2017 in review: the sports business year in deals

From an unprecedented arrangement that saw two Olympics awarded at the same time, to major moves by Disney and Amazon, SportsPro takes a month-by-month look back at the year’s deal-making highlights.

2017 in review: the sports business year in deals

Sport is an industry defined by deals. Not a month goes by without a mega-money sponsorship, a lucrative media rights agreement, a landscape-altering merger, a billion-dollar franchise acquisition, or a career-defining endorsement. 

Every year, it seems, the cheques keep getting bigger, and over the course of the past 12 months the sports industry expended plenty of ink signing them. Throughout 2017, the deals came thick and fast and, as ever, SportsPro covered them all.

JANUARY

With the birth of the new year came the dawn of a new chapter for Formula One, as the series officially came under new ownership following Liberty Media’s US$8 billion takeover. Completion of the buyout spelled the end of 86-year-old Bernie Ecclestone’s 40-year reign over motorsport’s blue-riband property, with Chase Carey, the wonderfully moustachioed Liberty executive, installed as his replacement.

Elsewhere the San Diego Chargers of the National Football League (NFL) began their year by hitting the road, announcing plans to line up in Los Angeles alongside the Rams, who had relocated from St Louis a year earlier. Terms of the move would require Chargers owner Dean Spanos to pay a US$550 million relocation fee over ten years, while his team would temporarily set up shop at Carson’s StubHub Center.

On the US east coast, meanwhile, Rocco Commisso’s purchase of the financially stricken New York Cosmos rescued the team from the brink of collapse and in turn helped the North American Soccer League (NASL) stave off likely liquidation, if only for the time being. As chairman of the league, the Mediacom chief executive has since spearheaded an ongoing lawsuit against US Soccer, which revoked the NASL’s provisional second-tier status in September.

After the organisational nightmare that was Rio 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) turned its attentions to Asia, opening what would prove another tumultuous year for the body by adding Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to its roster of TOP sponsors ahead of upcoming Games in PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing.

FEBRUARY

February saw the National Basketball Association (NBA) affirm its status as a first-mover in the industry once again. As well as becoming the first of North America’s major leagues to establish an official esports competition, the tech-savvy organisation signed energy drinks brand Gatorade as the naming rights partner of its Development League, which was duly renamed the G League.

In Major League Soccer (MLS), meanwhile, there was a first team partnership for rapper Jay-Z’s Roc Nation agency, while DC United signed one of the three richest naming rights deals in the league when they snared Audi of America for their soon-to-open stadium (right).

Also in soccer, Heineken extended its longstanding sponsorship of the Uefa Champions League, Conmebol enlisted the help of IMG for its Copa Libertadores marketing efforts, Fifa struck ‘a global integrity partnership’ with Sportradar, and reports emerged of US network Turner Sports' surprise three-year deal for rights to the elite club game in Europe.

Elsewhere, news of further progress for women’s sport came in the form of two landmark broadcast agreements on either side of the Atlantic. In the US, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) hailed its wide-ranging sponsorship, broadcast and equity relationship with A+E Networks as “transformational”, while in the UK Sky Sports agreed to give women’s cricket domestic TV coverage for the first time after buying rights to the 2017 Kia Women's Super League.

MARCH

March saw the spotlight shine bright on Las Vegas, where the city’s new National Hockey League (NHL) franchise, the Golden Knights, struck their first sponsorship deal ahead of their inaugural season and the UFC became an anchor tenant of the T-Mobile Arena, joining the nascent ice hockey team at the newly opened venue. The same month, the NFL’s Oakland Raiders confirmed their proposed relocation to Sin City, upping sticks from California in what was the league’s third contentious franchise move in less than 14 months.

The Raiders’ relocation, which been on the cards for over a year and is slated for 2020, hinged upon an unprecedented US$750 million public contribution towards a new US$1.7 billion domed stadium to be built close to Vegas’ famous Strip. In an interview with SportsPro at the time, Steve Hill, chairman of the Las Vegas Stadium Authority (LVSA), explained why spending that amount of taxpayer money was a punt worth taking.

