After 22 years with the National Basketball Association in five different positions, Adam Silver assumed the role of the league’s commissioner on Feb. 1, succeeding David Stern. Over the course of his tenure, including eight-year stints as deputy commissioner and chief operating officer and as president of NBA Entertainment, Silver played an integral role in growing pro basketball’s worldwide presence and in negotiating the league’s last three collective bargaining agreements with the NBA Players Association, as well as its last two TV pacts. He also helped with the development and launch of the WNBA and the NBA Development League, the creation of NBA China and the partnership with Turner Broadcasting System to jointly manage the league’s myriad digital assets.
Silver began his time atop the league presiding over February’s All-Star Game festivities in New Orleans. In April, as the playoffs tipped off, he was thrust into the thicket of controversy emanating from racial remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. His decisive leadership defused the highly charged situation that ultimately resulted in the sale of the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion.
Earlier this month, Silver secured the league’s national media rights into the middle of the next decade via extensions with Disney’s ESPN and Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Sports. Not only do the deals expand linear game and digital rights for the partners, but the $24 billion pacts represent the largest rate of increase for any of the major North American sports leagues.
As part of the deal with ESPN, the NBA, long at the forefront of technological and digital development, will hold an equity stake in an over-the-top service melding pro basketball and other properties.
And as the NBA tips off its 2014-15 campaign this week, it is poised to become the first league in which regional sports networks will live-stream in-market games on a widescale basis.
For these and other reasons, Silver is the Multichannel News sports executive of the year. He touched on these and other subjects during a recent interview with online news editor Mike Reynolds and programming editor R. Thomas Umstead. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: You’ve been with the league a long time and with [former commissioner] David [Stern] for many years. The incident with Donald Sterling aside, are there things you can only realize by having the job?
Adam Silver: In addition to some of those particular instances that you just referenced, like Donald Sterling, like the situation we had in Atlanta, I'd say just day to day there is a huge difference between being the number one and the number two guy.
I think someone in basketball once said the longest distance in sports is the distance between the coach and the assistant coach. I worked for David in five different jobs before I became commissioner.
MCN: Became the sixth man, in a manner of speaking.
AS: Precisely. I'm the sixth man and the fifth commissioner of the NBA. And I think it’s just very different at the end of the day when you are the one making the ultimate decisions -- big decisions and small decisions -- most of which never become public but in terms of dealing with 30 disparate teams and 30 independent owners, many of whom have a different point of view from other owners on certain issues, that it's a constant balancing of priorities and. I would just say being the CEO of the organization poses very different challenges than in my five prior positions.
MCN: Do you speak to David often? Can he stay away from things?
AS: David (laughter) he remains a consultant to the League and a very close personal friend. We talk now and again and in fact, David came to Berlin last week where the San Antonio Spurs played Alba Berlin.
MCN: And lost in the final moments…
AS: And lost in the final moments. But I don't think it was because David was there. And it was great to spend time with him and his wife, Diane. David caught up with a lot of old friends there, including [San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and his favorite coach, Gregg Popovich of the Spurs. So it was nice to have David there.
David has an office down the street from the NBA's offices in New York and he's doing some consulting and some speaking and is doing very well. And for me, obviously in a new role and it's been a really exciting first few… I guess nine months now.
MCN: We’ll go a little international since you just came back from Berlin, other stops and China. You've just announced a new curriculum program, with the Ministry of Education there. Obviously China's the biggest country in the world. Does it still represent the largest opportunity for the league? Is India coming up on its heels?
AS: Let's start with China, which is our biggest market outside of the United States right now. And having just finished the 10th anniversary of the first set of preseason games we played in China, what we now brand the Global Games, the growth has exceeded expectations in terms of basketball in China.
We now have, it's now estimated that over 300 million people playing basketball in China, more people than live in the United States. It's a sport that's being embraced by the Chinese government. You just referenced the announcement we made the other day with the Ministry of Education in China, where basketball is going to become part of the school curriculum.
I believe the reason for that is that it is a game that's easy to learn. It can be played by both boys and girls and it doesn't require much space and can be played practically anywhere. And even more important in China, the core values of the game are in line with the principles that are being taught to their children, including hard work, teamwork and discipline. And lastly, it's fun. And I think that makes a big difference as well.
And we're beginning to see a similar pattern in India. We have a program in place with Mukesh Ambani, a leading industrialist in India, who runs the Reliance Corporation. And we're working with his foundation on a program to get 3 million boys and girls, bouncing basketballs.
In fact, we have an owner now, Vivek Ranadive of the Sacramento Kings, who was born in Mumbai, India. Vivek and I are traveling there at the end of November, when we’re going to meet with the Prime Minister and Mr. Ambani to continue to build the NBA and basketball infrastructure in India. So while China is way ahead of India in terms of basketball development, we are seeing similar patterns emerging in India.
