SBJ/March 5-11, 2012/Opinion

NBA succession, new arena, growth in spotlight at All-Star

In my two days in Orlando for the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, one topic was prevalent: How much longer will David Stern continue as commissioner? Stern has been the standard of the modern-day commissioner, but after being in the job for 28 years and nearing the age of 70, it’s clear that he is positioning himself — and the NBA — for his exit.

Most people I spoke to offered a range of one to two years, while one ventured as far out as 2015 for Stern’s departure. We all know that David Stern is his own man, who will leave when he’s ready to leave. But it can’t be underplayed how much the recent labor talks and two-month lockout took out of this tireless CEO. It’s been well-documented that the league has changed and the aggressive new breed of owners are not the same group — nor do they have the same point of view — as the owners who Stern worked with for years. And eventually, one would think he would want to shift to the sidelines and enjoy some carefree days.

So while I thought Stern’s public energy was considerably better in Orlando than it was last year in Los Angeles, for anyone who witnessed his state of the league address, it was telling how he used it to aggressively and publicly promote his preferred successor, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver. Starting with his opening remarks, “Adam gave me the note cards,” Stern continually touted his longtime confidant. He called him “a first‑rate, top‑of‑the‑class executive, not just sports executive,” but a “media and sports executive,” with international expertise.

Silver (left), with Stern in December, has honed his skills at the commissioner’s side for 20 years.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Stern added that a good CEO should “provide his board with a spectacular choice for its successor, and I think I’ve done that, and that’s Adam.” At that time, the obviously uncomfortable Silver whispered a classy, “Thank you,” to Stern.

From this vantage point, it was encouraging to see Stern use his often overlooked charm to tout one of the most highly regarded but below-the-radar sports executives. Silver, in my view, has all the smarts, diplomacy and talents to be a successful leader of the NBA for years. He’s not nearly as charismatic — or polarizing — as Stern, but he knows the league and its constituents, loves the game, has built the relationships and engendered years of good will and loyalty from staffers. He took a lead role in the CBA negotiations, which was a huge step in proving himself to ownership. And behind his kind, affable nature, he is known as a very tough and shrewd dealmaker — a skill honed by spending 20 years at Stern’s side.

I have no idea whether the new ownership dynamic that permeates the NBA will rubber-stamp Stern’s nomination of Silver — they might keep him on ice to prove a point of who is in charge. But those of you who know Silver know his love of running. He’s got the stamina to last on such an arduous course, and while far be it for me to suggest anything to NBA owners, they would choose well to let this long-distance runner lead them.

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If you haven’t seen the Amway Center in Orlando, make a point to.

All sports executives make the rounds to see the latest venues, but anyone interested in consumer entertainment must visit this facility. It’s easily one of the finest facilities I have ever seen. It opened in October 2010, but I finally toured it over All-Star Weekend and I couldn’t be more impressed by the visuals, variety and flexibility of the building.

First, visuals. The center-hung scoreboard is one of the most underrated jewels in sports. Everyone talks about Cowboys Stadium, but this building has the tallest HD video board in any NBA/NHL arena, produced by Daktronics, and it’s spellbinding, perhaps even more powerful because it sits in a smaller venue. All of the LED signage through the facility is powerful.

Second, variety. The variety of seating/pricing options, variety of food concessions and the variety of experiences. From the Gentleman Jack Terrace and One80 Grey Goose Lounge, both with spectacular outside decks, to the Budweiser Baseline Bar, to Stuff’s Magic Castle children’s play area, the building offers multiple touch points for consumers.

Third, flexibility. Building operators have the ability to change elements of the facility based on usage and flow.

At first glance from the outside, the building looks nondescript, but go by it at night along I-4 and you see that it serves as a brilliant and vibrant anchor to Orlando’s Church Street.

Populous, the Magic and the city had a lot of time to plan this facility, and you can tell that a great deal of thought went into it. Do yourself a favor and see this building.

■  ■  ■

As noted in the main story from Orlando this week, there was a general sense of optimism from the NBA and partners on the state and future of the league’s business. That should be the case fresh off a labor deal and with a real opportunity for growth around an appealing and talented group of star athletes.

One area of interest to me is how the NBA refocuses on its international growth. If you brought up the recent New York Times Sunday Magazine story on the struggles of NBA China to fulfill early expectations, you were met with sensitive responses from league officials who thought it was either unbalanced or inaccurate. But there is no doubt that the global economic slowdown took some of the shine off the league’s global business.

Silver and Mark Tatum, NBA executive vice president of global marketing partnerships, were in China in early February meeting with business partners. I expect to see some news shortly regarding this area, at the very least, the league is expected to pick up its slate of exhibition games in China and Europe next year as it renews its efforts to push the game overseas.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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