In the UK, meanwhile, BT Sport retained the live broadcast rights to European club soccer's Uefa Champions League and Europa League in a deal worth UK£1.18 billion (US$1.44 billion), an increase of nearly a third on the agreement it signed in November 2013 to take exclusive rights for the first time.

APRIL

April’s headline deal saw Amazon fork out a reported US$50 million to acquire a package of streaming rights to the NFL’s Thursday Night Football games - a package previously held by Twitter. Amid mounting industry speculation surrounding when it might make a play for premium live rights, Amazon reportedly beat off competition from several of its arch tech rivals to secure the deal.

Elsewhere in the NFL, the league’s players’ union, the NFLPA, struck an innovative agreement with wearable technology firm Whoop in April. In a first for a professional sports league, NFL players would be able to own and commercialise their personal biometric data, captured via a wrist-worn monitoring device.

Also in April, with pressure growing on David Beckham to get his stalled Miami MLS project moving, reports emerged that the English soccer icon had secured crucial financial backing from Todd Boehly, the billionaire investment banker and part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.

Word of Boehly’s involvement kickstarted a chain of events that would see Beckham’s team of investors secure a long-awaited land deal for a stadium to house their proposed franchise - although Boehly would pull out of the project before the year was out.

In Europe, meanwhile, France’s Ligue 1 received a cash boost of up to €10 million (US$10.7 million) by signing a new title sponsorship deal with Conforama, a furniture and household appliances retailer. Fifa also brought Hisense on board as an official sponsor of the Russia 2018 World Cup, while golfer Rory McIlroy extended his bumper endorsement deal with Nike for a cool US$100 million.

MAY 

No sooner had the ink dried on the Hisense deal than Fifa confirmed a massive US$450 million sponsorship for its global showpiece with another Chinese company, smartphone manufacturer Vivo, in May. That deal followed the signing of a partnership with Qatar Airways just three weeks earlier. Together, the deals would help Fifa bolster its coffers in a year in which the governing body projected a US$489 million loss, largely owing to a string of recent scandals.

Also in May, golf’s PGA Tour renewed its most important commercial deal, signing a US$650 million extension with FedEx, the title sponsor of the tour’s absurdly lucrative season-long points competition. Meanwhile, Italian media mogul Andrea Radrizzani (left) completed his takeover of English soccer club Leeds United and Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic confirmed his apparel switch from Uniqlo to Lacoste.

In other significant deals confirmed in what was a manic month, Nitto replaced Barclays as the title sponsor of the ATP World Tour’s season-ending Finals; Nike tied down New York Giants star Odell Beckham Jr to the 'richest NFL shoe deal’ ever signed; the NFL itself invested US$95 million in sports retailer Fanatics and sold a batch of overseas media rights to Perform Group; Facebook pocketed a 20-game live streaming deal with Major League Baseball (MLB); and NBC Sports Group, already the home of rugby union in the US, inked a new seven-year partnership with World Rugby to televise the sport’s biggest international events.

JUNE 

Barely a week after ‘mutually’ parting ways with longstanding sponsor McDonald’s - was it a ‘conscious uncoupling’ or a one-sided break-up? - the IOC announced a new worldwide partnership with Intel in June, continuing a shift in commercial strategy for the global Olympic body. The microchip maker heralded its arrival by declaring its intention to “accelerate the adoption of technology for the future of sports on the world’s largest athletic stage”.

June was an equally significant month for the NFL, which enlisted Bruin Sports Capital and WPP to drive the expansion of its Game Pass OTT service throughout Europe, shortly after making Bell Media the league’s exclusive broadcaster in Canada. In perhaps the standout deal of the month, however, the Indian Premier League (IPL) secured a staggering 554 per cent uplift in income when it tied down title sponsor Vivo to a US$330 million, five-year renewal.

In other cricket news, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) kicked off a busy summer by pocketing some UK£1.1 billion (US$1.4 billion) from Sky Sports and the BBC, who combined to secure the live domestic rights to home internationals and first-class county tournaments, as well a new eight-team T20 franchise league, from 2020 until 2024.

