NBA smoothing things out
It’s been nearly a year since Ron Artest jumped off a scorer’s table in Detroit and waded into the Palace at Auburn Hills crowd with his fists flying. But the melee still represents a critical issue facing the league as it tips off its 2005-06 season Nov. 1: Improving the perceived image of its players.
The league has reason for optimism as it prepares for the upcoming season. Last year brought an increase in average attendance, a new collective-bargaining agreement and a jump in playoff television ratings. But the signs of success get clouded by the player-image issue.
One team executive put it this way: “Business is good. Just think of how much better our business would be if we had a good player image.”
Team and league officials now publicly are addressing questions surrounding negative player-image issues that crested with the brawl last November between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons.
|The Chicago Bulls’ Dennis Rodman, during a game in Minnesota, kicks a cameraman in the groin. Rodman agrees to a $200,000 settlement six days after the game. He draws a $25,000 fine and 11-game suspension from the league.|
|Latrell Sprewell of the Golden State Warriors physically attacks his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. Sprewell’s contract is terminated and the NBA suspends him for 68 games. The incident costs Sprewell $6.4 million and his shoe deal with Converse.|
|George Shinn, then owner of the Charlotte Hornets, is accused of sexual assault. A jury later clears him, but fan disenchantment heightens, leading to the team’s eventual move to New Orleans.|
|Sports Illustrated publishes an article titled “Where’s Daddy?” focusing on children fathered out of wedlock by NBA players.|
|The league and the players association fail to agree on a new labor agreement. Owners lock players out, canceling 464 games and cutting each club’s 1998-99 regular-season schedule from 82 games to 50.|
|Allen Iverson’s rap album titled “Non-Fiction” is criticized by NBA Commissioner David Stern as having lyrics that “are coarse, offensive and anti-social.” The album’s planned release is scrapped.|
|The Toronto Raptors’ Charles Oakley tells the New York Post that the league’s drug-testing policy is “a joke” and says that more than half of the league’s players are regular marijuana smokers.|
|The Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant is charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman he met at a spa in Colorado. The case is eventually dropped by prosecutors after the accuser refuses to testify. Bryant loses sponsors Coca-Cola, Nutella and McDonald’s and does not appear in a Nike ad for two years.|
|Former New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams is convicted on charges related to tampering with evidence and trying to cover up the death of Costas “Gus” Christofi, who was shot to death at Williams’ home in 2002.|
| Sprewell, now playing for Minnesota, is quoted as saying: “I told you I needed to feed my family. They offered me three years at $21 million. That’s not going to cut it.” |
| Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers reveals that the reason he has been benched for the previous two games is that he had requested a month off because he was exhausted from the heavy offseason promotion of his upcoming rap album. |
|The now-infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl sees players going into the stands after fans. Artest is suspended for the rest of the season, while eight other players receive shorter suspensions.|
|Source: SportsBusiness Journal research|
“We have all recognized that we have a [player-image] problem,” said Tom Wilson, president of the Detroit Pistons. “We have brought in more younger players right out of high school, and this is a hip-hop generation. The brawl was a wake-up call with the worst possible exposure and it has had a lingering impact.”
The player-image problem may paint the NBA with a broad brush, but it’s one the league executives are working to change.
“Perception is sometimes reality and that’s why this is such an important year for the NBA,” said Sacramento Kings owner Joe Maloof. “Coming off last year with all the negativity, we have to reach out.”
It’s not just the owners who are addressing the problem. National Basketball Players Association President Antonio Davis said the players are battling image issues.
“I think people say we are too hip-hop, but if something bad happens, you know about it,” Davis said. “If something good happens, it’s barely noticed. That hurts us and the league.”
The reality is that the NBA’s demographic fan base hasn’t changed much in the past five years, with 46 percent of white males making up the NBA’s fan base, the same percentage as in 2000, according to Scarborough Research. The demographics don’t mesh with the players’ perceived image, a source of frustration for teams.
“It is [NBA Commissioner David Stern’s] No. 1 priority in dealing with teams, and we have been putting programs in action,” said Bernie Mullin, chief executive officer of Atlanta Spirit LLC, which owns the Atlanta Hawks. Before joining the Hawks, Mullin was senior vice president of team marketing services and business operations for the NBA, putting him on the front lines of dealing with the league’s player-image issues.
The NBA is not alone in battling image problems. The NFL has had its share of player-image incidents, the latest involving allegations that a number of Minnesota Vikings players participated in illegal sexual activities aboard a chartered cruise. Major League Baseball has its own crisis over steroids, while the NHL is trying to reinvent itself after its labor wars wiped out last season.
But NBA players are the most exposed of any professional athletes, playing in front of crowds close enough to see them sweat. More than any among the big four professional leagues, NBA players are marketed as individuals rather than as teams. Kobe, Shaq, LeBron; these are players on a first-name basis to the public, unlike the NFL where the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team, its players distant in their armor.
The closeness can be a marketing bonanza; fans feel they can almost touch LeBron James when he soars to the basket. But the fan intimacy can also be a disaster — look no further than last year’s brawl.
“What makes us good can also make us bad,” Wilson said. “There has been a slow awakening by everybody, and how we look and how we interact when we ask people to spend money on tickets, parking and concessions means we have to make sure we appear as mainstream as we can.”
