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The Santa Cruz Warriors: Cultivating A Pro Basketball Culture In 'Surf City'

The Santa Cruz Warriors don't have an arena, a website, or even a door on their conference room (until last week). Yet they do have over 600 season ticket holders and a solid foundation for success.

Rendering courtesy of the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Among the first things that Santa Cruz Warriors general manager Kirk Lacob commented on after walking into the conference room and greeting me on Friday was the newly installed glass sliding door that separates the conference room from the lobby.

"We got a door!" Lacob said semi-jokingly after he got a moment to survey the room.

He had just returned from the Sports Analytics Innovation Summitt in San Francisco and hadn't been in the office for a few days. Still holding his assistant general manager position and an office in Oakland with the Golden State Warriors, he's used to making the long commute when he's not out of town scouting.

"I don't even know who closed it," quipped the PR manager in response to Lacob's observation, taking a short break from briefing me on the team's season ticket sales and arena construction.

Closing the door to the lobby didn't exactly make the space feel any less public. On the long rectangular table in the middle of the conference room were two large seating charts of the arena, with black marks around the seating map indicating where they had already sold season tickets. A similar diagram was affixed to the white board on a wall where staff members would come in and out of the room with prospective buyers and discuss what was available.

Inside the Santa Cruz Warriors' conference room.

And in the midst of a recession and without an arena built -- or even a door on the conference room until that week -- the most startling thing about this Santa Cruz team is that it has already sold over 660 season ticket packages as of today.

"I think we're third in the league in ticket sales right now," said Lacob, when asked about their rather remarkable sales record in an arena that does not even exist yet. "And we have not yet had one legitimate event. We have not had a single ad. We're not even officially moved here. As ridiculous as that sounds because you're sitting here and you just saw (the arena site), we are not an approved relocated team. We do not have a real website and yet we're still selling tickets. I think that's really cool."

Part of their early success in selling tickets is undoubtedly brand recognition: the blue awning with the familiar gold type face marking their office on the main strip downtown stands out prominently on a street with a range of boutique shops -- which a non-Californian friend who accompanied me to Santa Cruz called "hippie gift marts" -- cafes, and a community market promoting organic food. Lining the streets that afternoon were street performers of various types, artists selling their work, and a few people who were not-so-subtly enjoying a sunny day with Mary Jane. The place is the living manifestation of California stereotypes held in the minds of people on the East Coast -- that I have spent years trying to dispel -- and in being so, it's hardly the first place you'd think to put a sports team.

Pacific Avenue on a Friday evening.

Yet even as I walked into the lobby that day, PR manager Matt de Nesnera was energetically chatting with a pair of guys who had walked in off the street to inquire about tickets and closed the deal before we began our afternoon. Throughout the meeting, when a staff member sold season tickets, they'd quickly pop in the room, mark an "X" somewhere on the seating chart and casually walk back out, always careful to close the sliding door behind them, of course. Informally, over the course of about an hour in the conference room, about five more transactions were made, all sold with the vision of an arena that almost feels impossible to imagine on the surface of a place like Santa Cruz.

"It's a testament to all these people who are here working their butts off," said Lacob of the almost-mystifying buzz surrounding the team. "It's a testament to how excited people are out there. It's a testament to what the city council helped us to do. It'll be really exciting when that arena is getting closer, when our website is up, when we start putting advertisements up."

The Warriors had only broken ground on the 4000-seat temporary arena a couple of days before my visit, less than a week after getting approval by city council for a seven-year deal (which is already described in more depth by J.M. Brown of the Santa Cruz Sentinel). With no arena already in town -- and having eliminated the possibility of playing in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium rather quickly due to space constraints -- the Warriors set about looking for a location for their new facility, mindful of the fact that the season opener was scheduled for November 30.

The solution was a temporary arena, similar to those used by Cirque du Soleil or -- on a much larger scale -- the 2012 London Olympics. Constructing a temporary arena, en route from Finland in pieces, enables them to have a facility in place quickly while also allowing themselves and the city flexibility in what they're able to do with the semi-publicly funded facility at the end of that seven-year period. But only in the preliminary stages of development, nobody could blame you for being skeptical about whether they'd even be able to complete the temporary task in time for their season opener. Although they've worked it out so that their first home game isn't until December 23 - with the team practicing at other local facilities and traveling to Oakland to practice there for some time - even that seems like a stretch to the untrained eye right now.

"Did you see the hole?" deadpanned Santa Cruz president Jim Weyermann, who briefly strolled through the conference room during our discussion to introduce himself.

The Santa Cruz Warriors' arena construction site.

At this point, a hole in the ground is about what it looks like, with only a bland white placard on the fence surrounding it suggesting that something along the lines of a basketball game might eventually take place there. Yet even that is worthy of a buzz in Santa Cruz -- as I walked around the construction site chatting with de Nesnera and Lacob, who was proudly wearing his gray Santa Cruz Warriors t-shirt, we were twice interrupted by passers by asking about "the hole".

A walking California skater stereotype asked if it was going to be a basketball arena as we stood across the street from the northwest corner of the site at Front and Laurel streets chatting. After a biker stopped to ask about the project as were chatting along the east side of the arena, I asked if they were planting these people for effect.

