Nobody expected the wait for the return of the Seattle SuperSonics to be a short one. From the beginning there was no reason to think that a new Seattle NBA franchise was right around the corner, yet even as fans realized they were in for a long wait, most dug in their heels. Support for a new team has been strong, despite the numerous blows endured by the movement. And today we get the biggest blow in a long time: Steve Ballmer has agreed to buy the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion.
Most would have assumed that the day Ballmer got his hands on an NBA team would be one of the most celebrated and beloved occasions in Seattle sports history. Instead, the former Microsoft CEO’s extravagant new purchase has us mourning the loss of an important finaicial force in the fight to bring professional basketball back to the Emerald City.
While Chris Hansen was seen as the face and force behind the movement to bring back the Sonics, Ballmer was the muscle in the background. Hansen’s rich, sure, but not Ballmer rich. Ballmer’s one of the very richest people to have interest in buying a sports team, and he just made abundantly clear that his money isn’t just for show. Two billion dollars. Try to let that sink in.
The Sacramento Kings, or if you’d prefer, the almost-Sonics, ended up selling for a final price of $500 million. The Milwaukee Bucks, purchased six weeks ago by Mark Lasry and Wesley Edens, sold for $550 million. Those were both record-setting prices at the time, and Ballmer almost quadrupled the old high in order to enter the ranks of NBA owners. The Clippers? Seriously? Doesn’t that team have the most losses of anyone ever?
The key comparison here might actually be a baseball team: the Los Angeles Dodgers, who sold to Magic Johnson and co. for $2 billion in 2012. Ballmer isn’t paying for the Clip’s crappy history, he’s paying for the rights to a team in the nation’s second-largest media market. The Clippers have been exactly one awful owner away from being an NBA powerhouse over the last however many decades. Now with a hopefully competent leader at the helm, they can play ball with the Lakers long-term. Like the Dodgers sale, this likely represents a turning point for the NBA club that spent decades as Los Angeles’s “other” team.
In short, even if Ballmer wanted to move a team to Seattle, he’s now found a much better option in simply owning and operating a team in Los Angeles. As big of a market as Seattle is, it’ll never compete with L.A. Ballmer knows this, and so while he may be settling geographically, he’s coming out in an undoubtedly better position from a business standpoint. And besides, it’s not as if he wasn’t trying extremely hard to bring the Sonics back up until the last minute. Reports have surfaced saying that Ballmer and Hansen actually outbid the new Bucks owners by $100 million, but were rejected because the outgoing owner didn’t want them to move the team to Seattle as per their plan.
So a month and a half ago the Sonics were almost back, and it would have been because of Steve Ballmer. Now there are two less NBA franchises for sale and Steve Ballmer owns the Clippers. This is a tremendous blow to the city of Seattle, which has probably just lost another half-decade of NBA basketball at minimum. Of course, teams unexpectedly do go up for sale sometimes, as this whole saga illustrates, so really you never know. But make no mistake: this sucks.
Best of luck to Steve Ballmer and the Los Angeles Clippers, who finally get the shot at relevance they’ve deserved all along. Chris Hansen is shrewd and driven, and surely he’ll find more deep pockets to work with him in pursuit of the Seattle SuperSonics. But the Hansen/Ballmer partnership looks to be over, and that’s a shame.