For stoking insatiable, year-round demand for professional football. The NFL may have the fewest games in sports, but it knows how to transform everything around its weekly games —and even previously mundane off-season events like the scouting combine, the pre-draft audition—into events. Its new venture fund, the first by a pro league, will invest in businesses (up to $3 million per owner a few times a year) that could help grow the league ($9 billion in annual revenue) and take fan passion to new heights.
MLB Advanced Media
For building the least likely tech powerhouse in sports. MLBAM, or BAM, continues to build on its tradition as a new media pioneer: It was the first league to broadcast live games online, the first to charge for online content, and the first to make that online video HD-quality. Like Amazon’s cloud storage business, BAM’s third-party streaming service grew out of its core business. It distributes all of ESPN’s online video, including this year’s BCS Championship game, and it serves up all the March Madness live games for Turner and CBS. BAM is also an elite app-maker. It keeps enhancing its bestselling At Bat and adding new platforms (Xbox and the Kindle Fire) to its growing roster.
MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
For elevating sports analytics. What began as a modest wonkfest six years ago, with just 60 attendees, is now a can’t-miss event for teams, researchers, media, and stats geeks of every stripe. Part academic conference, part high-level networking, part media circus, the event drew more than 2,200 people this year, including execs from 73 teams. The research explored new ways to measure the NBA’s best shooters, the benefit of experience in the playoffs and the slow acceptance of analytics in tennis.
Sporting Kansas City
For enhancing the stadium experience with digital amenities. This Major League Soccer team’s new Livestrong Sporting Park sets a new standard with a reliable network for surfing, a rarity in parks and stadiums, along with individual access to replays and clever apps and features to get fans involved (predicting the action, tweeting messages to the Jumbotron). The club, the first to name its venue after a nonprofit, launched a business consulting other teams on making their venues more tech-enabled.
For breaking new ground with an old school-meets-new school sensibility. ESPN, which has been beefing up its analytics efforts, made a splash by last fall with its Total Quarterback Rating, a long overdue replacement for the conventional formula measuring a quarterback’s efficiency. The new metric is more nuanced and comprehensive and its creators leveraged the ability to evaluate tens of thousands of plays from recent years. ESPN also launched products to satisfy the different sides of a sports fan’s brain: Grantland, an elegant site devoted to long-form journalism (2.3 million monthly visitors) and WatchESPN, an app (5.6 million downloads) offering bites of live ESPN video.
For rewriting the playbook. Winning the NBA championship last season, the Mavs’ first, was the culmination for the team that experiments more than any other. Since tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban bought the franchise more than a decade ago, he’s done everything from upgrading the players to a palatial locker room with luxury amenities that would attract high-priced free agents to grading the referees. Dallas became a perennial contender. Attendance soared. A couple of years ago, the Mavs were also the first team to hire a quantitative analyst to sit alongside its coaches during games, and last year it paid off with a winning strategy against the high-powered Miami Heat.
For fighting its way into the mainstream. Although MMA (mixed martial arts) is still banned in a handful of states and dismissed by critics as too violent (John McCain famously called it “human cockfighting”), Ultimate Fighting Championship signed a 7-year, $100 million deal with Fox last fall, the promoter’s first long-term arrangement with a major network. It’s won over major sponsors Microsoft, Dodge, and Bud Light. And UFC is as social-media savvy as any organization in sports. It trained 300 of its fighters on Twitter and started a $240,000 incentive program to reward those who generate the biggest impact.
For putting Michael Jordan and other greats back in the game. When 2K Sports offered the option of playing Michael Jordan, its video game NBA 2K11 sold 5 million copies. The latest version, 2K12, goes even further, allowing gamers to play Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, or a dozen other all-time greats. The attention to detail–period uniforms, historically accurate arenas and TV coverage true to the time–only adds to the time-traveling experience.
Green Sports Alliance
For quarterbacking environmental initiatives in sports. Founded in 2010, the non-profit has grown from a Pacific Northwest coalition led by Seattle and Portland franchises to more than 90 venues and teams across 13 leagues. Together, they share the best green ideas, such as waterless urinals at the Staples Center and a green roof at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Considering that less 2% of the electricity used in ballparks, stadiums, and arenas is created by wind or solar, Alliance members have a lot to learn from a pioneer like the Philadelphia Eagles, which is installing 11,000 solar panels to fulfill almost all its power needs from renewable energy.
For removing the “No” in Novak. Until last year, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal dominated men’s tennis and Novak Djokovic was the odd-man out. But last year he broke through with one of the best seasons ever: a 43-match win streak, three Major titles and the No. 1 ranking. He also revealed his devotion to CVAC’s cozy pressure chamber and said it helped his body recover after matches. The egg-shaped pod compresses muscles while simulating high-altitude conditions to boost the amount of oxygen absorbed into the blood. Unlike a player’s winning racket, there hasn’t been a run on the chamber. It costs $75,000.