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Volume 21 No. 23
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Inside the voting for the Sports Business Awards

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.