The Boston Celtics have an imaging problem.
It goes like something like this: Nobody wants to play for the Celtics. Their rich tradition means nothing to the modern NBA player as well as basketball fans and observers in general. Boston is a 21st century East Berlin. The city is under martial law, has a strict 11 PM curfew, no women, and the sun only comes out for summer holidays.
Ok, the last sentence was an obvious exaggeration. Or was it? At this rate, it should not surprise anyone once that notion too becomes accepted within the basketball community.
Because why not? The organization itself has done, to put it bluntly — a dreadful job at addressing perceptions. And perceptions are reality. True or not, in the words of history’s greatest propagandist: Repeat something enough and people believe it. And far too many believe much of what was conveyed above.
This is all despite the fact, that over these last 15 years — when Wyc Grousbeck and his group purchased the franchise — the Celtics themselves have been pretty successful on the court.
Sure, it doesn’t match up to Russell & Auerbach or the apex of the original Big Three, but more than 20 other NBA fanbases would gladly trade their last decade-and-a-half for it. The Celts won a championship, legitimately contended for many more, and have been in the playoffs virtually every season since 2002. Most importantly, they’re worth one’s time, energy, and money. Or at least they should be.
Yet despite such on-court success, the organization has not been able to climb one inch upwards from an imaging standpoint. Being unable to convert such success into reversing some absurd yet generally-accepted notions, and thus bring overall branding goodness, represents a tremendous missed opportunity for the organization.
Whether said preconceived notions are true or not, is beside the point.
The medium is the message. The narrative, positive as it may be in general, by the local beat only reaches the team’s most ardent supporters. Which, from a strategic and practical standpoint, does not serve much purpose.
When a national media can heavily influence, for example, the perception of Boston — a city universally regarded as one of America’s 10 best — as some dreary totalitarian communist darkness to current and future players, the Celtics brass is constantly at a disadvantage. Opinions are now forged almost instantaneously and those perceptions are established and further entrenched from there.
The fabled Celtics tradition, again, while it may not resonate as it did say in 1988, it should at least count for…something. All great organizations, companies, and even governments are able to utilize their recent and distant history to further strengthen their messages and even myths. Both to those within and outside the organization.
Yet the Celtics can’t. At all. If anything, their rich history has become a crutch. Such a failure is a direct indictment on the organization’s marketing and presentation philosophy as a whole.
The Celtics are now being impacted by this this very year alone. Once again, constantly on the defensive with narratives being generated by what should be — in most recent (and frequent) examples — trivial agent leaks are now seamlessly traveling its way through the filter; popping out further embellished and then being reinforced by journalists and pundits to worldwide audiences. In such a unique age where opinions are pre-packaged and crystallized almost instantaneously, the Celtics are badly losing the all-important battle for public opinion.
A front they can ill-afford to lose, particularly if Boston truly is this Basketball Siberia.