Each summer The Oregonian/OregonLive sports columnist John Canzano ranks the Top 25 most influential people in Oregon sports. This year there is a brand new No. 1 and seven newcomers to the list.
A COUNTDOWN OF THE 25 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN OREGON SPORTS 2021:
25. Oliva Moultrie (NR): 15-year-old soccer phenom scored her first career goal for the Portland Thorns this month. She’s got presence, visibility and a high ceiling. Moultrie, who signed with Nike and turned professional at 13, took the the National Women’s Soccer League to court in May asserting that she should be able to play despite rules prohibiting players under 18. She got an injunction that allowed her to play and later won a settlement with the NWSL.
24. Scott Leykam (NR): University of Portland athletic director faced a critical hire for the men’s basketball program. As Shantay Legans goes, so do the Pilots. Leykam has a deep marketing and branding background. He is now tasked with keeping UP relevant and vibrant amid a tumultuous NCAA landscape.
23. KL Wombacher (NR): Hillsboro Hops GM has done a magnificent job positioning the minor league franchise while professional baseball reconstructed the development system. The franchise Wombacher runs was promoted to become the Single-A Advanced affiliate of the Diamondbacks. The move saw the team’s schedule increase from 76 to 132 regular season games. Whisper is the franchise has even bigger plans, including massive facility upgrades. The operation is in good hands with Wombacher around.
22: George Kliavkoff (NR): Pac-12 commissioner has only been on the job two months but he’s been impactful. Kliavkoff has been inclusive, collaborative and casts a strong leadership presence for a conference that badly needed him. The Pac-12 joined forces with the Big Ten and ACC forming a new alliance. Also, Kliavkoff engineered the creation of a conference baseball tournament that will be played in Arizona. Said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, “He really understands events and how to sell them.” The conference’s media rights negotiations will be a critical negotiation. Kliavkoff could soar on this list if he produces a major win there.
21. Mike Golub (16): Timbers and Thorns president is an experienced and skilled sports executive. The state’s pro soccer franchises are well positioned and get a lot right. Golub’s fingerprints are all over the success of the two franchises. He’s worked in the NBA, MLB and NHL. Merritt Paulson is no dummy. Golub has been a calming, confident presence during the uncertainty of the pandemic. He may go down as the greatest free-agent acquisition in Timbers and Thorns franchise history.
20. Chris McGowan (15): Trail Blazers president and the head of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment has undeniable clout. McGowan often operates behind the scenes, but his impact is immense. He was successful in engineering the return of fans to Moda Center last NBA season. He has little ego and a pile of good ideas. McGowan might go higher on this list if he would take stronger public stances, but it appears he’d rather use a scalpel than a sledgehammer.
19. Scott Rueck (21): Oregon State women’s basketball coach is one of the greatest success stories in our state. Rueck, 52, won a Division III national title at George Fox. Then, he took the Oregon State job and carried a once unheralded program to national prominence. In the last five NCAA Tournament appearances, Rueck has a Final Four, an Elite Eight and two appearances in the Sweet 16. You can never count his teams out.
18. Kelly Graves (14): University of Oregon women’s basketball coach turned 58 this year and received a contract extension from the Ducks. Earlier this month, Graves became the first coach in the state to go public, with his wish that fans should only be allowed inside the home arena if they show proof of vaccination. Oregon has sold more than 6,000 season tickets to women’s basketball for the upcoming season. Graves did that. His last four NCAA Tournament appearances: Elite Eight, Elite Eight, Final Four, Sweet 16.
17. Chauncey Billups (NR): First-year coach of the Trail Blazers will be under a microscope in his first season. He was a sensational player and on-court leader, but Billups is in high seas with no proof of buoyancy as a head coach. Sink or swim? That’s the question. Billups is an NBA champion, an NBA Finals MVP and was a five-time All-Star. He will rise — or fall — on this list by virtue of the job he does leading a roster that has Damian Lillard on it. Las Vegas doesn’t love Portland. Bookmakers have set the team’s over/under regular-season win total at 43.5 victories.
16. Wayne Tinkle (25): Oregon State men’s basketball coach soars higher on this list after winning the Pac-12 Conference tournament title and taking his team on a magical run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last season. As a reward Tinkle received a contract extension that runs through 2026-27 and will pay him $17.2 million over six years. It was the feel-good story of the last sports year in our state. He’s now poised to build on that success using the transfer portal and the momentum of the last year.
