The sports darling of Madison Avenue, the National Basketball Association, is at the top of its profitable game. The playoffs are peaking with two of the country’s largest marke" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >

WHEN PUSH COMES TO SLAM By ED KIERS

The sports darling of Madison Avenue, the National Basketball Association, is at the top of its profitable game. The playoffs are peaking with two of the country’s largest marke

All is not well on the hardcourt, however. Plagued by a rash of fights, macho wrestling matches and malicious fouls, the league has a worsening roughhouse problem that could tarnish its golden image. Just in the last few months, basketball fans have watched Barkley and Isiah Thomas kick downed opponents, Jordan throw punches and 300-pound rookie sensation Shaquille O’Neal deliver a stiff right in an all-too-real version of the Shaq Attaq.
These scenes have caused some advertisers to question whether National Hockey League-style thuggery has infected the NBA. ‘The fighting and bad-mouthing between players has escalated, and if this doesn’t get toned down or fixed, corporations will have major problems with the sport,’ says Mary Reiling, AT&T’s director of sponsorships and promotions. ‘The fighting is definitely starting to interfere with the game. Sponsors are deeply concerned, and something has to be done to stop the violence now.’
In part, the NBA has invited the rowdiness. The league thrives on an aggressive, in-your-face style, with highlight reels and commercials that glorify a kamikaze Air Jordan slashing to the basket, Barkley confronting Godzilla and Shaq’s nasty backboard-shattering dunks. This bad-boy imagery may now be haunting the NBA, as customary body banging and verbal jousting have too often degenerated into bullying and mayhem. Bench-clearing brawls have become commonplace, most notably in a New York-Phoenix melee during the regular season in which seven players were ejected.
For at least one advertiser, Prudential Insurance, such incidents – which get heavy replay on sports newscasts – are disturbing. ‘Prudential is selling stability, shelter in a storm, through safe images,’ says Lowe & Partners media supervisor John Tebeau of the company that sponsors the NBC halftime shows. ‘Even if the fighting isn’t actually increasing, any violence is antithetical to Prudential’s message.’
What has increased is trash talking, the schoolyard-style gabbing players use to destroy an opponent’s confidence. ‘Talking the talk has taken on a new harshness, a stridency,’ says NBC analyst Quinn Buckner, a former NBA player who will take over as coach of the Dallas Mavericks next season. ‘And that’s led to more tensions on the court, a greater disposition to fight.’
Worried that the taunting and physical play will become even more combustible during the playoffs, advertisers have voiced their concerns to the NBA hierarchy. Jerry Kirbek, vp/marketing for Bausch & Lomb, says officials from his company, a league sponsor, approached NBA Properties president Rick Welts about the matter, and were assured that Stern would personally intervene to stem the outbursts. Trying to dispel the notion that sponsors are alarmed, Welts insists ‘the fighting is no problem at all, a blip. The game is healthy. The fighting is just an aberration, soon to be yesterday’s problem.’
Sounding less the cheerleader and more like the guardian of the game’s integrity, NBA vp/operations Rod Thorn recently said, ‘We have to be as diligent as possible to make sure that we don’t get this image of being a league full of thugs, of people who just want to fight and want to knock people out.’ That diligence has prompted punitive action from Thorn. He meted out $625,000 in fight-related penalties this year (that includes the money a player loses in salary by being suspended). After stiffening the penalties for throwing punches in the playoffs, Thorn also promised the entire fighting/trash talking issue would be reviewed next October at a league meeting.
But as McDonald’s senior vp/marketing David Green asks, ‘How effective can fines and suspensions be when players are making so much money?’ Not very. The NBA could easily become a victim of its own success, creating a class of flamboyant multimillionaires immune to standard punishment. Consider the Shaq, who was fined $10,000 and lost another $40,000 in pay after being suspended for one game. ‘Out of $40 million,’ he concluded, ‘I still have a lot left.’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)