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Volume 23 No. 18
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The whys behind our 50 Most Influential People in Sports Business

Adam Silver focuses on relationships, and it’s the strength of those relationships that helps put him atop our list of the 50 Most Influential People in Sports Business for the second time in three years. He has strong support from ownership, interacts easily and naturally with fans, developed a respectful and productive relationship with NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts, and has strong bonds with media and corporate partners. But it’s his relationships with the more than 400 players in the NBA that truly sets him apart among today’s sports leaders. He respects them, listens to them, encourages them to speak out and be community stewards and leaders. That respect is mutual, and is evident by how much the players trust Silver and his leadership.

Silver has made it look too easy over his first three years in charge, as he never appears to be caught flat-footed. His successful ability to anticipate issues and pain points is routinely cited by executives throughout sports — whether it’s jersey advertisements, relocating the All-Star Game due to a North Carolina state law the league found troublesome, quietly handling a successful labor negotiation or understanding players’ urge to be heard on political and social issues — Silver seems to be a step ahead. It won’t always be this smooth and easy. Sooner or later his tenure will be marred by a wrong step or misguided reaction. But Silver’s NBA leadership, rooted in relationships and proactive, solution-oriented policies, is leading the way in influencing the sports industry.

Some insight into our thinking for some of the big movers, newcomers and possible head scratchers — on the list:
ARI EMANUEL/PATRICK WHITESELL: This duo sitting as high as No. 4 on our list will raise eyebrows. But few are placing as many big bets on sports as the leaders of WME-IMG—and we could have included majority shareholder Silver Lake and its managing partner Egon Durban. Whether you’re with them or against them, you can’t ignore their influence. Their vast access to talent and intellectual property, global reach and forays into content production and distribution give them a seat at the table of virtually every major sports negotiation. Add the talented Mark Shapiro to the mix and you see how the agency will be laser focused on growth before a much anticipated IPO.

BOB BOWMAN: Ranked in the top 10 for the first time, the 61-year-old Bowman has built the formidable MLB Advanced Media and BAMTech from scratch, and is the go-to leader for all things digital. Do you need any more proof for the respect of his operation than Disney’s move to pay $1 billion for a 33 percent stake in the enterprise? A long-awaited deal with Riot Games that has been estimated to be worth as much as $200 million a year would be another sign of Bowman’s vast influence.

WANG JIANLIN: One of the questions we’re continually asked is what to make of all the investment capital out of China and pouring into sports, and no one is spending more than Wang’s Dalian Wanda. From acquiring Infront Sports & Media and World Triathlon Corp. to becoming commercial partners with FIFA and FIBA and making a run at the UFC, Dalian Wanda and its Wanda Sports Group has the look of a powerful, global sports power player.

JOSH HARRIS/DAVID BLITZER: Their franchises don’t have the competitive success that is reserved for owners who make this list, but few ownership groups are as aggressive or watched more closely than Harris and Blitzer. They are bold risk takers — and have a very capable leader who matches their ambitious mindset in CEO Scott O’Neil. From being the first team to sign a jersey sponsorship, to a groundbreaking ticket partnership with StubHub, to doubling down on esports through the acquisition of Team Dignitas, this duo is driving much of the discussion in sports business.

ARTHUR BLANK: With a seat on a number of key NFL committees — compensation and finance, among them — Blank’s broad investments and ability to try new things gets him on the list for the first time. Blank is bringing bold new approaches to the fan experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with fan-first pricing with concession partner Levy Restaurants that will dramatically reduce concession costs for fans and be closely watched throughout sports. The new stadium will host three of the biggest sports events in North America over the next few years: 2018 College Football Playoff championship game, 2019 Super Bowl and 2020 NCAA Men’s Final Four. Blank’s Atlanta United FC will launch as one of the most successful business stories in MLS next year and his PGA Tour Superstore retail chain gives him wide influence across the golf landscape.

VAL ACKERMAN: Her influence extends far beyond the Big East, because when you look throughout sports, Ackerman’s hands touch a number of areas. From blueprints to improve women’s basketball, to serving on a committee developing Pope Francis’ inaugural conference on sports and faith, to being the de facto mentor for so many women looking to develop a career in sports, Ackerman has a rare view across the business.

Theo Epstein has enjoyed a string of successes, but isn’t done climbing.
THEO EPSTEIN: Has there been a more successful executive when it comes to strategic planning, execution and establishing an organizational structure than the 42-year-old Epstein? I watched him work in the Baltimore Orioles PR department in 1994, where he was clearly ahead of the class. I’ve followed his career from San Diego to Boston to Chicago, where he’s had success all along the way. Arriving in Chicago in 2011, he clearly articulated his vision to a desperate fan base: It won’t be easy, but trust the process. With the steadfast support of team chair Tom Ricketts, Epstein stayed on course when it would have been easy not to, he believed in his plan and did not bow to pressures to veer away from it. He was able to see over the noise and deliver a championship in Chicago, just as he did twice in Boston. Even with a new five-year contract worth an estimated $50 million, one wonders what’s next for Epstein. His manner and method of team building will be a blueprint for leaders throughout sports and business.

OTHER THOUGHTS: Our newsroom actively debated having athletes as advocates sitting atop the list. But in the end, we stuck with citing individual business executives rather than a “group” award, and instead looked at the movement of activism among athletes and its possible future impact. One athlete, LeBron James, was actively discussed about being on the list — for his role in the CBA talks, to bringing a championship to title-starved Cleveland, to his activism and work in entertainment. He wouldn’t be out of place on this list. … Media executives have always sat near the top of our list, but over the next few years, I expect them to drop for two reasons. Big-time rights fees are set well into the next decade, which will make it harder for media companies to grow their business. And the changing media environment, with cord cutters, cord shavers and cord nevers, seems certain to lead to further audience erosion. … From backing Stan Kroenke’s return to L.A., where his Legends has the sales business, to opening the $1.5 billion eye-popping complex The Star, to his resurgent Cowboys team, it’s been a strong year for Jerry Jones. … The NFL’s return to L.A. is also the hook for Bryan Trubey, who has an opportunity to revamp the event and fan experience by designing a massive new complex in the nation’s second-largest market.

WHERE’S THE DIVERSITY? We expect and welcome the complaints over the lack of ethnic and gender diversity on this list. We share your frustration, but believe the list is a reflection of the leadership in the sports business. We will continue to rethink “influence” in hopes the list can be more inclusive in the future.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at