Departure of David Stern leaves huge hole, but larger opportunity
Taking over for an icon is never an easy job. So what should new commissioner Adam Silver do? Take advantage of the league's remarkable growth potential.
As David Stern hands the baton to Adam Silver at the close of business on Friday, some serious worlds will collide. There is no denying Stern’s accomplishments or his leadership in steering the NBA out of the peripheral view of American sports and into the passing lane. His legacy has been summed up many times by now, by those who can do it better -- and have witnessed more of it -- than yours truly.
What intrigues me more than rehashing Stern’s vast accomplishments and legendary bullying is looking ahead to the job inherited by Silver and asking, “What kind of boss will the new boss be? How will he be different than the old boss?”
I started with Kobe Bryant, the most accomplished player of his era and a product of the environment that Stern and Michael Jordan created. Bryant, who mimicked everything about Jordan from his moves to his speech patterns to his winning ways, had plenty to say about Stern. After all, Bryant came of age in a global basketball marketplace that wouldn’t have existed for without Stern’s vision.
“What he has managed to do with this game is inarguable; it’s indisputable,” Bryant told CBSSports.com this week. “He made the game reach a kid halfway across the world in Italy at 6 years old, 7 years old, and had a profound impact on me. So I grew up under that. So you look at the game and what the Dream Team did for the game going forward – Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol, Manu Ginobili. It’s off the charts, man.”
Bryant didn’t always agree with Stern. He famously called the commissioner’s idea to have a 23-and-under age limit for U.S. Olympic team “stupid” and still seethes over Stern vetoing the 2011 trade that would’ve teamed him with Chris Paul. Toward the end of the lockout that year, Bryant saw first-hand how stubborn a negotiator Stern could be for the owners.
“It’s business,” said Bryant, who doesn’t let those disagreements cloud his view of what Stern did to lift the NBA out of some grim times.
“When he first came in, there was still some racial tension,” Bryant said. “Drugs were running rampant in the league. And he managed to take that and make the game appealing for everybody. You had Larry Bird coming into the league and Magic Johnson coming into the league, and still you had to be able to package that and make it reach the masses and communicate that in a way that reaches the masses -- and then, figure out how to make it profitable.”
But when you ask Bryant -- or anyone else with a stake in the sustained success of the NBA -- about Silver, the words stop flowing. The questions are answered not with hyperbole, but with more questions.
“Not sure,” Bryant said, when asked about Silver. “Obviously, they have two different backgrounds. It’s big shoes to fill, but he’ll do it his way. He’ll find his niche and what’s comfortable for him and the style in which he leads and he’ll be fine.”
Silver’s biggest challenge?
“Well, where do you go from here?” Bryant said. “What direction do we want to take?”
That’s the biggest question facing Silver, who inherits a $5 billion business from Stern. And for some insight into how he might answer it, it’s worth revisiting a conversation that Stern had with agent David Falk some 30 years ago on this very topic of where the NBA was going.
Falk was then the most powerful agent in the NBA, representing Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and on and on. You think the 2010 free-agent class was big? In 1996, the free-agent class included Jordan, Mourning, Mutombo and Juwan Howard. All were represented by Falk, at a time when there was no maximum player salary in the NBA.
I’ll let him tell the story.
“Because of the strength of American football on television in the fall, really all the way up to the Super Bowl ... his vision was to start the [NBA] season right after the Super Bowl, take it up to the baseball All-Star game, and possibly cut it back to maybe 60 games,” Falk said. “And then you’d have a whole separate season in Europe and possibly in Asia. You could have a whole European league in Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, Athens and you’d have teams composed of Europeans and Americans of NBA quality playing an NBA schedule for six months. That’s how you really make it global. Televising it there and selling merchandise is a teaser. But to really make it international, you have to play there. Not just exhibitions, a real schedule.”
