Friday, June 08, 2007

A Stern performance – NBA Commissioner David Stern delivers

The NBA Finals began last night. Before the San Antonio Spurs took LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to school in game one of their best of seven series, National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern met with the media offering the last in his four quarterly “State of the NBA” media press conferences.

“I think it's a great time to be a fan of basketball, and particularly the NBA at these Finals. We have two extraordinary teams and they're representative of a lot to me. Looking at the Spurs, going for their fourth championship, Tim Duncan, a certain Hall of Famer, surrounded by Ginobili, Parker, a couple of role players, and Michael Finley and Robert Horry. I mean, it's very exciting, and the international influence, of course, you could go through the list. You see how it enriches our game on the Spurs. So we couldn't be happier for them and with them.

“The Cavaliers have demonstrated an enormous amount of growth to the world in the course of these playoffs, and there's been a lot of media coverage about LeBron. But you don't get here alone, not even the greatest of the great get here alone. We're watching this series that Daniel Gibson had, seeing Zydrunas Ilgauskas after the difficult start of his career, hitting his stride. It's just exciting to watch that team.

“And I view LeBron, just as Tim is representative of the future certain Hall of Famers, when you look at LeBron, you just think of him representative of the future of this league, whether it's his own class of D-Wade or Carmelo or Chris Bosh or the other young players that have excelled in these playoffs, whether it's a Carlos Boozer or a Dwight Howard or just the young kids in our league, Chris Paul. We couldn't be in better shape, and it's an exciting time, as I said, to be a fan.
“We're looking forward to the series. We think it's going to be absolutely terrific.

I have some -- I guess it's not fair just to mention the international influence on the Spurs, the contributions to the NBA from Brazil, Lithuania and Montenegro on the Cavalier team have been no less substantial, and again, they're sort of representative of the international influence that we've seen this past season, including Dirk Nowitzki, our MVP.

“I make the mandatory sort of business statements. We've had another record year of attendance. We are particularly appreciative of the efforts of our partners at TNT and ABC and ESPN for presenting us in ever-improving fashion throughout the course of the year. We're delighted with the amount of attention this playoff time has received, shall we say digitally, with a number of visits on a monthly basis to NBA.com is well over 30 million, the number of visits to the websites for downloading of MDA video, and interest is up in the hundreds of millions, and in the way that we're just now learning to begin to measure the attention that is being garnered on a global scale of these playoffs is, I think, the highest it's ever been.”

While Tim Duncan and the three time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs won game one, one game doesn’t win the Spurs the series, just giving the Spurs a 1-0 in a best-of-seven series. There’s a great deal of basketball yet to be played and plenty of chances for King James to take center-court for the Cavs. Many are comparing LeBron’s debut in the NBA finals to the amazing championship reign Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls enjoyed during the 1990’s when the Bulls won six NBA titles.

Based in Chicago, America’s third biggest city NBA brand awareness increased dramatically with the Bulls in the Windy City. One issue Stern made clear Thursday evening – it makes no matter to the NBA if the league’s superstar in waiting plays in a smaller market like Cleveland.

“Oh, I don't think it depends upon market size at all, particularly given the technology and awareness that's upon us today and the amount of television and our games on TV. “Everybody knew Malone and Stockton. They weren't in the largest market. Even back in the old days when Bill Walton was running the floor for Portland, the fans knew about him, but he didn't have the -- and what people forget is that in the really good old days, Russell and Chamberlain played in relative obscurity compared to the televised coverage today. You know, if you wanted to watch a college game, you watched it on NBC. There were very few NBA games, and you really didn't know players that way, but people got to know them.

“Now, frankly, LeBron James was one of our best known draftees as a result of his game being televised in high school and all the hoopla around him. So there's something else happening. We've all been part of it, so sometimes you don't step outside of yourself and watch the transition.

“But right now when a player, wherever he's from, does something great, you know, you go to -- there are 10 million streams of that event amongst an audience that's much younger than the one sitting up here and out here, but it's happening so that I think that there's an extraordinary amount of publicity that really doesn't make it a function of market size. Unless you happen to live in a large market, and then the largest markets are as provincial as the smallest markets, and the question I always get, not about transcendent players, but how could the league be doing well without a successful team in New York or Boston or whatever, and the fact that we are having our fourth year of record attendance, and I think it will continue to grow.”

