Sports Business Awards: Unlimited Potential

SBJ Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Abe Madkour, Emmy-winning actor Jon Hamm and the Stanley Cup watched as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award.marc bryan-brown

New York’s Times Square is used to being home to plenty of stars, but the cast that gathered at the Marriott Marquis for the Sports Business Awards was particularly glittering: NBA commissioner Adam Silver, MLS commissioner Don Garber and NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro and Marie Donoghue, Amazon Vice President of Global Sports Videos. ESPN’s Elle Duncan and Jay Williams hosted the celebrations, and Emmy-winning actor Jon Hamm presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who also received the Stanley Cup onstage.

These luminaries were joined by a record crowd of almost 1,200 who packed the ballroom for the biggest night in the sports industry and arguably the most impressive gathering of sports leaders yet.

By the end of the evening, 15 individual awards had been presented, along with the Sloane Stephens Foundation’s Celebration of Service Award and the Lifetime Award. The overall winner, however, may have been the women’s sport, which continued its momentum and took home multiple awards. That tone was already set in the first category when Michele Kang won the inaugural Deal of the Year award for her acquisition of the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, completed in March 2022. Time is a record for a women’s sports team – but also for the complexity of a transaction, in which Kang allied with existing limited partners to outmaneuver a competing bid.

There was also no denying the impact the sale has had on the entire landscape of women’s sport, which Kang says deserves significant financial pledges.

“I wanted to make this deal to prove that women’s football is not a charity. It shouldn’t be sold for a few million like it’s a non-profit organization,” Kang said. “It has incredible commercial viability, and if we don’t believe in our own product, who would?”

Kang explained her goal and vision behind the scenes, detailing how the Spirit acquisition — at seven times the previous league’s record transaction value — should pave a path that other investors are already following. “As you have seen in the expansion process, our expansion fees are now $53 million. Who would have thought, right?” said Kang. “So it all kind of builds on each other and I would say the tipping point is here. … There is currently no uniform business model; Many teams come from different angles and are all equally successful. And that’s what it takes, just more dollars coming in.” Kang said she also hopes she’ll inspire more women to break into the sport’s leadership ranks in both the men’s and women’s leagues.

Washington Spirit owner Michele Kang won the inaugural Deal of the Year award. Marc Bryan Brown

The loudest cheering for Kang’s victory came from none other than the Angel City FC table, led by co-owners Kara Nortman and Julie Uhrman. Later that night, they had another chance to celebrate when Angel City were named Team of the Year and received a rare standing ovation from the crowd.

An energetic Uhrman, flanked on stage by the team’s female leadership, laid out the mission statement of the women’s football club that broke both records and expectations on its debut in 2022. “Angel City was built with purpose and passion,” said Uhrman. “With the goal of being profitable and proving that women’s sport is not just something that people follow and care about, but that it’s investable and can be a billion-dollar business.”

The club was valued by investors at over $100 million ahead of game one and accounted for nearly 40% of all NWSL revenue in its first season. “No one would have thought that we could sell out a stadium. No one thought we could generate more than $50 million in sponsorship revenue,” Uhrman continued. “That will not be the case [last] If we stand on this podium, I can promise you that, because the possibilities of this team are limitless.”

The value and power of women’s sport has been highlighted by fellow SBA winners. The US Open won the trophy for Sporting Event of the Year, due in large part to the impact of Serena Williams’ farewell performance, which contributed to record viewership and attendance. Accepting the award, Stacey Allaster, USTA executive director of professional tennis and US Open tournament director, noted that in 2023 the event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of equal prize money.

Wasserman was recognized as the best talent representative of the year. Not only does the agency have a long history of representing women’s sports, but the judges were particularly interested in Wasserman’s, and particularly agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas’, efforts to bring client and WNBA star Brittney Griner home from Russia . “That legacy for us to have the history and be first and create The Collective, our program around women for brands and representation,” said Jason Ranne, Wasserman COO and executive vice president of talent advocacy. “I just think it’s synonymous with our history, and so it’s real, it’s authentic to us.”

