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As David Stern leaves Commissioner’s office the only comparison is Pete Rozelle

Jan 31, 2014, 1:11 PM EDT

Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks Getty Images

When you watch the Super Bowl this weekend, you are watching a game and a league that is the legacy of Pete Rozelle. He not only oversaw the creation of the Super Bowl, he created Monday night football, he changed the marketing of the game, most importantly he pushed through congress a bill that legalized single-network contracts for pro sports leagues — the NFL could negotiate for all its teams, not have them work individually. That changed the finances of the league (and its owners). Rozelle laid out the blueprint for today’s NFL.

David Stern took that blueprint and expanded on it to create today’s NBA — for that Stern should go down as one of the two greatest professional sports commissioner ever. Rozelle is the only other guy on Stern’s level, and Stern built upon what Rozelle had done.

Stern steps down from his office Saturday after 30 years as NBA Commissioner. Adam Silver steps into his hard-to-fill shoes.

When you watch the NBA All-Star Game and the weekend of events Feb. 14-16 in New Orleans, know that was David Stern — the idea of having a dunk contest and other events around the game was something he pushed from the day he took over in 1984. Know that when you watch a mid-season nationally televised game Friday night — where highlight packages and conversation before and after the game happens on ESPN and other outlets — that was David Stern’s vision.

Stern certainly wasn’t perfect — he was a cult of personality that led to two destructive lockouts, plus he already had a foundation to change the league put in place by others when he stepped in the door in 1984. You can make the case that he is more Bill Gates than Steve Jobs — he didn’t create new and innovative things, he just better exploited the market for those things.

Still, the NBA is in a far better place now because of him.

Far, far better.

Stern eventually came to understand the NBA’s advantage was that you could see and know it’s athletes — Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan did not have their faces hidden by helmets. You could get to know them, their personalities. It may have taken the transcendence of Michael Jordan hitting him over the head to get him to see it, but Stern came to understand the value of marketing stars — where the NFL could sell teams, the NBA could promote personalities. Hand in hand with its sponsors.

Stern was handed those personalities on a silver platter, but he understood how to promote those personalities and the game. He and the NBA were light years ahead of other leagues on this.

Stern embraced cable television — and down the line the Internet — more quickly and more deftly than other leagues. He understood that it was good to broaden the reach of the league, and with that the reach of the sponsors.

It all worked. And Stern got to keep doing it — and had the unwavering support of the old-line owners — because he made them a lot of money.

When Stern took over 1984, league revenues were $165 million a year, they are now at $5.5 billion a year. Those increasing revenues trickled down the players — the average player salary in 1984 was $290,000, it is now $5.7 million. The main ingredient behind that growth was the national television deal, which in 1984 netted the league $28.5 million total and is now is $937 million (and about to go up under a new contract). The NBA became the international brand for the best level of basketball, popular in Europe and China and all around the globe.

When Stern took over the game was battling the image of being a league where most of the players were using hard drugs — drug testing was already in place when Stern stepped in, but he and his staff worked hard to change that image. Same with the notion that the NBA was a “black” league that white America didn’t watch. The numbers showed that wasn’t true, especially as the NBA’s brightest stars became some of the biggest in sports, yet Stern had to work to overcome that with networks and sponsors.

Stern had been handed some ready-made stars to help change the league’s image in Magic and Bird — a natural rivalry of cities and styles — but he put in place the infrastructure the league needed to take advantage of their opportunities. That grew with Jordan. Soon companies that wanted nothing to do with the NBA before – Gatorade, Coca-Cola, etc. — were on board.

Stern’s legacy is not a simple one, not a clean one. Often unnoticed was that Larry O’Brien and Larry Fleisher did the hard work of laying the foundation for Stern. Critics can and do point to the NBA’s two lockouts under Stern, which not only hurt the reputation of the league (but ended with the owners making a larger cut of the league’s money) but also altered the lives of people who count on the NBA for their livelihood — people who sell concessions at games, who own the bar across the street from the arena, who get paid low wages as it is to clean up the arena after the fans leave and now had fewer days to work. All of that would be right.

