The factors considered for power on this list are the ability to drive and shape the proverbial sports conversation, commanding audience metrics, influence in helping or developing others’ careers, replaceability (or, more specifically, lack thereof), value on the open market, and significance of one’s platform. For executives or other movers and shakers, we tried to gauge their pecking order in the aggregate marketplace. We also opted not to include league commissioners, but it wouldn’t be that difficult for you to close your eyes and imagine where they would rank on here. We’ve got 75 names here, some of them grouped together in one listing, going down in groups from 40 to 1.
40. Matthew Berry (ESPN)
Fantasy football is huge, and Berry is on the top of the mountain with massive separation. It would be fascinating to know how many fantasy football players alter their lineups – and pockets – based off what Berry says. Digitally he is a hit. His podcast is one of ESPN’s most listened-to. At least in September 2015 when ESPN publicized the data, seven of their ten highest trafficked posts that month were via fantasy football. Berry would be one of the harder talents for ESPN to replace.
39. Mike Francesa (WFAN) and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo (SiriusXM)
Mike and the Mad Dog would have more power together, but remain influential separated. Love him or loathe him, it must be acknowledged that Francesa remains the most powerful voice in New York City sports, though his radio dominance has begun to wane considerably. The way WFAN just took him back tells you all you need to know about what he means to the city and the network. Mad Dog hosts one of, if not the best, national radio shows and is an important factor in the baseball conversation. He has a channel named after him on Sirius XM that has a nice community of listeners who track the personalities throughout the day.
38. Whit Albohm & Charlie Dixon (FS1)
Dixon (EVP Content) and Albohm (VP and Executive Producer) oversee Undisputed and The Herd, which have continued to grow audience this football season, now 1.5 years after Jamie Horowitz exited the network. The challenge from here is to keep the growth going — what is their ceiling in the next couple years; 300k viewers per day? 350k? Higher? — and hope for shows like First Things First, Speak for Yourself, and Lock It In, which have not yet been as successful, to follow suit. The optimist’s view is that as FOX Sports continues to ad premium live events (WWE Smackdown is coming later this year to the broadcast network; could SEC football or the NHL be possibilities down the road?) that serve as large-scale promotional vessels, these non Skip/Colin shows could develop long-term sustainable audiences.
37. Big Cat and PFT Commenter (Barstool Sports)
It is a rarity now in sports media to reach the level of notoriety Big Cat and PFT Commenter have without it being the product of polarization with an audience split between love and hate. Pardon My Take is widely successful and they have become two of the most influential sports personalities online. Big Cat recently launched a podcast with A-Rod, and PFT now has a radio show that leads into Big Cat’s on SiriusXM; he also plays guitar in a pop punk band that Barstool launched called Pup Punk, which has drawn a pretty substantial live audience for shows in New York and Boston. Given their age, following, stardom, and where the business is heading, they have tremendous value in the industry.
36. Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Fowler (ESPN)
Fowler and Herbstreit call the college football’s national championship, and Davis is the preeminently respected host of ESPN’s college football and college basketball coverage, as well as the NBA Draft. College Gameday, which Herbstreit appears on, Fowler used to host, and Davis currently hosts, remains a revered institution. Combined, the three have logged over 75 years at ESPN.
35. Paul Finebaum & Jay Bilas (ESPN)
Paul Finebaum and Jay Bilas are arguably the most influential voices on college football and basketball respectively. Finebaum has a huge impact on the most important region in the sport. People listen to Bilas on not only what he says about college basketball on the court, but off the court as well. They are two truly untouchable voices.
34. Rachel Nichols (ESPN)
While ESPN pays more for the NFL, it could be argued that in terms of tonnage the NBA is ESPN’s most important property. Rachel Nichols is one of the most — if not the most — prominent voices in their coverage. What is so telling is that Nichols has had this impact while not even being a part of the network’s bumper programming (The Jump arguably has more relevance than NBA Countdown). Recently, she has sat down with LeBron James, Mark Cuban, and Jimmy Butler in interviews that shifted the days’ sports talk conversation. The Jump, a show she has editorial control over, is considered a ratings success and a vehicle that has allowed several other talents at the network, like Jorge Sedano, Ramona Shelburne and Nick Friedell to elevate their stature.
