By Lenn Robbins
Before there was Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, before there were vloggers and people earning a living as influencers, heck, before there was an Internet, there was a force of nature known as David Joel Stern.
Almost anything and everything you see today in marketing and branding, probably makes its way back to the man who took the National Basketball Association from the brink of irrelevancy to one of the most successful sports leagues in the world.
Many NBA fans are young enough to not know of a league in which playoff games took place with little or no television coverage. Or an NBA Draft Lottery that didn’t exist.
“David took over the NBA in 1984 with the league at a crossroads,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said of his friend and mentor. “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.
“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 died yesterday at the age of 77. He suffered a brain aneurysm hemorrhage about three weeks ago and never recovered. Stern was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Under Stern’s New York City brash and confident persona (he worked at his father’s Manhattan deli), the NBA saw the birth of seven new franchises, the relocation of six other franchises and the creation of the WNBA and the D-League (now the G-League).
The value of franchises exploded. Jerry Reinsdorf bought the Chicago Bulls for $16 million in 1985. Less than 30 years later (2014), Steve Ballmer bought the L.A. Clippers for $2 billion.
The secret to Stern’s success was as simple and complex as this: He marketed the league’s stars as never before. He became commissioner just as Michael Jordan was emerging as a star of stars. Stern road Jordan, Magic, Bird, Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing to international superstardom.
It was Stern’s vision to sell the stars that ingratiated the commissioner to the players even as he played hardball in negotiating. The NBA endured its first four lockouts under Stern.
By the time Stern handed the reins to Silver the NBA had a unique dynamic with its players: We’re in this together. The end result was that the players went from well-paid to millionaires and the owners left the millionaire club to become billionaires.
During his tenure, the league went from about $10 million a year in television revenue to more than $1 billion. NBA games became a place to seen by actors and musicians. Prince William and Duchess Kate attended a Brooklyn Nets game with Jay Z and Beyonce’!
“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,’’ Jordan said in a statement. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.
“His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed. David had a deep love for the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him — and I admired him for that. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”