The Top 25 Most Influential People in Sports Business

The Big Lead

In 2015, we compiled a list of the 25 Most Powerful People in Sports Media. For 2016, we’re starting the year by expanding it: Who are the 25 Most Influential People in Sports Business? The list has been attempted by other outlets, but ours isn’t just about money or your spot on the totem pole in your respective sport. Clout matters. That’s why some of the names on our list – Charles Barkley, Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, to name a few – won’t sniff those other lists. Increasingly, media members are becoming a significant part of the larger business picture. With many commissioners, the machine simply rolls on. The great ones – sometimes, this falls upon their lieutenants – have a grasp on what’s next, and make brilliant business decisions. Those who just missed the cut are at the bottom.

25. Richard Scudamore, Executive Chairman, English Premier League

Getting the EPL on NBC has been wildly successful. Given the success there, will the push toward shorter TV contracts be the new normal? Look for EPL’s streaming of games to becoming another successful venture in the near term.

24. Scott Boras, President, the Boras Corporation

Still best known for securing record-setting MLB contracts in the 90s to the likes of Kevin Brown and Alex Rodriguez. Washington Nationals fans love him – please note the sarcasm – because they can’t wait for Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to begin future negotiations.

23. Don Garber, Major League Soccer

The youngest of the professional major sports leagues has its problems – low TV ratings, a mediocre TV deal, and a problem with the timing of the MLS Cup (against college and pro football). But MLS has only been around since 1996, and recently announced it will expand to 28 teams. Team valuations are rising rapidly.

22. Kevin Plank, Under Armor

Reebok and Adidas were left in the dust by Nike, but Under Armour has made unbelievable strides in the last few years. Early, savvy investments in Stephen Curry and Jordan Spieth paid great dividends. UA’s biggest goals in the near future: Denting the shoe market, and women’s apparel.

21. Ari Emanuel, Patrick Whitesell, WME-IMG CEOs

Emanuel, who the character of Ari Gold in Entourage was modeled after, has “climbed – brashly, ruthlessly into Hollywood’s power center” and won a bidding war in 2013 for IMG. Expect more moves in the sports space in 2016.

20. Michele Roberts, Executive Director, NBA Players Association

Throughout history, advocacy on behalf of players unions has oftentimes been met publicly with cynicism of greedy players and siding with the far wealthier owners. In her initial media blitz, Michele Roberts combatted these norms and argued as eloquently as any sports labor leader since Marvin Miller. Roberts has been relatively quiet in recent months, as she and Adam Silver seek to hammer out a new CBA, ideally preventing a work stoppage from occurring after next season. Was recent light punishments, relative to behavior, for Rajon Rondo and Matt Barnes an olive branch from the Commissioner?



19. Mike Wilbon & Tony Kornheiser, ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption

In an era when it’s tough to pull eyeballs onto sports shows that aren’t live events, ESPN’s long-running debate show – now in its 15th season – remains the industry leader. Some say that PTI is one of the things keeping the 6 pm SportsCenter afloat. After Kornheiser waves the Canadian flag, sometimes as much as 35% of the audience – depending on the season – changes the channel.

18. Charles Barkley, TNT

The main attraction of the most successful post-game show in sports. During the regular season, he resonates as much as the games. Fearless. Willing to take on anyone on any topic. From a business standpoint, the business of Barkley has been booming for years. Shaq has taken notice.

17. Casey Close, Agent, Excel Sports Management

Excel Sports Management, which he co-founded, negotiated $700 million in baseball contracts in the 2014 offseason. Dominated the 2015 MLB offseason – Jason Heyward, Zack Greinke, etc – to the point that he was dubbed “the 31st GM.” More importantly, the former college baseball star ended up representing Derek Jeter, the face of the Player’s Tribune, which is quietly attempting to build a media empire. The site’s traffic spikes during major announcements, of which there have been a couple. However, thus far, it’s otherwise pedestrian. Will it ever be the threat some old access reporters perceive?

16. Jim Delany, Big 10 Commissioner

The success he’s had creating the Big 10 network and expanding the conference to 14 teams has been enormous. Financially, the Big Ten is on the verge of a monster TV deal (probably with ESPN and Fox) for billions. CBS Sports called him the most influential person in college sports. Lucky for him, we live in a world where adding Rutgers to your conference (as opposed to, say, UConn, which is better at sports and studies, and also not an administrative embarrassment) and advocating against a better playoff system is actually in the financial best interest of your constituents.

15. Peter King, The MMQB/Adrian Wojnarowski, The Vertical

No writers are more affiliated with their respective outlet than King (Sports Illustrated) and Wojnarowski (Yahoo Sports). With several star-driven affinity websites failing, King’s narrowed focus to the NFL, and Woj’s to the NBA could be the future blueprint for success.

14. Bob Bowman, MLB President Business/Rob McGlarry, President of MLB Network

Sports Illustrated said it best in 2013 about what Bowman has done for MLBAM: “gold standard for live sports streaming, ticketing, merchandising and stats on the web.” Clients include WWE, HBO, Sony, and the NHL. An argument could be made that this duo is more influential than Manfred.

13. Rob Manfred, MLB Commissioner

Only succeeded for Bud Selig one year ago, but what Mark Cuban – who couldn’t get the Chicago Cubs – said about Selig in 2014 still lingers: “Has the sport grown at all? The only growth it had was at the end of the ’90s and we know what happened there … What’s worked for baseball, you know, other than steroids?” Regionally the sport is thriving, but World Series ratings have been cratering for the last 15 years.

