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Clippers’ Brand Loyalty Plummets on Racial Comments

Donald Sterling

LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling watches the NBA pre-season basketball game between the LA Clippers and LA Lakers in Los Angeles. Dec 19, 2010. (photo credit: AP/Danny Moloshok)

The 2014 NBA playoffs are underway, and while it may be too early to jump to conclusions as to which teams will reach the finals, fan loyalty turns out to be much more than the sume of win-loss ratios, according to the 22nd annual NBA fan survey conducted by Brand Keys, Inc. ( the New York-based brand and customer loyalty research consultancy.

The Brand Keys Sports Fan Loyalty Index (SLI) was designed to help team management identify what drives fan loyalty in their home and national markets. “These insights enable league and team management to identify areas such as emotional ones, that need strategic brand coaching,” said Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys’ founder and president.

Brand Keys assesses all teams by interviewing 150-200 self-classified fans from each of the 30 NBA teams’ immediate metropolitan catchment areas. The current 2014 NBA top-5 and bottom-5 team standings are as follows:

Top-5 2014 2013
1. San Antonio Spurs (#2)
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (#5)
3. Miami Heat (#1)
4. Chicago Bulls (#7)
5. New York Knicks/
Dallas Mavericks (#3, #8)

Bottom-5 2014 2013
30. Sacramento Kings (#23)
29. Minn. Timberwolves (#22)
28. Charlotte Bobcats (#24)
27. Milwaukee Bucks (#19)
26. Cleveland Cavaliers/ Washington Wizards (#20, #21)

Winning may be the only thing when it comes to a conference or playoff championship,” said Passikoff, “but when it comes to loyalty, it’s not the only thing.” Fan loyalty correlates very highly with broadcast viewership, merchandise purchase, and to a degree, ticket revenues. While teams can count on some lift from a conference or championship win, there are three other emotionally-based factors that must be taken into account when measuring real fan loyalty: Authenticity, Fan Bonding and History and Tradition, with the loyalty drivers functioning like this:

Pure Entertainment:
How well a team does but more importantly, how exciting is their play? “Teams don’t jump to the top of the loyalty roster just because they win a playoff or a championship. It adds to the loyalty bond,” noted Passikoff “but you need the complete package.”

How well they play as a team. Sometimes a new stadium and, often, new coaches, can help lift this driver, which brands sponsor the team can matter here as well. Good or bad behavior by an owner shows up too. “Sometimes precipitously like the Clippers’ situation,” said Passikoff, “And while the world has taken to more mobile viewing, this is the driver most connected to actual game attendance and ticket purchases.”

Fan Bonding:
Are there particular players that are respected and admired? “If you have to think about who that might be on your team, Fan Bonding is likely low,” said Passikoff.

History and Tradition:
Have the game and team become part of fans’ and community rituals, institutions and beliefs? “This is one of the strongest drivers when it comes to fan loyalty in Major League Sports, noted Passikoff. “For some teams it accounts for the lion’s share of loyalty. Think about a team like the Utah Jazz, only a reasonable level of History and Tradition keeps them out of the bottom-5.”

“Your team needs to meet some minimum levels on all four factors to create a reasonable level of fan loyalty,” said Passikoff. “If one of those drivers weakens, or disappears, loyalty plummets.

Fall of the Clippers
Want proof? This is no more obvious than the recent fall from grace of the Los Angeles Clippers in the wake of reports of racially insensitive comments by team owner Donald Sterling. “About two weeks ago the Clippers were riding high in the 2014 Brand Keys Sports Loyalty Index,” noted Passikoff. “The team was winning games, they had reasonably high ‘Authenticity,’ and they had players like Blake Griffin fans could bond with, along with high marks as being part of the L.A. community; they would have come into this year’s SLI ranked #4 in the NBA for loyalty.”

But an audiotape alleged to be the team’s owner chastising a woman for appearing in public with Magic Johnson, followed by a request to not publically associate with black people or bring black people to games “blew up team Authenticity, said Passikoff. “If you think of Authenticity as one of the four legs of a table that supports fan loyalty, think what happens if you ‘yank’ one leg out. The Clippers are currently ranked 11th, “a significant drop,” noted Passikoff.

It’s not only fans that are affected. Clippers sponsors, like Aquahydrate, CarMax, Kia, Red Bull, State Farm, and Virgin America, have distanced themselves from the team, either ending or suspending team-related advertising and sponsorship activities. “Yes,” said Passikoff, “You can call it ‘PC’ or ‘PR’ if you want, but that’s what happens when a team’s Authenticity disappears.”

In addition to individual team loyalty management, The Sports Fan Loyalty Index provides an apples-to-apples comparison of the intensity with which fans within a team’s local catchment area support the home team versus corresponding values for fans of other teams or other leagues in that market.

“Each driver of fan loyalty contributes something different, and will have slightly different values in different markets,” said Passikoff. “Currently, on a National basis, they look like this:”

Basketball Loyalty ChartThe NBA again this year ranks third of the four Major League Sports Brand Keys tracks. National Football League is currently first, followed by Major League Baseball. The National Hockey League comes in last. “Overall league and team rankings – no matter which league – correlate with viewership and merchandise and ticket sales, and since rankings can be influenced depending upon how loyalty drivers are managed, it’s critical that team marketers are as strategic as the coaches,” said Passikoff. “How the NBA manages the Clippers situation will have real effects on where the league ranks next year.”

NBA great, and the new New York Knicks president Phil Jackson noted, “Not only is there more to life than basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball.” “The ‘lot more’ he was referring to are what drives teams and what drives loyalty,” noted Passikoff. “The Clippers are seeing that in action right now. But for teams with high fan emotional scores it’s always a win-win.”

About The Author

Robert K. Passikoff

Robert Passikoff is Founder & President of Brand Keys, Inc. and a sought-after speaker and thought leader on engagement and loyalty. He has 35 years of agency and client experience in all phases of strategic brand planning for a wide variety of B2B and B2C product and service categories. He has pioneered work in the area of loyalty and engagement, creating the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index®, the Brandweek Loyalty Leaders List, the Sports Fan Loyalty Index®, and the Women’s Wear Daily Fashion Brand Engagement Index®.

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