As bleak as business is now for the Los Angeles Clippers, it could get worse.
More than a half-dozen sponsors severed ties with the Clippers on Monday, rushing to distance themselves from the NBA franchise and its owner, Donald Sterling, following revelations of racially insensitive comments attributed to him. If the NBA doesn't deal with Sterling swiftly and strongly, several marketing and crisis PR experts said the fallout could spread.
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Perhaps even to the league itself.
"If the NBA hedges all over the place, it could be very, very bad," said John Sweeney, director of the Sports Communication Program at the University of North Carolina and head of the school's advertising specialization.
"Check out the Major League Baseball strike or various lockouts. Sponsors don't want that kind of incendiary internal controversy," Sweeney said. "They want everything running as smoothly as possible so all the attention is focused on them."
The attention of the entire country, sports fans and non-fans alike, has been focused on Sterling since the release late Friday of an audio recording in which a man purported to be the Clippers owner is heard making racist and offensive comments.
Clarence Stewart was at Staples Center Monday afternoon with about 10 other African-American men holding signs denouncing Sterling and calling for fans to boycott today's game against the Golden State Warriors.
"We just want to get people out here and understand that this could get serious if we don't talk about it," Stewart said.
New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Sterling's comments "truly offensive and disturbing" on Saturday, and is expected to announce the results of the league's investigation today at 2 p.m. ET.
"They have to act in some manner because there's going to be one sponsor that stands up and says, 'We're done,'" said Chris Cakebread, a sports marketing professor at Boston University. "There are too many other ways to reach people."
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The Clippers have already seen that. In rapid succession Monday, the team got dumped by: used car seller CarMax; State Farm Insurance; Kia Motors America; airline Virgin America; P. Diddy's water brand, AQUAHydrate; Red Bull; Yokohama tires; local Ford dealers; and Mercedes-Benz.
State Farm said it will continue its popular ad series featuring Clippers point guard Chris Paul and his fictitious nerdy brother, Cliff Paul.
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"In the wake of Donald Sterling's alleged defamatory and intolerable comments we have decided to suspend our sponsorship with the L.A. Clippers until the NBA completes its investigation," AQUAHydrate said in a statement. "We fully support the players and fans of the L.A. Clippers and wish them the best in the remainder of the playoffs."
The mass exodus was no surprise, said Michael Gordon, principal and chief executive officer at Group Gordon, a corporate and crisis PR firm in New York.
"I would be much more surprised if any sponsor stood by," Gordon said. "There's nothing about Donald Sterling or the Clippers that's good for any sponsor right now."
Team finances aren't made public, so it is not known how much money this loss of sponsorships has cost the Clippers, or the NBA.
Teams contribute an equal percentage of their revenue into the revenue-sharing system, and receive 1/30th back, meaning a team with low revenues will receive a greater amount than they put in, and teams with high revenues will pay in more than they receive.
And Gordon said it's not just about the NBA's bottom line.
"The NBA needs to move quickly to get rid of Sterling and get in a more responsible, thoughtful owner," he said. "As soon as that happens, assuming it's the right owner, everyone can begin to heal."
And return to business as usual.
Contributing: David Leon Moore in Los Angeles, Jeff Zilgitt
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