Sports Executive of the Year
Don Garber, Major League Soccer
The successful launch of the Los Angeles Football Club and crowds of more than 72,000 people in Atlanta for both the All-Star Game and its MLS Cup were just some of Major League Soccer’s accomplishments in the last year under the watch of Commissioner Don Garber.
Garber, who signed a five-year contract extension in February and will celebrate his 20th year with the league in August, has played a critical role in transforming and expanding MLS, which included awarding new franchises in Austin and Cincinnati; opening new stadiums in Minnesota, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.; and finding a new ownership group to keep the Columbus Crew in the city — all within the past year.
The on-field product also continues to improve, with the league attracting higher quality players while setting a record transfer fee of $27 million for Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron as MLS players are increasingly attracting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Garber’s international influence has increased as well, serving as a member of the board for the successful U.S.-Canada-Mexico World Cup 2026 bid, and being appointed as a member of FIFA’s Football Stakeholders Committee, which consists of many of the game’s top leaders.
Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN
When Jimmy Pitaro took over as ESPN’s president last spring, the sports media company seemed to be in crisis. Once the golden child of Disney’s portfolio, ESPN had become an albatross in recent years, due to the combination of a falling subscriber base with increasing rights fees. Meanwhile, ESPN’s relationship with the country’s biggest sports league, the NFL, was at a low point.
In the past year, Pitaro made moves to address both issues. Cord cutting still exists. So, too, does the amount leagues and conferences charge for their rights. But since ESPN launched ESPN+ in April, the direct-to-consumer streaming service has been more successful than analysts had expected. The service is not designed to stop cord cutting; rather it shows that ESPN and Disney are well positioned if the network’s subscriber base continues to fall.
Almost immediately after joining ESPN, Pitaro made moves to improve the network’s NFL relationship. The sports business saw evidence of this new relationship last fall when Pitaro committed that both ABC and ESPN would carry different live versions of the NFL draft. The move was less about counting viewers on ABC. Rather, it set up ABC as a real destination for NFL programming and positions ESPN, with ABC, as a serious bidder when the NFL’s rights deals come up in a couple of years.
Michael Rubin, Fanatics
The rollup of the sports-licensing industry engineered over the past five years by Fanatics Executive Chairman Michael Rubin has been evident to anyone familiar with the business. Still, it took someone with unusual foresight and industry acumen to transform what had been a disjointed business of relatively small companies into a $2.5 billion licensing conglomerate, which manufactures, wholesales and operates venue merchandise stores for teams and leagues, along with running its own e-commerce business and those of most major sports properties.
Over the past year, Fanatics has pushed into esports, manufacturing and selling Overwatch League products. Cognizant that athletic footwear companies were generally more interested in TV exposure than selling licensed apparel, Fanatics devised a new model, allowing Nike to keep its swoosh on NFL and MLB fields, while Fanatics will sell and market those authentic products to retailers and consumers.
By 2020, Fanatics, will control authentic jersey rights at retail for MLB and the NFL, as well as replica jersey rights for MLB, the NFL, NBA and NHL.
Outside the business, Rubin has used his influence to coalesce an alliance on criminal justice reform.
Across the industry, the biggest question is about Rubin’s end game. “We will eventually go public, yes,” he said at the recent World Congress of Sports. “Are we focused on going public in the immediate future? We’re not.”
Eric Shanks, Fox Sports
Eric Shanks’ influence within 21st Century Fox has grown as his company has become smaller. After selling its entertainment assets to Disney, Fox has leaned on Shanks to program the broadcast network’s prime-time hours. That has led Shanks to be in the middle of three of the biggest sports media deals in 2018.
First, he took “Thursday Night Football” from CBS and NBC, setting Fox up to be the top-rated network on Thursday nights in the fall. Shanks’ decision to sacrifice some of Fox’s best Sunday afternoon games for the Thursday night schedule shows the importance of that package for the company.
Shanks extended Fox’s MLB contract, a deal that will keep the World Series and MLB All-Star Game on the network through 2028. A third Shanks deal will be responsible for programming Fox’s Friday night lineup — a five-year, $1.025 billion deal that will have WWE’s “SmackDown” as an anchor starting this fall.
Under Shanks’ direction, Fox’s performance on screen was consistently good. Its first season of “Thursday Night Football” posted a ratings increase; its late Sunday afternoon NFL games remained the highest-rated league package on television; and its World Cup coverage from Russia produced strong viewer figures even though the U.S. team did not qualify.
Adam Silver, National Basketball Association
Adam Silver marked his fifth anniversary as NBA commissioner this spring and the honeymoon never seems to end for the visionary executive. Over the past year, the NBA under Silver’s leadership continues to set the industry agenda.
The league was the first to sign a gambling sponsorship with MGM Resorts and then quickly added six additional gaming partners.
Under the progressive Silver, the NBA announced that it would create a 12-team league in Africa in 2020, expanding its international footprint that is the largest among U.S. major leagues.
Other major moves under Silver saw the league for the first time open up international marketing rights to its 30 teams while expanding and extending its groundbreaking jersey patch advertising program.
Those business moves come as the league in 2017-18 matched its record attendance mark set during the previous season and increased TV ratings for last year’s postseason by nearly 20 percent, the highest since the 2011-12 season.
Off the floor, Silver in the past year has overseen an expansion of the trendsetting NBA 2K League while also continuing to foster stronger relationships between the league and its players.