Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 18
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Executive of the Decade: Adam Silver

Adam Silver has smartly navigated the NBA through a series of high-profile moments.
Photo: getty images
Adam Silver has smartly navigated the NBA through a series of high-profile moments.
Photo: getty images
Adam Silver has smartly navigated the NBA through a series of high-profile moments.
Photo: getty images

Earlier this month, Adam Silver appeared at a panel at the SBJ Dealmakers conference in New York in front of a standing-room only crowd hanging on his every word. When he was finished, he could have easily slipped out a side door to avoid the crowds as so many other executives in his position prefer to do.

Instead, the affable and approachable Silver snaked his way through the packed ballroom and stopped just outside the room to greet a receiving line of about a dozen executives and media members pressing forward for a few words with one of the industry’s most important and influential leaders.

A half-hour later, Silver still was pressing the flesh as he patiently talked to people one-on-one before finally leaving the midtown hotel to get back to his office on Fifth Avenue. 

The display was pure Silver, whose uncanny ability to connect and communicate has become a hallmark of his leadership. So too is his ability to skillfully navigate a series of crises while nearly doubling the league’s revenue. Thus, despite not ascending to his current position until Feb. 1, 2014, Silver was the runaway choice as our Executive of the Decade.

Since replacing David Stern as commissioner, Silver has led the NBA into an increasingly prosperous and global new era. League revenue during his tenure has grown from $4.8 billion in 2014 to roughly $9 billion, with Silver negotiating the league’s current nine-year, $24 billion media deals with Turner and ESPN along with a five-year, $1.5 billion digital rights deal with Tencent in China. 

$9 billion

Estimated NBA league revenue, up from $4.8 billion in 2014, when Silver took over.

Vision and execution are what make the progressive Silver so effective in expanding not only the NBA’s business, but also in addressing key issues that impact all of sports. He has been out front in leading initiatives such as gambling, with the NBA in 2018 becoming the first league to sign a gambling sponsorship deal with MGM. He also has been active in addressing diversity and inclusion within the league.

Global expansion has been a hallmark of Silver’s tenure. Next year the NBA will roll out its Africa Basketball League in partnership with FIBA. The league also played its first games in India in 2019, yet another sign of the league’s interest in expanding its global footprint.

Yes, the league’s global push comes with risks, as evidenced by the geopolitical firestorm with China that erupted after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of protesters in Hong Kong. True to form, Silver met the crisis head on and was transparent in addressing the potential fallout to the league.

Silver has been dealing with drama since he first stepped into the role. In the spring of 2014, after audio tapes emerged of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks, Silver drew praise within the league and the industry by forcing Sterling to sell his franchise and banning him from the league for life. The result was a then-record $2 billion sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and a massive amount of goodwill for the then-52-year-old commissioner.

Silver has continued to forge a strong relationship with players and with its union by reducing the number of back-to-back games while encouraging players to have a voice in various social issues.

Under Silver’s command, the NBA is a forward-thinking, innovative organization. Consider that the NBA under Silver created the NBA 2K league, and he led the effort to be the first of the big stick-and-ball leagues to put advertising patches on team jerseys, creating a vast new revenue stream for both the teams and the leagues. This year, the NBA created an international marketing rights program that for the first time gives global sponsorship rights to teams, a measure that like so many of Silver’s initiatives, has drawn rapt attention from other leagues and properties.

In a star-driven league, one of the NBA’s biggest stars is the man plotting its course forward.