There are thousands of jobs in sports available across the nation. Account executives, writers, video producers, agents, coaches, marketers, scouts (and more!) help run the sports organizations we root for. These professionals are part of an exclusive club. You work (or will work) in the sports industry, an exciting, fast-paced environment where the end result of your work is seen by thousands, sometimes millions, of fans. One of the most cherished position in sports is league commissioner. It’s hard work and it’s high stress but it comes with tremendous influence and a nice paycheck. No one is born into the job and there is a long, winding road up the mountain. So where did the top-four league commissioners come from?
Roger Goodell, National Football League (since 2006)
The commissioner of the most successful sports league in America grew up near the spotlight. The son of Charles Goodell, a New York senator, was a high school star athlete before studying economics at Washington & Jefferson College. Since graduating over 30 years ago, Roger Goodell has devoted his career to the National Football League. That commitment, along with strong intellect and business savvy, eventually landed him the top job in the league office. Eventually.
Roger Goodell’s journey started with an NFL administrative internship, but only after he successfully completed an extensive letter-writing campaign to the league office and its teams. After a stop in the league’s public relations department, Goodell was appointed assistant to the president of the American Football Conference, Lamar Hunt. From the late 80s through 2000, the current commissioner filled a variety of roles under former commissioner Paul Tagliabue—Director of International Development and Club Administration, VP of Operations, Executive VP of Business and Football Development, among others. And in 2001, Goodell landed the NFL’s number two job, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.
As the league’s second in command Roger Goodell proved his leadership ability, negotiating skills and business sense. In 2006, he was selected as the next commissioner of the NFL, a dream he chased for over 20 years. Since taking on one of the most scrutinized positions in sports, Goodell has certainly been his own leader. There have been both missteps and triumphs under his watch but, with the staunch support of franchise owners, Roger Goodell will keep the commissioner seat filled for years to come.
Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball (since 2015)
Everyone knows former Major League Baseball commissioner, Bud Selig. Love him or hate him, Selig has been the face of professional baseball since the early 90s. But Rob Manfred, the newly minted baseball commissioner, isn’t a household name. Yet. The Cornell and Harvard Law School educated lawyer has only been with the league since the late 90s but he has already accomplished so much.
Before Rob Manfred’s career in MLB he spent time practicing law, first as a law clerk and then as a labor and employment lawyer. That experience led him to his connection with Major League Baseball. From the late 80s into the mid 90s he worked with the league as an outside consultant and counsel for the collective bargaining process. That included the 1994-95 baseball strike; his advice as outside counsel proved an ability to handle a highly stressful, highly visible work environment. So, in 1998, Manfred accepted an executive-level position with the league.
Rob Manfred served 15 years as Major League Baseball’s Executive Vice President of Labor Relations, keeping labor peace in baseball through 3 collective bargaining agreements while other professional leagues went through contentious negotiations time-after-time. That brilliant work landed him baseball’s COO job in 2013 overseeing labor relations, baseball operations, finance, administration and club governance. Soon after, Bud Selig announced his retirement plans and nearly a year later, team owners elected Manfred to take his place.
It’s too early to say what kind of commissioner Rob Manfred will be. He understands how the league works—being connected to it for well over 20 years now—and also has experience outside of the baseball bubble. That mix should give him the right perspective to keep owners happy and, hopefully, engage a younger fan base.
Adam Silver, National Basketball Association (since 2014)
Basketball fans know David Stern—the league’s commissioner since 1984—for his ironfisted rule of the NBA. Many fewer fans knew the name Adam Silver until they came to know the name Donald Sterling—former L.A. Clippers owners—in 2014. Silver’s voice, stoic and unwavering, boomed across the country’s airwaves as he banished Sterling from the NBA for his racist remarks. Now you know the name Adam Silver.
The Duke University and University of Chicago grad spent his early years learning the law profession: a Congressman’s legislative aid, a judge’s law clerk and a litigation associate. Then Silver knew it was time for a change. He found his way to the National Basketball Association in 1992; Silver’s journey to the job of commissioner had some interesting twists.
Adam Silver spent nearly a decade as Senior VP and COO of NBA Entertainment. Remember the IMAX movie Michael Jordan to the Max? Adam Silver executive produced it. Did you enjoy Like Mike and Year of the Yao? He helped out on the production. His successes on the entertainment side of the league led him to even greater opportunities. Silver played a critical role within the league office as the NBA Chief of Staff and Special Assistant to the Commissioner which led him, nearly 9 years ago, to the position of NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer. As David Stern’s right hand man, Silver learned from the best—negotiation, leadership, firm-but-fair, directness.
It served him well once he assumed the position of NBA Commissioner in 2014 and immediately had to deal with the Donald Sterling fallout. He handled it so well—it made us all believers. There is a confidence and intelligence about Adam Silver that will bring owners, players and fans a better NBA.
Gary Bettman, National Hockey League (since 1993)
The NHL commissioner is by far the most tenured of the four league commissioners. In his 20 plus years on the job, Gary Bettman has overseen revenue growth as well as league expansion. Bettman, educated at Cornell University and New York University School of Law, spent nearly a decade with the NBA before accepting the position to lead the NHL. True story.
Gary Bettman joined the National Basketball Association in 1981. At first, with the marketing and legal departments and then, eventually, rising to the position of league general counsel and senior vice president. He helped bring the salary cap to the NBA so naturally the NHL came calling.
The NHL owners made Gary Bettman their first commissioner in 1993 expecting him to market the game to U.S. fans and carry out their expansion plans. And to make team ownership more profitable. Bettman has overseen 3 NHL lockouts—1994-95, 2004-05, 2012-13—in an effort to bring cost certainty to the league. Success! The 2004-05 collective bargaining agreement negotiations brought a hard salary cap to the NHL, a major triumph for the league owners. Tough tactics has made Gary Bettman an unpopular figure with many NHL fans. But he has revived a struggling league, secured a major broadcasting contract and helped bring the game to thousands of new fans. There is a reason league owners have kept him on as commissioner for so long.