25 stories that shaped the sporting year

In the sports industry as in the world beyond, 2016 has been a year of major events, significant challenges and unexpected, profound changes. SportsPro runs through the 25 stories that mattered most over the past 12 months.

25 stories that shaped the sporting year

Written by Eoin Connolly, Adam Nelson, Michael Long, Tom Lloyd and George Dudley.

 

Rio 2016 gets over the line

In the end, it was alright on the night – just. The race to get Rio de Janeiro ready for South America’s first Olympic and Paralympic Games has defined an era of international sport, with the prelude of a Fifa World Cup creating a truly Brazilian decade. That era ended with a more than creditable event, though plenty will ask if it was all worthwhile. 

Where Brazil had won the right to host Rio 2016 as a thrusting new entrant to the global stage, its moment in the limelight came in a period of political crisis and full economic retreat. At the head of a long list of 2016 problems was the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff – deputised in her Games-time suspension by her eventual full-time replacement, the not exactly popular Michel Temer. Spiralling revelations of corruption claimed the reputation of the once-beloved ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had fronted Rio’s bid, while its financial consequences caused pain across the country – prompting a fire sale in the state of Rio itself.

Fears of crime, pollution and general disorganisation loomed over the event and while some scares – most notably Zika – did not flare as feared, low ticket sales and awkward transport were a constant reminder that the organisers were working against the grain. Nonetheless, the Olympics found their identity as they wore on, helped along by a late domestic gold rush. The Paralympics, meanwhile, overcame the existential threat of a crippling budget shortfall to truly connect with the local population, delivering higher attendances that any edition outside London. EC

 

LA back in play as NFL’s Rams return

For over two decades, Los Angeles had been left without a National Football League (NFL) team, after the departure of the LA Rams for St Louis in 1994 and the LA Raiders to Oakland just a year later. Both sides have enjoyed some success away from Los Angeles, with the Rams claiming the 1999 Super Bowl, but have struggled to make a consistent impact. Speculation has mounted in the interim about the league’s plans in London but in the second-biggest marketplace in the US, meanwhile, fans have waited impatiently. 

On 30th January 2015, however, change edged closer. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that multiple teams had expressed an interest in relocation to LA, and the Raiders, the Rams and the San Diego Chargers all set out their stall for a move to the city of angels.

In 2016, the plans went to a vote, and on 13th January 30 of the 32 NFL owners approved the Rams’ request to return to the city.

Stan Kroenke, majority shareholder of the franchise, completed the US$550 million relocation and the 18th September 2016 saw the Rams take to a Los Angeles field for the first time in 22 years, as they claimed a 9-3 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in front of a 91,046 people at the Memorial Coliseum.

As part of the agreement, both the Raiders and the Chargers have the option to join the Rams in Los Angeles, but for now work begins on their new City of Champions Stadium in Inglewood – a stadium that Angelinos hope will house the Rams for many years to come. TL

 

Political earthquakes shake sport

2016 began with some wondering aloud what effect Donald Trump’s (right) erratic, thoughtlessly provocative run for the Republican presidential nomination might have on his golf business. It has been a long year.

Now that the developer has made it through the electoral college to the White House, the world probably has more important matters to consider than his impact on the 2024 Olympic race. Nevertheless, the leaders of Los Angeles’ bid will have to campaign in conditions they cannot have even contemplated at the outset.  

Not that this is solely LA’s problem, of course: the spectre of the far right and authoritarianism looms across the contest for the next available Games, with Front National leader Marine Le Pen given more than a puncher’s chance in the French presidential election and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s increasingly censorial tendencies causing their own deep concerns.

In Italy, the success of the populist Five Star Movement in mayoral elections had already brought a premature end to Rome’s Olympic candidacy even before a December referendum defeat drew the resignation of prime minister Matteo Renzi. In the UK, meanwhile, the shock of June’s Brexit vote still threatens to undermine the country’s status as an outward-looking cultural and sporting centre, while its implications could yet complicate the process of doing business in a land which has lost its long-held reputation for stability.

There are stress-tests to come, with Fifa World Cups in Russia and Qatar just ahead. These are interesting times – and uncertain times, too. EC

 

Sports broadcasting goes over the top

It has been a year of old certainties being dismantled and of newer ones being challenged. Nestled amongst the latter was the concept of premium live sport as a TV ratings firewall for traditional broadcasters. In the autumn, both English soccer’s Premier League and the National Football League (NFL) recorded marked year-on-year declines, pushing 20 per cent, in audience returns.

