LOS ANGELES — Thirteen days ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were sailing along as one of the NBA’s feel-good stories, a talented team with a championship-caliber coach in the hunt for an NBA title after all those losing seasons.
They were also regarded as having strong favorability, wide reach and emotional resonance. In the parlance of marketing and advertising, they were thought to be a good value for sponsors.
But the racially charged comments of their owner, Donald Sterling, sent the Clippers’ Xscore — a real-time measurement of how well known and liked a property is — plummeting. As the controversy broke, as sponsors withdrew, the Clippers’ Xscore went from 99 (out of 100) on April 25 to 84 — and then to a low of 66, until NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life from the league.
“I’ve never really seen a team become so poisonous so quickly,” Andrew Reid, chief technology officer of New York-based SponsorHub, whose software calculates Xscores, told USA TODAY Sports.
After Silver banned Sterling on April 29 and the Clippers embraced a “We Are One” slogan, the team’s reputation began to be repaired. Its Xscore on Sunday — the last day of available data and the day after a series-clinching Game 7 win against the Golden State State Warriors — was 92, fourth among NBA teams.
SponsorHub says its Xscore, which quantifies real-time social media and other metrics, differs from the more-established QScores, which also measure reach and likability but are derived from surveys. And Q Scores are calculated for individual players, not teams, according to New York-based Marketing Evaluations Inc.
Reid said his company could see reaction to the Clippers’ controversy unfold in real time and track people’s responses to the team’s sponsors — and there was a lot of volatility. The data suggested people were forming negative reactions to team sponsors.
“That was a little surprising,” Reid said. “We were talking to one of the beer brands during that time, and there was a feeling that they needed to distance themselves immediately.”
The NBA took a hit, too. SponsorHub tracked various leagues’ Xscores during that period, and the NBA as a whole experienced a roller-coaster ride similar to that of the Clippers. The league went from a perfect 100 score on April25 to bottoming out at 82 after Sterling’s comments became public. But Sunday, the NBA’s Xscore was back at 100.
That is, in part, because of the Clippers recovering in likability, accentuated by popular stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and successful TV ad campaigns built around them. The integrity of coach Doc Rivers, who kept the team focused on basketball and helped keep news media attention off his players, also played well with the public.
“The Clippers, for all they’ve suffered the last week or so, I think their team, their players, have really captured the attention and maybe even the hearts of L.A. for now,” Reid said.
The organization worked after the scandal mushroomed to respond to outraged sponsors and fans and to distance itself and the team from Sterling, according to a team official who described the response to USA TODAY Sports but requested anonymity because the NBA has asked Clippers employees not to speak on the record about Sterling.
There were two primary strategies, the Clippers official said. One was the “We Are One” theme, emphasized on the giant screen at the arena and by the public-address announcements on the night of Silver’s decision. Rivers contributed to the decision to promote the slogan, the official said.
The other strategy was for the team’s marketing people to explain to sponsors how the team was trying to distance itself from Sterling, the official said.
That has worked somewhat, said the official, who acknowledged there will remain concerns as long as Sterling is the owner.
Corona beer, in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports, said it was out “as long as Donald Sterling is still the owner.”
“I see brands coming back once the ownership is solidified,” said David Spencer, partner and director of Talent Resources Sports, an entertainment marketing agency. “If the new ownership is seen as positive, I think the Clippers could even grow in value. But it’s too early to go all-in with the Clippers right now. The dust needs to settle.”
Others have returned, although Red Bull is back with a different financial arrangement. The Clippers agreed to donate 50% of the Red Bull partnership dollars for the balance of the postseason to charities, and all team profits related to the partnership will be channeled exclusively into basketball operations.
Sports marketing experts say this story is not over. If Sterling strings out his ownership by challenging a forced sale in court, another sponsor crisis could occur.
“There’s no chance the sponsors will ever come back if he continues to own the team,” Robert Tuchman, president of Goviva, a sports and entertainment marketing company, told USA TODAY Sports.
“Everybody’s heaving a huge sigh of relief right now because what the NBA and Silver did is a great first step. But if the situation is prolonged … it could be a huge problem, and not just for the Clippers, but for the whole league.”