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Volume 21 No. 30

Sports Business Awards

Photo: courtesy of amazon

Amazon

This was the year that Amazon made its first move into sports, picking up the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” streaming package (and increasing online viewership), the AVP Tour and the ATP’s British and Irish rights.

ESPN Digital Media

The country’s biggest sports media brand, ESPN saw enormous growth in its ESPN App and fantasy business. ESPN video streamed to 14 total platforms last year, including the extension of its “SportsCenter” brand to social media sites like Snapchat.

Facebook

The social media giant increasingly dabbled in sports last year, cutting streaming deals with top leagues such as MLB and MLS, in addition to the World Surf League, CrossFit amd LigaMX.

NBC Sports Group

NBC Sports Digital streamed more than 20,000 hours of live content last year, 33 percent higher than the previous year. It was also the first year NBC Sports’ RSNs streamed local MLB games.

Turner Sports

The growth of Bleacher Report; the pending launch of a direct-to-consumer service; and programming deals with digital media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat show Turner’s ability to adapt to changing sports media consumptions patterns.

Twitter

Twitter bet big on live sports through deals with MLB, MLS and the PGA Tour. All told, Twitter streamed 1,140 live events in the fourth quarter and cut several deals with networks and leagues for shoulder programming to continue the conversation.

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Barstool Sports

Barstool continued to make waves in sports media by attracting an audience of young men that advertisers want to reach. Traditional media is taking notice, as in January Barstool raised another $15 million from majority owner The Chernin Group.

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Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp

The rebranded club enjoyed a 23 percent attendance increase, earned its highest merchandise sales ever and gained national notoriety for its game-day promotion (a neck pillow that looks like a jumbo shrimp). The Southern League honored GM Harold Craw and the team as the top executive and organization.

Kobe Inc.'s Granity Studios

Kobe Bryant made a big move into sports production with his Granity Studios, which produced a basketball analysis series called “Detail” for ESPN+. Its “Dear Basketball,” a poem Bryant wrote for The Players’ Tribune in 2015, won an Oscar in the animated short category.

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Mercedes-Benz Stadium Food & Beverage Experience

The Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC debuted a revolutionary approach to food and beverage pricing in the first year of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With hot dogs costing $2, hamburgers $5 and Coca-Colas $2 (with free refills), concession revenue actually increased by 16 percent overall.

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Overwatch League

Activision Blizzard’s audacious esports gambit just kept surprising people. With a short time frame to launch, the league sold 12 charter franchises at prices never before contemplated in esports, several big-dollar sponsorship deals and a media rights package.

15 Seconds of Fame

Described as the “ultimate selfie,” 15SOF captures fan moments from video boards and sports broadcasts, packages them for easy sharing on social networks, and has struck a wide array of top-tier partnerships in pro and college sports.

NASCAR

NASCAR’s emphasis on mobile engagement has brought fans livestreaming of in-car video views on Twitter, augmented and virtual reality, three-dimensional race re-creations, Snapchat stories, and live in-race audio of drivers communicating with their teams.

Tagboard

Tagboard has helped a wide array of teams, including the Eagles, Warriors and Sounders, and venues such as Safeco Field and Jordan-Hare Stadium display content from Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms onto venue video boards, live game broadcasts and other communal environments.

Xperiel

Seeking to break down barriers between the physical and digital worlds, Xperiel has created for several pro teams a series of mobile-based experiences that include predictive games, augmented reality experiences and immersive games aimed at improving in-venue fan engagement.

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Intel

Intel sharply expanded many of its efforts around virtual reality, 360-degree video and artificial intelligence, including new deals with both the NBA and MLB to develop regular schedules of games in VR. The company also reached a large-scale deal with the International Olympic Committee that included new levels of fan immersion during the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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LiveLike

A  more social take on virtual reality provided LiveLike a way to break through the often-isolating nature of the emerging technology such as virtual reality and tap more fully into the communal nature of sports fandom. The distinct approach has helped bring on top-tier partners such as Fox, FIFA and the French Open.

Ticketmaster

For many years, teams, leagues and venues have wanted to know who was in the building watching a game, and what was the path of ownership of a ticket before it was used. Ticketmaster’s new Presence digital ticketing system represented the first major effort within the sports industry to begin answering those questions at scale. 

Univision Deportes

Univision Deportes brought new energy into traditional studio-based sports broadcasts with its “teleportation” technology that allowed players to interact live with show hosts while not actually being there, deploying the enhancement during a series of key soccer events.

Photo: Courtesy of Army West Point Athletics

Boo Corrigan, Army

At the U.S. Military Academy, they call it “the fields of friendly strife.” That’s where Army’s intercollegiate teams have recently achieved some of the highest levels of success as at any point in the academy’s illustrious 128-year athletic history. At the helm during that time has been Boo Corrigan, Army’s athletic director for the last seven years. Corrigan has overseen a time of transition, creating a nonprofit arm to operate the business side of Army athletics. The Black Knights also have turned football around, beating Navy twice in a row and winning 10 games in 2017, tying the program record for wins in a season. Army also won the Patriot League’s 2017 President’s Cup for overall athletic success.

Photo: courtesy of ucf athletics

Danny White, UCF

When Alabama’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, and ESPN’s lead college football analyst, Kirk Herbstreit, were tweeting about UCF football during the offseason, that was all the evidence Danny White needed to know that he was doing the right thing in promoting the undefeated Knights as national champions. White decided to turn UCF’s exclusion from the four-team playoff, despite owning the nation’s only unblemished record, into a reason to celebrate by making the most of the moment, staging a parade and ordering championship rings. White used his marketing intuition to manufacture a mythical championship as a platform for the school. By the way, UCF football season-ticket sales are well ahead of last year’s pace.