For pay-TV broadcasters, headline viewing figures are less important than subscription numbers. Except that the pressure created by changing viewer habits and standalone on-demand services like Netflix has also hit premium TV packages – particularly in the US, where the phenomenon of ‘cord-cutting’ is seeing viewers abandon cable television in large numbers, and ESPN is losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers a month and is 11 million from its 2011 peak.

The response has now begun. In August, ESPN parent The Walt Disney Company spent US$1 billion deal on 33 per cent stake in BAMTech, the live streaming specialist spun off from Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), in a bid to turbo-charge the development of an over-the-top (OTT) sports offering. BAMTech also launched a joint venture across the Atlantic with Eurosport, which has grand ambitions for its own Eurosport Player digital subscription service. Eleven Sports Network has put OTT at the heart of its future, while the Perform Group launched DAZN in a number of markets – its ¥210 billion (US$2 billion) deal for Japanese soccer’s J League a sign it can spend big on rights. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) launched its own effort, the Olympic Channel, in August.

With Twitter making its biggest moves into simulcasting, and Amazon and Facebook lurking, 2016 might be remembered as the year sports broadcasting truly went digital. EC 

 

London Stadium’s legacy stumble

As much as any practical use, London’s Olympic Stadium – to use its former name – was supposed to stand as a monument to the city’s shining summer of 2012, to be the physical embodiment of the Games’ legacy.

Rechristened as the London Stadium and now occupied by Premier League soccer side West Ham United, the venue’s story since has not quite lived up to the dreams of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body that was founded to ensure that the benefits of the Olympics continued well beyond their initial impact and which co-owns the stadium in a 65/35 split with Newham Council.

Early signs were not promising. The protracted bidding process which resulted in West Ham’s occupancy drew legal challenges from Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur and then-third-tier outfit Leyton Orient in 2013. In 2016, after the full details of West Ham’s arrangement were made public, it was not hard to see why, with the deal hugely favourable toward the club and costing taxpayers – via the LLDC and Newham Council – hundreds of millions of pounds.

The most eye-catching figure showed a 26-fold increase in the cost of installing retractable seating in the stadium, from UK£300,000 a year to UK£8 million, a feature on which the LLDC insisted in order to keep a running track and preserve an athletics legacy from the Olympics. Perhaps worse were the lengths to which the LLDC went to hide the stadium’s costs combined with the behind-the-scenes political machinations that have dictated its fate. London’s former Conservative mayor Boris Johnson was accused by his successor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, of leaving a ‘total and utter mess’ as the total cost of the stadium ballooned even further in late 2016, with the headline number now standing at UK£752 million.

West Ham’s dismal home form and regular flare-ups of crowd violence in the first few months of their residency were perhaps incidental, but did little to assuage the collective doubt over the long-term benefits of the arrangement – and led some to speculate whether prospective naming rights partners had been scared off.

The 2017 World Athletics Championships, and the return of some of the heroes of 2012, may bring a surge of goodwill, but the drama surrounding its more permanent occupancy will rumble on. AN

 

Tennis fights match-fixing scandal

The tennis season began under a pall of suspicion in 2016 when the BBC and BuzzFeed News published claims they had uncovered ‘secret files exposing evidence of widespread suspected match-fixing’ at the top of the men’s game.

Released on the eve of January’s Australian Open for maximum impact, their report was based on the findings of a confidential investigation set up in 2007 into suspicious betting activity, an investigation that would subsequently unearth illicit betting syndicates in Russia, northern Italy and Sicily. The devil, though, was in the detail. Over the last decade, the report claimed, 16 unnamed players ranked inside the world’s top 50 had been repeatedly flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), the sport’s dedicated anti-corruption body, for allegedly throwing matches, yet all of the players, including past Grand Slam champions, were allowed to continue competing after authorities took no action.

Though based on old evidence, the report sent shockwaves across the tennis world, forcing the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) to quickly reject claims the TIU had suppressed or not fully investigated evidence. Within days, the sport’s key stakeholders came out fighting, banding together to launch an independent review of their anti-corruption protocols and promising to refocus efforts in their collective fight against match-fixing.

The TIU, imbued with fresh impetus, set about signing new memorandums of understanding with regulators and betting organisations, and the unit’s operational team was expanded to ten people, doubling total staff numbers since the start of 2016. The threat to tennis’ integrity remains grave, however, with the European Sport Security Association (ESSA) revealing in October that the sport accounted for some 84 per cent of all reports of suspicious betting activity in the third quarter of this year. ML

 

American confederations clean up around Copa América Centenario

It was the event that nearly never happened. Thrust into the heart of the bribery scandal that rocked world soccer in 2015, imperilled by the very game – and people – it was intended to celebrate, June’s intercontinental Copa América Centenario was driven to the brink of collapse before a US-led salvage effort, initiated barely six months ahead of kick-off, saw it rescued at the 11th hour.

