Blake Griffin Is the Major Market

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There's no disputing the numbers: Los Angeles is a major city, full of people, wealth, enjoyment, and possibility. The Clippers, who get the off-nights at the Staples Center, play there. In theory, the Chris Paul deal created another large market powerhouse—exactly the kind of thing the new CBA was meant to undo, or at least avoid. People blogged about it.

Except, despite having landed the NBA's point guard supreme, and harboring the league's most scintillating dunk machine, the Clippers are still the Clippers. Call it a curse, pin it all on sub-human owner Donald Sterling; LA's other team has an especially tricky path ahead of them if they want to capitalize on the city around them. Simply winning won't do the trick, and that would be the case even if the Lakers weren't there to rule the roost. The Clippers have a serious brand problem.

The franchise is shockingly modern in this respect. Well before this marketing term became a dry, prosaic part of our shared internet language, the Clippers had screwed themselves out of LA's boon, and everyone understood it, even if the articulation remained rough, elliptic. The Clippers were never the other team like the Jets, Angels, or Warriors. They were alienation itself, and their fans saw themselves as outsiders, hipsters, or deviants—depending on what peculiar roster the team was working with that season. Even workhorse, and all-around good guy, Elton Brand seemed to need some sort of unhelpful, odd complement. Lamar Odom before he got it together; Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson; Sam Cassell.

By this logic, Paul's Clippers are, best-case, a whopping, undeniable version of the "alt-Lakers" meme someone tries to start up every time Donald's Kids sniff the playoffs. But that look doesn't suit Paul, a nasty traditionalist who often comes across as a premature Hall of Famer, or Griffin, quite possibly the futuristic heir to Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. They aren't scattershot new jacks, or grit-grind underdogs. Paul and Griffin are a variation on the game's most reliable winning theme: an indomitable big man and endlessly resourceful ball handler. Stir in center DeAndre Jordan, a first-rate leaper and defensive presence whose offense is a well-meaning daze, and free agent Caron Butler, who in the wake of the Paul trade, can be praised for his usefulness and leadership, and this team's nucleus is nothing short of mainstream. But as of today, the Clippers still represent displacement within a major market.

Here's where Griffin becomes key. Griffin flourished as a YouTube cult hero, then swiftly, almost radioactively, found himself at the center of the league's marketing campaigns. Smarter and less blankly affable than you think, he was able to rack up national endorsements without oozing "personality" like Dwight Howard (who, in all likelihood, played himself out by being too eager to please). The connection between Griffin and the Clippers can feel incidental times. They can't bring him down and like it or not, he can't elevate them overnight. Meteors aren't known for chugging along with massive baggage.

It's all straight out of the Kevin Durant playbook. Oklahoma City is truly small, not just figuratively so like Clipper Los Angeles. Durant has circumvented all of that by achieving his national presence through, simply put, buzz. In OKC, the Thunder are careful to never place one player above others, a philosophy that suits Durant fine. However, on the national stage, Durant has captivated and fascinated remotely serious hoops fans since Texas, and their zealotry—coupled with his growth—has created an unlikely monster. Durant is a bizarre, unsettled player whose personality is self-effacing, shy, and benevolent. He's more like a mythical creature than a franchise pillar. Yet this image has proven ideal for the transmission of his brand, allowing it to sneak out away from OKC and establish himself internationally. In the end, it's helped the Thunder. At home, they're the feel-good chums. Out in the world, the Durant-driven team is nothing short of avant-garde. Blame the Internet for that.

Griffin—coincidentally, an Okie who seems incapable of big-timing—is Paul's door to this new sense of "major market". Those red and blue jerseys are clown costumes on the ground in LA, and for anyone whose basketball consumption is limited to conventional channels. But at this point, they know Griffin. Paul tossing alley-oops to Griffin, or getting on television regularly not as a Clipper, but as a teammate of Griffin, provides a buffer. We can pretend those jerseys are meaningless; they leave no slime on him. In branding terms, the Clippers are either shit, or they are the team Blake Griffin plays for. Chris Paul, even if he's eventually bound to take this team over, for now must be content to waltz in behind Griffin, for those eyes.

Griffin and Paul can save the Clippers by making us forget the team exists. That will be enough to make them palatable, even credible, for the worldwide NBA audience. Locally? The Clippers might only overcome themselves, and as Dave Zirin put it, “occupy LA”, if, in effect, they cede their stake in real Los Angeles over to the virtual, brand-and-meme-driven, version of themselves. It’s also the only hope they have of ever seriously challenging the Lakers prestige. Legacy, it seems, is the most dangerous brand of all.


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Comments

Simply winning won't do the trick, and that would be the case even if the Lakers weren't there to rule the roost. The Clippers have a serious brand problem seo boca

Great article, but I think you discount the rapidity with which the clipper brand can go mainstream in LA. Think back to the Darius/Q era in 2001. That was a bad team, 20 games under .500, but the aliens had serious swag precisely because of the brand problem you describe here.

Look at the ubiquity of American Apparel - it's a hopskipjump from hipster outside to mainstream cool. Griffin and Paul may be a prototypical hoops pairing, but they have style in droves. That style will jell with the outsider motif to feast on the Lakers disatisfaction quicker than you think. There are certainly hardcore Laker fans, but LA has many more "wait-for-the-playoffs-then-buy-a-flag" fans. If paul's knee stays attached, a whole lot of those flags are gonna be white/red.

My God this is fantastic.

Wait you guys, did anyone else watch the LAL v. LAC preseason game tonight? Holy shit. If anyone in the bay area is down to go see them April 14 at Oracle, let's go!

I was wondering about this the other day because with Winter Break coming up I was trying to predict how many of my high school students might return with Paul jerseys or Clipper merchandise in January. Last year, I saw more Heat gear than ever before, but the Miami Heat's brand has never been as dismal as the Clippers. I'm still having a hard time fathoming a lot of students bandwagoning in blue and red no matter how many alley oops take place this season. I can picture them wanting the back of a Chris Paul or Blake Griffin jersey but not the front of it.

Glorious prose and analysis Shoals - nice to see you've shaken off the lockout cobwebs and are already hitting midseason form.

Tricky branding strategy, because he has to share headlines with Kobe. The problem is that LA its still Kobe's town, and will be till he retires. Losing won't matter, because Kobe will then transition to an elder statesman or incredibly bitter man.

That said, there is a generational aspect to marketing Griffin/Durant. They are both younger and don't seem to have the demons that some older players have or have played with, i.e really gross racism. To them it really seems like a game.

good stuff!

Again, they don't necessarily need LA. Yet. They can get huge while essentially remaining small, or modest, at home.

Totally see your point - and I think you're right. I guess I was coming at it solely from my perception of Kobe's spectre which seems foreboding and all-encompassing.

OKC sort of has a Green Bay-type of adoration for its star ball player, and if there is nothing negative simmering close to home, then there is nothing that the national media can pick up on, and all the messaging is sponsorship marketing gravy.

Yes, the Clippers are still the Clippers, heard that a thousand times now since Wednesday afternoon. They may have a tough go in Lakerland winning over fans but elsewhere in this country for which Laker-hating is a national pastime, Griffin and CP3 are going to appear as American heroes in their red, white and blue clown costumes. Those colors don't run.