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Volume 20 No. 42

Power Players

In a world where effective messaging and communication is more critical than ever, the ability to artfully craft and distribute a story is vital. That means communication specialists have a much larger role, with significant influence in shaping an organization’s agenda, strategy, tactics and public persona.

Over the years, sports has seen a specialization in the role of PR professionals. It’s about shaping the news cycle, selecting the proper distribution platforms and having the ear of and access to the leaders who articulate the message. Again, it’s back to storytelling, with more tools than ever at their disposal to tell, shape and spread the story.

Here are a number of top storytellers and communication specialists who influence much of the messaging we see today in sports — from teams, leagues, governing bodies and brands.

Jennifer Sabatelle, CBS Sports
Greg Hughes, NBC Sports Group
Chris LaPlaca, ESPN
Sal Petruzzi, Turner Broadcasting System

Dan Courtemanche, MLS
Chris Widmaier, U.S. Tennis Association
Mike Bass, NBA
Joe Lockhart, NFL
Pat Courtney, MLB
Bob Williams, NCAA
Patrick Sandusky, U.S. Olympic Committee

Meier Raivich, Fanatics
Diane Pelkey, Under Armour

Staci Slaughter, San Francisco Giants
Jason Zillo, New York Yankees
Stacey James, New England Patriots
Raymond Ridder, Golden State Warriors
Rich Dalrymple, Dallas Cowboys

Ari Fleischer, Ari Fleischer Sports Communications / Sandy Montag, The Montag Group
Alice McGillion, Rubenstein Associates
Ann Wool, Ketchum Sports & Entertainment
Mary Scott, United Entertainment Group
Joe Favorito, Joe Favorito Consulting
Steve Brener, Brener Zwikel & Associates
Melissa Zukerman, Principal Communications Group
Peter Land, Finsbury
Matthew Hiltzik, Hiltzik Strategies

Photo by: MARY KOUW / CBS

CBS Sports

Senior vice president, communications

Sabatelle has been entrusted with guiding the CBS Sports brand in this era of media disruption. A key adviser to CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, Sabatelle started at CBS in March 2000 as a programming and marketing coordinator and was promoted to senior vice president of communications in December 2013. Sabatelle is not one to be at McManus’ side — CBS PR strategy frequently allows executives to speak to media without PR help. But she’s an important cog in CBS Sports’ business, someone who top executives rely on.

— John Ourand


NBC Sports Group
Senior vice president, communications

NBC will produce America’s biggest sporting event in February in the Super Bowl. Days later, it will produce the world’s biggest sporting event in the Winter Olympics. Hughes will oversee NBC Sports Group’s communications team as they manage the PR coming out of both huge events. Hughes is the consigliere behind NBC Broadcasting & Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, for whom he has worked at both NBC Sports and Turner Sports. A seemingly constant presence at Lazarus’ side, Hughes regularly provides counsel for Lazarus, one of the most accomplished executives in media.

— John Ourand

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Photo by: Enter Name Here

Senior vice president, corporate communications

ESPN is the biggest sports media company by far, boasting TV channels, broadband offerings, radio stations, websites and a print magazine. The executive overseeing communications for all these businesses is LaPlaca, an ESPN lifer, having joined the company in July 1980 as a communications representative. LaPlaca was promoted to senior vice president for corporate communications in June 2008, and has dictated communications strategy for the company under former President George Bodenheimer and current President John Skipper. Today, LaPlaca is front-and-center as he guides ESPN’s messaging amid this time of media disruption.

— John Ourand

Sal Petruzzi with his son, Jason, at the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol

Turner Broadcasting System
Senior vice president and domestic communications officer

Sports business executives know about the path David Levy has taken to become Turner Broadcasting president. Petruzzi has been with Levy the whole way. The media communications veteran joined Turner Sports in 2003 and was promoted to senior vice president and domestic communications officer in 2014, a position where he oversees the entertainment, sales and sports communications teams at TBS, TNT, truTV, Turner network sales and Turner Sports. A passionate advocate for Turner’s sports properties, Petruzzi has helped to manage Turner’s NBA, MLB and NCAA relationships over the past decade and a half.

