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Volume 21 No. 26

Opinion

The biggest question I get after our Sports Business Awards is about the judging and deliberation process to select the winners. This year featured some of the most thoughtful and intense discussions we had through the years of bringing in outside voices to determine the winners in 15 of the 17 categories.  Both the Executive of the Year and Athletic Director of the Year were chosen solely by the editorial staff of SportsBusiness Journal/Daily.

A quick refresher on the process: SBJ/SBD’s editorial team reviews outside submissions and puts forth its own ideas to narrow a list to specific nominees in each of the categories. This year, we had 89 nominees across the 17 categories, a record, and going forward we probably need to review that number and impose some internal discipline with fewer nominees.  Most of the feedback from the judges was that some categories could have been reduced to the top four or so. This year, we had the most judges in our awards history — 24 — and the increased voices offered more points of view and diverse debate. The judges, along with SBJ/SBD staff, were divided up across four groups, removing conflicts. They had materials sent to them to study prior to meeting over two days to determine winners.

Judges wanted strategy, substance,  diversity and results. The winners told effective business stories and demonstrated how they were connecting to consumers. On the agency categories, for example, judges wanted more than just numbers  — number of clients, number of touchpoints, number of executions — they wanted to see how the numbers helped clients gain market share and improve their bottom line. Judges were frustrated by the lack of specifics in the submissions outlining goals for a program and how that program achieved those goals. A good nugget to remember for those looking for serious consideration in the future.

Here’s a spotlight on the hotly contested categories:

BEST IN TALENT REPRESENTATION: The judging in this category has changed dramatically over the  years. Early on, judges looked at the size of a client base, and how many new clients an agency signed. Star power also mattered. Now, it’s far more about how these agencies are helping their athlete and broadcast talent tell stories, be socially aware and prepare for life after the games end.

And to their credit, the agencies have stepped up and offered great examples of what they are doing. This year seemed like a tipping point for talent representation — with so much emphasis on community involvement, social causes and social justice. It was a very enlightened discussion in this category and frankly, there were two or three agencies that could have won. In the end, Octagon took home its second award in this category, as judges liked its work around gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Michael Phelps’ new philanthropic venture to raise awareness regarding mental health, and gymnast Aly Raisman’s efforts to combat sexual abuse.

SPORTS EVENT OF THE YEAR: While other events seemed bigger — like Mayweather vs. McGregor, which had pockets of strong support — judges were continually drawn to two events: the NFL draft in Philadelphia and MLB’s Little League Classic. It struck me how much the judges liked how MLB conceived a truly grassroots event that brought families together and reached the youth demo that all leagues covet. But in the end, judges felt that the 2017 NFL draft marked a major milestone for the annual spring business meeting, proving to the marketplace that it can scale, be put out to bid and take over a city and media properties for a number of days. Judges felt that after Philadelphia, the draft will never be the same, and that was the difference in this category.

FACILITY OF THE YEAR: Personally, the biggest surprise of the voting. I thought the favorite going in was SunTrust Park/The Battery Atlanta, because what they’ve developed in 30 months is a game changer in the development business. But the support for Little Caesars Arena in Detroit was early, strong and widespread. Despite persistent attempts to tout what was developed in Atlanta, judges greatly admired what the Ilitch family did to use an arena to revitalize a city that desperately needed it, and developed it into a hub for two teams and a major entertainment property.

TEAM OF THE YEAR: Easily the most contested category, and it speaks to a few things. Most of all, it shows the enhanced sophistication of the team business. Teams are far better at telling their stories, being community active and serving their fans. 

While I knew it was going to be a tight, two-team race between Atlanta United FC and the Vegas Golden Knights, I was surprised by the initial strong support toward the Houston Astros, who in the first pass, looked like it could carry the room.

But as the debate continued, greater focus was put on what the United did in the supremely challenging Atlanta market and how their business metrics set records, and that team began to emerge. While discussion around the Golden Knights was tepid and was centered largely as a great story on the ice, focus shifted to all that the Golden Knights were able to accomplish off the ice and the fact that they were able to open their first season just five days after a violent tragedy upended their city.

Judges admired how the team was able to heal and provide an emotional lift for an entire region, and that was combined with the team’s amazing business results and game-day atmosphere. The room was soon in a deadlock, and there were even questions about a possible tie in the category. Finally, after multiple rounds of voting, the Golden Knights emerged victorious. Bottom line: One team startup after another continues to top the next, as the team business and the quality of thought and leadership at franchises is better than ever.

FINAL NOTES: There was virtual unanimous support for the NBA for League of the Year, as it dominated the discussion and recieved great admiration for its business practices. A few themes I jotted down from the judges’ remarks: The league always seems to be out front, it has a strong executive team and bench, and there is great diversity of thought in Adam Silver’s leadership ranks. … Sports Breakthrough of the Year had possibly the most spirited discussion, as Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s Food & Beverage Experience beat out the Overwatch League. Both had passionate, articulate supporters — Overwatch for starting a league that could change the face of sports forever, to the Food & Beverage Experience that changed organizational and consumer behavior. That was a fun debate, and as one of the judges who lobbied very hard for Overwatch recently emailed me, “We will see who was right in the long run!” … Another animated debate revolved around Best in Sports Social Media, as the nomination of Tom Brady dominated the discussion. One judge said Brady could have finished first or last in the category, a remark echoed by many. While our editorial staff thought enough of Brady to nominate him, the judges felt his social profile was strong but they deemed him not as socially outspoken, active or authentic as other athletes. Major League Soccer won the category for its creative content strategy and aggressive multi-platform approach. 

