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Ten Influencers 2023: 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 12 months.

6 January 2023 SportsPro

Rory McIlroy

Professional golfer

The emergence of LIV Golf in 2022 made for ugly and at times uncomfortable viewing. Backed by Saudi billions, the breakaway circuit lured some of the game’s star names with offers of huge contracts and lucrative prize pots. Irrespective of concerns over its source of wealth, the series represents a real threat to the PGA Tour’s longstanding autonomy over men’s professional golf.

But ever since its inception, LIV has found Rory McIlroy standing in its way. The past 12 months have seen the Northern Irishman embark on a personal crusade to ensure that LIV isn’t allowed to bulldoze its way through the traditions upon which golf has been built.

Crucially, McIlroy is one of a handful of golfers readily embraced on both sides of the Atlantic, an honest and likeable figure whose style and panache has won him plenty of fans since turning professional as a teenager. With that comes influence, and had he joined the LIV exodus then there is a real chance that more will have followed, giving the circuit the legitimacy it craves but has so far struggled to secure. Instead, McIlroy has made it a self-described mission to be a “pain in the arse” for LIV chief executive Greg Norman, who he has called on to step down if the ongoing power struggle between the sparring tours is to be resolved.

That isn’t to say McIlroy is all for maintaining the status quo. In August, the 33-year-old teamed up with Tiger Woods to launch TMRW Sports, a tech-focused venture that the four-time major winner says “will lead golf into its digital future”. With the development of that initiative, the continuation of the LIV feud and a Ryder Cup to come in the next 12 months, the PGA Tour’s loyal statesman will only continue to court the limelight in 2023.

Jane Fernandez

Chief Operating Officer, Australia, 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup

From attendance highs to viewership records, the 2022 Uefa Women’s European Championship represented another watershed moment for women’s soccer. It also sent expectations for the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand to stratospheric levels.

One of the individuals tasked with meeting those will be Jane Fernandez, the chief operating officer of the tournament in Australia, which will stage more than half of the 64 games. A key figure in bringing the event Down Under for the first time as the head of Football Australia’s winning bid team, Fernandez has made clear that she wants to deliver “the biggest and best” Women’s World Cup ever.

Australia and New Zealand are renowned for their love of sport and have the infrastructure and experience required for delivering the world’s biggest sporting gatherings. Still, the last two and a half years have presented their fair share of hurdles. The lingering impact of Covid-19 has forced plenty of planning to be done online, complicating stadium and training site upgrades. The tournament’s expansion from 24 to 32 teams will also provide a new challenge for local organisers.

Despite this, Fernandez said in June 2021 that the event is on course to sell around 1.5 million tickets, an estimate reiterated to SportsPro last year by tournament chief executive Dave Beeche. The belief, including within Fifa, is also that this year’s showpiece should eclipse the record-breaking 1.12 billion viewers that tuned in for France 2019, despite the time zone being less ideal for European audiences.

But the 2023 Women’s World Cup has the potential to be about more than just eyes on screens. It is set to be the next major milestone in women’s sport’s rapid ascent to commercial sustainability and mainstream appeal.

Fernandez will play a central role in ensuring that the opportunity doesn’t go to waste.

David Baszucki

Chief Executive, Roblox

If you believe the metaverse is the future of fan engagement, then it’s time to take Roblox and its chief executive David Baszucki seriously. After studying engineering and computer science at Stanford University, he co-founded and sold software firm Knowledge Revolution, before co-founding Roblox back in 2004.

Since then, he has overseen its transformation into a global youth phenomenon.

Compared to the scarcely used, siloed, top-down initiatives promoted by many rights holders, Roblox has developed organically into the most successful metaverse environment to date, acquiring tens of millions of highly engaged, youthful users – and there isn’t a single non-fungible token (NFT) in sight.

The sporting world has taken notice and the platform already has dedicated spaces for the National Football League (NFL), Wimbledon, and Fifa, all of which are accessible to more than 164 million active users.

The next 12 months will see Roblox become an increasingly important channel for the sports industry. More high-profile partnerships will mean more users, many of whom will spend more real-life cash on the in-game Robux currency.

However, higher profile partnerships and a more prominent public role will mean more responsibility and greater scrutiny. Baszucki will be tasked with managing relationships with major brands, generating revenue without being accused of exploitation, and safeguarding its young users from scams and other harm. Macroeconomic challenges will also be a challenge to its business model.

But Roblox is the platform that Meta and others can only dream of being right now, and Baszucki’s ongoing leadership will be crucial to seizing the opportunities in front of it.

Tamika Tremaglio

Executive Director, National Basketball Players Association

2023 was always destined to be a defining year in the tenure of Tamika Tremaglio, who succeeded Michele Roberts as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) at the beginning of 2022. Now a year into the role, Tremaglio will be in the crosshairs of two major deals over the coming 12 months.

