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Volume 21 No. 23
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Ten stories that shaped 2018 so far

A sampling of the most important and impactful stories through the first three months of 2018, from one person’s point of view.

A TROUBLING END AND OPTIMISTIC START AT ESPN: No story captured the attention of the sports industry more than John Skipper’s sudden departure from ESPN amid revelations of cocaine addiction and an extortion attempt. Skipper’s agonizingly honest interview in The Hollywood Reporter is still a main topic of industry conversations weeks after it published. It took Bob Iger 77 days to find Skipper’s replacement, 48-year-old Jimmy Pitaro, who hails from Disney’s headquarters in Burbank, not Bristol. Pitaro has a full plate, including repairing a fractured relationship with the NFL, overseeing a totally revamped “Monday Night Football” booth and spearheading a much-publicized, critical launch of ESPN+.

THE XFL ADDS TO THE RUSH OF FOOTBALL STARTUPS: Vince McMahon promised a wholesome, family-friendly experience and a political-free zone when he announced plans to personally fund a relaunched XFL that will kick off in 2020. Two months later, Charlie Ebersol detailed plans for the Alliance of American Football to launch next February, along with a deal with CBS Sports. Both leagues will play around the same time and seem to target the same players — those who didn’t make the NFL. Those leagues join the Pacific Pro Football League, which is scheduled to launch next summer, in cluttering the American sports landscape with startups that will test America’s unquenchable thirst for all things football.

A NEW MODEL FOR PLAYERS: With unrest brewing over just how aggressive the NCAA will be in reforming college basketball, one story that shouldn’t be overlooked was the decision by McDonald’s All-American and Syracuse commit Darius Bazley to bypass college and go directly to the pros by signing with the NBA G League. Bazley is the first player to choose the NBA’s developmental league directly out of high school, looking to make money and play in an NBA-type of system. This could be the model others follow, not just in basketball, but for other sports and startup leagues, especially the football leagues detailed above.

THE NFL’S UNPREDICTABLE OFFSEASON: The NFL ended a troubled season on a high after a memorable Super Bowl filled with intrigue and drama — and it wasn’t just around the game! During Super Bowl week, the league announced Fox’s bold five-year deal to take “Thursday Night Football” away from NBC and CBS for a whopping $650 million a year. Later, it signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Pizza Hut, proving again the power of the NFL as a commercial partner. Owners wanted a leaner league office, and with an exodus of Tod Leiweke, Dawn Hudson and Joe Lockhart, as well as others who took buyouts, the league office has a different feel with far less institutional knowledge. But it’s too early to know what the result will be in terms of league policy and operation. The big issues remain the sale of the Carolina Panthers and, most importantly, a resolution on how to handle player protests during the national anthem.

MLB’s WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Baseball’s depressed free-agent market over the offseason portend major labor issues between players and management. Here’s one takeaway: Many teams, especially some notable big-market clubs, are spending less on payroll than a year ago; veteran free agents are understandably discouraged to have not found the same market for their services as players a few years earlier did, and players and agents are livid at their players association for agreeing to the current collective-bargaining agreement. I’d withhold final judgment until I see how the market responds to next year’s killer class of free agents that includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Clayton Kershaw. If teams don’t spend on that talent, expect major changes at the players association and a nasty labor stalemate when the current CBA expires in 2021.

#METOO IN SPORTS: The sports industry continues to be rocked by workplace misconduct issues. From executive changes amid reports of a boys-club atmosphere at Nike, to a massive culture overhaul at the Dallas Mavericks to changes in sports media (NFL Network/ESPN), culture in the workplace is being analyzed and emphasized more than ever. And the issues are far from over.

THE NASSAR SCANDAL: A slow-footed response to sex-abuse claims against doctor Larry Nassar put escalating pressure on several institutions and executives. After Nassar’s January sentencing, the scandal forced the resignation of veteran leaders at the college level (Michigan State AD Mark Hollis, MSU President Lou Anna Simon) and the Olympic movement (the entire USA Gymnastics board and USOC CEO Scott Blackmun). But that’s just the start. This tragic story will lead to potentially major bureaucratic reforms at both the collegiate and Olympic level as private and government investigators continue to assess what went wrong.

ENDEAVOR BUYS NEULION AND MAKES A STATEMENT: This may surprise some, but Endeavor’s acquisition of NeuLion is significant for a number of reasons. One, it instantly turbocharges Endeavor’s ambitious digital plans by giving it a fully developed direct-to-consumer platform that it can program with its bold concepts. Two, it also adds a major new player to the competitive marketplace for streaming rights, which also includes Disney’s BamTech, NBC’s Playmaker, Turner’s iStreamPlanet, Deltatre, Perform and ViewLift. This is a hot market; the question is if there is enough business for each of them.

THE RISE OF CARLOS CORDEIRO: The election to succeed Sunil Gulati as U.S. Soccer president was surprisingly nasty and combative, showing substantial unrest within the wide soccer community. In the end, the body went with who they knew, as U.S. Soccer VP Carlos Cordeiro bested longtime executive Kathy Carter, who couldn’t win over the voting bloc of the athletes council or local soccer organizers. It’s too early to determine any clear trends, but look for a more bottom-up leadership from Cordeiro than his predecessor. Also, keep an eye on Morocco, which has gained significant ground on the United Bid (Mexico, U.S., Canada) to land the 2026 World Cup. That vote in June is huge, and it’s not hyperbole to suggest it could change the future of soccer in the U.S. if it lands the mega-global event or, on a negative, if it loses out to Morocco.

THE LEGACY OF PYEONGCHANG: It feels terrible to write this, but it really felt like this year’s Games just came and went, and I’m not sure why. These Winter Olympics were the least-watched Games of all time on television, but the story lines coming out of South Korea could have been worse. To the credit of NBC, the Olympic movement and its fans, interest in the Games proved to be resilient despite a mediocre performance from Team USA, no NHL, a lack of star power and a tough time zone. But stories such as Chloe Kim and the U.S. women’s hockey team kept the Olympic flame burning.

OTHER STORIES THAT CAUGHT MY EYE: Another impressive launch by an MLS club — this time LAFC. … The aggressiveness of the Baltimore Orioles and John Angelos in implementing a dramatic program to jump-start attendance by young fans at Camden Yards, instilling a policy that allows kids 9 and under to attend for free. … How Tiger Woods’ return dramatically juiced interest and business around golf. … The Indy 500 going to NBC Sports — the network gets the signature American race, which still has pop culture cachet, while IndyCar gets the partner it is comfortable with and believes will help with scheduling consistency. … Data integrity in the wake of Facebook’s issues and how that affects user privacy going forward. … Anheuser-Busch InBev putting performance clauses and standards in future marketing partnerships with properties. 

The were plenty of other important stories — and we didn’t even mention the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision on gambling! The business doesn’t stop, so expect the rest of 2018 to be even more dynamic.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.