PR Daily contributor Kevin Allen did a great job of pointing out some recent PR challenges in the world of professional sports and how different organizations are handling them. While the New York Yankee’s controversial slugger Alex Rodriguez’s upcoming career milestone threatens to bring back echoes of Major League Baseball’s steroid-fueled PR nightmare, the Baltimore Orioles made a powerful statement by playing Wednesday’s game to an empty stadium. The NFL just gave up its tax-exempt status, but no one is fooled into thinking that it’s a gesture of goodwill, as the move conveniently allows Commissioner Roger Goodell to keep his salary private and decreases public officials’ opportunities for oversight of the league. Finally, in the NBA, the Houston Rockets quickly canned their Twitter operator after a slightly distasteful tweet aimed at a rival team featured a gun emoji.
The Rockets’ aggressive handling of this potential PR snafu not only stands in stark contrast to the bumbling crisis communications work of the NFL, but is indicative of the NBA’s style when it comes to these issues. After Malice at the Palace, the infamous 2004 brawl that featured players jumping into the stands to trade blows with fans, the NBA successfully executed a major image overhaul that continues to incorporate a “get ahead of the news” approach.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of this happened through both incredible coincidence and wise foresight. In 1997, Abe Pollin, then-owner of the Washington Bullets, changed the team’s name to the Wizards due to his abhorrence of gun violence and its prevalence within D.C. at the time. The fan reaction ranged from lack of enthusiasm to feelings of betrayal. The name lacks a connection to the city, and just until very recently was accompanied by an odd looking logo.
Yet, Wizards/Bullets fans should ultimately be thankful that Pollin took bold action, as it saved the team from absolute media evisceration thirteen years down the road. During the 2010 season, the Wizards faced a PR crisis of epic proportions after an argument between teammates led to two players, including the team’s star guard at the time, to threaten each other with guns in the locker room.
The Wizards were already in a tailspin by 2010. The starting five that brought them back to the playoffs between 2004 and 2008 were past their prime, they ditched their longtime coach, and were posting abysmal losing records. The team that always played second or third fiddle anyway in Redskins country was also competing for attention with the surging Capitals and the young Nationals. On top of that, it’s not hard to imagine how the “Bullets” name would have dumped gasoline on the media firestorm and totally alienated the team from the rest of league in the wake of the locker room incident. Now that the Wiz are back to winning, led by their electrifying young point guard, John Wall, I have to wonder if Pollin’s name-change coincidentally saved this team from fading into complete obscurity, or even relocation, after what happened in 2010. Regardless of the weird name, I’m just happy that I still get to join thousands of other D.C. basketball fans in cheering on our favorite team from November through May.