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Volume 23 No. 29
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Winning of Welts jump-starts Fox unit

Last week's announcement that Rick Welts will step down as the NBA's chief marketing officer to join Fox Entertainment Group Inc. signaled that Fox and parent News Corp. will become even more aggressive with the nonmedia end of sports, while NBA Properties must regroup after several defections in the last year.

Welts, a mainstay on The Sporting News' list of the 100 most powerful people in sports, will join Fox as president and CEO of Fox Sports Enterprises, a new unit formed to oversee Fox's interests in professional sports teams and arenas. That includes the Los Angeles Dodgers and partial stakes in the Staples Center, Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks and Rangers, along with options to buy shares in the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings.

The list will clearly not stop there.

"I think it's safe to say they don't think they're sitting on a pat hand," said Welts, who will report directly to Fox co-chief operating officers Chase Carey and Peter Chernin.

Many expect Fox to increase its 38 percent stake in Madison Square Garden, which is controlled by Cablevision Systems Corp. Fox may also create spin-offs and set up corporate firewalls between divisions to get around NBA and NHL multiple-team ownership rules and be able to exercise its option to buy part of the Lakers and Kings.

Welts, who will remain with the NBA until sometime this summer, is a 17-year veteran of the league office. He shares much of the credit for turning the NBA into an international marketing powerhouse.

NBA Commissioner David Stern will take a more active role in running the league's marketing and sponsorship activities, which Welts said are Stern's favorite parts of the business. Insiders, however, say the search is on to fill Welts' shoes as well as several other top positions after a year in which many NBA employees exited the league.

Besides losing dozens of rank-and-file staffers who jumped ship during the lockout, NBA Properties Inc. has weathered the exodus of sponsorship executives Mike Stevens, Rick Singer and Dan Fleishman in the last 12 months.

Welts' exit also marks the third time in the last year that a pro league has lost its top marketing officer, after Bob Gamgort and Rick Dudley left MLB Properties Inc. and NHL Enterprises LP, respectively. Dudley still has not been replaced.

Through close to two decades of wheeling and dealing, Welts, 46, has maintained a reputation as a "nice guy" with integrity, engendering unparalleled loyalty from the league's sponsors and broadcast partners. Even his peers at rival leagues have counted on Welts' generosity with information and insights.

"Rick was one of the first people who made me feel welcome in this industry," said Sara Levinson, president of NFL Properties Inc. "He always said his line was open, and he obviously does such a great job that I knew any questions I had would get good answers."

Welts got his first job in sports 30 years ago as a ball boy for the Seattle SuperSonics. He remained with the franchise for 10 years, with stints as an assistant trainer, public relations director and head of marketing. He joined the NBA in 1982.