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David Stern Interview




/ June 9, 2004

Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles, prior to Game 2 of the NBA Finals, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik spoke with the media. Here's what was said:

DAVID STERN, NBA Commissioner

RUSS GRANIK, Deputy Commissioner

David Stern: Good evening, and thanks for coming. The theme of our playoff promotions was Destination Finals and I think it's fair to say we have ourselves what looks like a pretty good Finals.

Game 3 in Detroit, we will set an NBA attendance record for a single season in attendance, and we'll obviously, with the admission of Charlotte, will break that next year. In addition to these very exciting Finals that have been embraced by America and the world, we have had a very good season on our television partners, who really want to use the occasion to thank the Walt Disney Company and Time-Warner. Our ratings were up on TNT this year. Our ratings were up on ESPN and our ratings for the season will be up on ABC. We have over 200 countries here for the Finals, and, you know, just on a business basis, to televise it, on a business basis we have had a record year for our global merchandising and for activation by our marketing partners.

I don't want to get in any trouble, so I also want to say that the WNBA ratings are up 43 percent on ABC this year, and at least the WNBA, they say, that there's a rematch going on here between L.A. and Detroit.

That said, with respect to other issues like length of playoff schedule, putting together a successful Olympic team and the low scoring this season, I'd like to introduce Russ Granik. (Laughter).

Russ Granik: Thanks a lot.

Well, in no particular order here on those subjects, which we know seem to have been an interest to many of you over the last several weeks.

In terms of scheduling of the playoffs, this year, perhaps more than any other, we really stretched to try and get virtually every game on national TV unopposed. That really was the goal. I think we kind of all accept that maybe we stretched too far this season, and as a result, we're working on a schedule next year that will be for the first round, will be at least two, maybe three days shorter in the actual playing and I think that will make a difference and you won't see any four days off and you won't see -- far fewer three days off between games in the first round. That will result necessarily on certain nights when there are going to be games competing with each other on two of our networks, more so than we had this year, but, you know, I think we have all concluded that that's a necessary trade-off to try and keep a better pace in the first round.

As far as low-scoring games, our scoring during the regular season was down slightly, a point and a half, give or take, I don't remember the exact number, but I think most of it, you could attribute to Detroit's run when they were holding teams under 70 for a fair number of games there.

We had a meeting of our competition and rules committee yesterday, it turns out, in Chicago, and discussed the issue at some length, I think the view and that committee has the key basketball person or one of the key basketball people at each club. The view at that point was that if the trend continues to keep dropping, that it's something that we'd have to take a look at and see whether anything needs to be done in our rules, like we did a few years ago. But right now, there was no sentiment there for any drastic changes in our rules. I think the feeling is that defense is becoming sort of preeminent, at least in this stage, and certainly in the playoffs. We are all hearing about defense wins championships. I think we are starting to see some of that.

But we're going to keep monitoring it. We don't expect any drastic rule changes this summer, but again, if the trend , if it keeps dropping, then I think it's something that we would have to look at in our rules.

The Olympic team is something that's gotten a lot of attention in the last few weeks. There was also a meeting last night of the senior men's games committee of USA Basketball in Chicago, and that's a committee chaired by Stu Jackson.

You can't lump every player that's been invited to join the team in the same category. I mean, you actually have different categories, there are some people who are injured, some people have other very real personal issues why they first accepted it and then decided to change their minds. There are some players, like Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, who indicated from the outset that they probably wouldn't play. They have played before, in Shaq's case, twice before, once in the Olympics and one in the World Championship. I think for them or for anybody else that has a personal reason that they choose to not want to play in this Olympics, that's their choice. We don't try and twist arms. The committee works to try to create the best team that they can. We think we've got a lot of terrific players that are going to play on this team. We're fortunate that we think we have got some real depth of American players in the NBA, and when the smoke clears, we're confident we'll have an exceptional team to go to Athens with. I think it's going to be a younger team than it initially looked like it would be, but that's okay. We're talking about a lot of star players, future stars, some players who often wish could play in an All-Star Game, but maybe there's not enough room and some of those players are going to get their shot playing for the U.S. We think in the end, we ought to, this team ought to be -- we can't guarantee medals anymore with any team from the U.S., but certainly we think the team we're going to send out ought to be and will be competitive. We are looking forward to the adventure.

Anything else?

David Stern: That's it. We're open to any questions.

