The Long Read: Seven #SportsBiz questions for 2018

As another year in the sports business dawns, SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long considers some of the most pressing issues hanging over the landscape of the North American industry.

The Long Read: Seven #SportsBiz questions for 2018

On reflection, 2017 yielded more questions than answers. After another year of twists and turns, shocks and shenanigans, who knows what 2018 might have in store?

Surveying the landscape of North American sport, the prevailing mood is a mix of disharmony and discontent. The events of the past 12 months have bred uncertainty in some quarters and anxiety in others, ensuring that 2018 will be a year in which executives across the board must come up with some answers.

Can the NFL spin a new narrative?

Make no mistake, the National Football League (NFL) endured another torrid year in 2017. The league's much-publicised national anthem protests and its accompanying beef with President Trump inspired countless column inches and plenty of headlines last year, giving rise to sponsor anxiety and mounting discontent among an increasingly polarised fanbase, and coinciding with continued declines in TV ratings and viewership. But that episode was, in reality, only the tip of the iceberg.

Two more contentious franchise relocations, owner in-fighting, persistent concerns surrounding the issue of concussions, long-term injuries to some of the game’s most marketable stars, allegations of workplace misconduct involving team executives and NFL Network employees, public spats with the league’s players’ union… the NFL had the full English of off-field troubles to stomach over the course of last year.

Now, the onus is on Roger Goodell (above) and his office to reinvigorate the NFL brand - a brand that is said to now be among America’s most divisive - and restore some of the league’s former lustre. Having been rewarded - or penalised, perhaps - with a new five-year contract, the under-pressure commissioner has his work cut out to switch up the narrative that surrounds the league heading into 2018.

Will ESPN rekindle its flame?

Another North American sporting institution to have a rollercoaster 2017 was Disney-owned ESPN.

In a year in which the effects of cord-cutting continued to take their toll - compounded by dwindling subscriber numbers and affiliate fees as well as sky-high programming costs - the pay-TV broadcaster announced two more rounds of staff layoffs while John Skipper’s unexpected resignation from his role as ESPN president came as something of a bombshell in December.

On the plus side, however, Disney’s mega-money acquisition of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) streaming spin-off BAMTech and its subsequent takeover of certain assets held by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox were both seen as aggressive plays that illustrated the new direction of travel for a network on the counterattack.

With the media world undergoing rapid and wholesale disruption, ESPN’s defiant bosses are going all-in on digital distribution this year, armed with BAMTech’s proprietary streaming technology and perhaps the most attractive portfolio of rights around. The network’s impending launch in May of a revamped mobile app, replete with a new over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, is eagerly anticipated, but that alone will not guarantee a change in fortunes.

Much like the NFL, ESPN has often found itself at the centre of a partisan, all-too-politicised public discourse - critics say its coverage has become too left-leaning, while members of its on-air talent have been repeatedly chastised, both internally and externally, for speaking out publicly on contentious social issues. Those controversies, coupled with the unavoidable challenges associated with the cable TV business, have led to the mainstream characterisation of ESPN as a sinking ship.

Overturning that narrative will be far from easy, yet Disney clearly has a plan for its flagship cable network. As has been noted elsewhere, the Fox takeover, if approved, will see Disney dramatically tighten its grip on sports media - Pivotal Research says Disney-owned channels accounted for 31 per cent of all sports TV consumption last year while Fox-owned channels accounted for 21 per cent, meaning the newly expanded company would control more than half of all broadcast content in 2018 and beyond.

Internally, too, big changes are afoot. Skipper’s decision to step down to fight a 'substance addiction' presents the network’s leadership with an opportunity to regroup and refresh, and whoever replaces him will be tasked with ensuring ESPN’s digital transition is a success. Any positive momentum generated from the outset could put that individual first in line to succeed Bob Iger, the influential Disney chairman and chief executive, when his new contract expires in 2021.

Who next for US Soccer?

After the ignominy of the USA’s failure to qualify for this summer’s Fifa World Cup, Sunil Gulati has ruled himself out of the running for another term as president of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), leaving the door open to eight would-be successors who have been cleared to stand at next month’s elections.

The eclectic field of candidates includes two attorneys, four current or former national team players, USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro, and Kathy Carter, who has taken leave from her role as president of Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the so-called ‘commercial arm’ of Major League Soccer (MLS), to run for the USSF presidency.

While each of the candidates will fancy their chances, the election could be seen as an intriguing tussle between the establishment pick of Carter and the reformist’s choice of Eric Wynalda, a former US national team representative and Fox Sports analyst.

Carter (left) is rumoured to have the backing of both Gulati and Don Garber, the MLS commissioner and a USSF board member, while Wynalda has the support of, among others, the North American Soccer League (NASL). His campaign has been partly funded by Riccardo Silva, the owner of NASL club Miami FC who undoubtedly sees Wynalda as the ideal candidate to put forth his own anti-closed system, pro-promotion and relegation agenda.

Carter’s decision to run has only fuelled longstanding suspicions around the opaque business ties and conflicts of interest that exist between the USSF, MLS and SUM, a company set up to handle marketing rights for both organisations. Coincidentally or not, Carter entered the race just a day after Gulati confirmed his intention to step aside, and subsequent reports of the outgoing president’s apparent lobbying on her behalf have done little to quell concerns that US soccer’s cosy leadership are conspiring to ensure the status quo remains.

