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The controversy surrounding the National Basketball Association's harsh punishment of star player Latrell Sprewell isn't likely to hurt the league's value as a promotional vehicle for sponsors, but it does expose cracks in the league's carefully managed image.

So said several sports marketing executives, who also said they believe the league's one-year suspension of Mr. Sprewell -- who reportedly assaulted and threatened to kill Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo -- was a smart move in terms of protecting the NBA brand.


The resulting flap over the suspension, however, which includes threats by players to boycott the all-star game, could come back to haunt the league. As Sports Illustrated notes on its Dec. 15 cover, "the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA's future, issues of power and money and -- most dangerous of all -- race."

"It's hard to put it all in perspective," said Mark Dowley, managing director of Momentum IMC, a New York-based sports marketing agency that handles such clients as American Express Co., AT&T Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. -- all NBA sponsors. "In an increasingly wired world, Bill Clinton gets a dog and it's front-page news. The Sprewell incident should be a blip on the radar screen, but it's the NBA, so it gets picked up around the world."

The NBA declined to discuss the incident or its impact on the league.

Few in the sports marketing industry faulted the NBA for banning Mr. Sprewell for a year after the Warriors terminated the remainder of his four-year, $32 million contract. But they also said Mr. Sprewell acted shrewdly at a news conference last week when he publicly apologized, denied his action was racially motivated and let high-profile attorney Johnnie Cochran plead a case that the NBA had rushed to judgment.


An arbitration hearing will likely take place in January -- keeping the controversy in the headlines for at least several more weeks.

"The story doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. The publicity has to be a concern," said Jim Millman, president of Millsport, a sports marketing agency based in Stamford, Conn.

Some sports marketing executives questioned whether the recent string of incidents involving such so-called "bad boy" players as Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley is approaching a critical mass.


"There's a bank of trust and positive imagery that the NBA has accumulated that can only be tapped so many times," Mr. Millman said.

Marketers are sensitive to it. Converse almost immediately severed ties with Mr. Sprewell, who was set to be featured in a January shoe campaign. Coca-Cola dump-ed Mr. Iverson from a recently launched promotion for Sprite following his arrest last summer for gun possession.

Seth Matlins, senior VP at ProServ, a sports marketing company in Washington, predicts the league will push for a stricter code of conduct for players in the next collective bargaining agreement.

Mr. Matlins also said the Sprewell incident underscores a troubling, longer-term challenge. With the exception of Michael Jordan, he said the NBA's most compelling personalities are better known for their outrageous behavior than their playing skills.

"It goes to an undercurrent that's been there since Michael Jordan first retired and went to baseball," Mr. Matlins said. "Who's the heir apparent? Who are our

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