SBJ/June 16-22, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

Clippers employees in ’80s and ’90s discuss the ties that bind

We run from pack journalism, so the concept here is to write about the Los Angeles Clippers without once mentioning the team’s owner. This is for those who were in the bunker with the Clippers during the years they played in the squalor of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, while the “Showtime” Lakers were winning championships at the Fabulous Forum with hall of famers like Kareem, Magic and Worthy.

While they were the second NBA team in Los Angeles, the Clippers weren’t even good enough to be considered second banana. Still, the bond among those who worked in their front office is unique in pro sports. With the Clippers in the news for so many other tiresome reasons, it’s the ties cementing this group that we wanted to examine.

LinkedIn has 830 listings of former Clippers employees. What connects them? Certainly, they share some sort of bond — the type shared by those accustomed to operating under duress.

The Clippers, shown in ‘94, often played to empty seats at Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES

“We all still bleed Clippers red,” said Mitch Huberman, who worked for the team from 1986 to 1997, ending as senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting. “It’s our own fraternity.”

Huberman’s tenure with the Clippers included the ignominy of a 12-70 season. “Everyone knew we weren’t the Lakers, but you also had the opportunity to make your mark and you could try almost anything.”

For some, the team was the first job after college. “Our staff had to work harder than any other and we were in the trenches every day,” said Randy Hersh Hanlon, who worked for the Clippers from 1985 to 1990, ending as the team’s director of marketing. After a year on the job, Hanlon was asked to run the Clippers’ ticketing. At the time, she’d never been inside the team’s box office. Hanlon left the Clippers to work for the NBA in team marketing and business operations.

For Clippers marketers, the presence of a common foe just eight miles away, in Inglewood, helped unite them. “We developed lifetime bonds working against the Lakers,” said Todd Parker, a Clippers employee from 1984 to 1990.

Some 18 years after he toiled in the Clippers’ boiler room, selling season tickets, Denny O’Leary refers to his years with the Clippers (1993-96) as “a crucible.” However, it’s not one he would have willingly forgone, despite all the frustration.

“I learned more curse words in my first year there than at any time before or since,” O’Leary, now vice president of marketing partnerships at the San Diego Chargers, said with a laugh. “But I knew that if I could sell there, I could sell anywhere. … We were working for each other as much as we were for anything else. Things I learned there, I’ve taken with me to every job since.”

“You had to live with a lot of stress, selling and representing a brand that sometimes had such a negative connotation,” sad Paul Phipps, general manager of the Clippers from 1982-84, now CMO at Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing organization. “You learned under fire. It was a stressful situation, but one that’s still serving us all well.”

“We’re all survivors,” said Scott Carmichael, a former Clippers PR director who now heads executive search firm Prodigy Sports. “There were times when you wondered if the team would make it. Then you fast forward to the team being sold for $2 billion and it’s all just amazing.”

Michael Arya worked for the Clippers from 1984-89, heading the team’s sales staff. Arya now coaches team sales staffs and is a partner in TixTrack, a ticketing software company. He said it’s an overstatement to claim that Clippers employees shared a foxhole mentality, “but that group of employees was closer than any I’ve ever seen in 30 years. We ate together, we drank together, and we were in each other’s weddings. Every day, we had two choices: We could laugh or cry. So we laughed and we bonded.”

> BUFFALO HOME: AdPro Sports has signed a five-year deal (three years, with an option for two additional) giving it naming rights to the Buffalo Bills’ field house/training facility and administration building.

The Bills’ training facility has a new name.
Photo by: BUFFALO BILLS

What will henceforth be known as the AdPro Sports Training Center, located across the parking lot from Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., is being refurbished at a cost of $10 million, part of $130 million in upgrades in and around the 40-year-old stadium. For the last five years, Blue Cross Blue Shield had titled the training facility building, which also houses offices of the Bills coaches and front-office personnel. The deal also includes a prominent in-bowl sign behind the end zone at Ralph Wilson Stadium, as well as hospitality, advertising in team-controlled media and value-in-kind.

AdPro, one of the largest Nike team dealers in the United States, is already doing business with most of the biggest teams in Western New York, including the Bills and Sabres, as well as Niagara, Canisius and the University of Rochester. However, AdPro Sports President Ron Raccuia is hopeful that the increased branding from the naming-rights deal will allow him to replicate a model that includes local manufacturing at an 80,000-square-foot facility, an NFL license and a solid Nike relationship.

AdPro has been a Bills corporate sponsor for seven years. The upgraded deal also includes category rights in the office supply category for Integrity Office Supply, a related company. Also unusual is that Raccuia is an agent who reps two Bills players: Fred Jackson and Brian Moorman. However, Raccuia says he is wrapping up his days as an agent.

> EXTINCT BUFFALO: After two seasons, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl has been grounded. The casual dining/sports bar chain is exercising an option to check out of the Tempe, Ariz., bowl game, for which it was paying about $3 million a year.

The Fiesta Bowl Committee now is looking at no title-sponsor partners for its largest bookended bowl assets — the Fiesta Bowl, where Pepsi’s Tostitos brand has walked after 18 years, and the former Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, which began in Tucson at the University of Arizona as the Cooper Bowl in 1989.

Buffalo Wild Wings
was widely acclaimed for the branding achieved at and around the game. However, this year’s game will switch from a matchup of Big Ten and Big 12 schools to a Pac-12/Big Ten matchup, likely a less desirable matchup.

Other factors influencing the decision not to renew included the relatively late air time of the game (after 10 p.m. ET) and the fact that some Buffalo Wild Wings locations were so loyal to the UFC that they showed MMA fights on their many televisions at the exclusion of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Another deciding factor was Pepsi’s growing influence within the chain, which has around 975 domestic locations. Late last year, Buffalo Wild Wings switched from pouring Coke products after 30-plus years to pouring Pepsi. Pepsi’s promise of NFL activation in the restaurants, along with an appearance by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lobbying for the soft drink giant, helped clinch the deal. Recall that McDonald’s and Papa John’s Pizza also hold NFL league rights and it could get a bit crowded next season as far as eateries leveraging the nation’s most popular spectator sport.

Calls to Buffalo Wild Wings agency, Scout Sports & Entertainment, were not returned.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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