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Clippers are an afterthought no more

The Lakers' dominance in L.A. is not exactly being threatened, but that 'other' NBA team at Staples Center is nonetheless enjoying unprecedented popularity at home and around the league.

February 25, 2012|By Ben Bolch

For years, Clipper Nation was a lonely, desolate place, occupying the smallest sliver of a Lakers town.

Now there are signs of border expansion as a quickly multiplying Clippers fan base encroaches on its more celebrated neighbor's territory.

The Clippers are selling out every home game. They have more than doubled their regional television ratings. They have moved so much merchandise that California is starting to resemble a red-and-blue state.

Los Angeles' onetime "other" NBA team has amassed considerable cachet thanks to a cache of young, dynamic players including Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who have led the Clippers to the top spot in the Pacific Division, 11/2 games ahead of the Lakers at the All-Star break.

"They finally have the key ingredients to how this league has been marketed since [ Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson], and that's star power," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "They were desperate for those guys, and having two of them, they couldn't ask for a better scenario."

Of course, you'll have to forgive the Lakers if they are unmoved by it all, with their robust ratings, attendance and merchandise sales mostly holding steady.

"I just came back from Target," Lakers Coach Mike Brown said in December. "Nobody said anything to me about the Clippers."

The Lakers have sold out 250 consecutive home games (including the playoffs) dating to December 2006. Their average viewership of 3.5 million for nationally televised games as of last week was 30% higher than the league average of 2.7 million viewers per game.

And there's always the category that matters most to fans: NBA titles. The Lakers lead their fellow Staples Center tenants 16-0 in that department.

"I think it's hard to unravel what the Lakers have built there over the last few decades, and I don't think the Clippers harbor any visions of making that a Coke and Pepsi market," Swangard said. "But they have made some dramatic inroads this year. Both teams are generating the kind of interest the league hoped a two-team market would be able to deliver."

Indeed, it's suddenly hip to be a Clipper.

There is Paul on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, gliding through the air with a smile on his face. There are Griffin highlights on YouTube, his monster dunks wowing millions of viewers. And, until recently, there was a giant mural of Paul, Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan on an exterior wall of the Figueroa Hotel in downtown L.A.

"There's a big difference," Griffin said of the atmosphere surrounding the team. "Obviously our team has changed and we're playing a lot better basketball. As far as the fans and the hype around it, it's been elevated."

The Clippers have given their fans plenty to behold, with one fan gushing on a message board, "This is THE best team we have ever had."

It's also the best fan support the team has had.

The Clippers have sold out all 16 home games, putting them on pace to smash the franchise record of 25 sellouts established in 2001-02. Their average home crowd of 19,268, if sustained over the rest of the season, would easily break the record of 18,421 from five seasons ago.

The Clippers are also a big draw on the road, with crowds averaging 19,451, according to ESPN — slightly more than the Lakers' road average of 19,124.

One factor working in the Clippers' favor is accessibility. Roughly twice as many tickets have been sold for the Clippers' home game against Minnesota on Tuesday via ticket reseller StubHub as have been sold for the Lakers' home game the next day versus the Timberwolves, with the reasons transcending the Clippers' exciting brand of basketball.

"Prices are much cheaper for Clippers games, which is certainly appealing for fans," said Joellen Ferrer, a spokeswoman for StubHub who estimated that Clippers-Timberwolves tickets were reselling for half the price of Lakers-Timberwolves tickets. "While demand is up considerably from years past in terms of actual [Clippers] tickets being purchased, prices have remained attractive and have not entered into the same realm as that of the Lakers."

The Clippers might have already eclipsed their hallway rivals when it comes to the number of best-selling jerseys. Griffin's and Paul's jerseys are among the top 10 leaguewide in online sales along with Lakers star Kobe Bryant's, according to the NBA. Sales of Clippers merchandise at Staples Center are up 200%, AEG spokesman Michael Roth said, while sales of Lakers apparel "remains consistently strong" compared to past seasons.

Perhaps nowhere is the Clippers' rise to prominence more startling than in their TV ratings.

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