As the Clippers advance in the NBA playoffs, I am left reflecting on the past week. In the midst of corporate sponsors’ flight from, and in some cases return to, the Clippers’ franchise following the Sterling affair, where was an organized, authentic and persuasive corporate campaign to support the Clippers’ staff, players and fans?
For Game 5 of the Clippers-Warriors series, the fans poured into the Staples Center certain that this night was different. The Clippers and their fans retook their home court in a very changed environment of social political awareness, outrage, support, presence and debate. If Los Angeles or the nation had mostly known the city for its purple and gold Lakers, the largeness of the L.A. Clippers was now a national conversation.
As we, as a society, wrestle to articulate expectations of what responsible and just sport governance and sport ownership should look like, Donald Sterling’s injury to the Clippers raises questions regarding corporate sponsorship responsibilities, risks and opportunities.
The branding transformations that defrocked, and then re-draped, the Staples Center are indicative of the thoroughness of how advertising orchestrates fan experience.
For Game 5, beyond the removal or replacement of many of the poster billboards ringing the arena and the absence of the ad campaign tickers that typically scroll alongside the court and overhead digital boards, the basketball arena was emptied of a number of fan experience markers.
Chumash Casino’s option for a mum’s the word advertising strategy meant that the usual Chumash “Make the Play Challenge” was also scrapped.
In the concession mezzanine, casino information kiosks went unmanned and were left in stand-by mode. Instead of gathering names and contacts of potential gamblers in casino databases, these kiosks became drink holders for fans and a gathering space for half-time conversation.
The same was true for Verizon’s product promotion display store. Instead of pre-selling, attracting leads, or driving purchases to basketball fans, these branded nooks became public areas to talk about the game or to watch broadcasts of other NBA playoff games.
Even the mechanisms to encourage fan cheering – “Clipper Nation make some noise” – had changed. Rather than the Kia-sponsored digitally cued sound-meter graphic streaming across the multi-tiered jumbotron, Clippers’ DJ Dense, fast to gauge crowd need, mood, and energy, had his own battery-operated sound level meter in hand which a video camera captured for fans to see. Another noise feature quieted by the withdrawal of sponsor branding was the game’s second-half clap sticks. Fans could neither taunt nor cheer free throwers with giant heads or clap sticks.
Minimal branding also meant that the Clippers Spirit Dance Team had fewer wardrobe changes. In all black dance skins with sparkling lettering that read Clippers across their chests, the Clippers Spirit performed a series of tightly choreographed routines throughout the night in the same outfit. Even the fan favorite Kiss Camera was a no-go, as this, too, is a branded fan engagement.
There were further seemingly small but important changes detectable. The gathering of fan data via interactive texting suppressed enter-to-win competitions. This night was different.
In the aftermath of the Sterling affair, many corporate sponsors that had set about to elevate their brands by association with the Clippers found themselves caught off balance.
While dropping all ad campaign broadcast and commercial visibility linked with the Clippers sent a message to the NBA (and Sterling) that corporate backers would not tolerate Sterling’s racist views, the sponsor exit failed to differentiate between support for Clippers’ financial powerhouses: staff, players and fans.
But the interests among stakeholders were not the same. In fact, the contradictory needs, moral positions and voices of each of these sponsor-linked parties were complicated.
While the changes of the in-arena fan engagement serve to point out the degree to which branding infuses fan experience, I offer this review of the visual presence and absence of sponsorship involvement with this Clippers franchise to suggest a less considered aspect of corporate responsibility.
Ill-equipped to draw upon well thought out protocols of disassociation –- total, partial, temporary or permanent –- corporate strategies of suspending, dropping, and/or reaffirming partnership with the Clippers was strewn in timidity.
Though sponsors were prepared to freeze funds or take down ad campaign and image broadcasting as an act of corporate responsibility and/or risk management, no sponsors took additional demonstrative steps to stand behind Clippers’ players or to offer a commercially linked platform for supporters.
While the pocketbook politics response of these corporate sponsors is cause for praise, no coordinated offering of messaging to signal or facilitate public relations appeared. Commitments and opportunities for establishing messaging of more long-term mutual understanding, goodwill, and solidarity with Clippers’ staff, players, and fans would have truly distinguished each of these Clipper sponsors in a measure of corporate responsibility that recognized both advertising and public relations more authentically.
By the time Game 7 had begun Saturday night, many corporate sponsors had returned to Staples Center. Even so, in the past week, it has been made clear: neither individual corporate sponsors, nor the NBA’s social responsibility arm NBA Cares, desires to be quick to the front line of moral quandaries or issues of serious social justice. Just as the players were confronted with a “distraction” from life on the court that demanded a response, not just an exit, perhaps it is necessary for corporate sponsors as well to reconsider the depth of commitments to social responsibility.
Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. @cabinet48