One point that has driven me crazy for several years now is the complete free pass that David Stern, the NBA commissioner, gets from the media. In fact, Stern is usually lauded by the media as the most competent of sports commissioners. It makes me batty; I just don’t understand why people can’t see that this just isn’t the case.
Stern became NBA commissioner in 1984, a year that just so happened to coincide with the entrance of Michael Jordan into the league. Not only was Stern gift wrapped Jordan, but other, hugely marketable, top 15 players of all time like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and Karl Malone were also either in the league or shortly to join. With all of these huge, fan-friendly players, how hard was it really to grow the league? In fact, can anyone point to one thing that Stern did in that period that was particularly innovative or somehow caused more growth than the presence of players like Jordan and Johnson wouldn’t have caused on their own? I’m pretty sure most dopers could have successfully led the league during the 80’s-early 90’s.
Since Michael Jordan’s retirement, the NBA has pretty much been in a free fall in terms of popularity. Its TV ratings are terrible, the officiating is a joke, the level of play as well as the watchability of games has declined, its salary structure prevents the building of good teams, and bad teams tank egregiously for draft picks. When Bill Simmons, one of the biggest NBA fans in the media, spends most of his time writing articles like this, you know the league is in bad shape.
What has Stern done in response to any of this? Go out to the media and steadfastly insist that nothing is wrong. Jus as he did today in response to the reffing scandal. This despite the fact that owners like Mark Cuban have been howling for significant changes to the NBA, the refereeing in particular. Meanwhile, the initiatives he has spearheaded, like marketing to Asia, have had little effect on the overall quality of the game.
My own personal take is the reason that Stern gets such a pass, and is portrayed as such a great commissioner, is his rapport with the media. I won’t deny that Stern seems like a genuinely cool guy; and there is no question that he gives an entertaining interview. In today’s world of sports journalism where people are portrayed by the media in a good or bad light largely by how much they play ball with it, its no surprise that Stern is always talked about in such positive terms.
I think that my overall argument is strengthened by the complete opposite way that Bud Selig is generally portrayed by the media. Selig is almost universally viewed as a buffoon who has fiddled while Rome burned. This view is in spite of the fact that in Selig’s tenure franchise values have gone through the roof. Almost every team has built a new stadium. Average attendance is at its highest level ever. Baseball has its highest level of parity ever with a revenue sharing formula that seems to strike a very good balance between a high level of play and competitive balance. (I don’t doubt someone will take issue with this point, and I will be glad to argue my point of view.) Selig also was able to wisely realign baseball and reformat the playoffs in a way that has gotten more teams involved and increased fan excitement. In short, baseball is stronger than it’s ever been. Yet Selig gets killed.
I will admit that baseball has had its issues, namely the strike of '94 and the steroids scandal. I don’t think it’s fair to entirely lie either of these issues at Selig’s feet. Baseball has the most powerful, hardheaded, and self-interested union and union leadership in all of professional sports, if not all of organized labor. Look no further than Ferh’s disgraceful testimony before congress a few years ago and the union’s unwillingness to act on steroids until universal public outrage made their position impossible. Given that baseball had never been able to avoid a work stoppage from 80 through 94, Selig deserves major props for not only getting a new deal done in 2002, but receiving major concessions on revenue sharing from the union. Anyone who thinks that this would have been possible had he been pushing the steroid issue at that time has not paid attention to the unions tactics and stances pre 2006. It’s impossible to judge Selig without taking into account baseball’s union.
I will fault Selig in that I think that he tends to favor certain franchises/owners like the White Sox/Reindorf or the Red Sox/Henry who are made up of “his guys” at the expense of others like the Yankees/Steinbrenner. (See for example how Selig jumped through hoops to make Arod to the Red Sox happen, but noted his disproval of Arod to the Yankees and said he would never allow a deal like it again.)
It’s also worth noting that Selig has done all this with much less power than commissioners in other spots, and Stern in particular. Where MLB’s union is powerful and truculent, the NBA’s is weak and essentially rolled over after the last work stoppage. With the exception of Cuban, the NBA’s owners are much more compliant with the commissioner, generally allowing him to set league policy; while in the MLB owners like Steinbrenner, Illitch with the Tigers, Artie Moreno with the Angles, etc. have essentially ignored Selig’s wishes when it came to things like the WBC or paying signing bonuses to draft picks.
So, despite all of Selig’s accomplishments, he gets killed. I think it’s because Selig is an awkward guy who hasn’t shied away from frankly discussing baseball’s problems and taking sometimes unpopular actions to remedy them. He has little to no charisma and doesn’t actively court the media, preferring to work behind the scenes by building consensus. In short, he doesn’t appeal to the media like Stern does and they don’t give him the free pass like they do Stern.