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Forum: Arriving at our list of Most Influential People in 2021

A bit of our thinking as we put together our annual list of the Most Influential People in Sports Business …

We have 50 “slots” and 78 individuals who we placed into seven categories. From those, we selected the person we believe had the biggest and most profound impact on the business, Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin, as well as the most influential executive in other specific categories. Anyone making this list obviously has a big voice in the current and future state of the industry.

Rubin wasn’t a unanimous choice in our newsroom. He had the most support and was most frequently mentioned — but the range of opinion on his efforts varies. Few people over the past 14 months have done more to re-imagine the traditional ways of doing business and aggressively challenge the status quo. Many classified him as a disrupter (and he is that), but he is also a connector. He is bridging so many different groups to build even more powerful platforms and enabling leagues to be part of the growth, which is what is so unique about his business approach. And it’s all built off the power of the company’s deep database of sports fans. He says Fanatics is focused on helping the fan do more things, more efficiently, and if he is successful in creating a one-stop e-commerce site for the fan to buy tickets, merchandise, place a bet, buy an NFT or collectible, and even watch highlights, it would dramatically redefine the customer experience. 

But there are areas that gave us pause. There is some concern of having so much commerce being driven by one company. Some league executives worry about the leverage he would have if he controls so many key revenue streams. While he has big sports betting ambitions, he was denied a license in New York, and the jury is still out on many of his broader plans and a possible IPO. While he has recruited a smart and talented leadership team, he needs more diverse voices around him. But the bottom line is leaders across sports are watching his every move very closely, speculating on his next move and few are betting against an executive with such a work ethic, vision and successful track record.

The debate over who carried the most influence among team owners focused on three groups. First, there was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for obvious reasons as the industry analyzes his every investment. Meanwhile, Fenway Sports Group’s John Henry, Tom Werner and Mike Gordon took an infusion of capital from RedBird Capital to reach a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins and made investments with LeBron James and SpringHill Co., and said they’re not done making acquisitions. But it was Robert Kraft’s role in securing $110 billion in NFL media deals and the league’s effort to sell a stake in its media division, as well as his broad reach in media and entertainment circles, that earned him the top nod.

Other thoughts: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had one of the best 12- to 20-month runs of any commissioner in sports history — with massive media agreements, a long-term collective bargaining agreement, a successful return to play and a moneymaking machine. … Dana White is relentlessly building the UFC into a global powerhouse while also raising his profile, aided by his relationship with Endeavor. … WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has brought strong CEO and financial chops to the league and her leadership is greatly respected. … Rob Manfred’s influence will be tested during a difficult CBA negotiation, especially up against another skilled, tireless litigator in MLBPA attorney Bruce Meyer, who wants to win. Manfred won’t find the more conciliatory deal-making approach of the late Michael Weiner in these negotiations, and Manfred’s influence and impact will be tested. … Three weeks ago, WTA CEO Steve Simon wouldn’t have been seriously considered for this list. But he’s been the sports industry’s most surprisingly outspoken critic of China, putting his sport (and job) at risk. It’s too early to gauge the sphere of his influence, but Simon’s stance and strength of conviction, for right or wrong, has already created ripples throughout sports.

There are always difficult decisions, especially the final cuts that didn’t make the 50. The final and toughest omissions were MLSE Chairman Larry Tanenbaum, who is intimately involved in the policy and decisions around three leagues: NBA, NHL and MLS. MLSE never gets enough credit in the sports business considering how impressive this organization is and the broad influence it wields, and Tanenbaum is a very trusted confidant of three league commissioners. Formula One’s Stefano Domenicali and John Malone were also debated, and while Malone touches a number of areas of the sports business, we still felt their influence wasn’t deep enough yet in the North American market, despite having one of the hottest sports in the world right now. Finally, Tom Brady’s cultural influence extends on and off the field and his public profile and significance continues to grow.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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