Back in the 1980s and early '90s, a trope emerged in science fiction featuring West Coast tech moguls who had morphed into a weird new dynastic ruling class. The digital robber barons merged their billions with their technical knowhow in pursuit of gee whiz neato stuff like transhuman cyborg life extension. It was a fun thought experiment. Carnegie built libraries with his cash. What were the geek billionaires going to do?
I can't recall anyone suggesting that they would spend their billions buying up NBA teams. Talk about your cyberpunk letdowns.
Out here in the West, four out of five NBA teams are now owned (or will soon be owned) by techies. Paul Allen got the ball rolling way back in 1988 when he purchased the Portland Trailblazers. Much more recently, Joe Lacob, a partner with the Silicon Valley venture capital colossus Kleiner-Perkins, bought the Golden State Warriors. In 2013, Vivek Ranadive, who made his millions as founder and CEO of the "real-time computing" company Tibco, bought the Sacramento Kings. And now, fresh off the wires, here's Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, laying down an eye-popping $2 billion to purchase the L.A. Clippers and cleanse the NBA of Donald Sterling's stench.
Only the Lakers remain free of the ascendant digerati! And the Lakers are one heck of an unholy mess of a franchise right now. Doesn't it make sense that the third member of Microsoft's original power-triumvirate, Bill Gates, should throw his nerd-hat into the ring? Let's get some real spice in the L.A. NBA basketball rivalry!
The tech invasion isn't confined to the West Coast, of course. Mark Cuban, who made his billions by selling the streaming sports start-up Broadcast.com to Yahoo, owns the Dallas Mavericks. Ted Leonsis (formerly of AOL) owns the Washington Wizards. Dan Gilbert (co-founder of Quicken Loans) owns the Cleveland Cavaliers. Robert Pera (Ubiquiti Networks) owns the Memphis Grizzlies.
The significance of rich white geeks turning a league that is 70 percent African-American into their personal playground is the stuff that future cultural studies dissertations will be made of. Naturally, the new owners are fans of applying advanced sports analytics number crunching to the management of their teams, a development that has created a disturbing new racial divide in the coaching ranks. Want to understand why NBA teams keep hiring white coaches with no NBA experience? Part of the answer has to be that white geek owners want geeky coaches who look and think just like them.
OK, so we knew the geeks would take over the earth. We didn't know that one of their first major beachheads would be the NBA. But it's worth watching. The cultural and political influence of this generation of tech billionaires is only just beginning to gain traction. Beware! When the Lakers finally succumb to the inevitable, it might be too late for the rest of us.