Monday, February 19, 2007

David Stern’s Tour de Force

All-Star events, season opening and ending events often include the commissioner of that sport offering a “state of the sport”. Commissioners at times appear scared, distant, believing far too much in what they’ve accomplished and defensive are just but a few descriptions of how those in charge have handled their “state of their sports”. David Stern delivered one of his three “state of the sport” at the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas and calling it anything except a Tour de Force wouldn’t begin to depict Stern’s performance Saturday night. David Stern remains what he has always been the most effective leader in the sports industry today.

The moment in time during Saturday night’s Stern presser occurred when The Los Angeles Times Mark Heisler ‘attempted’ to ask the last question of the evening. The transcript of what transpired speaks for itself:

Heisler: Do you have any concern relative to Charles's comments that that could only be the tip of the iceberg. You've got young players, your players are relatively young men, making a lot of money, there's a certain vulnerability that goes along with their present posture? We hear anecdotally that there's lots of guys betting lots of money?
DAVID STERN: That's not fair to say that you hear anecdotally. Is there some specific allegation you'd like to make before the assembled group.

Heisler: No.
DAVID STERN: Then I don't want to respond. I'm too busy dealing with anonymous sources already. If there's something you'd like to bring to us, I think I'm showing you an honesty talking about your questions.

Not only did David Stern effectively stare Mark Heisler down, he put him in his place. Innuendos, media speculation and unnamed sources (the best friend of far too many reporters) not only put Heisler down, but he put him in his place, humbling the NBA’s beat reporter from the second most circulated newspaper in America.

What makes David Stern so different from his counterparts in the NFL, MLB, NHL, NASCAR and the NCAA isn’t the 23-years he’s been the unquestioned leader of the National Basketball Association it’s his honest approach to dealing with the media whenever he’s presented with opportunities like Stern dealt with Saturday night.

Not surprisingly much of Saturday night’s Stern address dealt with continuing speculation relating to Las Vegas (the host of this years’ All-Star Weekend) becoming home to an NBA franchise.

“Well, it's a great city. It's a great tourism destination. I don't know if it's a natural fit because those are the kinds of analyses that we do. I know there's one issue, it's a tiny little issue we have, about betting on basketball games. And I've invited Oscar to make Oscar and really Commissioner Reid, because we know this is a duality here, to make a proposal on the betting issue.

“As it relates to everything else, I just want to say that you can't be against gambling, just as gambling, anywhere in America, because 48 states have a version of a lottery, by which their citizens are betting their grocery money. If they don't have a lottery, they have video poker, slots, casinos, and if they don't want the casinos to be in the state they float a barge.

“We're a country where every government official who has a budget deficit decides gambling is the answer.

“If the owners were to be satisfied with respect to the disposition of the basketball betting issue, then there's analysis to be done about whether this city can support an NBA team. Its market size, a building, convenience, and indeed whether on a night where there's after the team, if there were a team settled in and it wasn't a very attractive game, whether there would be anybody to go to it, if all were working or playing, at a hotel, a show, a casino or a restaurant.

“But those are the kinds of things that would naturally happen by way analysis. Fortune 500 corporations that have headquarters or offices, there's a huge slate of disposable income. We haven't done that yet, so this is not there's one thing that has to be done first, and then that would follow, if it were to follow.” Stern said

As expected Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman made the most of the weekend. From suggesting Friday he was in an ‘emergency’ meeting with the gaming control board concerning the NBA, to attending most NBA events with two Vegas showgirls on his arms, Goodman did everything he could to have David Stern announce the NBA would either move a team to Las Vegas or expand to Las Vegas.

“I've announced it earlier, I said, "Oscar, get together with Commissioner Reid and tell us what you're prepared to do with respect to the basketball book.

“I have an owners meeting on April 20th, why don't we split the difference and sometime on or about no, no, it's February 20th, we have a meeting on April 20th, and we'll split the difference by March 20th, tell me what your proposal is." Oscar's response was, "You mean the ball is in my court?" And I said, "Yes."” Stern offered.

The good news – the door is open to Las Vegas, the not so good news, while David Stern suggested he has no issues with gambling, he has serious concerns about betting on NBA games.

“I guess I would say that the NBA's position over the past 40 years or so has morphed with respect to gambling and betting. That's the good news. The bad news is that I was here for those 40 years.

