That’s how long David Stern has been the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association. He is the longest tenured Commissioner in the history of American sports. It is almost impossible to comprehend how much the NBA and the sports world has changed over the past thirty years; however, it is not hard to understand how much Stern has meant to the NBA.
The question of legacy is interesting. This week we have spent a lot of time discussing Peyton Manning’s legacy and how winning a 2nd Super Bowl would potentially make him the greatest Quarterback of all-time. However, I don’t think his career is over yet. He can still add to his legacy. The most important legacy to analyze this week is David Stern’s.
And here it is: David Stern is the Greatest American Sports Commissioner of all-time. That’s his legacy.
Want proof? Just look at where the NBA was in terms of monetary success and cultural relevance in 1984 before Stern took over as commissioner. When Stern took over the NBA in ’84 it was the third or fourth most popular American sport and drugs had been decimating the league. Len Bias, who could have been one of greatest players in NBA history has just died to due to a cocaine overdose the day after he was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics. The league, to be perfectly frank, was a mess. Sure, the NBA had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. However, NBA playoff and Finals games were still being broadcasted on tape delay and there were only five regular season games broadcasted per season. Can you imagine that?
However, from 1984 on the NBA has seen exponential growth in terms of popularity and financial success. The NBA went from being the MLS to the second most popular sport IN THE WORLD. That transformation was due to David Stern and his ability to change the way the NBA was managed and marketed, which resulted in the true growth of the sport.
Casual observers would suggest that Michael Jordan, who is the best NBA player of all-time, had a lot to do with the NBA’s exponential growth. It’s a fair point. The NBA wouldn’t be what it is now without MJ. However, if it weren’t for David Stern and Nike Michael Jordan wouldn’t be MICHAEL JORDAN. Everyone on the planet knows Michael Jordan. He’s like Coca-Cola, Apple or Microsoft. That is because David Stern realized that the greatest marketing assets the NBA had was its stars.
NBA players don’t wear helmets. They don’t wear eye black or hats. NBA fans sit close to the action. They see the player’s faces. Fans connect with the players. Stern understood that marketing these stars and making them the face of the league and marketing campaigns was the best way to grow the popularity of the league. This strategy worked better than Stern could have ever imagined.
Just take a look at some of the most recognized athletes on the planet right now. It reads like an NBA All-Star roster: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony. All of those athletes have multi-million dollar marketing deals. They are international stars. Despite the fact that those stars are incredibly underpaid by their teams, thanks to Stern, the owners and the incompetent Billy Hunter, they are some of the richest men in the world. That’s because of David Stern.
You want to talk money? The NBA has $5 billion in annual revenues and is valued at around $19 billion. When Stern took over the league it was valued at around $250 million and in 1979 the NBA television rights were worth $400,000. No, seriously. That was it. In 1989 the NBA television rights were sold to NBC for $600 million and are now worth about $937 million. The NBA rights will be sold in 2016 for a couple of billion dollars. Yes, some of this has to due with the growth of advertising money and technology; however, Stern has succeeded at changing with the times and being ahead of the marketing and technological curves. When it comes to seeking out alternative revenues streams there has been no one better than Stern and his team.
Stern has overseen the largest growth of any sports league in the United States and, perhaps, the world. When Stern took over in 1984 the league consisted of 23 NBA franchises. Now there are 30 teams. The NBA has offices in 11 countries, despite the fact that the league only plays in two of them. Games are broadcasted in 215 countries around the world and in 43 different languages. He launched the WNBA, the NBA Developmental League, NBA TV & a plethora of other NBA related ventures.
Of course, there have been some troubling issues and controversies during Stern’s time as Commissioner. The Malice in the Palace, “Basketball Reasons”, four NBA lockouts, and a plethora of conspiracy theories from Tim Donaghy to the draft lottery to Jordan’s first retirement have all happened under Stern’s watch. However, they haven’t stained his resume.
For Los Angeles Laker fans “Basketball Reasons” will forever bruise Stern’s reputation. It’s a fair point. He screwed the Lakers out of Chris Paul. He probably shouldn’t have gotten involved. That move changed the course of NBA history. The Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Hornets (Pelicans), Thunder and Warriors were all directly impacted by that decision.
Of course, none of this matters to David Stern. He is an extremely proud man who had made decisions with a chip on his shoulder and takes everything about the NBA personally. While that may annoy critics, I have found it inspiring and refreshing. He makes decisions as if he were a player who was passed over by every team in the draft. That chip has resulted in him being the best sports Commissioner of all-time.
As great as Stern has been, all great things must come to and end. After 30 years of the Stern reign it is time to pass the torch on to another man. Adam Silver, who has been the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner for the last eight years and in the NBA’s front office for the past two decades, will take over for Stern on February 1st and will begin to build his own legacy. Silver does not have to build the NBA up in the same way that Stern did; however, he will be undoubtedly be compared to his mentor.
Silver will have a ton on his plate right off the bat. He is known for his technological savvy and his negotiation skills in regards to television rights. That will be helpful considering that the NBA’s television deals are up after the 2016 NBA Finals. That will be Silver’s first huge test. One would have to believe that the NBA is going to re-up with ESPN and TNT, while carving out another smaller package for NBC Sports Network or Fox Sport 1 and also creating other interactive packages for online and tablet consumption.
Another issue Silver will be tasked with is growing the game internationally in India, South America and Europe. The NBA is already entrenched in China but there is always more money to be made there. The NBA is probably the second most marketed sport around the world, behind soccer (football), and that will likely continue under Silver’s leadership.
There are other issues that Silver will need to address. Drug use, competitive balance, the draft lottery, playoff seeding and replay reviews are only some of the issues Silver will have to deal with in the next couple of the years. I have complete faith in Silver’s ability to guide the NBA into the future. If he’s half as good of a Commissioner as David Stern, “Basketball Reasons” notwithstanding, than the NBA is in great hands.
Farewell David Stern. Your impact on the NBA is immeasurable. Thank you for your service to the NBA and for growing the game into what it is today.