Friday, January 23, 2004
Updated: January 24, 8:04 PM ET
The Commish's new business
By Marc Stein
On this Friday, and this Friday only, it's OK to call it the Stern Line.
It's the highest NBA honor ESPN.com can dole out, and David Stern deserves it in tribute for his 20 years of progressive stewardship. Especially since, according to our spies in the league office, Le Commish has decreed that his employees are forbidden from planning a party of any sort to commemorate the occasion. We thus felt obligated to defy that order and provide at least a semblance of fanfare, because the past two decades, as one J. Peterman might say, we're on the same level as Mr. Peterman's faux romance with the faux Susie.
Yet this is where the niceties stop.
The rest of this Stern Line will be devoted to what we expect to see from Stern during the rest of his tenure, since there isn't a soul you can find in this league who believes that Stern, now 61, plans to leave his post before birthday No. 75. If then. That means Stern, after those two decades of achievement, is still looking at a lot of heavy lifting. Stern himself said it last week: "I never leave the office with less work on my desk than there was when I got there."
It's a reasonably safe assumption to suggest that the NBA will never be in worse shape than it was when Stern assumed power. He doesn't have to worry about getting the NBA Finals moved from tape delay to live television. He doesn't have to erase the blanket label of Drug League. He doesn't have to save Indiana and Cleveland from bankruptcy, and he doesn't have to contemplate the merits of merging Denver and Utah, as he did back then.
Then again, who knows? Just in the past five years, making money has become such a challenge for teams -- and the players -- that owners are not-so-quietly clamoring for shortening the length of guaranteed contracts ... and union leaders sound more willing to make that concession than ever imagined.
There are three big challenges for Stern's next 20 years, as we see it:
1. Hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement with the players that, if not quite as groundbreaking as the implementation of the salary cap before the 1983-84 season, gives the NBA the sort of ongoing stability baseball and the NHL can only dream of.
2. Make the game more accessible to the masses who get further priced out year after year after year ... or at least stop the expansion that further dilutes the talent in the game.
3. Devise a plan of succession, just in case the most successful sports commissioner of the modern era doesn't stay in office for another 20 years.
The next CBA is the biggie. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik calls the salary cap "the watershed for us," along with the league's 1980s drug policy, because it saved the NBA from following our beloved North American Soccer League into self-inflicted ruin. The cap on spending leveled the playing field for teams of all market sizes, and, of perhaps greater importance, attracted new owners who saw an opportunity to be competitive. Yet you can argue that the next labor agreement will be a watershed of its own, given these perilous times. The NBA is facing more competition for the consumer dollar than ever before, and there's no Larry, Magic or Michael to market.
While the owners and front-office executives are griping about the impact of long-term guaranteed contracts, the players are railing about how hard it is to switch teams or find long-term security because the luxury tax has curtailed spending leaguewide. TV rights fees, meanwhile, have declined for the first time in history, while ticket prices are constantly rising.
You would think that there's no chance the owners and the players would subject themselves to another work stoppage, after the damage done in 1998 and with the catastrophe waiting to happen in the hockey world ... but then you hear from a league source who insists that "half or more of the owners will make more money if they lock the doors for a year and don't have to pay players."
That's why the forthcoming negotiations figure to be as challenging as they've ever been. The salary cap saved the NBA, but the next CBA has to keep the league going and growing. Which is far from a slam dunk, even though the sides are exchanging ideas far earlier than they have before. You wonder, for example: If the players make concessions on guaranteed contracts, will luxury-tax restrictions be eased to their satisfaction? And if luxury-tax restrictions can be eased to everyone's satisfaction, can small-market teams still compete? And if salaries indeed go down, with the players compensated some other mysterious way, would the teams really pass on the savings to the ticket-buyers? That's just a few of riddles Stern will be combing through.
Expansion is another tricky one, because the last thing this league needs is more teams and more players who aren't NBA-caliber. Of course, if European expansion indeed promises revenue streams that aren't being tapped, Stern can't be faulted for wanting to take advantage of the NBA's standing as the league with the most worldwide appeal.
If we're going to add four teams in Europe, as has been suggested, our preference is to move four franchises that are bleeding money domestically. This 29-team league is about to be a 30-teamer once Charlotte returns, and the thought of a 34-team circuit is beyond overkill. As much as I would love to be making Transatlantic flights to soccer outposts that also host NBA games, I also question how willingly Americans will ever accept playing in London or Frankfurt or Stockholm when they didn't want to play in picturesque Vancouver. Even if four new teams created 60 new jobs, I don't hear a lot of players clamoring to play in Milan. Not even the foreign-born players.
The succession question is equally tricky, because who would want to replace Stern? My aversion to American football is no secret in this cyberspace, but even the unbiased observer can make the argument that Stern is even more successful as a commissioner than Pete Rozelle was, because basketball has always been a harder sell than football in this country. The Super Bowl sells no matter who's playing. Not so for the NBA Finals, as we all found out last spring with Spurs-Nets.
So the guy -- or guys, because it might take two -- who replaces Stern inherits all of the above issues ... along with the pressure that comes with taking Stern's place. Granik and Adam Silver (president and CEO of NBA Entertainment) are the two in-house candidates, but, according to league sources, in-depth succession discussions haven't really started.
"David is a young 61," Silver said. "Nobody thinks of him as getting old. It's almost as if everyone around here is trying to compete with the energy he puts out every day."
Good thing, too, because he's going to need all that pep. Stern clearly enjoys being Le Commish and the power/buzz/notoriety that goes with it, but what he can't say, after 20 years of what is widely regarded as masterful work, that the job has gotten any easier.
"His longevity in this league says a great deal," said Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, one of Stern's most trusted allies.
"Some people say he has too much power. Well, he earned that power through his work ethic and track record."
Consider this Stern Line a congratulations on that track record.
Also consider it a caution that what happens next will be tracked and added to the legacy file, for better or worse.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.