NBA ban on Clippers owner clears path for sponsors Kia, M-B, CarMax to return

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With Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling banned for life from the National Basketball Association for making racially insensitive comments, the door appears open for corporate sponsors such as Kia Motors America and CarMax to one day return to the team.

The NBA suspended Sterling for life on Tuesday and fined him $2.5 million for his remarks. The move came after nationwide outrage from people inside and outside of the league. The remarks and widespread protests prompted a slew of marketers to abandon sponsorships with the team.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he will also begin the process of forcing Sterling to sell the team.

Kia Motors America, official automotive partner of the NBA and sponsor of TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” said Tuesday that it “appreciates and wholeheartedly endorses Commissioner [Adam] Silver’s decisive action.”

Kia suspended its corporate sponsorship of the franchise on Monday but made clear today that it would continue its relationship with Clippers star Blake Griffin.

“We stand with the Commissioner, the league, the players and the fans in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views,” the automaker said in a statement. “We look forward to a positive resolution and continuing our relationships within the NBA community, including our league and team sponsorships and our personal ties to Blake Griffin.”

CarMax, the chain of used-car superstores, was the first Clippers sponsor to break ties on Monday. The company had been one of the club's longest-serving and most loyal corporate partners, sponsoring the Clippers for nine seasons.

The company wouldn’t rule out a return to the team.

“We welcome the opportunity to discuss future sponsorship if this matter is fully resolved,” CarMax said Tuesday in a statement.

Only three sponsors said they were dumping the team on Monday: luxury auto marketer Mercedes-Benz; CarMax and Virgin America.

Other sponsors -- Diageo, Kia, State Farm, Red Bull, Sprint, Corona, Aqua Hydrate, Burger King and Commerce Hotel & Casino -- said they were "suspending" their deals or putting them on hold.

Mercedes-Benz Southern California dealers have a deal with the team that's advertised on the Clippers Web site.

"We applaud the decisive action taken by the NBA and we're evaluating how we will move forward," Mercedes-Benz said in a statement.

Silver, speaking at a news conference in New York, said that he would urge the NBA board of governors to force a sale of the team. A three-quarters vote of the 30 members would be necessary to force a sale, and Silver said he expects to get that.

"The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful," Silver said. "That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage."

Between Monday and Tuesday, thirteen marketers ranging from Mercedes-Benz to Diageo dropped or suspended marketing activities associated with the team. McDonald's on Tuesday announced it would be yanking TV ads from the national telecast of tonight's game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on TNT.

David Levy, president of TNT parent Turner Broadcasting, confirmed that advertisers had "pulled from the game tonight." He added that "hopefully [Mr. Silver] can persuade the advertisers to come back because of his swift response."

The promptness -- and severity -- of Silver's response seemed partly to put the league's marketing partners at ease. While team sponsors dropped out, league-wide sponsors told Ad Age they were waiting on the results of the investigation.

'Judge us by our actions'

"This has all happened in three days," said Silver. "So I'm hopeful that there will be no long-term damage to the league or the Clippers organization. As I said earlier, I'm outraged. So I certainly understand other people's outrage. This will take some time...I can understand how upset they are. I'll do my best to bring them back into NBA family."

He added: "Marketing partners of the Clippers and of the entire NBA should judge us by our actions."

Bloomberg contributed to this report. Michael McCarthy covers sports and automotive for Advertising Age, a sister publication of Automotive News

You can reach Michael McCarthy at mmcarthy@adage.com.


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