Commentary

Sponsors Drop Clippers Protesting Owners' Remarks

Even as the players on the Los Angeles Clippers left their logo-emblazoned shooting jackets on the floor of the Oracle Arena in Oakland Sunday night to protest the racist remarks apparently made by owner Donald Sterling in a tape-recorded conversation with a former girlfriend, many of the team’s sponsors shed their support for the franchise yesterday.

Fifteen advertisers said they “have terminated or suspended their sponsorship, although most expressed their continued support for the team's players, coaches and fans,” write Stuart Pfeifer, Ben Bolch and James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times

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The reporters cite CarMax, State Farm, Kia, Virgin America, Red Bull, Mercedes-Benz, LoanMart, Southern California Ford Dealers, Yokohama Tire, Burger King, Sprint, Samsung, the Commerce Hotel & Casino, the company that makes Corona beer and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

“We've always been proud supporters of the Los Angeles Clippers. However, the recent statements attributed to the Clippers owner have forced us to reconsider our relationship,” Vincent Armenta, tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, said in a representative statement reported on ESPNLosAngeles.com. “We remain supportive of the members of the team and we wish them the very best going forward.”

“There’s some benefit in moving quickly,” Landor Associates managing director Allen Adamson tells the AP’s Marley Jay. “You can always renew your sponsorship later, but the longer you’re linking your brand to a brand in trouble, the higher the risk.”

Translation founder and CEO Steve Stoute, whose firm handles State Farm’s advertising, “urged the insurance company and others to suspend sponsorship of the team” on ESPN’s Colin Cowherd radio show, Cindy Boren and Kent Babb report in the Washington Post.

“I’m telling the brands, ‘Let’s pull sponsorship,’ starting with State Farm,” Stoute told Cowherd. “…When you have things like this taking place, somebody has to stand up.”

“While some advertisers sponsor the NBA, others brands sponsor individual teams — some advertisers do both,” writes Suzanne Vranica in the Wall Street Journal. “Sports marketing experts suggest that team sponsorship agreements with a big-market team like the L.A. Clippers could range anywhere from $100,000 to over $2 million a year, depending on what is included in the marketing package as well as if the advertiser is given category exclusivity.”

“It's unclear whether the sponsorship fallout will expand to the entire league,” writes Kim Peterson on CBS Moneywatch. “Some of the NBA's major sponsors include Coca-Cola, Anheuser Busch InBev, Nike and American Express. So far, there doesn't seem to be a major effort to target these sponsors, but that could change in what has proven to be a very fluid situation.”

Sources tell the WSJ that some advertisers have asked Time Warner’s TNT Network to move their commercials out of the Clippers game on Tuesday night. “Those TV spots will be reallocated to air during other NBA games,” Vranica writes.

In a statement Saturday, Clippers president Andy Roeser said “the team does not know if the man recorded is Sterling but that the statements do not reflect Sterling's ‘views, beliefs or feelings,’” the Los Angeles Times’ Austin Knoblauch reports.

Many stories point out that Sterling’s remarks are not a bolt out of Clipper blue. “Donald Sterling,” former NBA player and coach Paul Westphal tells the New York Daily News’ Mike Lupica, “was always the worst-kept secret in the NBA.”

“No, it’s not a surprise that this happened to Donald Sterling, suddenly notorious for more than messing up his Los Angeles Clippers,” is Mark Heisler’s lede on Forbes.com. “The amazing thing in this arch-sensational story is how similar it is to others in Sterling’s life.”

ESPN’s Peter Keating wrote an searing expose of Sterling’s discriminatory business practices and history of racist and sexist remarks in 2009 that was updated on the site yesterday.

All of which raise questions that go beyond the individual and call into question how organizations like the NBA proactively deal with explosive issues that simmer just out of the public eye. As for now, the league finds itself in a reactive mode.

“Of all the parties involved — Sterling, the Clippers and the NBA — the one primarily in crisis management right now is the NBA,” Michael Gordon, principal and CEO at crisis PR firm Group Gordon tellsUSA Today’s David Leon Moore. “They're the ones that need to move quickly to get rid of Sterling and get in a more responsible, thoughtful owner. As soon as that happens, assuming it's the right owner, everyone can begin to heal.”

“When a hint of cancer is shown, you have to cut it out immediately, and I feel that's where the players are today,” Kevin Johnson, the chairman of the National Basketball Players Association's executive committee and mayor of Sacramento, said on CNN's “Erin Burnett OutFront,” CNN’s Steve Almasy reports

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has scheduled a press conference in New York as 2 p.m. today during which he will discuss the findings of the league’s investigation and presumably announce the action it will take. It will be carried live by ESPN, CNN, Fox Sports and MSNBC, among other news and sports outlets, as well as NBA.com, the AP reports.

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