking into whether the change would affect the athletes’ performances, Rogge agreed to make the switch.

What we liked:

Beat everyone’s ratings expectations with a flawless presentation of the Beijing Games.

Agreed to price Super Bowl ad spots at a record high $3 million.

Oversaw beautiful productions for fantastic finishes at the U.S. Open golf tournament and Wimbledon.

“The point is that the IOC looked at us, and at me, as somebody who over-performed and over-promoted them,” Ebersol said.

It wasn’t just Ebersol’s relationships that made the Beijing Games such a success. It was the way Ebersol produced them — by keeping NBC’s cameras trained on the competition.

“Dick’s focus is on the event,” said NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer. “That’s at the cornerstone of it. We don’t do a lot of crowd shooting. We are part of the crowd. We’re trying to show you the event the crowd is seeing, and then some.”

David Stern - Commissioner, NBA

NBA Commissioner David Stern is the dean among his respective MLB, NHL and NFL peers, and after 25 years of running the NBA, there is no letup to his dizzying pace.

He has guided the NBA to the forefront of international expansion, particularly in China where the NBA sits miles ahead of any other U.S. sports property looking to tap into the explosive growth in Asia. The recent creation of NBA China and an arena partnership deal with AEG have helped cement the NBA’s position in China .

On the homefront, Stern has presided over a major player image makeover of the league, highlighted by the masterful community service initiatives surrounding the 2008 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans and the “Redeem Team” gold-medal performance during the 2008 Beijing Games.

What we liked:

Strong social responsibility added luster to the NBA’s image with community initiatives in New Orleans during the league’s All-Star Weekend.

Leads the NBA’s global expansion effort with NBA China entity and an arena-building partnership in China with AEG.

Helped repair NBA players’ images with the marketing of USA Basketball, which runs the men’s Olympic basketball team that saw its “Redeem Team” capture the gold in Beijing.

Led conversion of NBA Digital operations to Turner as part of the league’s new digital media deal.

Blockbuster 2008 Finals ratings helped give the league major momentum, and the league’s balance of new and old superstars fueled double-digit increases in viewership this season.

No other league is as creative and as cooperative when it comes to selling tickets, which is a major reason why under Stern, the NBA has held to its record gate revenue during the recession.

Stern has also helped turn crisis into opportunity. The NBA jilted a Seattle fan base when the Sonics fled to Oklahoma City, but the move sparked a wave of new support as fans filled the Ford Center to near capacity in the team’s inaugural season.

Rocky Wirtz - Chairman, Chicago Blackhawks
What we liked:

Collaborated with Comcast SportsNet to broadcast six home games after the 2007-08 season had already begun and worked with local broadcasters to air every home game in 2008-09.

Lured accomplished sports marketer John McDonough away from the Chicago Cubs and named him president of the club, ushering in a series of new marketing initiatives including a historic partnership with the Chicago White Sox.

Worked with McDonough and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to bring the NHL Winter Classic to Chicago’s Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, 2009, giving the sales force a new tool it could use as it tried to build out the club’s season-ticket base in 2008-09.

Since becoming chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks in October 2007, William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz has revolutionized the franchise, catapulting a team lost in the backwaters of the sports industry’s past into a position where it’s become a leading example of the future of the sports business.

Wirtz enacted sweeping changes that revolutionized the franchise’s business model and reinvigorated its fan base. He put six home games on local television for the first time in the franchise’s history, recruited accomplished sports marketer John McDonough to become the club’s president, and made amends with the club’s estranged stars — Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita.

He expanded the staff of the Blackhawks by 40 percent, giving the club the necessary ticket and marketing sales force to increase revenue 111 percent in ticketing, 55 percent in retail, 53 percent in concessions and 48 percent in sponsorship. A franchise that averaged 12,727 fans per game at the end of the 2006-07 season increased average attendance by 77.6 percent to 22,604 per game by December 2008. And a club that had never broadcast home games in the Chicago market aired every single one during the 2008-09 season.

“Under the leadership of Rocky Wirtz, excitement has returned to Chicago hockey,” said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. “In a very short time, he and his management team have totally re-imagined one of the most storied franchises in National Hockey League history and in the proess have once again made the Blackhawks the hottest ticket in town.”

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