Sports Business Awards: Unlimited Potential

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SBJ executive editor and publisher Abe Madkur, Emmy-winning actor Jon Hamm and Stanley Cup commissioner Gary Bettman of the NHL watched as they accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award.Mark Brian-Brown

New York City’s Times Square is used to host its share of stars, but the lineup at the Marriott Marquis for the Sports Business Awards was particularly glittering: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro and Marie Donoghue, Amazon’s Vice President of Global Sports Video. ESPN’s Elle Duncan and Jay Williams hosted the festivities, and Emmy-winning actor Jon Hamm presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who joined him on stage for the Stanley Cup.

A record attendance of nearly 1,200 attended those academics, filling the ballroom for the sports industry’s biggest night and featuring an impressive array of sports leaders to date.

At the end of the evening, 15 individual awards were presented, including the Sloan Stephenson Foundation Service Celebration and Lifetime Recognition Awards. The overall winner, however, may be women’s sports, which continued its momentum by taking home several honours. That vote was compiled from the first category, when Michelle Kang won the New Zealand Spirit’s New Deal of the Year award, which ends in March 2022. Jurors scored not only the $35 million purchase price in the deal – A record time for a women’s sports team — but because of the complexity of the transaction, Kang teamed up with existing limited partners to outbid competing bids.

There’s also no denying the impact that Sale has had on the entire face of women’s sports, which Kang argued deserves a bigger financial commitment.

“I want to make this deal to ensure that women’s football is not a charity. It should not be sold for two million pretending to be non-profit,” Kang said. “It has incredible business potential, and if we don’t believe in our own product, who will?”

Kang expanded on her goals and vision on stage, detailing how acquiring the Spirit — at seven times the league’s record transaction value — was intended to blaze a trail that other investors are following. “As you can see in the expansion process, our current expansion fee is $53 million. Who would have thought, right?” said Kang. “So it’s all kind of building on each other, and I’d say it’s reached a tipping point. … There’s no one business model right now; there’s a lot of groups coming from different directions, and they’re all equally effective. And that’s what it takes, just more dollars to get in,” he said. Kang said she encourages more women to step into sports ownership in both men’s and women’s leagues.

Michelle Kang, owner of the Washington Spirit, won her first Negotiator of the Year award.Mark Brian-Brown

The loudest cheers for Kang’s win came from none other than Angel City FC, led by female owners Kara Northman and Julie Urman. Angel City had a chance to celebrate again when they won Team of the Year.

The mission statement of the women’s soccer club, which broke records and hopes for its first event in 2022, said on the stage the team’s female leadership, Hail Uhrman. “The City of Angels is built with purpose and passion,” Urman said. “With the goal of being profitable and showing that women’s sports is not just something people follow and care about, but investable and can be a billion dollar business.”

The club was valued at over $100 million by investors before playing a single game, and was responsible for 40% of the NWSL’s revenue in its first season. “No one thought we could sell out the stadium. No one thought we would get north of $50 million in sponsorship revenue,” Urman continued. “This will not happen [last] I promise you when we’re on this stage because there’s no limit to what this team can do.

The value and power of women’s sports was a prominent theme in other SBA winners. The US Open won the Sports Event of the Year award, largely due to the impact of Serena Williams’ farewell performance, which boosted viewership and viewership. Stacey Alastair, CEO of USA Professional Tennis and Tournament Director of the US Open, accepted the award. They announced that in 2023, the event will be awarded for 50 years.

Wasserman won Representation Talent of the Year. Not only does the agency have a long history of women’s sports representation, but Judges was particularly keen to bring Wasserman’s and agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas’ client and WNBA star Brittany Griner home from Russia. “That legacy for us, and having a history of being there first and introducing The Collective, is for brands and our representation program around women,” said Jason Raney, Wasserman COO and CEO of Talent Representation. “I think it’s similar to our history, and so it’s real, it’s authentic to us.”

A crowd of about 1,200 filled the ballroom.Mark Brian-Brown

Eric Shanks, CEO and executive producer of Fox Sports, echoed the importance of women’s sports to the network in backstage comments following Fox’s Best in Sports Media win. “Our first World Cup was the 2015 Women’s World Cup. “We’re committed to putting as much effort into women as men, and that’s never happened before,” Shanks said. “It feels like we were there at the beginning of this explosion of women’s sports. … We’re really proud to be a part of this and continue to do that in trying to be the standard bearer of women’s sports in this country.

This year’s Sports Business Awards meant a lot to Shanks in particular, as he also picked up the Sports Executive of the Year honour. Fox’s banner year was led by an impressive rights deal with the Big Ten and broadcasts of the Super Bowl, World Cup and World Series, among other major events.

Fox wasn’t the only legacy that went home with hardware. The NFL has won Sports League of the Year since 2010. Fenway Park, 111, which hosted the NHL Winter Classic in January, was honored as Sports Facility of the Year. And the NHL celebrated a Sports Breakthrough of the Year win for its digitally enhanced dashboards, an ongoing marketing initiative.

The NHL had ample representation from both the league and its teams in the ballroom, including New York Islanders owner John Ledecky, to honor the Bateman Lifetime Achievement Award. Hamm, a hockey superfan who remembers watching Blues games through cigarette smoke at the old St. Louis Arena, chronicled the NHL’s trajectory under Bettman since he took over the role in 1993.

“What was once a mom-and-pop regional league bringing in less than $500 million a year before it was hired is now a $6 billion global sports and media powerhouse,” Hamm said. It’s turned things around in a league where a Blues fan wonders when we’ll get back to the playoffs, but isn’t worried about when the team will leave St. Louis.

Some of the sports world’s top executives lent their voices to the video honoring Bettman, including commissioners Rob Manfred of the MLB, Adam Silver of the NBA and Roger Goodell of the NFL, as well as Ted Lyons, chairman and CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment and the N.L.L. The legend Wayne Gretzky, among others.

Bettman reflects on his five decades in pro sports, including mentoring under former NBA commissioner David Stern, officiating 60% of the NHL games ever played, and marveling at how far he can come after paying 50 cents a ticket to watch. When I was a New York Rangers kid in the 1960s: “I never thought I’d be the one pitching the first pitch when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, sitting on the porch of the old Garden.”

The 30-year commissioner – who has made it clear that he has no immediate plans to retire – closed in on a theme that was a fundamental theme throughout the evening: the power of sports to change lives.

“Let’s all continue to serve our people every day in the most creative and fun ways we can,” Bettman said. “Let’s strive to honor the public trust of sports to inspire our society, teach life skills to our youth and leave each of our sports organizations in a better place than we found them. And this is a lifetime achievement for any of us.

Sports Business Awards: The Winners

Best deal of the year – Michelle Kang Finding the Spirit of Washington
The best in sports betting – FanDuel
The best in sports social media – Bleacher Report
Best talent representation – Wasserman
The best sports event of the year – US Open
Athletic Director of the Year – JD Wicker, San Diego State
The best in sports media – Fox Sports
The best in property consultancy, sales and customer services – Raising
The best sports sponsor of the year – T-Mobile America
Sports Institute of the Year – Fenway Park
The best sport of the year – NHL: Digitally enhanced dashboards
The best in agency innovation and creativity – MKTG Sports + Entertainment
The best sports team of the year – Angel City FC
The best sports executive of the year – Eric Shanks, Fox Sports
The best sports league of the year – NFL



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