Whenever commissioners hold pressers at the end or the beginning of seasons the business of that league is an integral component of the Q&A components of the media gathering. One issue Stern had to deal with – updating where the NBA network contract extensions Stern alluded too during his All-Star Game presser.

“There have been reports, and it is still our goal, and indeed intention, that by the projected end date, the latest The Finals would go, giving myself some wiggle room, that we will complete extensions with our existing network partners. So circle June 21 on your calendar as the deadline I gave myself tonight, and we're working on it, but we've been distracted by this thing called The Finals. But we've got -- we're working the lawyers, we're working the negotiators, and we're optimistic that we're going to meet our own self-imposed deadline.

“I'm trying to remember what the preclusions are under our right of first negotiation and right of first refusal, but let me say that we feel we have a very -- we're satisfied that we have a very attractive property and that there would be interested parties, but right now we've in effect extended our exclusive negotiating period with our existing partners based upon the pace of progress so that we have not formally -- we've declined any invitations to come out of our exclusive negotiating period because we think we can make a deal with our existing partners. And the resources that TNT and ESPN and ABC have put into our game over the last several years with production values and talent are impressive.”

Ever the politician and always ready to answer any issue brought up by the media to the casual observer it might have seemed somewhat surprising when Stern was asked about a number of the Cavaliers players, almost all of them, signing a petition recently, protesting China's role with regard to the situation in Darfur. Ira Newble led that petition signing. Does the league take any position with regard to that issue going forward looking into the Olympics, and what would the league's position be if players expressed a more urgent desire for (political) change in that region, how at ease Stern was in dealing with the issue.

“By the way, we encourage our players to become involved in important social issues, and this is one that is fine with us. I don't know how to say this. It's a little bit pretentious of me to sit here and talk about foreign policy and constructive engagement, okay, but on the other hand, that's what we do. We think that actually supports a unique opportunity to cross cultures.
“At the same time, we have a proud tradition of people being encouraged to speak their mind, unless they're criticizing the officials or the Commissioner (laughter). And that's a right that we encourage, and we think it's great.

“I was listening honestly to Warren Buffett on the subject because of his investments in the Chinese petroleum company, and I was listening more carefully than anyone could have really understood why I was listening so carefully. And his view was someone is going to buy the oil. He said he's written a letter to China's government, hasn't gotten a response to it yet, the same as I think Mr. Spielberg's letter. But I think those are all good.

“On the other hand -- there's no other hand. Sports, I'm thrilled to be part of the Olympics, where the most open part of Chinese society is going to be available in its history probably. And how it comes through, that is going to be something that many of the people in this room are going to get a chance to live. You're going to get to go places and see things that have never been permitted before, and the big step is going to be what happens after that.

“But right now we think we're glad to be part of that effort, and we'll see. And we're making our plans like every other global sort of enterprise, but we think we have a unique opportunity here because the Chinese government has taken a specific rule that fitness, exercise and harmony from teamwork is particularly appropriate to basketball, and it's taking us to places that perhaps we never imagined we'd be.

“But on the other hand, there's no hush-hush, either. There are issues that are out there, and they'll be spoken about and there will be some negotiations, I think, on every front. And I think that's a good thing.”

David Stern continued his train of thought concerning the social responsibility NBA players have towards society, going as far as offering a classic ‘shout-out’ to Nike who isn’t even an NBA corporate sponsor, while taking the time to remind young King James he needs to be responsible for his actions.

“You know, I think that there is in the land a real recognition that corporate social responsibility is good business and right, and I commend you to Nike's recently-released, very thick, several hundred page report on corporate social responsibility. They're not our partner, they're our marketing partner but adidas is the official apparel of the NBA, but I must confess that I was impressed with their statement that it's not about just public relations and the like. It's something that we at the NBA take very seriously.

