Why the Lakers Own Los Angeles
How Magic Johnson, Courtside Seats, Studio Lots, Free Tacos and 'The White Shadow' Built a Sports Empire
By HANNAH KARP, Online.wsj.com
Say what you will about the Dodgers or the USC football team, but when it comes to sports, Los Angeles is a one-team town. And that team is undeniably the Lakers.
Tickets for the team, which cost an average of $93.25, are the most expensive in the NBA, and the season-ticket renewal rate hovers close to 98%. This season, according to the Nielsen Co., some 267,000 Los Angeles households tuned in to the average Lakers game, 67% more than the Dodgers on KCAL in 2008 and nearly three times the local audience for college football.
As the playoffs heat up, celebrities ranging from Denzel Washington to Leonardo DiCaprio will fill the courtside seats at the Staples Center, and Lakers merchandise will continue to outsell that of any other NBA team. According to one Los Angeles insurance company, at least 350 pets in the city have been named after Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
The unquestioned primacy of the Lakers in Los Angeles seems rooted in a chain of events that began in 1979, when Earvin "Magic" Johnson arrived and Jerry Buss bought the team. The team's popularity was spurred by a deliberate and highly successful attempt to woo celebrities to games, the departure of the city's last NFL team in 1995 and sustained attempts to reach out to fans who can't afford to buy tickets.
Fans, basketball executives and even sociologists say there are other, less-visible factors at work. These include the proliferation of outdoor basketball courts at private homes and on Hollywood's studio lots, the unusual concentration of high school, college and pro teams here, and the little-known fact that many Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles come from Oaxaca, the most basketball-crazy region in all of Mexico. Jeanie Buss, the daughter of the Lakers owner, says the sport owes some of its cultural resonance to the basketball-themed TV show "The White Shadow," which ran on CBS from 1978 to 1981, and revolved around a retired NBA player coaching basketball at a high school in South Central Los Angeles. "It was the bomb," she says.
The team's domination of the Southern California sports market began in earnest when the charismatic Mr. Johnson arrived in 1979 and soon led the Lakers to their second championship since the team moved from Minneapolis in 1960. That same year, Dr. Buss, who bought the team with money he earned investing in apartment buildings as a graduate student, made himself a fixture at the hottest nightclubs, building his own star power and giving away tickets to actors, actresses and other beautiful people he knew would draw crowds, regardless of the team's performance. In the 1980s under head coach Pat Riley, the Lakers appeared in the NBA Finals eight times and won five titles.
After the team's attendance slumped in the early 90s, Hollywood provided a rebound. Hoping to increase revenue, the NBA sent two executives to Los Angeles to coordinate product placement, ink movie deals and build relationships with studios. Shane Duffy, then the NBA's director of entertainment marketing, began inviting directors, producers, writers and actors like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler to join a private, invitation-only league officiated by NBA referees now known as the "E league," where they could play with each other and sometimes NBA greats. They were also given prime seats at nationally televised Lakers games.
Meanwhile, pickup games became standard on studio lots. When producer Peter Guber took over as chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 1989, he sold his four floor seats to the company and spent about $2,000 installing a double basketball court on the Culver City lot so he could play with his employees at lunchtime. "It's a good team sport that built camaraderie," he says. Basketball courts have also become status symbols for wealthy homeowners. Nearly 500 courts are installed in private homes in the Los Angeles area every year, according to court maker Rhino Sports Dream Courts, at about $15,000 each.
The city's Latino community has always supported the team -- especially the portion that hails from Oaxaca in Mexico, where the rugged terrain makes soccer harder to play. The team also sponsors "Noche Latina" nights, free taco promotions and giant parties like "Fiesta Lakers" at the LA Convention Center that draw 50,000 fans to see performances by the Laker Girls, several Latino musical acts and cameos by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Scott Brooks, a sociology professor at University of California Riverside says the city's basketball affinity is fed by the fact that local kids can, at least in theory, grow and play continuously from high school through college and the pros. The city has two NBA teams and seven Division I colleges, including UCLA (a school that has won a record 11 NCAA championships).
Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar says he owes his spot on the team largely to his Los Angeles upbringing. As a child he went to five Lakers games a year. He developed a "little following" as a player in high school, he says, then solidified it as a starting point guard at UCLA. At a recent game, Mr. Farmar says Jack Nicholson agreed to attend his first charity golf tournament this summer. "It's cool to see people I'm fans of now be fans of mine," says Mr. Farmar. "Being a Laker definitely helps."
The Lakers' exalted place in Tinseltown isn't assured. The Dodgers haven't won the World Series since 1988, and there's always a chance an NFL team will return to town to siphon off fans.
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But the team creates a fervor that's rare in sports -- and especially rare in a town that seems blasé about nearly everything besides movie scripts and five-calorie frozen yogurt.
Brian Iannessa, a 39-year-old Lakers fan in Brea, Calif., isn't unusual. He owns a Lakers cellphone, wears Pau Gasol's jersey when he watches games and dry cleans his Lakers T-shirts. He has a Lakers DVD of the team's last championship that he watches when the team isn't playing. "I feel as if I'm actually a stakeholder in the organization," he says.