Photo: courtesy of james madison university

Jeff Bourne, James Madison

The scene on the Quad at James Madison University last October was straight out of a big-time football program. Close to 14,000 fans gathered on the lawn in the middle of JMU’s campus, nearly losing their collective minds when Lee Corso pulled out the Dukes’ mascot head and put it on. It marked the second time in three years that ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew had settled into Harrisonburg, Va. — a nod to what Jeff Bourne has built in almost two decades at the school. James Madison might play football at the FCS level, but the Dukes certainly operate like a power program, winning 28 games over the last two seasons and twice appearing in the national championship game.

Photo: courtesy of northwestern university

Jim Phillips, Northwestern

The word “transformative” is used just about every time a school so much as adds a new coat of paint to an existing facility. But in Northwestern’s case, the $270 million lakefront project set to open this summer truly will transform the Wildcats’ facilities. Ryan Fieldhouse features a multipurpose indoor field for football, practice spaces for Olympic sports, lockers, weight rooms, academic centers, nutrition zones and other competition areas. Best of all might be the spectacular view of Lake Michigan from the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The project has been Jim Phillips’ vision since, oh, 2011 when he began pitching the idea to university leaders. During the last seven years, Phillips has had a few other visions — the basketball team making the NCAA Tournament for the first time; a renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena; football regularly competing in the upper echelon of the Big Ten. It all happened last year.

Photo: courtesy of penn state university

Sandy Barbour, Penn State

The Nittany Lions are enjoying one of their most successful periods across all sports. Under Sandy Barbour’s leadership, Penn State has revived both the football and men’s basketball programs, even as the school emerged in recent years from the Sandusky scandal. Football won 11 games last season, while basketball won 26 games and the NIT title. At the same time Barbour, working with Populous, presented her vision for the future of Penn State’s facilities with a long-term master plan that will deliver a much-needed remodel and update to many of them, including a planned Beaver Stadium renovation that has been compared to Kyle Field at Texas A&M for its high-end finishings and premium seating. Barbour also is recognized as an influential voice nationally, sitting on the NCAA’s football oversight committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s collegiate advisory council.

PeacePlayers International

PeacePlayers was established in 2001 by two brothers, Sean and Brendan Tuohey, with the vision of building relationships and trust through basketball. The global nonprofit offers sports programming, peace education and leadership development in communities rife with conflict — Northern Ireland, Cyprus, the Middle East and South Africa — all around basketball. In 2017, it launched a multiyear partnership with Nike in U.S. communities in Baltimore, Brooklyn and Detroit focused on improving relationships between youth and police. It aims to launch similar programs in Chicago, Los Angeles and Memphis later this year. This is the second year that SBJ has recognized an entity for its Celebration of Service. Last year’s inaugural award went to the Homeless World Cup and was accepted by co-founder, Mel Young.

Photo: Getty Images

CAA Sports

CAA Sports assisted client J.J. Watt of the Texans in engineering charity relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey, which generated nearly $38 million from 200,000 people worldwide. It also represented former Cowboys QB Tony Romo in his successful transition from the field to the lead NFL analyst’s role at CBS.

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Excel Sports Management

Excel Sports Management led all agencies in the NBA draft with four first-round selections, added the Texans’ DeShaun Watson to its NFL quarterback marketing roster and developed the marketing campaign with Budweiser around the retirement of former Yankee Derek Jeter’s number.

Lagardère Sports

Lagardère Sports represents a roster of 250 athletes in multiple sports, including golfers Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm (above) and top women tennis players Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki. The agency is a force in the NFL with 25 Pro Bowlers, including six 2017 first-ballot selections.

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Octagon

Octagon negotiated Steph Curry’s max five-year, $201 million deal with the Warriors on the court and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s (above) off-the-court signature shoe deal with Nike. It also helped guide Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in his new philanthropic venture to raise awareness about mental health.

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Professional Sports Representation

Bob LaMonte’s Professional Sports Representation was involved in the biggest moves in NFL management, including Jon Gruden’s return to coaching with the Raiders, and deals for Pat Shurmur and Frank Reich as head coaches for the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts, respectively.  LaMonte also represents last season’s NFL coach of the year (Sean McVay, Rams), assistant coach of the year (Shurmur) and executive of the year (Howie Roseman, Eagles).

Photo: THE MONTAG GROUP

The Montag Group

Formed through the merger of Sandy Montag’s agency with IF Management and Vision Sports, The Montag Group represents some of the biggest names in sports broadcasting, including Mike Tirico, Bob Costas, Jim Nantz and Jay Bilas. It also partners with Ari Fleischer Communications in media strategy, training and crisis management.

Photo: Getty Images

Wasserman

In 2017, Wasserman represented the MVPs in three leagues: Giancarlo Stanton in Major League Baseball, Russell Westbrook in the NBA and Sylvia Fowles (above) in the WNBA. The agency has been at the forefront of supporting its athlete clients on social justice issues, including WNBA player Breanna Stewart in the #MeToo movement, USA Hockey player Hilary Knight in addressing the gender wage gap and WNBA player Maya Moore with criminal justice reform.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are the third-most-followed team in North America with more than 25 million followers across major social media platforms. The team is leveraging its young player roster by producing branded content whose revenue is up by more than 150 percent over the past two years.

Major League Soccer

MLS’s focus on reaching fans via social media — with live games, weekly programming and groundbreaking series on Facebook and access to players across all platforms — has been a big part of its success. The league also supports clubs with social media training and strategy analysis. 

NASCAR

NASCAR’s deal with Twitter livestreamed in-car cameras during the Chase for the Championship for the first time and Facebook Live did the same during Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race at Daytona. The property’s online video views totaled 421 million (up 45 percent over 2016) in addition to 352 million social media engagements (up 24 percent).

