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Why NBA is Best-Run Sports League

February 23, 2015
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admin-ajaxNBA All-Star weekend marked the anniversary of Adam Silver’s remarkably successful first year on the job as NBA Commissioner and was symbolic in many ways. It was held in NYC, between Brookly
n and Madison Square Garden (the mecca of basketball) where the NBA showcased the best of the sport and NYC (from the Rockettes to hit Broadway shows). On display was what is great about the NBA and makes it the most well managed and “high growth” sports property in the world.

There are numerous reasons for this. The NBA features the best athletes in the world with their athletic skills, image, and faces on full display. At the heart of the NBA culture is giving back to the community (as they did on Friday’s “day of service”). The NBA celebrates its history and treats their stars of the past with great reverence (Legends Brunch). The NBA is always out front on most the important social issues, including racial equality (Newsmaker Breakfast). It is also a leader in every development in media and technology as was plainly evident at the groundbreaking NBA Tech Summit where Commissioner Adam Silver put on a pair of Oculus Rift goggles during his opening remarks and led the audience through a virtual reality tour of All-Star Weekend activities.

But in the end, it is all about the game and players that just seem to be getting better, NBA Breakfast_pic2more well-behaved, and socially conscious all the time. And, this game is becoming more global by the minute as evidenced by the record number of international media in attendance covering over 100 NBA players that currently hail from countries other than the USA.

All this did not happen by accident. What distinguishes the NBA’s extraordinary management is its carefully crafted succession plan which resulted in a seamless transition from former Commissioner David Stern to current Commissioner Adam Silver. David Stern was a true sports “icon”—larger than life; George Washington on the horse leading the troops— knowing how to do everyone in the organization’s job, better than they did. Lecturing to his owners like they were school children—but always commanding enormous respect. He was Plato’s consummate benevolent despot, although he could be a bit tough on employees at times because of his searing intellect, unparalleled work ethic and almost prescient knowledge of everything that went on at the league office.

NBASTORY2During Commissioner Stern’s tenure, I was the “agent” and marketer for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Hakeem Olajuwon; Kevin Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal, among others. I had the opportunity to work closely with Commissioner Stern in a slightly adversarial capacity (because of the inherent conflict between the league and its players) but that grew into a relationship of mutual respect that left me with deep admiration for him. I have never encountered anyone smarter, with greater command of all the facts, and one who knew how to exercise nearly perfect judgment in the face of crises. He also possessed a true sense of humanity and made “giving back” a foundational principle of the league.

Stern groomed Adam Silver (for nearly 20 years) as his successors and their styles couldn’t be more different. Ironically, Silver’s style, while polar opposite, is no less effective. The NBA he has inherited (which he also contributed largely to building in his own quiet way) a globally burgeoning business where “media” has changed from a relatively simple TV deal to a highly sophisticated and fragmented array of digital rights. In Silver’s first year he was faced with three big jobs. First, restructuring the NBA organization for Global Growth; second, dealing with the unanticipated Donald Sterling fiasco; and third, negotiating a new TV/media deal. It is a matter of public record that he passed all these tests with flying colors and catapulted himself from a relatively unknown to a guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated, ESPN Magazine, appearing on David Letterman, and getting stopped constantly for photos and autographs. He’s almost become a cult hero.

Silver also gets high marks for the loyalty he engenders among employees, partners and friends. He is very inclusive, considerate, generous and sensitive to others. He doesn’t lead on a horse as much as through consensus but always makes the final important decision after conferring with his trusted advisors, such outstanding, hand-picked Deputy Commissioner, Mark Tatum. In a way, Silver’s style may be even better suited for today’s more sprawling NBA than was his micro managing predecessor, but his predecessor must be given full credit for orchestrating the scenario where the owners put exactly the right man in charge at the right time.


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Leonard Armato is a visionary, celebrity brand builder, and expert in music as an engine for brands. Follow Leonard on Twitter: @LeonardArmato or on Instagram: LeonardArmato

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