Lastly, we're seeing a tremendous growth of basketball in Africa as well. I was in Johannesburg last summer for our Basketball Without Borders program. Basketball has become so popular that we are going to stage our first ever summer All-Star game in Johannesburg next August. There is a long list of NBA players, who have volunteered to be part of that trip because it was so important to them to be part of the program. We'll be releasing those names later, but it's truly an All-Star list of players who are going to be playing in this game next summer.
MCN: The league has presence in Europe as well. [National Football League commissioner] Roger Goodell has talked a lot about London. Do you want to expand there, or will you go stateside first?
AS: There are no plans to expand anywhere at this time. Europe expansion is something we'll continue to look at. It's a long-term project, but we're seeing the emergence of true state-of-the-art facilities in Europe. Under the leadership of Phil Anschutz at AEG, there is now a state-of-the-art facility in London, the 02 Arena, where once again this year we're going to play a regular season game in January, with the Milwaukee Bucks against the New York Knicks.
The arena I was just in last week in Berlin, 02 World, also an AEG facility, is another state-of-the-art facility in Europe. And there are now plans on the table for new arenas in Madrid and Barcelona and in addition, the long- time arena in Paris, the Bercy Arena, is in the process of being renovated. So the necessary first step is happening. We're seeing the infrastructure being put in place for state-of-the-art arenas in Europe. But there are still economic issues in southern Europe that are an impediment to expanding in Europe.
The league right now, we're in the process of sort of solidifying the 30 franchises that we have in the U.S.; we're seeing the benefits of the new collective bargaining agreement, plus revenue sharing, kick in where we're moving to the point where every franchise is in a position where it can compete for championships and hopefully run profitable franchises. Expansion is not on the front burner right now. It's something we'll continue to look at both in Europe and domestically, but there’s nothing imminent.
MCN: How do you see the season going this year?
AS: The state of the league is terrific. I can't remember a time when there were more interesting and exciting franchises that fans were hotly anticipating watching. I mean I can't wait to see the new Cleveland Cavaliers, the new Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson's New York Knicks, the impact that Luol Deng will have on Miami. What's Kobe [Bryant] got left in the tank. The Clippers under Steve Ballmer.
The Spurs, let's not count them out. I don't want to sell them short. They brought that same team back so we'll be watching to see whether they can repeat as champions, see if Tim Duncan can get his sixth ring before he retires.
We have a really healthy combination of young stars coming in, experienced all-stars.
What we're seeing too, as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, it's not just financial. It's not just creating a better financial environment in the league, but also we're seeing greater parity and we're seeing every team, regardless of market size, in a position to potentially compete and I think that's really healthy for the league.
MCN: Does that translate into higher ratings.
AS: Absolutely. I know ESPN and Turner are anticipating ratings growth this year. Again, I think it's a function of more so-called national teams, more exciting teams that people throughout the country are interested in watching. I mean even a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves, I think everyone's anxious to see how Andrew Wiggins will play with Anthony Bennett.
I think to me, just as I look at the schedule, I can't tell you how excited I am to see these new matchups. And you can go right down the list. I can't wait to see that new combination of players and see new coaches in the league. And there is new ownership in Milwaukee, two hard-charging guys trying to turn around the culture of that team. What are we going to see there? So I'm very excited.
MCN: How important is the NBA's move into more digital technology in terms of getting games and content to the consumer?
AS: I think it's really important. We're seeing now, with the announcements of HBO and CBS going over the top…I think we were early adopters in that we recognized we had to take the games to whatever platform our fans wanted to consume them on.
Some of the [regional sports networks] have been experimenting with authenticated subscribers. And so, if somebody is already paying their distributor for the games and wants to watch those games on his or her tablet or whatever mobile device, we think it makes a lot of sense to deliver them the games in that fashion.
So if you're not able to be home in front of your large screen HDTV, but you're on the go or at a friend's house, you're able to just take out your mobile device and watch the game. So we think that's critical important for our fans.
MCN: Can you give us a sense for the OTT service ESPN is going to launch with the league?
AS: It’s early stages. It's going to be a 24/7 streamed service to mobile devices. It will contain a full package of NBA games, and will likely include other lives sports as well. It'll be a package that is going to be made available directly to the consumer and possibly paid through their mobile provider, with potentially some sort of surcharge on top of whatever their monthly fee is in order to get that additional programming.
Depending on the technology, it may be an always-on service based on the new technology we hear is coming to cellphones. There potentially will be a surcharge for the content, but there won't be an additional charge for the additional bandwidth that that service is using on a monthly basis, making it more affordable.
We think it'll be a very attractive offering and we see ESPN sort of dipping their toes into the over-the-top waters and at the same time balancing that against the fact that they are very much part of the traditional bundle of sports, traditional bundle of channels being sold to consumers.
