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Ranking the 10 most powerful people in sports media

Photo: Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Charles Barkley has served an an analyst at Turner Sports since 2000, and has helped Inside The NBA flourish.

The true power in sports media sits in the executive suite. Heads of sports television networks littered SI's Power 50 including ESPN president John Skipper (No. 4 on the list), NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus (No. 7), CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus (No. 13), Fox Sports co-presidents Eric Shanks and Randy Freer (No. 15) and Turner Sports president David Levy (No. 28). This group shapes the content you see, how and when you see it, and how you'll see it in the future.

But what of those in sports media who work below the throne? As part of SI.com's Power Week, those with power asked me to compile a list of the most powerful figures in the sports media excluding executives, behind-the-scenes people and SI staffers (Apologies, Peter King, Dan Patrick and Tom Verducci). Only those in front of the camera or with bylines were considered.

So how to define this group? Access to the boss? Internal clout? Revenue producers? Tastemakers? Power is perception. Those who you believe have it, do. (One trusted media colleague suggested I had Chris Berman far too high and foolishly omitted Erin Andrews, Michelle Beadle and Al Michaels.) The only thing for certain is that power is ephemeral. Power changes. This list will not be the same next year.

1. Bill Simmons, ESPN

He leveraged his immense popularity as a writer to start the high-minded Grantland.com, extending his brand beyond himself to bring in talented voices such as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Wesley Morris. Simmons is the rare person in the sports media with revenue power on multiple platforms -- his podcasts get significant traffic, he's a major player in the "30 for 30" initiative, and this year he added a regular television presence with a position on ESPN's NBA Countdown show. Most importantly, Simmons has the ear of ESPN president John Skipper. He's No. 1 on this list by a wide margin.

2. Charles Barkley, Turner Sports

Barkley might be the only broadcaster in sports who can actually increase eyeballs by his mere presence. He's the reason Inside The NBA has maintained both cultural cachet and ratings success. He can't be replaced, which gives him immeasurable power at the network and access to Levy's office anytime he wants.

3. Bob Costas, NBC and MLB Network

No one at NBC -- including Brian Williams -- has the editorial freedom Costas has; we saw that last December with his politicized essay on gun control. Costas remains the face of NBC Sports, anchoring everything from the Olympics to the highly rated Football Night In America pregame show. The network promotes his journalistic chops to separate it from Fox, ESPN and other competitors.

4. Tommy Craggs, Deadspin

The Jason Bourne of the sports blogosphere, Craggs is the head assassin for the have-no-mercy sports website, which this year broke the story of Manti Te'o's girlfriend hoax. Maturing from its iconoclastic roots, Deadspin has become a major player in the daily sports narrative, as well as a continued thorn in the side of the Bristol empire.

5. Jon Gruden, ESPN

Too high? Think again. He's the face of ESPN's most important property and the reason why Monday Night Football had a two-person booth for the first time since Al Michaels and John Madden in 2005. Given that the show has been the most-watched series on cable for seven straight years, it's not a stretch to say Gruden is the most important on-air staffer in the ESPN empire. Bristol executives have said they have no contingency plan if he leaves. That's power.

6. Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo Sports

The NBA's preeminent writer and reporter routinely breaks stories and distributes to them to what has traditionally been the sports site with the most unique visitors in the U.S. (not to mention Woj's nearly 370,000 followers on Twitter). He's a must-read on a daily basis, as impactful as it gets in the NBA.

7. Chris Berman, ESPN

Along with having a ton of allies in upper management and ESPN's public relations staff, Berman is the public face to ESPN's scrappy past and mega-enormous present. As one on-air staffer recently told me, never underestimate how powerful Berman is internally. No SportsCenter anchor -- not even longtime vets Stuart Scott and Scott Van Pelt -- carry the internal clout Berman does with the suits.

8. Terry Bradshaw, Fox

Fox NFL Sunday -- which sets up the network's NFL coverage each Sunday -- is built on Bradshaw's personality and popularity. He's extending his brand to Fox Sports 1 (which launches in August) to headline a daily football show and his name comes up most frequently when you ask insiders at Fox Sports for its most powerful on-air talent.

9. Mike Wilbon, ESPN

His PTI program (along with Tony Kornheiser, who some would have on this list) delivers ratings and editorial smarts, a bright spot for the network that has far too many cheap debate-style rip-offs. Like Simmons, he's fronting a property (NBA Countdown) that ESPN needs to do well.

10. Skip Bayless, ESPN

The network created an entire programming genre around his monorail salesman act on First Take. You see it every day at ESPN: The "Embrace Debate" ethos has seeped into other programs including SportsCenter and Numbers Never Lie.

Honorable Mention: Jim Nantz, CBS (11), Mike Tirico, ESPN (12), Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen, ESPN (13), Jay Bilas, ESPN (14), Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, ESPN (15), Mike Mayock, NFL Network (16), Paul Finebaum, The Paul Finebaum Radio Network (17), Bryant Gumbel, HBO (18), Dick Vitale, ESPN (19), Bob McKenzie, TSN (20).

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