Did Sterling Remarks Create a Brand Crisis for the NBA?

I grew up on the NBA, and for me, it didn’t get more exciting than Jordan and the Bulls. And even after #23 became #45 then a Washington Wizard, the magic was never truly gone – just evolving.
So as a fan, to see and hear the heinous words spoken from Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling is evidence to me of another outbreak of the disease that is racism. But even outside of the context of basketball and sports in general, how would the NBA and the newly appointed and untested commissioner Adam Silver respond to an event of such magnitude that is so racially and culturally charged?
The verdict: a life-time ban from any association with Clippers or NBA related activities and a maximum fine of $2.5 million.
Was it the right response? And how has an event like this changed not just the NBA and basketball fans or athletes but across our cultural landscape as well?

A Deep Dive Into How Clippers Owner Shifted Fans Online Conversations

Using Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight™ platform we can baseline conversation trends and opinions about the NBA pre, during and post Donald Sterling’s racially charged statements and find out how conversation has shifted and who’s getting involved within social media.
NBA Playoff topic wheel
Looking broadly at how the NBA was trending on Twitter from April 1st to the 16th there were about 1.7 million tweets about the NBA, primarily centric to getting ready for the playoffs, the draft, and certain players or teams.
NBA 2014 Playoffs Topic Wheel
Including the start of the Playoffs on the 17th up until the the Friday before Sterling’s comments were leaked, conversation about the NBA doubled to about 3.5 million tweets over the course of the month (approx 1.8 from the 17th to the 25th). And this is due to one of the best first rounds of playoff basketball being played in a long time. A slew of overtime finishes, close games finishes and this absolutely insane buzzer beater with flashes of a vintage Vince Carter:

However, over the weekend we see that the conversation shifts entirely, moving away from the sport itself, and being dominated by Donald Sterling.
Donald Sterling Word Cloud
News sharing, tweets of anger and frustration, emotional hurt, and a call for swift and decisive justice are just some of the examples of Tweets swirling in the Twittersphere.
Now stepping outside the vacuum of the NBA, how has the cultural landscape shifted during the Sterling scandal? Using ForSight’s Affinities tool we can dig into the behaviors of people’s networks and what else they follow in conjunction with a particular topic.
Before the Sterling comments, people that followed the NBA were also more likely to follow and talk about specific basketball genre related things, and using Twitter as a control group we can plot these and determine the most niche groups:
NBA General Discussion
Using ForSight’s Affinities tool,  find that people talking about the NBA are 37x more likely to be interested in Lebron James, 95x more likely to be interested in the Boston Celtics, and even 169x more likely to be interested in the Toronto Raptors, compared to Twitter authors overall. But after the leak on the 26th, we can see that there is a complete shift in the interest graph of the people talking about the NBA.
NBA General Discussion All of Twitter
Now there is a strong presence of politics and news with people being 11x more likely to have an identified interest in Congress, 19x more likely to have an identified interest in Progressive Politics, and 42x more likely to have an identified interest in MSNBC. There is now more exposure to a completely different genre of people that, although unrelated to basketball, have an obvious stake in the event and it’s outcome.
In Adam Silver’s milestone act as recently appointed commissioner, and the demonstrative enforcement of zero-tolerance for racial prejudice, what was the general sentiment around the commissioner? In general, most acting sports commissioners are viewed negatively. Whether it be Bud Selig in the MLB or Roger Goodell in the NFL, it just comes with the territory; and despite a short tenure thus far, Adam Silver was no stranger to criticism. However, looking at an hourly breakdown of sentiment and volume up to and including the announcement of Donald Sterling’s sentencing, we not only see volume skyrocket from a few hundred posts to a few hundred thousand, but an outpouring of positive support, thanks, and praise for Silver doing the right thing. So much so that #adamsilver, #biggerthanbasketball and #bannedforlife were three of the top ten trending hastags.

Adam Silver Proportion of Posts Adam Silver on NBA Brand Crisis

To quote 6-time NBA Champion and MVP, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his most recent contribution to Time magazine. “The big question is “What should be done next?” I hope Sterling loses his franchise. I hope whoever made this illegal tape is sent to prison. I hope the Clippers continue to be unconditionally supported by their fans. I hope the Clippers realize that the ramblings of an 80-year-old man jealous of his young girlfriend don’t define who they are as individual players or as a team. They aren’t playing for Sterling—they’re playing for themselves, for the fans, for showing the world that neither basketball, nor our American ideals, are defined by a few pathetic men or women.” Kudos to Adam Silver and the NBA organization for standing up and doing the right thing by taking a stand against racism and supporting human rights and equality. To protect their athletes and their fans is to also protect the NBA brand and what it stands for, hence it’s recent campaign We Are One. To learn more on how social analysis can offer insights into brand management, take a look at our Verizon brand crisis case study. 

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