Steve-Ballmer-Clippers

It looks like Steve Ballmer’s deal to buy the Clippers is a sure thing but what does the former Microsoft man want with a basketball team? Emmet Ryan says this is more than just a toy for the newest owner in the NBA.

First things first, Steve Ballmer is already a massive upgrade as owner of the Clippers. The bar is so low that we could resurrect Nixon and give it to him and it would be an improvement on the Sterlings. Assuming the $2 billion deal gets ratified, Ballmer will become the latest tech billionaire to invest in a NBA franchise, following Mark Cuban. The former Microsoft CEO has the potential to be just as fiery and controversial as the Mavericks’ owner.

Economically speaking, looking at the Clippers purely as a business, the fee looks high. The inflation in sports franchise prices however, with billionaires treating them as luxury items, means we have to look past conventional economics. Paying $2 billion for the second team in Los Angeles (yes they are currently better but the Clippers are dwarfed by the Lakers in the popularity stakes) looks ludicrous now but, as pretty much every NBA owner looking to sell has found out, Ballmer will be able to offload the team for far more should he look to in a few years.

Fundamentally this is about a challenge for Ballmer. You have to get inside the mind of a man who joined Microsoft back in 1980. He was just the firm’s 30th employee. That was a company in a challenging environment looking to explode. Over the next three decades they became the dominant player, the incumbent everyone deferred to. They were the Jordan era Bulls, nobody could touch them. As giants Microsoft lost flexibility, giving room for Google to charge ahead. Ballmer famously declared he was going to “fucking kill Google”. That didn’t work out so well and then the Surface, Mircosoft’s hybrid tablet-cum-laptop, which Ballmer heavily backed failed to catch fire. Essentially the fight wasn’t fun anymore. Being CEO of Microsoft still gave him a ton of power in the world but, like being GM of the Lakers right now, it also came with a pile of headaches.

Ballmer’s aggressive manner at Microsoft made him look like the bad guy, a villain people liked to see taken down a peg or two. In truth, he was just trying to bring his business forward but his persona grated plenty in the public sphere. In Los Angeles, he has a new challenge, a chance to make the fiery image look positive in the public eye.

Look at the Clippers. They are good but they aren’t champions. They are also incredibly fun to watch at times. Clipper hatred probably couldn’t be lower than it is right now. Ballmer is buying into a business that is widely liked, appears to be on an upward trajectory on the court, and one where the new owner is going to be welcomed widely in the wake of the Sterlings.

In LA, Ballmer can re-invent himself. Having spent almost 20 years defending his throne and then trying to win it back, he now gets to be the upstart challenging the hegemony. Ballmer is back where he was when he built Microsoft into a dominant power. He may not be on the ground floor but he gets to set the agenda. That aspect could go a few different ways for the franchise.

Many of Ballmer’s late-tenure moves at Microsoft, such as Bing, the Surface, and Windows Mobile, were essentially counter-moves to other players in the market. If he runs the Clippers like this, they’ll never be more than a second round team. There is definitely a legitimate fear that he could go down this route. He’ll see what the Spurs are doing and look to make them the west coast version. Any imitation will be an inferior product. If Ballmer has learnt from his mistakes, and for a man with a stubborn and proud nature that’s no guarantee, these could be exciting times for the Clippers.

Essentially Ballmer needs to treat the Clips as a late-stage start-up. They’ve made some big acquisitions, they’ve grown as a business, now they just need to go from the stage of hot contenders to champions. That’s the challenge Ballmer sees. Ballmer may stick to his guns but he’s also a smart operator. He has the potential to change the way a front office works, and you know he’s going to be up all night scanning SportVU to work out marginal increments of value. To be a coach or GM under Ballmer will require a thick skin because he will get in their faces but Doc Rivers isn’t exactly a shrinking violet.

This is an opportunity for re-birth, not just for the franchise but for Ballmer as well. At 58, he is far from an old man, but he also knows he can make another big mark on the world. Interesting times lie ahead.

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