15. Dana Altman (20): The Oregon Ducks men’s basketball coach rises some here even as his team bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in quiet fashion. The 63-year-old has a contract that runs through 2026-27. He has reinvented his approach as the landscape of college basketball changed and Altman is now the all-time winningest basketball coach in UO history. The Ducks are always a threat to matter in March. That’s Altman.
14. Neil Olshey (17): Trail Blazers president of basketball operations won’t win a popularity contest among the fan base right now, but he has an undeniable stranglehold on the franchise. Olshey just hasn’t done enough to make the organization matter in the playoffs and now faces having his legacy be that of the GM who wasted Damian Lillard’s prime years. “Trust me,” he told the public this summer. Fewer and fewer do anymore.
13. Jim Etzel (13): The CEO of Sport Oregon might be the most well-connected sports person in our state. Etzel back-channels better than most using smarts and his folksy charm. His fingerprints are all over small and large developments in our state sports scene, including lucrative event bids. He’s the glue in our sports scene. When the pandemic hit, it was Etzel who served as the liaison between the state’s biggest sports entities and Salem. Whisper is Portland may have wrangled a yet-to-be-announced major sporting event from another market. What is it? An NCAA event? An All-Star Game? Etzel won’t say but stay tuned.
12. Tim Boyle (NR): The President and CEO of Columbia Sportswear is an influential sports presence in our state. He’s a strong supporter of youth and collegiate sports and is a community leader. Boyle, 72, leads a successful company that has become a force in the outdoor sports world. He and his family built a brand, and now Boyle also owns the historic Gearhart Golf Links, where the 2021 Hickory Open will be played Sept. 12-14.
11. Kayvon Thibodeaux (NR): University of Oregon star defensive end is ranked No. 3 on the list of ESPN’s Top-100 college football players in America. He’s emerged as a potential top-10 NFL draft pick and has piled up more than $400,000 in endorsement deals — top among Pac-12 Conference players. Thibodeaux and his team are focused on making the College Football Playoff this season. He’ll get a lot of national face time should that happen.
10. Merritt Paulson (12): The Timbers and Thorns are a huge success and they were Paulson’s brainchild. He’s made all the right moves, including the navigation of weak city leadership and emerged with a successful product in the end. The 48-year-old owner is easily the leading candidate to form an ownership group that could eventually buy the Trail Blazers. Is Jody Allen a seller? If so, keep an eye on Paulson, who could bundle his various sports enterprises in an attractive offering to sponsors and potential season-ticket holders.
9. Scott Barnes (11): The Oregon State athletic director helped lead his department through one of the most tumultuous times in the history of college athletics. The Beavers face a pandemic-caused revenue shortage of $55 million and are knee-deep in the $85 million renovation of the west side of Reser Stadium. Barnes said this week that his team has secured donations and gift matches that make the project financially feasible. It isn’t an easy lift given the timing but the Beavers are pulling it off.
8. Rob Mullens (10): The University of Oregon athletic director has emerged as a leader within the Pac-12 Conference and beyond. Like his peers, he’s dealing with staff hiring freezes and took a salary reduction to get through the pandemic. But Oregon is well positioned despite it all and that’s on Mullens more than anyone. The Ducks are nationally relevant in a variety of sports and successful football coach Mario Cristobal was a Mullens hire all the way. He’s happy in Eugene, but Mullens is a regular coveted candidate for any major collegiate opening.
7. Gov. Kate Brown (1): Like it or not, the Oregon governor remains the gatekeeper when it comes to youth sports games and practices in our state. The governor would be the first to tell you she’s not a “sports person,” but her decisions have impact on sports families across the state. She falls some on this list, but only because our state sports entities have figured out that being proactive vs. reactive is a better way to operate.
6. Jonathan Smith (9): Oregon State University head football coach is chasing bowl eligibility this season. If he can get to six wins, Smith will be the first coach since Mike Riley to hit that milestone. Smith, 42, beat Oregon last season and looks poised to take another step forward this season. Keep an eye on the opener vs. Purdue. Win that one and OSU might start 3-0 this season.
