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David Stern’s farewell London gig on Thursday was a sellout, and the NBA Commissioner’s relaxed demeanor smacked of a man who knew that any difficult questions were heading to the in-tray of the guy sitting next to him. Stern and his successor, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, swapped one-liners in front of a packed audience of sports business execs gathered for the Nolan Partners Sport Industry Breakfast at BT's central London headquarters. Global expansion was a big theme of the morning. "The U.S. has 120 million homes, the world has many more," said Stern, outlining the opportunity. "The fun will come for Adam when he has to say to the owners that their Monday night game is now scheduled for 9am, to hit China in primetime." Silver pointed out that the demand for NBA games abroad ran in parallel with the rise in the commercial value of home games, but that any friction with team owners paled when compared to those faced by his European counterparts. When the Premier League mooted the idea of int'l expansion via the controversial 39th game, its execs were pilloried. "Poor Richard Scudamore," Stern said of the Premier League CEO, "Is he still alive?" Scudamore, he said, had done a marvelous job in building value in the league, and when Stern was asked about executive pay, he said that Scudamore was undervalued relative to his achievements. "If he wants me to renegotiate his deal next time, I'm available."
'BETTER INVENTORY': Stern said that the NBA has more games and "better inventory" so expansion is easier to justify to fans. He recalled going to the Soviet Union in '88 and seeing the opportunity for expansion. "I remember saying, Connors and McEnroe get off a plane in Tokyo and play five sets, what are you complaining about?" Often it is the players' own sponsors who want to see them play abroad, he said, countering the fatigue argument. "It has a maturing aspect when players see their impact on a global scale," Stern said.
BOLSHOI AND BEATLES: Later, at a press roundtable, Stern contemplated why the NBA had failed to make traction in the U.K. since what he called the "turning point" of the Barcelona Olympics in '92, where the Dream Team was treated like "a mix of the Bolshoi ballet and the Beatles." Stern: "We had meetings with three different British basketball associations. And it was apparent they weren't talking to each other." He hoped that the development of the AEG-owned O2 arena in London and the recent rights deal with BT to screen NBA matches in the U.K. "seven days a week" will help raise the profile of the league. Running with the subject of access, Silver suggested the next generation of media deals will focus on making the experience of the viewer less "clunky." He cited broadcasting and said that it was "inevitable" that the Premier League would move to a broadcast model that allowed every fan access to all games live, as is the case with the NBA.
GLOBAL EXPANSION: Did he support Dennis Rodman's recent high profile visit to North Korea, and did it harm the NBA brand internationally? "No and none," Stern said. However, the issue showed how sport can shine a light on areas that might otherwise remain in the shadows. Talking on the NBA's social agenda more generally, he said that he saw early the potential impact of sport to do good. "Milton Friedman once said the business of business is business," said Stern, quoting the famous economist. "He was wrong. Business has a big social role to play." Governments, he said, are "not up to the job" of developing the health of their people, pointing to the post-London 2012 legacy debate around sports participation. Stern: "The Prime Minister and the (London) Mayor get into arguments over how many hours a week kids can do sport. But it was obvious decades ago that exercise would become a massive issue."
WALKING AWAY: Stern’s retirement plans include travel on NBA business and watching the TV that just got delivered. "I'm a guy," said the outgoing NBA commissioner, before cramming one last sponsor reference into his act. "I've bought a 65-inch Samsung HD TV. I'm going to collect pixels." When asked in what state he leaves the NBA to Silver, Stern replied simply, "Good." Nobody argued.
Richard Gillis is a writer in London.
While Thursday's NBA game in London between the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks was the fastest sellout for a game in the U.K., the game only received a somewhat lukewarm amount of media coverage in London leading up to the game. Pre-game advances for the game were virtually absent from the London Guardian. The newspaper did touch on the game in Wednesday's "Talking Sport" blog. The newspaper wrote, "In an attempt to expand its global presence, the NBA has sent two disappointing Eastern Conference teams, who have lost their best players to injuries, to London to play each other on Thursday. While this seems like a possible error of judgment, it's still a much better plan than the NFL's idea to try to gain UK fans by forcing the Jacksonville Jaguars upon them once per year." The London Times' Ian Whittell wrote a piece on Brooklyn's Russian-born forward Andrei Kirilenko. The article quotes Kirilenko's view of the NBA as a global game with some interesting perspective. Kirilenko: "When I was growing up in Russia there was one channel broadcasting one [NBA] game a week,” he said. “That’s the only thing you knew about. We were watching these games with Michael Jordan and looking at him like he was a god. NBA players were from a different planet. Now kids are growing up in Russia and London watching the best basketball players in the world compete on a regular basis. They have their role models right in front of their eyes and can learn from them.” The London Evening Standard's Michael Weinstein kept the focus strictly between the lines by writing on feature on Atlanta Hawks' sharp-shooter Kyle Korver, who had made a 3-pointer in an NBA-record 107 consecutive games prior to Thursday. The London Telegraph, meanwhile, did not post a single story about the NBA in the days leading up to the game (SBD Global).
