What Steve Ballmer’s Clippers bid means for Seattle

Steve Ballmer doesn’t own the Los Angeles Clippers, not yet anyway, but with news coming out Thursday that the former Microsoft CEO had submitted a winning $2 billion (yes, that’s billion with a B) bid for the franchise, all signs point to him eventually owning the team.

Nationally, that news was met with a reaction along the lines of, “Wait, he’s paying how much? For the freaking Clippers?” But locally the first question on the minds of most sports fan is this: what does Ballmer’s decision to purchase the Clippers mean for Seattle’s chances of getting an NBA team?

After all, Ballmer was part of the group, led by Chris Hansen, that tried to purchase the Sacramento Kings to bring that team to Seattle. While Hansen is the leader of the effort to get the NBA back to Seattle, Ballmer gave that group a lot of credibility, and has a net worth that would eliminate any concerns about the group’s ability to purchase a team and build an arena.

With Ballmer now apparently out of the picture, Hansen pledged to move forward, posting the following on Sonicsarena.com Friday morning:

“First I would like to congratulate Steve Ballmer on his apparent successful bid for the Los Angeles Clippers. Steve’s passion for basketball and commitment to the NBA will make him a great owner and strong asset for the league.

“I would also like to assure Seattle fans that my remaining partners and I remain committed to bringing the NBA back to Seattle. The environmental review process for the Seattle Arena is nearing completion and we will soon be in a strong position to attract a franchise back to the Emerald City.”

Yet even if Hansen is still committed, you have to wonder what Ballmer’s decision to go all-in on the Clippers means for Seattle’s hopes. Even if you assume for a moment that Hansen’s ownership group is just as attractive to the NBA and as financially viable as it was without Ballmer, which is a pretty big assumption, what are we to take from Ballmer’s decision to give up on the idea of owning a team in Seattle? Ballmer certainly has been in contact with the NBA officials, and if he had any inkling that Seattle had a good chance at landing a team in the next few years before the current memorandum of understanding between Hansen and the city of Seattle on a proposed SoDo arena expires, why would Ballmer pay $2 billion for a franchise in another city rather than bring one to Seattle for substantially less money? Ultimately Seattle could very well get a team back, but Ballmer’s willingness to move on from that goal makes it seem like that isn’t happening anytime soon.

Oh, and just because it’s bound to come up again and again, Ballmer isn’t doing this so he can move the Clippers to Seattle. He just isn’t, so don’t put your hopes in that scenario. The Clippers probably aren’t worth $2 billion anywhere, but they’re definitely worth a substantial amount more in L.A. than in Seattle. Ballmer also said in a statement Friday: “I love basketball. And I intend to do everything in my power to ensure that the Clippers continue to win — and win big — in Los Angeles. L.A. is one of the world’s great cities — a city that embraces inclusiveness, in exactly the same way that the NBA and I embrace inclusiveness. I am confident that the Clippers will in the coming years become an even bigger part of the community.”

But wait, you might be thinking, haven’t we heard this before? New owner, who in the past has made an effort to bring the NBA to his city, buys a team elsewhere, saying it’s his plan to keep it there. Then, despite the fact that it doesn’t make a lot of business sense, said owner moves his newly purchased team to a smaller market.

Well yes, that is what happened with the Sonics, but there are a couple of reasons it won’t happen with the Clippers. For starters, while going from Seattle to Oklahoma City was a step down in market size, going from L.A. to any city other than New York would be on a whole different level of bad business decisions. And even if Ballmer were thinking, “to heck with the money, I can take a financial hit to bring hoops back to Seattle and become a hero,” the NBA would never let it happen. Owners approved the Sonics move because KeyArena wasn’t up to the league’s standards for modern arenas, and an agreement couldn’t be reached to build a new one. And while that step down in TV market size may not have been great for the NBA, sending the “build us an arena or we’ll move your team” message to other cities did benefit the league — just ask Sacramento. The Staples Center, which is home to the Clippers and Lakers, doesn’t present the same issues that KeyArena did, and even if it did, a league on the verge of negotiating a new TV rights deal isn’t about to let a team leave the second largest market in the country.

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