In Sports Business Journal’s 2019 ranking of the 50 most influential people in sports business, commissioners reigned supreme, with the leaders of MLB, the NBA, NFL and NHL all ranked in the top seven spots. (MLS Commissioner Don Garber came in at No. 18). The results aren’t all that surprising given that, to varying degrees, the commissioners have each stewarded their respective leagues to become the economic powerhouses they are today.
Within a few years (between 2022 and 2024), however, all of the five major league commissioners’ contracts will be up, and one may speculate that one or two of them will retire. With that in mind, let’s consider: What is the role of the commissioner and how might it change with the next generation of leaders?
The most critical role of a commissioner is aligning team owners toward a common goal. Next, a commissioner has three responsibilities: chief negotiator and revenue generator, serve as the face of the league, and dispute resolution. Those responsibilities won’t change and will always be required of a commissioner. What will change (and already has) is the way fans experience and interact with the leagues and teams. This change will add to the future commissioners’ role and focus.
We can draw a parallel with the appointments of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in 2014 and MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred in 2015. Their respective predecessors — David Stern (NBA commissioner from 1984 to 2014) and Bud Selig (MLB commissioner from 1992 to 2014) — ruled during periods when there were massive changes in the business of sports. They each had to adapt to the growth of talk radio and television coverage and the advent of the internet, mobile, social media and digital platforms. Likewise, Silver and Manfred had to adapt to cable-cutters and the arrival of OTT streaming services.
Once again, the landscape is changing. Thanks to the explosion of OTT distribution streams, fans now have a plethora of viewing options, including Amazon, YouTubeTV, Hulu, ESPN+, Facebook, Twitter and DAZN. As OTT continues to dominate and consumer needs evolve, the focus of the commissioner must evolve, too.
Media rights deals will dominate
Ask any team owner what is most important to them (aside from winning championships) and franchise valuation will be in their top 10 responses. Therefore, a key measure of success of a commissioner is franchise valuations rising on his or her watch. How does this happen in today’s sports landscape? Media rights deals.
When it comes time to replace the commissioners, the leagues will have two options in hiring: promote from within the league or take a chance on an outsider. It’s worth noting that all five of the current commissioners were promoted from “within” a major league — I’m including Gary Bettman (who went from the NBA to the NHL) and Don Garber (who went from the NFL to MLS).
So what kind of candidate will ensure the success for each league beyond 2020? The answer is one who understands where the media landscape is going and how to maximize media rights deals in advance of the evolution. The candidate must be futuristic and an innovator. Someone who will drive the league out of the comfort of consistency and encourage a culture of creativity to challenge the status quo.
I believe the next commissioner of every major sports league should not only bring experience from a league office, but more importantly, from outside a sports property. The changing expectations and desires of fans, along with the constantly evolving media landscape, mean that the next generation of commissioners must bring professional backgrounds from beyond the leagues and/or law firms from which they came. Without an outside perspective, owners risk maintaining a status quo that diminishes fan bases, erodes media values, and, ultimately, causes franchise values to plummet.
Consider the recent hire of Lisa Baird as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (full disclosure: My firm led the search). Baird is a marketing-focused executive with a strong revenue background who held executive positions in consumer marketing at IBM and General Motors before moving to the NFL, where she was senior vice president of marketing and consumer products. She also served as CMO at New York Public Radio and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Over her career, Baird cultivated an array of experiences that prepared her to lead a burgeoning league.
Granted, the NWSL and the NFL are on two different planes and have different needs given their life cycles, but their end goal is the same: Increase franchise value for the owners.
If the greatest jump in franchise value comes from media rights deals, the major league offices need a commissioner who is futuristic and an innovator, who understands how technology and content distributors will continue to evolve, and how consumers will interact with live sports entertainment.
Carolyne Savini is a partner and head of North America at Nolan Partners. She has worked with some of the industry’s top executives for organizations across the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, national governing bodies, motorsports, live event properties, college athletics, and vendors to the sports and entertainment industry.