Lonzo over Booker? Fan All-Star voting a revealing tale about branding

PHOENIX — Devin Booker hopes to become the first Suns player in an All-Star Game since Steve Nash represented the team in 2012. Although landing on an All-Star roster and having the respect of others in the NBA is a big deal, a bigger issue is at hand: Booker’s brand.

“(Booker) plays in an era when brand isn’t solely based on your ability and play on the court,” said Vijay Setlur, a sports marketing instructor at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

Booker’s last chance comes Tuesday, when All-Star reserves will be named.

Booker has been praised by his peers around the league and has been pegged as a future star by such players as Lebron James. The respect translated to a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference backcourt voting by fellow NBA players. But fans selected him 10th, four spots behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball.

Fans accounted for 50 percent of the vote while the players’ choices are worth 25 percent. News organizations represent the final 25 percent.

The numbers suggest that brand matters. Although Booker is respected by players, who appear to care more about what’s done off the court than on it, he isn’t supported as strongly from a national standpoint by fans. Ball’s numbers were the opposite, with fellow players ranking him 13th.

Booker is averaging 24.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. Only three players in NBA history have posted similar numbers before the age of 22: James, Tracy McGrady and Michael Jordan. All three not only earned All-Star appearances based on those performances, they were voted in as starters.

Laughing, Booker seemed impressed with being in the same company as players of that caliber.

“Those are some pretty good names, that’s really good company to be in,” he said.

Starters are voted in by a mix of fans, players and news media, the reserves are selected solely by the coaches.

Booker doesn’t seem to mind the uncertainty.

“At the end of the day, I’m just going out there and trying to get wins,” Booker said.

This is the first season of a new All-Star game format. In the past, teams were divided by conferences, with the top players in the Eastern Conference squaring off against the top players in the Western Conference.

This season, however, the top player in each conference – the captains – will draft from the remaining pool of players selected, regardless of conference. The NBA is hoping this format will offer up a more exciting All-Star Game with the possibility of two players playing together whom you would never see otherwise.

It’s easy to identify the brand of this season’s captains: James and Stephen Curry. James has been marketed as one of the best to ever play the game, while Curry has been marketed as a lovable sharpshooter.

Booker doesn’t have the same brand equity – a value on any particular brand that identifies how they are perceived by a consumer base – as James or Curry. The four factors of brand equity, Setlur says, are perceived quality, brand loyalty, brand association and brand image, and, finally, brand awareness.

Interim Suns coach Jay Triano knows Booker isn’t happy with the All-Star balloting. Although Booker’s main focus is his team winning games, he still wants respect for what he has done so far in his career.

“When I coached in Portland,” Triano said, “it was Damian (Lillard) and that was always his issue, like, ‘I’m not getting the respect from the fans, I need to do more.’” He used it as a positive to try and create more for himself and turn it into, ‘I’m going to become a better player because of this, I’m going to prove people wrong.’ I think (Booker) has got that attitude; he’s got a real confidence.”

The All-Star Game has long been about popularity. Players who may not deserve the selection are voted in by fans for reasons that go beyond their production on the court. In other words, their brand helps get them into the big game.

Take the 2016 All-Star Game, for example. Kobe Bryant, who was in his final season, was the leading vote-getter. He was named a starter while Anthony Davis and Draymond Green were added as reserve players.

Was Bryant better than Davis or Green that season? Opinions vary. But looking only at individual brands, Bryant wins in a landslide.

When looking at Booker’s brand equity through three seasons, it’s easy to see he doesn’t have the same equity as most of the players who received more fan votes.

Booker’s perceived quality, the first factor in brand equity, is on the right track. He’s a scorer who can light up the scoreboard on any given night. His perceived quality is as a star on the rise.

The second factor is brand loyalty. How loyal are fans to Booker? Locally, they are, but nationally there’s room for growth. If Booker ever leads the Suns to the playoffs, fans’ loyalty toward him will take a big jump.

As far as brand association and brand image, is Booker perceived as a league hero or villain? This factor is hard to establish with such little time in the NBA. In Booker’s case, he has done things in the Phoenix community but will need to do something on a larger scale to build that positive association around the league.

Finally, brand awareness is possibly the biggest factor in a player’s brand. Do people know who you are? To a die-hard NBA fan, Booker might be a household name, but for a casual fan who only tunes in for the playoffs or nationally televised games, he’s less known.

It has been 50 years since the Suns became a NBA team. In those 50 years, 23 players have represented the team at the All-Star Game.

Such players as Charles Barkley, Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash have represented the Suns multiple times throughout their careers. They all had one thing in common: Their brands went beyond their on-court play and the Phoenix community. Six years after Nash’s brand earned him an All-Star nod, Booker is trying to do the same thing.