Whatever the merits of that particular argument, it is impossible not to view the presidential race in the wider context of the NASL’s ongoing lawsuit against the USSF, which came about after the governing body revoked the league’s provisional division two sanctioning in September. A court recently declined a preliminary injunction of that decision, prompting the NASL, which has argued that it will go out of business without division two status, to file an appeal.

The outcome of the continuing appeal process is not yet known. What is clear, however, is that the messy legal dispute has further stoked existing tensions within the American game, weaving a fascinating subplot to the unfolding drama that is the first contested USSF presidential election in a decade.

Will the US (and Canada and Mexico) land the 2026 Fifa World Cup?

Despite the discord on home shores, the USSF and its counterparts in Canada and Mexico are attempting to display a united front in their quest to land the 2026 Fifa World Cup, ahead of an expected decision by Fifa, world soccer’s governing body, this coming June.

Many believe the North American bid, which is being spearheaded by Gulati, is a shoo-in; currently only Morocco, a country with a lengthy history of failed World Cup bids, stands in its way, and it is true that Fifa really could do with the cash an expanded 48-team tournament largely held in the US - host of what is still the best-attended World Cup ever, in 1994 - would generate.

Yet the Trump administration hardly ingratiated itself within the international community in 2017, a year in which anti-American sentiment amped up within world soccer’s corridors of power owing to the US-led corruption investigation that has brought down several Fifa officials - including, last month, Jose Maria Marin and Juan Angel Napout, two men who were once among South American soccer's most powerful figures. 

While the United Bid would appear the odds-on favourite, then, it could be that recent events ultimately derail the North American proposal. Only time will tell.

Will Seattle complete its major league set?

The burgeoning tech hub of Seattle will soon have everything in place to become one of North America’s most competitive sports markets, even if it is only the 14th largest media market on the continent.

Between the Seahawks of the NFL, the Sounders of MLS and the Mariners of MLB, the city already has an established presence in the major leagues, but Seattle sports fans are still stinging from the loss of the Supersonics, their much-loved National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise that upped sticks for Oklahoma City a decade ago.

Up until last year, Seattle’s repeated advances on the National Hockey League (NHL) had fallen on deaf ears, too, although the city’s fortunes could soon change. After the planned US$600 million renovation of KeyArena, which is being led by Los Angeles-based Oak View Group (OVG), was approved by local authorities in November, the NHL authorised an investment group led by billionaire David Bonderman and filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer to enter a formal expansion application, putting Seattle at the front of the queue of cities vying to house the league’s 32nd team.

A season ticket drive is now expected to begin in the coming months, and if all goes to plan it might not be long before Seattle finally boasts a professional ice hockey franchise. Should that happen, the prospect of basketball returning to the Emerald City would not sound as far-fetched as it did just a year ago.

How many more air miles will Tim Leiweke rack up?

Much of whether the NBA ultimately decides to go to Seattle hinges upon the persuasive powers and negotiating skills of Tim Leiweke, the highly regarded industry veteran who co-founded OVG in late 2015.

Many believe Leiweke (right) has the business nous and deep connections, including a close personal relationship with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, required to attract a team to KeyArena, yet some doubt his ability to deliver, not least since his name is closely associated with LA’s failed Farmers Field project and the Sprint Center, a still tenant-less arena in Kansas City, Missouri.

Whatever gains Leiweke is able to make in Seattle this year, the former Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) chief is sure to rack up the air miles once again. As well as running OVG from the company’s LA headquarters and lobbying for Seattle’s cause, he’s actively involved in at least two major arena and franchise projects over on the US east coast, helping the NHL’s New York Islanders establish a new home at Belmont Park and assisting in David Beckham’s stalled Miami MLS franchise.

That extensive coast-to-coast workload will have Leiweke covering plenty of ground in the months to come, confirming why he has previously been described as ‘the travelling salesman’ - and also why OVG has seen fit to lease a Dassault Falcon 900 jet, presumably at no small expense.

Will the Panthers set an NFL record?

2017 saw the major-market, star-studded Houston Rockets sell for an NBA-record US$2.2 billion; this year, the Carolina Panthers look set to change hands for an NFL-record sum, albeit under vastly different circumstances.

Towards the end of last year, Panthers founder and owner Jerry Richardson, 81, put his team up for sale amid accusations of ‘workplace misconduct’ made against him by four former employees. The episode served to shine another negative light on the NFL, but it may yet end on a brighter note for the league itself.

Given that major league franchise valuations have generally skyrocketed since the last NFL team to sell, the Buffalo Bills, went for US$1.4 billion in 2014, the Panthers are expected to go for much more, perhaps as much as US$2.5 billion, according to industry speculation. Such a fee would certainly be welcomed by NFL executives, setting a new entry requirement for those eyeing what is already a highly desirable yet rare investment opportunity.

The question, then, is who wants to buy in. Rapper Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs has expressed interest in putting together an investor group, as have locally based businessmen Felix Sabates and Bruton Smith. Other names being banded about include Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the former owners of the UFC who sold the promotion for US$4 billion in 2016; Nascar chief executive Brian France; and even Michael Jordan.