SBJ/Jan. 6-12, 2014/Opinion

An early look at people, stories worth watching

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We’re opening the book on 2014, and here are some people and stories I’m keeping an eye on as well as a few highlights to look forward to in the first quarter.

Steve Patterson: Patterson’s ascension in college sports has been surprisingly swift. I’ve known Steve for years, back to his time leading the Houston Texans. He went to Portland, where he had a difficult tenure with the Trail Blazers (and a tumultous relationship with the local media) before opening his own consulting shop. He became part of the trend of executives with professional team experience to land on a campus, taking a role with Arizona State’s athletics department in 2011 before quickly taking over the program as athletic director in March 2012. Now, just 21 months later, he lands one of the top gigs in college sports in leading the University of Texas, a financial powerhouse looking for a new football coach, while trying to get maximum benefit from its Longhorn Network. Patterson also will have to manage a relationship with IMG that comes as the company changes ownership. That’s a lot on one’s plate.

Jim Crane: I don’t have any idea what to make of the situation in Houston or what’s the end-game here for the Astros owner. The first two years of his tenure have been anything but smooth, with 218 losses over that time and a nasty, ongoing legal dispute over CSN Houston. What is his long-term plan for the team and network? How, with his new and well-regarded President Reid Ryan, will he be able to show gains both on and off the field and prove to a skeptical fan base that he has the smarts and skills to lead?
 
Jim Bell: It’s pretty simple here: Viewers will experience the Sochi Games purely through the lens of the NBC Sports and former “Today” show producer. He won’t have his longtime mentor Dick Ebersol in his ear, as this is the first Olympics in decades that Ebersol isn’t even attending. I’ll be looking for the storytelling, news coverage and the tone, pace and feel of Bell’s coverage. But no matter what Bell does, it will be the success of Team USA that will drive viewer interest and buzz around NBC’s coverage.

Steve Mills: His rehiring as president of the New York Knicks prompted more questions than many executive moves I remember. While Hank Ratner and Dave Howard will oversee the business side, a successful basketball operation would significantly enhance the business of both MSG and the NBA. But many are wondering whether Mills can successfully navigate this challenge after his four-year absence while trying to reverse the Knicks’ current on-court slide. After the team gained momentum in the past two seasons, I listed them as an organization on the rise and poised for success. But that selection seems terribly wrong now.

John Schuerholz/Mike Plant/Derek Schiller: How these three led the ultra-secretive talks to relocate the Braves out of downtown Atlanta to suburban Cobb County has to be one of the most amazing stories of last year. I’m going to follow how they manage remaining relevant to an urban fan base while also delivering a message that the team shouldn’t be viewed as a villain for moving 13 miles up Interstate 75. As Plant said recently, “The Atlanta Braves are not moving to Jacksonville. We’re going to be in Atlanta for a long, long time … just up the road. This is a region.”

Claude Ruibal: While many are watching what Geoff Reiss does at Twitter with their sports efforts, I’m also watching Google’s Ruibal. So far, executives at Google’s sports group haven’t stated a strong position as a purchaser of sports rights. But at some point, Google’s going to make a big bet on sports and Ruibal will be the one riding point.
 
John Collins: I’ll be closely watching the performance of the Coors Light Stadium Series, a concept Collins championed to add four more outdoor games this season beyond the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic. A March game at Soldier Field between the Blackhawks and Penguins sold out almost instantly. However, a Dodger Stadium game later this month pitting the Ducks and Kings saw slow early sales. There are two games at Yankee Stadium during Super Bowl week: A Sunday tilt on Jan. 26 between the Rangers and Devils is almost sold out. And while one three days later with the Rangers and Islanders has been a tougher sale, I’m already hearing buzz that it will be the event for the sports business community in town for the Super Bowl. Sponsorship sales around the series is strong, so TV viewership, ticket sales and local buy-in, promotion and media coverage is key for whether the NHL considers a different, smaller strategy next season.

Gary Stevenson: The first mission that MLS Commissioner Don Garber gave this accomplished executive was clear. Get the best TV agreement possible with an increase commensurate with the marketplace. Stevenson’s task will be especially daunting considering the league’s paltry TV viewership numbers and profile. But he knows the media landscape and has the relationships to make it happen.

Val Ackerman: It feels as if this longtime basketball leader is forming a startup — from finding office space to building a staff. She took over a powerful college basketball brand at a time when the conference will have to reinvent itself, while navigating as a basketball conference in a mostly football world will be a tremendous challenge. She’s easily one of the brightest basketball minds in the business and has key advocates in her corner, from consultant Tom Jernstedt to Big Ten Commissioner and longtime friend Jim Delany.

Ari Emanuel: This one’s obvious; and if you’re looking for some fun insight into the man, read Fortune’s profile of him from May 2013: “Hi, It’s Ari @#$%ing Emanuel, And I Plan To Shake Up Hollywood.”

> A few specific stories I’ll watch for:

“Who’s going to buy Time Warner Cable” is the question most asked in media circles. But I’m intrigued by what happens to the company’s burgeoning TWC Sports business (think Los Angeles specifically) if a sale goes through. What if Charter’s John Malone takes control? There is no guarantee he wants to be in the sports content and programming business with those expensive rights. Comcast? It already has an RSN business, which would make it a more natural fit.

It’s a bit below the radar, but I’ll be watching how MLB works with MTV on a weekly, 30-episode series on MTV2. The series debuts in April from the MLB Fan Cave in New York. It’s everything properties want to develop: edgy, youth-based content with emphasis on music, hair, body art and pop culture, while telling stories around the game’s personalities. This would be a massive content and production test for any property, and all eyes will be on how it plays out.

When will NBA players select their new union leader? It’s been nearly 11 months since former Executive Director Billy Hunter was terminated and word on the street is that Reilly Partners are still conducting a very wide search with no leader in the clubhouse.

Clearly the biggest story for the first month of the new year is the NFL’s big and bold production of Super Bowl XLVIII in the New York/New Jersey market. Months ago, our newsroom discussed all the various elements surrounding this event and the business ramifications tied to it. We are rolling out the first of a four-week look at the preparations, challenges and opportunities around Super Bowl XLVIII. This week, we look at the possibility of inclement weather as well as logistical and facility-related issues. In the weeks ahead, we’ll look at issues ranging from hospitality, to sponsors looking to break through and the people behind the game.

> CHAMPIONS 2014: We are pleased to unveil our Champions class of 2014, and we look forward to rolling out their stories starting with the Jan. 27 issue. We plan to continue the format we started last year in presenting each Champion’s profile separately, week by week, leading up to the World Congress of Sports, where they will be honored in a ceremony on March 19. Please remember, we are always looking for your suggestions of Champions for the future, so let me know of leaders who you believe have made a clear and definable impact on the sports industry.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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