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David Stern Comes to YU

Reflecting on his 30 years as commissioner of the NBA, David Stern graced the YU campus with an informative and, at times, comedic speech. Max Stern, president of the YU Sports Management Club, formed a business relationship with the former NBA commissioner's secretary. David Stern, intrigued by the idea of visiting YU, agreed to come speak to the YU student body. Following an introduction by Max and a video highlighting Stern’s role in helping the NBA to evolve into a more racially diverse league, Stern stepped to the podium to the raucous applause of hundreds of YU, Stern, and MTA students in the Max Stern Athletic Center.

David Stern commenced his remarks by explaining that he chose to use the aforementioned video touting his efforts to expand the NBA’s diversity because he knew he would spend the majority of his speech discussing the business side of his role as commissioner. Stern discussed critical ways the NBA brand and business grew under his watch, including the establishment of arenas as entertainment palaces. This wave of new arenas—such as the Palace at Auburn Hills in Detroit—allows teams to sell higher priced tickets and a plethora of concessions to regaled fans. He also mentioned the marketability of players in the league as a boon for sports publicity, starting with Michael Jordan and other players of his era who became sports icons. Stern’s speech did not go uninterrupted by technical difficulties, though, as YU administrators replaced Stern’s microphone a few times, causing Stern to lightheartedly remark, “One and only Yeshiva…first place in the Skyline Conference.”

Stern then discussed the history of the NBA’s television contracts. During the 1982 NFL lockout, Stern approached CBS and proposed airing NBA games instead of NFL games for the duration of the lockout. CBS declined and instead chose to cover games between St. Johns and the Yugoslavian national team and the like. In those days, people thought there weren’t enough sports for more than two or three channels, and even Stern himself thought it silly that there could be a twenty-four hour sports channel. With the rise of Fox and other cable channels, however, the sports TV industry has grown to include shows such as “ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes, Watch ESPN, and Don’t Watch ESPN,” in the words of Stern. He cited the surprising growth of the industry as a lesson that you should not view things as they are now, rather through the lens of what they can be tomorrow.

One of the lasting legacies of Stern’s tenure is how he brought the NBA into the digital age, so he took the opportunity to touch on social media and its effect on the game of basketball. According to Stern, the NBA community extends far beyond the United States, with seven hundred million followers spanning the breadth of the globe and thirteen international NBA offices. NBA games are watched in two hundred fifteen countries and territories, and more than one hundred fifty games have been played outside the United States. Surprisingly, the city with the most followers is Manila, Philippines and the country with the most is Turkey. Stern told a few stories highlighting the global impact of basketball, from fans in the Soviet Union in 1988 cheering for Spud Webb to fans in France hoping to meet Dennis Rodman rather than Stern himself.

Expanding the international appeal of the NBA didn’t come without its challenges, though. When the NBA first played in Shanghai, there were no backboards, locker rooms, or shot clocks. Stern pointed out that today “there’s a twenty-two thousand seat arena down the street from a twenty thousand seat arena.” Even more critical than that, however, are the occasional racist or otherwise inappropriate gestures by fans in international competitions. Stern mentioned swastikas in the stands in France when the French played Maccabi Tel Aviv and Germans dressing up to taunt Ghana’s national team. Stern concluded, though, that sports is a way to engage the whole world in conversation, making it a stepping-stone to dealing with anti-Semitism and racism.

Fortunately for the YU student body, Stern took an abundance of questions from the audience, including a number of questions about controversial events during his tenure. Among the controversial questions that Stern faced was one from two Seattle Supersonics fans, who took a picture with Stern that has since gone viral, regarding allowing the Sonics to move to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder. Stern answered that he went to Olympia, Washington to meet with the Speaker of the House there and pushed for a new arena, but nothing came to fruition.

Stern countered allegations that he rigged the draft lottery and games and chose Adam Silver to be his successor because he had family connections, by saying that he’s comfortable with things he knows aren’t true. Finally, Stern addressed his vetoing of a trade of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers by saying that as owner of the New Orleans Hornets at the time (the league owned the team and as commissioner of the league, Stern was responsible for personnel decisions of the franchise), he didn’t think the players being acquired in the trade were valuable enough to make the trade worthwhile. When asked later about his biggest regret, however, Stern responded that he regrets not talking to the press more during the whole Chris Paul trade saga.

Stern was asked about statistical analytics becoming a major trend in NBA front-offices, to which he replied that the combination of information that raw statistics provide with camera-laden motion statistics and wearable tech will change the game in an incredible way. One of the few women in the crowd asked Stern for advice for women seeking to enter the world of sports marketing, which is seemingly dominated by men. Stern informed the audience that female executives are in high demand in the league. Amy Brooks, Executive Vice President of the NBA’s Team Marketing & Business Operations department, is being poached by several franchises, but the NBA is making an effort to keep her in the league office.

Last spring, Stern’s successor Adam Silver had to handle a controversy surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. When asked how he thought Silver handled the situation, Stern commented that he thought Silver did what he had to do, and he was proud. Another controversy involving Adrian Peterson abusing his children has recently come to light in the NFL. When asked his thoughts on that ongoing saga, Stern said he thinks the NBA is going to have to increase the suspensions for domestic violence, as well as for DUIs. Stern noted the effect that social media has on these types of controversies as well.

Towards the end of his question and answer session, Stern was asked if it’s fair for the NBA to use its leverage on fans and communities to get local governments and city councils to publicly finance stadiums. He responded by saying that the reality is that NBA arenas are less expensive than football stadiums and can have more events. These arenas can have positive effects on their cities, too, as, for example, the new arena in Sacramento will keep the team there and be the center of redevelopment.

The final question Stern faced was about a coming-of-age attitude to sports gambling. He answered that with forty-four states having lotteries and the growth of gambling in the form of our new national pastime of fantasy sports, there has clearly been a change in the country since the time that Stern attacked legalized gambling in Atlantic City.

When asked about the event, sophomore Joey Jubas remarked that “it was truly an honor to hear from someone of Stern’s stature, and I greatly appreciated being able to hear not only some of his ‘insider’ stories, but also practical business advice from someone as successful as Stern.” It was beneficial for the YU students, who are currently planning their own careers, to hear from someone who used his thirty-year career to make a tremendous impact on the world.