After the tumult of 2016, the patterns that will define the year ahead are emerging. SportsPro looks at ten people who will shape the sports industry in 2017, across politics, the media, and beyond.
By Eoin Connolly, Michael Long, Adam Nelson, George Dudley and Nicholas Brookes
For most of 2016 the prospect of a world shaped by Donald J Trump was inescapable. Now, there is no getting away from the reality.
With his administration in its infancy, the 45th president of the United States of America has already begun to confirm some of the worst fears about his intentions and worldview. His country’s long-held place at the vanguard of freedom, democracy and rational progress is under threat.
Leaving aside concerns about his morality and fitness to lead – which SportsPro shares – or his competence – of which there is much evidence, even within the confines of the sports industry, that he is lacking – the idea of Trump as president promises as much uncertainty within sport as it does everywhere else, even if the stakes are altogether lower.
The Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympic Games had hoped to progress in relative serenity under the new chrysophile-in-chief. But how will it recalibrate in the wake of the White House’s incoherent, inflammatory new immigration orders?
How can a potential collaboration between the US and Mexico on a 2026 Fifa World Cup bid possibly function as a concrete wall rises between the two countries? What impact will Trump’s indulgence of Vladimir Putin have on attempts to temper Russia’s sporting influence at its most malignant, in areas from governance to anti-doping?
Will a rift develop within American professional sport? The rise of Trump has elicited a divided response from individual athletes, coaches and officials in the US; his campaign was endorsed by the leaders of some organisations and abhorred by others. It is easy to imagine the more activist National Basketball Association (NBA), for example, taking a different route in the next few years than Nascar or the National Football League (NFL); it is harder to say how well any of their ambitions overseas will be served.
Fundamentally, for an internationally minded industry like sport, there is the matter of the world’s leading economic and political power turning darkly inwards on itself.
There is no precedent for this, and no playbook.
General secretary, Fifa
2017 was only a few days old when Fifa made the grandest possible statement about the general direction of travel of international soccer in the Gianni Infantino era. Whatever its impact on sporting quality and credibility, the decision to expand the World Cup to a colossal 48 teams will have thrilled those constituents to whom the Swiss owes his near year-old presidency: aspirant smaller national federations whose concerns about Eurocentricity have now been swept away and who can count on a greater degree of financial certainty, however cynically it has been guaranteed.
But that is only one phase of the rebuilding project inherited from Sepp Blatter and company. Restoring trust in Fifa’s ability to administer faithfully, and not just lucratively, will be a longer process. It will largely be overseen and fronted by Fatma Samoura, the Senegalese former United Nations official brought in by Infantino as secretary general last May.
Samoura was the first woman and the first non-European appointed to an executive position at Fifa and her appointment has been read as a case of soccer administration importing the kind of integrity, diversity and international relations nous it had failed to foster within. But her lack of sports industry experience will be held against her if she cannot deliver within the context of soccer’s uniquely configured politics.
Challenges proliferate. As well as the need to show that a reformed Fifa can move past the heinous corruption of its recent past, there is the delicate matter of how to approach the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar.
The former will host the Confederations Cup in 2017; the open sores of Putinism and state-sponsored doping will smart throughout, and that will be only a measure of the discomfort to come. It will take some skill to get the game through it intact.
Xi Jinping has made no secret of his passion for soccer. Whereas previously China has disregarded team sports in favour of individual pursuits, the country’s president is now keen to tap into the economic and political value of the world’s most popular game. The response of Chinese investors to Xi’s calls to transform China into a global soccer superpower was one of the industry’s most eye-catching stories in 2016, and already looks to have far-reaching implications. Yet the trend of Chinese Super League (CSL) teams offering inflated wages to turn heads in more established competitions could now taper off after China’s Sports General Administration (SGA) chastised the country’s top clubs over their ‘irrational’ spending, and announced plans to regulate player earnings. The SGA also criticised excessive Chinese investment in European clubs.
This may yet amount to tinkering around the edges but Xi’s longer-term priority is Chinese superiority, not imported prestige. Plans are afoot to build 70,000 pitches and 20,000 specialist soccer schools by 2020, and for China to develop its own world class players in pursuit of a Fifa World Cup win by 2050.
Soccer is far from the only sport attracting major investment in China. In October 2016, Alisports pledged to spend US$100 million on developing rugby over the next decade. And with the Beijing Winter Olympics edging ever closer, the government has extensive plans to popularise winter sports. By 2022, it intends to foster an industry worth US$14 billion dollars in Hebei province alone. Alibaba’s nine-figure sponsorship deal with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will tie China closer to the movement, not least with its e-commerce elements.
As well as encouraging those increased levels of investment, Xi’s government is putting sport at the centre of a crackdown on alleged corruption. Deputy sports minister Xiao Tian was jailed for bribery in the final days of 2016, and it would be unsurprising if more high-profile convictions follow in 2017.
Commissioner, PGA Tour
Jay Monahan has the fate and the fortunes of a sport at his fingertips. Having succeeded Tim Finchem, who served at the helm of the PGA Tour for 22 years, in January, the 46-year-old now occupies perhaps the most powerful office in golf.
Described by Finchem as “absolutely the right guy” to replace him, Monahan is a golf man through and through: a veteran PGA Tour insider with the expertise and connections to ensure the sport’s leading tour retains that title for years to come. Yet, for the same reasons, he knows there is no shortage of trials awaiting him. Slow play, scheduling congestion, public image issues, a widening disconnect between the elite and grassroots games, even the impact of Donald Trump – Monahan must address each of those challenges, all whilst navigating golf’s frustratingly politicised landscape and ensuring the traditional media, sponsorship and licensing revenues continue to flow in to an organisation that boasts assets in excess of US$2 billion.
Having spearheaded the PGA Tour’s international expansion, Finchem left office advocating for the creation of a global, unified circuit, one that could govern the sport at the professional level and bring all stakeholders together for the greater good of the game. Bringing to fruition such a single-tour concept remains a complex task – just ask Finchem himself – but as the sport’s disparate tours realign, buddy up and jostle for position to protect and strengthen their respective interests, many will look to Monahan to lead by example. Will he pursue a mega-merger with his European counterparts? Can he foster closer ties with the women’s game?
Not only does Monahan now oversee golf’s richest and most influential organisation, he also sits among the chief guardians of a sport that has historically struggled to modernise and adapt to a rapidly changing world. Its leading stakeholders know that it must widen its appeal, especially among crucial audiences such as millennials, women and ethnic minorities. It is now down to Monahan to ensure golf remains relevant in the increasingly cluttered and competitive digital age, and this is the year in which he must hit the ground the running.
Chief executive, Formula One Group
After 30 years of the same leadership Formula One has finally felt the winds of change. With Liberty Media formally completing its US$8 billion takeover in January, Chase Carey will now lead the task of rejuvenating a sport that has drawn in on itself and fallen short of its true potential.
A highly renowned operator who made his reputation in the sports broadcasting industry at 21st Century Fox, negotiating a ground-breaking US$1.6 billion deal for NFL rights in 1993 before helping to drive the inception of Fox Sports in 1994, Carey has been the exquisitely moustachioed face of the Liberty takeover since it was announced in September. It is only in the new year, however, that the extent of his influence became apparent.
The American was initially installed as Formula One’s chairman, with Bernie Ecclestone’s intimate knowledge of the paddock – and the thicket of deals he had personally seeded – expected to make the Englishman indispensible to the new owners for a couple of years at least. Instead, the 86-year-old has been moved to a chairman emeritus role that gets him out of the way while the business of modernising the series he did so much to build.
As chief executive, 62-year-old Carey will be flanked in his task by managing director of commercial operations Shawn Bratches and managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn. The new set-up promises a more collegiate approach to solving some of Formula One’s more intractable problems – from invigorating its anaemic centralised marketing to instilling some coherent rule-making and competitiveness on the track.
