While many around the world took yesterday as a chance to ring in the New Year and look forward to the upcoming year, the NBA world looked back in remembrance of the person that kept the league float and ushered in a new era.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern passed away on Wednesday at the age of 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage on December 12 and undergoing emergency surgery. it’s a loss that was not felt throughout the NBA, but also worldwide because Stern made it a popular global league.
The NBA has been in good hands with Stern’s protege, Adam Silver, but to compare the NBA before Stern became commissioner and seeing where it is at today is telling of what he did with the sport, the league and one of his greatest passions.
“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Michael Jordan said. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.”
A New Era for the NBA
Stern became the commissioner in 1984 and aside from having the foresight to turn the NBA into a globally popular sport, he was also involved in the creation of the WNBA and the G-League.
Stern served as commissioner for 30 years, the longest tenure in NBA history, and he was often considered the greatest commissioner of the major sports.
“David took over the NBA in 1984 with the league at a crossroads. But over the course of 30 years as Commissioner, he ushered in the modern global NBA. He launched groundbreaking media and marketing partnerships, digital assets and social responsibility programs that have brought the game to billions of people around the world,” Silver said in a release from the NBA. “Because of David, the NBA is a truly global brand, making him not only one of the greatest sports commissioners of all time but also one of the most influential business leaders of his generation. Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity, and inspiration.”
Stern’s involvement with the NBA started much before he became the commissioner, a role he assumed would be temporary. He became the NBA’s general counsel in 1978 was eventually promoted to a role as executive vice president.
The Changing Tide
When he took over as commissioner, succeeding Larry O’Brien, several franchises were in trouble financially, TV revenues were low and the NBA wasn’t as popular as it is today.
Stern used his skills in litigation, paired with a mind for marketing to change the tide, so much so that several quotes eulogizing him used a word that is mostly reserved for people in the tech space – visionary.
According to a report by CNN, in his time as commissioner, he increased television revenue from $10 million per year to around $900 million per year, the salary cap grew from $3.6 million to $58.7 million. Team value soared from $400 million to $19 billion at the time of his retirement.
NBA revenues were at $118 million the season before he became commissioner, and reached $4.6 billion the season before he retired.
But while Stern turned the NBA into a viable and financial success, and is responsible for so much more, his biggest contribution and proof of his marketing genius came from taking the league international through several different programs and efforts.
The Global Game
Before Stern’s tenure, the NBA was purely a domestic play, but the year 1984 was a transformative one for the league, and not because of Big Brother.
That was the year Stern became commissioner and it was also the rookie year for the likes of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Hakeem Olajuwon among others. Stern immediately saw the missed opportunity of being able to market not just the league, but also individual players that became the NBA’s stars.
But the marketability of the players and league had to go beyond the United States in order for the league to really blossom into its full potential. Soccer has always been the world’s most popular sport, but there was room for the NBA if they could actually reach fans globally.
It started with allowing Argentina Channel 9 and analyst Adrian Paenza the rights to air NBA highlights for just $2,000 per season at the time. It is also widely noted that in 1987, he shipped VHS tapes to China to expand the globalization even further. Whereas in the past, NBA games were tape-delayed, internationally, they are now aired live globally, which in turn brought in a new level of talent from overseas that grew up watching the NBA.
Would Manu Ginobili have ever become a basketball player and one of the first from Argentina had it not been for that Channel 9 deal? Soccer is the sport in Argentina, but the Ginobili’s played basketball.
So many other former and current international NBA players grew up idolizing the Jordans, Bryants and now the LeBrons, but that was not possible before Stern.
“You got to give him so much credit,” LeBron James said of the NBA broadcasting its games in more than 200 countries. “It was a dream come true to step up on that stage and shake David’s hand knowing where I come from. I remember that handshake. I remember him giving me that hat and I remember that handshake. I will never, ever forget that.”
Broadcasting and marketing was obviously important to the global expansion of the league, and other efforts like Basketball without Borders and NBA China likely all came out of that, but another aspect was being able to see the players compete on an international stage.
Stern helped pave the way to allow professionals to participate in the Olympics, starting with the 1992 U.S. Olympic team or the Dream Team.
In 1995, the NBA then expanded into Canada, adding the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies, who later moved to Memphis.
But the expansion isn’t done just yet. We are seeing an increasing amount of international player in the NBA every year, and two such young stars, Luke Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, currently lead al of the NBA in all-star votes.
The NBA also announced in their slate of games in Mexico City recently that one of the Mexican teams, the Capitanes, would be joining the G-League next year. That’s likely another step in the international plan Stern started that Adam Silver is now carrying out. We’ll have more on that next week.
What’s enormously clear though is that Stern took the NBA to a new level and the effects of his time with the league are still taking effect today, as Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said recently.
“David Stern made probably a bigger impact on the game than any non-player in the history of the NBA,” Kerr said via a video. “David Stern really led the expansion of the league. He had the vision to set the league on course where it is today.”
The NBA may have lost it’s visionary, but his vision still seems to be firmly in place.