SBJ/March 20-26, 2017/Opinion

Tough decisions on SBAs in year 10 only get tougher

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It wasn’t easy coming up with the 87 nominees for the Sports Business Awards, which are announced this week and will be awarded May 24 in New York City. For the 10th annual program, the competition is more intense, the level of sophistication far greater and innovation more pronounced. Our editorial staff studied and debated hundreds of companies and submissions over the past two months to come up with this list. It’s a grueling assignment, and as many of the companies — especially in the media and agency categories — remain the same, it can be numbing to identify innovation and progression. But at the start and heart of every meeting, those were the goals: Find the groups of people that are actively and successfully experimenting and innovating. We hope that thread is evident across the categories — many of which contain surprises and newcomers.

Here’s a glimpse into our decision-making and some of the more difficult decisions we had to make.

COMPETITIVE CATEGORIES
Easily our most competitive categories were Event of the Year and the traditional Best in Corporate Consulting. First, on Event, we ended up with a very strong group of six nominees — strongest in the category’s history. During the debates, the emphasis pivoted to who took risks and made bold and gutsy decisions. That was at the core of the selections specifically around Copa, the Ryder Cup and the World Cup of Hockey, while the Battle at Bristol was well-received for new and innovative thinking. In the end, a number of very successful events didn’t make the cut, including the highly regarded College Football Playoff in Tampa (we instead focused on the novelty of the Battle at Bristol); the NBA Finals, which saw a historic comeback for the Cavaliers (we focused instead on both teams in the finals in Team of the Year); and the highly successful on-the-ground execution of the Houston Super Bowl Committee, which drew more than one million people over nine days to its downtown core. We also were really drawn to the authenticity of the USA Swimming Trials in Omaha and truly admired what the USA Las Vegas Sevens Rugby event did in Las Vegas, but neither could break through in this tough category. We believe there is an early favorite in the clubhouse among this group, but it’s going to depend on how judges view what makes “events” special.

The corporate consulting category is traditionally one of the most challenging, but this year was clearly the most competitive, as more than fifteen companies offered compelling cases. Our decision on the final six boiled down to new business, retention, year-over-year growth and, of course, the effectiveness of the agency’s strategy and execution. This category will be one of the most difficult decisions for the judges in May.

FACILITY OF THE YEAR
It’s been noted a few times just how competitive the Facility of the Year category is, and the judges better come prepared for a dynamic discussion. Each of the buildings nominated represents a new build or massive renovation, and opened to incredible reviews by architectural critics and fans. These structures changed urban cores and communities. The committee focused on these buildings, despite impressive new facilities such as T-Mobile Arena (the lack of a full-year sports tenant hurt), the renovated BMO Field in Toronto and Littlejohn Coliseum at Clemson University, as well as the extremely novel use of facilities like Fenway Park (Frozen Fenway, Big Air at Fenway, Concert Series and Movies at Fenway), as well as Fort Bragg Field and even Topgolf facilities.

It’s an ultra-competitive year for Sports Business Awards. Who will take the stage in New York and hoist the trophies?
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN


TEAM OF THE YEAR
Sports Team of the Year is always competitive, and while there was some thinking by the committee that we could move on from the two-time winner Golden State Warriors, there’s no question they remain out in front on virtually every major business practice. That’s how successful and risk-taking they are. The move to add two NBA teams supports the notion that the league’s teams are being very innovative across their multiple lines of business, and even the Philadelphia 76ers were strongly studied for being a first mover on jersey ads, an innovative deal with StubHub on ticketing and investing in esports. But the committee wanted to see more on-court success from the organization, which is part of the criteria. At the Miami Dolphins, owner Stephen Ross, Tom Garfinkel and staff led a massive renovation of their home facility and embarked on an aggressive new approach to ticket brokers and in using data, especially Facebook, to grow their business. Some may be surprised to see Toronto FC’s inclusion, but they marked a significant return to relevance for MLS in the market. While the vision was started by Tim Leiweke/Larry Tanenbaum/MLSE, it was propelled under Bill Manning, as it combined a $150 million renovation to BMO Field with a wildly successful team on the pitch.

BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR
Sports Breakthrough of the Year will also be among the most contested categories, as we offer up five distinct businesses. Each is disrupting the status quo: ELeague, for the launch of an organized, structured league environment to a largely unstructured space; Fanatics, for changing the game in sports merchandise and licensing; On Location Experiences, for shaking up the event and experience business; The Star in Frisco for creating a new model around team and community facilities; and UFC 205, for its dramatic and dynamic introduction to the New York marketplace. This will be a fun category for the judges to decide.

INDIVIDUAL TROPHIES
The executive categories should offer few surprises, as both Executive of the Year and Athletic Director of the Year represent all-star lists. On campus, every one of these ADs has done something to change the trajectory of athletics at their school. The two Dans — Radakovich and Guerrero — have overseen major football and basketball upgrades. Both have been nominees before, as well as Chris Del Conte, who has fixed football, and is now fixing basketball with a game-changing coaching hire and a new arena. Whit Babcock has generated rave reviews for his coaching hires that breathed new life into football and basketball, while Jay Jacobs has refused to be satisfied with being the “B team” in the state of Alabama. Remember, Executive of the Year and Athletic Director of the Year are decidedly solely by the SBJ/SBD editorial staff.

OTHER TAKEAWAYS
Esports was an undercurrent throughout this year’s nominations — playing a role in nominations for Turner Sports and its president, David Levy; for WME-IMG and its co-heads Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell; for the NBA and Adam Silver; for Anheuser-Busch’s sponsorship; and GMR Marketing and CAA Sports’ roles in the space. … The huge changes affecting the media industry can be seen in two of the nominees in the Best in Digital Sports category: Facebook and Twitter. For decades, sports business executives have been wondering when digital companies would start spending for sports rights. That is finally happening, and they have become a highly effective distribution platform. Perhaps most encouraging is the ease of use and engaging viewer experience on the platforms. … A big Olympic year was the driver behind the three nominations for NBC Sports. … Two possible surprises in League of the Year are PBR and the USOC, but both stood out to the committee. The PBR smartly leveraged its talent, developed new programming and saw metrics increase across the board, while the USOC had a mega performance in Rio with 121 medals. … In addition to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones receiving our 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award, the organization is up for Breakthrough of the Year for The Star in Frisco and Best in Sports Social Media.

Our 10th Sports Business Awards will be a special night — you won’t want to miss it. Tickets are still available, but we’re expecting a record crowd and would love to see you on May 24.

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

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