Call for action
The “slow awakening” by the league began about five years ago.
Michael Jordan was on his way out of the NBA and a new crop of stars had yet to establish themselves. Meanwhile, the league had been plagued by high-profile player-image incidents, including when Latrell Sprewell, who as a member of the Golden State Warriors in 1997, physically attacked then-head coach P.J. Carlesimo.
The NBA lockout in 1998 also had hurt the league, and then in 2000 Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson recorded a rap album that contained violent, anti-homosexual and vulgar lyrics. Under threat of penalty by Stern, the album was never released (see time line, this page).
“You can look at Iverson as the lightning rod four or five years ago,” Wilson said. “He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his tattoos and cornrows, and people weren’t used to it.”
It was in early 2000, according to league insiders, that Stern turned to pollster Stan Greenberg to gauge the league’s image. The results showed a poor perception of NBA players who were not appealing to white males in the middle of the country.
But with the collective-bargaining agreement already in place, the NBA was restricted in making major demands to the players union. Instead, the league began to work more closely with its teams in marketing and installed a player appearance tracking system that helped make certain the teams were using all 10 of their allotted mandatory player appearances spelled out in the old CBA.
The league also broadened its marketing efforts and, as a separate community affairs effort, built an aggressive community outreach platform anchored by its Read to Achieve and Basketball Without Borders programs in 2001.
Last year’s Pistons-Pacers brawl brought
heightened scrutiny of player image.
But player-image problems continued. In 2002, former New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams was accused of manslaughter after his limousine driver was shot and killed. Williams was found not guilty of the charge, but was convicted on four lesser charges. Then came the 2003 sexual assault arrest of Kobe Bryant. The case was dropped and Bryant later settled a civil suit filed by his accuser. In the process, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nutella all dropped Bryant from lucrative endorsement deals.
However, the brawl in Detroit last November did the most damage.
“The real connotation from that fight to me was that our image was changed almost overnight,” Maloof said. “And so we have to rebuild and stop alienating our fans.”
That process is well under way. During league meetings last season, Stern continually stressed the importance of player image. This past spring the league did more research, hiring Bush strategist Matthew Dowd to conduct focus groups addressing the issue. More significantly, the league and the union agreed to tie player-image issues within the new collective-bargaining agreement.
“You would have to be living someplace else not to realize our players are better than their reputations were described during this past season,” Stern said.
The major CBA image measure is an age limit requiring players to be at least 19 years old before entering the league, designed to bring better-skilled and more mature players. The CBA also increased drug testing for NBA veterans.
“We wanted to improve our basketball and improve our image,” Stern said. “Having 18-year-olds was bad for our image. We got a lot of heat for drafting players too young and for players being too young for the NBA. For the most part, not every 18-year-old was a LeBron James.”
There are also smaller image-related measures tucked into the CBA, including increased player appearances, mandatory media training and front-office business seminars for players.
“We realize that it is more the perception than the reality and that makes it harder, but David has taken an outstanding stance by putting teeth into the CBA,” Mullin said.
Outside the scope of the CBA is the league’s mandated player dress code, which has drawn criticism from some players, including Iverson.
“We have a business where the average salary is $5 million, and the players and we agree that it requires certain professionalism and certain standards and that’s what you will see us spending more attention on this coming season,” Stern said. “We were also talking about issues of player reputation and really reconnecting with fans. Out of collective bargaining, we came to the conclusion we had to increase interaction with fans, autograph signings, season-ticket-holder gatherings.”
That message was hammered home this past offseason to team owners.
“We need to get closer with our fans in every available way possible,” Maloof said. “That’s what made us successful. Unfortunately, some certain bad incidents have put too much emphasis on the negative. However, we have to get back to getting more involved in the community. If we want to continue to be a successful league, we have to cater to the fans. They are the ones who pay our salaries.”
Fan demographics have changed little over the past five years, Scarborough Research shows.
The league’s television and corporate partners also pay those salaries.
David Levy, president of Turner Sports, which has been an NBA broadcast partner for two decades, said he is satisfied with how Stern is handling the league’s player-image issues.
Last year, regular-season ratings on Turner fell 7.1 percent to a 2.3 rating. Turner is entering its fourth year of a six-year deal that pays the NBA $365 million annually for exclusive rights to Thursday night NBA broadcasts.
“Stars like LeBron and Dwyane Wade are helping the league, and I think players are starting to understand that there is an image that is beyond what they want to portray,” Levy said.
“If I were David Stern, [player image] would be my No. 1 priority, and I think David understands the challenges and is not shying away from it. But there are players who have their own images they want to portray, and I can’t stop that. It’s not in my domain to change images, and we just try to portray the players like LeBron that drive our ratings.”
Executives at Southwest Airlines, which in July signed a four-year sponsorship renewal deal with the NBA that annually pays the league a low seven-figure fee, said they too are satisfied that player-image problems are being addressed.
“It would have been a bigger issue if we included sponsorship relationships with individual players, but we don’t,” said Tena Griffith, sports marketing manager for Southwest Airlines. “We look at the NBA brand, and overall I think the league has handled it.”
Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.