For better or worse — and it is mostly better — the NBA today is made in the image of David Stern. And in that image the NBA has grown from a league where its finals were shown on Saturday afternoons or during the week tape-delayed to be shown after the prime-time shows and local nightly news, into one of the biggest sports in the world.

Now every NBA playoff game is broadcast on national television and the Finals are a ratings bonanza (especially when the biggest stars are part of it). It makes everyone a lot of money.

That’s David Stern’s real legacy.

The only other commissioner who changed his sport that like that was Pete Rozelle. Stern built on what he did, and the game will not be quite the same without him.

  1. hojo20 - Jan 31, 2014 at 1:23 PM

    I didn’t think the 1998-99 Lockout was bad. I enjoyed the 50 game season. Less = more.

    • isitheshoes - Jan 31, 2014 at 1:33 PM

      Agreed Less = More in the case of the NBA

  2. isitheshoes - Jan 31, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    I wish they would adopt the 66 game season.

  3. broncobeta - Jan 31, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    But people actually like Pete Rozelle.

  4. shuttaman1990 - Jan 31, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    Terror. and Pete rozelle was insecure due to Al Davis scaring him
    but Stern he’s a little devli
    Made life hell for iverson
    Seriously bro, basketball reasons? No CP3? BASKETBALL REASONS??!!!!
    Oh my god man What the hellllll!!!!!!!!!!
    Lakers all day

  5. joroberts10 - Jan 31, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    Chris Paul

    • av416 - Feb 1, 2014 at 12:21 AM

      The Chris Paul veto still haunts my dreams. As a Laker fan I am gearing up for another year of struggles, mediocrity at the very best, and the #1 reason for this is because we were denied CP3. I know it sounds childish at this point to say, but I cannot under any circumstance envision the Lakers being the circus it is now (not to mention all of last year) with Kobe and CP3 running the show. See ya never, David

      • antistratfordian - Feb 1, 2014 at 1:22 AM

        CP3 probably would’ve left the Lakers already if that trade went through. Don’t blame your problems on Stern – look in the mirror (not you, but the Lakers organization).

  6. censormynameandmycomments - Jan 31, 2014 at 3:20 PM

    Did Stern help build the NBA? Sure. Did he do it in the most condescending, arrogant, disrespectful, jerk-off kind of way? Absolutely.

    The amount of respect I have for the contributions Stern made to the game pale in comparison to the utter loathing I have for the man himself. Good riddance.

  7. mogogo1 - Jan 31, 2014 at 3:23 PM

    He gets huge props for the growth of the league and his marketing ideas were a big chunk of that. The downside is he goes out after a prolonged period where he seemed to no longer be trying and had just given in to whatever the craziest owners wanted. So, while Rozelle is remembered fondly as a legend, Stern goes out as sort of mix of Rozelle/Tags/Goodell–lots of positives but plenty of negatives, too.

  8. belleby123 - Jan 31, 2014 at 3:45 PM

    There are too many teams. That’s his fault. The officiating is a joke. That’s his fault. If the only goal is to make as much money as possible then he did fine. If the goal is to preserve the integrity of the game and keep the level of competition as high as possible he gets a failing grade.

  9. reino98029 - Jan 31, 2014 at 5:00 PM

    Mr Helin obviously doesn’t live in Seattle.

    Stern is also fully responsible for welcoming a lying group of flim flamming oil and natural gas robber barons into the league to steal a team with 40 years of history while constantly riding the public position of trying to make things work in Seattle.
    Then when a group makes an effort to purchase a franchise in a failing market to bring back to Seattle with every public statment completely outlining their objective…he brings in an 11th hour group to purchase the team to keep them in Sacramento all the while publicly campaigning the existing owners to support his position.
    His desire to leave his position with the support of media clowns like this guy was successful. After giving the Seattle market the shaft twice…he goes out on a high note as the white knight who saved the small city from being pilfered by big money interests.
    Seattle made mistakes…the lack of a supportive mayor and city council to work harder to keep the Sonics and Chris Larson erred in making donations to the anti-Sacramento facility group…Stern’s very transparent dislike of the Seattle market will always color the judgement of his era in the NW and should across the nation.
    He was fortunate to be in office during a period where the media resources directed towards securing sports programming just exploded.

