The late David Stern built the NBA from struggling league to lucrative global juggernaut during a three-decade tenure as commissioner that ranks among the most impactful examples of executive leadership in the history of U.S. professional sports.
Stern inherited a league in 1984 that earned roughly $100 million in annual revenue and little to show for its business beyond its on-court product. When he stepped down in 2014, the NBA was earning more than $5.5 billion per year, with a profitable international footprint, massive media rights deals, larger player contracts and several new franchises.
The longtime NBA commissioner died Wednesday at age 77, weeks after he underwent emergency surgery to treat a sudden brain hemorrhage. His death drew an outpouring of sorrowful remarks and memorials from sports industry executives who remembered Stern as much for his business savvy as for his compassionate approach to leadership.
“David, above all, was a great listener and [he] was most caring and had great empathy for people he worked with every day,” Tony Ponturo, a longtime sports marketing professional who knew Stern well during his days as an executive at Anheuser-Busch, told FOX Business. “He was the ultimate brand manager. He understood the NBA was a brand, no different than Budweiser or Coca-Cola.”
Stern oversaw the continuous expansion of the NBA’s business portfolio during his time as commissioner. The league added seven teams during his tenure, growing from 23 to 30 franchises. He was instrumental in the creation and development of the WNBA, the NBA’s developmental league, now known as the G League, and the NBA Cares, a philanthropic organization.
Under Stern, the NBA established itself as the preeminent U.S. sports league in international markets. He fostered close ties with the Chinese market, building a base of tens of millions of fans in Asia and a business said to be worth $4 billion, according to Forbes.
After ceding his role as commissioner in 2014 to protégé Adam Silver, Stern became the NBA’s commissioner emeritus and remained a staunch supporter. In a November interview with FOX Business, he gave a fierce defense of Silver’s handling of the NBA’s dispute with Chinese government officials last fall following public criticism from prominent U.S. politicians.
“Adam is doing a great job. He’s doing a great job of being responsive and honest, but at the same time, standing up for American values,” Stern said at the time. “Once again, sports becomes the fulcrum of examining important issues.”
As of this year, the NBA airs games in more than 200 countries and territories and broadcasts in more than 40 languages. Aside from China, the league has made major inroads in Europe, India and Africa, fostering a developmental pipeline for dozens of foreign-born players that became NBA stars.
Once a distant competitor to the NFL and MLB, Stern also built the NBA into a sought-after media property. The league signed its record-setting nine-year, $24 billion rights deal with ESPN and TNT just months after Stern stepped down as commissioner.
As NBA revenue grew, players saw a sharp increase in salaries. The average player earned just $330,000 in 1985 but nearly $8 million as of this season.
In retirement, Stern became an aggressive investor in sports technology and media companies. His investments included digital sports network Overtime and wearable fitness tracker Whoop, among many others.
Whoop CEO Will Ahmed remembered Stern on Twitter as a “friend and mentor” who mentored the company’s development.
“David Stern treated me as an equal. He went out of his way to help me and to help WHOOP,” Ahmed said. “He truly cared about athlete well-being and he loved investing in technology that could tackle the mission of improving human performance."