Winners of the 2021 Sports Business Awards – Sports Business Journal

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The 2021 Sports Business Awards were handed out Wednesday night. Below is a rundown of the winners from the event. 

Sports Executive of the Year: Adam Silver

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was one of the sports industry’s most effective leaders in dealing with the pandemic. Under his decisive and steady hand, the NBA was the first league to shut down on March 11. To restart the season in a bubble atmosphere near Orlando, the league created a 113-page health and safety protocol document after consulting with leading experts in epidemiology and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That summer restart saved the season — with zero positive COVID-19 tests within the bubble. “There’s no doubt that sports have played a vital role in uplifting the country during the pandemic,” Silver said in his acceptance speech. “Our industry provided a respite from the enormous challenges of everyone’s daily lives and brought people together in special ways. Today, full arenas and stadiums are signifying that our country is back to business and that it is safe to socialize again, which is extremely heartening.”

Sports Team of the Year: Los Angeles Dodgers

Even before winning their first World Series title since 1988, the Dodgers distinguished themselves in their work related to social justice and COVID-19 relief, with their foundation launching “In This Together,” a commitment to be responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable communities. The foundation partnered with RWQuarantunes to raise funds to provide 3.3 million meals to those affected by the pandemic and awarded grants and in-kind donations to 106 community organizations to support local social justice organizations. Dodger Stadium also served as a massive testing site, voting center and a vaccination hub. Dodgers President & CEO Stan Kasten felt this award is particularly meaningful this year because it “represented the achievements of our entire organization — a real team effort.” In accepting the award, he cited the Dodgers’ connection with the L.A. community during the pandemic and unpredictable year. 

Sports League of the Year: NASCAR

Amid NASCAR’s return to racing in 2020, the sport innovated in multiple ways that it never had before while simultaneously navigating multiple interactions with America’s social justice reckoning. The sport publicly backed driver Bubba Wallace when he wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt before a race, when he ran a Black Lives Matter paint scheme at a different race, and when he was involved with the highly publicized noose incident at Talladega Superspeedway. It also introduced several new races to the 2021 schedule. “We’ve got momentum,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said while accepting the award. “More importantly, we’ve got relevance.” He touted NASCAR’s ability to help lead the nation in returning to live sports. “It was an important thing for us to do as a sport,” Phelps added.” He said the aftermath of George Floyd’s death allowed the league to define who it is and “created an entirely new face of NASCAR, one that is younger and more diverse.”

Sports Sponsor of the Year: Anheuser-Busch

The brand added Team Liquid, Misfits Gaming and the League of Legends as new esports partners. The inaugural Bud Light Seltzer’s Battle of the Best, a Call of Duty tournament, was the No. 1-branded stream in Twitch history. Michelob Ultra became the NBA’s official beer and 11.2 million fans “sat” in its virtual courtside seats during telecasts. The company, which sponsors the NFL and 27 of its teams, donated $500,000 to NFL Draft-A-Thon for COVID-19 relief after creating a website for fans to “Boo the Commissioner” for charity. Cheers could be heard from another room while Anheuser-Busch VP/Connections Azania Andrews accepted the award. “We wanted to be a part of welcoming fans back to sports wherever we could,” she said.

Sports Breakthrough of the Year: National Women’s Soccer League

Following the COVID-19 shutdown of all U.S. pro sports, the NWSL became the first North American team sport to resume competition, beginning with the monthlong Challenge Cup in Utah last June and July. Led by first-year Commissioner Lisa Baird, the league inked new sponsorships with Google, P&G/Secret and Verizon. The NWSL paid 100% of player salary and benefits throughout the year and secured viewership and social media records, including an average TV audience increase of nearly 500% year-over-year. NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird accepted the award with a number of her league brass behind her at their lively watch party. “I have to tell you, I didn’t know whether we’d make it back to the pitch, let alone be the first team to return to play,” she said. “But we dug in, we figured it out, and we safely pulled off a breakthrough.”

Lifetime Achievement Award: Paul Fireman

In more than a quarter century running Reebok, Paul Fireman turned it from an obscure brand into an industry behemoth, and did so with plenty of heart and humanity. Click here to read SBJ’s feature on the longtime sports executive.

Best in Sports Media: ESPN

It was a typically busy year for ESPN, which produced more sports events than other media outlets. But it was how ESPN performed when live sports were on a pandemic-related hiatus that showed its leadership in sports media. It produced a broadcast-quality virtual NFL draft telecast that set a viewership record. It moved up the release of the acclaimed documentary series “The Last Dance,” which also set viewership records. ESPN President of Programming & Original Content Burke Magnus said this award was especially gratifying in this trying year. “What we’re most proud of is the immense hard work and creativity displayed by ESPN’s 4,000 employees navigating the shutdown of sports,” he said.

Best in Agency Creativity and Innovation: Genesco Sports Enterprises

It was an active 2020 for Genesco, as it added BMW to its client roster, increased its scope of work with Anheuser-Busch to include managing its entire NFL portfolio, and expanded its capabilities by starting a data analytics department. The agency secured a partnership between LeBron James and Pepsi, which will make the Lakers star the face of Mountain Dew’s new line of energy drinks, Mtn Dew Rise, and include his work off the court with his family foundation and SpringHill Entertainment. Genesco Exec VP & Chief Client Officer Kit Geis, accepted the award on behalf of the company. “In this year of Covid, we never stopped creating new ways to leverage our clients’ sponsorships,” she said. “We never stopped business development. We never stopped activating. We didn’t let up for a minute.”

