During three decades as NBA commissioner, David Stern oversaw an era of unprecedented revenue growth and worldwide expansion en route to solidifying his legacy as one of the greatest commissioners in the history of pro sports.
During his tenure, the league experienced a 30-fold increase in revenues and dramatically expanded its national-television exposure through a series of shrewd media-rights deals. In addition, Stern led the launch of the WNBA and NBA Development League, dramatically enhanced the NBA’s international profile to more than 215 countries and territories across the globe, and founded the NBA Cares community-outreach program, all while shepherding the league through multiple tumultuous labor disputes.
Under Stern, the NBA also embraced the rise of multiscreen video consumption early on, keeping fans engaged beyond the linear telecast through platforms like NBA.com, NBA TV, NBA League Pass, and social-media and mobile apps. NBA Entertainment also produced a massive catalogue of Emmy Award-winning documentaries and other original content to help facilitate Stern’s vision of a star-focused system that built up the league’s brand while allowing its top players to thrive.
From Courtroom to Hard Court
A New York City native and Knicks fan growing up, Stern graduated from Rutgers University and then Columbia Law School. His nearly five-decade association with the NBA began in 1966, when he served as outside counsel for the league while at the firm Proskauer Rose. In 1978, Stern was hired as NBA general counsel, focusing particularly on the league’s television exposure and negotiating its first-ever cable-rights deal with the enterprise that would go on to become the USA Network, and was elevated to executive VP in 1980.
“In those days, I was particularly involved in our network-partner relationship [with CBS] and learning about this newfangled thing called cable,” says Stern. “I was deeply involved in understanding superstations, which were a relatively recent phenomenon, to determine their impact on our games and on our television [exposure]. So I was spending an awful lot of my time on all things sports on TV.”
A Commissioner Is Born
On Feb. 1, 1984, Stern officially took the mantle of commissioner from Larry O’Brien and immediately set his sights on expanding the league’s television exposure — no small task considering that, in the early ’80s, even the NBA Finals were still aired on tape delay.
“We were not a major network-television attraction,” Stern acknowledges. “I remember one year, just before I became commissioner, we could have given CBS an additional game to replace NFL programming [due to the players strike], but CBS opted instead for a game between St. Johns basketball and the Yugoslavian national team. The overarching problem was persuading first the networks and then the advertisers that the NBA was a viable, long-term product in which they should invest.”
However, Stern’s challenges early on in his tenure went far beyond just boosting the NBA’s television coverage. In an effort to combat the perception of rampant drug use throughout the league and teams’ intentionally losing to end their season in order to better their Draft position, he was able to institute the first wide-ranging antidrug agreement in pro sports and the NBA Draft Lottery, respectively. Stern also led negotiations on the 1983 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which included implementation of a soft salary cap with exceptions to allow teams to retain their high-profile free agents (later known as the Larry Bird rule).
Expansion — on the Screen and Into New Cities
By the late ’80s, the NBA had hit new heights in terms of popularity and revenue. With this momentum in mind, Stern pushed for expansion into untapped major markets, resulting in the addition of the Miami Heat; Charlotte, NC, Hornets (now New Orleans Pelicans); Orlando Magic; and Minnesota Timberwolves. The league would eventually reach 30 teams with addition of the Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies (now in Memphis), and Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) over the next two decades.
“I was very proud all of the negotiations for expansion of our cable and network packages and expansion franchises,” says Stern. “Of course, it didn’t hurt to have these guys — Magic, Larry, Michael, Isiah — and a whole host of players who had become household names.”
The NBA had also finally become a major player in sports television, as Stern’s deal with Turner Broadcasting mandated that multiple games per week be televised on TNT — a scenario that would have seemed unthinkable just a decade earlier. In addition, NBC outbid CBS for the NBA broadcast-network package in 1989, forking over $600 million over four years and, in turn, launching one of the most iconic and successful live franchises in the history of sports television: NBA on NBC.
“David Stern is the most dynamic leader to work in American sports in the last quarter century,” says former NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, who negotiated the deal with Stern. “He was a sensational partner to work and to joust with seven days a week 52 weeks a year. I loved every minute of our creative partnership.”
Embracing Technology Early On
By the end of the 21st century, sports consumption was about much more than just a few games a week on network and cable TV as fans began demanding more round-the-clock news, out-of-market games on multiple screens, and a better in-venue video experience. Stern and company read the tea leaves early, building up NBA.com and other digital assets, launching NBA TV and the NBA League Pass out-of-market streaming/cable service, and pushing franchises to enhance their in-arena experience with larger videoboards, wireless connectivity, and more. In addition, in 2000, the league began hosting its annual Tech Summit during All-Star weekend to expose NBA execs to new technology and share ideas.
“The digital revolution, so to speak, was our friend,” says Stern. “We launched early into NBA TV, NBA.com, and NBA League Pass and very openly into social media. That very much led us into pushing NBA programming on a global basis so that the NBA is now available in 215 countries and territories and over 40 languages, and, if you aren’t getting enough games over the air, satellite, or cable, you can use your smart device to get another 1,200 games that are streamed.”
A Fortified Legacy
On Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after taking the helm, Stern stepped down as commissioner, making way for his long-time mentee Adam Silver to take over. Although he often found himself a lightning rod for controversy, one thing is clear: Stern leaves behind a league in far better shape than when he found it and led the transformation of a nascent sports enterprise into the global sports-media behemoth the NBA is today.
“David is one of the top business leaders of his generation,” says Silver. “His legacy will be that he brought modern business practices to sports leagues. He was a CEO/commissioner who, while focused on growing a major business. also preached that there’s nothing more important than the game.”
— Jason Dachman, Managing Director, SVG