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Commentary: Ballmer's bid just doesn't make cents

by on May 31, 2014 10:34 AM

As the successor to Donald Sterling in the NBA’s billionaire club, Steve Ballmer has assured himself of goodwill aplenty.

Heck, Kim and Kanye would’ve been a major upgrade over the guy Ballmer is replacing.

What’s harder to understand is why someone who clearly has a nose for business would spend at least twice as much as he probably should have to purchase the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that shares its arena with two other teams (bad for revenue), was a laughingstock for much of its existence (little brand loyalty), and will forever remain second fiddle to the city’s other NBA team (Jack Nicholson may show up for the occasional Clippers playoff game, but the Lakers still run that town).

Is this:

A) simply a $2 billion ego trip for Ballmer, whose knows he’ll become far more recognized as the owner of the Clippers than he ever was as the CEO at Microsoft?

Or is this B) part of a longer-range plan to get his hands on a franchise that could be moved to his adopted home in Seattle sometime down the road?

For now, we’ll go with A.

Eventually, the correct answer might be C — all of the above.

Ballmer has surely overpaid with his winning bid of $2 billion, nearly four times as much as the franchise was valued at by Forbes just a few months ago and more than double even the loftiest of projections. If approved by the NBA’s other owners, a mere formality unless Ballmer has been secretly recorded delivering a racist rant of his own, it will tie last year’s sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the highest price ever paid for a sports team.

Many people scoffed at the Dodgers’ new owners, led by Magic Johnson, saying they doled out far more than the baseball franchise was worth. But at least there was some reasoning behind the outlandish price, since it involved one of the most recognizable names in all of American sports, a franchise with a long, proven history of success. Plus, the deal included a pretty valuable piece of real estate, Dodger Stadium, not to mention a stake in the parking lots that surround the ballpark, a massive source of income for the team and a potential windfall for future development.

Next to that, the Clippers’ deal looks very much like a financial boondoggle, allowing Sterling to walk away from the NBA an even richer man than he was before his inane ramblings about black people were recorded for the whole world to hear. Ballmer is even richer than Sterling — with a net worth estimated at nearly $20 billion — but there’s no way he was thinking in dollars and cents when he made his offer for the Clippers.

Funny how the chance to own a sports team does that to otherwise astute people.

Granted, the Clippers are no longer the laughingstock of a franchise that managed six winning seasons in its first 41 years of existence. They have two big stars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They set a franchise record with 57 wins this season. They’ve even acquired a catchy nickname, Lob City, becoming an automatic sellout in a city that is always looking to embrace the latest fad.

But the Lakers, even coming off their worst season since moving to the City of Angels in 1960, remain NBA royalty.

The Clippers are a losing season or two away from fading back into obscurity.

For Ballmer, then, there must be other considerations. Maybe he wants to become the West Coast version of Mark Cuban, another guy who made his fortune in high tech but became a household name as the unfiltered owner of the Dallas Mavericks.

The NBA’s newest would-be owner certainly has some Cuban-like traits, if his Microsoft farewell was any indication. Last December, from a stage in the middle of Key Arena (the former home of the Seattle SuperSonics, we might add), a teary Ballmer yelled out his appreciation to the company’s workers and walked off stage to the song “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” — a moment that screamed, “Look at me! Please!!”

Even as he stepped away from Microsoft, Ballmer was already working to bring an NBA team back to Seattle. He was part of the group that tried to buy the Sacramento Kings, only to be rebuffed when local owners were found to keep the franchise in northern California.

Ballmer has said that it wouldn’t be wise to attempt a similar ploy with the Clippers, calling it bad for business. For now, he’s absolutely right. The Clippers are hot. He’d be foolish to abandon the country’s second-largest media market, even if he could get out of a lease at Staples Center that runs through 2024.

But Ballmer has shown he’s at a point in his life where good business isn’t necessarily his guiding principal. Maybe in a few years, if the Lakers return to prominence and Lob City becomes Losing City again, he’ll start to gripe about sharing Staples with a rival team as well as the NHL’s Kings.

Maybe then, the Clippers will go the way of their disgraced, soon-to-be-former owner.

Long gone.



Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.
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May 31, 2014 10:33 AM
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