Tom Brady

Tom Brady may already be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), but he is working hard to also become one of the top athletes on social media. His “Tom vs. Time” series on Facebook, his latest foray on social media, examined the quarterback’s offseason and his emotional state.

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Endeavor Global Marketing

The 12-city Wendy’s College Tailgate Tour, developed, managed and executed by Endeavor Global Marketing, featured five other sponsor partners in a unified footprint. The company also transformed the Venice Beach basketball courts into a one-day festival to celebrate the Under Armour-UCLA apparel deal.

Photo: RICK WILLIAMS

Engine Shop

Engine Shop designed the Bud Light Mobile Tailgate on Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s main plaza creating an enhanced pregame experience at Atlanta Falcons home games. The company also worked with Stella Artois at the Miami Open to create the open-air Stella Lounge at Center Court, complete with DJ booth and mobile charging stations.

Photo: getty images

Intersport

At the men’s Final Four, Intersport built and activated Buick’s “Bracketball” game that brought the NCAA bracket to life through a unique shooting competition. At the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National, Intersport worked with the title sponsor to communicate its support for the nation’s military.

Photo: courtesy of wasserman

Wasserman

Wasserman organized the U.S. Olympic Committee’s kickoff event and national Team USA Winterfest tour leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It also developed Target’s MLS All-Star Game Rally on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, featuring an all-day fan festival and nighttime penalty kick experience. 

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2017 NFL Draft: Philadelphia

More than 250,000 fans attended the NFL Draft in Philadelphia, held in an outdoor theater constructed in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This event cemented the draft’s status as the key offseason spectacle for the NFL, one that is now bid out and moved around the country akin to a Super Bowl.

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El Clásico Miami

One of sports’ fiercest rivalries between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona came to the U.S. for the first time last summer as part of the International Champions Cup, taking over Miami with nearly a week’s worth of events including a two-day free public fan fest of music, sponsor activations and player appearances, and a sold-out showdown at Hard Rock Stadium.

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Mayweather vs. McGregor

All-time pay-per-view king Floyd Mayweather returned from a 23-month hiatus to defeat UFC superstar Conor McGregor in a crossover event at T-Mobile Arena that generated 4.3 million PPV buys in North America and brought in more than $600 million globally. It also generated the second-largest fight gate ever, at $54.4 million.

Photo: COURTESY OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

Major League Baseball Little League Classic

The new event in Williamsport, Pa., broke down barriers between Little League players and their big-league counterparts with players from the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals appearing at the Little League World Series and then playing a regular-season game at a nearby minor league field for youth players and their families.

Photo: getty images

Solheim Cup

The biennial Solheim Cup drew record attendance of more than 124,000 and record TV viewership of 7.3 million on Golf Channel/NBC at last year’s event in Des Moines, Iowa. Revenue nearly doubled from 2013, the last time the event was staged in the U.S., thanks to new hospitality venues and branding efforts.

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TCS New York City Marathon

Marathon Sunday in New York is what every sporting event wants to be: A community celebration that reaches far beyond the sport itself, touching fans around the world. In 2017, new sponsor New Balance activated on a Bronx street corner and Beijing alike. To top it off, Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the race in 40 years.

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Little Caesars Arena

Little Caesars Arena sports an innovative design that allows the venue to fit naturally in the neighborhood. The $870 million arena, home to the Red Wings and Pistons, is playing a key role in Detroit’s revitalization efforts. It provides year-round entertainment and dining options that give fans a compelling reason to stay downtown.

Photo: david durochik

Notre Dame Stadium

Like its name implies, Notre Dame’s $400 million Campus Crossroads project created an intersection for athletics, academics and student life. The project built a modern fan experience inside Notre Dame Stadium with a new video board, premium seating and connectivity upgrades while preserving its storied traditions.

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SunTrust Park / The Battery Atlanta

A complete live-work-play district, the $1.3 billion SunTrust Park / Battery Atlanta redefines the sports venue experience. The  modern ballpark and home of the Atlanta Braves has one of the largest video boards in baseball, and the surrounding entertainment district includes a four-star Omni Hotel, upscale restaurants and shops, and three apartment buildings.

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Target Center

Target Center’s $140 million renovation features a new-look exterior for the 28-year-old arena and a light-filled glass atrium that faces downtown. Updated premium seating and new amenities, including all new seats and a beer garden, allow the venue to keep pace in a revitalized Minneapolis sports market.

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T-Mobile Arena

T-Mobile Arena served as host to three of the biggest boxing events of 2017, including Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor, and the home arena of the Vegas Golden Knights, arguably the hottest expansion team in sports history. The 2-year-old arena proved it can compete with the brightest lights on the Las Vegas Strip and other venues across the country.

Photo: nancy kuehn / minneapolis/st. paul business journal

U.S. Bank Stadium

With soaring roof lines and an expansive interior, the $975 million U.S. Bank Stadium’s unique features include the world’s largest pivoting glass doors, a roof with 248,000 square feet of ETFE material, and seats closest to the action in the NFL. It played host to Super Bowl LII in January and will be home to the 2019 NCAA Final Four.

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CAA Sports

CAA Sports’ new client wins with Intel and Lyft were impressive, as was Intel’s TOP Olympic deal, followed by the beginning of an esports event strategy for the technology company. The agency’s work with Bose around the NFL sidelines deal has moved the needle on sales and brand perception in a highly competitive category.

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Endeavor Global Marketing

In the aftermath of the Endeavor-IMG merger, this group is fashioning the next generation sport and entertainment marketing company, adding branding shop 160Over90. Strong experiential work at big events — including the Super Bowl and the Olympics — along with 30 new clients and development of new events, such as Topgolf Crush, complete the picture.

Photo: courtesy of GMR Marketing

GMR Marketing

Breakthrough work for U.S. Bank, 3M, Land O’Lakes and others in the most cluttered of environments — the Super Bowl — highlighted GMR’s year, which also included management of the host committee’s VIP hospitality in Minneapolis. The agency added Aetna, Capital One, Exxon and Rakuten to its client roster and expanded in Europe with the acquisition of agency TRO.

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MKTG

MKTG’s high-level work and comprehensive knowledge of the industry is exemplified through its work for big brands including Toyota, IBM and FedEx, for which it completed a 10-year renewal of the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s largest deal. The addition of Canadian firm S&E Sponsorship Group widens the global footprint of an agency already owned by Japanese marketing conglomerate Dentsu.

Momentum Worldwide

Size and scale are difference makers for Momentum, which manages a $4 billion sponsorship portfolio for brands including Verizon, American Express, SAP and Chevron, a big agency-of-record win for the IPG-owned shop. It also recommended and negotiated United’s 15-year, $70.5 million naming-rights deal with USC for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Octagon

Octagon’s branded content and experiences work for MasterCard (#ArnieWould), Bank of America (#MLBMemoryBank) and Delta (“Beyond the Court,” “Arrivals” and “Originals”) introduced new perspectives for clients. The agency entered the media game with the launch of a global media rights consulting division and deployed its Passion Drivers platform around esports and its fans.

Photo: john paul filo / cbs

CBS Sports

CBS found success with the boldest on-air moves in the business. It not only hired the well-regarded Tony Romo as the network’s top NFL game analyst, but moved Phil Simms into the studio and picked Brad Nessler (above, right) to follow the legendary Verne Lundquist on SEC telecasts.

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ESPN

Maintaining its position at the forefront of digital media, ESPN put plans in place to launch a direct-to-consumer service, ESPN+. It also showed its marketing might during the College Football Playoff, which posted a huge TV viewership.

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Fox Sports

Fox opened the 2017 selling season by pledging to “own the fall.” After a seven-game World Series, FS1’s most-viewed month in October as well as NFL and college football gains, the network backed up its predictions with top-notch results.

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NBC Sports Group

NBC produced the biggest sporting events in Super Bowl LII and the Winter Olympics, and its “Sunday Night Football” finished the season as TV’s top prime-time show for a record seventh year in a row.

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Turner Sports

Turner last year reached a three-year multiplatform rights agreement with UEFA for Champions and Europa league coverage for the coming season. It will use those and its portfolio of NBA rights as the pillars of the direct-to-consumer OTT platform it plans to launch this spring, underscoring its standing as one of the most progressive outlets in sports media.

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Atlanta United FC

Atlanta United found instant success in its MLS debut season, as owner Arthur Blank’s heavy investment in the team paid dividends both on and off the field. The team set MLS attendance records — including drawing more than 70,000 fans multiple times — as Atlanta quickly silenced any doubts that it could be a soccer city.

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Golden State Warriors

The defending NBA champion Warriors are a powerhouse off the court, ranking at or near the top of the league in multiple sales categories. That includes signing the league’s most valuable jersey patch deal — a $60 million sponsorship with Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten.

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Houston Astros

The Astros last year won their first World Series championship, completing a large-scale rebuilding effort that is now being replicated throughout baseball. The club also provided much-needed relief to disaster-stricken Houston and Puerto Rico.

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Nashville Predators

The Predators’ run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final put a spotlight on the city’s transformation into a hockey town. Drawing tens of thousands of people to the streets for their playoff games, the team translated that momentum into record attendance, revenue and TV ratings this season, and its first season-ticket holder waiting list.

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Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are one of the league’s most sophisticated marketers as evidenced by team parent MLSE’s record-breaking, $800 million arena naming-rights deal with Scotiabank. The team also won the NBA Partnership of the Year Award for its content-based campaign with GoDaddy.

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Vegas Golden Knights

Las Vegas’ first major professional sports franchise, the Golden Knights took the city and the NHL by storm in its expansion season. Setting numerous NHL records for an expansion team while playing in front of raucous sold-out crowds every night, in a city filled with must-see attractions, the Golden Knights may be on top of the list.

Photo: brandon magnus / zuffa llc

Constellation Brands

Constellation continues to evolve into a sports marketing power. Its most popular brand, Corona, signed its first college deal (University of Texas) and took over rights for the Kentucky Derby. Sister brand Modelo went big with UFC and CONCACAF, and sales for both brands have soared.

Photo: courtesy of dr pepper

Dr Pepper

Larry Culpepper, the quirky but popular soda vendor, will be back as Dr Pepper extended its College Football Playoff deal by six years. The soda’s deal with Team SoloMid, the six-time champions of the North American League of Legends Championship Series, gives it exposure to a new demographic.

Photo: getty images

Toyota

As it rebrands itself from a carmaker to a company that provides multiple mobility options, Toyota became a launch partner of Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League, extended its multi-venue partnership with AEG, and signed on as an official sponsor of the NHL’s Golden Knights and CONCACAF Gold Cup.

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Verizon

Verizon bought Yahoo for $4.5 billion and combined it with AOL to create the new Oath digital content and advertising subsidiary, covering more than 50 media brands. That reach helped the company renew its partnerships with the NFL, worth an estimated $2 billion over five seasons, and the NBA.

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Xfinity

For the first time, television viewers had access to every Olympic moment live only with Xfinity. The media company strengthened its esports commitment with sponsorship renewals with the ESL and Evil Geniuses, and used its title sponsorship of NASCAR’s Xfinity Series to generate awareness of other partners in its portfolio.

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Ladies Professional Golf Association

The LPGA added new title sponsors, such as Guggenheim and Diamond Resorts, and new events as total revenue was projected to increase by 7 percent. Television viewership is on the upswing with a 24 percent increase in 2017 as the LPGA becomes a major global sports property.

Photo: courtesy of major league baseball

Major League Baseball

Another thrilling seven-game World Series, with its first presenting sponsor in YouTube TV, capped a season in which revenue grew for the 15th straight year and topped $10 billion for the first time, fueled in part by strong sponsorship growth and a second large-scale deal with Disney regarding BAMTech. 

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Major League Soccer

MLS increased attendance for the fourth year in a row while also seeing better television ratings and bigger sponsorship deals — including its $700 million extension with Adidas. Successful expansions in Atlanta and Minnesota also helped to drive the league’s growth

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National Basketball Association

The NBA’s impressive run of prosperity continued, as it set records this season for both average and total attendance and saw local and national TV ratings increase. Viewership of last season’s Finals was the highest since 1998.

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National Hockey League

The NHL had much to celebrate in its 100th season, including record revenue topping $4.5 billion and the league’s live debut in China and return to Europe. This season brought  the unbelievable success of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

Photo: getty images

Southeastern Conference

Two teams in the CFP championship game, a conference record eight teams in the men’s basketball tournament and dominance across the board in Olympic sports have the SEC uniquely positioned at the top of college athletics.

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Arthur Blank, AMB Group

Few owners have had as much success in a single year as Arthur Blank. After a trip to the Super Bowl in early 2017, his Falcons returned to the playoffs last season. His expansion Atlanta United shattered attendance records in MLS, shocking those who saw Atlanta as a fickle sport market. Both teams played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which offered revolutionary low-priced concessions that have challenged the historic practice of overpriced hot dogs and the lot. And oh, Blank, as chairman of the NFL compensation committee, stared down Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, winning the battle in the fight over Commissioner Roger Goodell’s new contract. Jones wanted to scuttle the deal and threatened to sue; Blank didn’t blink and won the skirmish, raising his leadership profile in the league.

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Bill Foley, Vegas Golden Knights

Bill Foley hit the jackpot with the first major pro sports team in Las Vegas, as the Golden Knights not only have had a successful first season in the NHL, but staked their claim as perhaps the best expansion team in any sport. Given 500-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup before the season, the team finished with the league’s fifth-best regular record, was the first true expansion team to win its division in its first season and was playing in the Western Conference Final at press time. Off the ice, the team’s strong community-first approach quickly endeared the new franchise to Nevadans across the state. With a full season of sellouts, high-demand premium seating and strong sponsorship sales, the team is already one of the NHL’s highest revenue-generating teams. Foley delivered on his promise that the team would make the playoffs in three years. A Stanley Cup in six? That’s another bet that Foley is likely to win. 

Photo: nbcuniversal

Mark Lazarus, NBC Broadcasting and Sports

For three weeks in January and February, NBC’s Mark Lazarus controlled sports media, overseeing the production of the two biggest events on the calendar. It started in Tampa, where NBC produced the NHL All-Star Game. His road wound through Minneapolis, where NBC carried Super Bowl LII. And it continued through Pyeongchang, where NBC produced the Winter Olympics — winning 18 straight nights of TV. Lazarus’ year was not just defined by those big events. He oversaw “Sunday Night Football,” which was the top prime-time series for a TV-record seventh season in a row. He hired big names — Mike Tirico and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — to work as on-air talent. And he partnered with the International Olympic Committee and U.S. Olympic Committee on an Olympic Channel. Deals with Six Nations Rugby, World Archery, IAAF Diamond League and USA Swimming ensured that NBC would have enough programming for its cable channel and streaming platform.

Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Michael Rubin, Fanatics

For having the vision, industry acumen, experience and resources to roll up and coalesce what had been a relatively sleepy and disjointed business, Michael Rubin wins the title as the first disrupter in sports licensing history. With a vertical model combining e-commerce, manufacturing, venue and brick-and-mortar retail, Rubin’s Fanatics has pioneered a model intriguing enough that some of the licensors with which it does business — including MLB, MLS, the NFL, NFLPA and NHL — have purchased equity stakes in the company. Fanatics attracted attention globally as well, with a $1 billion investment from Japan-based SoftBank that valued the company at $4.5 billion. Add to that the acquisition of Majestic Athletic, and agreements that have given Fanatics control of sports licensing, and you have a new force controlling the industry. All that took a skilled executive to engineer.

Photo: getty images

Casey Wasserman, Wasserman and LA 2028

American bids for the Olympics always face an uphill battle, and it took a special combination of political savvy, pragmatism and negotiating instinct for Los Angeles to finally bring the Games home again. At the center of the effort was Casey Wasserman, who along with Mayor Eric Garcetti led an aggressive international charm offensive at the International Olympic Committee to keep pace with favorite Paris. As it became clear the IOC wanted to give both cities the Olympics, Wasserman used his leverage to extract a $180 million cash advance from the IOC to help the local budget. The Olympic victory transformed Wasserman from a national figure to an international one, and it’s paying off at his day job, too. Citing in part Casey’s personal commitment to the Olympic movement, six-time medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky signed with Wasserman to manage her promising commercial career after she went pro. Up next is the sales process for the ’28 Games. Wasserman’s goal? Nearly $2 billion.

One of the most accomplished entertainment executives of all time, Michael Eisner is an unabashed sports fan. During an interview last month at The Topps Co.’s Manhattan office, Eisner sat in a conference room adorned with old Topps trading cards and pictures of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle as he reflected on a career that made him a household name and took him from ABC to Paramount to Disney. Eisner became most animated when the conversation turned to programming — both sports and entertainment.

 

It’s a side of Eisner, once described as one of the most feared executives in Hollywood, that many executives have seen.

Michael Eisner, Sports Business Awards 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree
Photo: patrick e. mccarthy

Current Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Bob Iger recalled Eisner’s weekly staff meetings in the mid-to-late 1990s, when Disney owned the Anaheim Angels and Anaheim Ducks. Those Monday meetings included all of Eisner’s direct reports — executives overseeing the theme parks, movie studios, TV channels and consumer products. 

“And he wanted to talk about potential trades the Angels were considering,” Iger said. “Michael is a consummate creative executive. He is driven by great creativity and storytelling. He has a passion for it. Nothing really seems to excite him more than that in business. I always viewed him as extremely unique in that regard because he was the CEO of a gigantic media company. But in his heart, he was creative.”

Eisner is best known for resurrecting Disney behind films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” He ran the company for 21 years, growing Disney’s theme park and consumer product businesses. 

He also became known as one of the first entertainment executives to see the value of sports. When Eisner bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1995, he correctly identified ESPN as the hidden gem of the deal.

“ESPN was the jewel that we didn’t talk about, but we knew,” he said.

Eisner is more than a businessman who dabbled in sports. His role in sports, as the owner of ESPN and two sports teams, brought about huge changes in the business. He strove to bring the showmanship of the entertainment world into sports. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recalled attending an introductory press conference in Anaheim when Eisner unveiled the team name: the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, named after the Disney movie. During the press conference, Eisner convinced the normally staid commissioner to blow a duck call.

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Michael Eisner

“To this day, people talk to me about that picture,” Bettman said. “I can’t remember exactly how he got me to do that.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred shared a similar story from 1996 soon after Disney bought the California Angels and later renamed them the Anaheim Angels. Eisner showed up at his first owners’ meeting not in a suit like the other owners, but dressed in full Angels gear like a rabid fan.

“That was probably one of the all-time great entrances into an owners’ meeting,” Manfred said. “He marched in, in his Anaheim jacket, and took hold of the room with his excitement and presence in terms of joining the group.”

George Bodenheimer recalled an Eisner request that came in 1998, soon after Bodenheimer was named president of ESPN. Eisner was traveling in Prague and asked Bodenheimer how he could watch a Ducks game that night.

“I remember spending half a day with Russell Wolff in international and Chuck Pagano, our engineer,” Bodenheimer said. “We were trying to figure out where he was and how we could get a satellite feed to him so that he could watch his Ducks game in a hotel in Prague. I believe we succeeded.

“On a lot of levels, that story tells you about Michael. He’s a fan, and he wants to see his products.”

• • • •

Fandom aside, Eisner cut business deals in sports because he saw intrinsic value in the market. He learned early in his tenure at ABC in the early 1970s just how big a business sports could be for television networks.

“The people that owned the television stations also owned the car dealerships, and all they cared about was football,” Eisner said. “They listened to you when you talked about the Osmond brothers, and they listened to you when you talked about ‘General Hospital.’ But they just wanted to make sure that ABC got the rights for NCAA football, so I knew from day one that sports was a driving factor.”

Barry Diller hired Eisner at ABC and put him in charge of programming and development, which was his position when the network launched “Monday Night Football” in 1970. Eisner remembered ABC Sports President Roone Arledge asking about whether he’d be interested in having the NFL anchor the network’s Monday nights. Faced with a prime-time lineup that was not competitive, Eisner responded, “You can have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”

Michael Eisner helped define the sports industry through his leadership of Disney, and by extension ESPN, and his team ownership.
Photo: patrick e. mccarthy

Eisner followed Diller to Paramount in 1976 to run the studio, where he oversaw a string of blockbuster movies, including “Saturday Night Fever,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” and TV shows like “Happy Days” and “Cheers.”

Eight years later, after he was passed over for Paramount’s top job, Eisner moved to Disney. He was faced with a similar “Monday Night Football” decision soon after Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC in ’95. At the time, ABC executives were pressuring Eisner to walk away from the NFL deal. But Eisner was conscious of the image that would be painted by having a new owner turn away from such a popular series.

“I was really wrestling with that,” he said. “I did not know that we could take the losses that were at ABC. I also did not know how to cancel it.”

Eisner ultimately decided to keep the series, thanks to an informal meeting with Bodenheimer in a hallway at Disney’s L.A. office.

“I hope you make the ‘Monday Night Football’ deal,” Bodenheimer told Eisner.

“I don’t know,” Eisner said. “We’re going to lose a lot of money, and everybody’s telling me not to do it. Strategic planning doesn’t want to do it. ABC management doesn’t want to do it.”

“If you do it, I will be able to get the second half of ‘Sunday Night Football’ exclusive for ESPN,” Bodenheimer said.

“I don’t know if that makes up for it.”

“If I get the second half of ‘Sunday Night Football,’ I can get a 20 percent increase in fees.”

“Twenty percent still doesn’t do it.”

“That’s 20 percent a year.”

“Wait, George. That’s $4 to $6 a month times 90 million homes. Why would they do that?”

“Comcast and the other cable operators think football will drive subscriptions.”

That convinced Eisner to renew “Monday Night Football,” a decision that helped accelerate ESPN from a $2 billion asset when Disney bought it to, according to some analysts, a $50 billion asset by 2014.

“It was a bold plan,” Bodenheimer said. “But Michael is a bold thinker. He encouraged us to think big about ESPN and ABC and Disney. That fits right in with his wheelhouse. He thought there was a tremendous amount of growth here.”

• • • •

Eisner’s entertainment background made him a unique owner in both Major League Baseball and the NHL. Under Eisner’s guidance, Disney founded the Ducks in 1993 and bought the Angels in 1996.

