Leaving His Mark: David Stern Announces Retirement

He may be gone come 2014, but David Stern’s legacy and impact will never be forgotten.

On February 1st, 2014, NBA commissioner David Stern will step down as acting head of the NBA, relinquishing his position to deputy commissioner Adam Silver. His tenure may be ending after next season, but no one will question whether he accomplished enough as the grand poo-bah of basketball. His impact on the game is immense, and can be measured by every dollar that the worth of the NBA brand has grown in the 28 years he has overseen all basketball operations in the NBA.

His involvement started back in 1978 when he was hired to oversee the NBA’s legal department. During this time, Stern learned all of the inner-workings of the NBA from a legal standpoint, which paved the way for his eventual takeover as Executive Vice President of the NBA under then-commissioner Larry O’Brien. In the early 80’s, cocaine and marijuana use began to run rampant across the United States, and it wasn’t exactly a secret that many NBA players were using drugs. Using his legal prowess, Stern successfully implemented a drug testing policy for the league’s players to end the controversy and reinstate these players as being the positive influences that role models need to be, which made these players a lot more appealing to market and endorse from a public relations standpoint.

Although they had different roles, make no mistake. Stern and Jordan were business partners. Period.

Even though he was supposed to be in the passenger seat next to O’Brien, his stabilization of the NBA continued when he acted as a mediator between the owners and players during the league’s first ever collective bargaining agreement that joined the two parties. By 1984, it was clear that the NBA was only going to grow in popularity, and Stern was the man to oversee it. After all: their recent success was orchestrated by him.So, on February 1st, 1984, 30 years before the date of his now-pending retirement, Stern took over as NBA commissioner. Under his rule, the NBA would see commercial success over the next few decades unlike any sports league in America at the time.

In the first draft under Stern’s watch, the NBA gained a player that both helped grow the industry’s marketing value and can most likely lay claim to being the most marketable professional athlete of all time. I’m referring, of course, to Michael Jordan. With Nike as his partner, Jordan would build a brand name that few athletes can say they have even sniffed at when considering today’s athletes, and each of them have tainted their brand names at one point or another. In Jordan’s era, you could get anything from Jordan brand shoes to a McJordan sandwich at McDonald’s. With the use of Jordan, along with other fan favorite players ranging from John Stockton to Shaquille O’Neal, Stern  took marketing to a whole new level to take the league to new heights. Making the NBA appeal to as many people as possible was always Stern’s goal, and he never took his eyes off of that prize.

Stern seemingly could do no wrong with his strategies to broaden the NBA audience. His first year as commissioner saw the reintroduction of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, which instantly became a sensation that still remains more popular than most all-star sporting events. One of the most successful aspects of Stern’s tenure is his adaptation of the NBA draft. In his first year as commissioner, Stern helped to create hype for the NBA draft by broadcasting it from Madison Square Garden in New York City and by adding a coin flip between the league’s two worst teams to decide the first pick, which added the element of curiosity to the draft. In the years that followed, the NBA draft lottery was created, which generated more interest in the draft itself.

The 1984 draft wasn’t only The Dream’s NBA debut, but it was Stern’s, as well.

Stern’s first draft as acting NBA commissioner, along with the NBA as a whole in years to come, would reel in the international audience with the integration of foreign players: starting with that year’s first pick Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon from Nigeria. The following year’s draft also made a foreign player its first overall pick: a Jamaican by the name of Patrick Ewing.  Later in the 1980’s, the integration of the great Yugoslavian basketball scene with players such as Dražen Petrović and Vlade Divac broke international basketball ground, but that wasn’t the key to raking in the international audience.

To expose the world to how the awe and amazement that is brought on by the athletes of the NBA, Stern and his fellow NBA heads orchestrated what would come to be known as the Dream Team: the 1992 Olympic team. Their efforts to gather all of the top NBA players, who had been reluctant to play in the Olympics in years past, paid off incredibly by garnering previously uncharted levels of international interest in the NBA. The globalization of the NBA was truly declared when Yao Ming,  the first Chinese basketball superstar, joined the NBA in 2002. His dominance in the NBA opened up a whole new Asian market that the NBA hadn’t seen before. Today, the NBA plans to build an NBA arena in China.

Thanks to the marketing and leadership of the Stern administration, basketball can lay claim to being one of the world’s most popular sports. According to Forbes, the 2012 NBA Finals was  streamed online and broadcast live  by 90 international outlets in 47 languages and 215 countries, while 278 million fans followed on social media networks. Right here in the United States, TVbythenumbers reported that ABC drew in 18.5 million viewers when Miami defeated Oklahoma City in last year’s Finals: the highest for an NBA elimination game in history.

The NBA truly is “money ball.”

So what does this all mean monetarily? That’s precisely where Stern’s impact can be seen the clearest. According to insidehoops.com, Since Stern became commissioner in 1984, the profit of the NBA’s television broadcasting contracts have soared from 10 million dollars a year to a staggering 366.67 million dollars a year in 2008. Under Stern’s watch, the NBA has only had one year of reporting losses, which was in 2009 when the average NBA franchise took a 3% hit in value, according to the findings of the sports finance group WRHambrecht and Co. The same findings reveal that the NBA rebounded the next year, and NBA franchises are now worth more than ever before.

No one will ever question David Stern’s impact on the NBA. Though his administration did deal with four separate lockouts, it also saw the relocation of 6 NBA franchises to more profitable markets, while also creating 7 new NBA franchises. So, thank you, David Stern, for making basketball the global phenomenon it is today. Adam Silver certainly has some hefty shoes to fill.

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