sterling-clippersBy: Michael Weisdorf

It disappoints me that 149 years after slavery in the United States was abolished, 69 years after the holocaust ended, 67 years after Jackie Robinson first took the field and 59 years after Rosa Parks took that seat, that there is still racism and hatred toward minorities – visible or not. Maybe “disgust” is a better word.

The recordings that were made public this week of Donald Sterling – owner of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers – allegedly spewing hatred about African-Americans is a stark reminder that there are still some people that are in the dark ages when it comes to hating entire groups who are not similar to themselves.

Although this type of Ignorance is not isolated (see the Dani Alves story the following day), it is much easier for communities (cultural, religious and business) to take collective and punitive action when the ignorance comes from someone in the public eye… especially when that someone is the owner of one of North America’s professional sports franchises.

The challenge however, is who can quickly take action that has a profound, immediate, long-term and negative influence on Mr. Sterling?

Based on the very quick and definitive actions taken by NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday, it appears that they have learned from the errors of Major League Baseball in the 1990s by letting Marge Schott run amok with her First Amendment rights. For anyone not familiar, Ms. Schott insulted various groups including African Americans and Jews for the better part of a decade before she was suspended indefinitely from team management by MLB, eventually deciding to sell the team and get out of baseball altogether. Mr. Silver suspended Mr. Sterling from all NBA and LA Clippers basketball related duties for life, fined him the maximum under the current NBA legislation, and vowed to gain the support of 75% of the owners to force Mr. Sterling to sell the team.

Mr. Silver should be applauded for these actions. But one may wonder whether these actions would have been as strong or as quick if it wasn’t for the collective powers of both team and league sponsors? Within 48 hours, no less than a dozen current LA Clippers sponsors either terminated or suspended their current sponsorship with the club. I can assume that these same sponsors, along with other team and league sponsors, may have also called upon Mr. Silver to fulfill what many prognosticators in the sports world were calling for.

Sponsors, especially in today’s era of huge television and sponsorship deals, hold enormous power in influencing actions of sports teams and leagues. Gone are the days where teams heavily depended on ticket sales to keep the teams afloat; for many teams in North America’s big 4 sports (specifically football), teams could get by even if they didn’t sell a single ticket throughout the season.

sterling-sponsorsFans, who could boycott the games, cannot do this en masse. Even if every single fan disagrees with what the owner did, the tickets are already sold (for this game beyond), and by the time anything impactful could be done, the issue will no longer be fresh in people’s mind to have the relevance it would have if 18,000+ just did not show up for game 6 of the Clippers first-round playoff series.

The players could also boycott. Although this would be unprecedented for North American sports, it would surely speak volumes. The challenge with this form of protest is that it punishes the wrong people: it punishes the fans by pulling entertainment and it punishes the players who have worked all their lives for the opportunity to play on basketball’s biggest stage with the hopes of winning a championship. If it were the regular season, this may be an easier pill to swallow. However, the organized protest by the players by coming out to practice with their jerseys on inside out should be commended.

The goodwill that teams/properties develop over years within communities is one of many things that sponsors look to leverage when seeking out partners. Although strong on-field performance is helpful, the equity that teams build with their fan base over time is why a sponsor will look to leverage the property to gain brand awareness, consumer loyalty and ultimately a return-on-investment.

The few sentences spoken by Mr. Sterling eradicated any goodwill the Clippers organization had built up since moving to the Los Angeles area 30 years ago. The sponsors recognized this and many immediately distanced themselves from the team and the owner. It will be interesting to see how many, over time, return to sponsor the club and whether this occurs during or after the process of revoking Mr. Sterling’s ownership. Unfortunately, the comments by one insensitive and ignorant individual may forever tarnish this team and make it quite difficult for any new management group to re-establish itself in the market (as the Clippers) and rebuild the trust within the community, the league, and with its sponsors.