After watching and covering Steve Ballmer for the past decade at Microsoft, it has been fun to see him emerge as the next owner of the L.A. Clippers. Ballmer has clearly wanted to own an NBA team for many years — and look, there he is on Sportscenter!
No, leading a sports franchise won’t have the global impact of Bill Gates’ philanthropy, but this role seems perfect for Ballmer. He is a basketball fan through-and-through. His early morning games are legendary inside the company for testing the mettle of many a Microsoft manager. He led the company with the attitude and mindset of coach, general manager, owner and cheerleader, all wrapped into one.
But what type of NBA owner will Ballmer be? Sports and software are two very different games, but Ballmer’s tenure at Microsoft provides several clues and insights about how he’ll run the Clippers, and some of the traits he may need to overcome for success in the NBA.
He’s smart: Ballmer’s public image as the sweaty “Monkey Boy,” running around on stage and yelling about developers, is a genuine part of his personality. But it’s only part. Ballmer in person can be contemplative, thoughtful, and even intellectual.
You can question his business decisions, and Microsoft investors have done that for years, but this is a guy who majored in applied math at Harvard and outscored Gates in some key math and economics tests. He’s no buffoon.
It will be fascinating to see how he applies his intelligence and passion to the world of professional basketball.
He’s known to be a micro-manager: One of Ballmer’s biggest challenges, particularly as Microsoft grew over the past decade, was his tendency to make seemingly small decisions from the CEO’s office, on topics such as the nuances of the Windows interface, when he believed that the outcome was strategically important to the company.
The challenge with that approach is that the CEO of a giant company doesn’t have the detailed understanding that the troops on the ground have, which can lead to poor decisions with unintended consequences.
As Clippers owner, he’d be smart to follow the model of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who as Seahawks and Blazers owner has given his coaches and general managers free reign to do their thing. That hasn’t turned out too badly. In reality, Ballmer is likely to be much more involved in day-to-day Clippers operations, like serial entrepreneur Mark Cuban is with his Dallas Mavericks.
He spends big on acquisitions: Microsoft under Ballmer’s leadership bought Skype for $8.5 billion, Nokia’s smartphone business for $7.2 billion and attempted to buy Yahoo for $45 billion.
This a man who is not afraid to spend big, as evidenced by his $2 billion offer for the Clippers. It’s quite possible that he could follow the Miami Heat’s model of talent acquisition in an attempt to make the Clippers even more competitive.
Clippers fans just need to pray that he doesn’t end up with the NBA’s equivalent of the aQuantive deal.
He doesn’t give up: One of Ballmer’s best and worst characteristics is his complete dedication to seeing things through, and trying repeatedly to succeed even in the face of harsh reality. This was a huge point of pride for him at Microsoft, as products took longer than expected to get off the ground. He simply doesn’t give up, unless he’s forced to.
Exhibit A: Microsoft’s Xbox business, which cost the company many billions of dollars to build, but more than a decade later is a key strategic product for Microsoft in the living room — and still very controversial among the company’s shareholders.
“We’re all in” was one of his most common refrains at Microsoft, right up there with his willingness to “bet the company” on whatever initiative it happened to be pursuing.
So that’s a little Ballmer 101 for you. Hope it helps, Clippers fans. Seattle might be having a tough time with all of this, but it’s going to be fun to see SteveB cheering his new team from the sidelines.