I hate the Yankees. I don’t HATE them the way a Red Sox or Mets fan does, or someone who slept with Derek Jeter might, but I really don’t like them. I cheer for them to lose. I don’t like what they stand for: their deep pockets, long-standing divisional dominance, annoyingly arrogant fanbase…it all makes the sport of baseball worse. In marketing parlance, I don’t like their brand.
But I don’t hate the LA Lakers, who share many of the same characteristics as the Yankees. Both enjoy dominant winning percentages, big markets, massive media coverage, and more than their fair share of obnoxious fans. Yet, despite not being a Lakers’ fan (I grew up near Chicago right in the middle of the Michael Jordan Era, which means I love the Bulls and hate the Pistons), I don’t mind the Lakers. Unlike Bostonians who walk into a Red Sox/Yankees matchup already angry, few bring that same vitriol to the Celtics/Lakers rivalry. It’s much more laced with mutual respect, like two boxers hugging it out after 12 rounds and the judges’ final decision.
So what is it about the Lakers that makes them so hard to hate in an environment where dynasty teams are derided and jeered?
It’s not all about winning…
The Lakers have been a wildly successful franchise (i.e. 40 appearances in conference finals), but that doesn’t fully explain their fan’s fanaticism. As the aforementioned Yankees illustrate, sometimes this sustained success can have the opposite effect. Rather, the Lakers have masterfully cultivated a brand persona that is fun and exciting and transcends basketball.
The Lakers franchise has become a destination for the biggest and best players, who flock there as free agents to not only take their basketball game to the next level, but their personal brand. This offseason saw self-proclaimed global icon LeBron James join the Lakers family, a long-speculated move that surprised no one. LeBron understands the Lakers represent more than success on the court.
Prior to moving to LA in 1960, the Lakers were led by basketball’s first larger-than-life player – the 6’10” spectacled George Mikan. With Mikan at center, the Lakers won their first five of 16 championships, establishing them as a winning franchise before moving west. After eleven seasons in LA without a championship, the 1971-1972 team — featuring Wilt Chamberlain and “The Logo” Jerry West — won 33 straight games and 69 total regular-season games en route to their sixth championship. Some consider this the best NBA team ever.
Flash forward to the 1979 NBA Draft and the Lakers, with the first overall pick in the draft, selected Michigan State sophomore Ervin “Magic” Johnson. Partnering with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers won the championship the next season. They won four more titles in the 80s, a period that became known as “Showtime” due to the cult of personalities both on the court and in the seats. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to five titles between 2000 and 2010, the first three coming with Shaquille O’Neal at center. Only the Boston Celtics have more championships – 17 vs. LA’s 16.
Celebrities on the court
The list of franchise stars of the LA Lakers are an impressive collection of elite basketball talent, but what separates them from other team’s superstars is how much bigger than their basketball prowess they loom. For many elite Lakers, the larger than life title was as literal as it was metaphorical — Mikan, Wilt, Kareem and Shaq will populate any greatest-center-ever list, but they were also giants physically. They towered over everyone and gave their teams a clear advantage with their size before the ball was tipped. Players such as Magic and Kobe brought flair with their game making it as much about the spectacle as about the final score.
Their celebrity status was reinforced off the court as well, whether it was Abdul-Jabbar’s social activism, Wilt’s notorious nightlife, Shaq’s rap albums, or Magic’s business empire. The Lakers attract — and nurture — players much bigger than the game.
Celebrities in the seats.
I’m guessing this celebrity fan list doesn’t exist for the San Antonio Spurs or even the Boston Celtics. The Great Western Forum and now the Staples Center are home not just to NBA basketball games, but mimic a popular club or restaurant as the “place to be” when the Lakers are in town.
The court-side celebrities are what really connect the Lakers as a brand to LA and that Hollywood-dream-factory ethos. New York, Miami, the Bay Area and Chicago do their best to compete, but none can outdo the star power the Lakers enjoy on any given night.
But wait. Aren’t all professional sports teams a cult brand to their fans? I guess that’s a fair question. That said, I struggle to find a team brand that casts such a long shadow of brand presence the Lakers do. The Lakers brand is about winning, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about celebrity and star power, glitz and glamour. It’s about southern California at its very best.
If you want to hear more of the story behind what makes the Lakers such an iconic brand, join us at The Gathering in two months. Tim Harris, President of Business Operations & Chief Marketing Officer for the Los Angeles Lakers, will share his story about what makes the Lakers – and their brand – so special. Mr. Harris joins the amazing list of incredible speakers that will make The Gathering in Banff this February 20-22 such a great place for business leaders to gather, connect and learn more about the Lakers and so many other cult brands