If Stern shared this vision with Falk, I’m quite sure he shared it with Silver, who has occupied the same floor of Olympic Tower in Manhattan for the past two decades. Silver expanded NBA operations to China, a nation where, as Falk points out, “There are more people who play basketball every day than there are people who live in America.”
Stern introduced NBA basketball to the world with the Dream Team, and his stubborn imperialism has given us exhibition games and scattered regular season games all over the globe. Over the next decade, it will be Silver’s job to export the game in a tangible, permanent, meaningful way.
Like any Fortune 500 company, when you reach market saturation, you have to find new markets if you want to make more money. Of the four major American pro sports, basketball is in the best position to do so.
Falk’s most famous client, Jordan, revolutionized global sports marketing for Stern’s league, yet only played internationally once -- with the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Could you imagine the impact LeBron James and Kevin Durant could have if they ushered in an era of permanence for NBA basketball in Europe, Asia and South America?
“My belief is, you look at baseball at $7 billion, football at $10 billion, and those sports are primarily American sports,” Falk said. “Basketball, David’s made it a global sport. We have the two largest countries in the world, India and China, where basketball is very popular. I would hope that at the end of the current collective bargaining agreement, we’re at $20 billion. And I think that’s the challenge of the commissioner.”
Silver does have other micro-level obstacles to overcome. There is at least one more franchise relocation left, because Seattle will get a team and Milwaukee has a difficult arena fight ahead. The issue of HGH testing must be resolved. A new broadcast and digital rights agreement already is being negotiated, with industry sources believing the package could double from its current level of about $930 million a year.
But there’s one thing the new commissioner won’t have to spend as much time doing as the old commissioner: fighting with the players over their share of the revenues. Falk, who played in integral role in the 1995 and 1998 lockouts, believes the NBA is in a period of what he calls Pax Romana -- “peace in the empire,” he said. Falk does not believe either side will opt out of the labor agreement in 2017, and if he’s right, there will be labor peace in the NBA until 2022. That leaves plenty of time for everyone to figure out how to make more money.
“I think the TV revenues are going to grow dramatically in the next agreement,” Falk said. “And it’s so damaging to the business of the NBA to shut it down. Personally, I think it was irresponsible for Billy [Hunter] to have allowed it to be shut down twice. The players lost $1.25 billion that they’ll never make up and they got nothing for it. And why would the owners shut it down? To get 5 percent more? The potential for where the league should be at the end of the current agreement is so high -- if it’s done properly -- that to be greedy to try to steal a few percent is foolish.”
But Hunter, Stern’s bargaining adversary for two decades, hit on an issue that will be paramount to whether Silver will ultimately succeed or fail: His ability to negotiate with, and ultimately lead, the owners.
“Maintaining the confidence of the owners has to be Adam’s top priority,” Hunter said in an e-mail to CBSSports.com. “Adam has some younger and newer owners to work with and they have expectations. David was a seasoned, senior executive, and Adam is a much younger guy. But I think Adam will succeed, because although he is easy-going, he is not easy.”
Silver’s biggest job is to grow the pie for everyone. To do so, he must not get caught in the same old petty fights that Stern and Hunter waged so fruitlessly. And to avoid that, he must let the owners know -- early and often -- that while the lines of communication are open, he makes the decisions.
“Everybody will profit in terms of revenues and franchise values if we operate it intelligently,” Falk said. “It can’t be 30 individual opinions and it can’t be a consensus on everything. It has to be one person with a vision.”
For 30 years, that person was David Stern and that vision was clear. Now, at the close of business on Friday, a new era begins.
“David at times had to be a bully, because he had 30 type-A-plus, successful owners that all thought they had better ideas than he did,” Falk said. “And maybe some of them did. But at the end of the day, you can’t make 30 decisions. Adam will need to be his own person, and I think he will be.”
In due time, we’ll find out what kind of leader Adam Silver will be and what his vision will mean. And while most people are focused on the commissioner who was, I’m more intrigued by the commissioner who is.
The shoes to fill are gigantic, but the opportunity is even bigger.
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