London isn’t beautiful this time of year, but David Stern would have liked to have a reason to visit anyway.
Knowing what we know about Stern, whose tenure as NBA commissioner ends Saturday, not having a franchise based overseas has to be one of the great disappointments of his 30 years in office. Under his watch, NBA games were played in England, Turkey and Germany. For some time, it has appeared his dream is to rebrand the league as the “IBA”: International Basketball Association.
Yet while the NBA remains a North American-based product, no commissioner in American professional sports has been as dedicated to growing his game abroad, and no commissioner has been as successful.
As Stern departs to be replaced by Adam Silver, basketball sits alongside soccer and, to an extent, cricket, as a truly global sport. “Football” still reigns, but children in Italy recognize Kobe Bryant almost as readily as they recognize Lionel Messi. Turkey has become a regular landing spot for players outside the fringes of the NBA. Chinese fans built a statue in honor of Stephon Marbury.
Seriously, Stephon Marbury.
That basketball was able to span the Earth without placing a single team outside the U.S. or southern Canada should be instructive for Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner whose prime directive seems to be placing a franchise in England. Without hopping through the labor or logistical hurdles that would accompany such expansion, Stern has moved basketball into worldwide popularity. Goodell, meanwhile, seems to realize where his sport is going without understanding how to take it there. Yet Stern understood the globalization of sports in ways his counterparts in the other three major American sports did not.
Despite the old adage, it’s not location, location, location. Geography is not the most important factor anymore. Interest in European soccer is soaring, and the lack of a premier franchise in the U.S. hasn’t hindered the popularity of the English Premier League in the states. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the most popular players in the NBA despite the fact that the vast majority of fans have never seen, and never will see, either player live. Believing fans need to be in the same building as a team in order to watch it play is a quaint anachronism from a bygone age.
After the Dream Team revealed the international potential two decades ago, Stern realized the key to expanding the NBA — or any league — globally was not to put teams in foreign cities, but to put teams in foreign living rooms. The league now claims to broadcast games in 215 countries, despite having teams physically located in just two. An exaggeration? Probably, since the NBA’s purported total is about 20 more countries than most international bodies recognize as existing, but that’s sort of the point: The U.N. might not recognize Taiwan, but the NBA does. Anywhere that people have the ability to stream video on the Internet, the NBA is willing to go.
This mindset began with Stern. The list of his faults is long — the dress code, four owner lockouts, two seasons with games lost due to labor issues, his impotence or outright fraud in the Seattle fiasco — but every reign has its black marks. No sports commissioner this side of Pete Rozelle oversaw the expansion of his brand to the same degree as Stern did. Many have called him the greatest chief in sports history, and they have a case.
Of course, while Stern was not able to put a team in Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Silver has indicated some interest in the idea, and a London-based franchise would be the next logical step for a league quickly bursting beyond its borders. But even if the NBA and NFL both put teams overseas in the coming years, the expansion will be different. The NFL’s ham-handed, premature attempt to force a square peg into a round hole will contrast with the NBA’s effort over 20 years to create the demand before bringing the supply.
When the London Lions (or whatever) are founded, Silver’s name will be on the final documentation to make it happen. But Stern’s influence will be imbued in the very fabric of the team’s uniforms and the foundation of its arena. At that point, there will be one more reason to raise a warm beer in honor of a man who saw not just where his sport was going, but knew how to take it there.