NBA Commish: 'We Have an Issue'

David Stern Says League Has Much to Do to Clear Up Fan Perception of Rigged Games

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern is bent on fixing public perception that its games are fixed.
NBA Commissioner David Stern: 'We have to do a better job of communicating what our referees are subjected to.
NBA Commissioner David Stern: 'We have to do a better job of communicating what our referees are subjected to. Credit: Darryl Estrine

"If any one fan legitimately holds some view questioning the integrity of our officials, we have work to do," Mr. Stern said in an interview with Advertising Age. "If there's a fan out there that believes [the games aren't clean], and I believe there is, then we have an issue. And when we deal with our brand, there's no such thing as a minor issue."

It's clear that there's more than one fan out there feeling that way. According to a survey by YouGovPolimetrix of 907 people reported exclusively by Ad Age, 41% of casual or avid fans think it's either very likely or somewhat likely that the league alters the outcome of games, and 29% of all NBA enthusiasts believed the league played some role in setting up a Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers Finals matchup, the league's most storied rivalry. What's worse, the poll was done prior to former NBA referee Tim Donaghy's allegations that NBA executives and referees manipulated games to boost ticket sales and TV ratings.

$3.5 billion franchise
It all adds up to a credibility problem for the NBA, a $3.5 billion franchise that draws hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and sponsorship dollars each year.

Even readers on AdAge.com, presumably a more marketing-savvy lot, were also wary. "This 'fixing' of the NBA games has been going on for a very, very long time. The most casual observer can even see it," posted one commenter. "Of course the NBA is rigged. ... Look at the TV audiences that would have been [if] Detroit [had played] San Antonio instead of Boston and Los Angeles," vented another.

"We have to do a better job of communicating what our referees are subjected to," conceded Mr. Stern, who has been the league's commissioner for the past 24 years. "Next season will also include a variety of activities, not yet decided upon, that will highlight any necessary changes, communications and education we think are important, because there are enormous investments in us on a global scale by some of the most important companies in the world. And we have enormous emotional investment in us by fans who believe in our product, players and referees."

He said the league does its own polling but hasn't done anything on this topic yet. "We ask a broad array of questions [in our polls], and I'm sure that this will get picked up," Mr. Stern said.

Refs under scrutiny
Mr. Stern said he knew his referees would be under an incredible amount of scrutiny this season due to last summer's betting and game-fixing scandal involving then-referee Mr. Donaghy. And with Mr. Donaghy's latest allegations, Mr. Stern said it's no surprise that some fans have become a bit distrustful. "By saying all of his colleagues are corrupt, one would understand why our fans would scratch their heads and start to wonder what this is all about," Mr. Stern said.

But the commissioner's plan, still in development, is to gain back the trust and win over "our most cynical fan." He said the issue is being addressed internally as both a matter of substance and communications, and that the key message he wants to communicate is that NBA referees and the calls they make are scrutinized, reviewed and graded by the league, coaches and general managers.

Will Leitch, editor of the popular sports blog Deadspin, said most people realize it's just too difficult to fix games, but there will always be those you can't convince. "Ten percent of people still think Obama is a Muslim," he said. However, he thinks Mr. Stern's "Godfather"-type reign over the league is what leads to these types of situations.

It's about Stern
"It's more about Stern himself than a lot of things on this," Mr. Leitch said. "He plays hardball in all negotiations and always seems to get what he wants and I think that's why stuff like this comes up."

The commissioner doesn't apologize for being out front on every issue. "I am the protector of the brand and its integrity, and that's a job that every CEO has," Mr. Stern said. "I consider it my job to be out there, be protective and to respond."
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