“And where we have come out is that our fans, we believe, for the most part, despite the history and despite illegal gambling, which we know goes on, and despite the fact that, yes, a regulated industry is good, it ferrets out bad things, is that our fans for the most part, when they leave a game, if the home team has won, they're happy. They're not unhappy because it won but didn't cover the spread. And so we have evolved a position that says we'd like not to change the relationship of our fans and our game.

“It was consistently applied going back to 1990 I'm making it up 2 or 4, when then Senator Bradley got legislation that prohibited sports betting in every jurisdiction that have it. It was applied when we expanded to Ontario and Vancouver when they eliminated the book they eliminated betting on they eliminated predicting outcomes of games on their lottery. We applied it when the Maloofs built The Palms. There's no sports there's no basketball betting. And we did it when the ITT Sheraton called The Garden and it was eliminated from Caesars. It was not this anti gambling sort of pronunciamento, and it was not about the evils of criminality. And that's been our sort of expressed view on the subject. And frankly, as the march has occurred I think this is an issue that is ultimately for our owners to decide, especially given what is the prevalence of sports gambling on a global scale, legalized, and increasingly the 300 to 500 sites that you can do on line.

“It's a very complex subject, but one that we want to be comfortable with understanding and discussing and that's why we actually, with the NCAA representative, for the former Government Attorney, with the Mayor, we had a Gambling Panel on our Technology Summit, because simply not to talk about it doesn't make any sense. So that's been the evolution of our policy. And people of goodwill do differ.” Stern said.

If Goodman’s dream was to come true over the weekend, the Sacramento Kings owner Joe and Gavin Maloof would have announced their intention to move the Kings to Las Vegas. David Stern made it clear Saturday night at least in the short-term the NBA and the Maloof’s are focused on trying to get a deal done to build a new arena in Sacramento for the Kings.

“There is no proposed new arena yet. The progress is we've had our representatives on the ground in Sacramento. We continue to be in touch with key elements there. We're analyzing it. We hope that sometime in the not too distant future we'll be able to come up with a proposal. But the one thing we agree at the NBA and the Maloof family agrees: They want the NBA to be in Sacramento, and they want to own the team in Sacramento.

“I don't know how to be more precise than that. That's what they confirmed for Adam Silver, the Deputy Commissioner, and Joel Litvin and me on Wednesday night at dinner. And so the rest is, in my view, not grounded in fact.

“We're trying very hard to take a team that has succeeded wonderfully in Sacramento, continues to succeed, and find a way to continue that marriage in a building that is better than the one they are in, which isn't the building for the long haul. And it's my charge to see whether there's a way to do that.

“I'm not predicting spectacular success, but I'm not discouraged, and there's a lot more work to be done, a lot more options to be considered. There are a lot of things we're looking at. And if we talked about them publicly, we'd probably ruin it all. Sometime in the future, maybe three months, four months, six months, whatever it is, we'll have something to say on the subject when we have something to say.”

The NBA moving their All-Star Weekend to Las Vegas marked the first time the league has held the game at a neutral site, something the NBA according to Stern is going to consider again in the not too distant future.

“The reality of these is one of the benefits of having a few more cities to think about in sort of a neutral site way is that the All Star Game is a real issue for some cities. And that has to do with trying to house our guests in a place within sight of the venue in first class accommodations that don't take them many miles and spread them out dramatically. And that's a burden for some cities. And that's one thing.

“Another thing that makes a neutral site seem more attractive, is the fact we don't have to displace season ticket holders. That's always an issue, no matter what is said, when the game is granted.

“This is, in effect, for entertainment purposes, this is our combination of our Super Bowl and the World Series. At the NBA Finals we have a policy, if you've been a season ticket holder you get your tickets all the way through, and we don't displace fans. But that's not true of the Super Bowl, where the commissioner has a huge block; and it's not true in the World Series, but it's true in the All Star Game. If you're a season ticket holder, sometimes you don't see the benefit, even though the city gets a huge benefit.

“So for us the opportunity to have a neutral site that has the hotel rooms and the destination opportunities together with not offending the season ticket holders, it's very attractive. That said, there are still many cities that are looking to line up for the NBA All Star Game, but we're going to get a little more picky, because we've had more complaints not more complaints more sort of sensitivity to the selection of the location of the hotel, depending whether you were a retired player, an international guest, the team personnel, all of those things, that it's really quite wonderful to have as much good hotel stock as we have here in Las Vegas and is available in certain NBA cities, but certainly not all.”

