Are not who you might expect. No LeBron or Dwight. No Melo or Kobe. We rank the brains–the right-brain superstars–behind the teams, venues, and deals that are, yes, changing the game.
1. Tim Leiweke, CEO of AEG Worldwide
His company owns and operates professional teams and facilities around the globe, and his latest high-profile projects should transform the industry. AEG is building arenas across China to help the NBA expand into the world’s most populous country. And L.A. Live, a 27-acre campus that hosts Laker games in the Staples Center, the ESPYs in the Nokia Theater, and ESPN broadcasts in its new studio, embodies Leiweke’s vision of merging sports and entertainment.
2. Hank Adams, CEO of Sportvision
The yellow first-down line on the TV screen. The nifty NASCAR graphics that identify racecars traveling bumper to bumper at 200 mph. The dissection of a pitch’s movement, velocity, and spin. Adams is the man to thank for making your games look so good.
3. John Henry, CEO of New England Sports Ventures
Henry’s winning on the field and off. His Red Sox have become two-time World Series champs in recent years, and his brainchild, Fenway Sports Group, keeps coming up with new and unexpected ways to generate revenue, from NASCAR ownership to bull riding marketing deals and pro golf.
4. Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour
This former special teams captain at the University of Maryland continues to stretch his company into Nike’s territory. First, it was stretchy sweat-wicking shirts and other must-have workout apparel. Now, shoes.
5. Shaun White, Olympic gold medalist
Not because of his jaw-dropping creativity on the board (of the snow and skate variety), but because of his creativity in elevating action sports with Target, HP and other partners without losing his red-hot cool.
6. Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers
In the middle of the Cavs’ series with the Orlando Magic, Gilbert inked a deal to make an investment group in China a minority owner in the team, opening up a world of marketing possibilities for league MVP LeBron James. It’ll take that kind of savvy and creativity to re-sign the most sought-after free-agent-to-be after next season.
7. Nate Silver, statistician and inventor of PECOTA
He called Obama’s victory long before anyone else dared to, but even more impressive was Silver’s prediction of the Tampa Rays’ dramatic reversal. Using PECOTA, an algorithm that has changed how baseball nerds interpret stats, Silver determined that the team, which lost 97 games in 2007, would win 90 last year. The Rays actually won 97 games and went all the way to the World Series.
8. Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets
He’s doing in the NBA what the Oakland A’s Billy Beane did in baseball: looking beyond the box scores to find unappreciated players who help the Rockets afford big-ticket stars like Yao Ming and win.
9. Michael Lewis, best-selling author
If you want laughs, you read Rick Riley or watch Tony Kornheiser. If you want to mine the psychology of an athlete, you read Gary Smith. But if you want the sort of insight that changes the way you watch a sport you’ve watched your entire life, you read Lewis–and take notes. He followed Moneyball with The Blind Side, explaining how the role of the offensive left tackle evolved, earning once-overlooked giants big bucks. (See also his NYT Magazine story featuring No. 8 on our list)
10. Dave Mellor, director of grounds, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia may be an artist on the field with the glove and bat, but the field truly is a canvas for Mellor, Fenway’s head groundskeeper. He has developed new mowing techniques that have allowed him to create elaborate designs that are copied throughout the Majors and that add undeniable flair to the diamond.
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