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Volume 22 No. 32
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Forum: Five years later, Ballmer a fun addition to sports

Five years ago this week, Adam Silver forced Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers after his racist comments, and the move changed the fortunes of the NBA, the Clippers, team valuations, player advocacy and sports business.

So much about the industry is different from that moment. When Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion for the team, many criticized it as excessive, but he said at the time, “There’s a real upside opportunity.” I doubt anyone would challenge that statement five years later. 

Ballmer has been a welcome and refreshing addition to sports, and we are far better off without Sterling. When Ballmer took over, yes, he had some good players and the impressive Doc Rivers as coach, but he had a big job ahead. Now, the Clippers have a growing fan base in Los Angeles and are remarkably creeping up on the Lakers in popularity and relevance. The team is poised to be one of the marquee franchises in the NBA.

Catching up with him at our World Congress of Sports, it’s hard not to buy into Ballmer’s energy and vision. The morning after a tough loss, he intensly recited the game’s critical moments, yet he said he was happy with the team’s “tough, gritty” personality, “guys with character.” Those are the brand attributes Ballmer wants. “Fans want to know, ‘Who are we? What do we stand for?’ I love what we stand for and what we mean,” he said excitedly. He’s confident the team is well positioned for the future. “It’s taken us a few years to build the kind of team that we think can be a consistent winner in the NBA,” and while citing the team’s financial flexibility, he added, “We have a lot of cap space for next year.”    

I asked Ballmer about his involvement in both the basketball and business sides — a struggle that many owners can’t get right. “I don’t think it’s as problematic as, frankly, the rhetoric,” he said. Basketball people need to build the team, he stressed. “We can agree, and we have, on common character. When it comes time to sell seats, we sell seats. That’s an independent activity. When it comes time to select a roster and coach, that’s an independent activity.” But he acknowledged that “when it comes to galvanizing fans, there’s interaction” between business and basketball. “I’m used to that in my career,” the former Microsoft executive said. “You have engineers who built things, and salespeople who sold them. There’s some interaction, but you have to respect what each part of the business does well.”

He believes in letting people do their job, but make no mistake, “I still run the darn thing. And people say, ‘Does that mean you’re making every decision?’ No! What you’re doing is you’re pushing your people. Asking questions, ‘What about this? What about that?’ Get them to think through a few things that they might not have thought through. Or at least have them be able to articulate them. Do I make in-depth decisions on this stuff? No. … I ask a lot of questions, and if I get good answers, great. If I don’t, I just ask a bunch more questions.”

In terms of the makeup of the people he works with, it’s clear he wants them to follow his style. “I want people who are passionate, committed and will just keep after things,” he said, as he leans into me and grabs my arm for emphasis. “If something goes wrong, you just keep coming, and coming, and coming, and coming! Kind of like our basketball team. Tough, gritty, committed people.”

Not surprisingly, Ballmer has big plans for the team, and easily the biggest is a new arena. The organization wants a new home in Inglewood, a move that has drawn legal action from (and against) Madison Square Garden, which owns The Forum. Ballmer dismisses the challenge. “I guess that Madison Square Garden would like to have less competition for the music business here in Los Angeles. We’ll win those lawsuits and we’ll build our arena,” he said. 

Ballmer’s got the Clippers in a good spot. It’s a destination for free agents, the city is embracing the team and the organization’s very relevant on the business and technology front. When I asked Ballmer what he’s learned the most in his five years, he looked at me like I should know better. “Winning. And the promise of winning. Selling hope as well as selling winning.”  

Ballmer is focused on the right things, and Clippers fans should feel good about the days ahead.

First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 15:30 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.