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Ten Influencers 2022: Why these figures will define the sports industry year ahead

SportsPro presents its annual list of ten influential figures whose work will be setting the sporting agenda for the coming year.

7 January 2022 SportsPro

Nasser Al-Khelaifi

Chairman, European Club Association, Paris Saint-Germain and BeIN Media Group

There was one day during the summer of 2021 when it felt reasonable to ask how one individual had come to accumulate so much influence over the world’s most popular sport.

It was then that Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari chairman of Ligue 1 giants Paris Saint-Germain, brought Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time, into a league to which his broadcasting company BeIN Media Group also holds the television rights in several markets. In fact, it would be fair to suggest that a decent portion of the money that now flows through soccer can be traced back to the various businesses helmed by Al-Khelaifi, who took the top job at the Parc des Princes in 2011.

A central figure in the ongoing struggle for power at the highest level of soccer, the 48-year-old was among those to rally against the short-lived formation of a breakaway super league, a stance that later saw him elevated to the role of chairman at the European Club Association (ECA). That job, coupled with his position on the Uefa executive committee, will no doubt give Al-Khelaifi a significant say in the shape of European soccer moving forward – a task likely to involve protecting PSG’s interests from those of the remaining rebel super league clubs.

With a Fifa World Cup in his home country on the horizon, Al-Khelaifi will also be keen to defend Qatar’s interests from the incursion of Saudi Arabia, whose own recent investments into sport and media have the potential to reignite the pair’s tussle for supremacy in the Middle East.

Indeed, there are plenty of plates to be spun. If 2021 was the year that Al-Khelaifi seized even more power, then 2022 will be about finding out how he intends to use it.

Katie Sadleir

Chief Executive, Commonwealth Games Federation

Katie Sadleir has taken something of a leap of faith.

Appointed as the first female chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) in August before officially taking up the post in November, Sadleir joins an organisation going through an extended period of soul-searching. Indeed, the CGF headed into this year without a host for the next edition of its multi-sport event in just over four years’ time, but beyond that is facing up to even more existential questions about its future.

Sadleir’s first task will be to oversee Birmingham 2022, which many expect to be the last edition of the Commonwealth Games as we have come to know it. A strategic roadmap published in October outlined a plan to reduce the number of compulsory sports from 16 to just two, while also encouraging co-hosting within regions or across cities. The aim is to make the event more attractive to potential hosts by affording them greater flexibility and cutting costs, but time will tell if those changes have come too late.

Still, though, if anyone is going to breathe fresh life into the increasingly irrelevant Commonwealth sport movement, Sadleir may well be the individual to do it. An enthusiastic and highly respected figure from her time at World Rugby, where she spent five years as general manager of the women’s game, implementing the global governing body’s first women’s strategic plan, Sadleir will need to hit the ground running if she is to convince governments, fans and other stakeholders that the Commonwealth Games’ time hasn’t passed.

A former Olympian, Sadleir herself has said that it is “a very exciting time” for the Commonwealth sport movement. Whether or not she can persuade others of that theory is likely to have enduring consequences.

Michael Rubin

Chief Executive, Fanatics

That Michael Rubin is the first individual to appear in this feature twice is not to say that he is discernibly more influential than some of the famous names included previously, but perhaps more an endorsement of his ability to stay ahead.

A certified go-getter, the chief executive of Fanatics has spent the last decade transforming the business of licensed sports merchandise. A disruptive, direct-to-consumer approach headlined by the company’s self-christened ‘v-commerce’ model has bred partnerships across most major leagues and more than 150 college athletic programmes, while a series of acquisitions in recent years have aided the business’ growth into new markets.

Now, though, having built relationships right where he needs them, Rubin has his sights set firmly on expanding the Fanatics empire well beyond the realm of replica jerseys and snapbacks.

In August, fresh investment from the likes of Jay-Z and Todd Boehly saw Fanatics’ valuation soar to US$18 billion amid plans to mushroom into new areas such as sports betting, media and trading cards, where the company has started ousting major players like Panini and Topps – the latter of which it has now acquired – to secure licensing contracts with Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Rubin has also made a big bet on the longevity of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with the launch of Candy Digital, which already has a brief to produce digital collectibles for MLB and recently raised US$100 million at a US$1.5 billion valuation.

The next step for Fanatics could be an initial public offering (IPO), which would only provide Rubin with further funding to pursue his ambition to super-serve the industry. That may or may not come to fruition, but one thing that can be guaranteed is that wherever the sports industry decides to go next, Rubin will be there already.

Donata Hopfen

Chief Executive, German Football League

The announcement in August that Donata Hopfen would be the new chief executive of the German Football League (DFL) brought with it two major milestones.

Hopfen, who assumed her post at the organising body for German soccer’s top two divisions in January, becomes the DFL’s first female chief executive, in addition to being the only woman at the helm of one of Europe’s ‘big five’ soccer leagues. Hopfen’s hiring from BCG Digital again highlights the absence of women in senior leadership positions in elite-level soccer, meaning she will likely find herself under the microscope far more than her male peers.

