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Q&A: Adam Silver talks participation policy and media rights deal

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Adam Silver, the league commissioner for the last 10 years, addresses a variety of topics in an exclusive interview with NBA.com.

Adam Silver has been with the NBA for over 30 years and recently reached the 10-year mark as commissioner.

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Adam Silver celebrated his 10th anniversary as NBA commissioner this month. In the past decade, the league has had labor peace, seen soaring franchise valuations, introduced well-received In-Season and Play-In Tournaments, continues to hook a young demographic and managed to operate during the tricky throes of a pandemic.

With NBA All-Star Weekend approaching, the commissioner agreed to a Q&A with NBA.com. Among other topics, Silver touched upon the Player Participation Policy, All-Star weekend, the upcoming media rights negotiations and the league’s recent scoring surge:

The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.


Shaun Powell: This All-Star Game represents a return to the traditional East vs. West format. Why did the league pivot from team captains choosing sides?

Adam Silver: Largely because it’s what the fans wanted. We tried a new approach, and initially, it was received positively. And then the fans and the players grew tired of it. And particularly because we were going to Indiana, which is a very traditional basketball market, it seemed appropriate to return to the East vs. West format.

The league has constantly tinkered with All-Star Weekend in an effort to revive it and introduce bold changes. Will we ever see 15-man rosters for the game?

It’s not in the plans now. Part of the reason we’ve stayed at 12 is because it makes being an All-Star that much more special. As you know, we just came through a collective bargaining cycle and (15-man All-Star rosters) were not high on anyone’s list. There’s a mutual interest with the teams and the players that being an All-Star remains that very special designation.

With the All-Star Saturday inclusion of WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu, who’ll compete in a much-anticipated 3-point challenge with Steph Curry, is this another example of the league recognizing the growing popularity of the women’s game?

No question. We’ve seen women’s basketball and the WNBA grow leaps and bounds over the last several years. But I’ll also add all the credit should go to Steph and Sabrina. They came up with this on their own. They have a relationship. They thought this would be something fun. When the very best ideas are truly organic and not forced, I think they seem to be the best received.

This is year one of the collectively bargained 65-game minimum required for players to be eligible for league awards and potential bonuses, and there has been blowback from some players who could be adversely affected. Did you anticipate this, or are you surprised by it?

We did anticipate there would be pushback from players who would not be eligible for these awards. By virtue of setting a line, almost by definition, some players would no longer be eligible.

In a league where contracts are fully guaranteed, there’s no reduction in salary for a player who doesn’t make the playoffs or plays a reduced number of games, whether it’s because they were injured or because rest was appropriate for some of those games. They get their full salary.

What these designations are essentially about, in addition to the respect and accolades that come from these designations, there are also financial consequences. And the feeling was the 65-game limit, playing 80 percent of games, seemed like a fair cutoff to be eligible.

As a reminder, I think what gets confused in some circles is that we pay a fixed sum of money every year to 450 players. It’s 51 percent of the (basketball-related income).

I think the only appropriate way to judge the effect of this rule is when this season is over, to see how that money is distributed. Then it’s a fair question to say was the outcome fair for everyone involved – including putting in place the appropriate incentives – to decide who gets bonuses and who doesn’t?

So the consequences were predictable and it doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be individual cases that might seem unfair to people. For now, we’re seeing a significant increase that All-Star caliber players are playing. That was something that everyone in collective bargaining, teams and players, understood was necessary. Particularly, as we move into a new media paradigm that is closer to pay for play, where even if fans are rooting for their favorite player to rest in a particular game, that same fan might say, “But don’t charge me 100% for that ticket price. There should be a reduction for what I pay as well.”

And I think the (NBA) community came together and said we understand. We’re in the entertainment business. We don’t want to turn the clock back and put players in position where they’re playing injured, but we have an obligation to our fans for players to play as many games as they reasonably can.

So, to summarize, even though we’re talking a small sample size here, the Player Participation Policy has had its intended effect?

Yes. Again, we’re roughly halfway through the season, but to me, it has worked.

Over the past calendar year, four players have scored at least 70 points in a game and team per-game scoring averages are soaring once again. Is this a good optic for the league?

I’m neutral on it right now. I think there’s a misperception that the league wants high-scoring games. What the league wants is competitive games.

We’re witnessing a shift in the kinds of players that are drafted and a change in skill set. Players, including big men, can shoot in ways that were unimaginable in the early ‘90s.

I also disagree with this premise that teams aren’t playing defense. Teams are playing defense. Some teams play better defense than others and some players are better defensively than others. But it’s not as if teams are intentionally giving up 60, 70 points to players on other teams. These are the most skilled athletes on the planet.

