Hard Lesson: In Sports, the Clientele Cares About One Thing … Winning

Joe Lacob, MBA ’83, looks back on the night he got booed into silence by his customers.

April 02, 2021

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Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob, left, speaks with former player Chris Mullin during a ceremony to retire his #17 jersey at halftime of a game between the Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves on March 19, 2012. Credit: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

On May 20, 2012, during a halftime ceremony at a Golden State Warriors basketball game, team owner Joe Lacob took the mic at center court to address the sold-out home crowd. That turned out to be a bad idea. | Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The worst moment of my career — and one of the most mortifying moments of my life — happened on May 20, 2012, when I stood at center court of Oracle Arena in Oakland, trying to talk to a sold-out crowd of 19,596 people, and got booed into silence.

Editor’s Note

As part of an ongoing series, Stanford Business magazine asks Stanford GSB alumni to write about one of their biggest business failures and what they learned from it.

Joe Lacob, MBA ’83, is the majority owner of the Golden State Warriors basketball team. In 2010, he led a group of investors who bought the team for $450 million. In January 2021, the sports business website Sportico calculated that the franchise was worth $5.2 billion.

I had bought the Golden State Warriors basketball team in 2010 with a group of investors. The team hadn’t won an NBA championship since 1975, and we were taking steps to turn around the franchise’s business side, as well as the makeup of the team itself. One of the big changes we’d made was to trade Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut. Ellis was a shooting guard who’d been one of the team’s best and most popular players, and Bogut was a center who had tremendous potential but was injured at the time, so he couldn’t play.

Fans were frustrated.

Just a few days after that trade, during a home game, we organized a half-time ceremony to retire the jersey of Chris Mullin, who’d been a legendary player for the Warriors in the ’80s and ’90s. A couple of people spoke to the crowd, and then Chris spoke, and then just before they unveiled the banner with his number on it, I took the microphone. I planned to say just one or two sentences, but I couldn’t even get started because the crowd began booing me for even stepping up there.

It was awful. I can’t tell you how awful. I’m up there, I can’t talk, the crowd is booing, I’m on national TV, and I look over at my wife, and she’s crying. I stayed up that whole night answering angry emails, something like 400 of them. And the next morning, with no sleep, I did an hour-long radio interview on one of the Bay Area’s most popular sports talk shows. I said, “Look, I understand. If I was in that audience, I would’ve booed me too.”

In the long run we were vindicated for the moves we’d made. Starting the next year, we were in the playoffs for seven years straight. We made the finals five times and won three NBA championships.

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This will sound strange, but I’ve wanted to own a sports team since I was a little kid, like nine years old. Some people want to play professional sports; I wanted to own a team.
Attribution
Joe Lacob

But the long-term impact of that night was huge for me, because it taught me that I’d had the wrong goal all along. This will sound strange, but I’ve wanted to own a sports team since I was a little kid, like nine years old. Some people want to play professional sports; I wanted to own a team. And I always imagined that I’d be popular if I did so. After that night, I decided that was not a realistic goal.

At the end of the day, the fans really care about one thing: Are you winning? So I focus on that. You do what it takes to win, even if that eats into your profits or makes you unpopular in the short term.

But the biggest thing I realized is that it’s important to enjoy the process. Because that’s what I enjoy: the building of a management team, the building of a business, working with people, and of course the passion for basketball itself. Things are not always going to go well, so it’s crucial to love the process. If you think you’re going to be popular because you’re the owner of a sports team, that’s not the right goal.

Looking back now, I’m actually glad that night happened. It’s funny: A lot of people who were there have come up to me over the years to talk about it, and every single one has said, “You know, I wasn’t one of the guys booing.” Not one person has admitted to booing me.

And I say, “Well, it sure sounded like 20,000 people at the time.”

— Told to Steve Hawk

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