A record crowd of nearly 1,200 filled the ballroom.Marc Bryan-Brown

Fox Sports CEO and Executive Producer Eric Shanks emphasized the importance of women’s sports to Fox Sports in backstage speeches after Fox’s win for Best in Sports Media. “Our first World Championship was the 2015 Women’s World Championship. We made a commitment to try as hard on the women as we did on the men, and that had never happened before,” said Shanks. “We feel like we were there at the very beginning of this explosion in women’s sport. … We’re really proud to have been a part of that and we’ve kind of kept that going by trying to be the frontrunner for women’s sport in this country.”

This year’s Sports Business Awards proved particularly meaningful for Shanks, as he also received the Sports Manager of the Year award. Fox’s outstanding year was marked by a landmark rights deal with the Big Ten and successful broadcasts of the Super Bowl, World Cup and World Series, among other major events.

Fox wasn’t the only legacy company to go home with hardware. The NFL was named Sports League of the Year for the first time since 2010. The 111-year-old Fenway Park, which hosted the NHL’s Winter Classic in January, won the Sports Facility of the Year award. And the NHL celebrated winning Sports Breakthrough of the Year for its digitally enhanced dashboards, a marketing initiative that’s been in the works for years.

The NHL had representatives from the league and its teams, including New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky, in the ballroom to celebrate Bettman’s Lifetime Achievement Award. During his remarks, Hamm, a hockey superfan who recalled watching blues games at the old St. Louis arena amid cigarette smoke, outlined the evolution of the NHL under Bettman’s leadership since he took office in 1993.

“What was once a small regional league, which grossed less than $500 million a year overall in the season prior to his hiring, is now a $6 billion global sports and media company,” Hamm said. “It’s a turning point in a league where a blues fan wonders when we’ll be back in the finals but isn’t worried about when their team leaves St. Louis.”

Some of the top executives in the world of sports have also cast their votes on a video honoring Bettman, including commissioners Rob Manfred of the MLB, Adam Silver of the NBA and Roger Goodell of the NFL, and the Chairman and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, Ted Leonsis and NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, among others.

Bettman recalled his five decades in professional sports, during which he mentored former NBA commissioner David Stern, refereed almost 60% of all NHL games ever played, and marveled at how far he had come since he had paid 50 cents for a New York Rangers ticket as a child in the 1960s: “As I sat on the balcony of the old Garden, I never thought that I would be the one to present it when I first… Let’s see the Rangers win the Stanley Cup!”

The 30-year-old commissioner – who clarified he has no immediate plans for retirement – concluded on a topic that has been a central topic of conversation throughout the evening: the power of sport to transform lives.

“Let’s all keep working every day to serve our constituents in the most creative and fun ways possible,” Bettman said. “Let us strive to honor our temporary care of the public trust called sport to inspire our communities, instill life skills in our young people and leave each of our sports organizations in a far better place than where we found them.” “ And that is a lifetime achievement for each of us.”

Sports Business Awards: The Winners

Deal of the Year – Michele Kang’s acquisition of the Washington Spirit
The best sports betting – FanDuel
Best in Sports Social Media – Bleacher Report
Best Talent Representation – Wasserman
Sporting Event of the Year – US Open
Athletic Director of the Year – JD Wicker, San Diego State
Best Sports Media – Fox Sports
The best in real estate advice, sales and customer service – Elevate
Sports Sponsor of the Year – T-Mobile US
Sports Facility of the Year – Fenway Park
Sporting Breakthrough of the Year – NHL: Digitally Enhanced Dashboards
Best agency creativity and innovation – MKTG Sports + Entertainment
Sports Team of the Year – Angel City FC
Sports Manager of the Year – Eric Shanks, Fox Sports
Sports League of the Year – NFL


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