No More Sterlings: It's Time for Communities to Take Ownership of Their Sports Teams

May 2, 2014Alan Smith

Community-owned sports franchises can become institutions that truly reward the pride and devotion of their fans.

During game five of the Clippers-Warriors series earlier this week, basketball fans saw an impressive public outpouring of solidarity. The Clippers fans wore black, and stadium advertisements were covered in black as well. Fans chanted "We Are One" together during time outs. Countless signs read things like "this is our team" and "standing together against racism".

There has been a Wikipedia's worth (can we make that a measurement now?) of public condemnation of Donald Sterling and his horrible statements about race. People have penned endless debates about what we should do, and how we should feel, in the wake of a racist old man being shamed and then sanctioned by the NBA.

But now, two Clippers fans have given us a logical and clear plan to make the solidarity and "our team" sentiments into something real and tangible: by crowdsourcing $600 million and buying the team. They've got a platform, they've started the journey, and they're getting some good press.

Before you laugh or roll your eyes, let's think this through together. As it happens, I've been talking about this exact problem for years: as a sports nerd and social justice advocate, I've been looking at the ownership model of professional sports with an eye to how the Baltimore Orioles could be purchased and converted to a non-profit serving the city of Baltimore. That's why I can tell you that this makes sense, and that it can work. Sports teams can be community anchors, driving local economic development and giving back to the communities that support them with everything from ticket sales and merchandise to time, passion, and love.

Recently I've written a lot about anchor institutions, which I define as places that, due to infrastructure or mission, can't get up and leave. Traditionally, anchor institutions are things like universities, hospitals, or community foundations. Right now, sports stadiums fit that definition, but sports teams don't. The Staples Center isn't going anywhere, but the Clippers could skip town as soon as their lease runs up. But why shouldn't we expect more from these teams, given that they are already so much a part of our cultural fabric? The constant competition between cities to woo teams like the Sacramento Kings or the Milwaukee Bucks reminds me of other race-to-the-bottom development strategies, in which cities bend over backwards to incentivize businesses to move, only to pay out more in benefits than they recoup in taxes.

We've been told again and again that sports teams provide huge financial benefits to their cities, but that's not usually born out in the bottom line. Professional sports owners have been holding cities hostage, demanding millions and millions of dollars in taxpayer money for new stadiums and new perks to keep their team where they are, and causing millions and millions of tears when they pick up a team like the Seattle Supersonics and move them to Oklahoma City. And jobs that are connected to a stadium or franchise are often low-wage positions, like working the hot dog stand. The potential mobility of franchises keeps them from truly serving as the anchor institutions they can and should be. 

Imagine instead what could happen when an entity like the Clippers changes its focus. If the team is anchored to the community that it serves, it can help support local vendors for the food it serves and the merchandise it sells. It can have an honest and open discussion about stadiums and ticket sales, and find better ways to get a larger swath of the city to support the team. The final step of the plan is to take all the “profits” from the organization and give them back to the community – to charity groups or the public education system depending on how the owners collectively vote. This would reflect pride in our homes and communities -- the reasons we all support a sports team to begin with! 

What's more, this crazy plan to root a team in its community is not unprecedented. The Green Bay Packers are owned by a community foundation, and they have more league championships than any other team in the NFL. Many European soccer teams, including perennial best-team-on-earth contender Barcelona, are owned by the fans.

I'm not suggesting that the community-owned Clippers would be softer, or expect handouts. They'll still be trying to win the title, and still doing it against 29 other teams that are trying to out-brand, out-compete, and out-pay their players. Chris Paul will still be the best point guard in the game, and want to be paid as such. They will still need to scout, game plan, and work the salary cap. But instead of doing that to benefit one person, why not do it to benefit the community that supports the team? 

Game seven is this weekend. For the Clippers, it's win or go home. A win, and they are still on track – and in a month they could not only be NBA champions, but also a team owned by the very people who will be dancing in the streets and celebrating their victory. And you don't need Donald Sterling money to be a part of that community -- with a just a small donation, you can channel all that outrage into making something positive happen.

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

Images via Thinkstock

Share This