Q: David, I didn't hear the show, but a local talk show guy tells me he had you on like a week or two ago and you told him that you would be thrilled to get a double-figure rating for any game in the Finals and if you did say that, why were you so modest?

David Stern: I'm just a modest guy.

In these days -- in this day and age, we're in the final game of the NCAAs gets an 11-something, you are given the enormous viewing decline across the board in network television, where, you know, I use the example, where the Friends last episode, which was a real blockbuster, it did very well, delivered half the viewers that the M.A.S.H. last episode got and that tells you where these ratings are going.

We are delighted with the ratings in the first game, I think got, was it a 9.6, 9.8? 9.8. And maybe with some luck, we'll go into double figures, but that's the life that network television is going to be delivering and that's just the way it is.

Q: With the grueling schedule you already have, why make the Olympic team stay together? I think it's five total weeks, to go to five different countries and even with security concerns going to Turkey, a country that borders Iraq, and do you think that's what might -- why could that not have been streamlined a little bit more?

Russ Granik: I think one of the things that you'll hear from the coach that is a coach two years ago in the World Championship in Indianapolis, where we finished sixth will tell you, is that the biggest problem I think they had was that we didn't have the players together long enough; that you just can't slap together a team now based on the competition that exists around the world and put them out there.

I think the five weeks is pretty consistent, maybe a little bit longer with what we've done in past Olympic years, but it's an effort to try and get the team to gel as a team. Exhibition games are really dictated by the coaching staff. I think Larry Brown and his staff were intent that the team get to play some real games under some difficult conditions. I think we're right now comfortable with the situation in Turkey and if for any reason we and the people we consult with in the State Department and elsewhere were not comfortable or become uncomfortable that would change.

But in terms of the competition and the idea of maybe playing in a place where it's going to be a hostile crowd, those were things that the coaching staff very much wanted this team to do before they got to Athens.

Q: When are we going to start getting NBA franchises in Europe? And I think the reason why they are dropping the scoring is because the kids are so young that are coming out of school. Is there any chance of getting a minimum age?

David Stern: Which kid on Detroit or the Lakers are you talking about?

Q: Well, don't you -- didn't you talk about it in general that the scoring is down?

David Stern: Low-scoring first game, we've got lots of -- which kids are you talking about?

Q: Is it in general that the scoring is down?

David Stern: Well, yes, but I don't think that -- I'm not going to blame that on the kids. I'm not ready to go there yet, because actually, I'm not sure that LeBron James lowered scoring or Carmelo Anthony. So I think it's just too easy to group that, and we have so many assistant coaches now that, if there are skills to be imparted, we should hold our teams accountable for imparting those skills over a period of time.

With respect to international expansion, the reality is becoming clear to us that the infrastructure, meaning buildings, world-class arenas are simply not there outside the United States yet. When the Nets' new facility gets built, we will have 32 remodeled buildings since 1987. The Palace at Auburn Hills will be our oldest arena and it's still a great arena. It tells you what we have been the beneficiaries of in the United States, and the fans in Europe have not yet been the beneficiaries of a building boom. Right now, we are limited to exhibitions and the like but we are watching carefully. I think there will be some announcements coming soon about buildings, projects for buildings in London and Berlin, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, but really without initiatives like that, there will not be any real prospects for NBA franchises in Europe.

Q: You mentioned the other night on HBO that it may be a mistake or time to revisit putting the Conference Finals strictly on cable and not having any of it on network. How much do you think that has impacted what's happened the last couple of years, and is there anything that you can do in the middle of a contract to put some of those games on TV?

David Stern: Actually, we have begun discussions, because of the strong performance of the playoffs, and the projections for Finals as well. We have actually begun discussions with the Walt Disney Company about increasing. Last year, I think we put one Conference final on and I think looking at it a year in advance, you may see a migration of a Conference Final game or two based upon its ability to deliver ratings to ABC. That's just the kind of thing we've been talking about on an ongoing basis.

Q: How about the other Conference that Turner has? Is that locked in?

