David Stern speaks to the media before Game 1 of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. (Getty Images)

Under former commissioner’s watch, league experienced a building boom

David Stern’s strong influence as NBA commissioner helped create an unprecedented era in arena development across North America that extended globally as the league pushed its boundaries to Europe and China, according to sports executives involved in those pursuits. Stern died Jan. 1 at the age of 77.

Over Stern’s 30 years at the helm of the NBA, stretching from 1984 to 2014, virtually every team in the league built a new facility, and some built multiple arenas after design flaws, among other factors, were exposed in their original venues.

“When the four expansion teams came into the NBA — Orlando, Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota — all four built new arenas,” said Tim Leiweke, who got his start in the big leagues in 1988 as a vice president with the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. Leiweke is co-founder and CEO of Oak View Group, owner of VenuesNow.

“What I most respected about David was he really pushed that and he learned very quickly that some of those arenas were not built in a way that was the most financially viable opportunity for the franchise,” Leiweke said. “Three of those four arenas are gone now and the fourth (Target Center) just went through a massive renovation.”

“David learned that not only facilities were important but the right kind of facilities were important,” he said. “He was revolutionary in his understanding of the uniqueness of the revenue streams these facilities could generate. Look at naming rights: It happened in the NBA under David’s watch with the (Great Western) Forum and in Minnesota with Target Center. Look at premium with the Palace in Detroit and the Pistons reinventing the suite business under David’s watch.”

The same held true for arena sponsorships outside of naming rights, Leiweke said. Stern was a “master at understanding that the teams had to have their independence, and yet, it was important for certain categories to be done on a league level,” he said. “People talk an awful lot about his leadership and his vision with the NBA about making it a global sport, but just as important to remember is the impact he had on facilities.”

Andy Dolich, whose career in sports business covered the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball, got his start with the Philadelphia 76ers in the early 1970s. Thirty years later, from 2000 to 2008, he served as president of business operations for the Memphis Grizzlies as they built FedEx Forum after relocating from Vancouver, British Columbia. The arena opened in 2004.

“Expanding into Canada was a major piece of David’s vision as part of the sport’s globalization,” Dolich said. “But our owner, the late Michael Heisley, and Stern were not friends and that made my job as the team’s marketing and business head very difficult because Mike was always having some sort of disagreement with David and the league.”

There were also challenges tied to funding a $250 million arena in a small market, and despite the differences between Stern and Heisley, the Grizzlies brought the commissioner to town whenever they could to meet with local companies to generate support for the project. 

“David had a unique, diplomatic part of his personality,” Dolich said. “He was a combination of a Marine drill instructor and Yoda that dropped more four-letter words than anybody that I’ve ever been around at that level. But nobody was more charming to talk to business leaders. He had that communication and quality.”

For the arena, Stern’s message was that regardless of how many bells and whistles the building had, if it didn’t have a “heart and soul, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve spent, how cool the suites are or how many restaurants you have,” Dolich said. “You better make it part of the community.”  

In Memphis, the home of soul music and historic Stax Records, the arena sits off the Beale Street entertainment district and is tied to the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum next door to the venue. The arena’s concourses recognize the city’s rich musical heritage. It’s one example of “humanizing it to the market we’re in because music is in the DNA of Memphis,” Dolich said.

Those features were due in part to Stern’s vision, he said.

In addition, Stern “always impressed upon me and others that you need to think about the workability of your building,” Dolich said. “It still comes down to parking and food lines and bathrooms, no matter how sophisticated we are in today’s world.”

In Colorado, it all came down to the basics despite all the distractions Leiweke faced after he moved from Minnesota to take over the struggling Denver Nuggets in 1991 as team president in his early 30s. Stern essentially sent Leiweke to the Rocky Mountains to help turn around a rocky situation under the old Comsat, the communications firm that owned the team at the time.

“David called me every day, literally,” Leiweke said. “All hell was breaking loose around me. We were missing paychecks and running out of money, having all kinds of issues with owners. David always said, ‘None of it matters. How many season tickets did you sell today?’ And he was right. After three years, the Nuggets dug themselves out of a hole and were making money and selling out every game … and eventually we figured out how to privatize a new arena (Pepsi Center).”

Internationally, over the past 15 years, the NBA expanded its presence to new arenas in England, Germany and China as part of a partnership between the league and AEG to grow the sport worldwide. At the time, Leiweke was AEG’s president and CEO. Both Stern and Adam Silver, the NBA’s deputy commissioner, who replaced Stern as commissioner in 2014, understood AEG’s mission, Leiweke said.

“They clearly saw what we were trying to do in London, Berlin, Shanghai and Beijing,” he said. “It was masterful stroke that to this day makes basketball the second-most-popular sport in the world.”

Leiweke considered Stern to be a second father, a mentor he became good friends with and who helped guide him through his early years in sports business.

“A lot of credit in my career goes to the fact that David believed in me and gave me a shot,” Leiweke said. “He was a tough taskmaster. I’ve never been yelled at by anyone as much as David Stern with the exception of maybe my wife. But there was something about David that you absolutely loved dearly and he brought out the best in you and pushed you. I’m very blessed and very sad. We’re going to miss him.”