“Michael is very smart and very creative,” said MLB Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig. “It was a time when we were really reaching out and making changes. Michael was always very helpful.”

Known for being persuasive, Eisner (left) convinced usually staid NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (second from left) to blow a duck call when the Mighty Ducks were unveiled in 1993.
Photo: ap images

After agreeing to put an NHL expansion team in Anaheim, Eisner set out to bring some of his entertainment ethos to the league. He was filled with ideas that would make the game more free-flowing, advocating shootouts and trying to get rid of some of the more physical play that slowed down the game.

“He was focused on everything including the uniform and the right shades of colors,” Bettman recalled. “He wanted to do everything he could to make this a first-class entrant into the league.”

Eisner brought his experience running Disney’s theme parks and movie studios to the games, blurring the line between entertainment and sports. NHL games in Anaheim featured the “Darkwing Duck” cartoon character flying around the arena. On TV, the team would be featured on “Darkwing Duck” episodes. Eisner said the results showed up almost immediately.

“We had 17,184 seats, and we sold out because we did it on Sunday afternoons and made it a family event,” he said. “It all came to an end when we got to the playoffs and the people who ran the team wanted to be a more serious team. They said, ‘You have to get rid of all this stuff.’”

Sports deals proved to be difficult and frustrating for Eisner. He recalled signing Mo Vaughn to baseball’s biggest contract at the time — six years, $80 million — to play first base for the Angels in 1999. In the first inning of his first game, the burly first baseman fell into the dugout while trying to catch a foul ball, sprained his ankle and wound up missing the first two weeks of the season. Vaughn would end up playing only two years for the team.

Showing his true colors, Eisner arrived at his first MLB owners meeting in 1996 decked out in California Angels gear.
Photo: getty images

Eisner’s teams enjoyed on-field success — the Angels won the World Series in 2002 and the Ducks made the Stanley Cup Final in 2003. But Eisner decided it didn’t make sense for a corporation to own a team. Disney sold the Angels in 2003 and the Ducks in 2005.

“If you run a sports franchise for the shareholders, you’re probably going to have a pretty poor team and you’re going to be very unpopular in the community,” Eisner said. “If you run it for the community, you’re going to lose a lot of money and be very unpopular with the shareholders. And even though the Ducks and the Angels were maybe a tenth of a percent of the whole company, it was like 40 percent of the publicity.”

• • • •

On a rainy midweek afternoon in downtown New York last month, Eisner was wrapping up an interview to take a trans-Atlantic flight to see his English soccer club, Portsmouth FC, play one of its final games of the season. Eisner was sitting in a conference room at The Topps Co., which he bought in 2007 for $385 million. The office walls were lined with sports memorabilia, everything from old trading cards to Reggie bars that were in a display case in the lobby.

Eisner bought the soccer team in August 2017 for less than $8 million from a group of passionate fans who owned the club. Portsmouth had fallen on hard times, dropping all the way down to the fourth tier of English soccer.

Eisner’s stint as head of Disney from 1984 to 2005 included two major league team purchases and the massive growth of ESPN.
Photo: getty images

When he met with the previous owners, Eisner was frank, telling them that he would not spend millions on high-priced soccer players in a desperate play to be promoted. Rather, he would methodically work to get the club back to the Premier League.

“He didn’t sell them the dream,” said Mark Catlin, Portsmouth’s chief executive. “He’s actually living it, in regards of building the business first. He stuck by those principles in the first year and the fans respect his honesty and integrity in running the business like that.”

For Eisner, 76, the move to own an English soccer team is something of a family affair — he scouted teams to buy with his wife, sister and one of his sons. Eisner clearly is enjoying himself. He frequently attends the team’s games, cheering as much as some of its most rabid fans. Portsmouth finished the season in eighth place, which Catlin described as a good result and an improvement on the previous season.

Eisner is a fan. But he’s not going to let his fandom get in the way of his business sense. When asked why he wanted to own a sports team at this point in his career, Eisner responded with a familiar theme.

“I just thought there was content.”

One of the most recognizable commercials in sports television history — “I’m going to Disney World!” — was developed from an offhand remark toward the end of a late-night group dinner.

 

For athletes, the spot became the television equivalent of being on a Wheaties box — it featured only the most famous sports stars after their biggest victories. For Michael Eisner, who developed the idea in 1987 when he ran Disney, the commercial is one of the things he remembers most fondly about his career, he said.

Eisner credits his wife, Jane, with coming up with the idea during the grand opening of the “Star Tours” attraction at Disneyland in January 1987. Eisner and his wife sat with Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, pilots who were the first to fly around the world without stopping.

“It was one of those dinners that starts at 10 p.m., and the food doesn’t get there until 11,” Eisner recalled. “You’re sitting there, you can’t keep your eyes open. All you really want is to go home.”

At one point during the meal, Eisner leaned over to Rutan and said, “You had this unbelievable success, what can you possibly do next?”

Eisner credits his wife Jane, shown in 1987, for the popular slogan.
Photo: getty images

Rutan responded, “Well, I’m going to Disneyland.”

That’s when Eisner’s wife piped in, “That’s a good slogan.”

Eisner agreed. The next day he called Tom Elrod, who headed up marketing for Walt Disney World, and set a goal to have a commercial ready for the Super Bowl, which was going to be held at the Rose Bowl in about two weeks. The commercial would have a star player from the winning team say on camera, “I’m going to Disneyland!” and “I’m going to Disney World!”

Disney would then cut two commercials so that viewers in Eastern time zones would hear “I’m going to Disney World,” which is in Orlando, and viewers in the West would hear “I’m going to Disneyland,” which is in Anaheim.

