David Stern's legacy: Finding an international void and filling it

murphy_sternThere isn’t a country in the world that has a more diverse sports tradition than the U.S. While European and South American athletics are almost exclusively concerned with the beautiful game of soccer, Americans tend to enjoy a broader range of pastimes.

Football, basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer all have major stakes in the aggressive competition for sports viewership among the American public, and as with any business venture (which they all are), those who adapt will flourish.

In the face of these challenges in the American sports market, David Stern may have been a little unsure about how to ensure success in such a saturated environment when he took the reins from Larry O’Brien in 1984 as newly appointed commissioner of the NBA.



Following his retirement on Feb. 1 of this year, Stern left little doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing in his 30-year reign.

An oft-quoted saying regarding prosperity goes something along the lines of, “The key to success is finding a void and filling it.”

When Stern was placed in the driver’s seat of a league that boasted a mere 21 international players in 1992, he saw a void. When he observed an athletic atmosphere across the oceans that primarily consisted of a single game, he saw a golden opportunity to fill it. If we admired a variety in sports, why wouldn’t our European counterparts?

A record-breaking 92 international players from 39 countries and territories featured on the opening night of this NBA season are evidence of just how committed Stern has been to building a league capable of global interest. People from around the globe want to watch their countries' athletes compete at the highest level, and nearly 50 percent of the league’s followers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are international.

Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming and Tony Parker graced the NBA by not only improving the quality of the NBA with their incredible talent, but also attracting millions of international viewers across the globe. In fact, a 2007 match-up between the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks featuring two opposing Chinese centers, Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian provided the NBA with one of its most watched games ever, with 200 million viewers in China alone.

The MLB prides itself on a foreign player share of 28.4 percent, with a majority of those coming from South America. While they share the enthusiasm in gaining international players, their international viewership could never compete with the numbers the NBA consistently puts up.

The NFL came to the game of internationalization of its brand rather late and has seen the folding of their overseas project, NFL Europe, in 2007. Although its International Series is making headway in London, the league remains 96.5 percent composed of American players. The inaccessibility of necessary equipment, increasing concern over the long term effects of concussions and neglect of creating an global appeal have left the NFL with the sad fact that it has probably already seen its heyday.

Stern's accomplishments transcend the efforts of the NFL and MLB internationally. The poor management of these two leagues exemplifies the higher level of administration that Stern brought to the NBA.

The former commissioner's emphasis on creating a global brand made basketball the second most popular sport in the world. The NBA's globalization has brought basketball to heights that few could have imagined, and as basketball continues on its upward trajectory, it would pay to keep the old commissioner in mind.


Reach the columnist at bjmurph2@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @MurphJamin

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