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Volume 21 No. 30
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Ideas, risks hallmarks of SBA winners

The biggest winners at last week’s Sports Business Awards were the companies that figured out how to profit from new ideas and changing business models.

The biggest winners at last week’s Sports Business Awards were the companies that figured out how to profit from new ideas and changing business models.

That explains how an expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, won the award for Sports Team of the Year in its inaugural season, prompting team President Kerry Bubolz to say he has challenged his staff every day to do something different. That was evident when, during his acceptance speech, he read a catchy and clever poem recounting the ups and downs — and the tragedy that hit Las Vegas — that the team faced during the year.

The theme also explains how Arthur Blank’s AMB Group — and its $2 hot dog — was honored as the Sports Breakthrough of the Year.

“Mr. Blank is known for disruption, and he’s always challenging us,” said AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon, who oversees Blank’s business empire and accepted the Breakthrough trophy.

AMB Group’s Arthur Blank, 2018 Sports Executive of the Year
Photo: marc bryan-brown

Octagon’s David Schwab, one of the 24 judges who determined the event’s winners, said the theme of figuring out how to deal with corporate disruption was a big part of all the conversations during the voting process.

“The lead was, ‘What am I doing to the current industry environment to make people think differently and to put the business ahead five years from now?’” said Schwab, an executive vice president at the agency. “The hardest part about disruption is that it often affects your daily balance sheet. You’re betting on things that are different from how you do business right now. You’re betting on what you know is important for your business in the future.”

Another awards judge, the XFL’s Howard Handler, sounded the same theme. Handler is a former marketer with the NFL and MLS, and now is project leader for Vince McMahon’s second try at spring football.

“Whether it’s with technology or not, every marketer needs to find a path that depends on disrupting the status quo,” Handler said. “In an industry as mature as sports, that’s an imperative.”

First Look podcast, with SBA discussion at the 15:25 mark:

Michael Eisner, 2018 Lifetime Achievement honoree
Photo: marc bryan-brown

In some cases, the attempts at disruption are a byproduct of advances in media and technology. Sometimes, they’re born out of personal experiences.

After accepting his award for Sports Executive of the Year to cap off a stellar night, Blank reflected on his motivation to develop a “fan-first” pricing plan that slashed costs, moved fans through lines quicker and got them in the stadium earlier.

Blank recalled what it was like, as a father of six children, to take his family to a game. 

“Food and beverage was a great source of frustration, not just for us, but for a lot of fans,” Blank said. “In addition to solving a problem and creating higher-quality food choices that cost less, it was just a good way to say thank you to the fans.” 

At the end of the day, the business of sports really comes down to the emotion of sports.
Michael Eisner

The theme of adapting business models to reach younger consumers also was a factor in traditional media companies that were honored at the Sports Business Awards. NBC Sports won for Best in Sports Media, in part, because of its digital performance during the Winter Olympics.

“We are a legacy media company, but we are also a disrupter,” said NBC Broadcasting and Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, referencing direct-to-consumer services it owns for cycling, soccer, track and field, rugby and motocross. “People like to call us legacy media. Legacy media can also be a disrupter and grow into the next stage.”

Bob Iger, Disney Chairman and CEO
Photo: marc bryan-brown

The idea of corporate disruption is hardly new, Lazarus said, pointing out that 30 years ago TV broadcasters were considered legacy media and cable was the disrupter. Today, they’re both considered legacy media.

“You’re going to see the same thing go on in the future as we all evolve and become not just legacy, but part of the disruption as well,” he said. “We have to have the courage to do it.”

ESPN took home the trophy for Best in Digital Sports Media largely because of its willingness to expand its programming to new platforms. Just hours after news broke that ESPN would pay $300 million per year for UFC rights, President Jimmy Pitaro was on stage accepting a trophy for Best in Digital Sports Media. ESPN will put most of the UFC fights on its streaming platform, ESPN+, that launched in April.

Michael will be the first to tell you sports are rife with incredible stories: full of heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, winners and losers, suspense and unpredictability. But above all, great sports stories have heart. That’s what makes them so powerful, and so accessible.
Bob Iger
Disney Chairman and CEO, introducing his friend and former colleague Michael Eisner

“It’s fair to say that our top priority is expanding our audience,” Pitaro said. “Part of that means us getting younger. We’re trying to identify new content and new experiences that we think will appeal to a younger generation.”

Molly Mullady Arbogast, an awards judge who is president of POV Sports Marketing, pointed to the development of those platforms as one of the biggest issues sports marketers face.

“When you look at the intersection of social and digital, and combine that with how important all of that has become to marketers, that was my biggest challenge,” she said. “And I don’t see that area getting any easier in the future.”

While evolving business models like these are not new, Octagon’s Schwab said the last year and a half has been dizzying for sports.

“Sports in the last 18 months has made huge strides in technologies and innovations,” he said. “You saw that at the event. Every discussion point led with OTT, social platforms, new types of media rights, gaming, betting. None of those were discussion points four years ago. Half of them were discussion points two years ago.”

Brendan Tuohey, PeacePlayers International, honored with the Celebration of Service award
Photo: marc bryan-brown

You in this room have the opportunity to be leaders, not followers, in using sport, a vehicle we all know and love, to unite, inspire and uplift. In a world that seems more fractured every day, we can’t afford to wait for another answer.
Brendan Tuohey
PeacePlayers International co-founder and executive director

The judges’ choices, in addition to harping on the theme of change, created some interesting storylines. Nowhere was the timing more ironic than in the Sponsor of the Year category.

Dr Pepper was the winner, based primarily on the college football creative campaign that featured character Larry Culpepper. Just a day before the awards, the brand said it would not bring back Culpepper for the coming football season, even though the character was responsible for Dr Pepper’s victory.

Blaise D’Sylva, vice president of media for Dr Pepper Snapple Group, accepted the trophy and said afterward that it’s best for Culpepper to go out while he’s still popular rather than waiting until the campaign grew stale.

“You’re always wondering with those kinds of campaigns when you’re going to reach the tipping point,” D’Sylva said. “We’ve got some great ideas for how to keep it fresh.”

Staff writers Terry Lefton and Eric Fisher contributed to this report.