We received great recommendations for future categories, and ideas for changes, and are always open to your ideas about the future of our awards program. Thanks to all the judges who said how much they enjoyed the process, but noted how much work it took to prepare. If you’re interested in being considered as a judge next year, please let me know.

Finally, if you went to the awards and want to view images from the event, please visit SBJphotos.com.

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

Editor’s note: This column is revised from the print edition.

Let’s get the dirty work done quickly. We think FIFA, despite the presence of the 2018 World Cup, is headed for struggles and strife. And 2022, when FIFA goes to Qatar, may not be much better.

Why do we write that?

Well, in recent years, many — including us — have argued FIFA’s Holy Grail has matched, if not exceeded, the Summer Olympic Games in importance. Soccer (or football for the rest of the world) is the world’s most popular and important sport. More people play soccer than any other sport. More people watch it than any other sport.

Basketball is in the rearview mirror, sitting at No. 2, far enough back that most would argue FIFA should never worry about its leadership advantage. Or should it?

The NBA concludes its best-of-seven final series this month, featuring the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Also this month, FIFA erects soccer’s “tent-pole” for the World Cup. FIFA’s penultimate event. The brightest star. The watched-by-billions from all corners of the globe pinnacle.

Unlike the NBA, which starts the playoffs with 16 teams, FIFA starts June 14 with 32 countries, including little ones like Iceland and Panama. They’ll play 64 games in 11 Russian cities. The world will really care.

A quick refresher on an important difference here. FIFA is an international federation. The NBA is a league. Although both are not-for-profit organizations, FIFA’s members are not-for-profit associations from more than 200 jurisdictions, each with mandates to grow the game in their own nation. The NBA, on the other hand, is composed of 30 for-profit clubs with vested billion-dollar owners. Their mandates are different. Their realities are different.

FIFA is in the spotlight this month with its showcase event.
Photo: getty images

So, what makes the World Cup special?

For starters, it’s one of the few places where the best players in the world’s most popular team sport gather to compete for their country, not their team (a.k.a., their employer). And while Olympic teams can bring three overage players to compete, some feel that FIFA strategically keeps its best players out of the Games (meaning: the IOC’s men’s tournament features primarily U23 players).

Meanwhile, football’s professional circuit spreads top players across multiple premier leagues based in England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany. They compete for (and can afford) the world’s very best talent. And don’t forget UEFA’s Champions League.

However — and this is where we get a bit feisty — we think 2018 will put FIFA’s World Cup brand to the test and create another opportunity for the NBA to gain ground.

First off, the Cup is being held in Russia. While the country is operationally capable, as we saw with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia seems to be struggling with world diplomacy. Its venues may be great but reports suggest many in the former Soviet Union are increasingly distrustful of their country’s leadership.

Secondly, we have to ask if the “new” FIFA is really ready for its close-up? Are FIFA’s new leaders, particularly President Gianni Infantino, the right people for fixing things?

For many years, the FIFA brand has suffered hit after corruption hit. With consistent regularity (or so it seems), a FIFA representative has been released, removed, relegated or reported for various crimes. To make matters worse, this corruption has taken place at the highest levels.

As we wrote a few issues back (regarding the NCAA), sports brands carry some elasticity from self-inflicted turbulence, but constant FIFA-style damage will eventually leave fans less willing to go the extra mile when their trust in governance (and its leadership) is consistently shattered.

Beyond the all-forgiving fans, the reality of compromised leadership is usually felt by multiple stakeholders like sponsors and governments or from new participants and member federations. Translation? It’s been a long time since “trust” was a word used to describe FIFA’s leaders other than in secret “trust fund.”

Perhaps big corrupt organizations are nothing new in our jaded sports industry. It seems hardly a day goes by when some columnist (ourselves included) isn’t throwing rocks at the parties who try to hold leagues and sanctioning bodies together. Almost everything (and sometimes nothing) offends someone somewhere. So FIFA is going to get more negative press.

Granted, it’s a tough time to run a transparent, inclusive, global sporting body, especially a not-for-profit one. But maybe the opposite is possible. Now that everything is much more open, the process for organizations and their stewards should be easier than ever. Hmmm, maybe not.

The third point that puts the 2018 World Cup in the crosshairs is just some plain, old bad luck. Huge surprises on the pitch led to important countries not qualifying for this year’s Cup. Who’s missing? Well, for starters, Italy, Holland, the U.S. and Ireland.

These closely followed titans are popular TV markets and home to wealthy fans who travel. All four are developed television markets as well. There are others, but these four highlight a list of perennial or popular past qualifiers who did not make it.

So, there you have it. On the eve of the 2018 World Cup, FIFA is dealing with a damaged brand, embattled leadership, a potentially controversial host location and some bad luck on who will actually play.

It makes us wonder if 2018 will showcase a declining, damaged brand or whether FIFA will use 2018 as a turning point. Our guess — this is the dirty work we said we’d start — is that FIFA and football will lose ground to basketball and the NBA.

Said another way, June is “showtime” for FIFA if it wants to protect its big lead.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (oreillyn@ohio.edu) is the Richard P. & Joan S. Fox Professor and Sports Admin Department Chair at Ohio University. Their new book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” was published recently by Ohio University Press.