“And how do you advise LeBron? I think he's doing a great job with his foundation, with his causes, that the companies that he's associating with to step up and begun to be very aggressive in active social responsibility. I don't think it's fair to expect our young players to be the answer to all the issues, but in talking to them at rookie transition and in talking to them individually, and we talk to them a lot, and I know the union talks to them a lot, they do have an opportunity to effect change, and we encourage them to do that, whether it's LeBron dealing with Nike or Ira Newble, encouraging our players to speak out on important issues across borders.”

One of the great urban legends concerning David Stern and the NBA lottery dates back to the first NBA lottery the 1984 ping-pong extravaganza that ended with Patrick Ewing being drafted by the New York Knicks. With the once proud Boston Celtics having the second highest number of ping-pong balls in the 2007 NBA draft and ending up with the fifth overall selection, NBA and Celtics dreams of Ohio State center Greg Oden ending up wearing Celtic green ended with the Portland Trailblazers and the Seattle Sonics ending up with the top two picks respectively. Portland is considered a small market and Sonics future is likely in Oklahoma City. However as Stern made clear Thursday night he’s fine with where the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft are headed.

“Because those are the teams with bad records that need to be improved. And the idea written about -- I get a kick out of it. We're idiots here because we let the two teams go to the Northwest as opposed to conspirators because we had them go some other place. It doesn't matter. We're moving. I'm not saying it doesn't make it easier sometimes in a large market, but the idea that our ABC games are 3:30 in the afternoon, 12:30, noon on a Sunday, that's a pretty good window. We have provisions in our TV agreements and in relationships for the teams where teams play -- if we want to have a single game at 9:00, there are 6:00 Pacific start times. I mean, I don't understand the issue.

“And of course there are 10:30 starts. We have plenty of those. And when the Lakers play at 10:30 Eastern let's say as the second half of a TNT doubleheader, they routinely draw very high ratings and are very well known.

“This is a little bit of an Eastern bias here. The Pacific Northwest, because the games are on so late, for those who haven't remembered it, the games are on the same time they are coming out of LA. But that's not the Pacific Northwest. So if it's a time zone issue, it's not a big deal if you've got a transcendent name or transcendent team, we're looking forward to whoever drafts whom, improving those teams, and Portland could certainly use it. “They've had a real difficult time. And Seattle has been a more recent visitor to a more competitive situation. But we're very happy for both of those teams and what they got and what it's going to bring to the league.”

While the Sonics face a very uncertain future in the Pacific Northwest, the Hornets are heading back to New Orleans after two years where the franchise played most of their games in New Orleans following the terrible effects from Hurricane Katrina. As he has done since the Hornets where forced to relocate to Oklahoma City, David Stern couldn’t be more pleased the NBA is heading back to the Big Easy on a full time basis for the 2007-08 NBA season, but not without some serious reservations on his and the league’s part.

“You know, we believe, based upon lots of visits down to New Orleans by our staff, I have not been down since our January meetings, that it's going to be a great, great All-Star weekend with respect to the reopened hotels, improved law enforcement and services, and we're watching large groups come in and out of New Orleans, far larger than any groups that we're going to bring in.

“We're somewhat heartened by the deployment -- not as a basketball matter but just as an American matter, sort of a little more hard-nosed determination to improve things for the citizens of New Orleans. We're wrestling now with how we can define something that is more than just a communications policy to have a positive impact coming out of the All-Star Game in New Orleans. Stay tuned. We think that it's a -- we agree with all the documentaries. It's the way the citizens of New Orleans have been treated, it's not what they deserve as Americans. And although we're happy to participate with the tourism industry to make it better and to demonstrate the vibrancy of it, we'd also like to find a way to cross over and make more of a contribution to what seems to be the picking up of steam of developments in New Orleans.
“But we read the papers like everybody else and we're mindful of shortages at schools, senior citizen housing, nursing homes, hospitals, police headquarters and stations, firehouses and the like, and we're just knocking ourselves out intellectually saying, what's the right thing to do that's not a public relations stunt, and frankly we haven't come up with the answer yet. If the media has some ideas we're all ears. We've taken up some discussions here in San Antonio, now I'm not at liberty to discuss, but we want to use star power to have more than just a successful event in New Orleans.”

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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