Brand Management & The LA Clippers: The long climb up the mountain and the short fall off the cliff.


It’s no secret that it takes a long time to build a brand – and that’s universal.

In the music industry, in the commercial space, in sports and as individuals, to build a brand to a point where it’s respected with potential for further growth is difficult; not least for NBA team: the Los Angeles Clippers.

In New York where basketball fans are united behind the Knicks (we aren’t counting the Brooklyn Nets as they’re technically from New Jersey and haven’t had time to develop a proper brand) LA, by contrast, is today shared by two teams: the Lakers and the Clippers. The Lakers have always been the bigger, more popular and more successful team with the Clippers, until very recently, struggling to keep up. Harsh criticism about the Clippers as both a team and more widely as a brand has fallen (however rightly) on the shoulders of owner Donald Sterling who since buying the team in 1981 for $13 million, has been slapped with countless lawsuits on discrimination, racism, misconduct and general shittiness – the Clippers were titled ‘the worst franchise in professional sports’ by ESPN The Magazine in 2009. Read more on this here:

The Clippers are a great example of building a brand over decades, finally making some head way and having this be reflected in the team’s success in the league and then the actions of an individual being the reason that the brand is compromised. Even for the most novice of brand managers who haven’t got a multi-million dollar brand to protect, it’s probably a good idea not to be recorded splurging racist comments when you have a team largely made up of minorities, a black head coach and a Mexican and African girlfriend all residing in Los Angeles who’s population is made up of a good number of said minorities.. not for Donald Sterling. This ‘alleged’ tape recording leaked by TMZ of what ‘is claimed to be’ Donald Sterling (still waiting on ‘verification’) in a conversation with girlfriend V Stiviano reprimanding her for ‘associating publicly with black people’, is the latest in discriminatory reports against the Clippers owner.


Before this, those working for Sterling may have been on the road to really change the landscape of the NBA, or at least the Lakers vs Clippers dynamic, and it’s a perfect example of how you can spend years climbing the metaphorical mountain, take the wrong step and you’re falling off a cliff within seconds.

The NBA formed in 1949 with 17 franchises (teams) after rival leagues the Basketball Association of America & the National Basketball League, combined. Over the decades, basketball became more & more popular as a commercial sport, the number of teams fluctuating to today standing at a high revenue-earning, 30. This was substantially due to developments in the infrastructure and rules of the sport, such as the function of signing college (university) undergraduates – introduced in the 70’s – and more so the incorporation of the ‘three-point-goal’ in 1979. This in particular came as an exciting and necessary element to a game suffering from a desperate time of low TV ratings and unfavourable player-related drug allegations that stood to threaten the NBA brand.

It was these developments along with the impact that, now infamous, players like Lakers’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Boston Celtics’s Larry Bird – fierce rivals – lead to the rejuvenation of the NBA, with the sport growing phenomenally as it welcomed it’s new addition, Michael Jordan, who entered the league in 1984.


Today the NBA makes roughly $5 billion annually, franchise revenue up 25% in the last year, sitting in the top 5 most profitable leagues in the world sharing the space with the likes of the National Football League, Formula 1 & and our own Premier League. The Lakers sit just behind the New York Knicks with annual revenues at a healthy $295 million (with a total value of $1.35 billion) and the Clippers sit further down the list at 13th with a stream of $128 million that’s less than half in comparison (with a more modest value of $595 million*).


Recently however, the Lakers haven’t been as successful with a lot of unexpected loses and big names, such as Kobe Bryant, injured and out for most of the season – with Clippers fans and the extended NBA community in full awareness of how much this could influence the balance of power between the 2 LA teams. Climbing the mountain..