The first in which she will be most prominently involved is the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ahead of the expiry of the union’s existing deal with the league at the end of the 2023/24 season. Previously Deloitte’s managing principal for Greater Washington, where she oversaw 14,000 employees across 23 offices, Tremaglio’s background in law and business should stand her in good stead for those talks. So too will her involvement in the process that resulted in the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) most recent CBA, which included significant increases in player salaries and benefits.

There is little to suggest that Tremaglio or National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver will make life difficult for the other, especially with the league in a strong financial position and both no doubt keen to avoid the kind of situation that plagued Major League Baseball (MLB) in early 2022. But the NBPA chief will at least be looking to ensure that the players receive their fair share of basketball-related income in anticipation of the NBA’s looming media rights deal, with early reports suggesting that the next multi-year package from 2025 could fetch as much as US$75 billion.

An influx of cash from that pact should give both sides added incentive to reach a new labour deal before February’s opt-out deadline, but the NBA’s entrepreneurially minded roster can be confident that in Tremaglio they have a smooth, unflappable operator who won’t be hurried into an agreement.

James DeLorenzo

Head of Sports, Video Business, Apple

Apple isn’t a company that rushes into things. Like other areas of its business, its expansion into streaming has been careful, considered, and well-resourced – a stance that hasn’t been abandoned in the highly competitive and fast-moving world of sports broadcasting.

The company appointed Amazon’s former head of sport James DeLorenzo to lead up its own charge as long ago as June 2020. Since then, DeLorenzo has been free to operate in the background, largely avoiding the public eye. But retaining such anonymity in 2023 will be much more challenging as Apple enters the first season of a ten-year, US$2.5  billion global streaming partnership with Major League Soccer (MLS).

All eyes will be on how DeLorenzo and his team deliver this innovative, landmark partnership in practice. Rights holders considering a similar move will be watching how the infrastructure holds up, how the proposition is marketed and what adoption will be like. Of particular interest will be how Apple uses its iOS platform and wider ecosystem to promote MLS to its digitally native audience.

All eyes will also be on Apple’s next move. No one expects the company to stop with the MLS, but having missed out on the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package and with many key properties either sewn up in the US or not available on a global basis, perhaps a move for the NBA could be on the cards?

Crucially, DeLorenzo has experience in helping big tech transition to the world of sport. Amazon secured the rights to the NFL and the Premier League during his tenure, building a foundation for the retail giant to become a major player in broadcasting. Apple will be confident he can help it do the same.

Roger Binny

President, Board of Control for Cricket in India

Roger Binny is at the helm of an organisation that has further tightened its grip on cricket’s economy.

A Cricket World Cup winner with 99 international appearances for his country, Binny was elected president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in October, replacing Sourav Ganguly. The game’s richest national governing body is about to get richer from the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) new US$6.2 billion broadcast rights deal, while it is also in line for further injections of cash from the debuting Women’s Indian Premier League (WIPL) and upcoming national team media rights tender.

The potential for the BCCI to influence global cricket has therefore never been greater. The IPL’s latest broadcast deals with Disney Star, Viacom18 and Times Internet are second only to the NFL in terms of value per game and the tournament’s commercial success has prompted governing bodies in other countries to invest in their own white-ball franchise competitions, which could result in the balance of power eventually shifting away from the international game.

Binny will also be keen to maximise the potential of the WIPL, which gets underway in March. The BCCI has reportedly set the base price for a franchise at a hefty I₹ 400 crore (US$49.1 million) and the intention is to position the competition on a par with the men’s equivalent – a move that would drive unprecedented investment in a standalone women’s sports property.

The BCCI’s stranglehold on cricket has at times been lamented by other governing bodies and fans alike, and its latest dealings could fuel further envy. Binny’s time in the game has also included stints as a coach, selector and administrator, giving him ample experience in collaboration and diplomacy. Both of those skills will be needed as he looks to set the agenda for where the sport goes next.

Julie Uhrman

Co-Founder and President, Angel City FC

Julie Uhrman doesn’t come across as someone who would follow every step in an instruction manual. At Angel City, she and her fellow co-founders have been writing a playbook of their own.

Still just one season old, the Los Angeles-based National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) expansion franchise has secured more than US$43 million in committed sponsorship revenue, added a haul of celebrity minority investors at a reported US$100 million valuation, and drawn 19,000 fans on average to its home games.

Much of that has been down to Angel City’s unique strategy. According to Uhrman, the club has adopted a “startup mentality” and embraced a community-driven approach that has proved appealing to brands who want to be aligned with platforms that can help them showcase their purpose and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. In its own words, the franchise is a ‘different type of organisation where mission and capital come together’.

As the team’s president, Uhrman has played a key role in ensuring the success of that business model. A straight talker with a background in technology, the American has been bullish about the value of women’s sports and has spoken unapologetically about how big she believes it can become. For her own club, she has talked about creating additional subsidiaries under the Angel City umbrella and has ambitions for the franchise to become a recognised global brand.

