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Ten Influencers 2020: The figures who will define the sports industry year ahead

SportsPro presents its annual list of ten influential figures whose work will be setting the agenda for sport in the coming year.

by SportsPro
Ten Influencers 2020: The figures who will define the sports industry year ahead

Meg Whitman

Chief executive, Quibi

Billionaire Silicon Valley veteran Meg Whitman made her name as chief executive of Ebay before going on to hold the same position at Hewlett Packard. An investor in Major League Soccer (MLS) team FC Cincinnati and esports franchise Immortals, the American, 63, now heads up Quibi, a new subscription-based, short-form video platform that will launch in April amid considerable hype and expectation.

Having raised an eye-catching US$1.4 billion from investors including Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony, Viacom, and WarnerMedia, Quibi expects to roll out no fewer than 175 shows and 8,500 episodes in its first year. Specifically designed for mobile phones, its scripted programming will take the form of polished, high-quality productions from major content distributors, including big-name Hollywood filmmakers, as well as news, weather and sports. Interactive features and functions native to the smartphone will play an important role in its output, with viewers able to shift perspectives within the action by switching between horizontal or vertical orientations.

As growing numbers of young people spend more time on their mobile phones, Whitman insists now is the time to make a bold bet on small-screen streaming. Skeptics abound, not least given most leading mobile video providers, namely Instagram and TikTok, offer their services for free, yet anyone with a vested interest in the future of media consumption will be watching Quibi closely.

That, of course, includes major rights holders, content owners and brands in sport. Basketball star Stephen Curry’s Unanimous Media signed up to executive produce a docu-series for Quibi, which is co-spearheaded by movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, as long ago as December 2018. Once Quibi finds its feet, it might not be long before other content-minded sporting entities follow suit.

If the future of sports consumption is indeed on mobile, Whitman’s venture is certainly one to watch.

Kevin Mayer

Chairman of direct-to-consumer and international, Disney

In recent years The Walt Disney Company has been undergoing a wholesale strategic shift to position direct-to-consumer distribution at the heart of its myriad media businesses. That process has been a far-reaching, not to mention costly, undertaking for the world’s largest media conglomerate, and it now falls to Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s newly created Direct-to-consumer & International division, to ensure the move is a success.

As a trusted lieutenant of Bob Iger, Disney’s influential chief executive, Mayer was the strategic mastermind behind several of the company’s most high-profile acquisitions, including Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. Now, the American finds himself operating arguably its most important business unit.

Under his direct aegis are platforms and services like the recently launched Disney+ and ESPN+, as well as acquired properties such as Hulu, Disney Streaming Services, and Indian streaming behemoth Hotstar. Each of those must now be bolted together and seamlessly integrated within a sprawling international empire in order to create a future-proof, profit-making machine that serves Disney shareholders for years to come.

For Mayer, who is being tipped as a future replacement for Iger, the coming year will be one of experimentation but there will be little room for failure, especially with the giants of media and tech facing off in a high-stakes battle for content and eyeballs. In investing so heavily in its various direct-to-consumer services, Disney has boldly bet its future on subscription video, even if it risks cannibalising its core - and still highly profitable - cable TV businesses.

That wager has put the burden squarely on Mayer’s shoulders, and many executives in sports media will be watching on with interest.

Johanna Faries

Commissioner, Call of Duty Esports

Johanna Faries is in the right place at the right time. At the start of 2020, she will find herself at the helm of one of three city-based franchise esports competitions as commissioner of the Call of Duty League, Activision Blizzard’s latest effort to steal a lead in the burgeoning, potentially lucrative competitive gaming sector.

Activision does, of course, already operate the Overwatch League, but there is perhaps no other gaming title that carries the same global heft as Call of Duty - or CoD, as it is known by its fanatical followers. Indeed, as Activision itself noted in a press release earlier this year, the company's flagship franchise has now 'generated more revenue than the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the box office, and double that of the cumulative box office of Star Wars'.