Yet it will still be Carey to whom eyes are turned. While he has insisted he will dredge the oceans of experience at Ecclestone’s disposal, he has also called time on an era of decision-making that fell “somewhere between ineffective and dysfunctional”. A more digitally minded championship is proposed, but also one which respects its historic hosts and whose in-city experience amounts to “21 Super Bowls”. It is an ambitious vision.
Chief executive, Adidas
When Adidas announced the pending appointment of Kasper Rorsted as its chief executive in January 2016, its market value rose by close to €1 billion. The valuation of Henkel, the German chemical and consumer goods group the Dane was heading up at the time, dropped by a greater amount.
Rorsted, 53, was feted for reviving Henkel’s fortunes in his eight-year stint and has been brought in to perform a similar trick at Adidas now he is in place. Last October it reclaimed its spot as the number two sportswear brand in the US, overtaking Under Armour after three years in third. With revenues slowing globally, however, it will be the need to gain ground on Nike that still exercises minds in Herzogenrauch.
The company has set its sights on becoming the leading sports brand in the world’s biggest country, with a new ‘One in a Billion’ marketing campaign launched at the start of 2017 to signal a drive for primacy in China by 2020. The push into new markets will be one part of the strategy; the other will be to draw upon Adidas’ heritage as an innovator. Whichever of the apparel giants is best able to grasp the possibilities of wearables and smart materials will have a good chance of dictating not just the future of the sector but of whole chunks of the sports and leisure culture.
To have a chance of doing so, Rorsted and Adidas have more prosaic concerns to address. Chief among those is the future of fitness brand Reebok, that 90s powerhouse for which has struggled to find its purpose since a 2005 takeover. Adidas announced plans to divest its interests in its golf businesses last year but the early indications are that for Reebok the preference is for renewal, rather than resale.
Director General, World Anti-Doping Agency
A lawyer by profession, Olivier Niggli replaced New Zealander David Howman as the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (Wada) director general last July, having previously served as the body’s chief operating officer and general counsel. Though not as quoteworthy as his straight-talking Kiwi predecessor, the Swiss now finds himself in the public spotlight as a central protagonist in the unceasing and increasingly politicised battle against doping in sport.
There is no denying 2016 was a challenging year for Wada, the independent body founded in 1999 and co-funded by sports bodies and national governments. Hacked by the cyber espionage group Fancy Bears, thrust into wider public discourse following a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) scandal and its own damning McLaren Report into Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme – never before had the agency been the subject of such scrutiny. Indeed, towards the end of last year fears mounted for the very future of Wada after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to heed its call for a blanket ban on Russian athletes at the Rio Olympics. That disagreement opened up a worrying rift at the highest levels of sport, with senior IOC officials criticising Wada’s deficient protocols and apparent impotence to effectively tackle doping issues, and led to calls for a replacement ‘integrity unit’ and an overhaul of the global anti-doping system.
This year, Wada must respond. In October an Olympic Summit recommended greater authority and regulatory powers for the body, affirming its role at the forefront of the fight for clean sport. Now, empowered by renewed support, strengthened investigative capabilities, the prospect of greater funding and a more confidential whistleblower programme, the onus is on Niggli and Wada president Sir Craig Reedie to define how best to approach that fight.
But it will not be a straightforward task. With the credibility and integrity of sport under threat from a plethora of malignant forces, bringing increasingly sophisticated doping cheats to justice has never been tougher. All that makes Niggli’s job all the more crucial.
President, PyeongChang 2018
An Olympic Games looming, allegations of corruption flying, a political scene in turmoil and a president facing impeachment: didn’t we do this one already?
12 months remain until PyeongChang, South Korea welcomes the world for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and the sense of déjà vu is undeniable. Just as the build-up to Rio was marked by the trial of Brazil’s then president Dilma Rousseff, so PyeongChang has found political scandal providing an unwanted backdrop to its preparations. Not only is South Korean president Park Geun-hye implicated, but also senior figures within the electronics conglomerate Samsung, a major backer and sponsor of the Games. The man charged with holding all this together is PyeongChang 2018 president Lee Hee-beom who, less than a year into the job after replacing Cho Yang-ho in May 2016, is finding the going tougher than he may have anticipated.
