The best professional athletes in the world, the likes of LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo and Peyton Manning, are household names and international superstars. They are featured in live sporting events that air globally, and they are utilized in worldwide advertising campaigns for a variety of products. Men who are elite athletes and who win championships are some of the most recognized individuals on the planet, as beloved if not more so than movie stars or famous rock-and-roll personalities who sell arenas out. They are also paid millions upon millions of dollars every year that they take the field for their teams.
They are not, however, the most powerful people in the sports world. That recognition goes to the individuals who work behind the scenes, men who run professional leagues or who represent athletes in contract negotiations. It should be no surprise to even casual sports observers that agents make the list of the most influential people in sports for 2014. Some, including the man who begins this piece, have interests outside of merely being responsible for getting athletes the best financial deals possible. At least one has, for years, been actively searching for a way to run a National Football League franchise, reportedly in one of the biggest TV markets in the United States.
The days of the NFL commissioner being atop this list in the eyes of journalists have vanished for at least this year, as the man who currently holds that post had a rough 2014 after fumbling multiple decisions. In his place is a man who has thus far gotten far more right than wrong and who helped guide the NBA through what could have been a disastrous situation. With that said, he did recently make some comments that did not sit well with some fans, unintentionally offering a reminder that he does put what is best for business above anything else in the process.
List from Sports Business Daily
20. Casey Wasserman
Wasserman has the reputation for being one of the most connected people in the sports world, particular in soccer. He represents multiple big-name players, athletes like Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill and Tim Howard. It has long been rumored that Wasserman, who has experience as an owner of an Arena Football League club, wants to run an NFL franchise and do so in Los Angeles. One of the worst-kept secrets in pro football is that the St. Louis Rams could soon be making a move back out west to California. Wasserman may be the man who helps complete that transaction in the near future if the Rams are interested in relocating.
19. Don Garber
The man in charge of the North American top-flight soccer league grows in influence with every year, in part because the popularity of the sport in the United States is higher than ever. Garber helped the league obtain a historic media rights deal, and he has expanded MLS beyond 19 clubs despite the fact that Chivas USA is now but a distant memory. New York City Football Club and Orlando City Soccer Club will begin playing in MLS in 2015. A new Los Angeles club that will replace Chivas was also introduced this year, and international superstar David Beckham continues to work toward owning an MLS franchise that will, if he has his way, be located in Miami.
18. Phil Anschutz
Anschutz is seen as a savior of American club soccer, a man who heavily invested in MLS when others were not willing to do so. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the league would not exist as it does at the end of 2014 without Anschutz’s efforts, which included him losing money on such investments, and the MLS Cup is named after the entrepreneur. Anschutz is another individual who has been linked with bringing an NFL franchise to Los Angeles. He and/or others may not have to look far, as rumors continue to swirl that the Oakland Raiders could make the move back to LA if the Raiders do not get a stadium of their own in Oakland.
17. Trevor Edwards
Edwards is the current president of Nike, which continues to be one of the most recognized brands in all of world sports. The company is now looking toward northeast Ohio for what could be its latest successful campaign. LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers from the Miami Heat, and he is the key figure in what is being called the best sports commercial of the year. James and Nike are also invested in Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, who has not yet proven himself to be anything other than a backup quarterback in the NFL. The combination of Johnny Football and James could be a dream for Nike if Manziel turns out to be the next Russell Wilson.
16. Tim Finchem
Finchem is the current commissioner of pro golf’s PGA Tour, and he is credited for helping expand that organization across multiple continents. The long-term goal for the PGA, in the eyes of some, is to create a global golf tour, one that includes Canada, China and parts of Latin America. One of the crowning achievements for the PGA in 2014 is that cumulative audiences for the tour were, according to Finchem, up this year, which is significant considering the decline of Tiger Woods. Woods will be attempting to have a comeback season next year, something that the PGA would love to have happen.
