2017 stacked with stories and we’re only halfway in
BATTLE IN BRISTOL: We’ve given extensive coverage to ESPN’s layoffs, management shuffle and continued subscriber losses. What I’ll be watching: How will Wall Street react to the company’s changes? Wall Street is the most influential group directing the narrative of a company mired by a flawed business model. If Disney and ESPN can’t convince the Street that its vision for the future is the right one, more rough days may lay ahead.
SHIFTING SANDS OF THE NFL: We likely won’t see another six months have a greater impact on the NFL. In January, Chargers owner Dean Spanos, fed up with San Diego’s city leaders, announced he was moving 120 miles north to Los Angeles. (After seeing how San Diego is handling its pursuit of an MLS team, its local leadership is fair game and should seriously be questioned.) In March, NFL owners voted 31-1 to approve the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas, and in May of this year, the Rams/Chargers move to Inglewood was delayed to 2020 and the Super Bowl pushed back to 2022. What I’m watching: How will the Chargers take advantage of the intimacy of StubHub Center? With the Raiders being a strong AFC contender, how will fans respond in Oakland? Will the deal in Vegas remain on schedule? And will the Rams turn things around in time to maintain market share after their lackluster debut in L.A.?
AMAZON’S PRIME-TIME PLAY: Jeff Bezos’ biggest play in sports came in April, as Amazon agreed to pay $50 million for the streaming rights to 10 “Thursday Night Football” games, up dramatically from the $10 million Twitter paid for the package last year. There is a lot at play here: It’s Amazon’s first big push into sports rights and it’s targeted to its 60 million Prime customers, who pay $99 a year and are the only ones who will have access to the games. The NFL gets another platform to test before it goes to market for its rights in 2021 and ‘22. What I’m watching: User experience, consumption, and how Amazon could use this to get into targeted sales and event ticketing.
RUBIN’S VISION: Few companies have dominated the sports conversation more than Fanatics, largely due to its relentlessly charging executive chairman, Michael Rubin. Its deal to acquire VF’s Majestic, a new partnership with the NBA, and getting rare investment from the NFL, MLB and NFLPA, have made Fanatics an industry power with some of the most valuable rights in sports and setting it up as the manufacturer, licensor and distributor of the future. What I’m watching: Will it acquire a brick-and-mortar chain? Can Fanatics execute and deliver against all its rights amid the demanding expectations of both properties and fans?
UNDER ARMOUR’S GROWING PAINS: Few executives have had a better run than Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, but the past six months have tested his mettle. From the company’s financial performance to Plank’s comments on Donald Trump that drew a public rebuke from one of the brand’s top endorsers, it’s been the first time I recall the company and its leader on defense. Company watchers have said for a while Plank needed support and that seemed validated by him stepping back and bringing in footwear veteran Patrik Frisk to be president and COO. What I’m watching: Will Frisk stick? Will he help efficiency? Will Wall Street notice? And will Adidas gain more market share at the expense of Nike and Under Armour?
EYE ON ROMO: Has there ever been a broadcasting debut as heavily anticipated as Tony Romo’s? I can’t think of one. Sean McManus trumped his competitors by landing the high-profile yet untested former Cowboys quarterback to sit aside Jim Nantz as the network’s top team — replacing longtime vet Phil Simms. Romo is set up to become the face of a new era of NFL broadcasters. What I’ll be watching: Is Romo any good and does he connect with the audience? Will Fox’s Jay Cutler turn out to be the bigger rookie surprise, which insiders say he could be.
WHOOP FUELS DATA DEBATE: This may come as a surprise, but I can’t overlook the promise and perils of performance data, and Whoop is a trail blazer in the space. It landed deals with MLB, becoming the first wearable device approved for in-game use, and followed that up with investment from and partnership with OneTeam Collective — business relationships with both league and union. The wearable and data tracking space is a wild west, with financial, legal and privacy issues surrounding it. What I’m watching: How player reps defend privacy data, and if players even want to be tracked.
PATRIOTS POWER: The fifth Super Bowl win by the Patriots just feels different: For the way it was won, its historical significance, and for the scores “it settled.” It elevates the entire franchise — especially the trio of Kraft, Belichick and Brady — into rarefied air. Love them or hate them, they are never boring and few are more interesting to watch. What I’m watching: The blitz for six.
WHITHER THE OLYMPIC? The shifting landscape of Olympic sponsorship — at both the IOC and USOC — bears watching as the movement preps for three straight Games in Asia. Traditional brands like McDonald’s, Hilton and A-B/InBev have departed while tech brands like Alibaba and Intel are in. What I’m watching: The Alibaba deal because of its size — the biggest deal in Olympic history, valued at more than $800 million — but also the capabilities and innovation Alibaba could bring.
MLS EXPANSION WATCH: MLS had an embarrassment of riches when it came to expansion: Twelve attractive markets all seemingly well prepared to land a team. After political setbacks (most notably, St. Louis and San Diego), there are still solid cities — just not with the same profile. What I’m watching: Look for a decision by the end of this year and don’t sleep on Nashville (or Cincinnati). After seeing how the city embraced the Predators and the respect for lead investor John Ingram, I could see MLS select Nashville and Sacramento in its first round.
WOMEN GAIN ON CAMPUS: In March, the University of Pittsburgh tabbed Heather Lyke to be its athletic director, making the protégé of Ohio State’s Gene Smith just the fourth female AD in a power five conference. Then, in April, UNLV named Desiree Reed-Francois, who had earned tremendous respect working under the talented Whit Babcock at Virginia Tech, to lead its institution. With their strong backgrounds, they will bring a new perspective to campus. This continues the trend of more female candidates being considered for the top jobs and represents an important step in diversifying leadership in sports. What I’m watching: What these two leaders accomplish, and when more up-and-coming female administrators, like Duke’s Nina King, are poised to take the next step.
AND THE BIGGEST FISH …: I was very surprised the Supreme Court agreed to hear the long-running New Jersey case on the 25-year-old federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which could result in legalized gambling across U.S. sports. Every element is in play here — integrity, security, legislative and monetization — and the leagues are retaining experts to help navigate for the future. What I’m watching: Briefs are expected in the fall, oral arguments in the spring and a decision could be made next June, which could be seismic for sports.
WHAT ELSE TO WATCH: The deliberate changes made by the new leadership at Formula One of Chase Carey and Sean Bratches. … Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff’s development of Oak View Group, its efforts in Seattle and its heated rivalry with AEG. … The introduction of one of the most debated branding efforts in memory: The 2.5-inch patch on NBA jerseys. Many executives bemoan the lack of value, yet brands ranging from Goodyear to Disney have signed on. … As the Atlanta Braves develop The Battery, I’ll be watching the impact of the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Little Caesars Arena in Detroit and the $400 million renovation in and around Notre Dame Stadium. … Can Los Angeles come from behind and win the 2024 Games? If not, what will the IOC give the city in exchange for waiting and how do bid officials spin 2028 as a win after trying for years to land ’24?
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com