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Volume 22 No. 3

Leagues and Governing Bodies

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NASCAR insiders believe the indefinite leave of absence by NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France could lead to the long-term leadership changes they have been calling for.


After France’s surprising and swift fall from the sport’s leadership last week, the overwhelming sense within the motorsports community was that the shift in leadership provided an opportunity to change the direction of the sport and its decision-making.


France was placed on leave with no assurance he would return. This came after he was charged in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance. Jim France, Brian’s uncle, has since assumed Brian’s positions at NASCAR.


Many stakeholders had already been pushing for change, frustrated by Brian France’s preference to avoid a large, public role in the sport’s leadership. That frustration had intensified as key business metrics continued to decline this year, and the noise reached a crescendo following the substantial public relations challenges the sport faced last week.


Up until last week, the France family — Jim, Brian and Brian’s sister, Lesa France Kennedy — had maintained a corporate structure that saw them remain deeply involved with major initiatives, but left much of the day-to-day business to their top lieutenants. Executives had insisted that Brian France had remained involved in top-level decisions at NASCAR.


But within the sport, there had already been significant executive changes by the family over the past year that affected day-to-day leadership of the sanctioning body. As part of those moves, COO Steve Phelps has emerged with a stronger voice, according to interviews with several executives close to NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., the track operator also controlled by the Frances.


Sources say NASCAR’s structure has become relatively straightforward this year: Phelps runs the business side, Steve O’Donnell runs competition as chief racing development officer and both report to President Brent Dewar, who reports to the board.


COO Steve Phelps (right) has taken a more public role with NASCAR, including joining businessman Marcus Lemonis last month to celebrate a rebranding for the sport’s Truck Series.
Photo: Getty Images

Both Phelps and O’Donnell have gained autonomy in decision-making, sources say, while Dewar has taken a step back from running as much of the day-to-day business. For example, Dewar this year stepped down as co-chairman of the Team Owner Council, the group of NASCAR and team executives that meets quarterly to discuss industry issues, and was replaced by O’Donnell.


That has left Dewar’s future with NASCAR in question while also leaving Phelps to take on greater responsibility and decision-making. Phelps was promoted to COO in April after serving as executive vice president and chief global marketing, media and sales officer. The move to COO came just two months after Phelps added oversight of NASCAR’s media arms to his duties, a move that saw Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s senior vice president of broadcasting and production, start reporting to him.


Sources described Phelps’ increased role as a welcome development by many of NASCAR’s rank and file, who view Phelps favorably and had grown more frustrated by Brian France’s absent leadership.


“Steve [Phelps] continues to take a greater role in directing the overall vision and strategy for NASCAR,” Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing and co-chairman of the Team Owner Council, wrote in an email. “Even with his increased responsibilities, he’s always accessible and has developed strong relationships with all of the stakeholders.”


With Jim France known for steering clear of the limelight, some industry executives interviewed last week felt it was unlikely he would stay in the role long term. One thing Jim France instantly provides is widespread respect among teams, league officials and partners. The brother of Bill France Jr., who is Brian and Lesa’s late father, he’s been with the sport all his life.


Sources wondered aloud about the future of President Brent Dewar.
Photo: Getty Images

One scenario that insiders speculated could play out is Jim France continuing to run the sport mainly behind the scenes this season without hiring a new permanent CEO, while letting Phelps and O’Donnell make the majority of public appearances.


Jim France is expected to be at the track more often over the next several weeks, and he was scheduled to be at the race in Michigan last weekend. Meanwhile, O’Donnell was the NASCAR representative late last week at Ford headquarters in Michigan for a 2019 Mustang unveiling.


Phelps has been at NASCAR for 13 years after stints at the NFL and Wasserman. His increased role was on full display last month at Pocono Raceway. Not only did he sit alongside businessman Marcus Lemonis during a news conference where Lemonis said he worked with Phelps to rebrand the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but Phelps also launched into a staunch defense of the sport’s marketing viability.


Such a visible role may have been reserved in the past for Dewar, who joined NASCAR in 2014, was recruited by Brian France and maintained a high profile. While Dewar had been said to be taking on a more big-picture role, working on strategic issues with the France family, the apparent reduction in his role has led to increasing chatter in the industry that he could leave the sanctioning body within the next few months. Still, he has been seen at multiple races in recent months and, while less active on social media, has continued to make appearances at “tweetups” organized by fans and the media.


While Phelps has continued to work closely with Dewar on NASCAR’s key issues, he’s also frequently advising each of the Frances about NASCAR’s day-to-day strategy.


Brian, Jim and Lesa had all been serving as NASCAR board members, though Brian has now stepped down from the chairman role at least temporarily. Jim France had already become more involved in the sport this year, as he negotiated NASCAR’s purchase of the ARCA racing series and went to Le Mans, France, in June to work on a project for the IMSA sports car series that the family owns.