15. Jerry Jones
Don’t look now, but the Czar of the Dallas Cowboys is having a pretty good year. Dallas struck it rich in the 2014 NFL Draft when the club acquired offensive lineman Zack Martin instead of taking a chance on a sexy pick such as Manziel. While Manziel remains a mystery as an NFL quarterback, Martin has been a star right out of the gates. He has played at an All-Pro level, and Martin is part of what is recognized as the best offensive line in the NFL. The Cowboys are back, and they are true championship contenders this holiday season; assuming, that is, that quarterback Tony Romo does not fall apart in December as he has in the past.
14. Michael Slive
2014 was yet another good year to be the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. The SEC Network, which included live game broadcasts and programs such as The Paul Finebaum Show, was launched. That conference will also be represented in the first ever college football playoff, and SEC stud Alabama is the heavy favorite to emerge as the national champion in January. Slive will soon be stepping down as commissioner of the SEC, as he is set to retire next summer. The 74-year-old who has run the conference for over a decade will exit that post at the end of July 2015.
13. Steve Ballmer
Ballmer may not have realized when he stepped in to buy the Los Angeles Clippers after disgraced former owner Donald Sterling was ousted from the NBA that he was altering the state of professional sports with his purchase. By paying $2 billion – BILLION – for the basketball franchise, Ballmer forever altered the values of North American sports clubs. He also affected upcoming NBA collective bargaining agreement discussions. Players, most notably the top stars who have the most influence in the NBA, are going to want a better deal this time around, and the rumor is that they will want the option to own pieces of franchises in the future.
12. Randy Freer/Eric Shanks
The duo tasked with making FOX a new king in sports television dropped 11 spots in the Sports Business Daily list of most influential people in sports from a year ago. Ratings for programming airing across FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2 have been poor, and FS2 is either available in standard definition only or not at all in far too many markets. UEFA Champions League matches and Major League Baseball Playoff games provided ratings boosts for FOX in 2014. The company has reinvested in Major League Soccer programming, acquiring the TV rights for the North American top-flight in the spring of 2014. We’ll see if FOX treats MLS better than it did during the old FOX Soccer days.
11. Mark Lazarus
NBC Sports continued to flourish with Lazarus as its chairman. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were a massive television and streaming hit, and the trend of airing live events across multiple platforms was a big hit for viewers. The English Premier League has a real home in NBC, which has provided full-on EPL coverage that includes pre-game and post-game shows. Last but certainly not least is Sunday Night Football, which is once again the top-rated weekly show in the United States from September up through the end of December. Key NFL match-ups and marquee games that are flexed leave football fans waiting all day for Sunday night 17 times a year.
10. Brian France
NASCAR changed the way that yearly champions are crowned to an elimination-style competition that resulted in viewers switching the channel from college and pro football over to auto racing. France and Lazarus will be linked moving forward, as NBC and NASCAR forged a ten-year deal that will officially kick off in 2015. Some have suggested that NBC Sports essentially traded MLS programming for NASCAR, something that should prove to be a wise business decision for NBC. Sorry, American soccer fans, but the popularity of NASCAR far exceeds that belonging to MLS, and that is something that will not be changing anytime soon.
9. Gary Bettman
Bettman will never be a fan-favorite among diehard fans of the NHL for a variety of reasons, but club owners who see dollar signs above anything else are very pleased with the league commissioner. To his credit, Bettman has helped grow the popularity of hockey in the United States throughout his tenure, and the NHL has become a mainstay of NBC Sports programming. Outdoor NHL contests have also been widely successful, selling stadiums and ballparks out and also drawing eyes to television sets. Bettman is now working to relaunch the World Cup of Hockey, a tournament that could be a couple of years down the road.
