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Volume 23 No. 18
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Forum: How SBA winners were chosen, what swayed judges

Cleaning out the notebook as we close the books on the 2019 Sports Business Awards, which were announced last week in New York City in front of nearly 1,000 industry leaders:

How were the nominees chosen? 

Sports Business Journal/Daily’s editorial team reviewed outside submissions and put forward its own suggestions to come up with the specific nominees in each of the 17 categories. We focused intently on companies or entities that had an outstanding 12-month window, and we tried not to be influenced by a company’s size or previous track record of nominations.

Who chose the winners?  

We asked 29 industry executives to come to New York City and bring fresh, outside voices to determine the winners in 15 of the 17 categories. The Executive of the Year and Athletic Director of the Year were chosen by the editorial staff of SBJ/SBD. The number of judges is the highest in our awards history — by design. We wanted more voices and points of view. Some had judged in previous years, most were newcomers. We looked for diversity in experience and industry expertise, we asked them to sign nondisclosure agreements and they informed us of any conflicts. Judges were split into four groups of three to four categories and sent an extensive amount of materials to study prior to determining the winners.

How did the deliberation and voting take place? 

Judges were asked to come to our corporate office at One World Trade Center for a four-hour block of discussion. Each category opened by going over the nominees, with each judge weighing in and offering his or her points. Some discussions lasted 45 minutes; some more than 90. Judges voted on a sliding scale — 1 for winner, 2 for second place, etc. Votes were tabulated by our awards program director Denise Short, and judges were not informed of the winners. However, based on the deliberations, one could get a feel for the leanings in the room. Judges were very well prepared, and the debate was informed, lively, respectful and thoughtful. In many of the categories, a spirit of consensus emerged on the top selection.

What resonated with judges? 

Judges were drawn to clarity and effectiveness of presentation; specific answers and results on the criteria; and clear accomplishments over the year. They were turned off by unanswered questions or material that didn’t fall within the eligibility window. Judges looked for innovative ideas, and how specific programs drove results. They wanted to read about best-in-class programs, efforts and effective business stories. They were turned off by a mass information dump.

What were the toughest categories? 

Agency categories are always the most difficult — from Best in Sports Event and Experiential Marketing to Best in Corporate Consulting, Marketing and Client Services. The stories are similar among the nominees. The differentiators were accomplishments, new business and detailed results of the last 12 months. … Best in Sports Social Media was a long, difficult discussion and may result in us changing the category next year. Judges were torn by the efforts of individuals — like Gritty — versus those of larger organizations — like the WWE — that scale their social media efforts across talent and an organization. Ultimately, it was Gritty’s use of social media to become a pop culture hit that convinced judges. … Best in Mobile Fan Experience saw judges torn between diverse content offerings of large media entities compared to the aggregation of various highlights and rights of a platform like Twitter. … Sports Facility of the Year offered a rich debate where every nominee was held in very high regard for the sophisticated design, architecture and fan experience elements. Ultimately, Mercedes-Benz Stadium prevailed for its focus on innovation, customer experience and its operational expertise across multiple big events. … Team of the Year saw an early focus on the excellence of the Portland Thorns — the first women’s team to be nominated in this category — to the impressive efforts of both Milwaukee franchises and the way the Washington Capitals successfully captured a region and amplified their business and branding. Judges believe the Warriors could win every year and figured they would be in the mix again next year with the opening of Chase Center, and there was an overwhelming appreciation and admiration for all that the Atlanta United achieved in only its second year.

We’d like to thank all of this year’s judges for their efforts and suggestions for the future. If you’re interested in participating as a judge next year, please let us know.


Abraham Madkour can be reached at