David Stern: I think the reality is that the reasons -- you know, we set records with both cable networks, a 7.3 rating in the Conference Finals for the West was the largest audience to ever see a playoff game on cable, and quite frankly, that's what our partners at TNT paid us for, to cause people to go to cable to find those products and continually drive operation and the viewing. And the last game on ESPN, the Indiana/Detroit game got a 5.0 rating which was the most-viewed basketball game in the history of ESPN. So we are delivering, really, what our cable partners want, and, in fact, and both TNT and ESPN were spectacular in marshalling their assets to promote these Finals, and I think we are going to get, for 2004 standards, a gangbuster of a Finals rating. So we are happy with our Finals. Let me just say, we are revisiting it because ABC is saying, well, maybe it might be time to pick up a game or two because they are performing so strongly; they could go out and compete in primetime during the week on an over-the-air network.

Q: Wasn't Game 6 of the Lakers/Kings in 2002 seen in 5 million more homes than Game 6 of the Lakers/Minnesota?

David Stern: And therefore?

Q: Well, you dropped viewership just two years ago.

David Stern: I guess I would say to you my goal is to have record attendance, have good television ratings, global merchandising sales, good marketing partner activation, and the kind of buzz that the NBA has, and that buzz is being measured as network shares constantly declines is being measured against a broad array of things, like the Internet, like digital -- I just walked by here and saw Charles Barkley on NBA TV warming up, I'm sure, for his ABC appearance. And the ways in which people are now experiencing us are changed dramatically.

Q: What about the Legends of the NBA Tour that you have going on? Can you talk a little bit about that and where did the idea of it come from?

David Stern: I don't remember, but if you like it, I'll take credit for it. (Laughter) But I can tell you, I'm not the one that came up with it, other than to say that we look for every opportunity to bring out our legends. First year we did it with a legend in his own mind; that was Bill Walton's Tour, okay, 30 games in 30 days. But last year we did the Legends, and it was so well received, we said, we've got to do it again. For me to have the opportunity to sit with a Willis Reed, it's great for my reputation to be with George Gervin and Robert Parish, to see Clyde and Bill Russell and at the reading center that we dedicated yesterday, the outpouring from our fans with respect to these legends.

I think that their mere presence reminds our fans how great playoffs and Finals are and what it takes to get here and persevere and win. They will be a fixture in our playoffs for some time to come.

Q: A year ago, you guys sat there and said, basically, you wanted to have some progress at this point in the Collective Bargaining, start a year early. Do you see that you have made some progress at this point? And is the clock starting now from your vantage point, and really, how far back have you come from the situation that developed during the lockout and the work stoppage?

Russ Granik: Well, I think we have made some progress. We've had a number of meetings in which large numbers of the players and the owners have been present, and I think we've had some very good dialogue and discussion on a variety of issues. It's still way too early for us to be able to say whether this will lead us to something in advance or not. I think we have the summer in front of us. You know, it would be very nice if we could do something before next season starts. But, you know, you just don't know until you're actually there.

I think even the worst case, if that weren't to happen, I think the fact that we've been having these discussions up to this point has been very productive in terms of management and players sort of understanding each other and where things look to be going to the future. I'm fairly optimistic about what the future will be one way or the other, but whether it will happen this summer or not, I think we won't know until we actually get through the next few months.

David Stern: I would just add, I think the relationship has improved. I think we are much more comfortable with each other and our goals. Whether that ultimately leads to agreement or not depends upon the bargaining process.

Q: How far along do you think you guys have come since the work stoppage, since there was such a bottoming-out period, do you think you have everything back to where it was before that point?

David Stern: Yes, in terms of our relationship, the answer is yes. But in terms of agreeing on everything, the answer is: There are things that our DNA said disagreement, but you try to accommodate the differences and negotiate a middle ground. We are comfortable with that in terms of ease, both personally and professionally. We have had a lot of meetings and put in a lot of time with groups of players and groups of owners for exactly that purpose.

Q: If those projects in London and Berlin get the green light, what sort of time frame might we be looking at to put NBA teams in those buildings?

David Stern: I'm not in a position to say. I think if they were scheduled right, I think those buildings might be ready by 2007, 2008, but again, that means a venue for visits and the like. But we need more than two venues, in my view to have a successful European expansion.

But I think that if they start, they will become sort of a beacon for cities to see, European cities, to see what a world-class arena can do for concerts: Family shows, ice hockey, basketball and the like and become sort of a center of activity, which is something that we take for granted. Our arenas have become places to go both personally, and as a business matter, to entertain and the like. As really a center of some part of the cultural life of a city, that is not a European tradition. It's more about dinner and the opera, and soccer, for example, doesn't attract the specific family crowd.

Thank you for your attention.

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