8. David Levy
The President of Turner Broadcasting earns such a high spot on this list due to multiple lucrative basketball deals. Levy moved the Final Four from over-the-air CBS to cable television, changing the way that Americans watch what is one of the most beloved annual sporting events. More NCAA Tournament games now air on cable rather than on CBS, and viewers are also able to stream games on mobile devices for free every year. NBA contests have also been successful for Turner, and the company along with ABC/ESPN will be quietly hoping that LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are able to make a deep playoff run next spring.
7. Ari Emanuel / Patrick Whitesell
This duo makes a strong debut on the Sports Business Daily list after they acquired IMG in December of 2013. From the Premier League to the WTA to the NFL, IMG is all over the map as it pertains to the business end of the sports world. For example, the company announced on December 10 of this year that it had signed a “marketing and management representation” deal with breakout tennis star Genie Bouchard. With brand licensing, marketing programs and a variety of other ties to a plethora of sports leagues, it is a safe bet that Emanuel and Whitesell will be in the top ten of the 2015 edition of this list.
6. Sean McManus
The chairman of CBS Sports was a big winner when the company landed a Thursday Night Football contract being sought after by all of the big players in the US television world. NFL players and coaches and also some fans may have legitimate complaints about those Thursday night football contests, but such comments didn’t prevent millions of viewers from tuning in to watch the eight TNF games that aired on CBS in 2014. CBS also has TV gold in the rights for weekly NFL and weekly SEC football contests that air throughout the fall and in college basketball coverage that includes the NCAA Tournament.
5. Roger Goodell
The NFL is, according to Sports Business Daily, set to surpass $11 billion in revenue in 2014, and the league commissioner would likely be higher on this list if not for some noteworthy public relations blunders. Goodell‘s handling of the Ray Rice situation continues to be discussed on national sports talk radio roughly ten months after Rice struck his then-fiancee, and there still remain pockets within the press who believe that the NFL commissioner should step down following the end of the season. That is not going to happen, as Goodell continues to have the full support of owners who pay his salary.
4. Bud Selig / Bud Manfred
Manfred is the hand-picked successor of the Major League Baseball commissioner who will soon be stepping down. Detractors of Big League baseball who would point to signs that the sport is quietly dying a death in the United States were temporarily silenced by what was one of the most exciting Octobers that the league has enjoyed in years. Club owners are obviously not worried about the state of pro baseball in America, as they continue to hand out player contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars as if they are going out of style. Those discussions about whether or not MLB would benefit from having a hard salary cap aren’t going anywhere.
3. Robert Kraft
Some have suggested that Goodell has not yet lost his current gig because he has the support of the man who owns the New England Patriots and Gillette Stadium. Kraft, who has assets spread across multiple endeavors, is that powerful. His connections in political and entertainment circles run deep, and it is Kraft who is seen as the top owner in North America’s top sports league. Fans of the New England Revolution, also owned by Kraft, would like to see the owner provide more to the MLS side. Building the club that just played for MLS Cup its own soccer-specific stadium would be a good start, Mr. Kraft.
2. John Skipper
It doesn’t get much bigger in the sports world than the president of ESPN, a man who had yet another banner year. The 2014 FIFA World Cup drew massive ratings across the family of ESPN networks, and the company helped make soccer the biggest sport in the United States for a span of about three weeks. FOX Sports and NBC Sports have completed plenty of wise and profitable business transactions over the years, but both are nothing more than pretenders to the sports throne so long as ESPN is in existence. From SportsCenter to ESPN’s extensive coverage of the NFL to live games, ESPN is the king of TV sports.
1. Adam Silver
No sports executive had a better year than the new commissioner of the NBA. Silver did well to bounce Donald Sterling out of the league after racist comments made by the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers saw the light of day, and Silver helped complete a $2 billion sale of that franchise to Steve Ballmer. The commissioner followed that up by landing a media rights deal that has been called “historic” and even “insane.” Silver did well for club owners and for players in negotiating that agreement, as the league salary cap will be going up after a new collective bargaining agreement is signed, due largely to the media rights deal.