Faries herself has said that the new league can "become one of the biggest sports leagues in the world", and if she can convince even a fraction of CoD's hundreds of millions of players to follow the game's journey into franchised competition, then it would be safe to assume that there will be significant dollars to be made.

Prior to joining Activision, Faries spent 12 years at the National Football League (NFL), where at different times she was responsible for sponsorship and sales, retail marketing and fan development. That experience will no doubt serve her well as she looks to grow the appeal of the Call of Duty League's 12 franchises - each of which were sold for US$25 million, according to ESPN - in international cities ranging from London and Paris to Los Angeles and Toronto.

At a time when it remains difficult to measure just how big esports could become, how Faries and the Call of Duty League fare might offer the best indication yet.

Andrea Agnelli

Chairman, Juventus & European Club Association; Uefa ExCo member

Andrea Agnelli is best known as the chairman of Italian soccer giants Juventus, yet his influence transcends far beyond the Turin club he has run since 2010, and which his family has owned for nearly a century.

As chairman of the European Club Association (ECA), the body that represents the interests of the continent’s top professional clubs, Agnelli is now a leading protagonist in an unceasing power struggle, one characterised by a rancorous debate that pits European soccer’s powerhouses against smaller clubs and their own leagues.

Recently re-elected to lead the ECA until 2023, the 44-year-old is spearheading a push to reform and ring-fence the Uefa Champions League, a controversial move that would have profound economic implications for the world’s most popular sport in its richest and most powerful region. Whether or not his proposals - whatever they may ultimately turn out to be - get over the line in 2020, the spectre of a breakaway Super League involving Europe’s elite will continue to lurk in Agnelli’s shadow so long as there remains discontent among the ECA’s increasingly disgruntled ranks.

Indeed, Agnelli wields considerable authority. Here is a man who, backed by the clout of his family-owned business empire, was able to prise Cristiano Ronaldo away from Real Madrid, a well-connected operator whose own rise through soccer’s corridors of power has been unerring despite being found guilty in 2017 of selling match tickets to mafia-linked supporters groups.

As the debate over the future of club soccer in Europe rages on, there is no doubting that the figure in the middle, making demands and rocking the boat, will be that of Agnelli.

Egon Durban

Managing partner, Silver Lake

Of all the chequebook-wielding private equity funds with a taste for sport and entertainment, few can justifiably claim to have had quite the same impact as Silver Lake and its managing partner, Egon Durban.

As well as funnelling capital into ecommerce giants like Alibaba and Fanatics, Silver Lake has snaffled significant stakes in some of the industry’s biggest players, including The Madison Square Garden Company, Endeavor, the UFC, Learfield | IMG College and Oak View Group. Most recently, it acquired just over ten per cent of City Football Group (CFG), the multinational parent company of Premier League champions Manchester City, in a deal valued at some US$500 million.

Durban, who joined Silver Lake as a founding principal in 1999, sits on the boards of several major tech companies, including Dell Technologies, Motorola Solutions and Verily. With a contact book that reads like a who’s who of heavy-hitters in business - think Elon Musk, Michael Dell, Ari Emanuel - he has positioned himself as a powerbroker and master dealmaker with a knack for turning heads.

Indeed, whenever Silver Lake places its bets, the market tends to react. In November, shortly after Durban signed off on the CFG investment, shares in City’s crosstown rivals Manchester United leapt almost 13 per cent - their biggest one-day jump ever - as Wall Street appeared to take the news as validation of sports team ownership.

As the worlds of entertainment and technology continue to collide, it is clear that Durban, one of Silicon Valley’s most influential investors, senses an opportunity to create connections and synergies that could yet reshape the sports business from the ground up. The question, then, is: where will he invest next?

Barbara Slater

Director, BBC Sport

The first female ever appointed as director of BBC Sport a decade ago, Barbara Slater has set about ensuring that television coverage of women’s sports is no longer an afterthought. With that in mind, 2019 might be the year in her tenure that the Briton will so far look back on most fondly.

