1) Adam Silver
Years in job: Started 2014
Estimated salary: $10m
Just three months after succeeding David Stern, Silver was given a trial by fire after the release of tapes in which LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling used racist slurs. Silver’s response, highlighted by the often memed “Banned for Life!”, brought him plaudits, perhaps most crucially from the players themselves. Silver’s quick and decisive reaction set the tone for what has been a successful tenure thus far.
It hasn’t been without its hiccups of course: The handling of Daryl Morey’s comments on China didn’t have the same forthright morality that Silver exhibited during the Sterling affair (although it was perhaps an unwinnable situation given the NBA’s commitment to global growth.)
Additionally, there are some valid arguments that he has allowed players to force moves to big-market teams too easily, an issue that the NBA may need to mitigate at some point. But the bumps pale in comparison to the successes: Silver navigated the Covid-19 pandemic about as well as could be expected; he is popular with players due to the importance he places on social justice; he has continued Stern’s global NBA push with NBA Africa; and he has even been open to innovation in the form of a midseason tournament, which could be his lasting legacy for better or for worse.
More work needs to be done to combat tanking, while the regular season needs to be far more appealing, But, all in all, Silver has been fine. Which, given some of his contemporaries, puts him comfortably top of this list.
2) Don Garber
Years in job: Started 1999
Estimated salary: $5m
Garber’s critics will point to the Columbus Crew relocation debacle. But it’s undeniable that Garber was the right person to take soccer to the next level on and off the pitch in North America.
He played a major role in saving the league from folding in the early 2000s while also managing a treacherous decades-long expansion process. During his time in charge, MLS has grown in stature, shaking off its “retirement league” label for a “developmental” one.
It’s not perfect of course, the aforementioned Crew spat worked out in Garber’s favor but has tainted his legacy and could have outright ruined it had the franchise moved. The creation of SUM (Soccer United Marketing) was a financial boon to US Soccer and it’s hard to see the MLS in its current state without him.
3) Cathy Engelbert
Years in job: Started 2019
Estimated salary: unknown
The former Deloitte CEO was a trailblazer in the corporate world, and it’s that sound business background that made her an ideal candidate to run the WNBA. The early signs are good: last season’s viewership for the WNBA finals was up 23% from 2020.
Engelbert has got through her first years in power relatively unscathed, navigating the pandemic and a clash over a Republican senator’s co-ownership of the Atlanta Dream. But recently she’s found herself in a dispute over charter flights that has spiraled into a debate over working conditions for female athletes.
Her main focus has been to change how companies look at women’s sports. In a statement early in her tenure, she made that mission clear: “Less than 5% of corporate sponsorship money goes to women’s sports and less than 5% of media coverage. My goal is to get both up to 10%. That will improve the player experience, fan engagement – and all tides will rise.”
Her legacy will largely be defined on her ability to pull that goal off.
4) Roger Goodell
Years in job: Started 2006
Estimated salary: $63.9m
Goodell is currently negotiating a contract extension and he can probably demand whatever he wants. Is this due to his expert handling of issues on and off the field? Far from it, from the arbitrary nature of suspensions to Deflategate, Ray Rice, CTE, diversity in coaching and Colin Kaepernick, his record is far from pristine. That said, Goodell does one thing very well: making the league money. The NFL’s annual revenue were $6.5bn in 2006, the year he assumed his role; in 2019 they had risen to $15.2bn.
Goodell has thrown himself on grenade after grenade to protect the NFL owners’ interests and shield them from scrutiny. He’s the ultimate heel and more importantly, he appears happy to be one (and on that salary, who can blame him?)
Besides, it’s hard to argue with his business record, even if his ethics can be debated. The NFL has seen record growth under his watch, he’s allowed NFL RedZone – perhaps the greatest media invention in sports – to exist, he’s revamped the offseason schedule to ensure the NFL is relevant year-round, and he’s been able to secure both an extra regular season and playoff game in a sport that’s built on tradition.
Goodell may be divisive but he’s far from incompetent when it comes to making the NFL’s owners and players richer.
5) Gary Bettman
Years in job: started 1993
Estimated salary: $7.5m
It’s hard to look past the three lockouts under Bettman’s watch, especially as 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 cultural cache in the US in the 1980s and 90s, much of which has now fizzled out. Bettman of course isn’t solely to blame but it’s worth noting he did not inherit a failing sport. 2004-05 inflicted long-term damage on a sport that, while perhaps geographically niche in the US, had (and still has) appeal to a modern audience.
Bettman’s failure to jettison archaic rules and change with the times have been well noted. Bettman allowed the defensive trap-style hockey in the early aughts to stymie excitement and made the sport unappealing to many casual fans. Misguided attempts to force hockey into warmer climates instead of traditional markets hurt legacy fans.
Bettman’s poor handling of the issues surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks’ sexual assault cover-up, the Arizona Coyotes’ stadium, the NHL’s long-standing 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 the NHL on ESPN/TNT and away from OLN which is a plus.
6) Rob Manfred
Years in job: Started 2015
Estimated salary: $11m
The long-running narrative surrounding Rob Manfred is damning: no one is sure if he even likes baseball.
Frustration with Manfred has come to a boil again in recent weeks after the start of the new season was delayed and games canceled due to a lockout. But even before then, Manfred had the uncanny ability to make problems worse while trying to fix them.
His attempts to modernize the game have angered traditionalists while failing to attract new fans. He’s taken a scythe to the minor leagues, essentially curtailing organic growth of the sport at the lower levels in an era where baseball is seeing soccer getting close to stealing third base.
He famously botched punishment for the Astros in their cheating scandal, video replay started disastrously, there was the juiced baseballs fiasco and now he’s essentially advocating 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 after the Astros cheating scandal.
Baseball should be able to survive in the US on its nostalgia value alone. Yet Manfred seems determined to strip MLB of the illusions that make sports what they are. Yes, we know deep down that trophies are just pieces of metal, but we really don’t want the person in charge of the sport telling us that.
Unranked: Marla Messing
Marla Messing won’t be around too much longer after taking the reins as interim commissioner in the wake of 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 landmark moment for women’s soccer in the US: the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She has been adamant about the focus for the league in the present: Cleaning out the gutter before major steps can be made.
“Let me just be crystal clear, our first objective is to get our house in order and to make sure that we are meeting the minimum standards of a professional league and addressing the issues that the players want and deserve us to address,” Messing said.
For the NWSL the next appointment will be pivotal – the women’s game is finally getting more international recognition and the next commissioner could perhaps be the Don Garber for US women’s soccer.