Alongside the aforementioned claims of racism, discrimination and multiple law suits, Sterling has actually managed (directly or as a bystander) a marginal amount of good for the Clippers. He’s spent a considerable amount of money employing Doc Rivers, the Clippers’s head coach, and has invested substantially in young NBA talent (after lots of backlash for being tightfisted) with the Clippers squad today standing strongly and peppered with the potential greats of tomorrow, lead by star-players Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Through it’s progressions, the Clippers now claim the 5th biggest NBA audience and demand for tickets surged by 55% in comparison to the season before. Climbing the mountain..

Donald Sterling, who was born Donald Tokowitz (yes that is a Jewish name and yes Jews are considered minorities… funny that.) has struggled with the Clippers brand like any other owner wanting to build a name. The Clippers, often being the bud of many a NBA joke, have benefited from an alignment of the stars with a very favourable draft pick and intervention by the NBA – resulting in the presence of Griffin and Paul – and being one of the favourite teams to win the 2014 Playoffs. Climbing the mountain..

With this, you can understand how now is by far the least opportune moment for Sterling’s alleged tape to be seeping through the internet – not that there’s ever a convenient moment to be outed as a racist, but this is definitely the least convenient moment. Be under no impression – 100% Sterling has shoot a silver bullet into his brand, it will affect the Clippers and he himself is now falling off the cliff, head first into jagged rocks. With a growing brand comes growing liability and this is something that the most established brands will suffer from as a curse that comes with the gift of success – even just the ‘brand guidelines’ for giants like Coca-Cola, O2 & McDonald’s will make your head spin. There are a few predictions we can make as a result of this on brand perception.

Sterling’s girlfriend, V, is a very small part of all of this. Whether this was orchestrated by her, leaked, true or alleged is irrelevant. No doubt Sterling’s high-flying lawyers will work to paint her as an opportunist gold-digger and try to discredit claims based on this, but either way she has been a vehicle for changing a man from being ‘pretty racist’ to a man who is racist, bigoted and discriminatory about black people and minorities on tape. At this critical time in the season it’s unfortunately the case that alleged news at the right time works towards it’s prerogative as effectively as verified news ever could.

Beyond this however, and another reason to be careful with brand management and protection, a fitting quote here is ‘be careful what you invest your time in as wasted time is worse than wasted money‘. Sterling has spent the best part of the last 3 decades building a brand who’s relationship with him now looks very much like a child who’s seeking emancipation from it’s emotionally abusive parent. He not only has tainted the Clippers brand but he’s severely discredited himself as a man of business. We’ve discussed before how everyone wants to be a brand and this works 2-fold here. Firstly, because individual Clippers players will be conscious of how standing by Sterling will effect their own brand as role models for basketball fans, stimulating them to act in the most ethical way, and secondly for Sterling, it means that his brand is decaying on the jagged rocks getting pee’ed on by mountain goats.

As for the Clippers as a team, by no means am I saying that the Clippers will suffer for long. If they can survive the PR attention (that this story will no doubt keep buzzing around) and focus on performing and being loyal to the fans that have supported them on their journey, then the Clippers as a team might even benefit from this – but the Clippers as a brand have a watermark on them. The Clippers affect Sterling more than Sterling affects the Clippers but there is an element of interdependency in terms of brand perception that shouldn’t be ignored here. Sterling is dead but the Clippers have a chance to reemerge afresh, if it’s managed correctly.


Only time will tell what the future of the Clippers and Donald Sterling will be – and I’ll leave it to more astute basketball connoisseurs to predict here – but this is a very tangible lesson on the priority of protecting your own brand as a means to manage the brand you’re linked to in business. The reason that the X-Factor, American Idol & BGT is successful is because we believe in Simon Cowell’s brand, the reason why Beats by Dre sell so well is because Dre is a reputable front man for the product, the reason why Jordans and Lebrons are such successful subcategory for Nike is because of exactly the same reason – you wouldn’t take cooking lessons from David Cameron and you wouldn’t buy Rick Ross’s yoga DVD – you’ve got to have a strong brand, to build a brand.  This should be a lesson to individuals, brands and corporation – investing in the climb is always costly. The higher the climb, the harder the fall.


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