While the very presence of a project like that in a city like Santa Cruz is enough to inspire excitement, the presence of Weyermann on the staff has been a significant asset in selling all those tickets prior to that. Weyermann's previous marketing experience includes launching the Experience Music Project in Seattle as well as serving as the general manager of the Seattle Reign, a women's basketball team in the now-defunct American Basketball League. With Weyermann, a veteran "guerrilla marketer" signing on to the Santa Cruz project, some measure of early success was expected.

"It's in his DNA honestly. You got to meet him very quickly and he is a very unique individual," said Lacob. "He's just an incredibly energetic and fun person. And you see how well he fits in Santa Cruz - he lived here but he's got this beach feel to him. He will always refer to me as his partner. That type of stuff is important to him. Partnership. Family. Community. That stuff is really important to him. I think it's a perfect, perfect fit if you're trying to create a minor league culture and to create excitement to have a guy like that, who's so passionately involved all the time.

"And I don't really think that that's something that you can build; that's something that you kind of have or you don't. You know there's those people who are always really comfortable getting up and standing in front of class to make presentations. There's people who can work on it and get better, but they'll just never be the same. There are people born for politics, right? They might not be able to write their own speeches, but they can sure as hell deliver one. He can do both."

Formalizing that community element could be considered the overarching theme for everything that's going on, both in terms of bringing together a viable professional sports community and solidifying a Santa Cruz community that can be physically disjointed. That begins, of course, with finding a way to cultivate a fan base in a city without professional sports.

Although Santa Cruz is a seemingly unlikely location for pro basketball, Lacob also points out that there are explanations for the early sales success. Both the boys' and girls high school basketball teams have seen success in recent years, with Lacob still a high school player when Santa Cruz High won the state Division III championship in 2005. With good weather nearly year round, it's not difficult to find people playing basketball outdoors. There's a whole campus of college students to tap into at UC Santa Cruz. Most of all, Santa Cruz is a city that loses a major attraction when the Boardwalk switches to limited operation days in the winter months.

Yet as much as the Warriors figure to offer an alternative to the Boardwalk, they're also aiming to establish a link between that and the downtown area where their office is; part of the appeal of the project from the city's perspective is not only to have a facility to host conventions or other large events that the town is typically not a player for, but also to unite the boardwalk and downtown areas with a new attraction. And if there is a crime problem in Santa Cruz - which might sound laughable to Warriors colleagues in Oakland -- it's primarily in that part of town, where there is neither much business nor pedestrian activity.

Symbolizing both the economic benefits and the uncanny way in which things seem to be springing up around this project without much formal effort on the part of the Warriors is a sports bar that will coincidentally be opening its doors in November about two blocks away from the arena. The owners of the forthcoming sports bar -- the only in "downtown" Santa Cruz (though there is another one by the entrance to Route 17) -- similarly approached Lacob about what was going on and were excited about what having a new arena would mean for their business.

In many ways, the construction of the arena and arrival of pro basketball will benefit the city.

KC's Sports Bar on Pacific Avenue, which will open in November 2012.

It would be easy for a team in this situation to rely on that name recognition that draws lifelong fans into their office to buy season tickets or the hope that a small town without other direct professional sports competition would have no other choice but to patronize their games. But they're taking a much more proactive approach to the project.

Lacob cites the Dayton Dragons, in which Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber is an investor, and the Sacramento River Cats as examples of successful models of minor league teams, at least in part because they are in cities with competition. As profiled by Peter Vescey of the New York Times last year, the Dragons took the record for consecutive sellouts from the Portland Trail Blazers just last year. The River Cats are the most lucrative minor league baseball team in the nation. The common thread running between the two teams -- in addition to a commitment to winning -- is an active effort to make everyone, from player to staff to fan, feel as though they're an important part of the experience. It is those models that the Warriors are at least trying to learn from, if not emulate.

That begins with enthusiasm. Weyermann is every bit the presence that Lacob describes him as, the type of individual who can command the attention of any room he walks into. Although Lacob divides his time between Oakland and Santa Cruz, he even manages to turn that into an asset.

"We've been spreading word of mouth up north," said Lacob. "I go around the office all the time, I'm wearing my Santa Cruz stuff, I'm yelling 'Santa Cruz Warriors!' randomly in the office. I've gotten enough people handing out schedules, I've gotten enough people there. Then you get- our beat writers get in on it. I extended an invitation to Marcus Thompson II the other day to come try out."

And the connection between the two offices doesn't end there. In addition to the long-standing relationship between Weyermann and Lacob's father, Joe, a couple of other staff members came to Santa Cruz directly from Oakland. The commitment from Joe Lacob in supporting this project is evident simply in the act of becoming one of the 11 teams in the league to own a D-League affiliate, but their intimate connections with the folks in Oakland make it much easier to integrate what they do with the franchise as a whole and maintain that commitment.

It's certainly fair to call the relocation of the Warriors' D-League affiliate from North Dakota to Santa Cruz a "work-in-progress" from the basics of just having an arena -- or office doors -- to the more complex work of selling tickets and building a fan base in a place that nobody would consider a sports town. Yet the layers of community they've already managed to build, both within the organization and the broader Santa Cruz area, have laid a promising foundation.

"People always jump on the bandwagon when something becomes tangible and I think we're in for a really fun ride," said Lacob. "When all this stuff really starts to come out in its most professional, most fully finalized form it'll be really cool."

There's an expectation of success that everyone involved exudes complemented with experience and passion that makes it hard to anticipate anything but the best by the time they do fully realize the vision that they're only beginning to build.

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