Yet Uhrman’s influence could be felt far beyond LA. Angel City are the first tangible example of a women’s sports property that has truly gone its own way, rather than simply replicate the strategies that have already been seen in men’s sports. And crucially, it’s working. As a result, many are now considering if it is an ownership template that could be implemented in other women’s sports leagues around the world.

John Henry

Principal Owner, Fenway Sports Group

John Henry finds himself at the centre of heightened takeover speculation heading into 2023.

Under the ownership of the US businessman’s Fenway Sports Group (FSG), Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Boston Red Sox and English soccer giants Liverpool have enjoyed periods of sustained success. But Henry’s wandering eye could have a ripple effect on both sides of the Atlantic.

FSG announced in November that it is prepared to listen to offers for Liverpool, though selling a partial stake is also on the table. There are several factors that may have prompted Henry to rethink his long-term future in Merseyside, such as the rise of state-backed European clubs making it more costly to compete for trophies.

Selling off all or part of Liverpool would free up resources for a potential move for an NBA or NFL franchise.

In March, Gerry Cardinale of RedBird Capital Partners, which has invested a reported US$750 million into FSG, told The Boston Globe that owning an NBA team is a “real top priority” for Henry. Bringing a basketball franchise to Las Vegas and bidding for the NFL’s Washington Commanders, on the market since November, have been mentioned as possibilities. A takeover of either would hand FSG control of teams in at least three of the US major leagues after adding the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Pittsburgh Penguins to its portfolio in November.

There are several moving parts to all this. FSG has been valued by Forbes as the world’s third most valuable sports empire at US$9.81 billion, but may feel divesting at least some of its interest in Liverpool is required before pursuing any NFL or NBA ambitions. A deal for a team in one rather than both leagues seems more feasible given the multibillion-dollar price tags attached to North America’s major league franchises.

Whatever happens, the impact of the deals that Henry strikes in the coming months will be felt across some of sport’s biggest leagues.

Natalie Robyn

Chief Executive, International Automobile Federation

The announcement in September that Natalie Robyn would become the new chief executive of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) was significant.

The FIA has never had a chief executive before, meaning Robyn will have the opportunity to shape the role in her own image. Reporting directly to FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who himself was only elected at the end of 2021, she will be responsible for the financial performance of motorsport’s global governing body and delivering the leadership’s vision for the sport.

A US and Spanish citizen, Robyn joins the FIA at a potentially tumultuous time for the organisation, with increasing tension between it and Formula One thanks to a series of controversial decisions made by the federation over the last year. A bizarre exchange between Ben Sulayem and Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner at the FIA’s prize giving gala was another sign of how fractured the relationship is becoming.

Still, Robyn herself has labelled this an “important and exciting time for the federation” and, as a non-profit organisation, the FIA’s decision to create the chief executive role represents somewhat of a shift in how it sees itself. Indeed, Ben Sulayem has described Robyn’s hiring as a “transformative moment” for the organisation, which is seeking to increase and diversify its revenue streams. In Robyn, it has appointed an individual with more than 15 years of experience in the automotive sector, where she most recently served as chief executive of Volvo in Switzerland and has held management positions at Nissan and DaimlerChrysler.

With greater scrutiny on the FIA and how it operates over the past 12 months, there will never be a better time than now for Robyn to give the federation a new lease of life in 2023.

Oliver Mintzlaff

Chief Executive, Corporate Projects and Investments, Red Bull

As a former cross-country runner, Oliver Mintzlaff isn’t short on endurance, which bodes well as he steps into his new job.

In November, he was appointed by Red Bull as one of the energy drink giant’s chief executives, a role now split three ways following the death of company founder Dietrich Mateschitz. Mintzlaff’s brief as chief executive of the company’s corporate projects and investments means he is effectively responsible for all Red Bull operations away from the beverage sector.

Mintzlaff will therefore be overseeing a wide-ranging portfolio of sports properties, including Red Bull’s Formula One outfit and the company’s network of soccer clubs in Germany, Austria, Brazil and the US. In addition, the German will now be in charge of Red Bull Media House and its assets, such as Austrian commercial network ServusTV.

Before accepting his new role, Mintzlaff firmly established himself on the soccer side of Red Bull’s business as RB Leipzig’s chief executive, building a reputation that last year saw him linked with a move to Chelsea.

Now, though, his attention will need to be spread across several areas, and it will be interesting to watch how he adapts to the task of keeping those at the helm of Red Bull’s various teams onside as he looks to put his stamp on the role. As an example of the challenges that may lie ahead, Helmut Marko, who heads up the Formula One team’s driver development programme, has already moved to quash rumours of a frosty relationship between himself and Mintzlaff.

Maintaining not just the Formula One team’s success, but the success of the many Red Bull-owned teams, will be the measuring stick against which Mintzlaff is judged. Armed with a powerful set of wings, the 47-year-old will hope the business unit for which he is now responsible continues to soar upwards.

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