Elsewhere, Chinese-owned Ironman continued its assault on the global mass participation business by acquiring Competitor Group, the organiser of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series; KPMG extended its Women’s PGA Championship deal to 2023; Rolex clocked a decade-long deal to sponsor the Paris Masters 1000 men’s tennis tournament; and ESPN retained exclusive rights to the Premier League in Brazil, becoming the third overseas network to acquire the league’s rights until 2022.

JULY

July saw longstanding talk of an impending IOC plan to award the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games at the same time turn to meaningful action, as an unprecedented ‘tripartite agreement’ between the committee and bid teams in Paris and Los Angeles began to take shape. First, IOC members voted unanimously to support the plan, sparking widespread speculation and behind-closed-doors discussions over which city would host which Games. 

At the end of July, reports emerged that LA officials had effectively conceded the race for 2024 to Paris, spurring the IOC to quickly reveal details of its 2028 host city contract with the Californian city. All that remained then was for the sweetest of sweet deals - “a win-win-win situation”, according to IOC president Thomas Bach - to be rubber-stamped in Lima in September.

As those discussions were coming to an amiable conclusion, the IOC’s media department was busy awarding broadcast rights to the next four Olympics in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Elsewhere the UFC announced plans to stage its first event in mainland China in November, while the MMA promotion’s main Asian rival, ONE Championship, secured fresh investment from a group of venture capitalists.

Over in the UK, meanwhile, there was a blow for pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports, which lost the rights to show golf’s US PGA Championship just days after launching a new dedicated golf channel. Despite rumoured interest from Twitter, the rights went to the BBC for a cut-price fee.

AUGUST

August will go down as a momentous month for several North American properties. In a month overshadowed by final preparations for boxer Floyd Mayweather’s much-hyped showdown with MMA loudmouth Conor McGregor, a host of organisations served notice of their ambitions with eye-catching deals. 

In Toronto, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) signed a 20-year arena naming rights deal with Scotiabank worth a reported CAN$800 million (US$639 million). At US$32 million per year, that agreement is ‘believed to be the highest-priced annual building and team sponsorship in North American sports history’.

Major League Soccer (MLS) and Adidas, meanwhile, renewed their exclusive apparel deal in a six-year tie-up worth some US$700 million in total. At an average of nearly US$117 million per year, it was the largest commercial agreement in the expanding league’s 21-year history, and saw MLS leapfrog the NHL in terms of yearly apparel rights fees.

Elsewhere ESPN parent Disney upped its stake in BAMTech, MLB’s pioneering live streaming unit, forking out US$1.58 billion for an additional 42 per cent stake in the company. The accelerated investment, which took Disney’s share to 75 per cent, valued BAMTech at US$3.76 billion, and came with Disney laying the groundwork for an ESPN-branded OTT offering in early 2018.

Speaking of ESPN, the pay-TV network also struck a ‘vast and exclusive’ deal with boxing promoter Top Rank in August. Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, described that contract as “the most comprehensive and innovative media agreement” in the history of boxing.

And in Los Angeles, city mayor Eric Garcetti was finally able to hail the “deal of a lifetime” as local authorities approved his bid team’s 2028 Olympic contract, which included certain financial sweeteners such as an increased IOC contribution of as much as US$2 billion.

SEPTEMBER

The mega-deals kept on coming in September with a string of billion-dollar transactions announced during the month. The biggest saw Star India stump up US$2.55 billion for five years of full global rights to cricket’s IPL, seeing off the league’s founding partner Sony Pictures Networks and an eye-catching US$608.6 million Facebook bid for local digital coverage - a first real glimpse of the social network’s media rights war chest.

September also saw the Houston Rockets change hands for an NBA-record sum, with billionaire restaurateur Tilman Fertitta (left) buying his hometown team from Leslie Alexander for US$2.2 billion. Elsewhere MLB finally approved the sale of the Miami Marlins franchise to a group led by New York businessman Bruce Sherman and Yankees great Derek Jeter. The league’s approval of the US$1.2 billion buyout brought an end to a protracted sales process that dragged on throughout the year.

A reported US$1.4 billion agreement saw IMG and Perform Group team up to acquire the rights to Conmebol’s top club soccer competitions, including the Copa Liberdatores. Sky Sports also splashed UK£600 million to retain its agreement with the English Football League (EFL), and the Golden State Warriors secured the NBA’s richest jersey sponsorship deal, tying down Rakuten for an annual US$20 million.