12. Dana White, President of UFC

Depending on the metric you want to use, MMA is the fastest-growing sport in the world. White and the UFC have cashed in, more than doubling their revenue between 2007 ($207 million) and 2014 ($522 million). Frankly, White is profoundly unlikable. He’s brash, arrogant, and megalomaniacal about the way he lords over the institution. He bullies the media, which, in the mainstream, provides less critical oversight than towards the seedy underbellies of other major sports. The oversaturation of television content has taken all the juice out of the mid-card.

11. Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports Group Chairman

Took over for Dick Ebersol in 2011 and and is still riding the wave of Sunday Night Football’s dominance and the Olympics. NBC Sports Network has been a non-factor so far. His best move (not counting hiring Charles Barkley at TNT years ago): Landing the EPL and in 2015 extending it to a six-year deal. That NBC pays less than half for SNF than ESPN does for MNF, and receives more compelling games due to a variety of factors including flex scheduling, is a coup.

10. David Levy, Turner President/Lenny Daniels, President of Turner Sports

Levy now oversees seven Turner networks and Turner Sports, setting the table for Daniels with the NBA and the MLB postseason. The pair worked on the massive NCAA Tournament deal together, and Daniels (who still reports to Levy) “played a primary role” in Turner acquiring Bleacher Report.

9. Nick Khan/Jimmy Sexton, CAA Sports

The dynamic duo largely set the agenda in sports broadcasting (Khan) and coaching (Sexton). Khan reps most of the biggest names in sports media, including many who have made the leap from writing to TV. Amongst the many, he delivered big deals for Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd at Fox, and brokered Rachel Nichols’ return to ESPN. Sexton is one of the most important men in college football. He owns the month of December, since coaches Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Jim Mora and Jimbo Fisher are among his clients.

8. Phil Knight, Chairman of Nike, Inc./LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers/Michael Jordan, Jordan Brand

Despite a recent challenge from Under Armour, Nike remains the top sneaker brand in all of sports. It recently signed LeBron James to a “career contract.” The Jordan Brand still carries plenty of clout. Nobody sells more shoes. Certainly nobody who retired over a decade ago.

7. Sean McManus, Chairman of CBS Sports/David Berson President, CBS Sports

Instrumental in CBS re-acquiring the NFL almost 20 years ago and the SEC on CBS. Got in bed with the NFL for Thursday games when everyone else wanted in. In a tough battle with ESPN/SEC Network over SEC games each year. Tremendous live rights have covered up for serious programming deficiencies. Their NFL pregame show is must-miss, and has been for over a decade. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms is the announcing duo you least want in your lives. You need a map and compass to find CBS Sports Network on your cable package. Will McManus give the keys to the kingdom to Berson after Super Bowl 50?

6. Robert Kraft, New England Patriots/Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys

The two most influential (and successful?) owners in the NFL will have a large say in what happens with the lucrative Thursday night football game. Will it stick with CBS? At times, from a business standpoint, Kraft and Jones tell Goodell to jump, and he responds, “how high?” A fascinating dynamic to observe will be whether and to what extent Kraft exacts his revenge on the Commissioner for the way Deflategate was handled.

5. Bill Simmons, HBO

No sports media member has a bigger at-bat in 2016 than Simmons. He’s the king of podcasts, and spearheaded 30 for 30, but never quite caught on as a television personality in ESPN’s NBA coverage. Will he prove he can succeed on TV as a host on HBO? The success rate for those who have left ESPN and thrived is up and down.  He’s also going to be executive producing a show at HBO, and his search for a host of that unnamed show continues.

4. Eric Shanks, President of Fox Sports/Jamie Horowitz President, Fox Sports National Networks/John Entz, President Fox Sports Production

The one network that seems eager to challenge ESPN. Fox Sports 1 remains in its embryonic stages, and now it has a face, in former ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd. Year 1 was a struggle, and Year 2 brought change. What will Year 3 bring?

3. John Skipper, President, ESPN

Even he would agree 2015 was one of the network’s worst years at the company. Not financially (it’s still making plenty of money, though not to the level that would have Disney thrilled), but in perception – layoffs, cord cutting, and the loss of several of the network’s biggest names. Embattled might be a word to describe Skipper. Why did he never name a No. 2, when he spent years as George Bodenheimer’s #2? Why the insistence on SportsCenter, when that information pings sports fans on their phones throughout the day?

2. Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner

Spent seven years as David Stern’s No. 2, and since ascending to the top spot, he’s nearly pitched a perfect game: Banning racist owner Donald Sterling for life, negotiating a new billion dollar TV deal, and perhaps most importantly, he’s in favor of legalized gambling. His influence on gambling could have major impacts in the coming months/years. If you’re looking to nitpick, he did fumble the Rajon Rondo incident in late 2015, though that might have been with the longterm goal of labor peace in mind.

1 Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner

How could someone who had an abysmal 2014 – see Ray Rice – and even worse 2015 – see Tom Brady – possibly be at the top? Which metric do you want to look at? Goodell’s tenure began in 2006, and look at this chart about Super Bowl ratings … starting in 2006. Here’s another chart. The expansion to London seems forced, but it has worked. The streaming experiment in 2015 worked. There’s certainly a war on football … but right now, Roger Goodell is winning.


Others considered: Stephen A. Smith, ESPN; Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner; Casey Wasserman, Wasserman Media Group; Colin Cowherd, Fox Sports 1; Brian France, CEO of NASCAR; Tim Finchem, PGA Tour Commissioner, Jay Bilas, ESPN.