- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

While the ugly brawl among the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and fans Friday in Detroit will leave an indelible stain on the NBA, sports marketing experts from around the country agreed yesterday the punishment handed out by league commissioner David Stern should prevent marketers from abandoning the league en masse.

“No doubt there will be some backlash from a branding perspective,” said David Carter of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. “But by David Stern taking the offensive, he did the branding equivalent of going into the stands.”

On Sunday, Stern issued a combined 143 games in suspensions — the largest 73 games for Indiana’s Ron Artest, the reigning defensive player of the year — for nine players involved in the brawl.

All-Stars Jermaine O’Neal (25 games) of the Pacers and Ben Wallace (six) of Detroit also received suspensions. Indiana forward Stephen Jackson will miss 30 games.

The melee, which has left prosecutors pondering criminal charges for both players and fans, is the latest in a series of incidents that have besmirched the image of the league. For instance, right before the regular season Minnesota’s Latrell Sprewell wondered how he would manage to feed his family despite drawing a $14.6million salary. That came on the heels of the Kobe Bryant rape case over the summer.

However, Friday’s fight had a visceral impact because it was all caught on tape and because it pitted fans and players against each other in made-for-television ugliness.

Still, Dean Bonham, president of the Bonham Group, a sports marketing firm in Denver, said Stern’s punishment will allay the fears of many marketers that the NBA brand has gone bad.

“I think there will be very little backlash from fans and sponsors because of the actions of David Stern,” Bonham said. “He handed out cumulatively the largest, most severe punishment in the history of sports.”

Bonham emphasized that the fans who took part in the melee should not be let off the hook, either. In fact, he said they were just as lawless as the players in this case, something he sees as being symptomatic of society in general.

“This behavior by fans is deplorable and unacceptable,” Bonham said. “Those fans believed that they were not subject to the same laws and common sense behavior that govern society, that they are governed by a set of laws that allow them to assault people.

“Revocation of season tickets, ejections from facilities, all of those things have to accompany this. If the argument is made that you can’t do that because you will turn fans off, I would argue just the opposite. We would like to see fans like that prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If they do that I think they will see an increase rather than a decrease in attendance.”

The NBA has experienced both declining attendance and television ratings since the second retirement of Michael Jordan. As a result, a rumble involving players and fans was the last thing the league and its already sullied reputation needed at this point.

“People are wondering, ‘When is enough going to be enough,’” said Morris Reid, managing director of Westin Rinehart, an image consulting agency. “When a person like me is sitting around wondering what guys they want to make a deal with, instances like this make it more likely that you won’t choose an NBA player.”

Despite Stern’s actions, Carter suggested the NBA, with its ever-growing list of arrests for infractions ranging from drunken driving to spousal abuse, must put an end to these public relations gaffes.

“This is where Stern has branding issues,” Carter said. “People are starting to think that there are more than one or two bad apples in the NBA basket. The perception, which is not reality, is that the NBA is full of these rotten apples. That is why Stern was so swift in trying to put out the individual fires that have been burning. Pretty soon the sponsors take notice.”

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