The sports business year in deals: 2020 in review

The introduction to this annual feature is usually filled with some spiel about another year of non-stop deal-making in the sports industry, but it would be fair to say that 2020 may well be looked back on as an anomaly in that regard. Indeed, it was not only the competitive […]

2020 in review: The sports business year in deals

The introduction to this annual feature is usually filled with some spiel about another year of non-stop deal-making in the sports industry, but it would be fair to say that 2020 may well be looked back on as an anomaly in that regard.

Indeed, it was not only the competitive action that was put on hold in the first half of the year, but also industry negotiations at large as stakeholders across the board weighed the potential impact of the pandemic against the viability of their existing and future investments in sport.

This year has been as much about reworking existing contracts as it has signing new ones, about keeping partners happy and showing the ability to adapt in the face of adversity. But as time passed, there were hints that sport’s appeal for investors has not been hurt by the pandemic, with many spying opportunities amid the damage done by the health crisis.

2020 arguably saw things move in this fast-changing industry quicker than they ever have. And, as always, SportsPro has been keeping tabs on it all. 


We were barely back at our desks when the Endeavor agency announced that it had acquired premium hospitality company On Location Experiences (OLE) for a reported US$660 million. The National Football League (NFL) – through its strategic investment arm, 32 Equity – also increased its stake in the business to 20 per cent as Endeavor hoovered up the shares held by existing investors including Bruin Sports Capital, RedBird Capital and the Carlyle Group.  

Elsewhere, there was a landmark deal for Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) athletes as the league and its players’ union reached tentative terms for a new eight-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA), one that included a 53 per cent pay rise, maternity benefits and a 50-50 revenue sharing model from 2021.

Over in the world of competitive gaming, YouTube’s US$160 million offer proved too good for Activision Blizzard to turn down, as the Google-owned video streaming service secured a three-year deal to replace Amazon’s Twitch as the home of the video game publisher’s global esports competitions, the Overwatch League (OWL) and the Call of Duty League (CDL).

Other deal highlights:


Just what are Jim Ratcliffe’s intentions in sport? That question was again asked in February, nearly a year after Ineos’ takeover of the Team Sky cycling outfit, as the British billionaire’s petrochemicals firm put pen to paper on a five-year principal partnership with Formula One champions Mercedes worth a reported UK£100 million (US$131 million).

Meanwhile, in soccer, the Premier League kicked off its rights sales process for the cycle starting from the 2022/23 season by awarding a six-year contract to a broadcaster in Europe for the first time. Nordic Entertainment Group (Nent Group), which was one of the big spenders in 2020, was willing to part with some UK£2 billion (US$2.6 billion) to secure coverage of England’s top flight across Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

In agency news, Miami-based private equity firm H.I.G Capital finalised its purchase of a 75.1 per cent majority stake in Lagardere Sports and Entertainment, valuing the agency at €110 million (US$132 million). The move would later lead to a global rebranding of Lagardere Sports that saw the famous Sporfive name return to the international agency business after a five-year hiatus.

Other deal highlights:


The month that will now forever be associated with the global shutdown of sport started with confirmation of the first deal to be secured by the joint venture between NBCUniversal and organisers of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games. The pair agreed a US$400 million sponsorship with Delta Airlines, which will become the official airline of both Team USA and LA 2028 for eight years from the start of 2021, while it will also receive extensive advertising time across NBC’s platforms.

There was also significant movement on the media front, as Disney-owned subscription service ESPN+ landed the exclusive digital rights to the PGA Tour in the US from 2022. The golf circuit also agreed nine-year extensions of its domestic television deals with CBS and NBC Sports Group, with the trio of agreements netting the tour a cool US$700 million per year in total, according to CNBC. 

Over in Europe, multinational broadcaster Eleven Sports finally completed its deal for exclusive domestic rights to Belgian soccer’s Pro League, agreeing a contract understood to be worth €103 million (US$123 million) a year.

And in what proved to be a busy month for deal-making despite the global coronavirus outbreak, US-based media and entertainment company Advance agreed a deal with Wanda Sports Group to acquire the Ironman triathlon series in an all-cash transaction worth US$730 million.

Other deal highlights:


The deals started to dry up in April as the impact of Covid-19 started to be felt across every industry. Still, though, there was good news for Los Angeles Dodgers fans as Spectrum Networks agreed a long-awaited carriage deal to make SportsNet LA, the Major League Baseball (MLB) team’s dedicated regional sports network (RSN), available to AT&T customers in Southern California, Las Vegas and Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association (NBA) announced one of the biggest deals to be unveiled in the wake of sport’s worldwide stoppage by unveiling a multi-year partnership with technology giant Microsoft. Among other things, the multifaceted agreement will see the pair develop a next-generation direct-to-consumer streaming platform that will offer viewers personalised game broadcasts and other content.

The month ended with the NFL prolonging its Thursday Night Football (TNF) streaming deal with Amazon, which reportedly paid significantly more than its previous US$65 million rights fee to add exclusive coverage of one Saturday regular season game for the first time.