Held to commemorate 100 years since the creation of South America’s preeminent event and the continent’s chief authority, Conmebol, the historic occasion saw Chile retain their title on US soil. As expected, the tournament itself would prove a commercial success, attracting a full gathering of sponsors and setting new records for attendance and television viewership, but any talk of a possible repeat in future would be overshadowed by more pressing matters elsewhere.

Behind the scenes, the tournament’s two sanctioning bodies, Conmebol and its North and Central American counterpart Concacaf, were in disarray. Suspended officials from both confederations were facing charges as part of the US Justice Department’s ongoing probe into a sprawling web of corruption. Amid the court cases and guilty pleas, it was left to two new presidents with reformist agendas to pick up the pieces.

Paraguayan Alejandro Dominguez, installed as the new head of Conmebol in January, and Canadian Victor Montagliani, elected to lead Concacaf in May, would have their work cut out. But armed with a set of sweeping governance reforms, both quickly made senior hires, intent on restoring trust and credibility to two of the most tarnished organisations in world sport. ML

 

World Cup of Hockey returns as NHL looks to regain international ground

The National Hockey League (NHL) relaunched its World Cup of Hockey in September, following a 12-year hiatus.  

The revived two-week tournament – which was co-organised by the NHL and its NHLPA players’ union – was played at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to general approval. The slightly modified format included two all-star teams alongside ice hockey’s traditional ‘big six’. Hosts Canada won the championship for the second time when they defeated a representative Team Europe side in the final.

While the NHL and NHLPA jointly marketed the event, Lagardère Sports led sponsorship sales in Europe, while long-term partner IMG aided the international broadcast effort. The tournament as a whole accrued US$25 million in sponsorship revenue. SAP became the first shirt sponsor for an NHL-sanctioned event, with all competing teams wearing a branded patch on the shoulder of their jerseys, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he was in “no rush to put advertising on our sweaters” in regular league play.

The remodelled World Cup is part of the NHL’s ongoing campaign to reach out to more overseas fans and the player rosters had a combined 180 representatives from ice hockey’s preeminent league, which is a record for an international ice hockey competition.

The NHL – which also confirmed the entry of a new Las Vegas franchise, the Golden Knights, in 2017/18 – is keen to emulate the National Football League’s (NFL) success in its international regular-season programme, while exhibition games between NHL franchises and European-based teams and a Ryder Cup-style tournament have been mooted. A World Cup played across the globe is set to be a permanent fixture on NHL’s expanded calendar from 2020.  GD

 

Nascar launches charter as search for Sprint replacement lasts season

A pivotal season in stock-car racing’s preeminent series began with the news every team owner had been waiting for. In February, on the eve of the annual season-opener at Daytona, Nascar chief Brian France announced a major and long-anticipated overhaul of the organisation’s ownership model, bringing to an end more than 60 years of operating under an independent contractor system that put financial strain on teams across the board and led several to cease operations altogether.

Under the new ‘charter’ system, 36 operating licences were granted to 19 team organisations, guaranteeing entry into the field of every top-tier Sprint Cup Series points race for the next nine years. At the time, the historic move was hailed as the dawn of a new era of security and stability in a sport otherwise struggling for attendances, relevance and, as it would transpire, a new Cup Series title sponsor.

With Sprint due to exit at the end of the year, industry speculation regarding the company’s potential replacement permeated throughout the entirety of 2016. As the season drew to a close in November, Coca-Cola’s Monster Energy brand finally completed a deal that has reportedly come in far cheaper than its predecessor. The new name for the championship had not been confirmed at the time of writing. ML

 

Uefa runs Euro 2016 and elects new president

Uefa’s quadrennial European Championship was an acclaimed success, in spite of a difficult build-up. France reached the final as an apprehensive host nation embraced the Europe’s biggest ever soccer tournament following the tragedy of terrorist attacks and flash floods.

An increased security presence marshalled passionate travelling fans from 24 countries – though there were early flashpoints, such as the clashes that followed an advance on England supporters by their Russian counterparts after a first-round game. On the pitch it was the smaller nations, whose presence the expanded format had allowed, who captured the imagination. At the end, unfancied Portugal rewarded talisman and captain Cristiano Ronaldo with his first international winner’s medal. 

The tournament was at the heart of a significant year for Uefa. At September’s extraordinary congress in Athens, members voted in Aleksander Čeferin (left) as the confederation’s seventh permanent president. Čeferin replaces Michel Platini – who is currently serving a four-year ban from all soccer-related activities – and he will serve the remainder of the Frenchman’s term through 2019.

