Forum: Clippers will own their home and their narrative

Imagine 18,000 fans offering the kinetic energy of Steve Ballmer throughout a game. Doesn’t seem possible, right? Well, that’s the goal of the Los Angeles Clippers, and it’s the vision behind the design of their privately financed, $1.8 billion arena in Inglewood. Yes, the Clippers will finally own their home — their first in the team’s 37-year history in Los Angeles — and with the brains, bombast and bucks of Ballmer, it promises to be one of the more intriguing stories in sports business.

Ballmer envisions a venue unlike any other, a cacophony of energy and sound that would make it one of the most frenzied environments in all of sports, mirroring his own rabid behavior during games. “The goal of this arena is that we get 18,000 people to act like Steve Ballmer every night,” said Jason Green, Clippers chief ticketing officer, who stressed it was the foundation principle of the building’s design. The centerpiece of that is “The Wall” — 51 uninterrupted rows and 4,700 seats elevating up one of the baselines of the building, which Green calls “uninterrupted madness” which “can really be the heartbeat of the building.” That wall of sound will be complemented by a 400-person section where fans will stand along rails, mirroring a raucous college atmosphere. It’s all about fueling energy throughout the arena and putting fans on top of the action. 

The lower bowl also will feature three types of suite products: four courtside cabanas, 10 backstage bungalows and 46 traditional “halo” suites sitting atop the lower level. The Clippers have opened a preview center in downtown Los Angeles focused on selling their 60 suites, a modest number compared with the 172 at their current home, Staples Center. Remember, this is a privately financed building — some estimates now put the price at $2 billion — and Ballmer has already put in a significant investment buying land, fighting back lawsuits and buying The Forum for $400 million from Madison Square Garden.

But Ballmer and his team have already generated almost half the revenue to pay for that building and haven’t sold one suite or season ticket. In the span of about a week last month, the Clippers generated almost $1 billion in commercial revenue tied to the arena, which is set to open in 2024. Ballmer, team President Gillian Zucker and the Clippers’ sales agency, CAA Sports, marketed the building very effectively and had two seriously interested suitors for naming rights — Intuit and California-based financial technology company Aspiration Partners. In the end, sources told me that Ballmer felt more comfortable with Intuit’s brand strength and reach — its products include TurboTax, Credit Karma and QuickBooks — and signed a 23-year deal worth just over $550 million to call the building the Intuit Dome. But Aspiration Partners really wanted in, sources say, and just a few days after landing Intuit, the Clippers announced another 23-year deal worth nearly $400 million making Aspiration a founding partner in a deal that will eventually include the brand becoming the Clippers jersey sponsor in a few seasons. Add up those two deals and the Clippers landed nearly $950 million in commercial revenue, an impressive figure and almost half of the arena’s cost, with plenty of inventory and tickets left to sell. 

There is a lot to unpack here — the Clippers are forging their own identity as they move out of the Staples Center in three years for their own home. It also means a new high-profile venue in the nation’s second-largest, crowded market and a competitor for concerts and other events. The Clippers were the forgotten stepchild in sports and one of the lowest revenue teams in the NBA. But Ballmer thinks big, his vision is bold and he promises to change the sports experience. He’s fighting for fans and market share and it reminds me of the way the Brooklyn Nets looked to steal a share of voice from the Knicks in New York. Now, the Lakers are the ultimate uber-brand and I don’t see that changing. That team’s hold on Southern California is unique in sports. And the Staples Center will soon undergo a major upgrade and remain a marquee attraction at L.A. Live. A lot can happen in the three years before the Intuit Dome opens, and Ballmer is smart enough to plan out a new sports experience while awaiting changes in technology and consumer behavior. He and his team also know their financial risk, but landing close to $1 billion in one week certainly helps. It will also help to win.

Watch the Clippers closely. They are positioned to be among the top revenue clubs in the NBA when all is said and done. That’s their goal — along with having 18,000 fans screaming like Steve Ballmer during every home game at the Intuit Dome. 

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

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