33. Mike Florio & Peter King (NBC)
The two NBC writers are unavoidable and often create the conversation. Florio’s blog, ProFootballTalk, is a daily must-read for everybody who is plugged into the NFL. Especially given that he is writing for a league broadcast partner, he has maintained a remarkable edge. King, who joined NBC from his longtime perch at Sports Illustrated in 2018, remains the best at getting high profile football players, coaches, and executive to speak on the record in his Monday morning column.
32. Lenny Daniels & Matt Hong (Turner Sports)
Daniels was promoted to President of Turner Sports in 2014, and Hong, the COO, has been with the company since 2008. The group recently acquired rights to the UEFA Champions League, to complement Turner’s coverage of the NBA, MLB, NCAA Tournament, and more. It will be interesting to observe how they continue to build out Bleacher Report and the BR Live OTT platform in the coming years.
31. Tim Corrigan, Mike Breen (ESPN)
Corrigan is in charge ESPN’s NBA game production. In a very rare occurrence for an executive of that stature, he also gets in the truck and produces the NBA Finals, conference finals, Saturday ABC primetime showcases, and other major ESPN NBA games himself. Breen, the voice of these events (in addition to the Knicks on MSG), does a tremendous job with them. Breen and Corrigan are tethered.
20. Howard Katz (NFL)
Katz is responsible for putting together the most valuable jigsaw puzzle on the planet — the NFL schedule. In doling out the matchups to the league’s rights partners, he has a heavy hand in determining how the networks’ respective ratings will go. In 2017, Peter King described Katz’s scheduling process.
19. Peter Chernin, Dave Portnoy & Erika Nardini (Barstool Sports)
Since Peter Chernin acquired a majority stake in Barstool, and Erika Nardini became the CEO, Dave Portnoy’s former newspaper has become a serious player in sports media and is now worth over $100 million. They have a young, passionate fanbase and a multi-faceted revenue stream that enables them not to have to rely solely on ad money, such as apparel, live events, PPV, and even the amateur boxing promotion Rough N Rowdy. Subscription content is on the way. While the company garners a lot of criticism, Barstool has created a large number of jobs, and has given people college-aged the opportunity to prove their worth and have a career in media. Portnoy made it clear he wants the company to be out in front of the sports gambling gold rush. Combining that with the Action Network, Chernin could be in a position to control a large portion of the sports gambling content marketplace on the internet.
18. Dan Le Batard (ESPN) and Colin Cowherd (FOX Sports)
Arguably the two top sports radio hosts in the country not only have power with their own leverage, but also when it comes to backstage promotions. While they clearly have very different styles, Colin Cowherd and Dan Le Batard are also two of the most valuable people in the industry. Their successful three-hour shows also create buzz on social media and are massively successful in the podcast market. Le Batard, whose chemistry with his co-host Jon “Stugotz” Weiner is phenomenal, has freedom few have at ESPN, and Cowherd is tight with the suits at FOX. They have both used their platforms to elevate up and coming on-air talents; like Mina Kimes and Pablo Torre at ESPN on LeBatard’s show; Cowherd has done the same with Nick Wright, Jason McIntyre and Joy Taylor on his show. In addition to radio, Le Batard co-hosts Highly Questionable with his father Papi, and Colin appears on FOX NFL Kickoff during football season.
17. Sandy Montag (The Montag Group)
Montag — who reps some of the biggest names in sports media like John Madden, Scott Van Pelt, Jim Nantz, Mike Tirico, Marv Albert, Dick Vitale, and more — left WME-IMG in 2016 to form The Montag Group. He’s since merged with Steve Herz’s IF Management. With a number of other agents under the umbrella as well, The Montag Group reps over 200 broadcasting clients. According to John Ourand, the agency is partnering with Stadium to produce a series in which prominent sports broadcasters are interviewed.
16. Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant (ESPN) and A-Rod (ESPN, FOX Sports, & Barstool)
Manning and Bryant two are legends in their respective sports, and could jump into game or studio broadcasting in a nanosecond if they were inclined. Manning was particularly sought after last NFL offseason, when ESPN and FOX both tried to lure him for color commentary. The Detail series, launched on ESPN+ by Kobe last season and to which Manning has been a contributor this football season, often generates headlines. A-Rod wielded his power to get Matt Vasgersian alongside him in the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball booth, is great in the studio for FOX, and co-hosts an interview podcast with Dan Katz for Barstool.
