I’ve always respected Steve Ballmer.
Not only does he have a head for business (he went from making $50,000 a year as an assistant at Microsoft to becoming one of the richest people in America), but his heart goes out to the less fortunate (his Ballmer Group philanthropy aims to help impoverished children and families escape poverty).
Another one of Mr. Ballmer’s virtues: he puts his money where his mouth is.
As the owner of the long-suffering Los Angeles Clippers (“long-suffering” in the sense that they play second fiddle to the more glamorous Los Angeles Lakers, who have 11 championships and 25 NBA Finals appearances to the Clippers’ none), Ballmer wants to alter the balance of power in the Southland.
To that end, Ballmer’s made splashy trades and free-agency signings this NBA off-season, making his team a betting favorite to bring a title next year.
And he’s willing to use his own billions to build a new arena complex for that franchise, last week unveiling renderings of the new facility.
But going it alone hasn’t always been the NBA way.
Coffee magnate Howard Schultz (you might remember him as a 2020 presidential candidate who’s since left the field) once owned the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics. He talked about the team as a public trust. But when the city of Seattle and the state government in Olympia wouldn’t subsidize his franchise, Schultz sold the team to a group led by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett. They promptly moved to team to OKC (quelle surprise!).
Fortunately, this attitude isn’t the California way—not lately, at least.
Ballmer wants to pay for his own arena. Later this year, up north in San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors will ply their trade in the Chase Center, a state-of-the-art $1.4 billion self-financed arena that’s a 15-minute walk from the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park, built with the help of a $170 million, 20-year loan taken out by the team’s ownership. Those two structures are a 45-minute drive north of the $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, which the San Francisco 49ers built without a public subsidy.
This isn’t to suggest that all is well in California when it comes to the housing of professional sports franchises. Fitting for a state with a deep schism between wealth and poverty, the California sports lineup features haves and have-nots.
The former would include the Warriors, whose new arena already has produced $2 billion in revenue. But in order to move into their shiny palace across the San Francisco Bay, the Warriors had to vacate their home in Oakland—the same city whose Major League Baseball franchise likely won’t escape its dilapidated park until local government comes to the rescue (part of the problem: Oakland and Alameda County taxpayers are still paying off debt for stadium improvements that brought the NFL’s Raiders back to Oakland in 1995—yes, the same Raiders who are soon to abandon the Bay Area and California for a $1.9 billion stadium in Las Vegas that’s largely taxpayer financed).
A similar dynamic exists in the Southland. While the Los Angeles Dodgers prepare for a $100 million renovation of their gem of a stadium, the Los Angeles Angels remain in baseball purgatory—unable to decide if the team’s future is remaining in Anaheim or convincing Long Beach to build a ballpark that likely would involve voter buy-in (that’s if sales, hotel, or parcel taxes are involved in the $1.1 billion financing of the endeavor).
In the event of a move, the Angels would have an angel on their shoulder. And that would be the state government in Sacramento.
Last October, former California governor Jerry Brown signed a pair of bills that limited the windows for environmental-based lawsuits (this would be the pernicious California Environmental Quality Act), including appeals, for the Clippers’ proposed arena in Inglewood and a potential new ballpark in Oakland.
Brown granted similar favors for the Warriors’ arena (in 2015, quietly certifying that the project had met the environmental benchmarks it needed in order to be exempted from open-ended legal challenges), as well as the Sacramento Kings’ arena that stands only a few blocks from the State Capitol (in 2013, he signed a bill fast-tracking the construction of that facility).
In fact, a quick review of the last decade of legislative favors in Sacramento shows a state government acting a lot like a jock-sniffing college professor.
The list of courtesies includes cutting through environmental red tape in the City of Industry (a football stadium that never was), lifting a cap on San Diego urban-renewal money (again, for a football stadium that never materialized), and once again sidestepping environmental lawsuits to help with the construction of a football stadium next to the convention center in downtown Los Angeles (that project also died on the vine, though a new LA stadium will debut in 2020—next to where Steve Ballmer plans to build his arena—as part of a $5 billion project complex that’s bigger than Disneyland).
That stadium, the future home of the Rams and Chargers franchises, didn’t receive any help from the state legislature. Instead, the Rams’ ownership called an audible—a legal maneuver that allows projects proposed by voter initiative to circumvent state environmental statutes.
Time will tell if Steve Ballmer gets the NBA championship trophy he craves, or if the A’s and Angels get the new homes they seek.
But two things we know about housing a professional sports team in California: money can move mountains; and servile lawmakers in Sacramento bring new meaning to the term “home-field advantage.”