Column: Steve Ballmer is clearly all-in on making the Clippers succeed in Los Angeles
Steve Ballmer doesn’t get the question as often as he did five years ago when he bought the Clippers, but he hears it enough that he feels the need to be as definitive as possible whenever he’s asked.
“We’re not moving the team to Seattle,” Ballmer said recently. “We’re building a new billion-dollar-plus home in Inglewood.”
Ballmer still lives in Seattle and was in Washington when he got the call that Kawhi Leonard had decided to sign with the Clippers this month. In 2008 Ballmer tried to buy the Seattle SuperSonics in an effort to keep them from moving to Oklahoma City but failed. In 2013 he led a group that included hedge fund manager Chris Hansen that agreed to buy the Sacramento Kings and relocate them to Seattle, but the deal fell through and the Kings were sold to Vivek Ranadive and built a new arena in downtown Sacramento.
While Ballmer believes Seattle deserves an NBA team, he is steadfast in his commitment that Seattle’s potential future NBA team will not be the Clippers. Ballmer’s actions the past year have done more to drive home that point than anything he could ever say.
The blueprint for franchise relocation has been fairly standard over the years. Ownership does everything in its power to alienate the team from its fans by doing the bare minimum in the community, trading away the most popular players and failing to spend money to sign anyone that would excite the fan base. They will put out a poor product while also asking for public money for a new home with the threat of a move if they don’t get what they want.
If Ballmer was interested in moving the Clippers, everything he has done recently is making it nearly impossible to convince the league’s Board of Governors that the team can’t succeed in Los Angeles. That’s important because relocating any franchise in the NBA isn’t just up to the owner; it requires approval from at least 16 of the league’s 30 owners. Ballmer has stated on several occasions that the valuation of the franchise probably would be cut in half it was moved from Los Angeles, which is the No. 2 media market and second in population, to Seattle, which is the No. 13 media market and 18th in population. Most owners would vote against any franchise relocation based on those financial projections alone.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer hopes the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in tandem with a new arena will draw fans and open broadcasting options.
It would have been easy for Ballmer to sabotage the Clippers’ future in Los Angeles in an effort to move the team to Seattle after he bought them. It’s not exactly like the team had a long history of success in the city. From 1976 to 2011, the franchise had four postseason appearances, three winning seasons, one playoff series win and was named the worst professional sports franchise by Sports Illustrated. He could have allowed Doc Rivers to continue to run basketball operations, watched Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leave as free agents without getting anything in return, tanked last season, gone cheap this season, done nothing in the community and demanded public money for a new arena with the threat of moving to Seattle if they didn’t.
He did the exact opposite on every single front in an attempt to make the Clippers a destination franchise in Los Angeles.
Ballmer talked to Rivers about his importance to the franchise as the team’s head coach and signed him to a lucrative contract extension. He also assembled one of the league’s most respected front offices led by Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, Michael Winger, Trent Redden and Mark Hughes. This offseason Winger and Redden turned down promotions from other teams to stay with the Clippers.
As much fun as “Lob City” was at times, the tandem of Griffin and Paul had hit their ceiling and the Clippers traded both players for assets that set the team up for future success. The Clippers essentially traded Griffin for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green and Ivica Zubac.
And they basically traded Paul and Jamal Crawford for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Danilo Gallinari.
The Clippers would later trade Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander and multiple draft picks for Paul George in a deal that helped them land Leonard. The Clippers now enter the season with arguably the two best two-way players in the NBA and for the first time in franchise history they’re favored to win the championship, according to several sportsbooks in Las Vegas.
Instead of having a typical news conference, the Clippers introduced Leonard and George, two local products, at a newly renovated Clippers Community Court in South L.A., one of almost 350 the Clippers are updating with the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks. Ballmer and the Clippers Foundation have donated nearly $100 million to community programs in the Los Angeles region since buying the Clippers and have made youth programs a priority as the team tries to build the next generation of fans in the city. The Jr. Clippers program currently leads all Jr. NBA programs with 120,000 participants, up from 27th in the league two years ago.
After last season’s team exceeded expectations by winning 48 games and pushing the defending champion Golden State Warriors to six games in the first round, the Clippers’ season-ticket renewal rate was a record 95% and they are on pace to more than double season ticket sales heading into next season.
Ballmer’s biggest commitment to keeping the Clippers in Los Angeles is his plan to build a $1.2-billion, privately financed arena in Inglewood. On Thursday, the team unveiled renderings of the 26-acre complex, which would also house the team’s business and basketball offices, training facility, community and retail spaces. Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the nearby Forum, is currently engaged in a legal battle with Ballmer to stop the project. Ballmer, however, fully expects to break ground on the arena in 2021, open it in 2024 and keep the Clippers in Los Angeles for a long time.
“We’ll win those lawsuits,” Ballmer said. “And we’ll build our arena.”
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