France Kennedy has also taken a far more active and business-focused approach to the sport over the past few years, building off her role as CEO of International Speedway Corp., with track expansion plans and the One Daytona Project that is part of the company’s headquarters. Moreover, France Kennedy’s 26-year-old son, Ben Kennedy, has started to work his way into the family business, mainly helping to run the third-tier NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year.


Brian France, Lesa France Kennedy and Jim France had left much of the day-to-day business to top lieutenants.
Photo: Getty Images

As he has for years, Brian France maintained a low profile this season, though he had been at several races this year and called into SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last month unexpectedly for an interview on the state of the sport.


A few weeks before his arrest, Phelps told the Associated Press that “Brian does things from behind the scenes,” adding: “That’s his way. That’s always been his way.”


However, last week after his arrest became public, most industry executives interviewed by Sports Business Journal said they did not expect France to return, given that there have been rumors of his possible departure for years, that he already was widely viewed as less than fully engaged, and that it would likely be a PR headache for the sport to try to bring him back.


The recent executive moves had come as the Frances faced increasing pressure to bring in fresh perspectives to address the challenging narrative and metrics facing the sport. While there have been some key departures, most of NASCAR’s executive transactions this season have been in the form of promotions, something that has rankled critics who believe new voices are needed to reverse the recent trends. One key departure was Jim Cassidy, a nearly 20-year NASCAR executive who was popular in the garage but left abruptly in May just a few months after being promoted to running NASCAR’s international division.


But for now, it’s Jim France, Phelps and O’Donnell who are seen as those who will continue leading the decision-making, alongside France Kennedy. Phelps, who relocated to Daytona yet is continuously on the road, is seen as the more likely between him and O’Donnell to eventually be moved to permanent CEO.

Some of the changes in NASCAR’s leadership that have taken place this year:


Photo: Getty Images

Steve Phelps

Promoted from executive vice president and chief global marketing, media and sales officer to chief operating officer.




Jill Gregory

Promoted from senior vice president and chief marketing officer to executive vice president and chief marketing officer.



Photo: Getty Images

Ben Kennedy

The son of International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy, hired as general manager of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.




Photo: Getty Images

Jim Cassidy

Moved from senior vice president of racing operations to chief international officer in January; left NASCAR in May.




Photo: Getty Images

Gene Stefanyshyn

Moved from vice president of innovation and racing development to senior vice president and chief international officer, replacing Cassidy.

This week, SBJ senior writer Bill King, assistant managing editor Ted Keith and motorsports writer Adam Stern discuss the stories in this week’s issue, including the fallout at NASCAR after last week’s Brian France news, and a discussion on our In-Depth feature this week: Sports Law.

Pete Bevacqua is prepping for his new job as president of NBC Sports Group, where he will start next month.
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Pete Bevacqua spent six years as PGA of America CEO before leaving this week to become president of NBC Sports Group where he will oversee programming, marketing, digital, regional sports networks and all golf businesses for the group. It’s a sharp career pivot for the accomplished Bevacqua, who during his tenure led the 29,000-member PGA of America through major changes, including a move of the PGA Championship to May from August and a restructuring of the Ryder Cup. During last week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club, Bevacqua discussed his tenure and his upcoming move to NBC.


On his biggest accomplishment at the PGA of America:


I feel most proud about the real improvement in the connectivity between the national organization and the membership. We were challenged in overcoming the perception of the membership that the staff at headquarters wasn’t always thinking about the daily life of the PGA member. I found that it was a bit of a hybrid organization. There was a sports business revolving around the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup and there was the membership-based organization. Two well-functioning elements but it was saying to everybody that we shouldn’t be a hybrid organization.


On how the business of the PGA of America has changed during his tenure:


We have become more strategic in the development of our partnerships and again I go back to putting a greater emphasis on the vitality of our membership. The organization can deliver on the major championships but we can also tie corporations into the power of our membership and that’s what separates the organization. … We also recast the identity of the PGA Championship. It’s not being afraid to take some chances and bring the championship more into modern times but not losing what has made it such a great championship.


What Others Are Saying

“I’ve been impressed with the results of his efforts in engaging our U.S. members in the development of a long-term competitive strategy for the Ryder Cup. He was also instrumental in our ability to — together — reshape golf’s calendar with the move of The Players Championship to March and the PGA Championship to May, setting up an exciting cadence of events with a significant championship every month culminating with the FedEx Cup Playoffs.”

— Jay Monahan, PGA Tour commissioner

“I think Pete made the PGA of America even more relevant in smart, strategic ways. If the PGA of America had not agreed to move the PGA Championship from August to May, this new calendar would not have happened. He made golf more relevant in pushing for the growth of the game in ways that aren’t just lip service.”