Prior to his election win Čeferin was not a Uefa executive committee member and at 48, he is the youngest president in the organisation’s history. Upon his election, which he followed with a trip to each of the 13 hosts of the pan-continental Euro 2020, he stated that his first priority would be to look at the controversial agreement that gives higher Champions League revenue to the continent’s biggest clubs based on historic success.

 

Čeferin also pledged to revive an open bidding process for the Champions League final, and sparked headlines when he said he was open to moving kick-off times from traditional slots and taking club soccer’s blue-riband match beyond Europe’s borders. GD

 

UFC fight sees WME|IMG land killer blow

In the early years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) 23-year history it existed on the periphery of the sporting zeitgeist, destined to remain in the shadow of both boxing and, to a lesser extent, wrestling. In the past decade, however, the pioneering mixed martial arts promotion has become one of the most shrewdly run brands in the industry, and electric talents like Ireland’s Conor McGregor (below) have since taken one of world sport’s hottest properties ever closer to the mainstream.

In 2016, an arms race ensued for the right to take the series to the next level. Stoking the flames, parent company Zuffa revealed in May that it was in talks to sell UFC, with Wanda Group and China Media Capital among potential suitors. Later that month, global agency WME|IMG emerged as the frontrunner, the deal reportedly whetting its recent mergers and acquisitions appetite.

In July the deal was confirmed, and WME|IMG fronted a group including Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and MSD Capital that eventually stumped up a whopping US$4.2 billion. The largest acquisition in the sports industry saw Zuffa exit completely, with UFC president Dana White and Flash Entertainment both retaining minority stakes. A disparate group of WME celebrity clients – including Ben Affleck, Sylvester Stallone, Calvin Harris and Serena Williams – also bought in.

The new-look UFC senior management began to take shape later in the year. Major high-profile culling took place, with veterans Garry Cook, Marshall Zelaznik, Ken Berger and Jamie Pollack, to name a few, all shown the door.

The championship was in New York for UFC 205, returning to the city for the first time since 1997 after the State Assembly overturned its ban, and while its new direction remains unclear, further growth looks a certainty. TL

 

Golf’s power struggle continues as Finchem calls time

If the prospect of a global, unified golf circuit has been on the agenda for some time, 2016 was the year in which talk of consolidation finally turned to meaningful – if not necessarily decisive – action.

In March – just weeks after The R&A and the Ladies' Golf Union (LGU) had announced a historic merger, bringing the two St Andrews-based bodies under a single umbrella for the first time – the PGA Tour and the women’s LPGA enshrined their longstanding cooperation by signing a long-term, written strategic alliance that would see the two entities collaborate in areas such as schedule coordination, media rights, marketing and, most intriguingly, the development of joint events.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, protracted merger talks between the European Tour, led by its new chief executive Keith Pelley, and the Asian Tour broke down in July amid concerns the latter would suffer under a combined entity. The pair did, however, resolve to form a strategic alliance of their own in a bid to strengthen their business interests, bolster their international appeal and, under threat from the all-powerful PGA Tour, plug their respective talent drains.

It was amid this ongoing power struggle that the US set their persistent troubles aside to reclaim the Ryder Cup in November, defeating Europe 17-11 at Hazeltine in Minnesota. And when, soon after, long-serving PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem (left) confirmed the expected news that he would relinquish his post to his right-hand man, Jay Monahan, at the end of the year, there was a sense that a sport long resistant to change was entering its next chapter. ML

 

Commercial seeds sown in women’s sport

If 2016 has been the year of the underdog in sport, 2017 might become the year of equality.

Much has been made of the gender gap throughout mainstream sports, and few sports can boast women’s events with equal investment, attendance and attention as their men’s equivalent. In 2016, however, things began to change.

Women’s soccer received major boosts worldwide on the back of a hugely successful Fifa Women’s World Cup in 2015 in Canada. England’s Football Association (FA) landed a key broadcast deal with BT Sport for its Women’s Super League (WSL), and top sides such as Manchester City and Arsenal began to attract major sponsors of their own.

Back across the pond, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) broke new ground in the US by streaming matches live on Facebook, after revamping its league structure and introducing new teams, hoping to build on the profile of the likes of national team megastar Alex Morgan.

In cricket, the English women’s game debuted its revamped, franchise-based Twenty20 tournament, following considerable investment from the English Cricket Board (ECB). The Kia Super League’s sponsors included Thomas Cook, Marstons and Bang & Olufsen, and the tournament attracted some of the game’s top international talent.

In Australia, meanwhile, banking group Commonwealth pledged to invest US$3.8 million every year over the next three years to Cricket Australia to boost participation and development of the sport amongst women and minority groups. The country’s Twenty20 Big Bash League streamed all fixtures on Facebook Live and is set to rival the men’s league in years to come. The Australian Football League (AFL) will launch its own women’s competition in Australian rules football.

