Pro Sports Commissioners, Ranked From Worst to Best
Being a professional sports commissioner is tough business. It's not easy to make everyone happy, and coming out on the right side of history can be even harder.
Commissioners work for team owners, who get into pro sports to make money and have a right to demand results. But being commissioner of a league means more than doing the owner's, or the player's, or the public’s, bidding. Not everyone is cut out for the leadership role.
The big four leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) have had 21 commissioners combined. This is how they all stack up.
21. Kenesaw Mountain Landis
League: Major League Baseball (MLB)
Bottom line: Kenesaw Landis was a federal judge before he became Major League Baseball's first commissioner. He helped clean up baseball after the notorious "Chicago Black Sox" scandal of 1919, but he also had open hostility to integrating baseball.
He ruled with an iron fist and limited any innovation to the sport. Besides not welcoming black players, Landis opposed a minor league system and barnstorming trips, and upheld the lifetime ban of all eight White Sox even after their acquittal in a jury trial.
You cannot get any worse at commissioner than Landis.
20. Peter Ueberroth
Bottom line: Peter Ueberroth has been credited with making baseball prosperous in the mid-1980s. However, he presided over a corrupt system while in office.
Ueberroth was cited for promoting collusion between the owners to suppress wages for free agents, and he and the MLB owners were found guilty in each case.
Ueberroth stepped down in disgrace in 1989.
19. Roger Goodell
League: National Football League (NFL)
Bottom line: First, the good news. Roger Goodell has presided over the most profitable sport ever.
Now, the bad news. He hasn’t been able to establish a legitimate, consistent disciplinary system specifically for off-field matters.
Plus, his denial of a concussion-CTE link is wrong.
18. Gary Bettman
League: National Hockey League (NHL)
Bottom line: The NHL has only had one commissioner, so there’s not much to compare Gary Bettman to, and he has had some legitimate highlights to his tenure.
But he’s presided over three labor stoppages and is the only commissioner to lose a whole season to a lockout/strike. That's a major strike against him.
17. Bowie Kuhn
Bottom line: Bowie Kuhn is the father of night playoff baseball, which has been both a blessing and a curse to the sport.
But he mishandled the case of Curt Flood, upholding the reserve clause and refusing to declare him a free agent — a case Flood later won in court.
Kuhn also presided over the first work stoppage in modern professional sports, a players' strike in 1981.
16. William Eckert
Bottom line: William Eckert was a placeholder between the Ford Frick-Bowie Kuhn eras who got baseball to boost attendance by pushing for larger ballparks.
But owners lost faith in his business acumen, and he was forced out after only three years in office.
15. Ford Frick
Bottom line: Ford Frick, a former sportswriter, ruled as a ship captain, guiding MLB during a serene time, but he made two controversial decisions .
First, he took fan voting out of the All-Star Game, after Cincinnati Reds fans stuffed the ballot in 1957. Fans could not vote again for the Midsummer Classic until 1969, when Bowie Kuhn restored the opportunity.
Frick also would not declare Roger Maris the home run king after Maris hit 61 home runs in 162 games in 1961, the first year MLB expanded its schedule from 154 games. Babe Ruth hit 60 homers in the 154-game season in 1927, so Maris and Ruth were acknowledged separately in the record books until 1991.
14. Rob Manfred
Bottom line: Rob Manfred has been successful in supplementary discipline, especially for players who commit domestic violence.
But his actions that address both injuries and the game’s pace-of-play issues have been mocked, and his continued flirtation with wholesale changes to the sport leaves diehard fans concerned.
13. Elmer Layden
Bottom line: Elmer Layden, one of the Four Horsemen at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne, was the flagship commissioner of the NFL.
Layden led the league through the World War II years. After the war, his biggest legacy was mandating that the national anthem be played before all NFL games.
His contract was not renewed because owners didn't think he was tough enough.
12. Bart Giamatti
Bottom line: Bart Giamatti oversaw the Dowd Report and trial of Pete Rose and ruled him ineligible from participating from baseball beginning in 1989 — a ban that continues today.
But Giamatti died in office of a heart attack after just 154 days.
11. Fay Vincent
Bottom line: Fay Vincent was a strong leader in his own right but was ousted by a coup in 1992.
He dealt with controversy by suspending Yankees owner George Steinbrenner a year for spying on Dave Winfield.
Vincent also showed steady leadership when an earthquake shook the World Series in 1989, and he avoided a calamity when owners locked out players during spring training in 1990.