Next year’s NBA All-Star Weekend heads to New Orleans. Stern addressed next year’s game and sent a not so subtle suggestion relating to the long-term viability of the New Orleans Hornets in the Big Easy, one that suggests the Hornets may not be New Hornets beyond next year.

“We're looking forward to it. We've been checking on other conventions that have been housed there, hosted, and the reports have been very positive and upbeat. Our team will be playing there next season, but I don't want to be Pollyanna ish. You read in the New York Times that people are yesterday's, I guess, front page of the Times not yesterday yes, I think it was yesterday, actually I've been here a long time. About people just tossing the towel in and leaving. And although sort of politics and government are not our beat, it sure would be nice to see a plan, almost unrelated to basketball, completely unrelated to basketball, to deal with the issues for the people of New Orleans that hasn't been dealt with.

“We want to be good citizens, but we'd like to see just something that takes care of the displaced people and a place that hasn't really made a lot of progress, because it really is not going to be that much fun to be there if progress hasn't been made, even though it won't affect our visitors. We think it's time to move past having this wonderful tourist ability, a great convention center, and a covered arena, and then you take your guests on tours of areas that have been devastated and where it seems like very, very little has been done. We don't understand it.

“But that doesn't stop us from being behind our Hornets, having worked with them to have a sponsorship lineup that is going to be better and larger than it was before they were displaced and working to have ticket sales that will be very robust. But that's going to be, to me, we'd love to be part of the rebirth and vibrancy of that community rather than something that is an exception to what's going on.

“What we said to the folks in New Orleans was we are concerned that we would like not to come back and not be successful. And that's why we're putting in enormous efforts into the return of the team, to using All Stars, to combine and have sales with and tickets and corporate sponsorships, Crescent City Partners. I've been down there. I've met with potential investors. I've met with potential sponsors. I've met with season ticket holders, Suite holders, you name it.

“I think we can probably make it work and we're very optimistic about that. But it doesn't make me feel so good when I go down there and see the inaction for the people in New Orleans. But we're not going to be part of the problem, we're going to be part of the solution, if there's a will in Louisiana and New Orleans to solve the issues.”

The one great aspect of a David Stern media Q&A is Stern’s honesty. Aside from Stern’s dressing down of The Los Angeles Times Mark Heisler and a nonsensical question asked by a member of the Spanish media Stern didn’t avoid any issue, including when he was asked relating to Stern’s decision to removing former Miami Heat player Tim Hardaway from commitments Hardaway had made to represent the NBA at selected events over the weekend in Las Vegas following the hateful comments Hardaway made about gay people last week. Was Stern sending a message to NBA players about what they should or shouldn’t say?

“It was a reaction to those facts at that moment, which was somebody who was here representing the NBA said something that didn't make it appropriate for him to represent us.

“I applaud the First Amendment, anyone can say what they want to say, but they can't work for whoever they want to work for if that is inconsistent with what is going on or what that view is, in the context of just that. I don't want to make any rules or lay anything down. We just thought, given what we heard, the hateful speech, that we thought there was only one thing to do and that was to disassociate ourselves from it as quickly as we possibly could. And to send the message that it's not us.

“Stay tuned, I'm sure we haven't heard the end of it. I can tell you that we sort of in our Mission Statement, we say that the game is our passion and the game puts us in a position where we have to be leaders, we're obligated to be leaders in social responsibility. And in a funny kind of way even the dialogue which is ensuing from that is an interesting dialogue.

“And I would just remind everybody that there are some people in this room or probably their parents who held different views on race, religion, ethnicity. And as their parents grew or they grew they realized what was right and what was wrong and they were capable of evolving.

“I have reached out to Tim, I haven't connected yet, but I've talked to his agent and I'm trying to reach out to him. And as I've reached out to John Amaechi, we're missing each other, and so really I think maybe the NBA has another opportunity, as we did 15 years ago, when Magic Johnson scored that last three point shot at the Orlando game, where we could tell the world that you couldn't get HIV from perspiration, even though a lot of people still believed that. And we didn't ask for it and we didn't ask for this. But here we are. Welcome to the NBA.”

In a feature in Sunday’s Las Vegas Review – Journal, Ed Graney called Stern “hands down, the best commissioner in sports” and suggested it wasn’t a fair fight when you compare Stern to the current leaders of other sports leagues. With the retirement of Paul Tagliabue prior to the start of the 2006 NFL season, Stern is sports elder statesman. However as David Stern clearly showed Saturday night the last ‘act’ of his remarkable career as the NBA’s commissioner is far from over.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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