Two major events in 2017 will further test the commercial progress of women’s international team sport, with the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland and the Women’s Cricket World Cup in England.  TL

 

China splurges on soccer

When president Xi Jinping (below) outlined his goal of making China soccer’s global superpower by 2050, few would have assumed his plan involved the annexation of the UK’s West Midlands. Yet, with Chinese owners now in place at the region’s four biggest clubs – Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers – the process is well underway.

The investment in those teams was just the tip of the iceberg in 2016, when a veritable Yangtze River of Chinese money flowed out of the country and into the European game. It was not just Birmingham and its surrounding areas but the Italian city of Milan, too, with Inter now in Chinese hands and AC Milan likely to follow.

Rumours continue to swirl about further buy-outs in the Premier League, from struggling Hull City to title-challenging Liverpool. Across Europe, the likes of Espanyol, Slavia Prague, Nice and Lyon are among the other clubs either wholly or partially owned by Chinese investors. The acquisition by new Fifa sponsor Dalian Wanda of a 20 per cent stake in Spanish giants Atlético Madrid, at the same time as it bought out the World Triathlon Corporation and Infront Sports & Media, was headline-dominating news in 2015. Looking back, it was merely a prelude.

This is not to forget the traffic moving in the opposite direction, with Chinese clubs hoovering up talent from their European counterparts. 2016 began with Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs twice breaking the country’s transfer record: first, Guangzhou Evergrande acquired Colombian striker Jackson Martínez from Atlético for US$43 million; next, just days later, Jiangsu Suning went one better when signing the Brazilian forward Alex Teixeira from Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk for US$56 million.

With Xi’s 2050 ambition in mind, and considering that the number of Chinese billionaires is estimated to be growing at a rate of five per week, the investments of the past 12 months are likely to represent just the vanguard of Asian excursions into European soccer. AN

 

Liberty buys Formula One

Mercedes hegemony of the constructors’ and drivers’ championships has created a certain air of predictably to Formula One’s podium. However, off the track, 2016 has seen more twists and turns than a Max Verstappen defensive block. In September, American media conglomerate Liberty Media Corporation confirmed its US$4.4 billion acquisition of the global motorsport series.

Liberty initially purchased an 18.7 per cent stake in Formula One from a consortium of sellers led by CVC Capital Partners, the controlling owner of the series, for US$746 million in cash. The company will then obtain a full stake from Delta Topco, the ultimate owner of Formula One, through a complex process that involves the creation of a new entity, Formula One Group.

As significantly, the takeover may eventually signal time on Bernie Ecclestone’s somewhat autocratic ruling of the open-wheel series. At the time of writing, however, the 86-year-old remains chief executive of Formula One Group, and has been working closely with Chase Carey, Formula One’s new executive chairman. Ecclestone has a three-year deal in place with Formula One but the general perception is that it will not last that long.

The Formula One landscape is ostensibly entering into a new era, more aligned to the US market, with American owners and a US team, Haas, perhaps the tip of the iceberg. Veteran Williams driver Felipe Massa retired to be replaced by prodigious teenager Lance Stroll. At McLaren, Ron Dennis will depart in January after 35 years; Zak Brown comes in as executive director.

It is expected that the new owners will want to increase Formula One’s exposure in North America, and they could plug the gaps expected in the 2019 calendar with the departure of Malaysia and possible loss of Singapore. A more forward-looking media project is also expected to be put in place; Heineken’s nine-figure global sponsorship hints at the continued appeal of a series that can now look to its future. GD               

 

Ali and Cruyff head list of sport’s departed

Many will remember 2016 for the seemingly unprecedented string of beloved public figures passing away and sport, sadly, has not been exempt from the gloom.

Perhaps ‘The Greatest’ sportsman to grace the modern era was Muhammad Ali, who lost his final fight – with Parkinson’s disease – in June. Although no angel, the eloquent boxer was a pioneer both in the ring and out, speaking eloquently on racial matters and refusing the Vietnam draft in opposition to the war. He could not only “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” but, as he showed in brutal contests with George Foreman in Zaire and Joe Frazier in the Philippines, he was a true warrior to boot.

The outpouring of tributes underlined how much the world had connected with a man whose ability to communicate, despite the ravages of his illness, was never truly lost.

Golfer Arnold Palmer – or ‘The King’, as he was known during his glittering playing career – died days before this year’s Ryder Cup. However, the American’s legacy goes far beyond the course, and there have been few more transformative figures in the sports industry. Though Palmer accrued US$1.8 million over a stellar 52-year PGA career – becoming the first golfer to pass the million-dollar mark – it was off the course where he earned the bulk of his net worth of about US$675 million. He was a founding client of IMG, had an eponymous drink, and co-founded The Golf Channel.