Athletic Director of the Year: Mack Rhoades, Baylor University

Mack Rhoades took on a reclamation project in 2016, when he left the Missouri AD job after a year to join Baylor at a time when the Bears didn’t look very attractive. They were coming out of a scandal-ridden period that revealed the school mishandled the reporting of sexual assault cases. Now, Rhoades has transformed the athletic department culture and propensity for winning, especially in basketball. Rhoades also has overseen fundraising for the Bears’ new 7,000-seat basketball pavilion, helping generate a $100 million anonymous lead gift. “I’m blessed to work with great people, surrounded by great people,” Rhoades said in accepting the award. “We have a motto that says ‘everything counts, everything matters.’ So, thank you to everybody and I certainly wouldn’t be here receiving this award without everyone’s support.”

Best Talent Representation of the Year: Octagon

Octagon negotiated a five-year, reported $228 million contract for NBA star client Giannis Antetokounmpo last year. Off the court, Octagon helped another star basketball client, Stephen Curry, launch Brand Curry, which includes shoes, apparel and accessories for basketball, golf, running and training. Octagon also was quick to mobilize clients who wanted to provide pandemic relief and its Athletes for COVID-19 Relief involved 190 athletes and raised more than $40 million. “Throughout 2020, sports truly served as a microcosm of seemingly everything that was happening across the globe,” said Octagon Founder & President Phil de Picciotto, who accepted the award. “And the influence of talent was never greater individually and collectively.”

Best in Sports Social Media: Orlando Pride

When the Orlando Pride was forced to withdraw from the Challenge Cup due to preliminary COVID-19 positive tests, the organization’s content team took on the challenge of being the most engaged team on social media despite not being in the Cup. The team’s Pride Stan account had the top Twitter engagements (93,940) and brand value ($125,449) of any team in the league during the preliminary round of the Challenge Cup. Pride Senior VP/Communications Diogo Kotscho accepted the award. “I want to thanks our players, our leadership group, our current and former ownership group, our sponsors and my amazing media team,” he said.

Celebration of Service: Lost Boyz Inc.

Lost Boyz aims to change the trajectory for kids through sports. Click here to read more about the organization.

Sports Facility of the Year: ESPN Wide World of Sports

The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex will forever be remembered for hosting “bubbles” for two professional leagues to play amid the pandemic. Across the NBA and MLS, 223 games or matches were played at the 200-plus-acre facility last summer. There were 33 days where the two bubbles overlapped but both were carried out safely. Significant construction took place, including two broadcast compounds, blue screens and video walls. “None of this would have been possible without the leagues’ trusting us,” said Disney VP/Sports Faron Kelley, when accepting the award. “Finally, the cast at ESPN Wide World of Sports. You should always be proud that … when they talk about the bubble, they were talking about you,” he added.

Best in Digital Sports Media: Augusta National Golf Club & IBM: My Group Application

With no fans allowed on the grounds of Augusta National at last November’s postponed Masters tournament, organizers instead offered fans a customizable mobile experience on the Masters app. The My Group feature, built over three months in partnership with tournament sponsor IBM, enabled golf fans to watch every shot of the tournament, curate a personalized group of golfers to follow and view real-time video highlights selected by IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence. Augusta National Director of Strategy, Content & Distribution, Business Affairs Dereyck Moore accepted the award on behalf of his company and Augusta National.

Best in Property Consulting, Sales and Client Services: Oak View Group Global Partnerships

It was a pivotal year for OVG as it sold naming rights to its U.S.-based owned and operated venues — Climate Pledge Arena (future home of the expansion Seattle Kraken) and UBS Arena (future home of the New York Islanders) — and mounted sales and marketing campaigns for both arenas that place them among the revenue leaders in the NHL — all during a pandemic. OVG also was hired by the New Orleans Saints to sell naming rights to the Superdome. OVG President of Global Partnerships Dan Griffis accepted the award and made sure to thank OVG’s Tim Leiweke and MSG Entertainment Chair & CEO Irving Azoff. “Their vision has allowed us to do great things together,” Griffis said. “I’m not sure we can replicate it again in our careers,” he added of this past year’s efforts.

Best in Sports Social Technology: WHOOP

Whoop distinguished itself last year as a 24/7 life coach, as its technology proved invaluable for both elite athletes and non-athletes. In March 2020, Whoop, now the official fitness wearable of the PGA Tour, learned that a spike in a user’s respiratory rate — one of the metrics the device measures — could be an early indicator for COVID-19. For the company, growth has been dramatic. Last October, Whoop raised $100 million in Series E funding at a $1.2 billion valuation. “It was a testament to he hard work of a team who adapted,” said Whoop Senior Vice President of Marketing John Sullivan in accepting the award. Sullivan: “We used our science and our research to find relevance and ways to be helpful … and to change the way people think.”

Sports Event of the Year: MLS Is Back Tournament: Group Stage

Within the MLS bubble at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the league completed 51 nationally televised matches in a 35-day stretch last summer, utilizing the unique circumstances to experiment with new technologies and bring attention to racial and social injustices occurring in the U.S. Virtual advertising for MLS and team sponsors, on-field branding, embedded field microphones and the first drone coverage in a soccer match were all integrated into the 24-team MLS is Back Tournament. “Staying connected to our fans is what drove us to move quickly to stage the MLS is Back Tournament,” said MLS Deputy Commissioner Gary Stevenson, who accepted the award. He added, “Nothing will ever compare to what we did to stage this tournament. We had so many hurdles to jump.”