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Donald Sterling Has No Future With The Los Angeles Clippers

Business Week, April 28, 2014

By Ira Boudway

If he does not want to go quietly, the most effective punishments will not come from the commissioner’s office, but from fans, sponsors, and players. Fans have been known to abandon teams over an owner’s misbehavior. Fifteen years ago in Charlotte, the sexual assault trial of George Shinn, then-owner of the then-Hornets, soured the city on the team. Shinn relocated the Hornets to New Orleans and eventually sold.

At the moment, the Clippers brand is most closely associated with racism. If things stay that way, sponsors will not stick around. “If it is determined conclusively that the recording captured the thoughts and statements of Donald Sterling,” writes Jim Andrews, vice president for content strategy at sponsorship consultant IEG, “it will do tremendous damage to the Clippers brand as long as he is associated with the team. That would negatively impact what the team could charge for sponsorships and could cause existing and potential corporate partners to reconsider aligning with the Clippers.”

The online used car marketplace CarMax has gone first in dropping its sponsorship with the Clippers. “CarMax finds the statements attributed to the Clippers’s owner completely unacceptable” the company writes in a statement. “These views directly conflict with CarMax’s culture of respect for all individuals. While we have been a proud Clippers sponsor for 9 years and support the team, fans and community, these statements necessitate that CarMax end its sponsorship.” State Farm, another team sponsor, says it is monitoring the situation and “will be taking a pause in our relationship with the organization.”

The most powerful pressure, however, comes from the labor market. Before this weekend, the Clippers were discussed as a possible destination for LeBron James, who has the option to become a free agent this summer. On Saturday, James said: “There’s no room for Donald Sterling in our league. There’s no room for him.” James, it is safe to assume, will not be signing for a Sterling-owned Clippers. He is not the only player who will avoid the team, to say nothing of all the other employees who make a franchise go.

NBA agent David Falk, who represents one of this off-season’s bigger prizes in Greg Monroe, says it is premature to talk about the impact on free agents until the league acts. Still, he is skeptical about the prospects for the Clippers under Sterling. “I think the reactions from LeBron, Magic, Michael, and Kobe speak for themselves,” he says. “I don’t think there will be any sympathy. If the allegations are proven to be true, I don’t think there is anyone who will have anything but abject disgust.”

The Clippers’ current roster has decided to play on despite the controversy, opting for a silent protest before their playoff game against the Golden State Warriors yesterday. Depending on what happens over the next few months, however, a wildcat strike to start next season is not out of the question. Sterling will have to go. It’s just a question of how soon and with how much mess.