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Volume 23 No. 18
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Forum: Key takeaways from our 50 Most Influential rankings

Sports commissioners are actively wielding their influence and showing swagger. Major media companies continue to exert tremendous power, as reach and discovery are vital to success. And talent remains paramount. Those are a few observations from our annual list of the 50 Most Influential People in Sports Business. Here’s my take and a few names that were on my personal bubble list.

COMMISSIONERS DOMINATE: It may seem predictable, but in the 15 years we’ve done this ranking, 2019 marks only the second time the commissioners of MLB, the NBA, NFL and NHL have all ranked in the top seven spots. Generally, they land throughout the top 15. But this shows the influence today’s commissioners — fully emboldened by their bosses, the owners — have in setting the agenda of their respective leagues. Between Roger Goodell leading a new collective-bargaining agreement that could remake the NFL and the sports calendar, to Adam Silver’s continued efforts to innovate the NBA game and the business, to Rob Manfred’s moment in history reshaping America’s most traditional game, you can see how these leaders are flexing their collective muscle to reimagine sports for the next generation. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan each register their highest respective rankings, while MLS Commissioner Don Garber sits solidly at No. 18 -- all three of them armed with the continued growth of their sports and wielding the leverage of upcoming media rights deals. Bottom line: Ownership across sports has significant confidence in their respective leadership — and those leaders realize they must be aggressively relentless in innovation.

BREAKING DOWN THE LIST: Fox, CBS, ESPN and NBC are all represented within the top 10, with WarnerMedia and Amazon in the top 50, offering continued evidence of the role media companies have in the financial fortunes of sports leagues, distribution and storytelling. … The reach and impact of talent has never been stronger — from the U.S. women’s national soccer team driving the debate on gender/pay equity, to LeBron James and Serena Williams serving as models for athletes as content creators and pop culture influencers, to the number of talent agencies on the list, to even our No. 50, Cynthia Marshall, whose strong voice is pushing for more diverse talent on the business side of team sports. … There are 20 newcomers to the list, and here’s the reason behind a few of the picks: Vince McMahon is investing major capital in trying to change the football experience in the U.S., all while his wrestling properties remain valuable entertainment programming. Our editorial committee strongly felt without the heavy push by political leaders in California, especially Gov. Gavin Newsom, that the NCAA would not have moved ahead in tackling the complex issue of name, image and likeness regarding college athletes. Sinclair’s Chris Ripley gets the nod for his role in trying to maintain the strength of the regional sports network business, and the well-respected Roger Penske makes the list for putting his money into trying to reinvent motorsports and IndyCar in America. 

MY BUBBLE LIST: Our list is decided through countless meetings, research, talking to sources and newsroom debate. A number of executives were on the outside looking in, and here are a few that I felt could have made the cut: 

Val Ackerman and Gene Smith: For the thankless, complicated task of trying to develop an actual framework on name, image and likeness that could realistically be applied across college sports. … LA28’s Kathy Carter: If you want to do business around the Olympics in the next decade, you need to go through her. … Josh Harris, David Blitzer and Scott O’Neil: They are everywhere, and everyone seemingly wants to get in front of them for one reason or another. … ESPN’s Burke Magnus: For leading a team behind the enormous number of rights deals that will serve as inventory for not just ESPN’s linear networks, but also the foundation for the early success of ESPN+. … Jay-Z: For developing a relationship with the NFL and Goodell that could result in the league appealing to a younger, more diverse fan base. … Jeff Pash: For being the day-to-day driver in the NFL’s negotiations with the NFLPA on a new CBA, which could be vital to the health of all of sports. … John Henry and Tom Werner: For the broad reach of their assets — Red Sox, Fenway Park/Fenway Sports, Roush Fenway, and especially EPL heavyweight Liverpool — which often gets overlooked. … Egon Durban: For pushing the savvy PE firm Silver Lake deeper into sports with the firm’s acquisition of 10% ownership in City Football Group for $500 million. This adds to their investment in Endeavor (and UFC/PBR), and is further evidence of Silver Lake’s bullishness in global sports.

Let us know your thoughts and comments!


Abraham Madkour can be reached at