F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone "has stepped down from the board of F1, but will continue to run the sport on a day-to-day basis 'subject to increased monitoring,'" following confirmation he is to face trial in Germany later this year, according to Gill & Wise of SKY SPORTS. Ecclestone "will stand trial on bribery charges in a court case that is expected to commence in late April." Ecclestone was "indicted by Munich's state court on charges of bribery and incitement to breach of trust." A statement released by holding company Delta Topco Ltd. said, "After discussion with the Board, Mr Ecclestone has proposed and the Board has agreed that until the case has been concluded, he will step down as a director with immediate effect, thereby relinquishing his board duties and responsibilities until the case has been resolved" (SKY SPORTS, 1/16).
LOSING POWER: In London, Eason & Charter reported Ecclestone "has been stripped of ultimate power" over F1. This "is the crucial moment in the history of F1: Ecclestone’s rule over the sport has been total until now." The criminal trial "brings to a head the legal woes that threaten to end Ecclestone’s near-40 year tenure as ruler of F1." However, he then "faces two more actions" -- one in Germany and another in the U.S. -- that amount to claims for more than $1B. The papers from the Constantin action in London’s High Court "have been passed to prosecutors in Germany and will be studied by lawyers working on the two new civil claims" (LONDON TIMES, 1/16). The BBC's Andrew Benson opined, "The decision means that, to some degree, nothing changes for now. In reality, though, Ecclestone's impending trial on bribery charges has the potential to be a game-changer on a massive scale." Benson added, "If he is found guilty of paying a bribe -- and the German courts have already convicted former banker Gerhard Gribkowsky of taking it -- Ecclestone cannot possibly continue in his job" (BBC, 1/16).
ECCLESTONE'S LEGACY: REUTERS' Keith Weir wrote Ecclestone's eye for a deal "has made him a fortune" and turned F1 "into a global money-spinner." Despite his age, the former car salesman "remains central to the commercial operations of a sport followed by millions of fans around the world and that considered a flotation on the stock market" in Singapore in '12. Ecclestone "has long dismissed talk of retirement but has acknowledged that a conviction in Germany would force him out, saying with typical bluntness that he couldn't run the business from jail" (REUTERS, 1/16).
ON TRIAL: REUTERS' Poltz & Weir reported Ecclestone has been "ordered to stand trial on bribery charges in Munich." Ecclestone was charged last July with bribing Gribkowsky to "smooth the sale of a stake in Formula One to private equity firm CVC eight years ago." The Munich court said in a statement Thursday, "Under current planning, the main trial should start in late April." If convicted, Ecclestone "could be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail." Ecclestone has repeatedly said that the payment "had nothing to do with the CVC deal and that he was the victim of coercion by Gribkowksy who was threatening to make false claims about his tax status" (REUTERS, 1/16).
NEW TEAMS: GRAND PRIX 247 reported Ecclestone claims F1 authorities "are in talks with two potential new teams" for the '15 season. The FIA "recently invited new entrants to bid for the vacant spot on the grid, but until now there has been no sign of any serious interest." Ecclestone told the Wirtschaftswoche publication, "We are in talks with two new names. Neither is an automaker" (GRAND PRIX 247, 1/16).
Attendance in La Liga has been a "point of concern" for the Spanish Football League (LFP) over the past several years, as the economic crisis "continues to tighten" its "stranglehold on the pocketbooks of Spanish football fans," according to Tom Conn of INSIDE SPANISH FOOTBALL. Despite promises from LFP President Javier Tebas prior to the start of the season that "attendance for the first round would see a 3%-4% rise in attendance, in reality, it was only 1.1%," according to Sphera Sports' attendance data. The report found that the "average attendance of Primera Division stadia registered an attendance of 70.8% capacity, just 1.1% more than last season," with only eight matches at full capacity, including five at Athletic Bilbao’s New San Mames stadium (INSIDE SPANISH FOOTBALL, 1/16).
Top 10 Average Crowds From First Half Of '13-14 La Liga Season
Athletic Bilbao 36,651 36,245
98.9 Real Madrid
80,000 72,834 91 Atlético Madrid 54,581 45,360 83.1 Real Sociedad
32,000 25,685 80.3 Barcelona
98,772 73,969 74.9 Málaga 29,500 21,829 74 Osasuna 19,800 13,616 68.8 Valencia 52,000 35,800 68.8 Villarreal 24,500 16,746 68.3 Sevilla
45,500 31,025 68.2
LFP IMPROVES ON '12-13: In Madrid, Abraham Romero reported the LFP, which also includes the Spanish second division, attracted a total of 6.4 million fans over the first half of the season, representing a 3.66% increase from the previous season's figures (AS, 1/16).
Tire maker Pirelli has renewed its F1 contract and "will remain the sport's sole tyre supplier for the next three years," according to REUTERS. The news "was expected," with the FIA saying last October the contract would continue through an undefined "transition period" before any eventual tender. Pirelli had talked then of a five-year deal. Pirelli "also announced changes to the sporting regulations that will allow them more testing time." The new rules "will mean one of the 12 days of official pre-season testing will have to be dedicated exclusively to wet tyre testing" (REUTERS, 1/16). The PA reported each team "will dedicate one of their eight days of in-season testing exclusively to tyre testing." This means during each of the eight days of in-season testing, at least one team -- and up to a maximum of two -- "will concentrate on tyre testing along with Pirelli's engineers." Previously, Pirelli was forced to use a car at least three years old -- therefore "entirely different in terms of specification to current models -- to develop its tyres" (PA, 1/16).