Other deal highlights:


Spanish soccer’s La Liga turned its attention to the Far East by launching a joint venture alongside the Mediapro agency and Super Sports Media, a subsidiary of Chinese sports and entertainment giant Wuhan DDMC Culture, to market its commercial rights in China and the surrounding region. The initial 15-year agreement gives La Liga a 49 per cent stake in the Spanish Football Commercial & Marketing Company (SFCM), with Super Sports and Mediapro holding the majority share.

There was a sign of things to come in rugby union as private equity firm CVC Capital Partners finalised its long-mooted acquisition of a significant stake in the Guinness Pro14, paying a reported UK£120 million (US$159 million) for a 28 per cent share in the multinational club competition.

Then, in a real sign of the times, Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) reworked its domestic broadcast deals with Foxtel and Channel Nine amid rumours that the two companies were seeking reduced terms as part of any extensions. The agreements will still net the NRL a cool AUS$2 billion (US$1.5 billion), according to reports in Australia.

Elsewhere, the NFL and its players’ union (NFLPA) notched a multi-year renewal of their partnership with video game giant Electronic Arts (EA). According to Sportico, the new deal will run until at least 2026 and is worth a whopping US$1.6 billion.

Other deal highlights:


A month when many sports got back up and running saw German soccer’s Bundesliga sign off on its new domestic television deals, with pay-TV giant Sky and sports streaming subscription service DAZN securing the lion’s share of the rights. The four-year agreement, which runs from the 2021/22 season until 2024/25, is worth an average €1.1 billion (US$1.2 billion) a season, working out at €4.4 billion (US$4.9 billion) in total.

Also in soccer, Ballon d’Or Féminin star Ada Hegerberg signed a ten-year endorsement deal with Nike. Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency reported at the time that the US sportswear brand offered ‘upwards of’ €1 million (US$1.1 million) to prise the Norwegian striker away from German apparel company Puma.

Over in the US, domestic coverage of golf’s US Open changed hands after pay-TV network Fox Sports asked to end its 12-year rights deal with the United States Golf Association (USGA), saying that the postponement of the 2020 event until later in the year had ‘presented a challenge’ to find the necessary broadcast hours for the event. NBC picked up the remaining seven years of the contract, with the financial renumeration for the USGA remaining the same for the duration of the agreement.

Other deal highlights:


The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its worldwide TOP sponsor Atos extended their partnership for another four years in the month that Tokyo 2020 should have been getting underway. The pair’s existing deal was due to expire after that event, but the extension means the French firm will provide the IT infrastructure for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 and the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. That agreement was soon followed by an extension between the IOC and Procter and Gamble, whose expiring deal was reportedly worth between US$150 million and US$200 million.

In mixed martial arts (MMA), it was out with Reebok and in with Venum for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which announced that it would not be extending its six-year, US$70 million apparel deal with the Adidas-owned sportswear brand when it expires in April. The terms of the partnership have not been made public, but the contract is neither as long nor as valuable annually as Reebok’s deal, according to Sportico.

Elsewhere, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) New York Islanders found a naming rights partner for their new arena at Belmont Park, selling the inventory to Swiss investment bank UBS in a deal reportedly worth more than US$300 million over 20 years.

Meanwhile Gerry Cardinale, who would prove to be one of the most active individual investors in 2020, and his RedBird Capital Partners investment firm completed its takeover of French soccer club Toulouse FC. Cardinale would later be linked with helping to take the owner of Premier League champions Liverpool public through a merger between Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and RedBall Acquisition Corp, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) he and Billy Beane launched in July.  

Other deal highlights:


A manic month headlined by takeovers kicked off with the XFL being rescued by an investment group including Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who alongside RedBird and business partner Dany Garcia agreed to pay approximately US$15 million to purchase the spring football league, which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in April.

US consortium the Friedkin Group then completed its rumoured takeover of top-flight Italian soccer side AS Roma in a deal valued at €591 million (US$712 million). The Texas-based company secured an 86.6 per cent majority stake in the Serie A club and launched a mandatory tender offer for the remaining 13.4 per cent of share capital.

The other big takeover news saw the Williams family exit Formula One after selling the team they founded in 1977 to Dorilton Capital, another US-based investment firm, in a deal reportedly valuing the British motorsport team at €152 million (US$183 million).

On the sponsorship front, Mumbai-based fantasy sports platform Dream11 paid an eye-watering I₹222 crore (US$29.74 million) to replace Vivo as the title sponsor of this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) after the Chinese mobile phone manufacturer pulled out for the 2020 edition of the cricket tournament amid tension between China and India.

Meanwhile, in Japan, DAZN and the J.League announced a two-year extension and restructure of their existing ten-year domestic broadcast partnership, taking the contract until the end of 2028. The restructured deal sees Japan’s top-flight soccer league receive a slightly reduced annual rights fee totalling JA¥223.9 billion (US$2.1 billion) over 12 years, but the agreement features an incentive-based profit-sharing model which DAZN says could boost the value of the contract further.

