Stern’s Signature on NBA Ball Won’t Get Bounced When Reign Ends

The National Basketball Association’s signature piece of equipment will carry an outdated signature for much of next season.

Even after Adam Silver succeeds David Stern as commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014, official game balls for the rest of the season will carry the former boss’s name, said Wendy Unger-Moore, senior director of marketing at Spalding. The company has made the equipment since the 1983-84 season and the balls will be bouncing tonight when LeBron James and the Miami Heat host the San Antonio Spurs to open the NBA Finals.

Silver-signed basketballs will be used in games and available at retail outlets beginning with the 2014-15 season, at least six months after the leadership change, according to Spalding, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway’s Inc.’s Fruit of the Loom unit.

“We all knew David Stern would have a lasting legacy on the league, but a new leader deserves a new ball,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “It’s a missed opportunity for the manufacturer. It’s a missed opportunity for cementing Adam in the role he will take on. It’s really not in the spirit of how the NBA has marketed itself to date.”

Stern, 70, replaced Larry O’Brien as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, and game balls for the rest of that season carried O’Brien’s signature, Unger-Moore said. Stern in an e-mail said he isn’t concerned that the signature will be out of date when he steps down.

Handwriting Analysis

Spalding has created at least one basketball with the 51-year-old Silver’s name. The process called for Silver, the NBA’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer since 2006, to sign two index cards. Sal LaRocca, the league’s executive vice president in charge of global merchandising, then picked the one he thought was better. LaRocca electronically forwarded his choice to Spalding, which manufactured the prototype for league approval. That ball is at league headquarters in New York.

Silver, through league spokesman Mike Bass, declined to comment on the new ball. The Silver basketballs won’t be used next season because there’s “a necessary break-in process for NBA game balls,” Bass said, without being specific. Bass also said the NBA would use a Silver-signed ball for the 2014 All-Star Game, scheduled for Feb. 16 in New Orleans.

Each NBA team gets 72 basketballs a season from Bowling Green, Kentucky-based Spalding, which Unger-Moore said has more than 300,000 Stern balls in its pipeline.

“We have to manage our inventories down,” she said, adding that it’s too early to say when the last batch of Stern balls would be produced.

The target date for Silver-signed basketballs to be available at retailers like the NBA Store and Modell’s Sporting Goods Inc. stores is Aug. 1, 2014, she said.

Who’ll Notice?

Mitchell Modell, president of Modell’s, said inventory moves so quickly that there shouldn’t be a problem if Stern’s name appears on basketballs while Silver is the commissioner.

“I’d be in shock if anyone would even notice it,” he said. “No markdown will be required.”

If customers do notice and inventory mounts, “then we’d address it,” Modell said in a telephone interview. The game ball sells for $169.99 on the NBA Store website.

The National Football League is the most recent of the four major U.S. sports leagues to change commissioners. Roger Goodell succeeded Paul Tagliabue on Aug. 8, 2006. The next day, Tagliabue presented the new leader with a Goodell-signed football, which Wilson produced by lifting his signature from the company’s contract with the league, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. Goodell had been the league’s chief operating officer.

The NFL’s season started a month later with teams using footballs signed by the new commissioner.

Baseball Succession

Rawlings, the official supplier to Major League Baseball, will deal with a signature change when Commissioner Bud Selig retires in January 2015. Kurt Hunzeker, the company’s senior director for brand marketing, said MLB uses about 1.2 million balls a season and Rawlings officials haven’t discussed a plan for the change, though there are differences from the NBA.

Spalding embosses the name into the basketball as it’s created, while Rawlings stamps the commissioner’s signature onto the baseball after it has been produced.

“It’s not nearly as problematic for us,” Hunzeker said.

Silver was hand-picked and named as the next NBA commissioner in October, the same day Stern said he planned to step down. Selig’s successor hasn’t been announced.

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