Steve Ballmer, Stadium Wars, and the Battle for Los Angeles Basketball
Last Friday, I got a chance to tour the $5 billion SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the future home of the LA Rams and Chargers. Upon driving up to the facility, I immediately marveled at the sheer beauty, grace, and magnificence of this otherworldly structure. All I have to say is holy crap. In my travels, I have been to the Roman Colosseum, the Egyptian Pyramids and, well… Candlestick Park, so larger than life structures are no strange thing to me… but this place was unimaginable. It is Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s gift to us from the future.
What does this have to do with basketball? Well, the SoFi was erected next to the Forum, once the grandiose palace of the ‘80s Showtime Lakers, where the ball was in their court nightly and celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon cheered on Magic Johnson and company as they dominated the decade in Inglewood. However, in comparison to the SoFi today? The Forum suddenly resembles a rundown version of my old high school gymnasium. If SoFi Stadium is the future of live events, with its interactive social media screens, 2-million-pound aerial scoreboard, high tech wifi and streaming capabilities, luxury boxes that run $800k/year, and “no bad seat in the house” engineering, what Steve Ballmer is about to build for the Clippers just yards away from the Forum will CHANGE THE GAME OF BASKETBALL FOREVER.
The Competitive World of NBA Arenas
In today’s zillion-dollar NBA, the world of high tech and beautiful basketball stadiums is at an all-time competitive high. The most expensive stadium in rotation right now is the Chase Center in San Francisco ($1.4 billion). Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which cost an apparent $1 billion to build in 2012, is nearly double the price of the third most expensive stadium, Orlando’s Amway Center, which was built in 2010. All three of these arenas are state-of-the-art and include luxury suites, exclusive clubs, and million-dollar scoreboards. But in this writer’s opinion, what Steve Ballmer is about to build for the Clippers will become an international attraction for the next 100 years.
An average arena gets about 20-25 years of operation these days before they have to update it with the ever-changing world of technology and how we digest the game on an everyday basis. Compare that to the days of the Boston Garden, which opened in 1928 and was in operation until the mid-'90s... I guess they don’t build them like they used to.
A stadium built back in the ‘90s ages like dog years these days. And if a legendary arena is deemed the “Basketball Mecca” like New York’s Madison Square Garden, you can expect a $300 million upgrade every 7-10 years. These upgrades help some stadiums stay in step with the more modern arenas of the time but having sat in MSG, in a seat that was made for a man half my size, you have to guess that a new Knicks arena may finally have to be built soon.
Steve Ballmer’s Big Bet
The Staples Center
The Inglewood Basketball and Entertainment Center will begin breaking ground sometime later this year and will open in 2024, the year the Clippers contract with the Staples Center concludes. That means, the Staples Center will be a Lakers location only (for one year, anyway) and will soon begin to resemble all of the out-of-touch basketball arenas of yesterday. (RIP LA Sports Arena). As a longtime LA resident, I have to ask, how is that possible? Bottom line is, the Staples Center is 22 years old this year. 22! It still seems like the most incredible structure I had ever seen back in 1999. Its opening re-invented downtown Los Angeles, changed the way people experienced a basketball game, and turned the entire neighborhood into a foodie paradise and basketball wonderland.
I spent the majority of my 20s and 30s at Staples, watching every basketball game I could get a ticket to, going to the nightclub, getting sushi beforehand, and some random bar afterward for post-game drinks. It was a far cry from the Inglewood days of the Forum, where most fans drove in and raced to get the hell out of the dangerous neighborhood as quickly as they could. The L.A. Live-Staples Center renaissance changed the way you experienced an NBA game.
But now, here comes Steve Ballmer’s baby. There has been substantial drama in Los Angeles around this structure for a long time. Ballmer had originally suggested building his dream multi-use stadium next to the Forum, which still hosts live music and is owned by MSG, but this idea was protested by everyone from Angelenos to Irving Azoff, who tried to lure the Lakers back to their home once their Staples Center residence expires in 2025.
In true “rich guy always wins” fashion, Ballmer plopped down $400 million for the Forum instead and promised that it could still host live music venues and employ its current workers, etc. The question remains, however: Why would any band want to play the Forum over the Inglewood? Have you been to a concert at the Forum recently? It’s like sitting in a tin can with AirPods in. My guess is that once Inglewood is built, the Forum is demolished within the decade.
The Impact on the Fans
The problem with these billion-dollar arenas is that fans should soon expect to spend close to $250-$300 to attend an NBA game after this. Gone are the days of the $6.00 “nosebleed seats” of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Nowadays, to get your $30-million superstar, these teams have to make that money back in one way or another, and many of these arenas like to put it on the fans. $17.00 Bud Lights? Get in line, pal. $14.00 hot dog? You’ll need two if you don’t want to leave the game hungry. You want LeBron in a Lakers uniform? Be prepared to pay for it yourself.
Evolve or Die
For decades, teams built one stadium and stayed in it forever. The Boston Garden was as ubiquitous as it gets when I was a kid in the 1980s. Then came the sponsorship names, the protesting of new arenas, the SkyDome, and eventually, like any home or structure, there will be a time to tear the old stadium down. The Houston Astrodome was once declared “The Eighth Wonder of the World." Now it sits empty and occasionally houses displaced folks during natural disasters. Even the original Yankee Stadium had to be shuttered and resides in the shadow of its newer, shinier stadium. These old arenas begin to resemble the old girlfriend you traded in for the younger, better-looking model, staring at you with disdain and contempt from across the street as your new baby is paraded for the fans to see.
Even if you love your current stadium, it has a shelf life. And what they are about to build in Inglewood will turn the Staples Center into an obsolete out-of-touch monstrosity in a part of Los Angeles that was hit so hard by COVID-19 that I’d be surprised if it ever comes back.
Will Fans Make the Jump to Inglewood?
If you think about what purpose a state-of-the-art facility serves, it really doesn’t matter much to the game, per se. But to the fans, it becomes a visceral experience. Following these COVID days, where arenas are still only at 20 percent capacity, the world won’t be ready for the outrageous demands for tickets, live music, games, and entertainment. So the experience of a $300 NBA game, which may last two hours tops, will seem like a steal. Hence, why Ballmer is building parks, outdoor basketball courts and fan experiences around the new arena. Inglewood is finally getting the glow-up it deserves... The only question is, will LA fans travel that far to watch games? The Staples Center is an easy metro ride or Uber to downtown. Inglewood is a different story.
But, as they said in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come." After touring SoFi, I verbally committed to becoming a Rams or Chargers fan within the next few years. The same will happen to the Clippers fans. They won’t want to miss out on so much fun, interaction, and experience in the ‘Wood. My guess is that there will be more LA Clippers fans in Los Angeles by 2026 than Lakers fans unless the Buss family decides that they want to break ground on the new Lakers stadium before they leave Staples in 2025.
Looks like the ball is in the Lakers’ court once again…