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Volume 25 No. 210
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Over The Shoulder: Execs Look Back At Biggest Stories Of '15

With '15 coming to an end, SBJ/SBD caught up with several high-ranking sports execs to get their thoughts on the biggest storylines of the year. Today, we continue with part two. Tomorrow, execs chime in on what lies ahead for '16. 

What was the most interesting development in sports business -- welcome or discouraging -- in the past year?

* Pro Football HOF President David Baker: “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If an NFL player does something good, does the media care? When Carolina Panther Thomas Davis accepted the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award during the NFL Honors show on the eve of Super Bowl XLIX, he sounded a clarion’s call to athletes in a season dominated by Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson controversies. Davis mesmerized millions of television viewers with a tear-filled plea, ‘To the guys in this league, I just want to say let’s take charge ... let’s step up and be a village of guys that make a difference; let’s change this world. We’re well-compensated for what we do. Let’s show these kids how much we care about them. Let’s give the media something positive to talk about.’ The courage and leadership of Thomas Davis is my top highlight for 2015.”

* NBPA Exec Dir Michele Roberts: “In 2015, the rapid emergence of daily fantasy providers as major licensees, team sponsors and media buyers would have been enough to qualify as the year’s most interesting business development. The decision by sports leagues and media entities to structure groundbreaking equity deals with the providers further bolstered that case. But the stunning rise of daily fantasy has now been eclipsed by the backlash of ongoing legal challenges and attacks that could undermine their many lucrative commitments to teams, leagues and networks. Stay tuned, because in 2016 we will learn whether fans can pay to play and whether FanDuel and DraftKings are here to stay (or not).”

* Wasserman Media Group Chair & CEO Casey Wasserman: “The threat of cord-cutting and the resulting escalation of ‘unbundling,’ particularly in the sports business, has become synonymous with angst. But with technology as the driving force, audiences and rights holders are not the only ones who stand to gain. The reality is sports is predictable and defensible in a world where nothing else is. Sports is the only piece of the media business where you don’t have to guess what people like. And once you have what they like, you can have it exclusively. If you’re trying to reach 18- to 34-year-olds through general entertainment comedies, you’re guessing whether your constituents will like them or not. But if you want to target football fans, you know what content to get. That remains true whatever the platform and distribution mode and that’s why the value will only continue to increase. Just ask Bill Simmons; his tide took him from digital platforms like Twitter to a podcast -- and now readying to debut on our most primal sports medium, television.”

* Virgin Sport Global CEO Mary Wittenberg: “2015 heralded a new era in sports business. Hopefully, we have witnessed not only the fall of FIFA and IAAF (former) executives, but the fall of an outdated way of doing business. The future should hold our sports organizations and leaders to the highest levels of accountability, transparency, good governance, and best practices. Let’s embrace, not shun, whistleblowers of illicit activities like doping that threaten the sanctity of the field of play. While the bright lights of spectator pro sports flicker with each controversy, the allure and growth of the ‘people’s sports’ and the rise of the ‘Fit-lete’ offer a healthy balance to society and sports business. ‘Mass participatory sport’ continued to grow in 2015 with the creation of a world ‘majors’ of cycling to mirror the World Marathon Majors of running; the record high sale of Ironman, now poised to stoke the fire of fitness and sport in China; Fitbit and SoulCycle going public and the thriving success of ClassPass, all while traditional running, cycling and obstacle events matured, achieving sustainable levels of growth. At this rate, the number of kids who want to grow up to run a marathon may one day rival those who want to grow up to ‘be like Mike.’ And that just might be the ticket to a balanced world of sport that can be stronger than ever.”

* Attorney Jeffrey Kessler: “From the standpoint of athletes, one of the most important developments in the sports business during the last year has been the increased willingness of courts to respect their legal rights. We saw this in cases ranging from the O’Bannon verdict, holding the NCAA in violation of the antitrust laws in its rules forbidding any financial benefits to athletes for the use of their names and likenesses, to the Brady and Peterson decisions, striking down high-profile NFL commissioner discipline in violation of the players’ CBA rights, to the massive concussion settlement agreed to by the NFL for retired NFL players suffering long-term head trauma effects. The importance of legal protections for athletes is also spreading to other sports, such as mixed martial arts and even the rodeo, where recent class actions have been filed. I believe this trend is going to continue in future years and profoundly impact the sports business landscape.”

* Covington & Burling Partner Doug Gibson: “The continuing proliferation of content distributed solely over-the-top and the continuing growth, particularly within millennials, of ‘cord-cutters’ and ‘cord-nevers.’ The recent news about ESPN’s subscriber losses exemplifies this trend, as does the NFL’s distribution (outside of the home markets of the participating clubs) of the Jaguars/Buffalo game solely on Yahoo, and UFC’s and WWE’s distribution of over-the-top offerings. It will be interesting to watch over the next several years whether OTT consumption patterns level-off or accelerate and whether the cable bundle, in its current form, remains intact. In this changing media landscape, sports content providers will face opportunities to sell rights to an increasing pool of viable buyers, and risks as to whether traditional content acquirers will continue to pay increasing rights fees. It is an interesting time in sports media, and I am confident that those who innovate will thrive.”