“It had to be exactly at the moment that they won,” Eisner said. “It couldn’t be the next day.”

Eisner called NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who bought into the idea almost immediately and cut a deal to allow Disney to have a cameraman and crew on the sideline.

“We were the first ones into the bedlam,” Eisner said.

Other Disney executives called the two Super Bowl teams, the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, to get them on board. They also spoke with the agents of top players before the game to make sure the players were willing to say the phrase on camera. The player picked to say “I’m going to Disney World” — in 1987, it was Giants quarterback Phil Simms — was paid $75,000, according to press reports at the time. Disney only approached players who were willing to cooperate.

Eisner watched the game from his home. Elrod and his staff were at the game. It was in the age before cell phones, so Elrod and Eisner had to communicate via a landline at the stadium. They started talking in the fourth quarter about which athlete they should pick.

“If a field goal won the game in the last second, we would change, but usually we knew by five minutes before the end because we had to get set up,” he said. “We tried to pick the most theatrical. We didn’t have any criteria. … We didn’t care whether they were the most valuable player. We just picked the player we wanted. I would say 80 percent of them were the MVP.”

The commercials still run today — Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles played the part after this year’s Super Bowl.

In the process of running two movie studios over the course of nearly three decades, Michael Eisner gave his OK to produce some of the most popular sports films to come out of Hollywood.

 

When he ran Paramount, the studio produced three “Bad News Bears” films. After moving to Disney, he produced “The Mighty Ducks,” “Cool Runnings” and “Angels in the Outfield,” averaging about one sports movie per year.

Eisner’s time leading both Disney and Paramount included several sports-related movies such as “The Bad News Bears” in 1976 and “The Mighty Ducks” in 1992.

“Every year we’d make a sports story,” Eisner said.

There was a reason he produced so many sports films, according to Bob Iger, Walt Disney Co.’s chairman and CEO. It’s because Eisner likes the storylines associated with sports programming — both live and scripted sports.

“Sports to him is storytelling in a different manner,” Iger said. “It’s not totally pre-planned, meaning that it’s not predictable, not scripted. But stories unfold right before your eyes, sometimes in the most surprising ways. One of the reasons he likes sports so much is that he loves the story side of sports.”

Eisner said he grew an appreciation of sports movies from his youth, citing films like “The Pride of the Yankees” and “Fear Strikes Out.” But it wasn’t until he was a young executive at ABC in the early ’70s that he saw the power of sports firsthand.

“I would have conversations with Roone Arledge about this quite a bit,” Eisner said of the sports TV pioneer. “In the programming department that I was involved in, you have to create the story and then you write the story and then you photograph the story. In sports, you don’t create the story, you don’t write the story, all you do is photograph the story. It’s a lot easier. In sports, the story is innate. It’s part of the game. If there is a great sports story, it’s already there and now you just have to execute it.”

Eisner moved on to run the Paramount movie studio in 1976, and it didn’t take him long to put his appreciation of sports films to work. In between producing megahits like “Saturday Night Fever,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” he gave the green light to “The Bad News Bears.”

“The first one was Walter Matthau, which was great, and then we made two more,” he said.

Another reason Eisner was drawn to sports movies was because the storyline of underdogs overcoming the odds works with audiences. That theme was part of just about every sports movie Paramount and Disney made during his reign.

“I can’t think of one that isn’t,” he said. “It’s about teamwork. It’s about coming together. It’s about spirit. It’s emotional. And most of them are true. It’s a reconfirmation of the possible. There’s so much that’s not possible. In sports, it can happen to a sixth-grade team.”

The allure of broadcast television isn’t what it once was for producers of entertainment television.

 

In the 1990s, as the cable business grew, producers generally wanted to bypass broadcast’s reach in favor of cable’s creative flexibility. That instinct has become even more stark with the rise of over-the-top platforms like Netflix and Hulu, said Michael Eisner, who has placed shows on all video platforms.

“None of the creative people you talk to want to be on a network,” Eisner said. “I don’t think ABC’s model could afford to put on ‘House of Cards.’ It’s really expensive. It’s just the changing of the business. I don’t know if the word is chic or more creatively acceptable.”

Eisner has seen the TV and film universe change dramatically during his time in the business.
Photo: patrick e. mccarthy

This is especially applicable to producers of comedy programs. Eisner said he gets the same response every time he suggests they pursue a broadcast outlet.

“You can see they’re slightly disappointed that you’re not saying Netflix or Amazon or Apple,” he said. “You just see it. It’s definitely a changing business.”

The business also is changing in the way these platforms negotiate to carry shows. Eisner says these have become some of the toughest negotiations in Hollywood because all the platforms want to own the shows.

“We have passed on things at major studios because they wanted to own it even though they were willing to give us big fees,” Eisner said. “I mean, if I was 25 and somebody would offer me $10,000 an episode, I’d be thrilled. But I now have a whole staff to feed and pay off the cost of buying material.”

One of Eisner’s big current successes as owner of media and entertainment investman company The Tornante Co. is an animated dark comedy that is available on Netflix, called “BoJack Horseman.” He recalled how he greenlit the series after a meeting with its executive producer, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who went through a list of ideas for a show. One of the ideas had a main character that was a talking horse with the body of a man — a storyline that reminded Eisner of the 1960s series “Mr. Ed.”

“This guy, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is one in a decade,” he said. “That kind of writer and that kind of sensibility, they don’t come around very often.”

They wrote a script where the main character was an over-the-hill actor, a drunk and a misogynist.

“That was so weird to me,” Eisner said. “But I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go do that. It sounds like a good idea.’”

They made the pilot and took it to Netflix, and it launched in 2014.

Now entering its fifth season, “BoJack Horseman” has been a critical success with an 89 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.