Last summer saw Slater deliver the BBC’s #changethegame campaign, an initiative that produced the British public service broadcaster’s most comprehensive free-to-air coverage of women’s sport ever. That particular drive was propped up by the fact that major events such as the Netball World Cup, the Women’s Ashes and golf’s Solheim Cup all happened within quick succession of one another, but the 28.1 million that tuned into the BBC during its Fifa Women’s World Cup coverage was indicative of a growing appetite in the UK to watch women’s sports. And if Slater’s leadership up to now has taught anything, it’s that she will see this as only the beginning.

A much-admired figure within the industry, Slater oversees around 20,000 hours of global sports coverage across the BBC’s platforms each year, a portfolio that has chopped and changed considerably since she first joined the organisation in 1983. With the BBC now priced out of some of the biggest rights auctions and pay-TV slots still reserved for premium men’s properties, there is a genuine opportunity for Slater to cement the broadcaster’s status as the UK home of women’s sport.

With 2020 ushering in another edition of the Summer Olympic Games for the BBC, one can expect Slater to position the double-barrelled duo of Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson at the forefront of the broadcaster’s coverage. That particular event was once the only occasion when female athletes were seen and heard, but Slater’s continued influence looks to ensure that it is now one of many.

Timo Lumme

Managing director, IOC television and marketing services

There is no question the business of sports marketing is changing. Societal shifts and emerging technologies are transforming the way all sport is delivered and experienced, and perhaps no property is more inextricably linked to global trends than the Olympic Games.

From infrastructure and delivery to broadcasting and sponsorship, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is in the process of modernising every aspect of its blue riband occasion, part of a broader push to stay relevant in a world defined by the rapidly evolving tastes of consumers and corporations. Recently signed partnerships with Intel, Alibaba and Airbnb are evidence of a developing commercial philosophy at the global Olympic body, one that builds on a product-category exclusivity approach to place greater emphasis on digital platforms, solutions and services that have meaningful, real-world applications.

Perhaps the most prominent figure lurking in the background of each of those partnerships, and indeed the IOC’s ongoing commercial evolution, is Timo Lumme, the long-time managing director of IOC Television and Marketing Services. The Finn, 58, has responsibility for the development and implementation of the Olympic broadcast rights and marketing strategy, and as such he is employee number one when it comes to the negotiation of the IOC’s broadcast rights and TOP sponsor contracts.

It is a far-reaching role that requires Lumme to not only think globally, but also to think ahead. For decades, the IOC’s marketing strategy has primarily been in service of a trickle-down economic system known as Olympic solidarity, yet times are evidently changing. Empowered athletes across the world are calling for enhanced rights and more commercial freedom, especially around the Games themselves, and Lumme himself has admitted the IOC’s tried and trusted funding model could be forced to undergo its most profound transformation yet.

While the Olympic movement will descend on Tokyo this summer, the attention of Lumme and his IOC colleagues will be trained on events further over the horizon. How they position themselves for the changes to come will inform the staging of just about every major sporting spectacle on the planet for a generation.

John Donahoe

Chief executive, Nike

Nike will begin the 2020s where it began the 2010s: as comfortably the number one sportswear brand on the planet. Q4 earnings in 2019 grew to US$10.2 billion; its income for the last completed financial year was US$39.1 billion.

All the same, the Portland-based giant faces significant change. It begins 2020 under only its fourth chief executive. John Donahoe, a board member and former eBay chief executive, joins from enterprise software company ServiceNow in January.

A new direction may have been due anyway but Donahoe arrives after an awkward end to Mark Parker’s 13-year tenure. The high-profile Oregon Project closed amid reports that Parker had known uncomfortable details about the activities of banned distance-running coach Alberto Salazar. There were also complaints that Nike’s promotion of leading female athletes was not matched by a commitment to the interests of young mothers in the workplace – or indeed those of pregnant sportswomen.