5. Michael Schill (5): The University of Oregon president serves as the chair of the Pac-12′s CEO Group. Schill helped usher in a new conference commissioner and has emerged as a more visible presence in the conference. Schill claims he’s not a die-hard sports fan by nature, but he does a magnificent job of being present and supporting the athletes on his campus. More university presidents would be well served to follow his lead.
4. Jody Allen (6): 61-year-old acting owner of the Trail Blazers hasn’t felt nearly as engaged with the NBA franchise as her late brother was. Still, she’s the highest ranked woman in our state when it comes to sports clout. I can’t help but think the NBA organization would function better with an active, connected owner who was more interested in the day-to-day operations. Allen has left GM Neil Olshey to run unchecked and that has caused an unhealthy dynamic to bloom at One Center Court. She needs to decide if she wants to keep the basketball organization or sell it.
3. Mario Cristobal (8): Oregon Ducks football coach is a relentless recruiter now manically focused on making the College Football Playoff. Cristobal, 50, has surrounded himself with a skilled coaching staff, talented players, and faces the biggest opportunity of his coaching career. He’s easily the most influential coach in our state. He could go even higher with a playoff appearance. He knows and understands his own brand and does a terrific job of selling it. A lot of eyes on the Ducks this football season.
2. Phil Knight (4): 83-year-old Nike co-founder and Oregon Ducks booster has seen his net worth grow from $42 billion to $60 billion over the last year. College athletics is undergoing a massive transformation and Knight’s clout is particularly important to those he and his wife Penny choose to support. Not just the Ducks in our state, but the Beavers and others, too. You can make an argument for Knight at No. 1 on this list every year because his clout and impact are undeniable.
1. Damian Lillard (3): Trail Blazers 31-year-old star is currently the most influential sports figure in the state of Oregon. The Blazers guard told fans in a recent social media chat, “I’m not leaving PDX not right now at least.” There it is, folks. Lillard holds all the juice and the NBA organization knows it. He’s fostered an increased sense of urgency and frustration with the team’s flailing basketball operations staff. Will the All-Star be content playing for a perennial non-contender in Portland? Or will Lillard eventually demand a trade and trigger a total rebuild of the Blazers? He’s put pressure on the organization to be better.
OFF THE LIST
Who dropped out from the 2020 rankings: Dr. Doug Aukerman (2), F. King Alexander (7), Brenda Tracy (18), Terry Stotts (19), Sabrina Ionescu (22), Peter Weber (23), Valerie Cleary (24).
Influential Oregon sports figures who were under consideration: Jade Carey, Craig Masback, Niels de Vos, Avery Roberts, Michael Meek, Brenda Tracy, Sabrina Ionescu, Peter Weber, Linda Williams, Mark Massari, Chelsey Gregg, Jase Coburn, Shantay Legans, Reser Family, CJ McCollum, Joe Moorhead, Dan Bartholomae, Lisa Peterson, Gavin Wilkinson, Terry Boss, Nick Carlin-Voigt, Melyssa Lombardi, Tom Maletis, Christine Sinclair, Cole Gahagan, Jimmy Stanton, Shawn Schoeffler, Jerry Schumacher, Don Johnson Jr., Houston Lillard, Robert Johnson, Lindsey Horan, Diego Valeri, Yimmi Chara, Diego Chara, Felipe Mora, Heather Seely Roberts, Bruce Barnum, Brian Lindgren, Tim Tibesar, Simone Charley, Morgan Weaver, Pat Kilkenny, Mitch Canham, Mark Wasikowski, Giovanni Savarese, Marcus Mariota, Payton Pritchard, Ryan Crouser, Brian Grant, Jaydon Grant, Peter Jacobsen, Craig Cheek, Mike Barrett, Justin Herbert, Bill Schonely, Marshall Cho, Dan Floyd, Zack Lassiter, Allan Benavides, Sara Elcano, Dr. Doug Aukerman, Mike Lund, Jim Taylor, Collin Romer, Jason Brough, Todd Miles, Nate Krueger and Jeremy Darlow.
2020 rankings: Kate Brown No. 1
2019 rankings: Jody Allen No. 1
2018 rankings: Phil Knight No. 1
2017 rankings: Phil Knight No. 1
2016 rankings: Phil Knight No. 1
2015 rankings: LaMarcus Aldridge No. 1
2014 rankings: Paul Allen No. 1
More: 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008
— John Canzano