LOS ANGELES -- When Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers last August for a record $2 billion, he was quickly inundated with emails and letters from fans suggesting changes to everything from the team name and logo to the city it calls home.
But despite becoming the owner, he was unable to change much because the start of training camp for the 2014-15 season was just two months away.
“It was too late to do anything,” Ballmer told ESPN.com Thursday. “I didn’t realize as much as I do now what the real NBA calendar is. Just in terms of printing things like T-shirts and merchandise, we were barely able to get it done this year for this launch, meaning we would have had to wait a whole other year, which would have been crazy. There’s such long a lead time in terms of changing the floor, the uniforms, getting league approval and getting merchandise to the NBA store. So we took our first shot, let me just put it that way.”
Ballmer, however, didn’t begin the process of trying to rebrand the team and pick a new logo until he hired Gillian Zucker as the team’s president of business operations in November.
“I didn’t start anything until Gillian started,” Ballmer said. “The first thing I wanted to do was get someone in the job. I’m not going to do this on my own."
Some professional sports teams take two years to work on rebranding, but Ballmer said he felt the need to introduce change before this season, ahead of the one-year anniversary of his purchase of the team. He also said he briefly considered changing the team name before ultimately deciding to keep it.
“I think the name has actually developed value,” Ballmer said. “It’s a name that stands for a team overcoming difficulty. I kind of like that. Overcoming difficulty is not a bad thing. So I didn’t want to change the name. I was kind of hard-core about that in my thinking, but I did want to signal a new day, a new age and a new generation. So we said let's keep the colors, keep the name and change everything else.”
"Many people really don't like change in this world, they really don't. [...] The overwhelming sentiment from the people who communicated with me initially was 'change.' I'm glad we did what we did and I don't expect to do it every year." Steve Ballmer
Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, has been a part of several brand launches that have elicited mixed feedback from consumers. He was well-aware of the backlash that the new logo received on social media Wednesday and Thursday.
“Many people really don’t like change in this world, they really don’t,” Ballmer said. “If we changed the user interface on a software product, people didn’t like it. Some people do, but the people that are set and comfortable don’t like it. I know when newspapers change their formats, it takes getting used to, and this will take some getting used to for people who really liked where we were. The overwhelming sentiment from the people who communicated with me initially was 'change.' I’m glad we did what we did and I don’t expect to do it every year.”
To introduce their new logo and new uniforms, the Clippers embarked Thursday on an aggressive citywide launch that saw Ballmer, coach Doc Rivers and several current and former Clippers scattered throughout 32 different locations in Southern California. Ballmer handed out shirts and cupcakes at Sprinkle’s in downtown Los Angeles, while Rivers handed out hot dogs and shirts at Pink’s in Hollywood.
Ballmer said it was important to make the launch distinctly Los Angeles. He also put to rest the notion that he might one day move the team to Seattle, where he lives, after a failed attempt to purchase and move the Sacramento Kings there two years ago.
“It was important because I know I bought a team in L.A. that will be in L.A. forever,” Ballmer said. “I know a lot of people say, ‘Hey, the guy doesn’t live here, and what’s that all about?’ But the Clippers will always be in L.A. Hey, let’s face it, for most of our history we’ve been the No. 2 team in L.A., but we embrace this place and we’re as fired about it and care as much about it as anybody else around.
“We’re here. We’ll always be here. I don’t even think about it. I’ve never thought about it. I was quite clear when we were bidding on Sacramento, the group that I was with, we were moving the team to Seattle. But when I bought a team in L.A. there was no question in my mind that was a team for L.A. I like L.A. It’s a place I like to come visit. It’s a wonderful place. While my family will stay living where we’re living, that doesn’t mean this isn’t a great place to get away for business and watch games and do all that. It’s a great place. The value of the team is highly dependent on it being here in L.A. If you move a team anywhere else, it’s not the same. Atlanta just sold for $850 million. That’s not what I paid for L.A.”
Ballmer said he also doesn’t have any plans to change the current structure of the basketball department, in which Rivers is not only the head coach but also the president of basketball operations. Rivers essentially promoted himself into his current position last year before Ballmer bought the team and made longtime friend Dave Wohl the general manager and longtime assistant coach Kevin Eastman the vice president of basketball operations. It’s a setup Ballmer is fine with after giving Rivers a five-year contract worth over $50 million last August.
“That situation was in place when I got here and I think it can be very effective,” Ballmer said. “It has worked pretty well in San Antonio, where Gregg Popovich has dual responsibility as well. When I bought the Clippers, one of my neighbors decided to give me some advice. It was [Seattle Seahawks coach] Pete Carroll. He said, ‘Structure things however you want to, but make sure you know who you’re holding accountable for the sports franchise, and then either back him or fire him.’ That’s just his view. When he came to the Seahawks, and even though they have split general manager and coach situation, he made sure [owner] Paul Allen gave him enough authority that he could be held accountable for football and his success in Seattle, and we want to do the same thing here.”