10. Bud Selig
Bottom line: Bud Selig’s impact on baseball is undeniable, though his work did not always benefit the sport.
He oversaw great gains — including landmark TV deals, a new playoff format and division alignment that’s been popular — and helped usher in strong rules against drugs and labor peace later in his term.
These efforts, however, don't negate the bad, which started when he helped push Fay Vincent out of office and included a work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series and washing his hands of his involvement during the steroid era.
But Selig deserves credit for learning from his mistakes to make the sport better instead of solely serving at the pleasure of his fellow owners.
9. Walter Kennedy
League: National Basketball Association (NBA)
Bottom line: The NBA was in flux when Walter Kennedy took over, with competition all around and only nine teams.
But Kennedy came in and righted the ship. He got a television contract and helped the league expand to 18 teams by the time of his departure.
His moves boosted earnings and tripled attendance.
8. Paul Tagliabue
Bottom line: Paul Tagliabue took over for the immortal Pete Rozelle and kept the NFL prosperous amid a relatively smooth sporting landscape.
He brought football to Europe, first with the World League of American Football (WLAF), then the annual European series.
He postponed games after Sept. 11, 2001 and was steadfast for the Saints' return to New Orleans after they were unsettled by Hurricane Katrina.
Multiple teams moved under Tagliabue’s watch, including the iconic Cleveland Browns, but he made things right by levying a compromise that brought the Browns back to the city in 1999.
7. Maurice Podoloff
Bottom line: Maurice Podoloff was the first NBA commissioner. In 1946, he took over as president of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), and in 1949, he negotiated a merger with the National Basketball League (NBL) to create the National Basketball Association (NBA), a 17-team organization that became the gold standard in pro basketball.
He was far ahead of his time by creating the 24-second clock and boosted fan engagement for the game under his watch.
He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1974.
6. Adam Silver
Bottom line: Adam Silver hasn’t had to change too much after David Stern's successful run. Still, the league continues to grow under Silver's watch.
He shined in his moment in the spotlight by ousting Clippers owner Donald Sterling after racists remarks he made were leaked.
Silver also has many good ideas, including a 1-16 playoff format and taking basketball to new international markets.
However, he could rub some people the wrong way because of jersey ads and his pro-gambling rhetoric.
5. Happy Chandler
Bottom line: Happy Chandler did many things right as baseball's second commissioner.
First and foremost, he broke with his predecessor, Kenesaw Landis, and presided over the breaking of baseball’s color barrier, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Chandler also sold radio rights to World Series games and established the MLB pension program. He rankled MLB owners, his bosses, with such matters and resigned after only six years on the job.
4. David Stern
Bottom line: David Stern presided over four work stoppages, but his impact on the NBA is unmistakable.
A lawyer by trade, Stern was the chief architect of the league's ascent to greatness, oversaw both the Michael Jordan and LeBron James eras, negotiated landmark television deals and also founded the WNBA.
Aside from the work stoppages, Stern always was a lightning rod, from the six teams that relocated during his tenure to his suspected meddling in events like the 1984 NBA draft.
Regardless of any controversy, he took the NBA to new heights, and all of his successes far outweigh his missteps and will be his enduring legacy.
3. Bert Bell
Bottom line: Bert Bell was the first commissioner to put football on television, and for that alone he deserves special recognition.
But he also was the first to promote parity in the NFL, which the league still seeks to promote.
He facilitated a merger with a rival league, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), that boosted the NFL’s talent and also left it as the gold standard for professional football.
He started the Pro Bowl in 1960 and set the league up for prosperity under difficult circumstances.
2. Larry O’Brien
Bottom line: Larry O’Brien was so great for the NBA, they named the league's championship trophy after him.
Under O'Brien's leadership, the sport made tremendous gains, specifically by becoming the first with a national cable-television contract.
He helped the league expand by facilitating a merger between the ABA and enacted the 3-point shot in 1979.
He ushered in an era of free agency without turmoil and kept labor peace, which saw the league’s attendance increase substantially.
1. Pete Rozelle
Bottom line: Pete Rozelle made the NFL the juggernaut it is today. He created the Super Bowl, then merged with the AFL in 1970.
He oversaw landmark television deals, started Monday Night Football and was the first to suggest televising the draft.
Rozelle endured work stoppages and made mistakes along the way. But football became a national religion by the end of his tenure.
No one ran has run a league better. Rozelle was so good that he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall in Fame in 1985, while he was still commissioner.