    Good riddance to a scheming, double dealing, lying bastard!

    • seattlealan - Feb 1, 2014 at 3:45 PM

      You nailed it, reino98029! The whole Sonicsgate documentary documents the lies and deceit used to steal our team. The fan support was there, but the elected officials didn’t quite understand the support that was there in the community or the LIES that Stern and Clay Bennett were feeding them. Go to for the whole story.

  10. 2064life - Jan 31, 2014 at 5:19 PM

    As a Seattle sports fan, I hate the man. After the way he handled Seattle’s recent attemp to aquite the Kings, I was shocked to find I could hate him even more. He is the reason I no longer watch basketball. Glad he is on his way out.


  11. money2long - Jan 31, 2014 at 7:27 PM

    hmm, when i asked if stern would be around for a “pacers/blazers finals” , why did people thumbs me down? the title of that article was like, not stern’s dream finals. i figured stern would be long gone by then. who thumb’d me down? i was confused why that was a bad question.

  12. jimthebuilder27 - Jan 31, 2014 at 9:08 PM

    Didn’t like Rozelle, he was as bad as Roger Goodell on a power trip.

    Paul Tagliabue, however, is the best commissioner in the history of sports. Everyone liked him, he wasn’t an arrogant prick, and made the NFL even more popular. Not to mention he helped keep the Saints in New Orleans and took a stand against Arizona for not establishing an MLK holiday.

    Stern is like Tagliabue (building up the NBA into an icon and furthering its reach) but also like Goodell, in that he was too power hungry (the fine against the Spurs was dumb and I hate the Spurs) and greed (Seattle anyone?)

    Stern was good for the most part however. The NBA is in great shape, and hopefully will grow even more. I like Stern far more than Roger Goodell.

  13. rb0918 - Jan 31, 2014 at 9:27 PM

    Never been a fan of the NBA. However the article grabbed me since I watched the Seattle Sonics move to OKC due to Stern’s support. As someone else mentioned, Stern clearly doesn’t like the PNW since he later went a bit further to block the move of a flailing Sacramento franchise to Seattle. I do think the MLS benefitted from his actions, by leaving the door open for another sport to capture the attention of Seattle sports fans in the spring. Not sure I understand how a business person, as reportedly intelligent as Stern, could not find a model for the Sonics franchise to succeed in such a strong income growth market like Seattle. There is some kind of irony to see soccer succeed while basketball threw in the towel in one of the faster growing major US markets. It doesn’t bode too well for the overall health of the NBA going forward in my opinion. As a general observer of the sports business, I believe Stern falls a bit short when compared against transformational executives and fail to agree with the gist of this article. He seems to have made short term revenue driven decisions which have not made the league healthier for long term growth from what I’ve witnessed over the past several years.

  14. gmjerry - Feb 1, 2014 at 12:20 AM

    Did Rozelle ever fix the nfl draft?

  15. tominma - Feb 1, 2014 at 12:53 PM

    I think Stern left the quality of the game far poorer than when he became commissioner. It’s all one on one, personalities, few players can shoot well, almost nobody plays defense! Allowing the game to deteriorate by allowing so many kids to enter has also had an effect on the college game, where players aren’t learning fundamentals. That’s why, having been a HUGE basketball lover, I no longer watch either the NBA nor the College games.

  16. jimeejohnson - Feb 1, 2014 at 9:58 PM

    Stern’s pension must rival that of the richest CEOs. 30 years at any job usually gets you a solid pension. Cops and fireman deserve a break and should get theirs after 20.

  17. ghelton03 - Feb 1, 2014 at 11:16 PM

    Don’t let the door hit your sorry a$s on the way out.

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