— John Ourand

Photo by: MLS

Executive vice president, communications

Courtemanche, one of the original members of the MLS staff prior to the league launching in 1996, oversees all communication that comes from the league office and its commercial arm, Soccer United Marketing. He serves as a close confidant to MLS Commissioner Don Garber — who began his career in PR — and helps shape the league’s messaging via a proactive media outreach strategy. With more than 25 years working in professional soccer in the U.S., his near-encyclopedic knowledge about the history of the game in North America is invaluable to the growing league.
— Ian Thomas

Photo by: USTA

U.S. Tennis Association
Managing director,
corporate communications

Tennis is the center of the New York sports universe for two weeks every year, and guiding the messaging that has led the U.S. Open to become one of the hottest tickets in sports is Widmaier. The rest of the year he oversees the U.S. Tennis Association’s efforts to publicize the sport, whether that’s through the new National Campus in Orlando, the $600 million renovation of the National Tennis Center, or the steady stream of public play initiatives that the USTA promotes.

— Daniel Kaplan


Executive vice president, communications

Bass is the key architect behind the NBA’s public messaging and a trusted adviser to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Whenever you see Silver, Bass is close at his side, serving as confidant and sounding board. Bass, who joined the NBA in 1997, is also a gatekeeper of Silver’s appearances and a key message-shaper. From public relations to union negotiations to community efforts, it’s Bass who molds the message coming out of the NBA offices. As the NBA’s global reputation continues to be enhanced, it’s Bass who grows in influence.

— John Lombardo

Photo by: NFL.COM

Executive vice president, communications and public affairs

Lockhart has a long political pedigree, serving a number of Democratic presidential candidates before becoming a familiar name as head of the White House press office during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal. He then founded a Washington, D.C., consulting firm and advised for Facebook and others, before joining the NFL in 2016. The New York native has brought a more muscular PR effort to the league during his 20-month tenure. With the high-profile nature of the NFL and labor strife approaching in coming years, Lockhart’s political messaging skills will be put to the test.
— Daniel Kaplan

Pat Courtney (foreground) with MLB COO Tony Petitti and Commissioner Rob Manfred

Chief communications officer

Aside from the White House, there are few, if any, American institutions more broadly and rigorously covered by the press than baseball, and Courtney is on the front lines of that scrutiny as the league’s principal spokesman. One of MLB’s longest-tenured employees, with more than a quarter century of service, Courtney is a key adviser to Commissioner Rob Manfred and became part of Manfred’s cabinet-level executive team during the league’s 2014-15 leadership transition.

— Eric Fisher


U.S. Olympic Committee
Chief external affairs officer

Sandusky doesn’t just decide what Team USA tells the media. He decides what Team USA says to the world. A close confidant of CEO Scott Blackmun for nearly eight years, Sandusky has been a key strategist behind the U.S. Olympic Committee’s successful return to the good graces of the International Olympic Committee, paving the way for Los Angeles to win the 2028 Games. In a sign of Sandusky’s indispensability, Blackmun promoted him in 2015 to oversee international and governmental relations along with communications. International sports can be political quicksand, and the USOC has stayed mostly high and dry with Sandusky around.

— Ben Fischer

Photo by: NCAA

Senior vice president of communications

Williams, in his 12th year with the NCAA, oversees strategic communications and external affairs for the governing body of intercollegiate athletics. In that role, he is the spokesman for the NCAA. Just as importantly, though, is how Williams, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, has evolved into one of the most trusted advisers and confidants for Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president. Whenever you see Emmert in a public setting, Williams is usually close by.
— Michael Smith

Photo by: FANATICS

Vice president, communications and corporate branding

Over the past few years, Fanatics has acquired some of the most significant rights and brands in the sports licensing industry. By amassing licensing rights across colleges, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, the NBA, NHL, NFL and NFL Players Association; building a venue merchandise business at NASCAR tracks and across various arenas and stadiums; and attracting equity investments from the NFL, MLB and NHL, Fanatics is now a buyer, retailer, and manufacturer of sports licensed goods. As Fanatics roils what was a sleepy sports licensing industry, Raivich is helping to define the brand and developing visibility for founder and Chairman Michael Rubin unrivaled within sports licensing circles.

