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Ten Influencers 2021: Why these figures 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 2021: Why these figures will define the sports industry year ahead

Erika Nardini

Chief Executive, Barstool Sports

Since its inception in 2003, Barstool Sports has grown to become one of the most popular and profitable digital media brands in America. Its unfiltered, often irreverent video and audio content reaches millions of avid fans across myriad platforms, many of them males who fall within the coveted 18 to 34 demographic, and the company is now among the top podcast publishers in the world.

At the helm of the Barstool business is Erika Nardini, a highly regarded, always outspoken businesswoman blazing a trail in a male-dominated world. Recently appointed to WWE’s board of directors, the former marketing chief at AOL became the first female boss of Barstool in 2016, and in the years since the company’s revenue has skyrocketed some 1,100 per cent.

Heading into 2021 and beyond, Barstool is perfectly placed to capitalise on the burgeoning US sports betting market, one that is sure to be led by media brands whose content crosses over into culture and lifestyle. A recent investment deal with Penn National Gaming, in which the casino operator bought a 36 per cent stake in Barstool, not only valued the company at US$450 million, it also gave Nardini the tools - including a branded sportsbook app - to challenge giants like FanDuel, DraftKings and MGM in the battle for sports gambling supremacy.

Away from her role running Barstool, Nardini remains one of the most engaging, straight-talking voices in sports media. Whatever this year holds, don’t expect her to spend it sitting quietly at the fringes.

Stefano Domenicali

Chief Executive, Formula One

Formula One starts 2021 with a new man in the driving seat. Stefano Domenicali’s appointment as chief executive has proved almost universally popular among team bosses and drivers, but the Italian will need to draw on all six years of his experience leading Ferrari as he works through a stacked in-tray left to him by Chase Carey.

Most recently chief executive of Lamborghini, Domenicali joins Formula One as the global motorsport series prepares for what Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has described as the “biggest transition” in its history. One of Carey’s final acts was to finalise a new Concorde Agreement until 2025, announced after all ten teams had already committed to the introduction of a reduced budget cap of US$145 million from this season and new technical regulations in 2022. The American is to remain involved as non-executive chairman, but the onus will be on his replacement to oversee the transition to and implementation of those rules, which the series hopes will finally correct the financial and competitive imbalance in the sport.

That process will not be straightforward, especially as Domenicali will need to stabilise the finances of both the series and its teams in the wake of Covid-19, all while trying to deliver a record 23-race season in the midst of a pandemic. There will also be an expectation that the 55-year-old builds on the investments Liberty Media has made since its 2017 takeover to make Formula One a more rounded, relevant entertainment product.

It all sounds very daunting, yet the noise coming out of the sport is that there is no one better suited to the challenge. Carey can be credited with laying the foundations, but in Domenicali Liberty is putting its faith in a man who knows the paddock to steer Formula One into its future.

Marie Donoghue

Vice President, Global Sports Video, Amazon

Marie Donoghue has every reason to be enjoying herself. Having spent nearly two decades helping to build out ESPN’s programming, she is now embarking on a similar journey at Amazon, only with a much wider remit. As the ecommerce firm’s vice president of global sports video, a position she has held since 2018, Donoghue is the individual tasked with identifying and evaluating new opportunities that can lure consumers to the company’s Prime subscription service.

Of all the tech giants that have been tipped to transform the sports media rights landscape, Amazon is the one that has been most aggressive. Yet its approach to date – one that has seen the Seattle company take time to experiment with different types of rights deals and analyse consumer behaviour - has not been one of a business necessarily fixed on dominating the sports rights marketplace.

But if 2020 is anything to go by, it would be fair to say that Amazon is happy with what it has been seeing. Last year saw the company make its first play in India, acquiring rights to New Zealand Cricket (NZC) matches for the next six years, while it also picked up a package of Uefa Champions League rights in Italy. This year will again present an opportunity for Amazon to retain and potentially expand its domestic coverage of English soccer’s Premier League, while it is repeatedly mentioned in conversations about the National Football League’s (NFL) upcoming broadcast deals.

It is hard to remember a time when those in the industry were not talking about Amazon becoming a powerful player in sports media. Donoghue will have as big a say as any in whether that prophecy is fulfilled. 

Brian Rolapp

Chief Media and Business Officer, NFL

Despite broader financial challenges, 2021 will deliver some very big broadcast deals indeed. The biggest will be signed by the National Football League (NFL), now deep in talks to replace domestic TV agreements that run from 2014 to 2022.

