No one is saying Steve Ballmer intends to move the Clippers to Seattle. Ballmer specifically said he won't. Still, it's certainly notable that the term sheet Ballmer signed when agreeing to purchase the team does not contain any language committing him to keep the team in Los Angeles.
That's among the revelations in the New York Times' behind-the-scenes look at the Clippers sale (which may or may not happen without Donald Sterling suing, depending on how he's feeling on any given day). It details the sitdown between Ballmer and Shelly Sterling ("who is this man Bomber from Washington?" she asked a friend), and the final bids:
Mrs. Sterling received three final offers, according to people involved in the process: $1.2 billion from the Hill group, $1.6 billion from the Geffen group, and $1.925 billion from Mr. Ballmer. (She had met with both Mr. Ballmer and members of the Hill group over separate dinners at the same restaurant, Nobu.)
By the next afternoon, Mrs. Sterling's team had settled on Mr. Ballmer. They pushed him to increase the offer to $2 billion, and he agreed, according to participants.
It also reveals that Shelly Sterling's camp wanted to complete the sale without having Donald Sterling declared mentally incapacitated, but kept it in reserve as a kind of secret weapon that even some of her advisors didn't know was on the table. When Sterling announced his intention to block the sale and hung up on a conference call, the Times says Shelly's attorney announced to the room, "Time to go to Plan B."
But I'm largely interested in this previously unreported detail of Ballmer's agreement to buy the team:
Despite Mr. Ballmer's assurances that the team would stay in Los Angeles, there was no clause in the term sheet that would bar him from moving it, according to people briefed on the discussions.
Contract language doesn't necessarily mean much. When Clay Bennett bought the Sonics, his deal required him to use "good faith best efforts" for 12 months to find a way to keep the team in Seattle. You know how that one turned out.
The NBA board of governors could require a commitment to Los Angeles before officially approving the sale, but that's not going to happen; the association knows there's nothing like the threat of relocation to squeeze arena subsidies out of its host cities. This is especially noteworthy for the only NBA team that doesn't have its own arena.
(It's all about taxpayer-funded arenas. Despite all the noise made about the Bucks' new owners pledge to keep the team in Milwaukee, their sale agreement contained a unique clause. If construction on a new arena isn't underway within three years, the franchise reverts to league ownership—and the no-relocation clause goes out the window. The NBA will never ever willingly forfeit its leverage.)
In an interview last month, before his play for the franchise was publicly revealed, Ballmer said, "If I get interested in the Clippers, it would be for Los Angeles." Words are nice. A contract would be better. Ballmer's ability to get the team without legally committing to staying is at the very least something to file away for future reference.