15. Erik Rydholm (Rydholm Projects, Inc.)
Rydholm, who owns his own production company, oversees four shows in two hours of ESPN’s late afternoon block — High Noon, Highly Questionable, Around the Horn (produced by Aaron Solomon), and Pardon the Interruption. The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, produced by Lorenzo Rodriguez, is also in the umbrella. Rydholm is beloved by the people he works with, and has created an island of programming that was otherwise unheard of at ESPN.
14. Norby Williamson and Stephanie Druley (ESPN)
Williamson and Druley combine to run studio and event production at ESPN. Norby, who has been at ESPN since 1985, engineered what the Washington Post referred to as the “Make SportsCenter Great Again” campaign — a re-focus on news and highlights and an emphasis on politics avoidance. Druley was a big winner in the aforementioned ESPN reorganization, earning a promotion to the executive vice president level.
13. Connor Schell, Burke Magnus, & Justin Connolly (ESPN)
John Skipper’s three no. 2’s remain with ESPN under Jimmy Pitaro. Schell is the company’s content czar, which gives him oversight of all the studio shows and live sporting broadcasts. He has the power to get talent deals done and ensure careers are promoted. Magnus negotiates the live rights with the leagues, and Connolly is responsible for negotiating ESPN’s carriage fees with cable companies. Even with ESPN delving into OTT streaming with ESPN+, it is of paramount importance to the company’s future for Connolly to deliver affiliate fee increases that outpace subscriber losses going forward.
12. Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser (ESPN)
Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser star in the highest rated sports television show that isn’t led into by games and on most days it is not close. Along with the dominating the ratings, it is the best show. Almost every show and duo has taken something from or has been influenced by PTI. As great as the format is, it does not work without Mike and Tony together. If just one of them is off for the day, the show is drastically worse. They’re such veterans in the sports discussion that if they were walking down the street, they would be more recognizable to the public than all but, say, 15 NFL players.
11. Stephen A. Smith and Scott Van Pelt (ESPN)
Stephen A. Smith and Scott Van Pelt are the undisputed faces of the most prominent sports network (in that order). Stephen A. is impossible to miss when consuming ESPN in any way at any time during the day. First Take remains a ratings success, a cash cow, and the most talked about daily sports show. He is the biggest star in the business and moves the needle second to none. SVP does not see the headlines but follows ESPN’s most important properties and is having an impact on SportsCenter that has not been seen since the days of Patrick and Olbermann. Given it was the success of Van Pelt’s show that led to ESPN creating SC6 and Get Up, he now has even more juice as it was proven not just anyone can have success in that role.
10. Joe Buck (FOX Sports)
In a hypothetical draft with all networks selecting sports media talents, we think that Joe Buck would be the first overall pick. He is the voice of the World Series, the Super Bowl every three years, and the U.S. Open. He is the best in the world at what he does and enhances each FOX property he is featured on. Buck’s voice, which is the best in the business, is ingrained in sports’ fans memories with several of the biggest football and baseball moments of the past decade with the Cubs 2016 World Series victory standing out.
9. Ari Emanuel/Mark Shapiro (Endeavor)
If this list were ranking aggregate power, Emanuel and Shapiro (and Emanuel’s co-CEO at Endeavor Patrick Whitesell) would arguably be as high as no. 2 due to Endeavor’s prowess in Hollywood — which is not to say by any stretch of the imagination that they are a nonentity in sports and sports media. Endeavor owns the UFC, and as a talent agency represents a number of very big names in sports and sports media, including Kobe Bryant, Michael Strahan, and A-Rod.