Commissioner Roger Goodell may be the face of any announcements, but a central force in negotiations is NFL chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp. The one-time NBC Universal executive, touted sometimes as a possible successor to Goodell, has led on the development of the NFL’s television and digital media contracts since a 2017 promotion. The results of those efforts are almost in.

Scale is inevitable. At December’s SportsPro OTT Summit, NBC Sports Group president of programming Jon Miller predicted deals that will “make the Olympics and any prior NFL deal pale by comparison”. The New York Post has signalled ten-year packages that would ‘far exceed’ a total value of US$100 billion.

Rolapp did not subdue those expectations when he told Broadcasting+Cable that the league has “not seen a lack of interest because of economic concerns”. It will also “think through” the implications of changing viewing habits; the lengthy mooted terms suggest that partners will collaborate in that process.

There is further intrigue at the fringes. Broad distribution is assured but back in December 2019, Rolapp spoke with interest about Thursday Night Football co-carrier Amazon’s activities with English soccer’s Premier League. The extent of its role could be telling, not least as legacy media groups consider what NFL games can do for their own fledgling digital services.

Heavy spending by those giants will have its own consequences for lower-tier rights holders. Rolapp’s bounty might squeeze finances elsewhere, or accelerate competition among emerging players.

Naomi Osaka

Professional tennis player

Shortly after winning her second US Open in September, Naomi Osaka told Vogue that she had been able to draw on added motivation to get through the tournament. With each victory came another opportunity to raise awareness of racially charged police brutality, to wear another of the seven face masks that had accompanied her to Flushing Meadows bearing the name of an African American killed at the hands of US law enforcement.

For those that have followed Osaka’s short but impressive professional tennis career to date, her emergence as a leading athlete activist might have come as something of a surprise. A self-confessed introvert who once described herself as “the most awkward person in tennis”, the 23-year-old overcame her inhibitions in 2020 to speak authoritatively and articulately on issues of social justice as she harnessed the power of her fame as a force for good. 

Last year saw sportsmen and women around the world unite in their support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, yet Osaka’s activism in particular felt as significant as it was improbable. A US resident born in Japan to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, Osaka is in a unique position where her influence is felt as much in the west as it is in the east, a part of the world that will surely afford her another opportunity to amplify her message in 2021 as one of the homecoming stars of the rearranged Tokyo Olympic Games.

From Billie Jean King to the Williams sisters, women’s tennis has a rich history of producing individuals who match their desire to be the best on the court with a will to inspire social change off it. In 2020 Osaka proved that she is ready to be next, and that she can do both.

Nick Clarry

Managing Partner, CVC Capital Partners

Whether they back compelling growth businesses or look to resuscitate hospital cases, much of the agenda for sport in 2021 will be set by outside investors. Many of them will be opportunistic speculators scouting for a post-Covid bargain, but in truth the new faces of venture capital in sport are almost certain to look much like the old ones.

Of all the traditional private equity players making significant moves in recent months, perhaps no fund has shown a more voracious appetite for sport than Luxembourg-based CVC Capital Partners, a global investment goliath with well over US$100 billion of assets under management, and one which has already brought its vast financial might to bear in mainstream sports like motorsport and rugby union.

Among those pulling the company purse strings is Nick Clarry, one of 29 managing partners at CVC who oversees its activities in sports, media and entertainment. Having joined the firm in 2003, the former Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs executive was previously heavily involved with CVC’s dealings in Formula One, and in the years since he has become an increasingly prominent powerbroker in the corridors of sport.

In the context of CVC’s ambition, a US$600 million fund created with Bruin Sports Capital is but a drop in the ocean. With a proven ability to drive long-term value through bigger broadcast deals and new forms of content distribution, Clarry and his colleagues now have their sights set firmly on elite soccer, where the influence of private equity - particularly across the major European leagues - is only growing as rights holders seek much-needed liquidity.

Yoshihide Suga

Prime Minister, Japan

Japan’s new prime minister Yoshihide Suga begins his first full year in office with an Olympic-sized cloud hanging firmly overhead.

The surprise resignation of Shinzo Abe in August due to health reasons saw Suga parachuted in as prime minister the following month. A close ally of Abe, the 72-year-old is likely to continue the policies of his predecessor whilst also taking on the sizeable task of delivering the rearranged Tokyo Olympic Games, an event that was supposed to mark the crowning moment of Abe’s tenure.

While undoubtedly unprecedented, the situation could also present an opportunity for Suga to shine as he navigates the challenges that postponing an event the size of the Olympics can bring. Already the most expensive Summer Games in history, the delay has resulted in an additional US$2.8 billion in costs, including nearly US$1 billion for countermeasures against Covid-19. In a bid to save money and increase efficiency, local organisers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have agreed more than 50 measures to implement a more streamlined Games.

