None of that means that we rest on our laurels and stop because we’ve done enough. There’s always more that can be done and NBL Canada will continue to be on the side of positive change.
National Basketball League Of Canada
×This interview was completed before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
The interview with Audley Stephenson was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.
1Tell us about your role as Deputy Commissioner of Canada's longest standing pro basketball league NBLC and what does a typical day look like for you?
I’m entering into my fourth season as league commissioner of the National Basketball League of Canada and the primary function of my role involves the management of all aspects of league operations.
This includes things such as game schedules, oversight of our live stream broadcasts, enforcement of league rules, player discipline, officiating etc.
After working closely alongside previous commissioners going back to the league’s inaugural season, the NBL Canada board of governors appointed me to the role in 2017 and I haven’t looked back ever since.
The role is a multi-faceted one as you can imagine and the thing I like best is that while there are some similarities, no two days are alike.
Our teams are located in Ontario, the Maritimes and Newfoundland so there’s also a fair amount of travel that I do throughout the season. I probably enjoy that aspect of my job the most as it provides me with an opportunity to engage with fans and obtain direct feedback from their perspective.
2When was the point you realized that you were meant to do this career? Take us through that realization.
I can certainly say that the pathway that brought me to this point wasn’t a straight and narrow one and having a career in sports management was nowhere near the original plan. I initially started out with the aim of working in the social service industry and specifically wanted to be a youth counsellor.
At the same time, I also had an interest in broadcast media and communications. Basketball was something that I was always passionate about and I was fortunate to find a way to combine my love of the game with media and created an online NBA basketball podcast with a friend of mine. This was at a time when the platform was relatively new and we had a fair amount of success early on which led to using eventually being credentialed by the Toronto Raptors and other NBA teams.
I've always loved podcasting because it provided an excellent platform to help establish myself and I'd recommend it to anyone looking to expand their brand regardless of the genre. I honed my craft podcasting for a few years and when NBL Canada came along in 2011, I brought my newly developed expertise to the league.
As time went on, my role expanded and I started to work closer and closer with league staff, team officials and operations crews. I quickly gained hands-on knowledge from a sports management perspective and I loved it.
3What surprised you the most about starting a career in the sport industry?
Considering my social service background, I was probably most surprised at the level of impact that our teams and players have in the community.
NBL Canada doesn’t solely exist to just play basketball. We want to make a real tangible difference in the communities that we’re in. It’s for this reason why our players are in schools, youth shelters, food banks and at community events teaching real-life skills to young people or talking about things like self-esteem, adversity and perseverance or just pitching in and lending a hand.
We will definitely be looking to increase our focus on social injustice and equality give the events over the last several months. If our players aren’t practicing, playing or travelling, we want to be positively impacting others in whatever way we possibly can. Our community reach is very important to our league and will continue to be a focal point of how we operate.
I was also surprised at the level of fun I get to have in my work, I didn’t see it coming but love every second of it! Hands down, the best job I’ve ever had!
4What would you say are the top biggest moments or accomplishments in your sport management career?
The beautiful thing about the industry today is that it's moving so rapidly so today’s achievements can always be built and improved which I love because there is always room for growth and development. I’m certainly proud of the role I’ve played in the execution of initiatives by our teams and we’re looking forward to expanding that work.
When I was a kid, basketball was far from being a mainstream sport and it was oftentimes a challenge to find appropriate coverage or attention for the game I loved. Fast forward to today and things are very different.
The success of the Raptors has certainly played a key role in raising the profile of the game but there still is lots of work to do. I am proud to be a part of the change that’s been taking place and it’s my belief that my biggest accomplishment is on the horizon in terms of elevating the game of basketball to new heights.
Given the fact that I had worked there throughout the height of Vinsanity, here it goes...
December 14th, 1999 was the very first game I ever worked and it was against the Indiana Pacers. The Raps won that one and I was on cloud nine. I remember trying to keep my cool when Reggie Miller walked by me. It was the beginning of an incredible 13-year ride.
Watching Vince Carter go off for 51 points vs Suns at home during the Raptors very 1st national TV debut was memorable. He did everything that Sunday afternoon from hitting three's to big dunks. The roof was on the verge of exploding when Vince was fouled before leaking out for what would have been a memorable fast-break dunk.
The Raptors drafted Demar DeRozan at the age of 19 and I vividly remember his introductory press conference like it was yesterday. He went on to have a marvellous career in Toronto before being traded and it meant a lot to say that I was there right from the beginning.
Beating the Knicks in a must-win at home in game four of the 2000/01 playoffs. They went back to New York and won game five to advance to the second round for the first time in franchise history.
The Raptors had an incredible series in the next round of the playoffs and watching Vince Carter and Allen Iverson trade 50 point games were special to watch.
The Raptors won the NBA Championship just over a year ago! You were at the ACC for a lot of ups and downs for the Raptors. How great would it have been for them to win it while you were there? Talk about how you felt when they won.
I was thrilled and excited like the rest of the world the moment the Raptors reached the ultimate goal and won the NBA championship and you’re right, it certainly would have been incredible to witness first hand. I’ll admit that I would have felt differently if they won it in Toronto but thankfully for my benefit, that didn’t happen. The Raptors winning felt surreal initially and I remember the feeling of disbelief at one point but it was real and we earned the right to call ourselves champs.
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5Was working as an event personnel with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for 12+ years your first experience working in sport?
It certainly was.
I originally joined MLSE solely to be close as possible to the game of basketball. Like I said before, I've always been passionate about the game but really didn't put much thought into what the long-term plan looked like nor did I specifically see basketball being a part of it. I very much was living in the moment and having fun doing it.
6How did working countless events, and particularly NBA games shape your sport industry experience and ability to network? Are there any particular things you took with you (ex. game day contests, promotions, etc.) to the NBLC?
My time at MLSE was memorable and helped shaped the foundation of my career in so many ways.
I've always been a people person and networking was always natural to me.
Being in that environment gave me an opportunity to meet industry professionals, understand game day operations from a behind the scenes perspective and establish relationships that I still maintain today. All of those experiences have fed into who am I today and have served me well. I maintain to this day that it's the second-best job I ever had.
7You were known as a fun, affable and gregarious worker. How do you stay so positive?
Being positive and having fun are two life's hallmarks that I've always lived by and truly who I am.
I enjoy being around other people and leaving a positive impression however way I can.
So when you combine my life philosophy with a wonderful organization like MLSE who’s focus was creating memorable moments, it all made for a wonderful experience and super easy for me to be positive.
Stacey's Final Thoughts
People often wonder how commissioners reach that prestigious position in a professional league, but the journey is different for everyone. Audley Stephenson did not have basketball in his career plans, but it had always been a passion of his. That's a common theme that many commissioners we have interviewed have in common. Audley and many others have explained that if you are passionate about your career, you'll never feel like it is work. Although many league leaders do not begin in the basketball industry, their passion for the game nevertheless brings them back to their roots. Audley has committed to creating positive change in the communities in which they play and it is something he's extremely proud of. His leadership will surely continue to invoke change.