MCN: You mentioned the HBO and CBS announcements. [Both programmers conveyed plays for OTT TV services earlier this month.] Can the service launch earlier than 2016-17?
AS: I think there's a possibility. We wanted to get our core television agreement done and then we agreed we'd quickly turn back to the OTT service. So we have an agreement in principle with ESPN, but in fact I just spoke to [ESPN president] John Skipper earlier today about continuing our discussions so we can firm up exactly how we're going to launch this OTT service. There is certainly no reason that we're going to wait two years in order to do something.
MCN: Given the expansion again of the RSNs and the OTT service, won’t they compete head-to-head with [out-of-market] NBA League Pass service?
AS: No, I don't think it will compete head-to-head with the League Pass service because these likely will be games that are included in both the League Pass service and the over the top service. I think for those fans, customers, that want League Pass, I think it's a different customer that wants a larger selection of games, or wants to get all of the games of a particular team, or get the full complement of games every night that aren't offered on a national service. So I think the services will be complementary.
MCN: How is NBA TV performing?
AS: We're very happy with NBA TV. We love the production being supplied by Turner and the use of their talent down in Atlanta. And in fact, as part of our new television relationships, Turner has agreed to now take on the affiliate sales for NBA TV as well. So rather than the league office selling NBA TV to the distributors as a one-off, we'll now be part of the sales team that's providing TNT, TBS, Cartoon [Network], CNN and other networks, which we think will give us a much stronger position in the marketplace. We're very excited about that development as well.
MCN: The new deal is $24 billion over nine seasons, with the highest rate of increase among the major sports leagues in the states. Is that a function of you guys being the last to the table, the league is in a great position or you guys are the best negotiators?
AS: (Laughter) I think it’s a testament to the fantastic long-term partnerships we've had with Disney and Time Warner.
MCN: During the press conference you said you held discussions, but not negotiations with Fox and Comcast/NBCUniversal. Were you and the media committee unanimous in this decision? You also said you didn’t leave any money on the table…
AS: Yes, we were unanimous in this was the way to go. I will say that we have very close relationships with Comcast and Fox. Fox has 17 of our team's RSN deals and Comcast has eight.
MCN: That may be seven shortly, but that’s another story...[CSN Houston, home to the Rockets, is nearing the end of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.]
AS: That’s true. We have very strong relationships up and down in those organizations. So we're far from strangers to each other. So it's fair to say while we did not leave the exclusive negotiating period, certainly I have close business and personal relationships with the leaders of those organizations and we did talk to them.
As to whether we could've gotten more had we went to market, I guess, we'll never know. But we feel very good about the deals we did.
MCN: Two other points about the new deal. There will be a 12-game package that Turner will have in addition to its Thursday night doubleheaders. [Turner Broadcasting System president] David Levy said he was looking at Sunday or Monday. Do you have a preference?
AS: No, I don't have a preference right now. That's something that goes to how strong our relationships are with Turner and with David Levy. That's something we'll sit down and discuss together and see where we can optimize the schedule. It would be dependent sometimes on the matchups and building availabilities and those kinds of issues. I know those are things that we'll work out together.
MCN: Was Turner ever in the mix for The finals in some capacity, on a shared, or an alternating year basis?
AS: I can say that over the course of many months of negotiations we discussed several different permutations in terms of The Finals and All-Star and the other marquee properties. But where we ultimately landed was the status quo. I think all sides agreed that in order to get these deals done on the timeframe that we had set out, that we weren't going to be able to do it if we rejuggled where all the properties went. Ultimately, it made sense to keep The Finals where they are on ABC.
MCN: In hindsight, how do you view the Clippers and the Donald Sterling situation?
AS: In the moment, I didn't have the luxury of thinking long-term. But now to me what that incident represents is the NBA’s ability to defend the values we share as a league and as a community member of a larger sports community. For me, it was enormously impactful as an early experience in learning how to be a leader. Again, I can only say that I did the best I could under what was a very, very trying circumstance at the time.
MCN: Most of us think you did extraordinarily well and we applaud you for that.
AS: Thank you.
MCN: The [Atlanta] Hawks situation [Principal team owner Bruce Levenson has voluntarily agreed to sell his stake in the Hawks after the leak of an email that urged club officials to make changes to attract more white fans to games]. Did the league get a bit of pass because when the news surfaced the media was focused on the NFL’s Ray Rice problem? Could new ownership be in place by year-end?
AS: To your first question I’d say I don't think we got a pass on Atlanta and I credit Bruce Levinson for the way he handled the situation. His situation was completely different than the situation we had in Los Angeles. Mr. Levinson self-reported that he made that mistake to the league office and he decided completely on his own to sell his stake in the team. So I think all the credit goes to him for the way it was handled and why it wasn't necessary for it to be an ongoing story. He brought closure to it almost immediately.
