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Clippers

Steve Ballmer’s vision for Clippers includes superstars and new look at broadcasting

Paul George, left, Clippers chairman Steve Ballmer and Kawhi Leonard at a news conference Wednesday.
(Associated Press)
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Steve Ballmer chose seven artful words to describe the Clippers’ summer.

“We were blessed,” he said, “in two critical ways.”

The ways go by the names of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. When two of the elite players in the league landed with the Clippers on the same day, the Los Angeles NBA team that did not include LeBron James on its roster was the one generating the buzz.

Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ coach, called it a good day for the Clippers brand. Then he called it something bigger, using a few artful words of his own.

“This feels more like a movement to me,” Rivers said. “This is more about what’s coming.”

For Ballmer, the Clippers’ chairman, the promise of a championship for a team that never has won one could accelerate the transformation of the brand. He would like to leverage that excitement into presenting the Clippers in a way unlike any other team in the NBA.

That excitement was in evidence even before the Clippers were blessed with Leonard and George. The Clippers’ season-ticket renewal rate was a record 95%, with payments due before Leonard and George showed up, according to president of business operations Gillian Zucker.

But the superstars have helped the Clippers almost double the number of season tickets they have sold, from 5,200 last year to 10,000 so far this year. If the Clippers can win big, they can carry that kind of business momentum into the new arena they plan to open in Inglewood in 2024.

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On the roof of the arena — and in clear view of millions of passengers flying into Los Angeles International Airport every year — renderings show a giant Clipper logo.

“Hopefully, by the time we’re done, it won’t be a Clipper logo,” Ballmer said. “It will be some naming rights sponsor.”

And Ballmer would not rule out changing the logo — and the colors, and perhaps even the nickname itself — when the Clippers move into the new arena.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to really step our identity up another level,” he said. “I don’t anticipate making a change, but we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that is the kind of thing you somehow do in consultation with your fans.”

The Clippers cannot fulfill Ballmer’s vision if they cannot generate excitement across the city, and beyond the fans in attendance. The Lakers might have won 11 NBA championships here, but they have gone longer without a playoff appearance than any major pro team in the Los Angeles market. Still, they consistently thump the Clippers in television ratings.

In each of the past five years — with the Lakers missing the playoffs each time and the Clippers making it every year but one — the Lakers have attracted more viewers.

James made his debut for the Lakers last season. For every viewer the Clippers drew to their broadcasts last season, the Lakers drew four to theirs.

Ballmer would like more viewers for Clippers games, but he also would like to change the fundamental viewing experience. His ideal broadcast would be streamed and interactive: available on any screen, including the television in your living room and the phone in your hand, and allowing you to be your own director by choosing camera angles and adding statistics at your pleasure.

The Clippers are experimenting with digital technology now, but Ballmer said their television rights contract with Fox Sports limits them to 1,500 test streams. Fox Sports subscribers can stream games through the Fox Sports app.

After he bought the Clippers in 2014, he explored whether to take the broadcasts off television entirely, but he said this week that he does not believe a streaming-only presentation of the Clippers makes sense at this time.

“Certainly, digital is not at a point where it’s just going to replace [cable and satellite broadcasts],” Ballmer said.

However, the star power of Leonard and George could help Ballmer exploit an already favorable negotiating position. The Clippers’ contract with Fox Sports expires in three years.

A rendering of the plaza entry of the Clippers’ proposed arena in Inglewood.
(Los Angeles Clippers)

The Dodgers, Lakers and Pac-12 already have left the Fox Sports regional networks. Without the Clippers, the viability of the Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket combination could be in jeopardy, as cable and satellite operators might scoff at paying for two channels when the Angels, Kings and Ducks could be combined on one.

Indeed, the monthly cost per subscriber for the FSW/Prime Ticket combination fell from $4.97 in 2011, the last year the Dodgers, Lakers and Pac-12 all aired there, to $3.73 in 2015, according to Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. The monthly cost did not rise above the 2011 rate again until 2018, according to Kagan.

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“I want to at least try to make digital technology a vehicle for pushing the sports viewing experience forward,” Ballmer said. “If that’s not part of a relationship we can have with our partner — because most of the partners want digital rights in addition to cable rights — that to me is an issue.”

If the Clippers were to go streaming-only, they would not need to deal with Fox Sports and the cable and satellite operators that carry the regional sports networks.

“They’re two steps removed from their customer, at a time the industry is going more and more direct,” said Ed Desser, the former president of NBA TV and consultant on the Lakers’ deal with Time Warner Cable, now Spectrum. “You sign up with Netflix, and you’ve got a direct relationship with the company that’s creating the content.

“When you’re in a position but to eliminate not just one but two middle men that stand in between you and your customer, that eliminates a bunch of margin that’s going to other people. On the other hand, that increases the risk that’s associated with going it alone.”

If the Clippers were to go it alone, they would have to reach agreements with cable and satellite operators to carry a new channel. Most distributors have refused to carry the Dodgers and Pac-12 channels, wary of passing along a new cost to consumers at a time many are cutting their cable and satellite subscriptions.

“I don’t want the technology to be shoved in the back room because we can’t find a distribution path,” Ballmer said.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George introduced by Clippers in ‘landmark moment’

Ballmer could solve that problem by buying either Fox Sports West or Prime Ticket from Sinclair, the incoming owner of the Fox regional sports networks. He would not have to decide between keeping the Clippers’ digital rights and taking the best regional sports network offer.

“I don’t want to rule anything out,” Ballmer said, “or in.”

Sinclair could recoup some of its purchase price by selling an ownership stake in one of the two channels to Ballmer — or selling one outright — enabling the Clippers to run their own programming on a channel already available on Southern California cable and satellite systems.

“Could they buy the whole thing? Ballmer certainly could,” Desser said. “He’s been out front stating that he thinks he can build a better mouse trap than the traditional RSN model. I’m certainly watching with great curiosity to see what he comes up with.”

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