Two stars of 1970s soccer, both of whom could justifiably be called ‘iconic’, also died in 2016. Carlos Alberto captained Brazil’s Fifa World Cup winners in 1970, putting a cap on one of the finest team performances in any era by scoring one of the most celebrated goals of them all – the fourth goal in a 4-1 win over Italy in the final.

The rest of that decade, though, belonged to Johan Cruyff, also lost to the world this year after a battle with cancer. The divinely gifted Dutchman was the embodiment of his nation’s swaggering ‘Total Football’ style, and took his unique cool to the touchline, becoming one of the most influential coaches of the modern age with the likes of Barcelona. GD

 

Cubs take pennant as Foxes stun Premier League

It is hard to talk about 2016 without reflecting on two of the most unlikely major sports victories in recent history. Leicester City, a team that just two years ago were playing in English soccer’s second tier, will forever be known across the globe as the team who defied odds of 5,000-1 and beat out some of soccer’s biggest spenders to take the 2015/16 Premier League title. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Chicago Cubs broke a 112-year-old curse to take home the 2016 World Series, becoming the first team to come back from a three games to one deficit since 1985.

But behind the headlines of fairytale stories and magical winning runs was a more complex, calculated reality. Both teams, and their respective historic victories, were based on unique sports performance analytics programmes, and while both came as surprises to the wider sporting world, they were the products of endless work by backroom staff.   

Harnessing the power of big data, both teams created physiological, psychological and mental profiles of their stars. In doing so, they were able to tailor training regimes to individual players, and ensure each’s talents were exploited to their maximum potential.

Both the Cubs and Leicester City’s 2016 triumphs will be remembered for many years to come. Their successes against all odds stole the hearts of a global sporting audience, but it was the efforts of many behind the scenes that made them possible. Some deride it, but technology is helping to create some of sport’s most memorable moments. TL

 

PyeongChang and Tokyo wobble

After the many travails, foreseeable and otherwise, of Rio 2016, officials at the IOC and participating international federations could have been forgiven for expecting an easier time from their next two Olympic hosts. Yet the relatively safe hands of PyeongChang and Tokyo have made a few fumbles in the build-up to the Games of 2018 and 2022.

By their own admission, the South Korean organisers of the next Winter Games have been more effective in some areas than others. Speaking to SportsPro in Brazil in August, PyeongChang 2018 spokesperson for foreign press Anna Jihyun You said that while the infrastructural “hardware” for the event was 85 per cent complete with 18 months to go, the “software” – marketing, communications and the completion of the commercial programme – still required attention. Leadership has been another recurring issue since hosting rights were won in 2011. Lee Hee-beom became the latest president of the local organising committee in May after Yang-ho Cho resigned to attend to his group’s ailing Hanjin Shipping company; national president Park Geun-hye has been impeached over a series of corruption allegations involving her relationship with pseudo-Christian spiritual leader Choi Tae-min.

The Tokyo 2020 team generated a frisson of excitement about their event with a suitably inventive handover presentation at the Maracanã. Few have serious doubts about the ability of Japan – which will also host the 2019 Rugby World Cup – to make a more than competent fist of world sport’s set-piece event, while the commercial programme remains rampant.

Yet this has been a consistently trying year for the hosts of the next Summer Games. Bribery allegations, since dismissed, overshadowed the summer months; a new, cheaper design was approved for the centrepiece stadium in February, but incoming state governor Yuriko Koike created a dispute with the IOC in October when she forced a review of other venue plans. Late in the year IOC vice president John Coates also urged Tokyo 2020 to revise its US$20 billion budget downwards, deeming it unnecessarily high and warning it could scare off future bidders. EC

 

eSports lands and drone racing takes off

Technology has already disrupted the way much of the world is run and 2016 has seen the rise of two new sports that, only a few years ago, may have sounded like pipedreams. Both drone racing and eSports have become increasingly professionalised in the past year, and in doing so, have fed from the strong markets emerging around them.

Deloitte now values the global eSports market at around US$463 million, and predicts it to grow to well over US$2 billion by 2018. In 2016, China and Korea together contributed US$106 million into that market, and sport is exploring ways of getting involved. In Europe a number of leading soccer teams signed up professional Fifa videogame players, with France’s Ligue 1 creating its own eLeague based on the EA Sports series.

Drone racing, meanwhile, hovers on the horizon. The inaugural World Drone Prix in Dubai received a number of blue-chip commercial partners and worldwide broadcast deals, culminating in a US$1 million prize fund, while the Federation Aeronautique Internationale – or World Air Sports Federation – will provide sporting codes and sanctions. 

