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Volume 21 No. 33
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OWL Grand Finals impresses and execs to keep an eye on

The inaugural Overwatch League Grand Finals at the Barclays Center last month was a success. The two-day event capped the professional esports league’s first-year, seven-month season, and even though a prior commitment prevented me from attending, I monitored it from Charlotte and was impressed by the positive media coverage, promotion and execution.

Here’s what stood out: Media coverage from the big players like The Associated Press, ESPN.com and The Washington Post, plus a well-orchestrated media strategy that included an exclusive dinner with journalists from the local OWL markets. OWL Commissioner Nate Nanzer acknowledged the league tried to take best practices from traditional sports leagues, and from those I spoke with, it showed. Production values were strong and the league took over the Barclays Center and made it a hub of activation, networking and fan celebration.

The two-day attendance of nearly 23,000 had to please organizers. The Post noted the audience’s engagement, writing that fans “were on their feet cheering, hoisting their smart phones to record the moment,” while another report stated the crowd “still buzzed” two hours after the event.

Finally, having the Grand Finals being part of the discussion of ESPN’s “High Noon” was a PR coup and another example of the smart media strategy. Show hosts Pablo Torre and Bomani Jones attended the finals and came away believers. “It all felt like a real live sporting type of event, and I enjoyed myself,” Torre said. Jones added, “They have adopted all the things that [traditional leagues] do in the presentation of sports. … Kids are so charged up about this.”

There were elements that OWL wish were stronger, and the total viewership of less than 300,000 on U.S. linear and digital properties was lower than they would have liked. However, nearly 50 percent of those viewers were in the 18-to-34-year-old sweet spot.

My takeaway: First-year events are extremely difficult to pull off, and it’s hard to stand out, especially in New York City. But this was a very successful start that organizers can show to other markets and build on. It also demonstrated the business savvy of one of the most talked about leagues in sports.

Our 2018 Game Changers are revealed this week on Page 13, highlighting women in sports displaying innovation and leadership who will be honored at our Game Changers conference in New York City on Sept. 12. I’ll make my annual pitch to the men in the industry: Please consider attending this program. People in a hiring position will meet many of the brightest minds in sports business. They will also hear frank talk about the state of sports, media coverage of women’s sports, and C-suite executives on lessons in leadership and management. So take a day and experience Game Changers. Mark my words: It will be time well spent.

On the personnel front, a few moves caught my eye. I’ll be watching new Arizona Coyotes President Ahron Cohen. The 34-year-old has a lot on his plate, from a possible new venue to building business momentum around the franchise. But he’s a thoughtful, quick read who, along with 29-year-old GM John Chayka, could make this one of the more interesting turnaround stories in the NHL. … Dave Hopkinson departed MLSE last month, where he’d been their successful CCO, to be the head of business operations at Real Madrid,  an opportunity too good to pass up. The 47-year-old was a “day one” employee of the Toronto Raptors starting in 1994, and he became one of the most influential commercial marketers in Canada. MLSE, one of the most under-the-radar sports giants in the world, will miss his infectious energy, while Real gets a premium commercial operator at an interesting time in its history. … The Baltimore Orioles landed a connected, heavy hitter as John Vidalin joins the team as chief operating officer for business operations. It’s a new role for the franchise and comes amid the team’s miserable season. It also comes as owner Peter Angelos has been turning day-to-day-organizational responsibilities over to his sons, Lou and John. In Vidalin, the Orioles have an executive with a successful track record of sales, revenue generation and marketing, and is easily the most accomplished executive to lead that role for the Orioles. There’s a lot to do in Baltimore during a time of uncertainty, and the talented Vidalin joins the already crowded, competitive Baltimore/Washington sports marketplace. … Finally, a hat tip to my friend Katie Haas, who after more than 17 years left the Boston Red Sox to become COO of the ATP/WTA Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. One of the USTA’s largest events will benefit from Haas, who has excelled in operations and brings an energetic, fresh perspective.

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