Having said that, I know one thing our basketball operations folks are looking at closely, including (executive vice president, head of basketball operations) Joe Dumars in the league office, is whether adjustments are needed to create a little more balance between defense and offense.

Some of that might be minor adjustments in terms of how much physicality is allowed by defensive players. Even though some of the very people who are complaining about too much offense are the first in many cases to say, “My guy isn’t getting the calls he deserves.” The good news is the game has never been better. These are addressable issues.

The league will soon approach an exclusive negotiating window with its current media partners and will have a deal in place no later than 2025 when the current deal expires. How will these negotiations differ from those in the past?

What’s different is it’s a much more global negotiation now. When you think about our two principal partners, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery, both media companies have global streaming services.

When you have a league like the NBA where nearly 30 percent of our players are born outside the U.S. and that’s only going to continue to grow, and distribution is well over 200 countries and territories and especially when you’re looking at a deal that will expand the next decade, invariably the discussion becomes more of a global one.

The NFL recently had a streaming-only playoff game. Did you take note of that, and might we see something similar in the NBA in the next media deal?

I took note of that game on Peacock. It’s something we’re paying a lot of attention to. The early results were positive. It demonstrates something that’s been a truism in the content business for a long time. And that is content is truly king, particularly premium live sports. That content always finds its audience.

It’s too early to say if we’ll be distributed exclusively on streaming services, but I should point out that some of those streaming services have the largest distribution in the country. If you look at the magnitude of Netflix distribution or Amazon Prime or Disney, these services are surpassing traditional cable and satellite companies.

In addition, our young fans turn first to their phones and not to a television when they want to watch a program. The opportunity is to do a better job over time.

With regard to expansion, what do you make of LeBron James’ very public desire to be part of an ownership group for a team in Las Vegas, and is Mexico City a realistic destination?

I’m proud of the fact that a player of LeBron’s caliber dreams of not just being one of the greatest players ever but also entering ownership. We saw that with Michael Jordan in Charlotte and Grant Hill now with the Hawks. Shaquille O’Neal was involved with the Kings, David Robinson in San Antonio and Dwyane Wade with the Jazz. I think that’s a unique feature of our league that players not only dream of having incredible playing careers but also see this as an opportunity to be part of ownership as well.

In terms of Mexico City, we’ve played many regular season games in a first-class arena there. It’s the largest market in North America and there’s a huge Hispanic and Mexican American population in the U.S. A potential expansion in Mexico City is on our radar. It’s probably not going to happen in the next wave of expansion but I think over time it would be very realistic.

You’ve reached your 10th anniversary as commissioner. Was navigating the pandemic your toughest challenge?

I’d say the whole pandemic situation and figuring out a way to return to play through the testing and safety precautions was one of my toughest challenges, not only (for me) as commissioner but the NBA.

Your predecessor, David Stern, was commissioner for 30 years. Do you see yourself on the job that long?

No. I’ve been a league employee for 32 years already, 10 of those years as commissioner. David started significantly younger than I did as commissioner. So, no shot I will be commissioner for 30 years.

You were pleased with the response and the implementation of the first In-Season Tournament. Are there any changes planned for the next one, other than the name change (now the Emirates NBA Cup)?

Yes, we’re pleased with the first iteration of the tournament. There may be some tweaks for next season, but part of the reason I’m hesitating is that we’re currently entering our television negotiations and those new deals won’t start next season but the season after next. I’m holding back a little bit to become more engaged with those television partners to see what changes they might make.

From the statement of our current partners, they were very pleased with the inaugural season. We’ve talked about whether we should be shifting the time of year when we’re playing it. It was originally called the midseason tournament and we sort of changed that to in-season because it was more towards the first part of the season as opposed to midseason.

Some of the tiebreaker and score differential issues have gotten a lot of attention. That’s something we’re talking to our teams and the Players Association about whether we should make changes. I understand some of the criticism, but the ultimate issue is what would be the alternative? We need tiebreakers because there aren’t that many games in pool play.

It’s too early to tell. I don’t want to make too many changes this quickly because people are just getting used to it. Even the notion of a neutral site final four, we’ve only gone through one iteration of that. So, we’ll probably keep it roughly similar next season to get a better sense of whether that’s the right format.

In the last few years, six teams, representing 20% of the league, have changed hands. They were sold either entirely or partially and for many billions. Is that a reflection on the health of the league?

Teams have sold at huge increases but I think most importantly, the new set of governors that have come into the league have very long-term perspectives on ownership, and in many cases, they’re comprised of groups that have already expressed a willingness to make investments in upgraded arenas and new arenas and have very much a global perspective on the game.

They want to roll up their sleeves and be very involved in the management of the league, using the expertise that they bring to the league to help the collective.

While I already miss those outgoing owners, I’m equally excited with this new set of governors.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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