Donald Sterling may have had enough.
Consequently, his Los Angeles Clippers, deemed the "worst franchise in professional sports" by Sports Illustrated earlier this year, are asking fans to take a leap of faith.
Using a marketing campaign that may be one of the most costly in NBA history, this year the Clippers have added player branding to their traditional retail advertising campaign. The campaign, centered on the team's new players, tipped off with almost daily ads in the Los Angeles Times shortly after Labor Day.
"Hi, I'm Darius Miles," one ad starts out.
Players go on to talk about where they're from, what they hope to accomplish, why they want to play for the Clippers.
"We had an opportunity we thought we should capitalize on,'' said Carl Lahr, Clippers vice president of marketing and sales. "We felt we needed to do a branding campaign to introduce each player and his hopes and dreams individually."
Following another losing season the Clippers have had one winning season since moving from San Diego in 1984 L.A.'s second basketball team fired its coach and cleaned house. The team went into training camp last month with unheralded coach Alvin Gentry (the Clippers' 12th since moving to L.A.), six rookies and 10 players with less than five years of NBA experience.
While the housecleaning is nothing new, the marketing campaign is. In what may come as a surprise to the business community, Clippers owner Donald Sterling, notorious for his frugal ways, initiated the campaign, according to Lahr.
"Maybe Donald Sterling is tired of being in the shadow, tired of losing games and losing players and believes in what he has now,'' said Steve Brener, president of the Reseda-based public relations firm of Brener, Zwikel and Associates.
Sterling may be right to believe, but it will take more than one season to put a winning team on the floor and create some excitement.
"I think (the ad campaign) is a good idea because they do have some guys who can generate interest," said Jorge Ortiz, who writes about the NBA for the San Francisco Examiner. "These guys won't be good now, but they will be in the future. I think the Clippers have finally realized that the only way to get players to stay is to sign rookies bound (for a few years anyway) by their contracts and then hope they stay together long enough to convince them (to stay)."
The ads in the Times will be supplemented by radio, television and outdoor advertising in the coming weeks.
While the Clippers would not put any hard numbers on the cost of the campaign, Lahr said "it's double what we normally have (for advertising) and is one of the largest ever in NBA history, as far as we can tell."
Though the success or failure of a branding campaign is tough to measure, Lahr said the Clippers have sold 700 new season tickets and nearly 2,000 more "Big Game" packages than at the same time last year.
The second prong of the Clippers' print campaign is a retail piece that sells the opportunity to see visiting teams. "Big Stars. Low Prices." is the headline on an advertisement that prominently features Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and San Antonio's Tim Duncan. The Clippers have used this campaign with little success in recent years.
"These are universal themes for losing teams," said David Carter, a sports business consultant with the L.A.-based Sports Business Group. "You look at teams that are perennial losers like the Clippers and what you see them doing is marketing their youth movement and marketing other teams."
While the Clippers had their best attendance numbers ever last year (an average of 13,652 tickets sold per game) in their inaugural season at Staples Center, they still rank near the bottom of the league. In 16 seasons in L.A., the Clippers have never had more than nine sellouts in a single season.
Hope springs eternal
So should fans believe that the Clippers, perennial losers, whose shop has traditionally been a revolving door for players, are finally making a commitment to improve? After all, the team allowed Maurice Taylor and Derek Anderson, two of the team's top players last season, to get away.
"I've been following the campaign in the paper for the last week or so," Carter said, "but why should I care? (The Clippers) lose year in and year out. Not to be disrespectful of them, but why would I want to invest my energy or emotion into a team when turnover is traditionally high?"
The Clippers are glad Carter asked. Couple Sterling's commitment to a big-budget marketing campaign with the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, which extends contracts for younger players up to five years, and Lahr believes the result is the perfect formula for well, maybe not success, but hope.
"As a fan, I would be optimistic and I would have some hope," Lahr said. "The players are (optimistic). This is a group that has put the past behind them."
It won't be that easy, according Brener. To get fans to buy into a new Clippers team, the players will have to succeed on the court and in the community.
"In a market that has been Laker- and Dodger-driven over the years, if I were sitting in their seats, my marketing campaign would be to stress what's new," Brener said. "The next step is to showcase that. The product is going to be on the court. The key word is execution on the court and (with) marketing."
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