The Drone Racing League continues to gather momentum, with a UK£1 million (US$1.2 million) investment from UK broadcaster Sky and major sponsorship from US firm Bud Light set to take it into a wider consumer consciousness. With an amateur-use drone market that currently exceeds US$1.5 billion worldwide, the sport certainly has the potential to take off. TL

 

LeBron and Curry head NBA’s golden year

Game seven of the 2016 National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals: a rematch between last year’s beaten finalists, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the all-conquering Golden State Warriors. The score is tied at 89 each; the series at 3-3. Two minutes remain. Andre Iguodala receives the ball from Steph Curry with a clear run to the basket. He can’t miss. He steps forward, he jumps. He shoots. Somehow, he doesn’t score. Out of nowhere, LeBron James – Cavs legend, the prodigal son – makes a block. ‘The Block’, as it has already come to be known. The Cavs win 93-89, and James has his first hometown title.

The only thing keeping this moment from perfection was that James didn’t block from Stephen Curry, the league’s unanimous MVP after a record-setting regular season for the Warriors. In 2016, Curry was the first NBA player to top SportsPro’s most marketable athletes list since James in 2010. In the intervening years, the two have dominated basketball in radically different yet enormously complementary ways. There is James, a superstar since high school, who announced his decision to leave the Cavs in 2010 via a 75-minute-long TV special. And there is Curry, the quiet late bloomer, whose phenomenal ability from the three-point line has made him the most influential player of the decade.

The narratives at times seem endless, but the NBA’s canny media strategy has ensured that it is the one telling the stories. The league may yet be short of its early 90s heights, when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were probably the world’s most recognisable sports team. But it is hitting a peak of a different kind. One YouTube clip of ‘The Block’ has clocked up over 1.5 million views, while the NBA’s own in-house subscription service recorded 26.7 million game views across the 2015/16 season, driven by GSW’s incredible 73-9 campaign. The move to allow jersey sponsorship, through a small badge on the chest, may seem like a minor concession, but it reflects a desire within the sport, led by commissioner Adam Silver, to leverage these figures for commercial gain.

Basketball’s popularity in China puts it a step ahead in the market everyone is hoping to crack and while a repeat of 2016’s climax is unlikely, the NBA is poised to take the next step toward global popularity. AN

 

McLaren sparks Russian doping war

Doping rears its head with a sad inevitability in every Olympic year, but the saga that dominated 2016 could have been engineered in a lab to undermine the movement. When the McLaren Report confirmed in July that Russian state officials had run a doping campaign in the run-up to the Sochi 2014 Games, it set charges along weak points across sport’s political infrastructure.

With Russia’s athletics team already barred from Rio 2016, the IOC fudged a decision on the country’s participation at the event, insisting that it would protect the ‘clean athlete’ and effectively passing the decision on any censures to overstretched federations. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC), meanwhile, showed up its counterpart by banning all Russian para-athletes.

Internally, a coterie of IOC members reacted to the revelations by blaming the messenger, lining up at the pre-Games session in Rio – and again at the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) meeting in Doha in December – to attack World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Sir Craig Reedie for the timing and tenor of his organisation’s recommendations. The targeted leaking by the Russian-backed ‘Fancy Bears’ hackers’ group of dubiously timed therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) by elite athletes muddied the waters. Then December’s second part of the McLaren Report revealed the involvement of over 1,000 Russian athletes in a five-year government scheme.

All the while, testing of historical samples is rewriting the results of Olympics past. EC

 

Fifa elects Infantino

It seems a long time ago now after a year of shock votes around the world but in the early stages of 2016, it was soccer politics that dominated many headlines. Financial corruption scandals that plagued Fifa for a number of years culminated in the suspension of longstanding president Sepp Blatter at the back end of 2015, and thoughts immediately turned to his successor, and the monumental task they would have to take on.

In February, former Uefa secretary general Gianni Infantino (left) became that person, tasked with ushering in a new era of transparency and proper governance for soccer’s world governing body.

His first day in office saw a friendly football fixture played at Fifa headquarters, and a new dawn beckoned as a significant package of reforms were passed, introducing term limits and replacing the decrepit executive committee with a new council. A respectable outsider – Senegalese UN official Fatma Samoura – also came in as secretary general. But Infantino’s term has still not escaped controversy.

The Swiss’ name appeared multiple times in the release of the so-called ‘Panama Papers’, which exposed a number of global tax avoidance schemes, while he was heavily criticised after Fifa closed its anti-discrimination taskforce – giving the confusing impression its job had been done.

