David Stern - leadership personified

David Stern one of the sports industries most influential leaders Thursday announced he would be retiring as National Basketball Association commissioner on February 1, 2014. Stern became the NBA commissioner on February 1, 1984. When he became commissioner the league’s championship series was televised on a tape-delay basis, the league had a terrible image. Thirty years later under Stern’s leadership the NBA has evolved into a global brand – one of the preeminent sports and business brands.

During his over 28-plus years as Commissioner, Stern has built the model for professional sports in league operations, public service, global marketing and digital technology. He has overseen the league’s growth with seven new franchises, a 30-fold increase in revenues, a dramatic expansion of national television exposure and the launch of two leagues, the Women’s National Basketball Association and the NBA Development League.

Interest generated by the leagues' growing international initiatives has led to the opening of offices in 15 global markets, the televising of games in 215 countries and territories in more than 40 languages, and the creation of 13 language-specific Web destinations. The leagues' digital assets, including NBA.com, WNBA.com, and NBADLeague.com; social media platforms; NBA LEAGUE PASS; NBA TV, which is available in nearly 60 million U.S. homes; and mobile applications reach hundreds of millions of fans every day.

Stern’s intense commitment to social responsibility both in the United States and around the world has been a signature of his tenure as commissioner. In 2005, the league launched NBA Cares, through which the NBA, its players and teams have raised more than $205 million for charity, provided more than 2.1 million hours of hands-on service to communities around the world, and created more than 750 places where children and families can live, learn, or play. NBA Cares supports a host of community outreach initiatives, including a myriad of internationally recognized youth-serving programs that focus on education, youth and family development, and health and wellness.

Stern faced many challenges during his tenure as NBA commissioner a 1987 drug scandal involving members of the Phoenix Suns one of the biggest. At the time Sports Illustrated called it at the time “the biggest single drug bust in the history of professional sports”. The case focused on the use of recreational drugs, not performance enchantment drugs. On Friday April 24 five members of the Suns were charged possessing or trafficking in cocaine or marijuana or conspiring to do so. Six other members of the team (there were 12 players on the team) were linked to the charges.

In 1983 while serving as the NBA’s vice president Stern created professional sports first drug testing program. Years before performance enhancement drugs became the issue they are today, the 1983 NBA drug testing policy put procedures and testing in place relating to the use of recreational drugs.

The Suns story, dubbed "Waltergate" (Walter Davis was one of the players linked to the case), received nationwide news coverage and damaged the team's reputation. Then Suns General manager Jerry Colangelo (later the team’s owner) stated, "We got crucified. We were tried, convicted and hung in 72 hours." The prosecution started falling apart in July. Davis' initial questioning did not include dates, locations and other details. When questioned in regards to the details, Davis could not provide them. No defendant in the case went to trial. Edwards and Humphries were required to join a drug counseling program.

Stern’s drug testing program which focused on the use of recreational drugs, offered players counseling initially. Only after testing positive three times was a player banned from playing in the NBA. Stern led with a firm but at the same time caring hand. The drug policy he created in 1983 remains the standard bearer for professional sports.

As impossible as it may seem today when David Stern became commissioner the NBA Finals were televised by CBS on a tape-delay basis. The current NBA television agreement which ESPN and TNT share the national broadcast rights is worth $930 million annually to the NBA. That agreement expires in 2016 and does not include the tens of millions of dollars most NBA teams receive from their local broadcast agreements.

Stern’s lasting legacy may be the globalization of the sport. In 1989 FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, and the NBA reached an agreement paving the way for NBA players to represent their respective countries in the Olympic Games. Stern leveraged that opportunity to manage and create NBA events globally, establishing the NBA as basketball premier brand.

As Stern eases himself out of the NBA – the globalization of basketball and the NBA brand will remain important.

“It's an area of extreme importance to us. We're going to be opening or have opened an office in Brazil, which has, as you may recall, the World Cup in 2014, the Olympics in 2016. And we'll be focusing on that greatly. We just opened an office recently in Mumbai to approach the Indian market. And we, having just gotten back from China, I'm not even sure that we can respond adequately but we'll try, to all of the requests for business partnerships and growth areas that were apparent there.”

Wikpedia offered an interesting selection of some of the other notable events that took place since David Stern decided to lead the NBA:

• Relocation of 6 NBA franchises (Clippers, Kings, Grizzlies, Nets, Hornets and Sonics)
• 7 new NBA teams (Hornets, Timberwolves, Heat, Magic, Grizzlies, Raptors, and Bobcats)
• Ratification of the NBA Dress Code
• Four NBA lockouts (1995, 1996, 1998–99, and 2011)

The 2012-13 NBA season marks the first full season under the new collective bargaining agreement the NBA and the NBA Players Association signed last December. The NBA played a truncated 66 game schedule that began on Christmas Day. The Miami Heat won the NBA title.

The Heat signed Ray Allen during the off-season. The Los Angeles Lakers added Steve Nash and picked up Dwight Howard in a trade from the Orlando Sentinel. The new CBA was reportedly going to create a level playing field in the NBA, both small market and bigger market franchises would be able to compete against each other. Instead the both the Lakers and Heat made significant off season moves – on the eve of the 2012-13 season there is a belief the NBA is a league of “haves” and “have-nots”

“Since we have been in the business of sports, and in my case it goes back lots of years, superstars starting with Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have had more than the ability to have a say in where they went. In fact, in one of the early collective bargaining negotiations, I think I remember being in in a conversation where players said after some number of years that we should have a right to choose where we're going. And strangely enough, I agree with that.

“So I am not as affected by it as you are. I mean, even if you're talking about Dwight Howard. He was drafted by Orlando. He spent seven years there and in lieu of the 8,
Orlando got five draft picks. That's a pretty good system in my view. If Dwight Howard decides after seven years, which is longer than the average career in the NBA, that he'd like to be in another city, I think that's a right for which he's bargained.

“We could I'm not sure the players would agree to it again but we could say you're not allowed to have any movement, no matter where the draft has sent you. But even representing ownership, that's not a view that I ever agreed. ”

The next 15 months will be filled with David Stern tributes. More than anything else David Stern represented sports royalty. David Stern embraced the tough decisions and was always ready with any of the many challenges he faced. The National Basketball Association and the sports industry owes a debt of gratitude to Stern for the role he has played in the evolution of sports as a multi-billion dollar industry.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom