A look at the ultimate sports leader: the commissioner

February 18, 2024
With the U.S. celebrating President’s Day tomorrow, we’re focusing on a different kind of leadership role: the sports commissioner.
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A look at the ultimate sports leader: the commissioner
Source: Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum via Getty Images

⚾ The origin of the role

Like all heroes (or villains) sports league commissioners have an interesting origin story. After the 1919 Chicago Black Sox Scandal where Sox players allegedly threw the World Series, MLB had lost the trust of their fans and needed an impartial source (aka commissioner) to restore it: enter Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

  • While a governing body known as the National Baseball Commission had existed to settle disputes, the power was split between three members: a president from both the American and National Leagues and a commission chairman.
  • Unsurprisingly, the presidents struggled to remain unbiased as they were still associated with the teams in their respective leagues.

Landis took the role with the stipulation that he would be the sole commissioner, with almost absolute power. He started his reign by giving a lifetime ban to the eight players accused of fixing the 1919 World Series and continued to rule with an iron fist from there until his death in 1944.

Things looked different for the next commissioner — Happy Chandler, a U.S. Senator and former governor of Kentucky, who won the seat in 1945. Known as “the players’ commissioner,” Chandler approved Jackie Robinson’s contract in 1947 and worked to establish a pension fund for players after negotiating radio and television rights. A true game-changer.

🏟️ A look at current major league commissioners

A look at the ultimate sports leader: the commissioner
Source: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

All North American major leagues have since adopted the commissioner position. While no one holds the unchecked power of the first MLB commissioner (despite what they may wish), the role continues to shape not just the sports below but NASCAR, soccer, lacrosse, and more.

🏈 Roger Goodell has served as the NFL’s commissioner since 2006. With the NFL Players Association’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in place through 2030, Goodell has brought the most profitable league in the U.S. to even greater heights thanks to new streaming options and a focus on international growth.

  • Nickelodeon deals aside, Goodell has earned his fair share of criticism — especially with his handling of domestic violence, social justice movements, concussions and certain infamous cheating scandals.

🏀 Adam Silver has been the head honcho of the NBA since 2014. Mere months into his tenure, he rightfully handed down one of the most severe punishments ever for a team owner, banning then–LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after his racist remarks were brought to light.

  • The tech-forward commissioner gained further respect for his handling of the pandemic shutdown and later the NBA Bubble, which provided a safe and successful way to finish the 2020 season.

⚾ Rob Manfred made headlines this week when he announced he will step down as the MLB commissioner in 2029. Last season, a long-term initiative of Manfred’s came into play as a series of historic rule changes sped up games for more action, scoring, and stolen bases.

🏒 Gary Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL since before DVDs were invented. In his 31 years steering the ship, the NHL’s revenue has climbed from around $400 million to $5.93 billion due in large part to successes like outdoor and overseas games.

  • He’s undoubtedly helped to grow the NHL in markets like the American South and West but draws criticism thanks to his Olympic ban (finally lifted for 2026), multiple lockouts and moving teams out of Canada. Boo.

🏀⚽🏈 The lack of diversity in the commissioner role

A look at the ultimate sports leader: the commissioner
Source: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The history of commissioners in North America’s biggest sports leagues has even less diversity than the U.S. presidency. While the position has been overwhelmingly white and male, progress is happening across some of the newer and most exciting leagues in sports. Imagine that.

🏀 Cathy Engelbert became the WNBA’s first commissioner in 2019 — the head of the league was previously known as the president. The former Deloitte CEO is a world-class business leader and brings that same acumen to the W.

  • She’s negotiated a historic CBA in 2020, led the league through the COVID-19 pandemic, and continues to expand the reach of the game. Maybe chartered planes are next?

⚽ Jessica Berman is a veteran sports executive with leadership experience in the NHL, National Lacrosse League (NLL), and the NWSL — where she has been commissioner since 2022.

🏈 Lee Hutton III became America’s first Black commissioner when the Arena Football League relaunched in 2023. Hutton is an experienced attorney and worked on several impactful court cases, including litigation surrounding concussions in the NFL and NCAA name, image and likeness (NIL) legal cases. The AFL plans to return this year.

🏆 The best of the best

A look at the ultimate sports leader: the commissioner
Source: Bettmann viz Getty Images

Commissioners take a lot of heat. And are living proof that you can’t make everyone happy. Here’s a look at some of the most impactful commissioner moments from the last 100 years.

📺 Pete Rozelle can be credited with creating the Super Bowl, Monday Night Football, and securing landmark television deals for the league while he served as NFL commissioner from 1960–1989. No Pete Rozelle, no cutaways to Taylor Swift.

🏆 Larry O’Brien introduced the three-point shot and facilitated the NBA’s successful merger with the American Basketball Association during his tenure as the league’s commissioner from 1975–1984. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because the NBA’s championship trophy is named after him.

🍻 Val Ackerman is the current commissioner of the Big East Conference and was the first president of the WNBA. She helped the women’s basketball league secure landmark sponsorship deals with brands like Budweiser, Kellogg’s, and Sears, as well as media rights with NBC and ESPN.

🦩Don Garber’s legacy as commissioner of MLS will be forever affiliated with one name: Messi. Besides bringing the world’s favorite Argentinian to Miami, Garber also implemented the first in-season tournament in a North American men’s professional sport. But he’s definitely had his share of missteps since his tenure first started in 1999.

🥇 The late David Stern had an indelible impact on the international reach of the NBA, including the creation of the 1992 Dream Team. He also implemented the draft lottery to prevent teams from completely tanking at the end of the season, helped found the WNBA, introduced the salary cap, and more.