From the moment Donald Sterling’s racist comments hit the Internet, the walls began closing in on the NBA.
Players considered skipping a playoff game. Fans inundated the Los Angeles Clippers’ offices with vitriol. Sponsors ran from a franchise on the rise. The scandal pushed the league — not just the Clippers — to a perilous spot.
In just three days, on the strength of Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to ban the Clippers’ owner for life, a hands-on engagement of corporate sponsors and a savvy marketing response that started with coach Doc Rivers helped the league turn a dark moment into a defining moment.
“Adam Silver did the best job that he could in severing Donald Sterling from the Clippers’ brand,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing specialist for Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
Silver’s decision to ban Sterling, fine him $2.5 million and urge the league’s 29 other owners to vote to force a sale of the Clippers was immediate. The outrage in his voice resonated with players, coaches, calmed corporate partners and likely saved the league millions of dollars.
As Silver was delivering his verdict, the front page of the Clippers’ website was splashed with the words “We Are One” in white on a plain black background. Other teams quickly joined in with their own “We Are One” front pages, including the Portland Trail Blazers, the Utah Jazz and even the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.
It was a phrase that Rivers had written to inspire the team in the locker room following their loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series, shortly after Sterling’s words made news.
Rivers had no idea he was starting a movement.
“You just do something. I knew they were being pulled in a thousand directions and I just thought, ‘I don’t care what we do. Let’s do it together as a group.’ That was my only focus on that. It wasn’t a rallying campaign for anything, anybody outside the team,” Rivers said.
“The fact that it’s made it outside, that’s fine. But I just need us to stay together.”
It resonated with fans. Quickly #weareone was trending on Twitter. Fans at Game 5 chanted the words as the Clippers rallied against Golden State.
The NBA was planning to roll out a new playoffs commercial that night. League marketing officials recognized the power of the slogan and quickly added one last frame to the television spot to include it with the logo.
“Oftentimes the most successful marketing and P.R. campaigns are organic, and they go viral because they’re authentic. I think that’s what happened in this case,” said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute.
According to Nielsen, the Clippers-Warriors game Tuesday night after Silver’s announcement drew 4.7 million viewers, making it the highest-ranked cable program that night and the most-watched cable game of the NBA playoffs to that point. Sunday night’s game, after the players doffed their Clippers-emblazoned warmups at center court, drew 6.47 million but was broadcast on ABC.
Team sponsors and advertisers that had decided to step back started to return. If they stayed away, the decision would have been potentially devastating for a team that until just a few years ago was still struggling to find an identity as Los Angeles’ other NBA team.
Kia Motors suspended its relationship with the Clippers on Monday, but the automaker was back on board following Silver’s announcement. Adidas, which moved to disassociate itself from the team on Tuesday morning before Silver spoke, came back by the afternoon.
Silver’s words also helped quell concerns with other sponsors. Among them was Kumho Tire, which announced a leaguewide partnership just before All-Star weekend in February. Marketing officials reached out to corporate sponsors after the story hit, trying to assure them it would be addressed quickly and firmly.
“Our confidence is even stronger going into a three-year sponsorship seeing how they handled such a serious and negative situation as racism,” said SB Kim, marketing team leader at the Korean tire company. “It shows us that we have a sound partner in the NBA that makes strong decisions even in the face of adversity.”
So what if Silver, the league and the Clippers dropped the ball? What if the response didn’t satisfy players and prompted the Warriors to walk off the court before Game 5 started as they had discussed?
John Vrooman, professor of sports economics at Vanderbilt, estimated the Clippers’ sponsorship deals bring in $10 million to 13 million annually, much of which likely would have likely been lost as advertisers continued to flee the tarnished Clippers brand.
A canceled playoff game would cost the Clippers about $1 million in tickets, concessions and advertising, Vrooman estimated, and also could have hurt the league’s television contract negotiations that are about to begin. The new deal is expected to net each team about $50 million a season, Vrooman said, which is almost $20 million more than they make under the current contract.
Although the drama with Sterling could go on as the sale of the team is debated, the Clippers and the NBA in effect distanced themselves from Sterling with Silver’s decisive action, USC’s Carter said. It’s possible the Clippers franchise will emerge stronger than before.
“I think that it’s inevitable that they will experience an uptick once the smoke clears because so many are going to want to be involved with the resurgence of the brand,” he said.