California’s reputation as a supremely glamorous place was once so entrenched that even sports teams had to live up to the image. The “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s played a brand of basketball as Hollywood as the stars sitting courtside. The 49ers, led by quarterback Joe Montana, gave the violent game of football the elegance of the San Francisco Ballet.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so jarring that the most valuable sports franchise in California may be the Los Angeles Clippers, long known for mediocre-at-best basketball (and a racist owner). In agreeing to purchase the Clippers for a record $2 billion, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has caused no small amount of head-scratching over the economics of pro sports.
But sports is more than business – it’s culture. And Ballmer is making a cultural bet that a team known for losing may be a good fit for the California of tomorrow. As our state becomes a shabbier place, and too many of its people struggle economically, aren’t we more likely to root for struggling teams?
From our football allegiances to our food, Californians are embracing grit over glamour.
For more than a generation, we’ve been moving from higher-cost, sun-splashed coastal communities to cheaper, less beautiful places inland. We’ve flocked to food trucks and shunned white tablecloth cuisine. As operas from Sacramento to San Diego struggle to stay in business, we line up by the thousands for free park concerts like those given by the all-volunteer MoBand in Modesto.
Why are we choosing connection over aspiration? The answer lies in the economic blows delivered by the early 1990s recession and by the housing crisis and Great Recession of recent years. California, once the fifth largest economy in the world, has been overtaken by China and other rising nations. Home ownership has been declining, as has the percentage of people in the state labor force. When you account for our higher cost of living and the value of government assistance, California now has the country’s highest poverty rate – 24 percent.
But economic anxiety goes only so far in explaining why we’re no longer so interested in “Showtime” sports or Hollywood glamour. In L.A., it’s the bourgeois Bohemia of Venice, not the conspicuous wealth of Beverly Hills, that’s fashionable. Kids from the wealthy Peninsula suburbs are moving to Oakland and getting around on bikes. They are seeking authenticity, which to them is anything that feels old and has a modicum of texture.
In these times, everyone in California must keep it real, even those whose lives are unreal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, about whom I wrote a book, once told me he was “from the streets.” I couldn’t resist asking, “What street is that?
“Mandeville Canyon?” a road near his Brentwood mansion. For my impertinence, I got a Terminator stare and a history lesson in post-war Austrian poverty.
Such populism is more than just political; it’s practical. For all our wealth – we still lead the country in billionaires – California has failed to invest in its infrastructure. But that’s OK; we like gritty things, so we endlessly celebrate our old aqueducts and freeways and bridges as they decay. Such celebrations are cheap and we love cheap.
Gov. Jerry Brown is cruising to re-election on the virtues of being a budget miser. The main argument of his challenger, Neel Kashkari, is that Brown isn’t cheap enough.
The athletic landscape of this sports-mad state reflects the same shift. The emblematic California team today is baseball’s Oakland Athletics, who win without spending big on stars. In recent weeks, we’ve fallen in love with a cheaply bred horse, California Chrome, and an underdog hockey team, the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings.
This new California reality is most apparent when you listen to the young. Becky G, a 17 year old who might be the first rapper produced by the housing crisis, touts her family being forced out of their Inland Empire home and moving into her grandfather’s garage in Inglewood. In one hit song, she boasts: “I still get grounded, always stay grounded/Still do chores even when I’m on tour.”
Despite her growing success, Becky G often reminds us that she’s a “California girl.” When the Beach Boys sang of “California girls” they evoked endless summer. These days, “California girl” means: I’m working-class, and tough as hell.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.