 Andy Pierce, president golf and consulting, managing director Americas, Lagardère Sports & Entertainment

On the impact of shifting the PGA Championship to May from August: 


August has changed because of the Olympics and the power of the NFL and college football continues to grow. August has changed in what the PGA Tour wanted to do with the FedEx Cup. If we look back at this 20 years from now, the PGA Championship will continue to be elevated because of this move.


On the current state of golf:


It’s really strong. We have elite players and a young crop of superstars that are engaging and relate to the fans. We have player development issues that are working. We are bringing more kids into the game. But I don’t want to be Pollyanna. Golf has major challenges and the two biggest are a lack of diversity and time. We need more women in the game and more minorities playing the game. Golf is a sport that can take time and we have to be smart about telling people that you can have a 30-, 60-, or 90-minute golf experience. Golf has been too beholden to these archaic definitions of participation. We’ve got to make the funnel into the game as big as possible.


On his decision to leave join NBC:


It happened quickly. I got a call from [NBC Broadcast and Sports Chairman] Mark Lazarus and I thought it was just a “How is it going” conversation. Mark said he had this idea and would I be interested. It was the first time I sat back and said that this can be really compelling at a time of great change in the industry. How does an iconic brand like NBC continue to prosper and stay current in an ever-changing environment? That is what is so intriguing and to have a part in that is a professional opportunity of a lifetime.

TV TALKS: The PGA of America and CBS are in talks for a new TV rights deal for the PGA Championship.

CBS, which has broadcast the PGA Championship since 1991, has an exclusive negotiating window that runs through the fall, according to Jeff Price, chief commercial officer for the PGA of America. 

Price and other PGA of America executives spent part of the week at Bellerive Country Club discussing a potential new deal. The current 10-year deal with CBS runs through 2019.

“Our expectation is that in the fall we will have an idea of what direction we will go,” said Kevin Ring, chief revenue officer of the PGA of America.

NEW SPONSORS: Two new sponsors began deals with the PGA of America at Bellerive in Anheuser-Busch’s Ultra brand and Jim Beam.

In addition to becoming the official beer of the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, Ultra will become the presenting sponsor of the Wannamaker Club at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. Jim Beam has pouring rights in concession areas at the PGA Championship and has on-course signage.

One potential new sponsor appears to be BMW. The PGA of America’s auto deal with Mercedes ended after last year’s PGA Championship. While BMW does not yet have an official deal with the PGA of America, it was noteworthy that BMW provided the player courtesy car fleet.

Ring said BMW has been engaged with the PGA of America, but no official partnership has been finalized. “We have had positive conversations and the conversations continue,” he said.

Other sponsors with on-site rights at Bellerive were Pepsi, Constellation Energy, Chase and Omega.

Sandy Brown is just the second commissioner in the history of MLL, having taken over from David Gross.
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Ahead of its championship game this weekend, first-year Major League Lacrosse Commissioner Sandy Brown plans to present a three-year plan to team owners aimed at improving business metrics and the overall standing of the outdoor league.


Brown took over the job in February after a stint with One World Sports, replacing 14-year Commissioner David Gross. Brown has spent the first season both on a listening tour as well as drawing up plans to improve the game-day experience and build a more robust digital presence, among other key initiatives.


The 18-year-old MLL competes not only against the indoor National Lacrosse League, but also against the college game. MLL averaged 5,000 to 6,000 fans this season, while NLL averaged around 10,000 fans a game.


MLL's To-Do List

■ Improve game-day experience
Greater digital presence
Alter schedule for more of a year-round presence
Better stadium deals for teams
Expansion beyond nine teams

Brown said that with an improved effort in hiring, creativity, marketing investment and other business decisions, the league can become more relevant.


“The league’s been around for 18 years; we have a very strong foundation and these [new initiatives] are all things that all of our owners are in lockstep on in terms of trying to implement,” Brown said. “We realize where the opportunity is and where the upside is, showing just how well we do with this core 9-20 demographic. We’re going to make a very strong effort to go after that and go after it hard.”


To realize those aims, Brown said the league needs to take more of a Minor League Baseball-type approach toward the game-day experience and raise its efforts in the digital realm. That includes creating more short-form “snackable” content, long-form lifestyle content about MLL players and content around MLL teams’ offseason activities.


As far as game distribution, some MLL teams have deals with regional sports networks, while games also appear on ESPN2 and ESPN+ and the Lax Sports Network, which is owned by two of the MLL’s team owners. Brown wants to maintain a presence on linear TV in addition to growing in digital.


“I just don’t think heretofore that enough thought and concerted effort to address this audience has been there in the past,” Brown said. “But the owners are very much in sync in doing that now.”


A long-term play is to get teams into better stadium situations. Brown would like to eventually see teams in their own 8,000- to 10,000-seat facilities.


“The league has been steady for many years, and everyone from owners to players and sponsors all want to see it go to the next level,” Brown said. “That’s what we’re doing.”