Life is very, very good these days for National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern. So good that Howard Rubenstein and Associates, a high-powered public relations firm, has begun to work on behalf of the commissioner.
Stern's popularity and the upscaled interest in professional basketball aren't mutually exclusive. In his two years in office, Stern, 42, has been instrumental in bringing the league from the brink of financial and critical disaster to a veritable boom time.
Today, as the NBA owners, coaches and general managers assembled for meetings here, he agreed to answer questions on a wide range of subjects.
Q: What are your perceptions of the just completed season?
A: Very successful. The league across the board comes out of it on a very optimistic note. Now we have to use the momentum we have gotten and continue it. If we don't, it has just been an okay season.
Q: What was the most favorable aspect in your eyes?
A: Everyone has read about the long list of favorable things such as (higher television) ratings and attendance, but I think the most successful thing was hearing an expanded audience talking about the NBA. I think the conversations about the All-Star Game, the slam-dunk contest, the draft, the championship series began to be heard between not just NBA fanatics but a lot of sports fans and people who aren't sports fans. And I think that's really what we're after. They were talking about the past, with people like Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, the present -- whether it be people like Larry Bird or Ralph Sampson -- and the future, Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale. They were talking about the game. That's part of our long-range goal, wholly apart from our very specific components of success, which are ratings, attendance and revenues.
Q: There were a number of franchises in trouble a few years ago. The league itself was in a tenuous position. Obviously, things have improved, to the point where now there's talk of expansion. Isn't that a bit hasty?
A: I agree with the question. The discussion about expansion is really in response to marketplace considerations. There are a lot of people calling and coming in and talking and saying they would like to be considered for expansion. Frankly, the only reason why I put expansion on the agenda is because I think out of a matter of courtesy, we owe it to all the people with whom we're speaking to set some kind of framework. Whether you're talking a year or two years or three years or never, you should at least tell them what it is officially. If we were talking about expanding tomorrow, I think it would be hasty. We really are talking about considering expansion when 23 teams are profitable, and we really are projecting continuing profitability and doing it as part of an overall plan, not to just grab a few dollars and run.
Q: How many teams will make money from this past season?
A: We won't know until well into July or August, but we're aiming for somewhere between 13 and 15. If I had a guess, I would say 15 teams this year and maybe 18 to 20 next year, and then I would like to think 23 in the year after, which would be the first year of our new contract with the networks.
Q: Is that the reason for the profitability -- television money?
A: I think we're seeing the impact of the salary cap. We are seeing the improved marketing, both of the league and team level, and we're seeing fan response not only from network revenues, (but also) attendance gate receipts went up in record increases this year and local TV and cable went up. So we're seeing potential increases in virtually every aspect of a team's operation. I see the networks being a big, important chunk but I see everything going in the same direction.
Q: The Los Angeles Clippers are in the process of trying to negate the trade that brought them Marques Johnson (filing suit and saying Johnson's former team, Milwaukee, concealed his drug problems) last season. Where does your office stand in that process?
A: I have to answer that delicately because I want to be factual. The Clippers put the dispute before me under the NBA constitution, then they asked me to disqualify myself because of the fact that I was involved in an adversarial position with them. I then asked Milwaukee to respond to that allegation, whether they thought I should disqualify myself. Milwaukee took the opposite view: that it was clear that the commissioner, because of the nature of his job, was going to take an adversarial position to many or all of the teams, but that the office of the commissioner was there to settle disputes and they didn't agree to arbitrate before someone else.
The Clippers asked time to respond to that, which we gave them. The championship series ended on a Sunday, and when I got back to the office to begin considering a ruling, I learned that the Clippers had gone into federal court in Los Angeles seeking the very same relief that they had sought from me; that is, to refer it to an independant arbitrator. Therefore, I haven't made my decision yet and the matter hasn't come before the court in California.
Q: There hasn't been a lot of talk regarding the drug policy in basketball. Given the trouble that major league baseball has had recently (trying to mandate drug testing), is the lack of news in basketball because the policy is so effective or are things covered up more?
A: It's not because things are hushed up. With the active media we have covering the NBA, we're not capable of hushing up things if they were bad things to know. If the public wants to know about cases of drug abuse, player commitment, grand jury investigations, arrests and things like that, they need only read their sports pages because sports reporters delve into those things and report them. The fact that you haven't read about it generally means, at least in this sport, that it's not happening. We have a policy that is successful as far as it goes, but because every day can bring something new, it can never be declared a success. I just think the players and we understand -- and the teams -- there's a policy we agreed to that's up to the league office to enforce. That enforcement includes testing -- under appropriate safeguards -- with Draconian penalties if the players are caught and don't come forward.
Q: You mentioned the salary cap earlier. That and free agency, are they both successful?
A: I think that the adoption of the salary cap, together with the drug program, will some day be looked at historically as the turning point in the history of the NBA . . . There may be other reasons for success. But I think that when you look at a system which has taken teams and the league itself to a point where perhaps as many as 15 teams will be profitable, where in the year before (it was) 11 and the year before that eight and the year before that six at a time when . . . the average salary has gone from $270,000 to $330,000, you have to scratch your head and say, "How is it possible that you had a system where it seems that everything got better and both management and labor prospered but not at each other's expense?" I think that the salary cap, together with the profit sharing, is responsible for that, both in fact and generally, in that they allowed the sport to proceed.