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Volume 20 No. 42
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January opens door to busy year in sports

As we flip the calendar to the second month of 2017, I was struck by the number of big stories in sports business from January. Here are my top 10:

> SPANOS MAKES HIS MOVE: Rarely is an owner held in such high regard among his colleagues as is Chargers owner Dean Spanos. Around the league, he’s cited for thinking league-first and is known for his kindness and humility. Many in league circles truly didn’t believe he would make the move north to L.A. It’s clear that Spanos got fed up dealing with San Diego’s city leaders (and the lack of leadership was discouraging), but there are still so many things that don’t feel right about how this came about: From Spanos hiring political operative Mark Fabiani as his stadium point man for all those years, to the league never taking an aggressive and productive leadership role to getting a deal done in San Diego, to the underwhelming reaction to the Chargers in L.A. It’s still early, but I am struggling to see the positives on this one.

> IOC HITS PAYDIRT WITH ALIBABA: The 12-year deal with the International Olympic Committee is significant for the Chinese sports business and the entire commercial future of the Olympics. It’s not just because it’s the biggest deal in Olympic history, valued at more than $800 million, but the capabilities and innovation Alibaba will bring to the movement. There’s e-commerce, support of the Olympic Channel and potentially developing a ticketing system, and who doesn’t want to partner with Jack Ma’s global and tech vision? The deal continues the dramatic investment in sports by Chinese companies. Also, don’t overlook the role of consultant and former IOC Marketing Director Michael Payne, who remains a very influential figure on the commercial side. Meanwhile, the strength of the IOC’s commercial sales comes while the U.S. Olympic Committee looks to rebound after sponsor defections by AT&T, Budweiser, Hilton, Citi and TD Ameritrade over the past few months — another story that is worth watching closely.

> THE ERA OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: A totally new dynamic comes with the Donald Trump administration. From the few Trump supporters willing to speak publicly, to the vocal opposition, to the administration’s ban on immigration from seven countries, a Trump presidency offers a new specter for which teams, leagues, athletes, NGBs and organizations are forced to prepare.

> GE LINKS UP WITH THE CELTICS: This is much more than a jersey deal. Watch how GE infuses its technology and know-how to all aspects of the Celtics’ business — from personnel to the business side, from player performance to digital technology, to data analytics on ticket/sponsorship sales, to making the team’s new practice facility a model of efficiency. The deal is all about optimization and will be a template for other organizations. For GE, it builds goodwill and elevates the company’s profile in its new Boston headquarters after leaving Connecticut last fall.

> THE JAY MONAHAN ERA BEGINS: The seamless, and positive, transfer of leadership at the PGA Tour speaks to the planning of former boss Tim Finchem and new one, Jay Monahan. The 46-year-old Monahan has ardent supporters in all corners of the golf industry — from corporate and media partners, to players and tournament directors, to the manufacturers. He knows the game and is personable, whip-smart and not afraid to innovate.

> TARGET ON MLS: Brick by brick, MLS executives build the sport, and that’s why this deal with one of the nation’s top retailers — led by new CEO Brian Cornell — is so significant. Target had been looking for fresh energy in its sports investments and said it shifted from motorsports to soccer after watching consumer trends and its own customer behavior. This deal touches so many different areas across the sport and is a commercial milestone for MLS and soccer in the U.S.

> NASCAR’S GAMBLE: I don’t entirely understand the changes, but NASCAR’s competition moves are the sport’s most specific effort yet to shake up its race presentation, improve the television product and fuel interest among today’s attention-challenged viewer. It won’t be the last sport to make changes to its product to increase appeal, but look to see if these changes are fully understood and increase engagement when the season ramps up.

> CAMPING WORLD WALKS FROM THE INDEPENDENCE BOWL IN A BLUNT MESSAGE: This may seem like small potatoes but it’s a lesson for today’s properties, because ever-outspoken CEO Marcus Lemonis outlines what we hear a lot: Properties not being flexible or innovative. I know there are two sides to every story when a deal goes south, but Lemonis’ comments were a stark lesson in today’s experience-based economy: “The experience didn’t change year over year.” “Spend more money on the event. Make it an event.” “I wanted to get more bang for my buck.” Clichés? Sure, but you can’t miss the call for more ingenuity.

> A NEW F1: I don’t know a great deal about Formula One but I do know a few things: Never underestimate the talents of new F1 CEO Chase Carey or the commercial chops of new business executive Sean Bratches. It won’t be easy, but these two can lead a massive brand re-introduction and proposition in North America, as I believe F1’s profile in this country has only one direction to go — and that’s up.

The USTA’s all-in-one campus points to the future of American tennis.
Rendering: USTA

> TENNIS’ INCUBATOR: Leagues and teams are putting a more concerted focus on development, and that is what the U.S. Tennis Association is doing with its 64-acre, $60 million national campus in Orlando’s Lake Nona development that opened last month. This campus is critical to increasing participation but will also serve as the anchor of conferences, events and instruction around the game. It promises to be a celebration of tennis, so if you’re not familiar with this facility, take a look.

What didn’t make my top 10: There’s a lot to like about agent Don Yee’s vision for the Pro Pac League, which will launch in 2018 and allow football players coming out of high school to have an alternative to playing college football. It gets decision-makers talking about a significant issue that has been simmering and tests the commercial viability of a startup league. It will also test the premise that the U.S. sports market craves more and more football. … The tale of Tiger Woods will be a great story to follow this year, and TaylorMade’s new deal with him could prove to be prescient. There’s a different feel and vibe around Woods these days; far more positive than it’s been since that fateful Thanksgiving evening of 2009. … Chris Berman’s reduced role and relevance at ESPN, which will lead to higher profiles for a number of ESPN’s top talent. … The Warriors’ groundbreaking for their new Chase Center, which set a new, over-the-top standard for facility ceremonies, but also speaks to how the organization sees itself as a vast entertainment vehicle.

One month down — 11 to go, in what’s shaping up to be quite a year.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at