Lee’s biggest challenge will simply be in ensuring that the Games themselves remain above the fray. Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the centre of the political controversy for her involvement with Park, has also been accused of holding undue influence over the tender process for the Olympic venues and, perhaps more damagingly for Lee, over the process by which Lee was installed as Cho’s replacement last year.
A saving grace for Lee is that PyeongChang is much farther along with its physical preparations than Rio was when the crisis hit its nadir, and that South Korea is much better prepared to absorb the shockwaves of the turmoil than Brazil ever was. Lee has conceded that raising interest in the Games within South Korea has been “difficult” thanks to the political climate and, having missed the sponsorship target for 2017, is aware that his international push cannot afford to fail. How he steers the ship from here will have profound implications on the success or otherwise of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Chairman and chief executive, The Walt Disney Company
Bob Iger oversees the world’s largest media conglomerate, The Walt Disney Company, a globally renowned behemoth that controls assets exceeding US$92 billion. But if that were the only reason he makes this list, the 65-year-old American would have been in it years ago.
Much was made last year of ESPN’s worrying subscriber losses but Disney remains bullish about the future of its iconic sports network. Under Iger, who has run Disney since 2005, the pay-TV pioneer remains intent on retaining its self-proclaimed title of ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports’, and America’s most-watched cable network will pump more than US$7 billion into premium sports rights this year alone.
Having bet big on live streaming when it launched WatchESPN in 2010, Iger’s Disney splashed US$1 billion on a 33 per cent stake in BAMTech – the live streaming specialist spun off from Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) – last August in a bid to accelerate the development of a new over-the-top (OTT) sports offering. With the broadcast landscape changing, the direction in which Iger takes Disney next could have major implications for the sports industry as a whole, not least for the leagues and properties that rely on the sky-high fees ESPN continues to shell out for their rights.
As it stands, Iger has no plans to extend his tenure in Disney’s top seat when his current contract expires in June 2018. But he could well be looking to make one last big splash before moving on. He is said to be on the lookout for a major digital acquisition to bolster Disney’s portfolio and drive the company’s growth in years to come – could a potentially game-changing takeover of Netflix be more than just a rumour?
In any case, Iger remains one of the most respected businessmen in the US. In July he became vice chair of the board of directors for the Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. And he has an admirer in Donald Trump, too, the new president having selected him to sit among a host of prominent business leaders on his strategic and policy forum.
Minister for sport, tourism and heritage, UK
Tracey Crouch became sports minister midway through a golden decade for British sport, both on the field and as a host of major events. It is easy to forget how recently, and how heavily, the UK once leaned on its sporting heritage at the expense of forward planning. Now the country’s sports industry is internationally respected for its professionalism, with a generation of executives and administrators emerging with reputations enhanced from a string of global events , not least the ultimate stress-test of London 2012.
In some respects, this year promises more of the same. London will host the year’s biggest sporting occasion – the World Athletics Championships – while two International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments will grace England in the summer, with the Champions Trophy and Women’s Cricket World Cup whetting the appetite for the sport’s blue-riband event in 2019.
Yet even with all that to come, and with Team GB basking in the glow of an improbable second-place finish in the Rio 2016 Olympic medal table, an introspective mood has been brewing. The UK Sport-led, National Lottery-backed elite funding model has delivered unprecedented success in some disciplines, but the list of governing bodies no longer happy that it meets their needs has grown longer. An ongoing investigation into the anti-doping policy at the still-rampant British Cycling has done little to assuage the fears of those concerned that victory has been pursued at too high a cost.
Recreational cycling is another success story but with grassroots participation in a number of other sports either foundering of falling short of expectations, calls for an updated overall strategy will not go away.
Then, of course, there is Brexit. The UK’s looming departure from the European Union was sealed by a slender majority, but is being pursued with gusto by Crouch’s colleagues in government. The sports minister, like many of her peers, will be pressed to offer reassurances about her sector. Concerns that British sporting and cultural influence could be a casualty of any ungainly crash from the single market are inevitable.