NBA's Stern Gets It: Brand Image Is Key to Game Plan

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Congratulations to the National Basketball Association on a highly successful big-market final that went to six games. Too bad 29% of all NBA fans said the NBA had some role in the Lakers and Celtics reuniting in the finals for the first time in 21 years.

Worse yet, according to a YouGovPolimetrix Omnibus poll of 907 people, among "casual" or "avid" NBA fans, 41% think it's either very likely or somewhat likely that the NBA alters the outcome of games.

Of course, despite the fuzzy glow of nostalgia in which we cloak sports, scandals have always been part of the game. And it must be sorely tempting for the NBA to take solace in the fact that the National Football League has violent players among its ranks or that the leadership of Major League Baseball wear special glasses that render obvious steroid cases invisible. Heck, it might even seem like a good idea to lay these survey results at the feet of rogue referee Tim Donaghy, who was investigated by the FBI. But only 46% of poll respondents were even aware of the investigation.

But those tactics don't seem to be in NBA Commissioner David Stern's playbook. In the past, he's shown he understands the benefits of good PR and developing a positive global brand image. Indeed, he's gone to great lengths to clean up the image of the league and its players. And this time is no different. While a lesser commissioner may have tried the above approaches, taken issue with poll methodology and sample size, or brushed it off as a minor blip at the tail end of a stellar season, Stern told Ad Age: "When we deal with our brand, there's no such thing as a minor issue with brand awareness and reputation."

He's right. Marketers are paying top dollar for fans who expect real games determined by on-court action -- not off-court action by suits, referees and shady players. Neither fans nor marketers have signed up for the stylized drama of World Wrestling Entertainment.

"I am the protector of the brand and its integrity," added Stern. "That's a job that every CEO has, and I consider it my job to be out there to be protective and to respond so I become the spokesperson in times of crisis."

If only more CEOs understood that.

Of course, drawing up a game plan and giving motivational speeches are only two steps toward winning. Stern's challenge now will be to execute.
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