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Volume 22 No. 3
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Builders from all corners of sports

Easily the most diverse group in the five years of the honor highlights this year’s class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. The award recognizes the architects and builders of sports, and the 2014 class brings together six honorees who have done that in all corners of the industry and with very different roads in getting there.

This year’s recipients are:

Joan Cronan, the executive in charge of arguably the most successful women’s athletic department in history.

SBJ Podcast:
Executive Editor Abraham Madkour & Champions project editor Tom Stinson discuss the 2014 class of The Champions.

Wayne Embry, the player-personnel man who paired Oscar Robertson together with Lew Alcindor in 1970 and later broke down front-office barriers by becoming the NBA’s first African-American general manager — and an extremely successful one at that.

Rick Hendrick, the architect of the modern-day multicar racing operation.

Michael Ilitch, who became a pizza guy after his dreams of playing big league baseball flamed out, only to end up owning the team he dreamed of playing for, and winning championships in his hometown.

Verne Lundquist, a trusted voice on national sports broadcasts for 40 years, and the first from the TV talent side of the business to be honored as a Champion … “Oh my goodness!”

And Bill Schmidt, the first Olympic athlete to be named a Champion, who’s more widely known in sports business circles as the sponsorship guru who helped invent sideline inventory as we know it today.

Joan Cronan

Joan Cronan was head of the most successful women’s athletic department for nearly 30 years. As women’s athletic director at the University of Tennessee, where she still serves as senior adviser to the chancellor and women’s athletic director emeritus, Cronan oversaw Tennessee’s growth from seven women’s sports to 11; more than quadrupled the department’s budget; amassed 10 national championships and 29 Southeastern Conference titles, including all eight of Pat Summitt’s NCAA crowns; and with Summitt helped turn women’s basketball into a revenue-producing sport.

She also stepped in as vice chancellor and interim director of UT athletics in 2011, the first person in Tennessee history to hold that position, and outside of Knoxville has served on the NCAA Division I Leadership Council, the NCAA Executive Committee, NCAA Management Council and been elected president of NACDA, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.

Photo by: NEWSCOM
Wayne Embry

Wayne Embry is a true NBA pioneer. After a stellar 11-year playing career, the five-time All-Star went on to become the NBA’s first African-American general manager with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1972. He then worked as general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was named NBA executive of the year in 1992 and 1998 while paving the way for other minority sports executives — once again making history in 1994 by becoming the first African-American NBA team president and chief operating officer.

In all, in 20 years as an NBA general manager, Embry’s teams made the playoffs 13 times. Embry’s contributions landed him in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

Since 2004, he has worked as a senior adviser for the Toronto Raptors, where he also served as interim general manager in 2006.

Photo by: AP IMAGES
Rick Hendrick

Rick Hendrick started a NASCAR Winston Cup team in 1984 without a sponsor and only enough money to fund a handful of races. He was close to shutting the team down when driver Geoff Bodine won a race at Martinsville, Va., a victory that helped the team land a sponsor and continue to operate. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the next three decades, Hendrick turned that underfunded, one-car outfit into the most dominant team in NASCAR history. He’s won 11 Cup championships and fielded cars for two of the sport’s top drivers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. He pioneered today’s multicar teams and cut revolutionary sponsorship deals that emphasized bonuses tied to sponsorship. And as he did all of that, he expanded his business from 12 local car dealerships in Charlotte to 87 dealerships nationwide that do more than $6 billion in annual revenue.

Michael Ilitch

A Detroit Tigers farmhand for three years, Michael Ilitch utilized the wealth he accumulated as founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain to become one of the most successful sports team owners of the last half-century.

Ilitch purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 and the team went on to win the Stanley Cup four times — in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. He then realized a childhood dream in 1992 by purchasing the Tigers, seeing the opening of Comerica Park in 2000 and winning two AL pennants in the last seven years.

A revered contributor to the Detroit community, Ilitch received the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom in 1997 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.

Photo by: ICON SMI
Verne Lundquist

Having just completed his 50th year of sports broadcasting, Verne Lundquist has provided the soundtrack for some of the biggest moments in sports. Who can watch a clip of Jack Nicklaus draining a long putt at the 1986 Masters without hearing Lundquist exclaim “Maybe … Yes, sir!”?

Now the voice of the SEC on CBS, as well as during the network’s March Madness coverage, Lundquist is still going strong as one of the icons of sports broadcasting, covering the biggest games and the biggest moments, with his signature calls of “Yes, sir!” and “Oh my goodness!” still entertaining fans everywhere.

Bill Schmidt

Having compiled one of the most unique and interesting careers in sports, if not any industry, Bill Schmidt is best known as the head of Gatorade sports marketing in the 1980s and ’90s, a time of tremendous growth for one of sports’ iconic brands. In different circles, he’s known as one of America’s greatest javelin throwers, a bronze medalist in the 1972 Munich Olympics and the only American to medal in the event in more than 60 years.

Along the way he’s been vice president of sports at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and director of sports at the 1982 World’s Fair, CEO of Oakley and owner of his own consultancy, as well as a teacher, coach, professor and serviceman in the U.S. Army.

Yet it was during his 15 years at Gatorade when Schmidt made his biggest contributions to sports, helping make sports drinks the endemic product they are today, from the “Gatorade bath” and the “Be Like Mike” campaign that helped create Michael Jordan as a marketing icon, to much of the sideline inventory that’s now taken for granted.

SportsBusiness Journal/Daily will profile each of these honorees and tell their stories in separate issues, beginning with the Jan. 27 issue and running through the March 3 issue. In addition, the six Champions will be honored March 19 at the IMG World Congress of Sports in Dana Point, Calif.

Champions: Past Honorees

2010 Class: Tony Ponturo, Jim Host, Donna Lopiano, Jerry Colangelo, Neal Pilson, Ron Labinski

2011 Class: Marvin Miller, Deane Beman, Alan Rothenberg, Val Ackerman, Bill Rasmussen, Barry Frank

2012 Class: Steve Sabol, Humpy Wheeler, Bill Battle, Judy Sweet, Don Ohlmeyer, Ed Snider

2013 Class: Ron Shapiro, Donald Dell, Pat Williams, Rosa Gatti, Roy Kramer, Harvey Schiller