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.