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Volume 23 No. 17

Sports Business Awards

The Sports Executive of the Year win by MLS Commissioner Don Garber capped a strong night for the league, its teams and facilities.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
The Sports Executive of the Year win by MLS Commissioner Don Garber capped a strong night for the league, its teams and facilities.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
The Sports Executive of the Year win by MLS Commissioner Don Garber capped a strong night for the league, its teams and facilities.
Photo: marc bryan-brown

Don Garber knows how to throw a 20th anniversary party.

The commissioner of Major League Soccer started in this role in 1999 at a time when, Garber likes to say, the main question was “Will soccer make it in America?” Now overseeing a thriving league of 27 clubs with players representing 70 countries, Garber feels secure in saying, “Soccer has made it in our country.”

Garber repeated those words again last week at SBJ’s Sports Business Awards in New York as he accepted the trophy for Sports Executive of the Year. The award, which is presented last and ranks among the most prestigious of the 12th annual event, capped a night in which MLS flexed its still-evolving muscles.

Atlanta United, the MLS champion in only its second season, won Sports Team of the Year. The United’s home venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was named Sports Facility of the Year in a period when it hosted the 2018 MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup Final.

For Garber, who recently signed a five-year contract extension, it was the first time he’d won the award.

The awards evening served as validation not only of the massive transformation of the league and its financial growth, but also its flurry of recent accomplishments. Those range from the smashing debut of expansion clubs Atlanta United and LAFC, the opening of soccer-specific stadiums in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., and the continued interest from bidders for future spots in the league.

It also reflects on Garber’s growing stature in the global soccer community, as he played a key role in helping the joint U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid land the 2026 World Cup.

In his remarks on stage while accepting the award, Garber repeated the question that was so prevalent 20 years ago: Will soccer make it in America?

“We hear that all the time,” Garber said. “When I see what’s going on tonight with the award for Atlanta United, so many nominations and the wonderful job we’ve seen done with LAFC [which was nominated in the Sports Breakthrough of the Year category], that question has been answered.”

Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the crowd after the NBA was named Sports League of the Year.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the crowd after the NBA was named Sports League of the Year.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the crowd after the NBA was named Sports League of the Year.
Photo: marc bryan-brown

The success of MLS stretched over to its marquee franchise, the United, and its home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The stadium was recognized last year for its innovative fan-friendly pricing as the Sports Breakthrough of the Year and it returned last week to win Sports Facility of the Year.

Steve Cannon, chief executive of Arthur Blank’s AMB Group, said the United’s success — an MLS Cup championship and average attendance of 53,002 — goes back to the relationship the club has with the Atlanta community.

“It’s about making your backyard a better place,” Cannon said off stage. “The United is beloved in our community and they’ve done it in a span of two years, which isn’t easy. … You can’t bean-count your way to this. You have to invest in the community.”

Using sports as a platform to connect and repair communities was a prevalent message throughout the night. In fact, it’s become something of a Sports Business Awards tradition for the Lifetime Achievement Award winner to deliver a speech that outlines a theme for the night — such as in 2015 when Dick Ebersol spoke about the value of relationships.

Last week’s honoree, Tim Finchem, continued that theme when he called for more collaboration among competing organizations on programs designed to help the less fortunate.

“Players believe there is a reason to play this game, and that is to help people,” Finchem said.

Lifetime Achievement honoree Tim Finchem watches the ceremony unfold.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
Lifetime Achievement honoree Tim Finchem watches the ceremony unfold.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
Lifetime Achievement honoree Tim Finchem watches the ceremony unfold.
Photo: marc bryan-brown

The former PGA Tour commissioner referenced The First Tee, a 22-year-old organization created to introduce golf in lower-income areas. Finchem touted the group’s reach — it has 150 chapters and is in more than 8,000 schools.

“It’s 22 years old, and it’s made some progress,” Finchem said. “But the potential is so much greater.”

Current PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan introduced Finchem, describing him as a smart and selfless executive. In his intro, Monahan quoted golfer Jim Furyk, who said that Finchem is a “person who genuinely cares. … I think what most people miss is how great of a person he is.”

True to form, in his 10-minute acceptance speech, Finchem spent the first 75 percent heaping praise on others — from executives like Monahan, former U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay, MLS executive Gary Stevenson and former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman to players like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.

It’s that kind of night, Garber said as he closed the program with the final award, a night to celebrate accomplishments and cheer one another. Many of those cheers went in MLS’s direction last week.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Garber said. “That’s one of the great things about working in our industry — you have to go through the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. … Failure and success aren’t ultimately final.”