Irrespective of that, Hopfen has made clear that the Bundesliga must maintain its global reputation against a backdrop of “technological, societal and media changes”. Voted Germany’s ‘Media Woman of the Year’ in 2014, the former Bild Group managing director is certainly well placed to ensure that the German soccer league continues to lead the way in digital innovation.

Still, Hopfen joins the DFL in the midst of a pandemic which has eaten up revenues. The subject of generating more income will no doubt be near the top of her in-tray after clubs opted in May to break off talks with private equity firms hoping to take a stake in the DFL’s international media rights business. The league may have missed out on a reported €500 million (US$565 million) cash injection, but the DFL has acknowledged that it must do more to accelerate its international marketing efforts in order to keep pace with rival leagues.

Hopfen, then, will be aiming to build on the Bundesliga’s forays into foreign markets, while she has also said it is vital the DFL and its clubs move forward “in an innovative way”. Expect plenty of that during the first 12 months of her three-year tenure.

David Zaslav

President and Chief Executive, Discovery

David Zaslav is in for a potentially defining 2022.

Discovery’s president and chief executive since 2007, the 61-year-old will lead the new business formed once the US media giant’s monster merger with AT&T’s WarnerMedia goes through. That deal is set to create a standalone company valued at a reported US$150 billion and consolidate a pair of rights portfolios spanning some of the biggest properties in sport. It is some signal of intent as the two parties bid to go toe to toe in an increasingly crowded streaming market headlined by the likes of Netflix and Disney+.

Discovery, though, has long been making a concerted effort to beef out its sports offering across its linear and streaming platforms, which include Eurosport, GCN+ and Discovery+. The investment has led to strong numbers. At November’s SportsPro OTT Summit, Discovery’s president of sports Andrew Georgiou said the company had “130 million unique individuals” consuming sports content on its platforms every month.

It could just be the start. In December, The Sunday Telegraph reported the company had entered the race for UK pay-TV network BT Sport, proposing a joint venture that would combine the pair’s respective sports rights. If successful, Discovery could quickly find itself at the top table of the British sports broadcasting market, boasting a lineup featuring the Olympic Games, Uefa Champions League and the Premier League.

Deal or no deal, Discovery knows it needs to make major inroads over the next 12 months. Continued cord cutting combined with more media companies entering the sports streaming space means consumers have more choice than ever.

The company has already made its intentions clear with the AT&T streaming merger. Now it is down to Zaslav to deliver.

Yasir Al-Rumayyan

Governor, Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia; Chairman, Newcastle United; Chairman, Saudi Aramco

The UK£305 million (US$412 million) takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) brought the issue of sportswashing firmly back into the spotlight. As the frontman for the kingdom’s investments in sport, Yasir Al-Rumayyan finds himself in the crosshairs of the debate.

Perhaps the 51-year-old’s most pressing concern will be to help guide Newcastle away from the Premier League relegation zone, before utilising PIF’s vast resources to morph the struggling club into a European soccer heavyweight. Beyond that, though, his presence – and indeed that of Saudi Arabia – is set to be felt across the sporting world.

Educated at Harvard Business School and a close ally of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Al-Rumayyan is a suave operator with fingers in many pies. He has boardroom roles with the likes of Uber, SoftBank Group and Reliance Industries, and is also chairman of Saudi Aramco, the oil giant that sponsors Formula One and last year became one of the biggest backers of the Ladies European Tour (LET). Indeed, it is no coincidence that some of Saudi Arabia’s biggest sporting investments have been directed towards golf given Al-Rumayyan’s role as chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation. The PIF was recently unveiled as the majority owner of LIV Golf Investments, which will pump US$200 million into a new ten-event series on the Asian Tour.

A central protagonist in luring a number of high-profile sporting events and athletes to Saudi Arabia in recent years, Al-Rumayyan recently said that the PIF plans to invest SAR1 trillion (US$266 billion) in new projects by 2025. Yet as the kingdom’s sporting ambitions grow, so too will scrutiny over the country’s perceived efforts to disguise its human rights record through sport.

Perhaps Al-Rumayyan’s greatest challenge in 2022 will be shaping the narrative in Saudi Arabia’s favour.

Kelly Simmons

Director of Women’s Professional Game, Football Association

Speaking in March last year, Kelly Simmons couldn’t hide her excitement about the Women’s Super League’s (WSL) new domestic broadcast deal with Sky Sports and the BBC, hailing it as a “landmark deal for the women’s game”. The top flight is already reaping the rewards of the partnership, having delivered the most-watched women’s club soccer match on UK television in September.

Yet while the Football Association (FA) appears to have been vindicated for its decision to unbundle the women’s league’s media rights from its men’s properties, it is just part of Simmons’ broader plan for the competition.

At the heart of that is the WSL’s future ownership model. As a national governing body, the FA has openly stated it does not anticipate to run the competition long term. The men’s Premier League had been linked with a takeover, though WSL teams are reportedly in favour of the division being operated independently. In any case, a huge opportunity to showcase the strength of the women’s game in England to potential investors will come this summer, when the country hosts the Uefa Women’s European Championship in front of what are anticipated to be record-breaking crowds.