He is still committed to expanding the Fifa World Cup to more than 40 teams, and is aiming at a much more transparent organisation, but just a single year in to his three-year term, he has a long way to go to justify hopes of a clean break – not to mention his US$1.5 million salary. TL

 

Cricket’s boundaries waver but still hold

The most memorable cricketing image of 2016 was one that drove home a well-rehearsed point. When the unheralded Carlos Brathwaite smashed England’s Ben Stokes for a fourth consecutive six to win the ICC World T20 final, it served to reemphasise yet again that cricket’s shortest format had completely changed the idea of what was possible.

The same applies financially and culturally, but the politics of the sport have still proven stubbornly resistant to dramatic change. It is not for want of trying. With a new, independent president at the helm – former Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Shashank Manohar – the ICC had felt emboldened enough to move past recent stasis and try to liberalise the world order, allowing merit to outweigh commercial and historical status in the international game and easing fiscal dependence on India. The most eye-catching of a series of mooted reforms was the introduction of two tiers to the five-day Test format, itself in need of a commercial jolt.

But with Manohar’s successor at the BCCI, Anurag Thakur, flexing his muscles, and the less wealthy of the ten Test nations peering nervously over their shoulders, the proposal foundered. The ICC is still intent on eking out a fairer, more fluid and contextual international system in the years ahead. Yet with a big-money franchise T20 league in England to follow those flourishing in India, Australia and elsewhere, other factors may yet force lasting change. EC

 

Fantasy sports: from regulatory strife to merger

The year began in inauspicious circumstances for the burgeoning fantasy sports industry. The trouble kicked off in late 2015 when a content manager at DraftKings, one of the leading services in the sector, was found to have leaked a batch of secret player data to the internet just hours before going on to claim a bumper US$350,000 prize at rival site FanDuel. The controversy dragged on into 2016, blighting DraftKings’ launch in the UK and pushing both services on to the defensive in their home territory, where, facing bans in several states, they were forced to argue that fantasy sports is not a form of gambling but is, in fact, a game of skill.

Amid this regulatory chaos, which rumbled on throughout the year despite both brands ramping up their marketing presence and sponsorship portfolios, rumours began to emerge in October of a merger between the two. Many industry observers noted that such a move may be the only way for either company to survive the ongoing litigation processes and legal challenges against them.

Any potential merger would, however, create a de facto monopoly, such is the dominance of DraftKings and FanDuel in the United States’ fantasy gaming space. A joint company would control over 90 per cent, possibly falling foul of antitrust regulations. Yahoo, the sector’s third-largest provider, would almost certainly wish to challenge this. A further stumbling block may be the notorious animosity that exists between DraftKings chief executive Jason Robins and his FanDuel counterpart Nigel Eccles.

Nevertheless, the two announced an agreement in November that will see Robins serve as chief executive of the united company and Eccles as chairman. With a reported US$3 billion in entry fees paid to the services annually and similar amounts paid back out in sponsorship and marketing fees, the outcome will have implications across the sporting world. AN

 

Twitter dabbles in rights as tech firms hover

The biggest media rights stories of 2015 concerned the Chinese over-the-top (OTT) operators who had flashed the cash on the kinds of high-profile sports properties previously the preserve of traditional broadcasters. After this, it was inevitable that speculation would centre on Silicon Valley’s tech giants moving into the same space.

The likes of Apple, Google and Amazon looked best-placed, with ready-made platforms and, most importantly, the cash reserves to make a significant play. Yet in the end it was microblogging social media platform Twitter which struck first, confirming in April a US$10 million deal with the National Football League (NFL) for a package to show ten Thursday Night Football (TNF) matches throughout the 2016/17 season.

The move was presaged by Yahoo’s experiment with showing live NFL in the previous year, when it covered one of the league’s London games. Yahoo claimed that a total of 15 million people tuned into that broadcast and, despite claims that the actual viewership was nearer two million, it was in fact inspired to outbid Twitter in its attempt to bring TNF to the platform, reportedly offering US$17 million.

That the NFL rejected the higher figure in order to go with what it saw as the more appropriate partner is indicative of the dominant thinking when it comes to digital distribution. Reaching a wide audience and exciting viewers, sponsors and other platforms is the first challenge. After that, the money can follow.

While Twitter’s competitors continued to play their cards close to their chests this year, do not bet on that continuing into 2017. The social media giant’s first foray, a game between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills in September, was largely judged to be successful, with a total of 2.3 million combined worldwide viewers tuning in at some point during the match and, crucially, major brands like Anheuser-Busch, Ford, Nestlé, Sony Pictures, and Verizon signed up as sponsors. With more powerful companies hovering, Twitter’s small step is likely to signal a coming giant leap. AN