With less than 200 days until the opening ceremony on 23rd July, Japan once again finds itself in a race against time. A new rise in infections in the country has led Suga to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo while the rest of the world wonders if the Games can go ahead in its rescheduled slot. Recent public opinion surveys also suggest a growing feeling in the host nation that the event should not be held in 2021 at all.

Still, though, Suga has reiterated his promise to stage Tokyo 2020 this year in whatever form it eventually takes. Fail to deliver and his legacy could already be tainted less than 12 months into the job.

Kim Ng

General Manager, Miami Marlins

When Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Miami Marlins named Kim Ng as their general manager in November, it provided both cause for celebration and reason to ask what had taken so long. Until then, the 52-year-old had spent much of her career being overqualified but painfully overlooked.

Born in Indianapolis to parents of Chinese descent, Ng started as an intern at the Chicago White Sox before rising through the ranks with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, eventually becoming vice president of baseball operations for MLB. Yet on the several occasions that she interviewed for a general manager role in the 15 years since first trying in 2005, the outcome was always the same. It probably said less about Ng than it did the people who were doing the hiring.

Now, though, Ng stands alone as the first woman to serve as the general manager of a team in any of the men’s major leagues in North America and the first East Asian American to hold the position in MLB’s 118-year history. It is perhaps unfair that Ng’s performance will be scrutinised like no other front office executive in baseball, but that comes with the territory of being a trailblazer.

Ng would have been forgiven for thinking this opportunity would never come, yet her determination to succeed in an industry not built for her is a symbol of hope for a world where women in sport are judged on their qualifications rather than their gender. It might have been a struggle to get here, but Ng can take comfort in the fact that she might just have made it easier for those who want to follow in her path.

Arnaud Rouger

Chief Executive, Professional Football League (LFP)

Having served as director of competitions at French soccer’s Professional Football League (LFP) since 2003, Arnaud Rouger was appointed chief executive of the governing body in September as part of a leadership overhaul. Handpicked by new LFP president Vincent Labrune to replace Didier Quillot, he will need to rely heavily on his wealth of experience in French soccer and years of service at the LFP to resolve the escalating fallout in the country’s top two tiers, Ligue 1 and Ligue 2.

For both leagues, the media rights picture remains in disarray after Spanish agency Mediapro was forced to end its four-year contract, worth approximately €800 million (US$983 million) per season though to 2024, back in December due to missed payments. Indeed, French soccer finds itself in a perilous financial position after the 2019/20 season was scrapped with ten games still to play. The LFP moved to take out a €120 million (US$147 million) bank loan to cover missed payments to clubs, while a €224 million (US$275 million) government bailout was also secured last May.

For years, Ligue 1 has been desperate to challenge the commercial might of the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A in the crowded European soccer market. The Mediapro deal was meant to be a signal of that ambition. Instead, Rouger will be the man in the middle with consolidation - and rebuilding bridges - on the agenda, rather than outright expansion.

Patrik Frisk

Chief Executive, Under Armour

Installed as chief executive of Under Armour a year ago, Patrik Frisk has long made his presence felt at a sportswear brand that has been undergoing a wholesale transition in recent years. The Swedish-born executive, who boasts three decades of experience in the footwear and apparel industry, joined Under Armour in July 2017 from his position as chief executive of Aldo Group. Since then, he has been a key part of the Baltimore-based brand’s ongoing strategic, structural and cultural transformation, but it is how the company reacts to continuing headwinds in the retail sector, not least those brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, that will ultimately define Frisk’s leadership.

After suffering significant losses and laying off hundreds of staff throughout the first half of 2020, Under Armour rebounded to post positive results towards the end of the year. Increased demand for athletic and athleisure wear and an accelerated shift towards ecommerce helped the brand beat analyst expectations, but there remains plenty of work to do if this once-unstoppable challenger brand is to make up ground on rivals Nike and Adidas.

Last year, Frisk said “the critical mass of our transformational challenges is behind us” and insisted the brand is now “sharply focused on operational improvements and financial discipline”. Growing business in North America and prioritising direct-to-consumer sales remain key focuses, he said, adding that doubling down on athletic performance at a time when consumers are more driven than ever by health, fitness and wellness would help Under Armour weather the Covid-19 storm.

If 2020 was largely spent rolling with the punches, 2021 is the year Under Armour must come out swinging if the brand is to prove, both to shareholders and consumers alike, that it has truly turned a corner.

This is a feature from Issue 112 of SportsPro magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here