Here’s a sibling rivalry between two powerful heirs of ownership. The full control of the Lakers organization is coveted almost as much as the Iron Throne. If you think that Game of Thrones is more ruthless and aggressive than this recent Lakers drama, you obviously haven’t been following the sports world thoroughly. This reality show featured siblings in a power struggle, where the sister overthrows her brother and chooses a famous star (who in fact was admired more by the sister and the siblings’ father than the brother himself) to help her lead the organization.
Coaches and players may come and go, but the Lakers Front Office hardly ever had a revolving door. For the past 38 years under the Buss family, the formula for Lakers management was simple: Keep the brand alive.
Dr. Jerry Buss and his crew maintained a philosophy that other teams envied. This franchise is not just a team, not by any extent. The Los Angeles Lakers is not just a group of sweaty guys who compete every other day for a six-month period. The Lakers is a brand renowned worldwide. As they slowly slipped away from this ideology over the past four years, the move to bring Magic Johnson to the top of the food chain is Jeanie Buss’ first step to bring that brand back to prominence.
The overhaul of the front office is not about Magic Johnson. It’s not about Jim Buss or his failure to keep a ridiculous promise that the media continuously scoffs at. It’s not even about the Lakers’ disappearance from the playoffs the last four seasons. This hire is about Jeanie Buss wanting to rebrand the Lakers.
This season marks the first year in a long time that no Lakers player is in the top 15 in jersey sales. Since 2012, the Clippers have surpassed the Lakers in home game attendance. Every single year prior to that, the Clippers have not even come close. It could be because Clippers tickets are generally less expensive than Lakers tickets. However, that has always been the norm. The reality is that the average person, with no real interest in a certain team, would rather watch Chris Paul to Blake Griffin lobs than a rebuilding Lakers roster. In terms of television ratings, the LATimes released an article around the same time last year discussing the decline of Lakers television.
The Clippers’ 1.15 rating on Fox Sports’ Prime Ticket through the end of 2015 was still below the Lakers’ 1.68 on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, according to the Nielsen figures, but it’s the closest the teams have ever been in local television ratings. For comparison’s sake, the Lakers had a 4.35 rating at the midpoint of the 2012-13 season and the Clippers a 1.5.
In making this decision, Jeanie Buss proved to the world that she is the smartest businesswoman in all of sports. Jeanie understands that winning is essential. However, she also knows what defined the Lakers in the past. There is something that may be more important than winning – the name of the Lakers is above everything. How can the Lakers be the most watched and most loved sports team in the nation if they cannot even be the most watched basketball team in their own city?
Successful brands come out with new products. They fear the status quo. Over the past decades, the Lakers brand can be likened to that of Apple or Google. As with these companies, they release a new product yearly. That’s the only way to keep a brand on the top shelf. As with Apple’s intent to release a new phone or tablet annually, the Lakers underneath Dr. Jerry Buss did exactly the same. Buss brought new products to the table instantly once he sensed a decline. He introduces the Lakers girls for entertainment. He invited celebrities to fill courtside seats in the fabulous Forum. He brought Magic Johnson and James Worthy to stand alongside Kareem Abdul Jabbar. When the Lakers hit a short snag in the 90s, they were determined to take risks by offering more products: they obtained Shaquille O’neal and had the guts to trade for the sixteen-year old Kobe Bryant. When that was not enough, Buss decided to move to Staples Center in even brighter lights and brought Phil Jackson, a storied coach to lead another dynamic duo to more rings.
Now, the Lakers brand is turning into the likes of Radio Shack and Blockbuster. They are running out of products to offer. The brand is slowly diminishing. Over the past four years, the Lakers resorted to becoming an average team and forgot that branding is almost as important as winning. The flare is lost. Yes, the Lakers are still the second biggest market in the NBA after the New York Knicks. However, the enthusiasm and passion of fans are slowly starting to shift to the point where many have hopped on to other bandwagons across the nation.
With this new management team, the brand name will be the top priority. Jeanie Buss, in her first interview after the firings of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, alluded to the PURPLE AND GOLD standard. With branding comes new products. These new products will come instantly. The Lakers want to bring something new to Los Angeles, even if it isn’t rings just yet. This may come in the form of a superstar who the city can rally behind. This can come in the form of a new entertainment venture. This can come in the form of free agents who are more exciting to watch than players who may not be as “flashy.”
Magic and Jeanie seem on board with the young core that Lakers currently are running with. However, they do seem like they would be willing to give up at least a couple of those pieces to attain superstar talent even if that star does not translate into a winning culture immediately. The star itself would be enough to rebrand the team for at least a couple of years.
The hiring of Johnson himself is part of the rebranding – bringing in a big name to fill the shoes of someone who the media and fans despised. Johnson’s flashy name allowed the Lakers to be in the spotlight over the past three weeks. That’s where the Lakers belong – under the bright lights of ESPN, Facebook feeds, and Twitter.
I am not saying that Jeanie Buss doesn’t care about winning. I’m saying quite the opposite. Rebranding creates a winning franchise. The Lakers have always rebranded in order to win. That’s the way they will continue to do it with Magic at the helm.