Strategically, Nike has other decisions to make that will be pertinent to the wider industry. Its involvement in Eliud Kipchoge’s assault on the two-hour marathon barrier will sustain speculation about any interest in further owned events. Meanwhile, its direct-to-consumer operations were growing before it hired Donahoe, with Parker speaking of an ambition to be “personal at scale”.

Nike acquired consumer data analytics firm Zodiac back in March 2018 and then bought Celect, a ‘predictive analytics and demand sensing’ specialist, in August 2019. That same month it launched Adventure Club, a three-tier trainer subscription service for children aged two to ten. A full-scale version, perhaps based on the Nike+ membership and training scheme, could be a useful source of recurring revenue.

Running a US$143 billion corporation will bring its rewards. Donahoe will collect US$45 million in cash and stock on arrival, then stands to earn up to US$18.5 million a year. 

Witold Bańka

President, World Anti-Doping Agency

At just 35 years old, Witold Bańka finds himself shouldering great responsibility, but he could be the energetic, transformational force the anti-doping world so sorely needs. Poland’s minister for sport and tourism succeeded Sir Craig Reedie as president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the start of the year, and now the former 400m sprinter needs to hit the ground running.

In the years since the true scale of Russia’s state-backed doping transgressions came to light, WADA has taken steps to enhance its own regulatory powers, including ratifying a more stringent code that will come into force in 2021. Now, the tough-talking Bańka has plans to increase WADA’s reach and influence still further.

As well as lending his voice to longstanding calls for WADA’s annual budget of around US$35 million to be increased, he intends to establish a solidarity fund to support anti-doping efforts and increase the number of accredited testing laboratories in all corners of the globe. Like Reedie, too, Bańka is urging corporate sponsors and broadcasters to play a bigger role in the fight against doping - although whether he can persuade companies to buy into that unpopular line of thinking remains to be seen.

In any case, Bańka’s immediate priorities will include improving lines of communication with athletes, governments and the media, and further strengthening ties with cross-border authorities like Interpol. In an Olympic year, too, he will need set out his stance on Russia quickly and clearly. At a time when public distrust of sport’s decision-makers - and, by extension, the product on the field of play - remains fervent, many will be hoping Bańka’s much-vaunted, zero-tolerance brand of leadership translates into meaningful action and some semblance of justice for clean athletes worldwide.

Yousef Al-Obaidly

Chief executive, BeIN Media Group

If anyone was still unsure about the growing threat piracy poses to the sports industry, BeIN Media Group chief executive Yousef Al-Obaidly was sure to eliminate any lingering confusion at the backend of 2019. It was then, in no uncertain terms, that he bluntly warned a room of executives in London that the “glorious media rights bubble is about to burst”, that the very revenue stream upon which many sports rely is set to be drained because of the industry’s collective inaction over intellectual property theft.

Al-Obaidly’s BeIN has, of course, been the biggest target for BeoutQ, the Saudi-led piracy operation that has been helping itself to the world’s most watched sports content for well over two years. It is undoubtedly an intricate, politically fuelled and unprecedented state of affairs, but one that has led the Qatar-based broadcaster to reassess whether the US$15 billion it currently spends on exclusive sports rights is sustainable.

BeIN’s deal with Formula One in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has already fallen victim to the BeoutQ saga, while Italian soccer’s Serie A has been told that it is it putting UK£390 million (US$500 million) worth of overseas rights contracts at risk by continuing to play its Super Cup in Saudi Arabia. Having said that, BeIN’s recent decision to splash out on exclusive Uefa Champions League rights in France would suggest that the broadcaster will continue to play a role in some of the biggest auctions going forward.   

In any case, his crusade against BeoutQ has seen Al-Obaidly turn what was once a background conversation into a priority for the industry. Whether he delivers on his threat to scale back BeIN’s rights spend remains to be seen, but one certainty is that it will be fascinating finding out.