2019 Sports Business Awards slide show

2019 Sports Business Awards emcee Tracy Wolfson
Photo: marc bryan-brown
2019 Sports Business Awards emcee Tracy Wolfson
Photo: marc bryan-brown
2019 Sports Business Awards emcee Tracy Wolfson
Photo: marc bryan-brown

 

Quotes from winners’ speeches

 
“We liken ourselves to a global sports bar. It’s an open bar, of course, and that bar is open because of you all.”
TJ Adeshola, head of U.S. sports for Twitter, while accepting the Best in Mobile Fan Experience award
 
“Incredibly, over the last five years, Atlanta United’s average crowd of about 52,000 puts us 10th in the world, ahead of global powerhouses like Liverpool and my former club Tottenham Hotspur. Couldn’t resist that dig.”
Darren Eales, Atlanta United president
 
“We put on our Super Bowl every day for 14 days. And to be recognized by our peers, what could be better than that?”
Gordon Smith, CEO of the USTA after the U.S. Open Tennis Championships won Sports Event of the Year
 
“I was beginning to feel like Susan Lucci.”
Elizabeth Lindsey, president of brands and properties for Wasserman, which won for Best in Corporate Consulting, Marketing and Client Services
 
“Winning in front of all your friends, in a business as competitive as any, is something everyone should experience — just not necessarily in this category.”
Paul Danforth, CAA Sports global head of sales, after winning for Property Consulting, Sales and Client Services
 
“Entering an industry like sports is not an easy thing. We did our best to enter in a way that was elegant and we thought really enhanced the industry as a whole. We tried hard to be an important part of the industry.”
— Lance Evans, corporate vice president of entertainment and sports marketing for MGM Resorts, which won for Sports Breakthrough of the Year
 
“I think through sports we have the ability to bring people together, increasingly people on a global basis together, to frankly do what governments in many cases are no longer willing or able to do.”
— NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, accepting for Sports League of the Year





Best in Digital Sports Media
ESPN+

 

Best in Sports Event and Experiential Marketing
CSM LeadDog

Best in Mobile Fan Experience
Twitter

Best in Sports Technology
L.A. Clippers & Second Spectrum: CourtVision

Sports Event of the Year
U.S. Open Tennis Championships

Best Talent Representation of the Year
Endeavor

Athletic Director of the Year
Mitch Barnhart, University of Kentucky

Best in Sports Social Media
Gritty

Sports Breakthrough of the Year
MGM Resorts

Best in Property Consulting, Sales and Client Services
CAA Sports

Sports Sponsor of the Year
Anheuser-Busch InBev

Sports Facility of the Year
Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Sports Team of the Year
Atlanta United FC

Best in Corporate Consulting, Marketing and Client Services
Wasserman

Best in Sports Media
Fox Sports

Sports League of the Year
NBA

Sports Executive of the Year
Don Garber

Lifetime Achievement
Tim Finchem

Celebration of Service
PowerPlay NYC

The red carpet was the place to see and be seen.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
The red carpet was the place to see and be seen.
Photo: marc bryan-brown
The red carpet was the place to see and be seen.
Photo: marc bryan-brown

Twenty-nine independent, outside judges sat on various committees to help determine winners at the 2019 Sports Business Awards. Earlier this month, the committees met and deliberated on 15 of the 17 categories. Two categories (Athletic Director and Sports Executive) were selected solely by a Sports Business Journal/Daily editorial committee.

 

Jessica Berman, National Hockey League

Denis Braham, Winstead PC

K. Don Cornwell, PJT Partners

Ann Wells Crandall, Big East Conference

Blaise D’Sylva

Rob DiGisi, The Wharton School

Rosalyn Durant, ESPN

Eric Fernandez, Bowlsby Sports Advisors

Katie Haas, Western & Southern Open

Haynes Hendrickson, Turnkey Intelligence

Steve Herbst

Scott Horowitz, YouGov Sport

Jason Kohll, Professional Sports Partners

Brian Lafemina, LA 2028

Steve Lauletta, Pigeon Sports Marketing

Michael O’Hara Lynch, 3 Emerald Marketing

Danielle Maged, Zelnick Media Capital

Jaymee Messler

Ann Rodriguez, Borinquen Management

Stephanie Rudnick, XFL

Angela Ruggiero, Sports Innovation Lab

Patrick Ryan, Eventellect

David Schwab, Octagon

Bobby Sharma, Electronic Sports Group / GACP / Foley & Lardner

Rob Simmelkjaer, Persona Media

Renata Simril, LA84 Foundation

Doug Smoyer, Smoyer Commercial Strategies

Tracie Speca-Ventura, Sports & The Arts

Miheer Walavalkar, LiveLike