What is it with Microsoft founders gobbling up sports franchises? I don't get the attraction. Is it the ultraluxury private box and the ability to lord it over the guys who used to stuff them into high school lockers?
Paul Allen is, of course, the pioneer. No sooner had he adopted his Howard Hughes persona than he started gobbling up athletic organizations. He now owns or co-owns three teams in the Pacific Northwest, including the current Super Bowl champions. Behind the scenes he probably pulls the strings on everything from bare-knuckles shuffleboard to elementary-school NASCAR. I guess it's a viable hobby for a lonely multibillionaire, and it gives him plenty to watch on the 200-inch 16K TV mounted on the super-upper bridge of his mega-yacht/civilian aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, Bill Gates is importing an elite 3D chess team from his home planet.
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But my boy Steve Ballmer is taking it to an extreme. Two freaking billion dollars for the Los Angeles Clippers, a team currently valued at $300 million? This has to be a midlife me-too move to get him into Zuck, Larry, and Sergey's billionaire boys club. Maybe he got so ticked off when he couldn't get the Sacramento Kings, the Milwaukee Bucks, or the Minnesota Timberwolves that he wanted to make sure he couldn't be turned down this time. A $1.7 billion overvaluation will do that for you. (He hopes -- as I scrawl, this deal hasn't been formalized and offers yet more proof that Donald Sterling is bat-crap crazy if he even has to think about refusing a 15,900 percent return on his original investment.)
It also points to Ballmer's history of manic bouts of delirium. Up till now he's been working with gold-fingered investment high cleric Chris Hansen to bring a pro basketball team -- any team -- to Seattle. The two were working with the city to build a stadium downtown to house their jock collection, demanding $200 million in public funding to help with the $300 million-plus overall team/arena price tag. Otherwise, they said, the project wouldn't be "financially viable."
Let's review: The Big B wouldn't spend more than a split of $100 million last month and this month he slams down $2 billion of his own doubloons as though it'll magically restore hair to his head? That's classic contrarian behavior, like when he deep-sixed the Kin phone two hours after releasing it or when he wanted to call song-sharing between Zunes "squirting" (all true!). He's a couple o' chips shy of a rack server, and it's undoubtedly why the execs who were in his office the day he found out the truth about Vista are still in isolation therapy for PTSD.
It also indicates that he lacks any self-preservation instinct -- Ballmer blithely outbid Oprah, and everyone knows you do not cross the Omnipotent O. Even Larry Ellison starts to sweat when she walks in the room. That's coming back to roost, mark my words. I think those poor Clipper dippers are going from one nutso owner to another. Then again, at least this one isn't a closet clan wizard and might toss a bonus billion out of his solid-platinum box seat because he's feeling euphoric over the chef's smiley-face pancakes that morning.
But it makes you wonder what will happen to Microsoft now that someone with Zen-like emotional control is at the helm. We still don't know much about Satya Nadella, but he's never been known to skeet-shoot Android tablets or bite the heads off cute little Linux penguins. At least under Ballmer, Microsoft made inexplicable moves that occasionally panned out and accidentally kept it relevant. What's going to happen now that someone who doesn't suddenly froth at the mouth and fling his desk chair at your head is at the controls? It looks like that's up to both Microsoft and the Los Angeles Clippers to find out.
This article, "Meet the NBA's newest rookie: Steve Ballmer," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, follow Cringely on Twitter, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.