And in terms of the time line for sale, you know, Bruce Levinson remains the owner of that franchise. It's his process that he's running to sell the team. I know that [Hawks president and former Turner executive] Steve Koonin said he was hopeful that the team gets sold by the end of the year. I'm not sure how realistic that timeline is…And while there's not a set timeframe, I know on the other hand they're moving as quickly as they can.
MCN: Did you speak to Roger Goodell about the Ray Rice incident? Did he or you reach out?
AS: Roger and I did speak and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on those conversations.
MCN: We wanted to wind down with a little bit of fun here. We’re fantasy players: Any inside scoop from the commissioner about when Kevin Durant comes back?
AS: I don't have any inside scoop. I mean he is a wonderful young man and the league is going to miss him almost as much as OKC will when he's out. And I just wish him all the best and I hope he's back on the court as soon as possible.
MCN: You tested a Brooklyn-Boston preseason game with 11-minute quarters. All these years of history with 12-minute quarters? Why are you doing this?
AS: It's an experiment. What I like about it is that when we try an experiment like this we get a lot of free advice over the transit.
AS: So, we play one 44-minute game and I get a lifetime of very thoughtful proposals from the media, from fans, from every one I can possibly think of as to what changes we should potentially be making to our format.
And in all seriousness, this came about as a result of the coaches being intrigued in looking at the international format at potentially playing fewer minutes. I'm not sure an 11-minute quarter is the answer. I do think it's important that we try new things, especially when we have a preseason and we can try some different things that may attract some attention. There's always unintended effects from…
For example, some coaches are saying that if you shorten the game the stars will play the exact same number of minutes because they can be that much more impactful. Others are saying they'll play fewer minutes. Others are saying that if you shorten the games they will become more competitive because it will increase randomness…It's the difference between one and done and a seven-game series in the extreme.
AS: But so again this was…We're not ready to change the game we know and love. I liked what [Dallas Mavericks owner]Mark Cuban said the other day, which was, ‘I love this game so much I want to see the teams play more minutes.’
MCN: That's what we're thinking. The All Star Game is at MSG. The Saturday night festivities are at Barclays Center. Was this a Solominic or Silver-esque compromise?
AS: Yes. It's Friday and Saturday in Barclays. We've got the rookie/sophomore game Friday night and All-Star Saturday Night events. And this was something [Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and [Knicks owner James] Dolan came to an agreement that it made sense. I think they both wanted the All-Star Game for this season and both, in essence, had a claim to it. You had a new building in Brooklyn and you had a transformed, as they call it, building in Manhattan. Given that it's already such an incredible basketball Mecca, let's make it the center of the world for basketball, so that we can amplify that impact by using two arenas instead of one. And I think they both thought it was a great idea and are working together very cooperatively.
MCN: So when New York comes up in the rotation next time it changes?
AS: We'll see for next time. I mean I think it's a good question. We'll see how it works using two buildings. I know that with The Garden getting the game on Sunday, we told the Nets that they would remain in line to get an All-Star Game themselves and then it would be up to The Garden to see whether they wanted to reverse positions. But it's not necessary. I mean certainly we'll be coming back to New York to play an All-Star Game in Brooklyn in the not-so-distant future.
MCN: Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher are here with The Triangle. Is Carmelo Anthony going to work this? Are the Knicks making the playoffs? Or you can't comment because you're a neutral guy now?
AS: You know, I am a neutral guy. You know I grew up a Knick fan, but I had to park that fandom when I came to the league office in 1992. So it's been a while since I've been able to cheer for the Knicks. But I'm excited. I think this is my season to once and for all understand the triangle, after all these years at the league.
MCN: You dunking the ball or getting out of Shaq's grip, what's more realistic? [Silver was hoisted at the NBA Legends Brunch during All-Star weekend in New Orleans]. The big Aristotle/Cactus/Shamrock, that must have been something…
AS: He kept coming closer and he kept coming closer and I thought he was about to whisper to me and all the sudden I was being levitated. And the only way I'm going to dunk, frankly, is if Shaq picks me up. I have no hops these days.
MCN: You mentioned earlier you're off to Mumbai at the end of November. What's your roadie to start the season?
AS: I know I'm starting on Tuesday night the 28th. I'll be in San Antonio where I'll be giving out the rings. Wednesday night, the 29th, I'm going to Utah and then Thursday of opening week I'm going to the Clippers. And then I'm going to hit Knicks and Nets games when I get home. So I'm getting to five games in the first week and then I'm sure I'll be doing a lot of traveling beyond that, but one week at a time. But it's one of the real perks of this job that I get to travel around and see fantastic basketball.