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Volume 21 No. 2
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The thinking involved in Most Influential choices

Influence comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s that nebulous, subjective definition that leads to passionate debate as our editorial board puts together our annual list of the 50 Most Influential People in Sports Business. As we have stated, this isn’t a list of the most powerful executives or those who had the most productive or successful years. Instead, it’s a ranking of the decision-makers who change the way sports is valued, consumed, presented and produced. This year’s list has a new executive leading the way, with 11 other new names getting into the top 50. As you’ll see, influence doesn’t always yield a feel-good result or story, and some may view certain individuals as being a detriment to the overall success of sports. But the names here represent, from our point of view, the people who are driving sports at this moment in time. The list inevitably leads to head-scratching, disagreements, sometimes angry phone calls and more than its share of Monday morning quarterbacking. So, here’s a look at some of the names and rankings that may surprise you:

JOHN SKIPPER: In its final installment as ESPN’s ombudsman, Poynter Review wrote that “ESPN is so big that it occupies a position in sports not unlike that of Microsoft in the ecosystem for computer hardware and software in the late 1990s, or Apple’s place at the intersection of hardware, apps and downloads today.” A research report from securities brokerage Wunderlich this summer stated that ESPN is worth $40 billion. That’s the cultural and financial giant that Skipper leads. In the last 12 months, he has successfully overseen a smooth transition from George Bodenheimer, further pushed ESPN into the digital era, shepherded a key rights agreement with MLB and cemented the network as the biggest player on the college landscape for years. There is a reason why everyone wants to compete with ESPN — its business works and its day-to-day influence on the sports business is without equal.

ROGER GOODELL: It’s fair to say that it wasn’t the strongest year for the NFL’s commissioner and one he probably won’t mind seeing in the rearview mirror. But while some lobby for other commissioners to outrank Goodell, there is no question that the NFL’s reach holds far more sway, and can have more impact, than any other sport.

MARK WALTER/GUGGENHEIM PARTNERS: Many will argue that this ranks a sports newcomer far too high. But the aggressive transaction for the Dodgers not only set a new bar for team, real estate and media rights, it put wind in the sail of sports assets around the globe.

SEAN MCMANUS:  Sports is still a relationship business and with Dick Ebersol, David Hill and Bodenheimer moving on, McManus takes the mantle as the statesman of sports media, fueled by the respect and relationships he’s developed over the years.
BRIAN FRANCE: Often criticized for a detached sense of leadership, France moves up on our list this year for taking a more active and engaged role in trying to move NASCAR forward. He is pushing his executives to try new things and innovate. It may not all work, and France will continue to have critics questioning just how much he cares. But there is a sense he recognizes he must take action and that a commissioner can’t lead from behind.

GARY BETTMAN: This was easily the most debated ranking on our list. Some argued that Bettman has done so much to influence a sport’s shutdown and the negotiating policy of ownership that he should be in our top 10. Others strongly felt that Bettman’s failure to reach a collective-bargaining agreement has eroded all sense of effective leadership and management. We’ve long argued that influence isn’t solely positive, and Bettman’s inclusion on the list is a clear indicator of that. This reasoning also applies to those sitting at No. 46, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and Proskauer’s Bob Batterman.

DON FEHR: Last year, Fehr ranked No. 47, but this year he shoots up 28 slots because of his ability to galvanize the NHLPA. Again, many on our edit board criticized this ranking, believing he had no influence, just a failure to negotiate. But like him or not, Fehr and his brother, Steve, have orchestrated a labor strategy that has kept players unified despite missing four paychecks and 423 games of the season.

MIKE SLIVE/JIM DELANY: The frequent argument in our newsroom about who is more influential among college commissioners comes down to two familiar names. Is it Slive because of the strength of the SEC or Delany because of the reach of the Big Ten? For us, the fact that Slive oversees a conference that has the programs with the largest and most profitable athletic budgets across the board (nine of 11 public schools in the conference turned a profit in 2011), the game’s most influential coach (Nick Saban), and far and away the strongest football brand in the country gives him the slightest edge.

KEVIN PLANK: It never hurts to be the hot brand and Under Armour continues to be the talk of the industry for its creative sense and appeal to today’s kids. Also, this is one brand that will be the beneficiary of the University of Maryland’s move to the Big Ten, as now Plank’s product will be seen on the field of larger markets where football truly matters.

LARRY BAER/JOHN HENRY: Baer’s ranking may raise eyebrows, but from our viewpoint, it’s clear the Giants have become the gold standard among MLB teams, and while Larry is not the sole decision-maker, he’s effectively led the operation for years. On the flip side, Henry takes a steep drop in our rankings as, despite the marquee value of his assets, the brands have absorbed major hits by poor performance and questions about his decision-making — both absent during his successful run years earlier.

JOHN MARA: The more you follow ownership performance, it’s hard not to admire the work and style of Mara and his partner, Steve Tisch. Mara has the respect from players, union officials, fellow owners and the league office for running an operation that now has become one of the most respected in sports. He may not be the most visible, quotable or press-friendly owner, but his influence extends more than many see.

And our reasoning for a couple of names that may surprise people for not being on the list:

JEREMY JACOBS: His influence in the NHL’s negotiations has been widely reported, but it was felt that the failure to reach a deal has damaged his standing.

HAL STEINBRENNER: While the Yankees remain one of — if not the — most powerful brands in sports, MLB’s recent run of on- and off-field competitive balance means the Bronx Bombers don’t single-handedly dominate the sport the way they did in the past.

LORENZO FERTITTA/DANA WHITE: The UFC’s leaders continue to grow the sport globally, but the Fox TV deal hasn’t propelled the sport to the heights many had hoped.

As always, we welcome your questions, thoughts and comments on this list, especially where you think we’ve hit and — better yet — where we’ve missed the mark.  

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at