Other deal highlights:


Steve Cohen finally completed his takeover of the New York Mets, parting with a record-breaking fee that reportedly valued the MLB franchise at some US$2.42 billion. The agreement with Sterling Partners, the Mets’ parent company which is controlled by the Wilpon and Katz families, is believed to be the highest price ever paid for a North American sports team.

In other baseball news, those in the industry will have been encouraged by MLB getting a 40 per cent increase in its seven-year US rights extension with Turner Sports, which is paying a reported US$3.2 billion to continue its coverage beyond when its current deal expires next year.

There was a double boost for women’s soccer in the UK. Firstly, the Women’s Super League (WSL) sealed new broadcast deals in the US, Germany and Italy with the help of Atalanta Media, a new company dedicated to growing the visibility of the sport around the world. The Women’s FA Cup then secured what was described as the ‘most lucrative’ sponsorship agreement in the tournament’s history as health and life insurance provider Vitality came on board as the new title partner of the club knockout competition.

Elsewhere, DAZN sold a majority stake in its soccer news website to Integrated Media Company (IMC) as it continued to regroup having been hit hard by the pandemic. SportsPro understands the deal, which also includes the Spox and VoetbalZone platforms, valued the three brands at more than US$100 million.

Other deal highlights:


Callaway chief executive Chip Brewer told Bloomberg that he wanted to create “the Peloton of golf” as his company acquired the remainder of Topgolf in a deal valuing the driving range firm at roughly US$2 billion. The golf brand first acquired 14 per cent of Topgolf in 2006 and will now take ownership of the rest of the company’s shares in a deal expected to close in early 2021.

In other big acquisition news, Hollywood talent agency International Creative Management (ICM) Partners announced its move into sport with the purchase of London-based soccer representation powerhouse Stellar Group, whose clients include the likes of Gareth Bale (pictured), Jack Grealish and Mason Mount. Financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed but, according to a report by the New York Times in 2017, Stellar chairman Jonathan Barnett was previously close to selling his company in a deal that valued the business at UK£100 million (US$133 million).

Elsewhere, the ATP Tour signed a multi-year deal to go exclusive on Sinclair-owned Tennis Channel, which secured rights to all ATP Masters 1000 events held stateside for the first time, along with the 13 ATP 500 tournaments and 16 of the ATP 250 competitions.

The month closed with news that sports data and technology specialist Genius Sports Group would be going public through a US$1.5 billion merger with dMY Technology Group II, which marked the first sport-related SPAC deal involving a UK company. 

Other deal highlights:


The penultimate month of the year would prove to be one of the busiest on the deal-making front, with multinational broadcaster Eleven making a key move in its global ambitions by acquiring the MyCujoo streaming company and its Live Services technology stack for the backbone of a new worldwide service.

In other broadcast news, Amazon made its first foray into live sports in India by securing an exclusive rights deal in the territory with New Zealand Cricket (NZC), who are due to host the Indian men’s national team twice during the six-year contract, which starts from the 2021/22 season.

In soccer, one of the more peculiar deals of 2020 was waved through when Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney were approved as the new owners of Welsh side Wrexham, who currently play in England’s fifth tier.

Meanwhile, in Italy, a private equity consortium led by CVC took a major step towards finalising its acquisition of a ten per cent stake in Serie A’s new media rights business after the league’s clubs agreed to accept the group’s €1.7 billion (US$2 billion) offer.

Elsewhere, online car retailer Cazoo continued its march on the UK sports sponsorship market by becoming the principal sponsor of next year’s Rugby League World Cup in England. The seven-figure deal, which now sits alongside Cazoo’s partnerships with Everton, Aston Villa and The Hundred, is the most valuable in the history of the national team tournament and the biggest commercial agreement in the sport outside of Australia. 

Other deal highlights:


And so here we are, the last of a remarkably challenging 12 months for the industry.

December started with a ringing endorsement for the future of cricket in the US as Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was named as an investor in Major League Cricket (MLC), the Twenty20 competition due to launch in 2022. The Indian actor bought into the league through his Knight Riders Group, already an owner of franchises in the IPL and the Caribbean Premier League (CPL).

There were also a pair of significant deals in US college sports. First, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) signed a six-year apparel, footwear and equipment deal with Nike and its Jordan Brand amid an ongoing legal dispute with Under Armour, which in June moved to terminate its 15-year, US$280 million sponsorship of the Division One school.  Then, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) confirmed a ten-year media rights agreement with ESPN and ABC, which from 2024 will replace CBS as the exclusive home of the SEC’s premium football package in a deal worth a reported US$3 billion.

Before the year was out, McLaren secured a UK£185 million (US$247 million) investment on the same day they finished third in Formula One’s constructors’ standings. A consortium led by American-based investment group MSP Sports Capital will take a 15 per cent significant minority stakeholding in the British outfit, rising to a maximum of 33 per cent by the end of 2022.

There was also time for OneFootball to announce its acquisition of Dugout to form what the pair described as the world’s largest owned and operated digital soccer media business. 

Other deal highlights:

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Wed Dec 30 , 2020