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The ten influencers 2019: Why these figures will define the sports industry year ahead

As another busy 12 months shifts into gear, SportsPro profiles ten influential figures who will be setting the agenda for sport in 2019.

by Michael Long
The ten influencers 2019: Why these figures will define the sports industry year ahead

Simon Denyer

Chief executive, DAZN Group

If 2018 was the year in which DAZN confirmed the hype - and its own punchy self-promotion - to become a serious player for premium sports rights in major markets, the next 12 months could see the company’s boldest plays yet. Other emerging operators in live sports streaming may have shown similar levels of ambition, but no firm has coughed up for rights with the same voracity, and achieved the same results, as the burgeoning sector’s deep-pocketed poster child.

The man pulling the strings and leading DAZN’s aggressive international expansion is Simon Denyer, a 44-year-old Englishman who has been the driving force behind the Perform business since its formation in 2005. Under him, the newly rebranded DAZN Group has been imbued with fresh impetus - recently announced launches of its streaming service into Spain and Brazil are set to be followed by more significant forays into additional markets in 2019 - and many rights holders will be keeping a close eye on its next moves as they consider where their own future, and their future audience, resides.

In an on-demand era of time-shifted programming and rising consumer choice, DAZN’s laser-like focus on remaining a fan-minded, pure sports over-the-top (OTT) offering could be its trump card. Never mind that revenues and losses are both ballooning as the company continues its remarkable growth spurt; that the wider group already boasts a huge user base, not to mention industry-leading expertise and capabilities in data, digital content and rights arbitrage, only underscores Denyer’s rising authority.

Sarai Bareman

Chief women’s football officer, Fifa

Installed as Fifa’s first chief women’s football officer in 2016, New Zealander Sarai Bareman is among the most high-profile advocates for change in a globally relevant yet still male-dominated sport. If women’s soccer, and women’s sport in general, has been characterised by impressive popularity growth and increased commercialisation in recent times, 2019 will see a continuation of concerted efforts to realise genuine progress.

In October, Fifa launched its first-ever Women's Football Strategy, a far-reaching initiative designed to grow girls participation worldwide, to boost professionalisation and enhance commercial value of the women’s game, and to ensure greater female representation on key decision-making bodies. In doing so, Bareman and her colleagues set down a marker for how women in sport might be viewed for years to come.

And there can be no mistaking that women’s soccer, particularly at international level, is gathering momentum. Canada’s Women’s World Cup in 2015 broke just about every record for the tournament; this summer’s edition in France, as one of the standout events of the sporting year, looks set to raise the bar once again. Off the field, too, major brands like Nike and Adidas are throwing their considerable marketing muscle behind the women’s game, while grassroots programmes and participation drives like Uefa’s 'Together #WePlayStrong' campaign signify a rising tide of high-level support.

Another successful World Cup in France would be the ideal platform to build towards achieving Fifa’s stated goal of doubling the number of female soccer players to 60 million by 2026. But at a time when attitudes are slowly but surely changing, Bareman’s role should be seen within the context of a far broader social and cultural movement towards women’s empowerment and gender equality.

LeBron James

Basketball player and entrepreneur 

LeBron James isn't just a big-time baller and one of the greatest exponents the National Basketball Association (NBA) has ever seen. A peerless, transcendental needle mover, his switch to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer single-handedly redressed the balance of the NBA, delivering a much-needed financial jolt to the league’s lacklustre glamour franchise and, just as tellingly, a commercial bruising to his beloved Cleveland Cavaliers.

Off the court, LeBron embodies a new breed of business-minded, cross-culture sporting icon. A fledgling career in Hollywood, including a starring role in the forthcoming Space Jam 2, is augmented by a burgeoning investment empire spanning numerous channels, platforms and product verticals. Through his Uninterrupted and SpringHill Entertainment ventures, the lifetime Nike ambassador is at the bleeding edge of media production and athlete-to-fan content, commanding a passionate legion of followers whose adoration for ‘The King’ borders on genuine obsession.

It is a mark of the man that when LeBron speaks, people are compelled to listen. An outspoken figure on hot-button social and political issues, his self-professed purpose remains “bigger than basketball”. At a time when athlete voices are being heard far beyond the realms of their profession, LeBron stands tall as a flag bearer for a generation of sports stars who are reclaiming the megaphone of mass media to tell their stories on their own terms.

Jack Ma

Co-founder and chairman, Alibaba Group

As new data technology, and particularly artificial intelligence, casts a wider net over the consumer landscape, Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group is fast becoming the bridge between Asia and some of the world’s biggest sports markets.

