NBA commissioner Adam Silver defends social justice record ahead of Utah All-Star Game

Silver also weighed in on load management, regional sports networks and the league’s CBA during a news conference in Salt Lake City.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference as part of NBA All-Star Weekend, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver defended the league’s track record on social justice issues, including transgender rights in Utah, during a wide-ranging news conference ahead of All-Star Saturday Night in Salt Lake City.

“Well, I think our track record is absolutely clear for decades about our focus on human rights issues,” Silver said. “I would say in terms of a specific issue in a state or in a market, they’re all specific to that situation. I would just say we don’t have a general policy going into it.

“I think here we’ve worked successfully, as I said earlier, with Gov. [Spencer] Cox on bringing this All-Star Game to Utah. I think we’ve ensured that for working directly with the Utah Jazz that certainly for all our events, whether in the arena or the fan events outside the arena, that we absolutely protect the individual civil rights of any of the participants.”

The NBA decided to pull the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte over anti-transgender legislation in North Carolina, but never considered that option in Utah even amid the passage of a controversial transgender youth sports bill last year.

Earlier this week, Cox said the game’s status was never in question because the NBA was trying to get out of the business of taking hardline stances on certain hot-button issues.

“No. That’s really changed. We’ve had those discussions with the NBA for quite a while,” Cox said on Thursday. “They’re trying to get a little more out of those culture war pieces as well, so we were not fearful of that at all.”

In his other statements Saturday, Silver largely argued that the issues facing the NBA were less significant than its detractors say.

Much of Silver’s comments focused on the trend around the NBA of its star players playing less often, generally referred to as “load management.” Silver said that it wasn’t as much of an issue as some thought, because fans vote with their wallets — the NBA’s record-setting attendance and revenues showed that fans weren’t too concerned.

“I don’t think the issue is quite what some suggest. I mean, our stars are not missing that many games for resting,” Silver said. “We have injuries. I think we would all agree that’s a separate issue. But sort of as a measure of single games missed, it’s not that bad.

“I then look at the data and think, all right, well, this year we’re going to likely break the all-time record for tickets sold. We’re likely going to have the all-time record for season-ticket renewals. So our fans aren’t necessarily suggesting that they are that upset with the product that we’re presenting, and our television ratings are holding up.”

Nor did the league consider reducing the number of games in a season a viable solution to the problem.

“You’ll recall only two seasons ago coming out of the bubble season, we played a 72-game season. Now, the footprint was slightly smaller, but it was an interesting experiment — because it didn’t change team behavior all that much in terms of the focus on load and players,” Silver said.

Also of interest to Jazz fans: the league’s local TV broadcast situation with its regional sports networks. Diamond Sports, the company that runs the Bally Sports Networks that approximately half of the league uses to broadcast its games locally, will imminently go bankrupt after missing a $150 million interest payment on its debt this week. The Jazz don’t use Bally Sports, but are also still negotiating their TV deal after their contract with AT&T SportsNet runs out at the end of this season. What does Silver think of the landscape?

“Short term, I’m not all that concerned. ... If they were to indeed, you know, file for bankruptcy, there won’t be that much of the regular season left. For that period of time, we will have in place arrangements, if necessary, to continue to distribute those games to fans.

“In the mid-term, it’s an issue we’re going to have to work through,” Silver said. “I would say long term I’m not that concerned because there are many other ways, platforms, including local over-the-air television, streaming services, other methods, to bring those games linear and digitally directly to fans.”

Silver also addressed the league’s ongoing discussions with the National Basketball Player Association union about agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement. The league and NBPA recently agreed to an extension in the deadline to opt out of the current agreement; that deadline is now March 31.

“I would just say it’s an absolute priority for us as well to get a deal done as soon as possible,” Silver said. “It’s my hope that the deal will be done by then.”

He also said that the league’s owners will wait to have expansion talks until after the next collective bargaining agreement and league-wide TV deal are settled.

“The view from our governors has been let’s figure out exactly what the new CBA looks like, let’s figure out what our new media deals look like, then let’s think about expansion,” Silver said. “Invariably, we will. There’s no active discussions in the league office right now, but we’ll turn back to it in a few years.”