OCTOBER

Snapping up the rights to Conmebol’s club competitions was certainly not the only piece of business IMG did this autumn. In the space of four weeks, the agency powerhouse underlined its status as a master deal-maker with a string of announcements to coincide with the news that its parent company, WME | IMG, would be renamed Endeavor.

New global licensing and media archiving deals with World Rugby bookended confirmation that IMG College would be merging with Learfield to create a collegiate marketing behemoth. Then, just days later, came news from Italy that IMG had acquired the global rights to Lega Serie A in a deal worth €371 million per season, striking a significant blow to incumbent rights holder MP & Silva. Rounding off IMG’s run of deals was a new partnership with the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) that would see the launch of the Volleyball Nations League, a ‘revolutionary’ competition set to debut in 2018.

In the US, meanwhile, Delta Airlines became an international partner of the Masters Tournament - a rarity in sports sponsorship given the notoriously selective nature of the ever-exclusive Augusta National Golf Club. Elsewhere the data specialists at Sportradar acquired player-tracking tech startup MOCAP Analytics, and Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai snapped up 49 per cent of the NBA's Brooklyn Nets.

Content distribution deals were also confirmed in October between two major US properties and their Asian business partners. The NBA struck a multi-year media and marketing partnership worth more than US$225 million with Japan’s Rakuten, while the Pac-12 Conference re-upped with Alibaba in an agreement that would see its content shown across mainland China for the first time.

NOVEMBER

With preparations for PyeongChang 2018 stumbling on in November, local organisers called upon the services of Airbnb to help alleviate international concerns over inadequate and costly accommodation around Games venues, just as their Brazilian counterparts had done in the run up to Rio 2016.

Elsewhere Amazon Tickets secured its first major sports partnership, teaming up with golf’s Open Championship, while Amazon's streaming division finally confirmed its long-rumoured deal for the UK rights to the ATP World Tour. Before the month was out Amazon Web Services (AWS), the firm’s cloud computing arm, would also become the official technology provider of the NFL in a deal centred around the league’s Next Gen Stats player-tracking system.

In Europe, Banco Santander became a new partner of the Uefa Champions League, and reports surfaced of a new deal between Manchester City, currently a Nike partner, and rival brand Puma. Those deals came to light just as Fifa and Fifpro, the global representative body for professional players, were busy tying up a landmark agreement that Fifpro president Philippe Piat said would “set in motion the biggest changes to football transfer rules since 2001”.

Also in November, CME Group extended its backing of the LPGA’s Tour Championship until 2023; daily fantasy sports company DraftKings got its hands on some Euroleague live streaming rights; and MLS bought an undisclosed stake in Fanatics, the burgeoning e-commerce company eyeing further overseas growth, as part of a new merchandising deal.

DECEMBER

With another eventful year in the sports industry drawing to a close, there was still time for several major deals to get done this December. In the NHL, Dallas-based billionaire Tom Dundon signed an agreement to purchase the Carolina Hurricanes, while the NFL remodelled its mobile streaming plans as part of new big-money deals with existing partners VerizonNBCUniversal and ESPN.

Elsewhere The Walt Disney Company and Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox announced a US$52.4 billion mega-deal that will see the former acquire the latter’s family of 22 US-based regional sports networks (RSNs), provided the takeover receives regulatory approval.

That deal is poised to reshape the landscape of sports media in the US and also sets the stage for another defining year for ESPN in 2018 - although the network will roll out its new OTT offering in May without the guidance of John Skipper, who shocked the media world days after the Fox news when he resigned as ESPN president, citing a substance addiction.

With Christmas closing in and just months to go before the World Cup, Fifa added to an anaemic commercial programme by adding Mengniu Group as an official sponsor - its fifth deal with a Chinese company in 2017, following previous tie-ups with Alibaba Cloud, Tencent Sports, Hisense and Vivo.

Want to keep track of every major sports industry deal signed throughout 2018 and beyond? Subscribe to the SportsPro Daily Deal today.