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Dawn Hudson has a lot of work to do. As the NFL’s newly appointed CMO, Hudson enters a maelstrom of controversy caused by the league’s failure to deal with repugnant off-the-field behavior of high-profile players like Ray Rice. But the NFL is not the only big-time sports brand that has faced hard times. In the early 1980s, the National Basketball Association was on the brink of failure due to the outlaw reputation of its players. In 1980, the Los Angeles Times famously reported that 75 percent of NBA players were regular cocaine users. The league was plagued by dwindling attendance and low TV ratings. But eventually, the NBA reclaimed the loyalty of sports fans. Hudson would do well to learn from the three reasons why the NBA battled back from the brink:
1. Change Starts with the Players
Fortune smiled on the NBA when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the league at the same time during the 1979-80 season. They were not only great basketball players who turned the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics into contenders; they were outstanding ambassadors off the court. Bird and Magic were not choirboys (a reality that would hit home many years later with Magic Johnson’s historic announcement that he had contracted HIV). But during a period when they were needed most, they gradually created fans with their earnest (in Bird’s case) and joyous (in Magic’s case) approach to playing basketball and living their lives.
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Their dedication to teamwork and single-minded pursuit of excellence were like a throwback to another time, when sports stars earned attention for the quality of their play instead of their rap sheets. But there was also something different about these two: they had personality, and they didn’t embarrass the league with their off-the-court behavior. Johnson was charismatic and boyish. Bird was the cocky but likeable country boy.
And then during the 1984-85 season, Michael Jordan took the best qualities of both Magic and Bird — Magic’s boundless enthusiasm and Bird’s tough competitiveness — and created something that the public had never seen in an NBA player. His ascendance in the mid-1980s (along with the winnowing away of the generation of players who dominated the 1970s) slammed the door shut on the bad old days of the NBA.
Long before he became known as the leader of the world champion Chicago Bulls, Jordan had already created a brand onto himself that transcended the NBA. He not only played hard but, like Bird and Johnson, off the court he drew attention for all the right reasons. He was the kind of guy people wanted to like, not just root for during a game. What he did for the game has already been well documented, but you cannot overstate his impact: he made even non-sports fans love the NBA.
A lesson for the NFL: The NBA’s turnaround started when a newer generation of players convinced sports fans that it was safe to start believing in the athletes, who are the heart and soul of any sporting organization.
2. You Need to Show Fans a Commitment to Improvement
Bird and Magic might have been winning fans in the early 1980s, but the league was far from out of the woods. As David Halberstam recounted in Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, in 1982, the NBA struggled to get prime-time coverage for the Finals, and the league was talking seriously about either closing or combining franchises. A major problem was that the league could not shake its reputation as being a haven for drug users. But in 1983, largely due to the work of then Executive Vice President David Stern, the NBA made a dedicated commitment to real change with the launch of a substance abuse policy. Depending on the severity of the offense, a player risked being banned for life. Importantly, both the league and the Players’ Association were onboard with the policy.
The efficacy of the drug policy has since been debated. But at the time, the policy had a far-reaching impact. As Halberstam wrote, “The word now spread that the NBA was putting its own house in order, that the players were showing unusual maturity . . . With the drug-testing rule, the league in effect admitted that it had a problem and was now moving to correct it, in conjunction with the players themselves.”
The public believed the NBA was trying to change. The lesson, which remains lost on the NFL and its own players association: change needs to be sincere and come from within.
3. The Front Office Needs to Lead
Magic, Larry, and Michael represented a new breed of player, and the drug testing policy demonstrated that players and owners were committed to change. But the NBA needed someone to convince the rest of the world that the NBA was improving. That someone was David Stern.
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By the time he became commissioner in 1984, Stern had already earned respect of the league for his role enacting the substance abuse policy. As commissioner, he became enforcer of that policy. And he was nobody’s patsy. During the 1985-86 season, he banned All-Star Michael Ray Richardson. More bans would follow. Stern convinced the public that the NBA meant business, and he would brook no protest from owners or players. He was not perfect, and change did not happen overnight, but his commitment to cleaning up the NBA was believable. In addition, Stern showed that the NBA could become an source of goodwill. Under his tenure, the NBA launched public service programs such as Stay in School, a pre-curser to the high-profile NBA Cares program, both of which showed a more caring side to the NBA.
Stern also convinced advertisers that the NBA was an attractive collection of athletes, and his willingness to prune the dead branches certainly showed that his talk had substance. Under his guidance, the NBA marketed the Bird/Magic rivalry that blossomed when the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers faced each other in the 1984 NBA Finals. The NBA wisely marketed the superstar power of Michael Jordan, who, in turn, was so likable as a player and a person that he earned far more from advertising endorsements than he would as a player.
By 1989, under Stern, the NBA Finals had achieved an average rating of 15.1, a dramatic change from its 8.0 ratings in 1980. Revenue was pouring in from advertising and merchandising. There was no more talk of closing franchises — but expanding them.
Stern worked hard not only to sell the game, but also to make it better. Under Stern, the NBA hustled to earn our respect, unlike the NFL, so full of arrogance that it wants to charge acts to play during the Super Bowl halftime show.
When he retired in 2014, former NBA player and broadcaster Bill Walton said, “David Stern is the single most important person in the history of basketball. He has used basketball to make the world a better place . . . He is a master at getting to what’s next.“
Lesson for the NFL: a commitment to change comes from the top. You need a strong front office with a force of will to lead.
The NBA’s evolution was far more complicated than the truth that advertisers and viewers accepted. But one reality was undeniable: the NBA’s fortunes turned around when the public believed that the league had changed. That change started with people on the court and in the front office performed heroically, despite their human shortcomings. The NFL does not need heroes. The NFL needs ordinary people to make a heroic commitment to change.