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Volume 22 No. 7

Opinion

As you review our much-debated 50 Most Influential People in Sports Business, (see Page 24), here are a few executives who had a lot of support internally but fell just short this year.

 

Val Ackerman: Outside of her successful leadership of the Big East and a being powerful voice in college sports, what separates Ackerman is how she connects people across sports. She’s indefatigable as an advocate on diversity and inclusion and being a mentor to an entire generation of executives.

 

Josh Harris and David Blitzer: Leading two progressive organizations (the 76ers and the Devils), being an early mover in esports and joining Elevate in a bid to challenge Legends allows Harris and Blitzer to influence sports in multiple ways.

 

John Henry and Tom Werner: The co-owners of Fenway Sports Group spent big and made all the right moves to bring a World Series winner to Boston. NESN (of which FSG owns 80 percent) continues to be one of the crown jewels in the regional sports net business, and Liverpool sits in first in the Premier League. Few executives own such powerful, gold standards in sports.

 

Billie Jean King: She is not as active as the others listed, but she still wields great influence at the highest levels of society and is an outspoken voice for change. We hope her minority stake in the Los Angeles Dodgers paves the way for more entrepreneurial women to get involved in sports.

 

Burke Magnus and Justin Connolly: While the top of the ESPN corporate ranks saw significant change, these two capable veterans revamped and reinvigorated the business. Magnus took the lead on a dizzying number of rights deals that became the programming foundation for ESPN+, while Connolly showed why he’s one of the best distribution executives in the business, miraculously winning the first carriage deal for the fledgling ACC Network.

 

Vince McMahon: He got a massive rights fee increase for WWE’s “Raw” and “Smackdown,” the latter of which will be heavily promoted on the “New Fox,” while he is also trying to recreate football with a relaunched XFL in 2020. Industrywide, McMahon and Co. in Stamford, Conn., are creating content and platforms that certainly have people’s attention.

 

Dan Reed and Peter Hutton: The Facebook duo are at the table with every major league and broadcaster. In addition to several international sports deals, its arrangement with MLB for 26 games on Facebook Watch was novel and could be a template for the future.

 

■ Stephen Ross: From advancing the fan experience and a bold vision to bring tennis to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, to his support of RISE, to his investments in bringing international soccer to the U.S., Ross is continually innovating and trying new things. Not all of them work, but he’s driven to experiment.

 

Mark Silverman: The former Big Ten Network chief took on a tough task when he replaced the embattled Jamie Horowitz, but he steadied the ship with little drama at Fox. He could be the most powerful behind-the-scenes person in sports media.

 

Dana White: He worked with Endeavor to land a major new deal with ESPN, continued to grow the UFC’s international footprint and saw the largest pay-per-view in MMA history this year. In his first full year without the Fertittas, White is clearly in command.

 

David Zaslav: He is betting big on sports to help grow Discovery Networks (see major  deals with the IOC, PGA Tour and Tiger Woods), and the media veteran has the money to spend.

 

Athletes are a rare presence on our list, and one who should have made it last year and received consideration again this year was Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. With a best-selling book, a much-copied diet and lifestyle regime, a groundbreaking Facebook series and a role as the executive producer of Religion of Sports, a production company, Brady is setting a template for the modern-day successful athlete.

 

Finally, we expect a number of complaints over the lack of ethnic and gender diversity on our Most Influential list. We agree, and grow more and more frustrated every year. But we see this list as an accurate reflection of the sports business. We pledge to continue to rethink “influence” in hopes this list will be more inclusive in the future.

 

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

Despite signs of significant progress this past year, there is still much work to be done to create and foster more diverse cultures within the sporting industry. Much of the progress has come in the WNBA and NBA.

White men continue to dominate the sports leadership landscape. Nonetheless it is good to see leagues making a conscious effort to become more diverse, even if it’s at a glacial speed. The respective commissioners have all stated their strong commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In the most recent report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the WNBA received an A+ across the board for racial and gender hiring practices. It has had the highest marks among the leagues since its inaugural season 22 years ago. The WNBA also received the highest grade ever recorded (a combined score of 97.6 for both racial and gender hiring practices) in the 30 years that the report cards have been published. 

In addition to creating a culture focusing on diversity and inclusion, the WNBA has also supported former players in transitioning into the business side of the league. This year, Rushia Brown, who played seven seasons in the league, joined the Las Vegas Aces in player programs, and the Washington Mystics hired 10-year WNBA veteran Asjha Jones as a player development assistant. The NBA hired several former and current WNBA players to teams. 

WNBA legend Sue Bird joined the front office of the Denver Nuggets while still playing professionally for the Seattle Storm. Kristi Toliver of the Washington Mystics joined the Washington Wizards coaching staff as a player development coach. Bird and Toliver join two other former WNBA players on NBA coaching staffs: Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs, and Jenny Boucek, who became part of the Dallas Mavericks staff in the aftermath of that team’s sexual assault report. Nancy Lieberman was an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings from 2015-17. 

In April of this year, Major League Baseball earned improved grades for racial and gender hiring practices from the previous season. Additionally, to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion, controversial names and mascots are being addressed. The Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo will be phased out and fully removed from all uniforms for the 2019 season. That was the good news, but MLB still lagged behind most of the other leagues in the number of women and people of color in leadership positions at the team and league level. All of the leagues received at least a B+ for racial hiring practices, with the NBA and WNBA receiving an A+ and the NFL an A. It is in the area of gender where men’s leagues lag behind. The NBA received a B, while MLS got a C+ and the NFL and MLB got Cs. In 2018 that is not acceptable.  (TIDES produces reports each year for MLB, the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLS, college sports and sports media.)

The percentage of players of color in the men’s leagues and the WNBA is very high. The goal of diversity and inclusion efforts must be to get the best people, including women and people of color, in the interview room for league and front-office roles and then pick the best person for the job.

Some “country club” sports like golf and tennis have historically been less diverse as they often have high equipment and playing costs and are not typically as accessible to certain demographics. There are organizations such as The First Tee and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities that have made it their mission to bring golf, tennis, baseball and softball to underserved communities. 

Even though she wasn’t being interviewed for the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching position, there was a lot of media attention when Condoleezza Rice was reportedly talking to the team. Despite not having the qualifications for that role, the thought of more female coaches in the NFL and in other leagues should not be outlandish.

At the Institute for Sport and Social Justice’s annual Giant Steps Awards banquet in October, Jen Welter was honored for her pioneering efforts for female NFL coaches. She was the first female NFL coach, hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. Other NFL teams have followed the Cardinals’ example. In 2016, Kathryn Smith became the Buffalo Bills’ special teams quality control coach and was the first woman to hold a full-time coaching position in the NFL. This season, the Oakland Raiders hired Kelsey Martinez, who is the NFL’s only female strength and conditioning coach. The 49ers hired Katie Sowers as an offensive assistant coach.

It is important that the graduate programs in sports business management emphasize the value of diversity and inclusion as a business imperative for the next generation of sports leaders. We have to teach the best practices to achieve those goals. Diversity and inclusion is a founding pillar of the DeVos Sports Business Management Program. Our students range from 25 to 40 percent students of color and 45 to 60 percent women. I hope that many other graduate programs have a similar composition. That will ensure that those now leading the charge for diversity and inclusion in the industry will have the people to fill the ranks in the years ahead.

Richard Lapchick (rlapchick@ucf.edu) is chair of the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Program and director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick. Meaghan Coleman made a significant contribution to this column.