The Mag Do you feel the league has an image problem?
David Stern No, I believe we are dealing with having the best-known, most recognizable players in the world. When they get in trouble, people can identify them and their faces. The troubles attached to other sports may be five times worse than ours, but we pay a price for being so recognizable. We have five of the 15 best-known athletes. The NFL has four. Major league baseball has one. It's the downside of playing in a uniform that has no hat, no helmet.
Look, we know full well things are going to happen. In our demographic, young men 19 to 35, you're going to have an incident or two with the confluence of cars, alcohol and strip clubs. And nothing good happens—in any sport with any player—at a strip club at 3:30 in the morning.
Through it all, we're still playing at 90% of capacity, our network ratings are going to be about steady this year and we just signed a new eight-year television contract with two of the largest media companies in the world.
The Mag Do you guys do image surveys?
Stern All the time.
The Mag What do they show?
Stern That we're equal to the other leagues or, in some categories, don't rank as high. The gap hit a low point in 2004, after the brawl at the Palace, but there's every indication that we are significantly up from then.
It's interesting to chart our development. Once, every rapper wanted to be a basketball player and every basketball player wanted to be in music. Our long shorts and those tags on hats became a fashion. We're sort of a fashion leader. And people say, 'Oh, the NBA is all about hip-hop,' but then Chrysler comes out with Snoop Dogg doing a commercial with Lee Iacocca, and Nelly grabs his crotch at a Super Bowl, and you hear nothing. The response to Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake is Tom Petty.
Now, when we did Big & Rich at the All-Star Game [in 2005], Charles Barkley went on TV and said, "This is not the NBA." We accept that our audience is younger than those of most sports, we're more culturally adept and people have more reactions to us as a result.
The Mag You have said the league has gotten beyond race as an issue. Did that happen during the Jordan years?
Stern I think it started before Jordan, with Magic and Dr. J and Kareem and James Worthy and Robert Parish. The conventional wisdom was a black athlete wouldn't do well as a pitchman, but Magic chipped away at that. Dr. J chipped away at that, Kareem, Isiah, Jordan, Barkley, Pippen. It became a nonissue. Look at what you just saw during the Super Bowl. Shaq, Charles Barkley, Dwyane Wade, footage of the NBA in a Coke spot and an ad for Semi-Pro, a basketball movie.
The Mag There seems to be a contradiction, actually, in what fans want. For instance, you have a clean-cut team like San Antonio, yet a lot of people think it's boring and its ratings aren't high …
Stern Welcome to my world. The Spurs epitomize teamwork and internationalization, led by maybe a top-20 player in our history—maybe a top-10. Part of the explanation is that there's a lot of NBA on TV, a lot of sports on TV. The NFL seems largely immune to fluctuation, but the NCAA Final last year was the third-lowest-rated; the World Series was second-lowest. There will always be some debate around the kind of things you are writing about now. But actually we think our image continues to improve.