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Madkour: Pulling back the curtain on SBA judging debates

Inside the judging for the Sports Business Awards, for the first time in awards history, there was serious discussion and debate about ties and co-winners.

League of the Year was, for the second year in a row, the most contested category. Every nominee had some support. Despite a small pocket of passionate advocates, the NFL couldn’t get traction despite its strong business year because of its high-profile controversies. The NHL had such a good story around a new media deal, a new franchise and inclusion efforts that I thought it might sneak in as a surprise winner. The SEC was widely respected for adding two key members to the conference, but judges were eager to see more in the future. It ultimately came down to the WNBA and the UFC. This featured a very engaged back and forth, and in the end, it seemed the UFC prevailed because of its amplification of both male and female athletes, its overall success in signing significant sponsorship deals and driving ESPN+’s business, and connecting with a young, diverse, engaged fan base. This was one of the better debates I’ve witnessed over the years.

Team of the Year was also competitive, as all six franchises had support. But the conversation soon focused around four — the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Lightning. Judges were impressed with the Warriors’ continued outstanding business performance with strong season-ticket sales, ticket renewals and overall revenue. The turnaround of the Rams and the progress the team has made in Los Angeles was a strong story, and the Braves’ incredible hold on its fan base, their revenue gains and the draw of The Battery and Truist Park nearly won over the room. But voters kept coming back to the consistent excellence of the Lightning, the team’s respected business performance matching its on-ice product and the efforts of owner Jeff Vinik and his organization in engaging with the community. The Lightning’s strong community efforts had tremendous appeal with the judges and, I believe, may have been the difference maker.

Sports Facility of the Year quickly was a debate on two facilities: Climate Pledge Arena and SoFi Stadium. Several judges told their firsthand experiences of being at a number of the venues, and while SoFi was seen as the one that will have the most volume and host the biggest events in the future, judges focused on the authenticity and long-term sustainability impact of Climate Pledge. Judges felt that the buildings of the future will all learn from the influential efforts executed at Climate Pledge.

■ AMONG THE OTHERS: Best in Property Consulting, Sales and Client Services was a demanding deliberation, as these agencies were involved in the biggest deals of the year — from AEG Global Partnerships’ record-breaking deal with Crypto.com, to Wasserman’s work with the NFL on international marketing rights, to Oak View Group’s parade of deals. But in the end, the judges were drawn to CAA Sports’ broad offering around big ticket items in sponsorship sales and media consultancy. … Sports Breakthrough of the Year offered a broad range of nominees, and it will fall on SBJ to offer more clarity around the criteria. While early support was around Omaha Productions and the Manning brothers’ successful alternative broadcasts, many judges didn’t think it was new enough. There were pockets of support for all the innovative team building that Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin are doing around 23XI Racing, but judges were impressed by the rapid introduction of Crypto.com to the marketplace and its massive investments around top-tier sports properties, which has upended the financial services category. … Sponsor of the Year is a fun debate and leaves the judges wanting to see more metrics on market growth and ROI. They loved the efforts around Duke’s Mayo but considered that an effective “campaign of the year” and not fitting a broader sponsor of the year recognition. Two companies received most of the attention — Caesars Sportsbook for its branding efforts and infrastructure at venues, and Constellation Brands: Beer Division, for its specific marketing and activation. It was the successful story of how Constellation gained significant market share for its Modelo and Corona brands through sports activation that earned it the final nod. … Sports Event of the Year saw a lot of love around what NASCAR did with its Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum and how Circuit of the Americas leveraged Formula One’s growing popularity during its race last October, but those didn’t reach the respect for what MLB did in creating a visually stunning story in an Iowa cornfield.

There were incredibly creative and innovative efforts among all nominees, and it resulted in a very competitive selection process. I hope this offers a glimpse into the hard work and thoughtful debate of the judges.

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

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