Ranking the Best Stewards in North America (and Rob Manfred)


1) Adam Silver.

League: NBA.

Years of work: Beginning of 2014.

Estimated salary: $10 million.

Just three months after taking over from David Stern, Silver was put on trial after tapes aired in which LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling used racial slurs. Silver’s response, highlighted by the infamous “Banned for life!”, earned him applause, perhaps mostly from the players themselves. Silver’s quick and decisive reaction set the tone for what has been a successful tenure so far.

It hasn’t been without a hitch, of course: Daryl Morey’s handling of China comments hasn’t had the same outspoken morality that Silver showed during the Sterling affair (although that may be an impossible situation up for grabs given the NBA’s commitment to global growth.)

Plus, there are valid arguments that he made it too easy for players to force moves to big-market teams, a problem the NBA may need to alleviate at some point. But the bumps pale in comparison to the successes: Silver has navigated the Covid-19 pandemic about as well as one might have expected; he is popular with gamers due to his emphasis on social justice; he continued Stern’s global push in the NBA with NBA Africa; and he’s even been open to innovation in the form of a mid-season tournament, which could be his lasting legacy for better or worse.

More work needs to be done to combat tanking, while the regular season needs to be a lot more appealing, but, overall, Silver did well. Which, considering some of his contemporaries, puts him comfortably at the top of this list.

2) Don Garber.

League: MLS.

Years of work: Beginning of 1999.

Estimated salary: $5 million.

Critics of Garber will point to the Columbus Crew relocation debacle. But there’s no denying that Garber was the right person to take soccer to the next level on and off the field in North America.

He played a major role in preventing the league from collapsing in the early 2000s while managing a treacherous decades-long process of expansion. During his tenure, MLS grew in size, shedding its “retirement league” label for a “development” label.

It’s not perfect of course, the aforementioned crew spat worked in Garber’s favor but tainted his legacy and could have completely ruined it had the franchise moved on. The creation of SUM (Soccer United Marketing) was a financial boon to American football and it’s hard to see MLS in its current state without him.

3) Cathy Engelbert

League: WNBA

Years of work: Early 2019

Estimated salary: unknown

Cathy Engelbert, WNBA Commissioner

The former CEO of Deloitte was a pioneer in the corporate world, and it was this solid business background that made her an ideal candidate to lead the WNBA. Early signs are good: Last season’s viewership for the WNBA Finals was up 23% from 2020.

Engelbert weathered his early years in office relatively unscathed, navigating the pandemic and a run-in over the co-ownership of a Republican senator from the Atlanta Dream. But recently, she found herself in a dispute over charter flights that turned into a debate over working conditions for female athletes.

Her main goal has been to change the way companies view women’s sports. In a statement early in her term, she clarified that mission: “Less than 5% of corporate sponsorship money goes to women’s sports and less than 5% to media coverage. My goal is to get both up to 10%. This will improve player experience, fan engagement – and all tides will rise. His legacy will be largely defined on his ability to achieve this goal.

4) Roger Goodel

League: NFL

Years of work: Early 2006

Estimated salary: $63.9 million

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Goodell is currently negotiating a contract extension and he can probably demand what he wants. Is it down to his expert handling of issues on and off the pitch? Far from it, from the arbitrary nature of the suspensions to Deflategate, Ray Rice, CTE, diversity in training and Colin Kaepernick, his record is far from pristine. That said, Goodell does one thing very well: make money for the league. The NFL’s annual revenue was $6.5 billion in 2006, the year he took office; by 2019, they had risen to $15.2 billion.

Goodell threw grenade after grenade to protect the interests of NFL owners and protect them from scrutiny. He’s the ultimate heel and more importantly, he seems happy to be one (and on that salary, who can blame him?) Plus, it’s hard to argue with his professional record, even though his ethics may be debated. The NFL experienced record growth under his leadership, he allowed the NFL RedZone – perhaps the greatest media invention in sports – to exist, he revamped the off-season schedule to ensure the NFL is relevant all year, and he was able to secure both an extra regular season and a playoff in a lore-based sport.

Goodell may be divisive, but he’s far from incompetent when it comes to enriching NFL owners and players.

5) Gary Bettman

League: NHL

Years of work: early 1993

Estimated salary: $7.5 million

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

It’s hard to look past the three lockouts under Bettman’s watch, especially since one of them lasted an entire season. 2004-05 still holds the dubious honor of being the first time a major North American sport lost an entire season due to labor disputes.

Hockey had a cultural cache in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, much of which has now faded away. Bettman is of course not the only one to blame, but it should be noted that he did not inherit a failing sport. 2004-05 inflicted long-lasting damage on a sport that, while perhaps geographically specialized in the United States, had (and still has) appeal to modern audiences.

Bettman’s failure to abandon archaic rules and change with the times was well noted. Bettman allowed trap-style defensive hockey in the early 2000s to thwart excitement and made the sport unappealing to many casual fans. Misguided attempts to force hockey into warmer climes instead of traditional markets have hurt legacy supporters.

Bettman’s mishandling of issues surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks’ sexual assault cover-up, the Arizona Coyotes’ home stadium, the NHL’s longstanding cultural issues, and the league’s seemingly optional salary cap rules, which are too easily circumvented, certainly do him no favors.

But hey, he got NHL on ESPN/TNT and away from OLN which is a plus.

6) Rob Manfred

League: MLB

Years of work: Early 2015

Estimated salary: $11 million

Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner
Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner

The long-running narrative surrounding Rob Manfred is damning: no one is sure he even likes baseball. Frustration with Manfred has boiled over again in recent weeks after the start of the new season was delayed and games were called off due to a lockdown. But even before that, Manfred had the uncanny ability to make problems worse while trying to solve them.

His attempts to modernize the game angered traditionalists while failing to attract new fans. It has taken a scythe in the minor leagues, essentially limiting the sport’s organic growth to the lower levels at a time when baseball sees football getting closer to stealing third base.

He notoriously botched the punishment of the Astros in their cheating scandal, the video replay started disastrously, there was the baseball fiasco and now he’s essentially arguing for a lockout at the behest of the owners.

But perhaps on a personal level, nothing was more egregious than dismissing the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal” in an attempt to temper outrage over the Astros’ cheating scandal.

Baseball should be able to survive in the United States on its nostalgia value alone. Still, Manfred seems determined to strip MLB of the illusions that make the sport what it is. Yes, we know deep down that trophies are just bits of metal, but we really don’t want the person in charge of the sport to tell us that.

Unclassified :

Marla Messing

League: NWSL

Marla Messing won’t be around for too long after taking the reins as acting commissioner following the abuse scandals that rocked the NWSL in 2021 and led to the resignation of her predecessor, Lisa Baird.

Messing is a career sports executive who played a major role in the defining moment of women’s soccer in the United States: the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She has been adamant about the league’s goal in the present: to clean the gutter before significant action can be taken.

“Let me be crystal clear, our first goal is to get our house in order and to make sure we meet the minimum standards of a professional league and address the issues players want and deserve. that we were addressing,” Messing said. .

For the NWSL, the next appointment will be crucial – women’s soccer is finally gaining greater international recognition and the next commissioner could possibly be Don Garber for US Women’s Soccer.



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