Major sponsors still onboard: Marketers cut Artest but stand by the NBA

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More than two weeks after the National Basketball Association brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers the repercussions for marketers continue-with several severing their ties to the fight-night protagonists.

While most of the league's corporate partners supported NBA Commissioner David Stern's decision to suspend several players, including Indiana's Ron Artest for the season, others with more defined sponsorships have had to make difficult decisions.

Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, for instance, said last week it will continue to use Detroit's Ben Wallace on the cover of its basketball video game and in the TV advertising that hawks the product. Mr. Wallace recently completed a six-game suspension for his role in the brawl.


But for sneaker and apparel company LA Gear, it's worse. LA Gear had an entire line of shoes and clothing coming out in the spring based on its endorsement contract with Mr. Artest. The lines were set to be marketed under the name of Tru Warrier, the same name Mr. Artest used to release a CD last month. Ironically, about a week before the brawl, Mr. Artest started a controversy within his team by asking his coach for time off-even though the season was only 3 weeks old-so he could promote the CD.

LA Gear has removed all images and references to Mr. Artest from its Web site. The link to its "spring-line preview" does not show any of the Tru Warrier apparel, and the link under "sponsorship" comes up "temporarily unavailable." LA Gear CEO Scott Coble said the company is "reviewing all of our plans concerning his role with our company and our brand."

Mr. Artest was also set to pitch a line of headbands for fledging New York-based D-Apparel, but the athletic-wear company said it severed its ties to the player even before the brawl. "When he asked for time off to promote his rap album, we were having doubts," said marketing director Derrick Jones.

TV network TNT, which broadcasts NBA games on cable, also pulled a Spike Lee-directed commercial for the network that featured Mr. Artest.

The NBA itself was said to have squashed a planned feature on Mr. Wallace by a major monthly magazine, rumored to be one of the lad mags such as FHM or Maxim, but the league denied it was involved.

The brawl even prompted Boston-based sneaker and apparel company New Balance to produce a one-time print and TV campaign designed to stimulate thought-provoking dialogue on the values in athletics. The campaign, from independent Boathouse, Needham, Mass., featured a print ad in USA Today, TV spots on the NFL post-game show on Viacom's CBS, and banner ads on

The print ad carries the headline, "It's Supposed to Be a Game." The main text of the ad is composed of three sentences: "Sports are supposed to be positive, not negative"; "Sports are supposed to bring out our best, not our worst"; and "Sports are supposed to inspire our children, not frighten them."

"no easy answers"

"We recognize that there are no easy answers," New Balance CEO Jim Davis said, "but we believe that increased dialogue on the values guiding sports today is a positive first step in the right direction."

The brawl was just the latest in a series of public relations hits that the NBA has taken in the last year or so.

Still, NBA partners such as America Online, McDonald's, Nike, Reebok and others remain on board.

"We can't let actions of an irresponsible few cloud the fact that the vast majority of players and fans are responsible," Tony Ponturo, global sports marketing director for Anheuser-Busch, said in a statement.

"We consider [the NBA] a great partner," Andy Allmann, a senior manager for Southwest Airlines, told The Arizona Republic. "But certainly if you had a couple more of these incidents and nothing was done, then you would take a second look at whether this is where you should be."

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