8. Nick Khan (CAA)
Khan has for years represented many of the biggest names in sports media, including Kirk Herbstreit, Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, Rachel Nichols, Rece Davis, Max Kellerman, Adam Schefter, Sage Steele, and more. He also oversees a group of other agents, who combine to represent dozens more top talents in the industry. Khan has also begun negotiating major live rights deals — he did the Top Rank deal with ESPN, Tiger vs. Phil with Turner, and tripled WWE’s television revenue in new deals with FOX and NBC Universal. He will be leading the rights sales of the SEC football game of the week, which is likely to go for at least several multiples of what CBS is currently paying, and the XFL. He is pictured on the right in this photo:
7. David Levy (Turner)
Turner is in a little bit of limbo because the AT&T/Time Warner merger has been held up in the courts, but Levy still has an immense amount of power in the sports media business. Turner splits the NBA with ESPN, and the NCAA Tournament with CBS. They also have the UEFA Champions League and have dabbled in eSports with ELEAGUE. One thing that will be interesting to see with Turner is whether they hold onto their MLB Playoff package; ESPN is expected to be an aggressive bidder there.
6. Sean McManus (CBS) and Mark Lazarus (NBC)
McManus and Lazarus both have an invaluable tool at their disposal in comparison to Levy: broadcast networks. As cord cutting continues to be a concern in the industry, CBS and NBC are in 30+ million more homes than cable networks. According to FOX executive Michael Mulvihill, NBC, which had the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics, led all networks in minutes of sports viewed in 2018. CBS came in fourth, behind NBC, FOX, and ESPN.
5. LeBron James & Maverick Carter (SpringHill Entertainment)
You could not sneeze in 2018 without a new story coming out about a film or TV package that was being developed by LeBron James and Maverick Carter. Right now, everyone in the industry wants to work with them, and we could cut out some middlemen by just giving them a $100 bill printing press. It will be interesting to observe if this remains the case in a couple years when these projects have come to fruition and we discern their quality and whether or not they were successful.
4. Vince McMahon (WWE) and Dana White (UFC)
Vince McMahon and Dana White make stars and careers leading the two combat sports/entertainment behemoths. They both recently inked game-changing deals. McMahon’s deal with FOX to air SmackDown on Fridays will see it serve as a promotional vehicle for the broadcast network’s other live sporting events, and presumably will be promoted on these games as well (Joe Buck doing an ad read for WWE during the World Series might make Twitter explode). The XFL is coming to market soon as well. ESPN’s muscles can make the UFC a focal point on ESPN+ and help promote their stars that the UFC relies on.
3. Eric Shanks & Mark Silverman (FOX Sports)
Shanks and Silverman have a very exciting next few years ahead as FOX continues to heighten its focus on live sporting events. The first year of Thursday Night Football was a major success, and FOX will add WWE Smackdown to its lineup this Fall. As we mentioned earlier, we are interested to see if FOX gets involved in the bidding for NHL rights and the SEC football package that is currently on CBS. Early last year, Silverman was promoted from being leader of the Big Ten Network to President of national networks for FOX Sports, giving him oversight of production of FS1, FS2, and FOX studio shows and live events.
2. Jimmy Pitaro (ESPN) and Kevin Mayer (Disney)
Jimmy Pitaro was named President of ESPN in March, and has had a very productive year. The biggest focus of his tenure thus far has been improving the network’s frayed relations with the NFL. This year’s Monday Night Football slate had a bigger % ratings increase than any other network’s, most significantly because of the dynamite Chiefs-Rams game. It will be interesting to see if that momentum continues, and whether ESPN/ABC can wedge their way into the Super Bowl rotation in the next rights deal. Mayer, as Disney’s chairman of direct-to-consumer, oversees ESPN+, the OTT streaming platform that is a key component of ESPN’s future strategy.
1. Rupert Murdoch (FOX) and Bob Iger (Disney)
Disney’s acquisition of FOX’s entertainment assets will be enormous as the Mouse builds out a streaming platform to compete with Netflix. With his family as reportedly the second largest Disney shareholder behind Vanguard, Murdoch has played a role in placing some of his longtime lieutenants including Peter Rice into the company. Between FOX, FS1, ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC, Murdoch and Iger combine to control an inordinate amount of the market share of live sports, as well as the conversation about sports. It’s a fascinating dynamic that these two men are both partners and competitors when you think about all of the live rights their two companies control and/or will be bidding to keep or acquire during the next cycle.
In disclosure, The Big Lead’s editor-in-chief Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality on FS1.