Why David Stern Is the Smartest Commissioner in All of Sports

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Why David Stern Is the Smartest Commissioner in All of Sports
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Love him, hate him, envy him.

No matter how you feel about him, you probably feel strongly.

Stern is the quintessential lightning rod of public opinion.

What is truly remarkable about the man, for all of his faults and gifts, is that he has been doing this for a very long time.

 

From Lawyer to Commish

After graduating from Columbia Law School and passing the New York state bar exam in 1966, Stern wasted little time getting connected to the NBA.

Later that year, he joined on with the notable Proskauer Rose law firm and worked in an outside capacity for one of their big clients, the NBA.

This relationship continued for 12 years until he parlayed that relationship into a job with the NBA as general council to then commissioner Larry O'Brien.

From there, Stern's ascent was meteoric, and by 1984 he was the commissioner. 

During his time, the league has added nearly a third of its current 30 teams and has seen profits soar under his stewardship.

Some estimates put profit increases at upwards of 500 percent since he took over, but that number fluctuates from season to season. NBA.com has it closer to a 30-fold increase which is truly remarkable.

When Stern took over, the league was just a few years removed from the dark days of the 1970s, when attendance was tanking and the league was in trouble.

 

Marketing, marketing, marketing

During his tenure, Stern took a unique approach to marketing his league.

Unlike previous commissioners across the sports landscape, Stern decided to build his league on the shoulders of his stars.

So while the NFL was marketing the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, the NBA was marketing Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

While you can argue that this is a risky move, it paid off for Stern, and his league saw its ratings soar.

Looking at just the NBA Finals, the league went from a low mark of a 6.7 rating in 1981 to consistent ratings at 13 or above from when Stern took over in 1984 through 1998.

At the heart of this was Stern's commitment to marketing star players like Johnson, Bird and Michael Jordan.

 

The International Game

In addition to the work that Stern did for the NBA, he took a very aggressive run at the international community, beginning with the decision to allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics.

Obviously that decision was not entirely his, but he decided to embrace it.

He traveled relentlessly, building support for the game in numerous countries and used his marketed superstars to drive the point forward.

By doing so, he paved the way for international players to join the NBA and inadvertently helped foster better competition overseas that resulted in the United States getting defeated on the international stage on more than one occasion. 

But by securing international players like Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Dikembe Mutombo and Yao Ming, Stern was able to grow his league on the international stage.

 

Comparing him to the rest

It is hard to compare Stern to any of the other major commissioners.

Roger Goodell seems to have good intentions, but his short reign has been marred by his war on bad behavior.

He has without a doubt the best product but seemed to really get rattled last year during the draft when the fans turned on him.

I would love to see Stern and Goodell face off in a war of words and then come back afterwards and pick up the tiny pieces of Goodell.

A good guy, but he seems somewhat flat-footed on some of the biggest issues facing his league—namely constant criminal behavior by his players and the existential issue of whether or not football is too dangerous to play.

Bud Selig really doesn't belong in the same sentence as Stern.

He has been mercilessly slow in adapting his game, and now his sport is watched almost exclusively by the older generation.

He is perilously in danger of losing a whole generation of fans as he seems clueless on how to market his sport.  

 

The next challenge

Stern has done an amazing job by most standards, but he is far from perfect.

Currently, his biggest challenge seems to be slowing down the flood of fans heading for football and extreme games such as skateboarding and mixed martial arts fighting.

There is a war being fought for the hearts and minds of the younger generation, and there will certainly be casualties.

That being said, Stern has shown the ability to weather all storms and come out clean on the other end.

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