Ranking the commissioners
Editor’s note: Brendan got bored, so he decided to rank some useless things again. Here’s the last ranking, on the best and worst Championship trophies in sports.
Commissioners occupy a strange middle ground in the modern sports/media/industrial complex.
Media members and fans, including yours truly, often consider them guardians of the game. Their job description should be to protect their sport’s integrity, to make crucial decisions, and to protect both the game itself and the men or women that play it for generations to come.
Their employers feel differently, however.
For better or worse, commissioners are not working for fans, players or the media. Their paychecks are signed by the owners, and like many bosses, those owners care mostly about whether their employees are making or costing them money. If it’s the former, your job, whether it be a commissioner or anything else, is likely secure. If it’s the latter, you best start readying your resume.
So let’s keep this in mind as we consider which man (and for now, they are all certainly men) is best at leading his sport. It’s a good time to do it since each sport is currently glowing with some modicum of activity (baseball’s World Series may have wrapped up earlier this month, and Bartolo Colon was signed just a few hours before I started writing this blog by the Atlanta Braves.)
In these rankings, much like in the real world, a commissioner’s evaluation will not be based solely on his performance in protecting the sport and its players—thought that would be a considered and important part of where they land. Instead, if the profits are positive, the commissioner in question will likely get a bonus—funny how that works out.
Editor’s note: Before it becomes painfully obvious below, I should point out here that we’re going to keep this list to the “big four” of the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL. I honestly do not know anywhere near enough about other leagues and their leaders to include them here.
Without further ado, let’s get to the rankings……
# 4 Gary Bettman, National Hockey League
Right off the bat, the profits portion of our qualifications is making its presence felt on the rankings.
In terms of keeping fans happy and protecting the sport, Bettman is not the worst around, so maybe it’s unfair to saddle him with the bottom spot. But he’s pretty close, so I’m not going to feel all that bad about it.
He’s presided over two lockouts, and if the general feelings of hockey agents and writers alike are any guide, his resume will probably include a third soon.
The fact that Bettman is still employed, to be honest, somewhat defies logic. With others on this list, we’ll point to the growth in popularity and revenue that many leagues have experienced while under the leadership of some characters that may offend a fan’s sensibilities, but Bettman doesn’t have that under his belt.
Since he took over in 1993, the league has been through a pair of lockouts, and it appears headed for a third soon. Bettman also watched the league disappear from ESPN’s coverage plans almost entirely, to be gloriously replaced with wall-to-wall NBA news (more on that in a moment.)
While the league at least now owns some prime time placement thanks to its partnership with NBC Sports, it’s far from on the same playing field as the other leagues on this list. When it comes to the zeitgeist, to owning real estate in Americans’ hearts, minds, and wallets, Bettman is failing his league.
His performance outside the financial sector hasn’t been great either. This is a man so hated by the fans and booed so frequently it’s become a yearly tradition at even the height of the sport’s year.
Oh, and he recently joined the list of concussion and CTE deniers.
Other than all that, though, he’s doing great.
How he can improve his spot: The good news about being so low on this list is that there’s plenty of room for improvement. If Bettman can turn the Las Vegas Whatevers into a long-term success, keep the league from another lockout, make the World Cup of Hockey into a real-deal event or even just keep his best players from missing time due to head injuries, his stock should rise.
- Roger Goodell, National Football League
If you’ve ever spoken to me about football, you likely know how I feel about Roger, the same way I’ve felt for probably close to half a decade now.
If you haven’t, let me just put it this way: when my girlfriend recently brought home a pumpkin dressed ridiculously as a Halloween decoration and suggested naming it “Roger,” I supported the name, purely because I liked the idea of turning the Orange-haired leader of the NFL as a real life pumpkin so much that it made me actually L-O-L.
In spite of that animosity, however, if I wrote this list a year ago, Goodell would likely rank higher than third. For years, the league has dominated not just the fall and winter, but the whole sports calendar. Any baseball or hockey fan has a litany of issues with ESPN for all the times the Worldwide Leader eschewed game highlights from one of those two sports for breaking training camp news from the NFL. Football has become synonymous with America, and Goodell, along with his predecessor Paul Tagliabue, is primarily responsible for that.
But, oh, what a difference a year makes.
The season has so far been defined by how many people are asking “what’s wrong with the NFL?” Ratings in Primetime are down, the quality of play is down, and Goodell once again showed A+ leadership skills in handling the Josh Brown debacle.
This week, he said he was having difficulty explaining a Trump presidency to his daughters, as many fathers and mothers have expressed in the days since the election.
Hopefully, he’s had some practice at explaining why sometimes men don’t treat women the right way before.
How he can improve: For better or worse, Goodell clearly cares most about making the game bigger and better than it ever was before. If the NFL’s TV ratings rebound as the election peters out, expect him to rise up the list accordingly. But if numbers stay flat, it could be reckoning time for Roger.
- Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball
Honestly, Manfred finds himself a heartbeat away from the top spot, mostly by default.
Now, that’s not a slight against ol’ Rob. Baseball has arguably never been better than it has right now, though maybe a top-notch postseason and World Series has me a bit intoxicated.
Manfred ascended to baseball’s throne after Bud Selig retired in January of 2015, and truthfully, the two seasons he’s presided over have been rather uneventful. There have been no labor issues, and his attempts to speed up the pace of play were rather unobtrusive, even if they were also ineffective. Other than that, it’s largely been business as usual during Manfred’s tenure on top.
And, on this list, as sad as it sounds, an uneventful 22 months that include a pair of highly entertaining seasons is all it takes to sniff the top spot.
How he can improve: Manfred is in probably the most volatile place of any of the four entries on this list, thanks to his short tenure. We’ve yet to see the first genuine controversy invade his tenure, but one is bound to come along soon enough. Fair or unfair, Manfred will need to handle his first curveball deftly, or his reputation could join that of Roger and Gary.
- Adam Silver, National Basketball Association
We may have finally reached the platonic ideal of a sports commissioner.
Silver has the second-shortest tenure of anyone on this list, holding seniority over only Manfred (maybe being the new guys has something to do with all this.) But while his resume may be limited, it’s filled with the highlights that have helped make NBA perhaps the country’s marquee sport.
His first major controversy, the Donald Sterling tapes (which seem laughably quaint now), was handled well, pleasing fans, media members and players alike. The league’s social media policy keeps it from attracting the scorn that the NFL and MLB have via their widespread taken down notices and bans.
And, most importantly, the pockets of anyone associated with the league are leaking cash. Players of any skill level are being paid scores more now than they ever have before, and the owners were more than happy to cut those checks as they watch their own bank accounts grow higher and higher. And he looks open to even more revenue opportunities as he shepherds through modern initiatives like selling ad space on practice jerseys and showing an interest in things like DraftKings and an openness to sports gambling, which seems like more of a when, and less of an if.
Maybe all this rise is setting up for a grand fall, but for now, Silver holds the title of the best boss in sports.
How can he improve: If football is truly going to fade from the national consciousness, something will have to take its spot as the sport to rule them all, and the NBA seems best suited to do that. It’s fast paced, supremely athletic, fairly good on television, and perfectly designed for Twitter. Plus, there’s rarely the kind of head injuries that haunt football and basketball.
Silver may have done himself a disservice with such a hot start, as there’s not much more room to rise. Truly rivaling the NFL, however, would turn Silver into gold.
Love the list, hate the list, have one of your own? Follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter for more, and let us know who you think the best boss is.