By Dan Bernstein —
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) It may be the comfort of a multibillion-dollar television deal and the locked-in revenue it provides his league, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver keeps distinguishing himself as the most proactive and visionary leader of our major professional sports leagues.
His counterparts are busy looking sideways and backward, putting out fires and shoring up viewership. Football seems to have a new disciplinary crisis in every news cycle, which comes with self-inflicted missteps and overreaches that land them in federal court, all while Roger Goodell tries to fend off an existential reckoning about the dark brutality of the game itself. MLB’s Rob Manfred knows his average fan is approaching retirement age and is scrambling to make the game important to people who grew up with it differently. Gary Bettman and the NHL, meanwhile, hope to have a handful of franchises turn a profit amid a player-cost environment that has necessitated an onerous hard salary cap.
And while Silver also deals with such everyday concerns as teams resting stars during the regular season and a draft lottery system that can incentivize being bad on purpose, he continues to be a forward-thinker on at least two major fronts.
The first is the legalization of sports gambling as a boon to business, a cause that he championed with a New York Times op-ed in November 2014 that argued convincingly for adoption of European-style system from a federal level, so that widespread betting worth billions could be “brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”
As recently as July, Silver expressed optimism that this was heading in the right direction, telling Sports Business Journal: “My sense is the law will change in the next few years in the United States. People want to bet throughout the game. It results in enormous additional engagement with the fans.”
Which means loads of currently untapped revenue, of course. And the energy of gambling is what drives NFL interest above all other sports, even as Goodell seems allergic to admitting that fact, let alone embracing it similarly.
Another area Silver wants to explore is improving the NBA’s television presentation to meet the tastes of younger viewers, to whom the current format may seem stale and static. He understands that the basic formula for sports on TV hasn’t changed in decades — play-by-play, color, sideline reporter, the usual camera angles and some slow-motion replays — and he explained to the Code Commerce audience last week in New York that sports need to look more like video games.
“If you think about Twitch, for example, and see what it’s like to follow those competitions, it’s constant chatter of fans and all kinds of other information appearing on the screen,” Silver said, referring to the popular gaming platform.
He is aware, though, that such a look could be jarring to some.
“To a lot of older consumers used to looking at sports, it might look incredibly cluttered,” he said.
There’s no doubt that we are headed toward some version of this for all sports, with real-time interactivity becoming common in such virtual gathering places to consume games. It’s a just matter of time and balance between the leagues and their broadcast partners to decide how this accelerates into the new normal.
Regardless of any reticence from the older cohort of fans or stodgy leadership fearful of evolution, it’s all but inevitable that our major sports viewing experience will be exactly this kind of multi-platform synesthesia, with all sorts of gambling options available at the tap of a button, right in the moment.
Adam Silver knows it and is perfectly confident in saying it. In doing so, he’s setting a progressive example that other pro sports leaders would be wise to follow.