Open Mic: Rating the Four Commissioners

Mackenzie KraemerSenior Analyst IJuly 13, 2008

Who is the most powerful commissioner in sports?

The NFL, MLB, NBA, and the NHL have long been known as the four major sports in America. Each of the sports is run by a commissioner dedicated to making their game as strong a business and entertainment entity as possible, while maintaining the quality of the game.

The NFL is no doubt the top sport in America today. It is the Sunday staple in most households in the fall. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL have a distinct advantage over the other sports, given the league's intense popularity. He is entering his third season as commissioner of the thriving sport, but he’s already made a significant impact, both as a disciplinarian and as a businessman.

Major League Baseball has gone through sweeping changes under commissioner Bud Selig. He has been in charge since 1992, leading the sport through major changes both on and off the field. He presided over innovations such as the wild card and interleague play—but most importantly, he led the sport through the 1994 strike that almost killed baseball.

The NBA is not the most successful league, but no commissioner is as identifiable with his game as David Stern. The NBA has been a difficult league to navigate through scandals both on and off the court, but Stern has maintained a strong handle over the league, improving its global popularity greatly.

The NHL hired Gary Bettman as its first commissioner in 1993. Since then, the amount of teams has increased, but the league suffered through two lockouts, and the quality of the game has decreased. But he has also led the league through increasing revenues and increasing team values—so financially, he has been fairly shrewd.

So which of the four commissioners is the most powerful? Here’s a look at all four, starting with No. 1.


1. Roger Goodell, NFL

Goodell is the new kid on the block when it comes to sports commissioners, but he’s been very busy in his first few seasons. He had large shoes to fill when he took over as commissioner in August of 2006, but he’s handled the job very well so far, despite being dealt a fairly rough hand.

His personal conduct policy, instituted in 2007, increased fines and suspensions for those who get into trouble. His policy even targets teams, causing players with troubled pasts or presents to become close to pariahs. Talent is still the most important thing at the end of the day—but teams think twice before drafting players with checkered pasts.

This policy is most known for Pacman Jones, Michael Vick, and Chris Henry. All three players were suspended under this policy. Jones wasn’t even convicted of anything before he was suspended for a full season.

Goodell was also was forced to crack down on the New England Patriots, who cheated during the 2008 season. He levied the biggest fine ever on a coach—$500,000 to Bill Belichick. He also fined the Patriots organization $250,000, and docked the team a draft pick.

Goodell also introduced flexible scheduling to the NFL in his first season, allowing for games late in the season to be maneuvered into prime time. While the system is not perfect, the networks are happy—and many NFL fans are happy that there are fewer meaningless games in prime time late in the season.

Finally, Goodell terminated NFL Europe in 2007. The league was losing money every year, and the league wanted to market real NFL games more over there. The first regular-season game played in Europe was in 2007, with the Miami Dolphins facing the New York Giants, and this year the New Orleans Saints will lose a home game and “host” the San Diego Chargers.

Goodell has done a lot in his first few years, exerting his power to change the schedule, to modify the plan for globalization, and to crack down on law offenders. It might be too early in his tenure to call him the most powerful commissioner, but he is the most powerful man in the most popular sport. That makes him the most powerful commissioner in sports.


2. David Stern, NBA

Stern is the longest tenured of the four commissioners, and this has made him the face of his sport. Stern has focused his efforts on globalizing the game, making it more popular around the world.

His idea for globalization has led to a huge influx of European players to the NBA. Take a look at the NBA draft. In 1994, every draft pick went to an American college player. Eight years later, Yao Ming was the first foreign player to go first overall, and a total of six international players were taken in the first round.

Stern’s long-term plan is to put NBA teams in Europe. Multiple sources have reported that there are plans to put five teams in Europe, possibly in the next decade.

This globalization of the game is only a part of what Stern has been able to do in terms of making everybody familiar with the game of basketball. Stern has done a brilliant job of branding the NBA, not only across the world, but also to the female gender—a largely untapped market. He created the WNBA in 1996 and remains committed to it today, despite the league operating at a loss every year.

It’s all a part of crafting an image of the game. This has also been true with his response to drugs and other problems. He survived the drug abuses of the 1980s, when the league was viewed as so drug-infested that the NBA playoffs would often be on tape delay.

