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Volume 23 No. 28
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An inside look: How we chose 50 most influential

Poor Adam Silver. After being named the most influential person in sports business by our editorial team in this week’s issue, he can only go down from here. The honeymoon continues for the NBA commissioner, who has made headlines for many of the right reasons since taking over his role just 10 months ago, making him the recipient of a tremendous amount of goodwill among owners, players, commercial partners and the media.

When we discussed the makeup of this year’s list and focused on the executive whose decisions, action or even non-action influenced the marketplace — today, over the last year and going forward — we kept coming back to Silver. We wanted to make sure there was a clear distinction between someone having a successful year of accomplishments compared with someone who is dictating change and action in the industry. For reasons that we note in tabbing Silver as No. 1, it’s obvious he was out front on critical issues. In handling a major ownership crisis, he laid out a blueprint on rapid response and crisis management and offered a lesson in guiding a record financial transaction. Silver secured a new, aggressive owner in the nation’s second-largest market, handing over a team that has the potential to be a national brand.

But there was much more than just his reaction to the Donald Sterling controversy. Silver could be bold, as he benefited early from a leaderless players union, with Michele Roberts hired in late July to replace Billy Hunter, who was fired in February 2013. Silver was progressive in

SBJ Podcast:
NBA writer John Lombardo and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss Adam Silver's selection as No. 1 atop our Most Influential list as well as many of the other NBA executives on the list.

laying out a framework for an open, public debate on gaming in sports and how a league can adapt a sales and sponsorship policy on this controversial topic. He also quickly saw the benefit in staying with the league’s long-term media partners, a move that will change the economics for all of the league’s teams. Throughout all this, Silver seemed a step ahead. He’s maintained a smart public profile and is wise enough not to read his clippings, because he knows the ebbs and flows of leading such a business. But few leaders have made such a significant impact in such a short time.

> OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE: Here’s a bit more on how this year’s list came together. Frankly, we have had list fatigue over this year-end 50 most influential list for a few years because it featured the same names and little movement, especially at the top of the list. You could blame us for playing it safe or refusing to take many chances, but we have wanted this to be a real, true list of influence, not a fun exercise of throwing out names. This year offered us a real opportunity to reshape it because of the massive disruption that occurred over the last 12 months.

And so we have 20 new names, in addition to, as mentioned, a first-timer at No. 1. New names are sprinkled throughout the list, such as Stan Kroenke at No. 23, for the role he plays in the NFL’s possible return to Los Angeles. There’s Peter Holt at No. 28, a first-timer who gets the recognition he deserves for maintaining a model organization while being a respected voice throughout the league. There’s Bob Bowlsby at No. 32, who emerged as a provocative voice for the economic realities and divide between schools in intercollegiate athletics, and many others — from the quietly influential Joe Leccese at No. 36 to league newcomers and future leaders Mark Tatum (No. 44) and Brian Rolapp (No. 46) and soccer’s respected Sunil Gulati (No. 49). This year’s list represents a new, fresh era in sports leadership.

Recognition was also given this year to veteran leadership. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus moved up and is the second-highest-ranking media executive after ESPN’s John Skipper largely because of the relationships he and his boss, Les Moonves, have at the NFL and their ability to land the “Thursday Night Football” package. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman moves up, as he is now the senior statesman among U.S. league commissioners, a position he seems to relish, which leads to an enhanced profile. NASCAR’s Brian France moved up for his willingness to innovate and take risks with his sport’s schedule and competitive rules, a bold stroke that seemed to win the day.

Easily the most debated decision was where to rank NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Some argued he should reside at No. 1, where he had been in 2010. Others felt he should drop significantly for the way he mishandled the Ray Rice issue and hurt the league’s image. In the end, we put him at No. 5, tied with the lowest ranking ever for an NFL commissioner. But it comes with the recognition that he has a unique perch to influence the NFL’s all-important response and policy changes in the era following the Rice and Adrian Peterson decisions. There seem to be real steps the league is making, and it has to be Goodell who drives those within 345 Park Ave. The No. 3 ranking of Robert Kraft is sure to surprise many, but if significant changes are to occur at the NFL, none of them will be done without Kraft’s oversight and blessing. He firmly remains in Goodell’s corner, and as long as that’s the case, the current commissioner will have the support he needs to execute his vision for the future.

Other areas of debate: Some on the staff lobbied for new Clippers owner Steve Ballmer to be as high as No. 1 on the list, while others did not have him ranked. Ballmer’s proponents on the staff said he changed the market and has the ability to be one of the more influential owners in sports. Others said he admittedly overpaid and didn’t really reset the market, as other deals like the Milwaukee Bucks, Buffalo Bills and future sale of the Atlanta Hawks are better indicators. Landing at No. 13 seems to give more weight to the former than the latter, as the feeling here is that Ballmer’s actions influenced a range of reactions all year long. … The selection of LeBron James and Dan Gilbert wasn’t unanimous, and James marks our first athlete chosen to be on the list since we started it 10 years ago. But they made this list more about what they represent outside of competition. James has emerged as an influential voice on league and even social issues — see his comments on Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson riots. He is using his high profile to be active in social media and invest in new technology while being a market-mover when it comes to endorsements. Gilbert is single-handedly trying to revitalize two urban cores in Detroit and Cleveland, while trying to make both markets attractive to tech-savvy youthful professionals — something many in sports are closely watching. … While some may question why NCAA President Mark Emmert remains on the list, we’d argue that none of the major changes taking place within college sports would occur as they have without Emmert recognizing the need for change and keeping these discussions as agenda points. He never has proved to be an obstructionist, and one can argue over his style, but he is listening and laying out framework for changes.

Finally, the selection of TMZ’s Harvey Levin was perhaps the most controversial and debated. An argument was made for Levin to be as high as the top five, because no one news organization shook up the sports industry more than his. The release of the Sterling tape led to a rush of events that made every league look at their ownership policies and each ownership group re-evaluate its public statements and behavior; resulted in the true emergence of Silver on the national stage; and led to a record sales price for a sports organization. The release of the Rice video in August has led to questions about Goodell’s decision-making, changed the perception of his leadership and league, and led to massive public criticism of the NFL — just watch the bruising episode of “South Park” if you have any doubt. In addition, it made every league re-evaluate its domestic abuse, player discipline and crisis communication policies, challenged the relationships between leagues and their unions (for the first time, all four major union heads made the list) and changed the way video and images are used as news elements. Without the actions of Levin’s TMZ, there wouldn’t be this “new world order” in sports today, Silver wouldn’t be No. 1, Goodell wouldn’t be No. 5 and the environment would be far different.

As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments on this year’s list.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at