In the past six months, the Chinese tech company has made significant inroads into international territories in its pursuit of global expansion. Its cloud-computing and ecommerce partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is tipped to dramatically transform almost every aspect of the Olympic Games experience, while its nine-figure mobile payments deal with Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, is a sign of a company with broadening horizons.

Ma, the billionaire business magnate who co-founded the Alibaba Group in 1999, makes no secret of the company’s intentions to infiltrate the sports industry. Intent on adopting a ‘Moneyball’ approach for ecommerce in 2019, his company continues to move into organised sport with a big data-led approach that draws upon every tentacle of the sprawling Alibaba empire, and which provides advertisers and third-party retailers with a means of targeting China’s vast consumer market.

At a time when information is a new currency, Alisports, the company’s three-year-old sports arm, is seeking to become the technological backbone of China’s burgeoning sports industry - it plans to triple its user base to 100 million users by November of this year, in part by buying up media rights from major teams and events across the globe.

Yet a momentous year lies in store. In September, on the occasion of Alibaba’s 20th anniversary, Ma plans to relinquish the role of chairman to current chief executive Daniel Zhang. How he positions the company throughout the transition could determine whether the so-called ‘Amazon of the East’ succeeds in becoming the ‘Alibaba of the World’.

Linda Helleland

Vice president, World Anti-Doping Agency

It would be naïve to position the importance of 2019 in the anti-doping battle against any other year. However, as Sir Craig Reedie’s controversy-laden reign as president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) comes to an end in November, it will provide a clean break for an organisation in desperate need of reform.

Arguably, there is no sporting body that, by virtue of its very purpose, should carry greater trust and respect. Yet faith in sport’s highest doping regulatory body has sunk to an all-time low, with WADA’s decision to lift a ban on Russia’s anti-doping agency (Rusada) widely deemed the final straw.

And thus, it leaves Linda Helleland, a 41-year-old Norwegian politician and WADA vice-president, as the elephant in a deeply divided room. The minister of children and equality in her native parliament, she is just what WADA needs.

Bold on social media, and 36 years younger than her outgoing predecessor, Helleland could hold the key to rebuilding faith in the anti-doping movement. Her appearance at a White House summit, where she criticised the Reedie regime, was a crucial show of support for clean athletes while also displaying her opinion of her own organisation’s actions in the most public of fora.

This year provides WADA with a vital opportunity to reinforce its perception as sport’s supreme authority on doping. By the end of 2019, Helleland could be its most influential figure, but if she loses her bid for power it will be a chance missed – a rejection of reform in favour of an outdated status quo.

Jim Murren

Chairman and chief executive, MGM Resorts International

When the US Supreme Court granted American states individual power to legalise sports betting last May, Jim Murren, the chief executive for MGM Resorts International, said he was ready and waiting.

The US-based hospitality operator he oversees quickly lapped up several gambling partnerships, including a first-ever data distribution deal with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and league-wide agreements with the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB). With three leagues already in the bag, the deciding move will surely be played in a battle for sports betting rights to the US$13 billion juggernaut that is the National Football League (NFL), which are still up for grabs.

Headquartered in Las Vegas, Murren predicts MGM becoming a “very significant player” in a lucrative new market, helped by its existing relationships with the major leagues. There is scope, he says, to reel in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits as more states - and possibly the US federal government - warm to sports betting.

Licensed sportsbooks are now in operation in several states. In 2019, legislators in New York and Arkansas are tipped to bring legalised sports gambling to their jurisdictions, while a further 20 states, including California and South Carolina, are also making moves towards legalisation. Of all the companies vying for a piece of the sports gambling pie, Murren’s MGM is undoubtedly in pole position.

Brett Gosper

Chief executive, World Rugby

2019 could be a remarkable year in the development of rugby union. 

October’s Rugby World Cup in Japan will be a proper landmark for the 15-man code, the first edition of the tournament to be held outside the game’s traditional strongholds in Europe and the British Commonwealth. World Rugby hedged its bets very slightly with bookends in England in 2015 and France in 2023, but hopes are high that the hosts will deliver on and off the field. 

The ‘Cherry Blossoms’ have built on their stunning win over South Africa in Brighton last time out, while the expectations of a creative, smartly produced experience should be met a year before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. For World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper, converting the commercial and marketing opportunities that arise in Asia and beyond will be a major priority. 

Beyond that, though, the governing body has a mounting series of challenges to address in the months ahead. Proposals in September 2018 to reshape the calendar and create greater relevance and financial security for internationals were met with a distinctly mixed reaction. If that was one reminder of the proliferation of stakeholder interests in the sport today, the UK£230 million tie-up between CVC and England’s ambitious Premiership Rugby was another powerful example. 