After the Detroit-Indiana brawl, Stern instituted a dress code to make the league look more professional and clean. Again, the image of the NBA was the primary reasoning behind this decision, as once again, many white and older fans were becoming disenchanted with the league.

The NBA is the third-most popular league in the United States, but it is very secure in that position. Love or hate David Stern (and you have every right, Sonics fans), he has done a very good job as commissioner in molding the league however he wants to. His iron fist and constant watch over the game makes him the second-most powerful commissioner in sports.


3. Bud Selig, MLB

In 1992, baseball was an entirely different sport. Each league was run separately, with just two divisions per league. The only time teams from opposing leagues would play each other would be in the World Series.

Today, baseball is a thriving sport, with attendance and viewership on the way back up. Selig has navigated the league through the 1994 strike that cost the fans and the league a World Series. Each league has three divisions, and four teams make the playoffs in each league.

The new four-team, wild-card playoff format has made the game much more appealing, as it allows more teams to stay in the races longer. Of course, some teams will still be out of contention fairly early, but the four extra playoff spots allow many different cities to pay attention to baseball deeper into the season.

Selig has also made two major changes to the schedule—interleague play and unbalanced schedules. Interleague play has probably been a success, though many purists still hate it.

The unbalanced schedule allows for teams in the same division to play each other more, making the divisions more competitive and creating rivalries between teams.

However, Selig has also been commissioner through two of the darkest moments in baseball’s history. The 1994 strike nearly destroyed baseball. It took some fans a long time to get back into the sport, and some still haven’t forgiven.

Then, in the new millennium, information came to light about steroids. Many star players who hit so many home runs and drew the fans back into the sport were revealed to have taken steroids, forever tainting many statistics from that era.

Selig has taken a lot of heat from his critics, but his role in modernizing the sport cannot be understated. It’s futile to speculate how much he knew about steroids in the late 1990s, and he deserves some of the blame for the 1994 strike.

But under his watch, baseball has become a much more modern sport, and that will only continue with the implementation of selective instant replay later this season.

He comes in as the third most powerful commissioner in sports. The strength of the MLBPA undermines Selig’s power a certain extent, and the payroll differences between teams hinders his ability in uniting the owners sometimes.


4. Gary Bettman, NHL

Bettman’s tenure has been more criticized than any of the other three commissioners. His sport has suffered through a lot of issues throughout his reign, including the first cancellation of an entire season in a North American major professional sports league.

The 2004-05 lockout may define his tenure. His battles with former NHL Players Association boss Bob Goodenow lasted that entire year, and the lost season almost sank the NHL. A TV deal with Comcast-owned Versus network for $200M was good for the league financially, but it has certainly taken away some mainstream media coverage—particularly from ESPN.

But I'll say this for Bettman—he won the war with Goodenow, and the revenue sharing in place is helping out league parity. He also piloted Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles through bankruptcies and back to viability, and franchise values as a whole have increased.

For example, the Edmonton Oilers, a struggling franchise in perhaps the NHL’s smallest market, were sold for $200 million dollars this year. When he became commissioner in 1993, the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers cost $50 million dollars as expansion teams. Even with inflation, it’s a very impressive increase.

On the ice, Bettman implemented many changes to try to make the game more appealing to casual fans by opening up the ice for more scoring. After the lockout, the format of the ice changed and a shootout was implemented as a way to conclude games. As a result of the rule changes, the ensuing '05-'06 season was the highest scoring in NHL history.

Bettman’s tenure is perhaps the hardest to evaluate of the four commissioners. On one hand, he’s been very successful financially, as revenue and ticket prices are up, and attendance is stable. On the other hand, many hardcore hockey fans have felt alienated by his initiatives—especially the shootout.

The southern movement of teams into markets such as Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta has also been a point of contention among many NHL fans. Many NHL fans wonder how southern markets can continue to get NHL teams while Canada’s number of NHL teams has dwindled to just six.

While some fans are happy that the scoring is back in the NHL, other fans feel the new rules—such as eliminating the instigator rule and moving the nets out from the end boards—have further hurt the game.

Despite the current television deal, the league has turned into a formidable business. But as the league has made more in revenue, the fans have gotten the raw end of the deal in some ways, with a lower-quality game that is much more expensive to watch.

He’s been a good commissioner to the owners, but the players and fans are not nearly as pleased with his tenure. Their displeasure, combined with the NHL’s lower comparative status, makes Bettman the least powerful commissioner of the four major sports.