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The Case for and against David Stern

In honour of the continuing NBA lockout, we give you a quick assessment of the divisive, all powerful NBA commish, David Stern. Against goes first...cause its David Stern.


With the NBA lockout entering its fourth month, all six NBA fans in Vancouver are starting to get a little nervous. The NBA’s dyspeptic, gnome-faced commissioner is already threatening to cancel games until 2017.

Yet, if the NBA owners have the worst labour agreement in sports, and are supposedly haemorrhaging money, how does David Stern still have a job?

It’s because Stern is wrongly credited with taking the NBA from a no-name, barely-watched sport in the 1980’s and turning it in to the entertainment powerhouse it is today.

There are three reasons the NBA has become one of the world’s most popular leagues. The first two are intertwined like Shane and – running shoes and Michael Jordan.

When shoe companies entered their marketing heyday in the 1980’s every Nike ad, every Rebook ad, every Adidas advertisement was an ad for the NBA. Stern didn’t do anything, he just sat back and laughed maniacally at the great twist of fortune that befell him (yes, I just used the word befell). Okay, we’ll give RUN DMC a little credit too... Rock your adidas.

The third reason for its popularity is that basketball is one of the cheapest sports in the world to play. That’s why we’re seeing kids in China pick up basketballs. Nice Bauer’s are expensive.

Soccer, basketball and cricket, these are the sports of the poor, and there are more poor every season.

Owners make the bulk of their money off increased franchise values, and overpayment of franchises when they decide to sell, see Malcolm Gladwell. Sports franchises are like expensive pieces of art. And their appreciation in value has little to do with the success of their current commissioner.


David Stern has been the NBA commissioner since 1984. That is a long time. He has outlasted all commissioners in the big four sports leagues (since we are in Canada, I do refer to hockey as one of the big four). While the popularity of the NBA dwindled in the post-Jordan period of the 1990s, the league still has marquee stars to build around.

The problem with the NBA isn’t the current talent crop of players. Kobe and Lebron may not have the endorsements and overall popularity of their predecessors like Jordan and Shaq, but they aren’t that far off either. The NBA product presented on the court presents a similar analysis – it isn’t what it was (with Jordan), but it isn’t that bad either.

The problem for the NBA is that all the best players only want to play with other great players in major markets. NBA teams can be found in Boston, New York, L.A., Miami, Dallas and Chicago.

The rest of the league resembles the early years of the ABA.

When any non-major market wins a gem of a first overall pick in the NBA draft, they manage to keep that player just long enough for their market value to peak, only to then lose them in free agency.

Stern is aware that the current state of his league might kill every small or medium market he has, and he intends on fixing that problem in the current collective-bargaining agreement. Contrary to Bryant Gumbel’s analogy of David Stern being a slave-owner, I would contend that Stern isn’t trying to keep NBA players away from money – he is trying to keep his league sustainable, so that every market can see a return on their investments.

Is David Stern responsible for the success of the NBA? No. However, he did a good job of building and promoting the NBA when the interest was there. Former NBA star Charles Barkley was drinking, umm, I mean golfing, when he took the time to defend Mr. Stern on the Dan Patrick radio show last week. Barkley was one of the premiere stars of the Stern NBA regime in the 80’s and 90’s, prior to becoming a YouTube sensation for having the ugliest golf swing in North America.

Barkley’s limber analysis noted that since Stern took the reigns as NBA chief, the average NBA salary has risen from approximately $400,000 per player, per year to over $5 million. Most people would be right in saying “David Stern isn’t responsible for this growth, the players are.” Fair point.

And yet, Barkley was one of those players and characters who did help to grow the game during this period, and he is giving credit to David Stern for getting the NBA to where it is now. More to the point – Barkley has never been one to stray from controversial statements or opinions. I would have thought he would have been the first person to agree with Bryant Gumbel’s ‘slave-owner’ analogy. Even Barkley knows better than to suggest that Stern is keeping money from black athletes. Especially when you call in to offer this opinion from your favourite golf course.

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