Bruce Dowbiggin posts his perspective on the world of sports each morning.
Perhaps the most amazing statistic in David Stern’s lengthy career as NBA commissioner is 8 for 29. As in, eight cities have won NBA titles in the 29 seasons since he took the job in 1984. All, except for San Antonio, were major TV markets.
The genius of Stern, who announced Thursday that he will retire in February of 2014, was understanding how TV could drive modern sports. And that nothing drives TV like major media markets winning titles with big stars. When Stern came into the job, his league’s championship games were shown on tape delay after the late local news in U.S. markets. Stern changed that to the point where the NBA is now a multi-billion-dollar broadcast entity each year. Its championship series is an international TV event.
Unlike his protégé Gary Bettman at the NHL, Stern did not spend hours fretting that small markets such as Carolina or Tampa Bay or New Jersey HAD to win the title to make his league whole. Stern understood that TV would make large stars out of the champions from Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami or Boston. (Helped by the presence of movie stars like Jack Nicholson or film makers like Spike Lee or musicians like Kid Rock sitting courtside.) And that fans in small markets would fill arenas to see the stars from the Lakers, Celtics or Bulls come to their town.
The converse rarely worked. As great as the Spurs teams were under David Robinson and Tim Duncan, they didn’t put fans in seats in big cities. The NHL, by contrast, has no glamour teams any more, very few stars who transcend the local fan base and a culture of enforced mediocrity created by salary caps. And it wonders why the seats are empty in many vulnerable American markets.
Transcending the sport
Stern’s other challenge in the 1980s was demographic. In a country where most people truly could not envision a black U.S. president, Stern’s NBA was 80-per-cent African-American. Where some saw a league that was too black, Stern saw a marketing opportunity. The decidedly un-hip lawyer from New York oversaw the marriage of the NBA with rap/hip-hop culture. The NBA became an entertainment platform where its superstars became movie stars, rappers and fashion icons.
Like Brazilian soccer heroes, Stern’s stars carry single names like Shaq or Kobe or LeBron that are universally known and understood. The success of the rap and hip-hop cultures became, by extension, the success of the NBA.
The NHL? Bettman has tried manfully to make it relevant outside its cult-like status in Canada, but besides Michael J. Fox or Dennis Leary, it’s about as hip as orthopedic shoes and support hose.
Growing the game abroad
Stern also saw the value of international play. While hockey was far more entrenched in many European countries, it was basketball that showed the way internationally with the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics. That helped pave the way for American acceptance of an influx of foreign players into the NBA. Marrying the stars of the NBA to their national flags only burnished their reputations further in Europe, South America and Asia.
The NHL belatedly joined the Olympic movement in 1998, and it still is searching for a World Cup formula to increase revenues and visibility. Major League Baseball saw its sport removed from the Olympics and its World Baseball Classic still struggles for recognition.
Lately, Stern’s firm grip on the sports business has begun to be less certain. The loss of the Vancouver and Seattle markets stung. The lockout last year that created a 66-game schedule and forced teams to play five games in seven nights was ugly and divisive. Stern did a snarky telephone interview with radio host Jim Rome in which he was particularly insulting, even to the abrasive Rome. To those of us who’d interviewed a charming, in-control Stern, it was a jarring image. The signs were clear that his time as commissioner was coming to an end.
So what is Stern’s legacy? With perhaps the weakest hand of the four major pro sports commissioners, Stern made the NBA second to only the NFL by understanding where TV could take his league. He’s leaving at the right time. Hopefully his NHL colleague gets the same message and does the same thing when his lockout ends.
The buddy system
Good to see Stern’s cohort, MLB commissioner Bud Selig, giving props to the Toronto Blue Jays for their steadfast resistance to single-game wagering on baseball in Canada. (There’s no legal wagering on MLB in the U.S. outside Las Vegas.) Even though anyone can place a bet online with an offshore website, this move could lead to match fixing! The real question in MLB’s high dudgeon is, how upset would they be if they, not the government, were cut in for a piece of their own action?
So the people who run junior hockey are being pursued for exploiting young men with stars in their eyes over a hockey career. How absurd. Where else is an 18-year-old going to make an easy $50 a week with the promise of a paid education they’ll take away of he’s too successful? Kids are so spoiled these days. This will ruin those three games in three days that the CHL loves. Now when I was a lad...
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