Will It Take a $2 Billion Arena to Get Los Angeles to Care About The Clippers?

Cityside Column: Intuit Dome reaches a construction milestone, and Steve Ballmer talks up clocks and urinals

Sports team owners rarely grow excited by restroom facilities, but on Tuesday afternoon, Steve Ballmer could not contain himself. As he stood on a dirt surface that in 18 months will be the home floor of his Los Angeles Clippers, he ticked off things that will separate the upcoming Intuit Dome from other arenas.

“Toilets!” shouted the former Microsoft CEO. The arena, he enthused, will have “1,160 toilets and urinals—three times the NBA average number of toilets and urinals. We do not want people waiting in line! We want them to get back to their damn seats at the end of the half.”

When he appears in public, Ballmer only operates in one mode—full throttle. This was the case in August 2014, after he spent $2 billion to buy the basketball team from the odious Donald Sterling, and had a welcome event at what was then Staples Center. Ballmer juiced the crowd that day, yelling things like “Boom!” and “We’re going to be HARDCORE! HARDCORE! HARDCORE!!!!”

He was just as enthusiastic in Inglewood on Tuesday, where a couple hundred people, including the Clippers players, coaches and staff, gathered for a “topping out” ceremony, with a steel beam lifted by crane to the top of the venue next to SoFi Stadium.

Ballmer has turned around the franchise that was once the laughingstock of the NBA, investing in technology and support personnel, and paying top dollar for stars. Now he is spending another $2 billion, this time to construct a 17,500-seat complex that will take the Clippers out of Downtown L.A. What today is Crypto.com Arena has housed the team since 1999, but there have been drawbacks—the Clippers are tenants in the building, and get the third choice of dates after the Lakers and hockey’s Kings, which lead to things like numerous Sunday 1 p.m. tipoffs when the energy in the building resembles that at Forest Lawn. A shift to Inglewood on Ballmer’s dime—or dime with a bunch of zeros—gives them a lot more flexibility and a lot more Saturday night home games.

LAMag/Jon Regardie

Ballmer, who noted that he was bashing through his allotted five minutes, could not stop gushing. Before leading the players on a personal tour of the building, he talked about a one-acre scoreboard that he asserted will be five times larger than that of any other NBA team. He described the five basketball courts onsite, including two for practice and an outdoor space in a giant plaza. He touted a design that brings the seating closer to the court than in other arenas, something possible because there is no covered ice for hockey. Intuit will also host concerts.

There will be more legroom and more headroom, Ballmer harrumphed, and a section behind one basket known as “The Wall,” with 51 uninterrupted rows, including a standing area, designed to be exceedingly loud.

And don’t forget the clocks.

“We have 199 clocks in here that will just count down every break, before the game, quarter breaks, halftime breaks,” Ballmer exploded. “Just like boom! Boom! Boom! Get back in your goddamn seat!”

The technology stands to be next-level, which is fitting for a tech guy. I’m part of a group that has been buying Clippers season seats for about 15 years, and a few days ago our Intuit Dome ticket rep described concessions where you will grab what you want and are automatically charged. It has been reported that the arena will be cashless (as Crypto now is). Each seat will have a phone charger. Ballmer described chips and lights in the seats, and a “little joystick, almost controller.”

If the end result comes even close to what is described, then the Intuit Dome will be spectacular. But there is one giant question: Will Los Angeles care?

It’s a valid ask, because even long-suffering Clippers fans like me understand that Los Angeles is a Lakers town. The Clippers have been the better-playing and better-run franchise for about 10 years, but they remain the “other” team. Even if Ballmer and his business office have made savvy moves such as paying to upgrade all courts at city parks and branding them with Clippers logos, L.A. basketball belongs to the purple and gold. Heck, the second most popular team might be UCLA.

There is sometimes a bizarre sort of hatred for the Clippers. There have been Dodger games where a Clippers player is shown on the Jumbotron in the stands and the crowd boos. Go to any Clippers game and there is a chance that enough fans of the opposing team will show up to loudly chant something like “Let’s go Heat!” (which I experienced this season when Miami came to town). It’s enough of a problem that Ballmer promised seats in The Wall will only go to Clippers fans, with details on how that happens to be revealed later.

To be fair, the Clippers have missed opportunities to gain ground and market share, particularly over the last decade, when aside from a title in the COVID season, the Lakers mostly sucked. The Clippers have a history of playoff choke jobs, and the potential ignited four years ago when the crafty front office secured stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has been highlighted by a single appearance in the Western Conference finals—where Leonard was injured and the team lost.

The current season is beyond frustrating. Intuit reps are trying to sell ticket packages when the team with massive payroll sports a meh 34-33 record, and recently lost five in a row, falling to weak squads they should beat. Making matters worse, the franchise treats the regular season like it doesn’t matter, frequently “resting” one or both stars. This makes many fans—my group included—question the value received for the sums spent.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that Ballmer is playing the long game. He understands that the Lakers, under the late Dr. Jerry Buss, had the decades-long advantage that comes with competent ownership. Winning a title would help the Clippers make headway, but other steps are required.

That brings everything back to the Intuit Dome, and the astronomical sums Ballmer is pumping into the building. For the Clippers to win over Los Angeles, they need not just a relevant roster, but their own culture and their own experience.

A key to that is their own home, and as Ballmer recognizes, not having to miss some of the game while waiting in line to pee.

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