Regardless of who does eventually take the reins, the imminent release of Simmons’ future ownership review will provide the biggest clue yet on where the WSL is heading. The end goal, Simmons says, is to put the top flight at the “global forefront of the women’s game”. It is certainly a bold ambition, but with North America’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) embroiled in a sexual coercion scandal, the women’s game needs a competition to lead the way as it seeks to continue the upward trajectory of recent years.

Simmons’ WSL strategy could be just the ticket, as well as a model for other women’s leagues to follow.

Kris Marszalek

Chief Executive, Crypto.com

Crypto.com has come a long way since being conceived as the personal blog of a university computer science professor. The same moniker ended last year emblazoned across the home of the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a US$700 million, 20-year naming rights deal with arena operator AEG.

Now among the top ten cryptocurrency exchange platforms by daily volume, Crypto.com is helmed by Kris Marszalek, a self-described ‘lifelong company builder’ who has been overseeing the firm’s eye-catching marketing push over the past 12 months. All told, more than US$1 billion has been spent on partnerships with the likes of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Formula One and Paris Saint-Germain, among plenty of others.

Indeed, Polish-born entrepreneur Marszalek has been one of the more prominent figures in cryptocurrency’s unrelenting march on sport, with an increasing number of companies from the sector seeking to gain credibility via association. While still in its nascent stages – and admittedly limited primarily to sponsorship so far – it has the potential to impact how money moves through the industry, whether it be fans buying products and experiences at venues, the way sponsors pay their rights fees, or how athletes choose to receive their salaries.

It is a movement that has so far been readily embraced by rights holders keen to plug revenue gaps widened by the pandemic, but sport’s deepening relationship with cryptocurrency is making others nervous. There remains a lack of regulation in the space and a number of journalists have raised questions over whether leagues and teams should be advertising a market that thrives on speculation to potentially uninformed fans.

Until told otherwise, however, expect Marszalek to continue pumping Crypto.com’s war chest into the industry, gathering legitimacy as he goes.

Agnès Callamard

Secretary General, Amnesty International

Two of the biggest major events of this year have arguably already had their legacies decided for them.

The runway into both the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the Fifa World Cup in Qatar has been overshadowed by concerns as to why the host countries in question should be allowed to stage such high-profile occasions given their appalling human rights violations.

Amnesty International has long been at the forefront of calls for those involved with Beijing and Qatar 2022 to use each as an opportunity to highlight China’s alleged genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, as well as the gulf nation’s shameless exploitation of migrant workers, significant numbers of whom have died constructing the venues that will stage soccer’s flagship international tournament.

Yet those events are mere microcosms of the widening issue of sportswashing that the industry cannot afford to ignore. And the pressure will have to be applied from somewhere.

Fronting Amnesty’s campaigning efforts over the next 12 months will be Agnès Callamard, who was appointed as the group’s secretary general last March. Formerly of the United Nations (UN), where she led investigations including the probe into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Frenchwoman embarks on her first full year in charge at a time when certain rights holders are increasingly prioritising money over morals.

Callamard and Amnesty will continue to play a key role in not only ensuring that the voices of the voiceless are heard, but also in applying pressure that will contribute to the kind of diplomatic boycotts already promised for Beijing 2022. No doubt Callamard and her peers will also be encouraging athletes, sponsors and other stakeholders to use their platforms to raise awareness of human rights issues when given the opportunity to do so.

Carsten Koerl

Chief Executive, Sportradar

In 2021 Carsten Koerl became a billionaire when Sportradar, the Switzerland-based business he founded two decades ago, went public via the Nasdaq stock exchange.

The initial public offering (IPO) was a major endorsement of a company that moves around data for more than 150 league partners and 900 sports betting clients, and which counts the likes of Michael Jordan, Mark Cuban and Ted Leonsis among its most high-profile investors.

Koerl, who is Sportradar’s chief executive, told Forbes in the wake of the IPO that he feels “super-energised”, and he will need to be if he is to deal with the fresh challenges that come with being a publicly listed company, including appeasing shareholders and preserving the firm’s market-leading position in the increasingly competitive sports data wars.

The early signs have been promising. Despite losing its contract with the National Football League (NFL) to rival firm Genius Sports, last June saw Sportradar seal a ten-year partnership extension with the National Hockey League (NHL), handing the sports betting and broadcast solutions provider the exclusive global distribution contract for the league’s data. It followed that up in November by signing an expansive deal with the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the distribution of data and live game video to betting operators in the US and internationally.

Sportradar has also spent much of the past 12 months expanding its capabilities with the acquisitions of college sports data firm Synergy Sports and cricket experts Interact Sports, while the company is forecasting revenue for 2021 to stand at a healthy €555 million (US$627 million).

That should all stand it in good stead for the year to come. A decisive blow in the data wars may not be struck in 2022, but Koerl will be hoping the groundwork has been laid to ensure his company remains top of the pile.

This is a feature from the forthcoming Issue 116 of SportsPro magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here

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