As a guy who grew up just outside of Los Angeles but has spent most of his adult life living in New York and Washington, I can tell you that when it comes to sports, non-Californians think about the Lakers first, the Dodgers second, the lack of a NFL team third and the probably the Angels, Clippers and Kings in no particular order. That is all about to change though.
December 2011 is now poised to be the month that changed the pro sports landscape of the nation’s second-largest media market forever.
First, the Angels shocked the world by signing a Albert Pujols, arguably the greatest hitter of our generation.
Less than a week later, the red-headed stepchild of LA teams, the LA Clippers managed to swing a trade for Chris Paul, arguably the greatest point guard of our generation, a trade that the mighty Lakers couldn’t pull off (no thanks to interference from the NBA league office).
Those two events combined, probably for the first time in my 30 years on this planet, to make the Angels better and more relevant than that Dodgers and the Clippers better and more relevant than the Lakers.
If you think this is going to be a one-year abberration, you might want to think again as the pieces have fallen perfectly into place for both teams to steal the big, big spotlight for a long, long time.
As a guy who treated the Clippers as an easy punchline my whole life, I can barely believe I just wrote that last sentence, but that doesn’t make it not true. Thanks to the small-market owner whinefest that the recent NBA lockout proved to be, the whole landscape of the NBA has changed. As non-sensical as it might seem, the Association seems deadset on cutting the legs out from under one of the most famous and legendary franchises in any sport, the Lakers. How else do you explain them putting the kibosh on the perfectly fair trade that would’ve landed CP3 in the purple and gold? That wasn’t just a one-time screwjob either. Preventing the Lakers from getting Paul prevented them from making over their roster, something that is now much harder for the Lakers than it used to be thanks to the new CBA restrictions. The Lakers have been made an example of, if they want to rebuild their aging roster and imploding locker room chemistry, they are going to have to do it the hard way and rebuild like all the other teams.
The Clippers though, after years of irrelevancy, have turned themselves into one of the most talented, exciting and likable teams in years. Blake Griffin throwing down dunks that don’t seem humanly possible. Chris Paul carving up the lane and dishing assists with both grace and flash. Those two are going to combine to eat up highlight reel time on SportsCenter on a nightly basis. And, best of all, they are young. They’ll be the team the cool kids start to like this season and for seasons to come because their stars are young. All the Clips need is their detestable owner, Donald Sterling, to do is keep signing the paychecks and stay out of the press.
Meanwhile, Kobe’s body will continue to deteriorate while his frustration will force his bad attitude out again, alienating fans like he did when he helped push Shaq out the door. Normally, Laker management has proven to be smart enough to pull them out of a tailspin like this, but the new more strict luxury tax system and revenue sharing structure will make it very difficult for them to buy their way out of trouble. And the smart, savvy leadership of their beloved long-time owner, Jerry Buss, might not be available either. Dr. Buss’ age and health is starting to make it hard for him to be involved as he used to be, which has already led to his children fighting like, well, spoiled rich kids over control of the franchise, which isn’t usually the most conducive environment for smart team-building.
As for the Angels, their ascension to the top of the LA baseball market has already begun even before the Pujols acquisition. LA baseball lovers have been watching the Dodgers shoot themselves in the foot for years now. It all started with the catastrophic McCourt ownership. I’ll save you the sordid details of that whole mess, but rest assured that money was embezzled, extramarital affairs were had and rosters were horribly mismanaged. That entire mess came to a head this season with the McCourts filing for divorce, the Dodgers filing for bankruptcy and a fan getting beaten into a coma in the Dodger Stadium parking lot. The once proud Dodgers have somehow quickly devolved into the world’s most depressing soap opera and it is keeping the fans away in droves, with Dodger Stadium attendance dipping under the 3 million mark for the first time in several years.
Oh, and it isn’t over yet. Frank McCourt’s insistence on milking every last cent out of the franchise has him stuck in court as he tries to convince the court to let him illegally sell of the team’s TV rights in a thinly veiled attempt to pocket that TV money to pay off his divorce settlement and debtors. The sad part is that it will probably happen since Bud Selig has agreed to turn his back on the TV contract issue in exchange for McCourt agreeing to auction off the Dodgers some time in 2012. That is at least a ray of hope for Dodger fans, but they are so shellshocked by the last few years, they won’t celebrate until the new owner actually takes possession.
But instead of sitting around and watching the Dodgers sign washed up veterans to multi-year deals like they’ve been doing so far this off-season, those Dodger fans are almost being teased by what the Halos are doing. Owner Arte Moreno, one of the most fan-friendly owners in sports (Don’t believe me? Check the beer prices at Angel Stadium since Moreno bought the team), did the most anti-McCourt thing he could do by opening his own wallet to land big ticket free agents Pujols and C.J. Wilson. And you know what? Arte won’t even do the trendy LA thing to do after bringing in big name additions, raising ticket prices. Nope, Moreno cares about two things: winning and the fans. And the fans are going to love all the winning the Angels are going to do over the next several years, especially now that the Angels have their own rich, new TV deal that will allow them to maintain a top five payroll for the next twenty years.
By the time the new Dodger owner takes control of the team and gets that foreclosed house in order, there is a chance that the Angels will have held a championship parade or two down Katella Avenue. With as fickle as LA fans can be, fans that have been Thinking Blue all these years will start bleeding red. Some will call that bandwagoning, others will call it loving a winner. Winners like the Angels have been much more of than the Dodgers this entire century. Winners like the Clippers are poised to be more of than the Lakers over the next decade.