The speed and price of the Los Angeles Clippers potential sale this week pointed two key facts; there are more billionaires in the world than there are sports franchises for sale, and the most important part of any transaction is not a valuation or a sticker, tis what someone in the market will pay for the asset. Steve Ballmer’s speed to beat others to become an NBA owner this time around proved that point.
Earlier in the week a lot of the talk had been about the potential brand damage the entire Sterling mess had brought to the franchise. However even before the sale there was little evidence that the madness had actually brought more value to the Clippers brand off the court than ever before, should the right owner be found and a sale go through. Sponsors who threatened to walk came back in the door, upper management was stabilized with the help of the NBA, and the support of the players and the coaching staff following Adam silver’s moves had given all a sense that justice in some form was being meted out, and the business of the LA Clippers was as sound, if not sounder, than ever before. Now the a $2 billion price tag where exactly is the Clippers brand going forward, especially given the flux of their co-tenants the Los Angeles Lakers, and the ever-fluid state of the NBA from a personnel standpoint.
On the court the franchise obviously has some of the most marketable stars in North American sport in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They have paid handsomely for a coach in Doc Rivers and have added the pieces they saw as needed to move the club to one level for now, but it is a level still short of an NBA title. They sell tickets in a building where they are a tenant, they bring in brands which are solid but not overly cutting edge, they draw a bit of a national audience but still not a massive one, and their presence outside the US in the scope of the NBA is still behind that of brands like the Knicks, the Lakers, the Bulls, the Heat and even teams like the Rockets, the Nets and the Mavericks. They are not currently, but will soon, be in a position to set up a better structured and more lucrative TV deal, but that is still a bit off in the distance.
The big question from a brand standpoint right now can be addressed in the time and effort Ballmer as an owner will put in to changing a culture even further. Many have said the organization outside of ownership was progressing into being more aggressive and cutting edge, but will more changes be coming as the former Microsoft head now evaluates staff and brings in new and different faces to continue to accelerate the face of the Clippers?
There has even been some talk of the new life the team has received, coupled with the new name recognition amongst casual fans because if the issues with ownership and the marketable stars they have may even push the longstanding but in flux Lakers brand as the most marketable in Southern California. That really, really remains to be seen. Fans are loyal and tribal and won’t jump ship that fast, and the market certainly is big enough for both clubs to survive and thrive. One looks to new York, where the Nets have certainly grown as a brand in Brooklyn, but the Knicks from a business perspective have not suffered in any substantial way yet, and have generated even more offseason buzz than Brooklyn with all the talk of what Phil Jackson may be doing for the long term. Now none of that talk has translated into anything substantial in terms of wins and losses for the Knicks, who missed the playoffs and are still coachless, but it has continued to keep them well in a basketball conversation throughout the spring, and the revamped Madison square Garden remains a prime destination for hoops fans from around the world, despite the rise of the Barclays Center and tis main tenant a river away.
The interesting question around LA may be more of what the Lakers can do to right their ship than what the Clippers are doing to ramp up theirs. LA has a solid business and marketing mind in Jeannie Buss, but who ultimately makes the business calls may not be in her capable hands right now, although it would be a solid move forward for the team. The brand is certainly not suffering in terms of sales or recognition yet, and it takes several bad years, not one, for loyalty to wane. The vastness of the market can certainly support both teams having filled buildings and viable brands, and a little extended completion on the business side is certainly not a bad thing.
In the end the real intriguing part of the Clippers sale if and when it goes through to be final, will be to see how innovative, fresh and forward-thinking the team will be. What will brands put a value on when they are looking to gain entry into the NBA, and what will the team do to continue to now accelerate the buzz not just in the marketplace but nationally. The new owner has said he will stay in LA, but does that mean the Staple Center? Does Anaheim come back into the mix as it has before? And what happens with TV rights and other manageable assets? All will be interesting to watch as yet another successful business man enters the field of pro sports looking to make his mark and rearrange the furniture in a house that was recently shaken to its core, but one with a very solid foundation.
The games off the field in LA will be just as interesting as the ones on the court.