The winless Lakers are in unfamiliar territory: dead last in the Western Conference. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Most prognosticators had the Lakers missing the playoffs, and Las Vegas had the team’s over/under win total at roughly 30 games. Thirty wins might be something the Milwaukee Bucks are used to, but the Lakers are a 16-time NBA champion. Struggling teams usually don’t receive as much exposure as their more successful competitors, but the Lakers are proving their brand can overcome that hurdle.
There are multiple reasons for this. The Lakers still draw a sizable audience on television, which is why the NBA has scheduled 28 nationally televised Lakers games this season. To put that in perspective, LeBron and the Cavs are scheduled for 29, Oklahoma City (pre-Durant and Wesbtrook injuries) for 32 and the defending champion Spurs for 25. The NBA knows fans still watch the Lakers, and the league wouldn’t schedule high-profile games if it feared low ratings. In contrast, the woeful Boston Celtics — a large east coast media market, 17 NBA championships and a recognizable name — are scheduled for only four nationally televised games.
Star power is also a factor. Kobe Bryant is still a marketable name, and is one of the greatest players of his generation. He still commands a Nike shoe deal as well as other endorsements. Although his team’s talent may not help him make the playoffs, Kobe’s presence remains a huge part of the sports news cycle, because now news outlets can now focus on how Kobe is dealing with losing. What will his reaction be if the Lakers lose 10 in a row? Can he throw the team on his back and go on a scoring binge? The intrigue adds to the team’s marketability.
Don’t expect things to change: The Lakers’ brand is still strong. The Lakers, despite not having Kobe for most of last season, were the second-most viewed team in the NBA for the national networks during the 2013-2014 season. The Lakers have built a strong brand, so a down year won’t make them irrelevant. In fact, losing could make the team entertaining in a different way.
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.