— Terry Lefton


Under Armour
Senior vice president, global communications and entertainment

Keeping a brand’s message consistent and concise as it deals with geometric revenue growth is one of the most challenging tasks for any PR-type. During her decade at Under Armour, Pelkey has helped guide the brand’s ascension to a $5 billion company, adroitly nurturing an equally fast-growing mix of athletes and entertainers as brand emissaries to connect with UA’s youthful consumers.

— Terry Lefton


San Francisco Giants
Executive vice president, communications, and senior adviser to the CEO

Despite a losing season this year, the Giants are still the closest thing baseball has to a dynasty with three titles this decade and a strong industry reputation as an off-the-field innovator. Slaughter, a 21-year veteran of the club, has played a vital role in creating and managing that success as a close, trusted aide to team President and CEO Larry Baer. But outside of the good times, Slaughter also is a seasoned crisis communicator having dealt with tougher issues such as Barry Bonds and steroid allegations, the financing of AT&T Park, and the Bay Area territorial battle with the Oakland A’s.

— Eric Fisher

Jason Zillo with retired Yankees catcher Jorge Posada

New York Yankees
Vice president, communications and media relations

The crazy Bronx Zoo days that surrounded the Yankees in the 1970s and ’80s are a mere distant memory as Zillo has helped create a sense of calm, cool professionalism around the team as it operates in MLB’s largest media market. A 21-year veteran of the club, Zillo is also the key figure behind the Yankees’ Hope Week, an annual charitable campaign started in 2009 that has since been replicated in the club’s minor league system and by other organizations.

— Eric Fisher

Raymond Ridder with Warriors center Damian Jones

Golden State Warriors
Vice president of communications

Ridder plays a critical role in shaping the image of the white-hot franchise that draws global attention. During his two-decade tenure with the Warriors, Ridder has mastered the messaging of the current NBA champions, who are now building a $1 billion arena in San Francisco. The industry has taken notice. Last season under Ridder’s leadership, the Warriors for the fourth time won the Professional Basketball Writers Association’s Brian McIntyre Media Relations Award. The Warriors are the only NBA team to have won the award four times, a testament to Ridder’s influence within the industry.

— John Lombardo


New England Patriots
Vice president of media relations

James’ time with the Patriots predated by nearly a year the purchase of the team by Robert Kraft, who famously turned it into an international sports brand. At Kraft’s side, handling success and controversy, both of which have come in spades, is James. From the Krafts, to Bill Belichick to Tom Brady, the Patriots are a constant story for global media, and it is James who is handling the access and directing the Patriots’ message.

— Daniel Kaplan


Dallas Cowboys
Senior vice president, public relations and communications

Dalrymple may have one of the toughest jobs in sports PR; his boss is the voluble and, at times, incorrigible Jerry Jones. But the laconic former college quarterback, married to a South African tennis player, has long taken it all in stride and is the perfect calm the churn around the Cowboys brand calls for. Whether it’s a player scandal, one of his boss’s latest and interesting comments, or actual football, Dalrymple is there guiding messaging around perhaps the top brand in sports.

— Daniel Kaplan

Photo by: AP IMAGES

Ari Fleischer Sports Communications


The Montag Group
President and CEO

Two of the biggest brand names in sports media, Fleischer and Montag set up a partnership to offer strategy, advice and training for sports business executives. The group has signed a number of high-profile clients, including the NFL, NBA and MLB, plus college conferences like the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 and the College Football Playoff. Fleischer was the White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. Montag is president and CEO of The Montag Group, where he has the highest-profile clients in sports TV.
— John Ourand


Rubenstein Associates
Managing director

The New York-based McGillion has her fingers on much of the Big Apple’s sports scene, working closely with the Yankees, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment and the NFL, and was principally involved in major events there such as the 2008 and 2013 MLB All-Star Games and Super Bowl XLVIII, and the opening of MetLife Stadium and expansion of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Handling public relations for many of the Yankees’ off-field matters such as the development of the new Yankee Stadium and work in Legends Hospitality, McGillion, like club executive Jason Zillo, has helped create an entirely new image around the once-chaotic club.

