Stern or Selig? You decide

Who's the greatest sport commissioner of all time? by Jordan Kobritz

KobritzsmDavid Stern retired on February 1 after 30 years as NBA commissioner, the longest tenure of any of his predecessors.  His counterpart in MLB, Bud Selig, is set to retire in less than a year after 22 years in office.  Which leads to an interesting debate:  Who is the greatest sport commissioner of all time?

According to one publication, the debate was rendered moot a long time ago.  In 1991, after only seven years on the job, Sports Illustrated anointed Stern the “best commissioner in sports…the equal of [former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle] and baseball’s…[Kennesaw Mountain] Landis.”  Not so fast.

Rozelle is the greatest commissioner in the history of the NFL, despite a number of missteps that included two work stoppages and the seemingly endless litigation involving former Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis.  One could argue that Rozelle deserves to be immortalized based solely on one accomplishment:  Convincing NFL owners that it was in their best interest to share national television revenues equally.  That history-defining agreement in the 1960’s led not only to the survival of the Green Bays of the football world, but begot the financial juggernaut that the NFL has become.  Landis gave baseball the credibility it desperately needed following the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.

Rather than a singular decision, Stern should be recognized for his collective accomplishments as commissioner.  From stabilizing a fractious league to expansion to leading the way on globalization of U.S. professional leagues, Stern can lay claim to the title of greatest NBA commissioner.  But greatest commissioner in sport history?  Hardly.  That title belongs to Bud Selig.

Selig’s list of accomplishments is long and significant.  Labor peace, expanded playoffs, interleague play, increased franchise values, record attendance, competitive balance – yes, Virginia, MLB has more parity than any other sport, including the NFL – and financial success are just some of the highlights on Selig’s resume.

Selig detractors are quick to point to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, the All-Star Game tie in his home town of Milwaukee in 2002 and the PED epidemic in baseball that occurred on his watch.  While Selig was the one who announced the first World Series cancellation in 90 years, it wasn’t as if he had a choice in the matter.  The players had gone out on strike in August and weren’t about to call a truce in labor negotiations to engage in post-season play.

The strike was a continuation of two decades of labor unrest during which baseball had a total of eight work stoppages.   But Selig has more than made up for that blemish on the sport by assuring that there has been labor peace ever since, an unprecedented accomplishment in North American sport.  There have been nine work stoppages combined in the NFL, NBA and NHL since 1994, including four lockouts in the NBA during Stern’s term in office.

The All-Star Game tie, although a personal embarrassment to Selig, wasn’t his fault.  The responsibility for managing a pitching staff rests with the opposing managers, Joe Torre and Bob Brenly.  Which brings us to PEDs.

On that front Selig must assume a measure of responsibility.  But the commissioner has ample company including the union, players, media and fans.  To his credit, Selig embarked on a journey – whether entirely voluntary is debatable – that led to baseball having the most comprehensive drug testing policy along with the most stringent penalties of any of the four Major League team sports.

There is one area where Stern outshines Selig: in appearance.  Stern is a sharper dresser than Selig, smiles more often and looks better on camera.  He’s also more articulate than Bud, as befits a graduate of Columbia Law School.  Stern always comes across as smart and knowledgeable, even when he isn’t.

Selig’s press conferences, on the other hand, can be excruciatingly boring, akin to watching paint dry.  His public persona is equal parts rumpled professor – his post-commissioner goal – and bumbling incompetent, although he is neither.  Selig’s two greatest assets – his ability to build a consensus and his commitment to surrounding himself with people smarter than he is – have served him and his sport well.

Who’s the greatest sport commissioner of all-time?  Unless he commits a major misstep during his final year in office, my vote goes to Bud Selig.  And it’s not even close.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner.  He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog:  Jordan can be reached at

© Copyright 2014 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed