In late March, Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, entered a corner conference room overlooking New York City for his first face-to-face interview with a journalist since the pandemic began. After taking over as commissioner in 2014, Silver has presided over an unprecedented expansion of pro basketball’s business: annual revenue nearly doubled from the 2013–2014 to the 2018–2019 seasons, to north of $9 billion. Before the pandemic, the league projected it would hit the $10 billion mark in 2020. Instead, revenue dropped some 10% during the pandemic–stricken season. Silver received praise for overseeing the completion of the NBA’s shortened 2020 season in the Orlando “bubble,” showing that businesses with strict testing and safety protocols can operate in the pandemic. He’s had a tougher time, however, managing this year’s unbubbled campaign, as teams are back to traveling and living in their home cities. The COVID-19 spread has led to myriad game postponements and players missing time. Over more than an hour at the NBA’s refurbished headquarters—parts of which some still-remote employees have yet to see—and in a follow-up phone call, Silver discussed with TIME lessons learned from the past year, the thinking behind his game plan and his willingness to adjust it in the seasons ahead.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)
How do you measure the NBA’s growing influence since you took over as commissioner?
Technology was the accelerator for us. As much growth as we’ve seen over the past decade because of technology I think we’ll see a multiple of that growth over the next decade. Because the technology has gotten so much better. My joke sometimes now is, I have a huge television on my living room wall of my apartment. But out of convenience I’ll often watch on my phone, because the quality is so good. The user interface is better. It’s easier to touch the app and watch any game I want than to find my way through 2,000 channels and the legacy systems that run through traditional cable and satellite.
The other aspect where the internet has fundamentally changed the league is it’s allowed our players to demonstrate just how truly multidimensional they are. And whether it’s more in-depth knowledge about the game of basketball, or about what their favorite music is, or a political point of view, they now have been provided this platform. The game comes alive for a lot of people.
Since you’ve become commissioner, has there been a decision you’ve made that’s helped achieve this growth?
I often look at things from the vantage point of a wannabe technologist. When new technologies come, and whether that’s a smart phone or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, we’ve been very quick to embrace those new technologies. And to then work with those companies to see how they can be customized for an NBA experience. That’s something we continue to do. And Blockchain and NFT just being the latest.
What might the NBA do in the NFT space?
Take something like ticketing. There very well may be a Blockchain application for ticketing. But from a fan standpoint, it will have less to do with the technology and more to do with, instead of throwing a ticket stub in your drawer, it might be a more convenient way to carry that memory with you. Where you pull out your smartphone and say to somebody, here it is. This was that all-important game I attended. This is where I met my partner. This is where my parents took me to my first game. It’s going to enable a far richer experience for fans over time. We’re truly just scratching the surface.
What have been some of the key losses the NBA has had to weather since the league hit pause because of the pandemic last March?
This season, I said going in that we were projecting our revenues, by virtue of playing games without fans, would be down close to 40%. With the return of at least some fans in most of our arenas, we’ll likely be down closer to 30% to 35%. We have not had any sort of large-scale layoffs at the league office, but there have been across-the-board salary reductions for league employees and I know teams have done similar things. In the broader context, the impact has been as much on people’s well being. And I know that stress levels are at an all-time high among people at our teams: players, coaches, and administrative staff because the testing protocols are incredibly onerous. I think that everyone has paid an enormous price for that, putting things on a relative basis and in the context of enormous hardships of people who are out of jobs and making enormous sacrifices.
During this 2020-2021 season, when so many players have had to sit out due to COVID-19, why fundamentally do you think going forward with this season was worth it?
We thought we could be an exemplar for an organization that found a way to continue to operate through a pandemic. And also I felt a responsibility to the broader NBA community. While there’s of course a health crisis in this country, there’s an economic one as well. When I step back and think about the over 50,000 jobs that the NBA accounts for when you include the arena workers around the country, the issue then became, is there a responsible way for us to operate where we begin with health and safety, which can’t be compromised? Once we saw we could do that, together with enormous amounts of testing, then we felt we were making the appropriate decision.
But I want to caveat it by saying that it won’t be until the story’s written years later where people can make fair assessments of the decisions we’ve made. It may be in retrospect we’re going to decide we were overly protective, and businesses needlessly shut down. Or it may be the opposite. We’ve taken the information that’s available to us and made the best decisions we thought we could in the moment.
One of the game’s brightest young stars, Jayson Tatum, has talked about experiencing breathing difficulties and fatigue after contracting COVID-19. Do you worry long-term about the damage this disease can do?
It absolutely worries me. Although I’ll say that the vast majority of our players that have been infected with COVID were infected when they were outside our protocols, not inside our protocols. So of course I’m worried about the long-term health of any player that’s contracted COVID. But based on the information we have today, I still believe that what we’ve done has only allowed them to live safer and healthier lives.
Some players, however, expressed disappointment that the NBA still scheduled an All-Star Game during the pandemic. LeBron James called it a “slap in the face.” Did you speak to him in Atlanta?
Yes, LeBron and I spoke. And what I said to LeBron privately is no decision has been easy in the course of this pandemic. That it’s fair game to be critical of any decisions that I or the league have made. That I appreciate his willingness to not just play in the All-Star game but he was a captain, he drafted his team, he did everything that was asked of him. It would be incredibly hypocritical of me to celebrate and applaud our players for speaking out on issues that are important to them other than the ones where they’re critical of the league.
I was sensitive to the criticism. When I hear people say, well they’re doing it so-called “just for the money,”
I hear it. We’re a business. We’ve never hidden from that. And so sure, businesses over time need to make money to survive. Last season and this season certainly are not about making money. They’re about continuing to do what we do, which is to play NBA basketball and to make our way through the pandemic for better times. And did playing an All-Star game help us economically? Yes, but only marginally.
And lastly, the partnership that we established with the HBCU community around the All-Star game was truly impactful. Not just the $3 million that was donated but even maybe more so the necessary attention on that community and even in some cases the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on the Black community. I think players came away with a new understanding of the HBCU community and appreciation for it.
We do want to turn to the intersection of the NBA and broader society. The death of George Floyd sparked many NBA players to advocate for social justice. When you heard in your office, on April 20, that Derek Chauvin had been convicted of killing Floyd, did you feel a sense of relief?
I had a sense of pride in our system. It was an opportunity for me to reflect and realize that there’s a reason why, despite its flaws, our country is so special and unique and great. Here was a tragedy that played out on video for the American public, but with an ultimate outcome that at least people could say, as terrible as this killing was, we do have a system we can believe in, where justice is meted out fairly.
The NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta took place before Georgia passed its restrictive voting rights bill on April 3. MLB moved its 2021 All-Star game from Atlanta as a result; if the NBA had a summer All-Star game, would you have done the same?
The answer is, I don’t know. I am not privy to all the factors that Major League Baseball considered before making that decision. I know that voting rights are an issue that have been front and center for our players. If we were looking at a similar situation, I’m sure we would have been very attentive to that law.
NBA ratings did decline while games were taking place in the Orlando bubble. Some critics have argued that the league’s embrace of social justice movements, particularly Black Lives Matter, contributed to that decline. What’s your response to that?
I hear the criticism. I try to remain true to the data. I have no data that suggests that people who were troubled by the NBA’s embrace of Black Lives Matter or our players’ positions on racial equality had a measurable impact on our ratings. And in fact, I think there may have been a segment of our fanbase that became additionally engaged with the league as a result of the positions our players were espousing.
Having said that, I think first we had such unique circumstances. I mean to have the Finals on in October in a time of the year when people were not accustomed to watching NBA basketball. And we’re going through a transition. On one hand we like to tout how young our fanbase is. It’s not a secret that they are watching dramatically less traditional television than they were at the time we entered into these television deals roughly five years ago. And that we need to find new ways to reach them. We can tell by virtue of their engagement that they still love this league and our players, but they have different habits than their older siblings even did, not just their parents.
The notion that you can be on Twitter, get an alert or a tweet indicating there’s an incredibly close game down to the last two minutes and you can’t just go click and get that game, frustrates me. I know it does our television partners as well. And that’s something that we will work through over time. But I remain proud of the positions that this league took over the course of the summer when the country was roiling around the death of George Floyd.
What’s the state of the NBA’s relationship with China?
We continue to televise our games in China. Our most significant television partner is Tencent, which is a streaming service in China. And we have hundreds of millions of fans in China who we continue to serve. I’ll take a step back there and restate the NBA’s mission, which is to improve people’s lives through the game of basketball. And we think exporting NBA basketball to China and to virtually every country in the world continues to fit within our mission. The political science major in me believes that engagement is better than isolation. That a so-called boycott of China, taking into account legitimate criticisms of the Chinese system, won’t further the agenda of those who seek to bring about global change. Working with Chinese solely on NBA basketball has been a net plus for building relationships between two superpowers.
But what about basketball will help China change their ways on human rights? Is that too Pollyannaish?
I don’t want to overstate it. While I’m a believer in soft power, I’m certainly not sitting here claiming that by virtue of televising NBA games in China lo and behold, there’ll be a reckoning in China to adopt a Western point of view about human rights.
I do think that in order to bring about realistic change, we have to build relationships. At the end of the day we’re all human beings. And while there are many differences between our society and Chinese society, there are enormous commonalities as well. One of them is to love a sport. And basketball happens to be the most popular team sport in China right now. We think that through that common love and appreciation of the game of basketball, that that’s a way to bring people together. It’s as simple as that.
How do you respond to the criticism that the NBA and its players are outspoken about BLM and police violence, but don’t talk about human rights abuses in China?
My response there is that we and our players speak about issues that are closest to home. Our players have the absolute freedom to speak off the floor about any issue they want. I think it was a unique set of circumstances that led us to talk about Black Lives Matter over the course of last summer.
As commissioner of the NBA, what are the lessons you can take away from the rise—and quick fall—of the Super League in European soccer.
It’s a reminder that the internet has been disruptive in every industry. And one of the ways it’s been disruptive in the sports industry, in a positive way, is that it’s given fans louder voices, and the ability to congregate, around issues that are important to them, virtually instantly. It’s a reminder that fans have an incredibly powerful voice. And if you cross them, they’re going to let you know it, and they’re going to let you know it in real time, and it’s going to have a direct impact on your business. So they keep us all honest.
Is there a way you can require NBA players to receive COVID vaccinations?
We could only require them to get vaccinated with the consent of their union but we have no plans to do so. We do see it as our role as the league to encourage them to get vaccinated and also demonstrate to our players that there are some very practical benefits to getting vaccinated. They can have more visits with family members while they’re on the road. They can go to restaurants depending on local rules and are allowed to otherwise congregate in ways even with teammates that they can’t if they’re not vaccinated.
Can you share what percentage of NBA players have been vaccinated?
More than 70% of our players have received at least one shot.
Might there be a playoff bubble, or an NBA Finals bubble?
I think it’s highly unlikely at this point that we would return to a bubble for the playoffs or the Finals. We always have one eye on the variants. That’s what our experts are a bit concerned about as well. But there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel now. We have fans in nearly 90% of our arenas. We see our case rates have gone down significantly. There aren’t many organizations probably in the world that do as much testing as we do on a pool of individuals. So we have some very good data. And the data suggest real reason for optimism.
On the weekend of April 17-18, a whole bunch of NBA stars either didn’t play in games or left games early: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, and many more big names. There’s some sense that the abbreviated 2020 off-season, plus playing 72 games this season, has put stress on players and could be responsible for this rash of injuries. What’s your response?
I begin by saying I’m incredibly sympathetic to our players and teams given the circumstances we’re playing in. Modified protocols centering around health and safety, difficult testing schedules often requiring early morning tests after late night travel. And heightened stress levels. There’s no question about that.
Having said all that, just to look at the numbers for a second: our teams are playing an average of 3.6 games per week this season. It’s true, that’s up from 3.42 last season before the pandemic. But that’s less than one additional game a month. And in 2017, in collective bargaining, players agreed to add an extra week to the season, so that we could further reduce density. So if you go back to years prior to 2017, our current schedule falls right in line with the historical density of games in this league.
So there’s nothing aberrational about the density. And while injuries are terrible, and it’s an issue that we’d desperately like to solve, the data isn’t suggesting that our injury rate is in any way out of line with our last five seasons. I mean, it’s a factor of the modern NBA. Again, it doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with it. But at least on a relative basis, the injuries are no worse. And I’d also just point out travel is down 25% this season from a typical season.
I think what we are seeing now is because of the heightened pressure of the situation, of the pandemic, of the isolation, the stress around these injuries is being magnified. So I don’t mean to discount in any way people’s perception about what’s happening this season.
In managing the NBA through the challenges of the pandemic, is there anything you might have done differently?
There’s so much that I would do differently. I don’t know where to start. This is maybe my own sort of nature that I spend a lot of time second guessing myself. From a process standpoint there’s always ways to be even more inclusive. I’d say there was a bit of a dust up around the All-Star game this year. I think it worked out very well. I realized in retrospect I didn’t adequately sell it to players, to some individual players. So that would have been one.
There’s recently been some consternation about the aesthetics of NBA basketball – that the game is now too reliant on the three-point shot. Do you worry that people will be turned off by today’s style of play?
I personally think the game is aesthetically amazing right now. If the trend might continue this way in terms of three-point shooting, sure we would take a look at it. We moved the three-point line before. We once moved it in as people may recall. And then we moved it back out again.
Some people have proposed banning the corner three–point shot, which is closer to the basket than three-pointers on other areas of the floor. Is it possible we’ll see this happen?
I’ll never say something’s not possible. These to me are fun issues to keep addressing and following. We have a strong competition committee that looks at trend lines in terms of the league. The one thing I’ll say about the NBA, we’re not beholden to pure tradition. We care a lot about it, but I’d say of all the factors I think about when we talk about changing the rules, I’m less concerned with how are you therefore going to compare Steph Curry’s three pointers to the player yet to come who will be shooting from a different distance? I think we should live in the present, be respectful of those records, but also be willing to adjust when it makes sense.