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Kenneth L. Shropshire Headshot

Race and the Global Business of Sports: 2013

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It is that time of year again for lists and the first one to catch my attention, in a negative light, was the Sports Business Journal's list of The Most Influential People in Sports Business. To be clear, the authors did not do anything wrong. What that list reaffirms is that although Blacks dominate on the field of play in most sports we are woefully absent from the highest levels of sport on the business side. What is particularly striking about this most influential list is that of the fifty individuals there is only one Black person, DeMaurice Smith, way down at slot number 42. The problem is not at all how the list was constructed or the parties selected. In some sense any list is subjective and this is as good as any. The problem is that this is where our progress has stalled in 2013.

The dominance of Blacks on the field of play is well-documented. We have even seen an increased presence in on the field managing and coaching positions at the top. There is still room for improvement, but there has been substantial progress. But the focus of this list and others is on influence. To some extent this influence translates into wealth; that is, where the real dollars exist. Today that is not on the field, although some players do quite well, but influence at the highest level here constitutes those who control the dollars that drive the sports empire. The old story is if you are impressed by the amount of money a single ballplayer is making, you should be overwhelmed by the person writing the check. Well take that logic out further and think of the media and sponsors writing the checks to the sports leagues and team owners.

The issue of the absence of Blacks on the business side of sports first came to light not in looking at these highest levels, but over a quarter of a century ago when Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis famously appeared on Nightline proclaiming that Blacks lacked the necessities to manage in baseball. Little remembered is a part of the exchange with Ted Koppel where Campanis asked Koppel about the number of Black network executives. Koppel accurately responded that space had abysmal numbers as well. Both the query and the response were prescient.

At the top of the 2012 list is John Skipper, President of ESPN, followed by the commissioners Roger Goodell, Bud Selig and David Stern of the big three American sports leagues, the leaders of sports conglomerate AEG Phil Anschutz and Tim Leiweke, then the co-Presidents of Fox Sports Media Group Eric Shanks and Randy Freer and then, finally team owners. Not the Magic Johnson style, but the majority money owners with Robert Kraft at seven and Mark Walter of the Dodgers at eight. The top 10 is rounded out by two more media moguls with the Chairman of CBS Sean McManus at nine and David Levy the President of Sales and Broadcasting at Turner Broadcasting at 10.

Too often sport is pointed to as the one place where diversity and inclusion exists. In fact, like the rest of society, Blacks are absent from the highest levels of this industry as is the case with virtually all others. People of color have appeared on these lists in the past. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods were players with enough influence that they were often uniquely listed athletes. Also, in more traditional roles, Bob Johnson made some lists as did Arte Moreno. These two represent the rare breed of majority sports entity owners of color.

If we step back the absence of majority sports entity owners of color is, at this stage, largely due to the lack of economic progress in broader society. Where we have evidence of bias in the sale of teams up until the 1980s, such is virtually non-existent today. If you have the billion dollars you immediately are at the front of the line for ownership consideration. But with regard to those slots that represent jobs such as commissioners, media executives, league, team, and sponsor executives and college commissioners, inequity still exists and diversity is still needed and possible today.

But where we stand now does represent progress. Just take a step back and look at sport around the globe. Diversity and inclusion at the highest levels is even more dismal than in the United States. The challenge is not even at the Campanis stage in most global sports sectors. This past week you could once again casually read about European soccer and yet more bananas being waved and sometimes thrown onto the pitch at players of African heritage by racist fans. As the rest of the world is still grinding through the earliest levels of racism, U.S. sports is stalled with the rest of the business world at the highest levels of power. Sport remains a beacon of much that is right but also of how far we have to go.

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