Sports marketing expert weighs potential impact Donald Sterling’s racial comments will have on Clippers’ brand

Members of the Los Angeles Clippers listen to the national anthem before Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. The Clippers chose not to speak publicly about owner Donald Sterling. Instead, they made a silent protest. The players wore their red Clippers' shirts inside out to hide the team's logo. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Members of the Los Angeles Clippers listen to the national anthem before Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. The Clippers chose not to speak publicly about owner Donald Sterling. Instead, they made a silent protest. The players wore their red Clippers’ shirts inside out to hide the team’s logo. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Below is a transcript of an interview with Paul Swangard, managing director of Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, on the potential impact the racial comments attributed to Clippers owner Donald Sterling could make on the team’s brand

What sense do you this affecting the Clippers in terms of how it affects sponsorships and their overall brand?


Swangard:
It’s a pretty fluid situation. It’s all based on the approach the league takes and how quickly it works it way through the process. Then we’ll know about long-term ramifications. Sponsorships contracts are contracts so I don’t fathom there will be a groundswell of rebellion until they figure out what’s going to happen. Ticket renewal folks could decide not to renew their seats, but all of that is almost done. Renewals happen before. So a lot of things are locked up for now. On the commercial side, sponsorship and anything else contractually obligated, there’s no out until the process works its way through the league.

In the short term, do you expect there to be any impact in attendance for the Clippers’ Game 5 on Tuesday against Golden State at Staples Center?

Swangard: Tickets are already sold. There might very well be a rank-and-file group of people who want to show their displeasure through Mr. Sterling by not showing up at all. That might hurt concessions, parking and merchandise. But seats have still been sold.

What other variables beyond the NBA’s reaction to Sterling’s comments could affect the Clippers’ brand moving forward?

Swangard: How much the storyline stays in the public discussion. The longer this thing drags out, the less inclined the sponsors will want to associate themselves with the Clippers organization. There could be league-wide ramifications if businesses feel as though the situation hasn’t been dealt with in a fashion they are pleased with. But the main variable is the first chance for new commissioner Adam Silver to step up and wonder what he can do. We’ll find out sooner rather than later.

What is it about this incident as opposed to his other incidents (housing discrimination lawsuit, Elgin Baylor suing him) that is different?

Swangard:
It speaks to the social nature of our society. A lot of those things happened without TMZ, Twitter and Facebook. The noise here is pretty loud. More people are aware of this situation that may not have even had a concept that this was a pattern of behavior dating back. It wasn’t as if this was off brand for Sterling. It was just a case where the fuel to this fire was so much more vicious. The reaction was almost instantaneous.

What league decision will minimize any potential damage to the Clippers’ bran in terms of marketing, sponsorships, ticket sales, etc.?


Swangard:
Without knowing what their true power in this is, the litmus test will be to show they brought to bear the heaviest sanction possible. The way in which it is delivered, we will have to wait and see what Sterling does with all this. What makes this different is that the Clippers are also a good basketball team. With that team winning, that’s really at the end of the day is what the fans want. The team ironically will have a lot to do with how much fans will ride on this bandwagon. If they are knocked out of the playoffs, fans could go into the offseason with a bad taste in their mouth. That’s just going to feed this thing. That’s where there could be some economic impact due to the one-two punch of the Clippers losing and Sterling being in the headlines.

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