— Eric Fisher

Photo by: KETCHUM

Ketchum Sports & Entertainment
Partner and president

One of the most experienced voices in sports sponsorship, influencer marketing and brand management, Wool for more than two decades has counseled a wide array of top-tier corporate clients, including Visa, Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, IBM and Chase, among many others. An influential voice in Olympic sports, Wool is a veteran of a dozen Games, and will be a significant presence with her clients at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
— Eric Fisher


United Entertainment Group
President, global integrated communications

A prominent figure in the Olympics world and beyond, Scott for 25 years has led activation, reputation management, issues counsel and brand strategy for top-tier corporate sponsors, brands, leagues and teams. Beyond sports marketing, her work in the Olympic movement for TOP sponsors, the International Olympic Committee, national Olympic committees and bid and candidate cities has taken Scott’s work into hot-button issues such as human rights, government funding, and public health concerns. She was a key figure in the 2014 joint venture between UEG, United Talent Agency and Matter Inc., Edelman PR’s sports arm.

— Eric Fisher

Joe Favorito with his wife, Laura

Joe Favorito Consulting

He writes a blog; distributes a weekly newsletter; has worked on films, books and Broadway shows; sits on boards; teaches a sports management class at Columbia; and has a string of clients who are making a name in the sports business. While Favorito doesn’t have the size and scale of the top PR firms, many entities rely on him to roll up his sleeves and work the front lines. He knows every reporter and has worked with seemingly every company in sports.

— John Ourand

Steve Brener with Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner
Photo by: JON SOOHOO

Brener Zwikel & Associates

A veteran of the Los Angeles sports scene for more than four decades, Brener leads a public relations firm that has helped oversee dozens of major boxing matches, 30 Super Bowls, and many other top-tier events such as the NHL Winter Classic and PGA Tour’s Humana Challenge. Brener started his career in the early 1970s as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ director of publicity, becoming the youngest person in MLB history to hold that job title, and he still works closely with the club as it expands aggressively into new areas such as investing in startup technology companies.
— Eric Fisher


Principal Communications Group
Managing partner

One of the most wired communications executives in Los Angeles and the Hollywood entertainment scene, Zukerman and co-managing partner Paul Pflug work closely with heavy hitters such as Live Nation, Wasserman and The Chernin Group and producer and Steelers investor Thomas Tull. As powerful executives such as Peter Chernin, Casey Wasserman and Tull navigate a wide and complex array of business, philanthropic and political interests, Zukerman has served as a trusted adviser.

— Eric Fisher

Peter Land with Paralympic swimmer Brad Snyder before the 2016 Rio Games
Photo by: CITI


A three-decade veteran of the sports, entertainment and media industries, Land helped launch the WNBA in the 1990s while with the NBA, also ran communications efforts for AOL and PepsiCo, and now is a partner with one of the leading crisis communication and public policy outfits in the business. Prominent clients such as Citicorp, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and the National Basketball Players Association have relied on Land’s counsel.

— Eric Fisher


Hiltzik Strategies
President and CEO

Hiltzik is best known as a go-to crisis communicator for athletes in some form of distress or legal trouble, working with the likes of swimmer Ryan Lochte, football players Ray Rice and Manti Te’o, and baseball player Ryan Braun. But Hiltzik, an attorney by trade, holds a much broader background that also includes working on Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign and with Hollywood titans such as Harvey Weinstein. Hiltzik continues to be in demand by a wide array of sports and entertainment organizations, and two years ago represented the owners of Triple Crown horse racing winner American Pharoah.

— Eric Fisher