On the pitch, meanwhile, streamlining the role of the Television Match Officials (TMOs) looks increasingly essential to preserving the spectacle of the biggest matches. Navigate all of this and Gosper can steer the sport towards a properly global future – but the stakes are high.

Aleksander Čeferin

President, Uefa

2018 was a good year for Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin.

During another prosperous 12 months for European soccer’s governing body, the 51-year-old secured a US$230 million partnership with Chinese payment platform Alipay, signed a first-of-its-kind women’s sponsorship tie-up with Visa and sealed eye-catching media deals for the organisation’s club competitions with DAZN and Facebook. Meanwhile, the roll-out of the Nations League went better than even the most optimistic Uefa officials could have hoped, reigniting fan interest in the two-week international breaks previously greeted with rising levels of apathy.

A straight-talking voice of reason in the increasingly tumultuous world of soccer, Čeferin must now continue to stand firm in the face of mounting pressure from Fifa, which will push ahead in 2019 with plans to introduce a revamped Club World Cup and Global Nations League of its own – despite Uefa’s well-documented disapproval.

Once of the Slovenian army, Čeferin will also have to combat revived talks of a breakaway European Super League, which could see some of the continent’s storied clubs abandon the Champions League for an independent, more lucrative competition. For now, Čeferin has dismissed those plans as “fiction”, and will instead focus on Europa League 2, a third-tier club tournament rubberstamped in December as part of long-term ambitions to narrow the gap between Europe’s elite and smaller sides.

First elected in 2016, Čeferin will run unopposed in February’s election for another four-year term. The fact that no challenger was forthcoming would suggest that the level-headed Slovenian is widely accepted to be a stabilising force during what could be a period of profound upheaval.

Sarah Hirshland

Chief executive, United States Olympic Committee

When Sarah Hirshland accepted the position of chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) last July, she took up a role that has become as unenviable as it is powerful. Now at the helm of the world’s largest, best-financed National Olympic Committee (NOC), Hirshland faces a race against time to return faith and credibility to an organisation still reeling from the USA Gymnastics (USAG) sexual abuse scandal.

If 2018 taught Hirshland anything, it is that the clean-up job will be anything but straightforward. Since disgraced former doctor Larry Nassar was thrown behind bars, two USAG presidents have come and gone, while further criminal charges have been brought against former employees. The USOC will likely face more hearings in 2019, and could be forced to pay settlements to victims amounting to tens of millions of dollars. 

If that isn’t enough to fill Hirshland’s to-do list, last year ended with retail giant Dick’s Sporting Goods pulling its sponsorship of the USOC. The factors which informed that decision are unclear, but it was indicative of the struggle Hirshland faces to convince sponsors to support an organisation going through a reputation crisis.

Conscious that now is not the time to dither, Hirshland made the most decisive play of her fledgling tenure in December when she moved to revoke USAG of its national governing body status. The organisation has since filed for bankruptcy, but the move at least served to suggest that Hirshland will pull no punches when it comes to restoring the image of Team USA ahead of Tokyo 2020.

John Ridgeon

Incoming chief executive, IAAF

On the face of it, the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) decision to appoint John Ridgeon as its new chief executive represents a change in tack.

Olivier Gers resigned from the role in March last year citing differences with the global track and field governing body over commercial strategy. IAAF president Sebastian Coe wanted Gers, who had no previous sporting background, to provide athletics with a more focused revenue model but the Frenchman left frustrated at his inability to affect change.

Ridgeon, a decorated Olympian, offers a seemingly greater sporting understanding, yet he is clearly more than a retired athlete with a few external business interests. After hanging up his spikes in 1997, the former English hurdler cofounded sports marketing firm Fast Track, and after selling the company in 2007 for UK£43 million, he served as one of the architects of the IAAF’s Diamond League three years later.

Currently executive chairman of CSM Active, the active lifestyle division of Coe’s CSM Sport and Entertainment, Ridgeon arrives at a pivotal time for the IAAF, which stumbles into 2019 faced with the uneasy prospect of taking its biggest event, the World Athletics Championships, to the Qatari capital of Doha without the presence of its long-time flag bearer, the great Usain Bolt.

Passing that event off without incident will mark an achievement but contending with the bungling World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) brings a longer-term cause for concern, with Russia - and its ongoing suspension from international athletics - set to dominate discussion within the sport for another year and possibly more.

Ridgeon, 51, described his IAAF role, which he is due to begin in March, as the "dream job" when he took it on in December. Many in athletics will be hoping he has the nous to avoid it becoming a nightmare.