Is there a future for the Santa Cruz Warriors — in Santa Cruz?

ball
(Via Pixabay)

It’s been 10 years since the local Sea Dubs made a big splash in our little town. Kaiser Permanente Arena has been a good temporary home, but now a more permanent place is needed. How did this odd match between Surf City and pro basketball come to be?

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In the realm of professional sports, Santa Cruz is holding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket — or, to be more precise, “Golden” ticket.

Wallace

In terms of civic treasures for small cities, it’s hard to imagine a more valuable or coveted one these days than a direct, one-to-one affiliation with the sexiest franchise in the sexiest league in American sports. That would be the Golden State Warriors who, at this moment, are playing in the NBA Finals for the sixth time in the past eight years.

They are not only the hottest property on the sports landscape today, but Steph Curry’s Dubs are the most charismatic team in the Bay Area’s rich sports history at least since Joe Montana’s 1980s-era 49ers. And Santa Cruz is along for the ride.

We’re talking about, of course, the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s one and only namesake development team in the NBA’s one and only subsidiary minor league, the G League. The Santa Cruz Warriors — the “Sea Dubs,” as they’re known informally — arrived in town in 2012, just before the NBA team ascended to legendary status.

They had come to Santa Cruz from their previous perch in Bismarck, North Dakota. (Not to slag the fine state of North Dakota, but can you even conceive of two American cities more fundamentally different than Santa Cruz and Bismarck?)

It’s been an amazing, even magical decade for the local professional basketball team — our Warriors, in fact, even won the G League championship in 2015, the same year the other Warriors won their first NBA championship of the Curry era.

The G League universe as it stands now. Click picture for more on how the league works and connects to the NBA.
(Via G League)

Bizarrely, the mirroring effect between the two teams goes beyond even their names and championships. Just as the “Splash Brothers” — Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — were first lighting up the NBA, their respective real-life brothers — Seth Curry and Mychel Thompson — were suiting up for the Sea Dubs. Sometimes, reality is just a hack screenwriter.

Klay Thompson shakes the rust in Santa Cruz on Monday, practicing with the Warriors.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But now, in the cold light of the post-pandemic era, a reckoning is at hand and a question looms on the local sports scene horizon: Is there a future for the Santa Cruz Warriors?

The world of minor-league sports is particularly volatile, and it’s certainly conceivable that the Warriors could depart as quickly as they arrived. Even though they’ve been around for only 10 years, the Sea Dubs have now played in the same venue longer than any other G League team on the West Coast. (In that same time, the league itself has changed, morphing from the D League, meaning Development League, to the G League, which stands for — and how I wish I were making this up — the Gatorade League.)

So stability is not part of the G League brand. Even so, the Santa Cruz Warriors are facing a particularly acute problem that demands a solution sooner rather than later. The Warriors’ home court, the Kaiser Permanente Arena, is not a long-term home for the team, mainly because it was never meant to be. The city-owned arena was erected on what used to be an employee parking lot for Boardwalk workers, and downtown locals still talk about how quickly the thing went up.

Kaiser Permanente Arena from above.
(Via Google)

It was designed in much the same “air tent” manner as temporary arenas in the Olympics were built, steel walls supporting a fabric tent-like roof. It was a stopgap solution until the day when a more permanent venue could be built. Fast forward 10 years, and it’s clear that the future is now.

The stakeholders — the Warriors, the City of Santa Cruz, and the Seaside Co., owners of the Boardwalk — are in the early stages of envisioning what that future will look like. A solution could come as early as fall 2023. The question will return this week to the Santa Cruz City Council as council members and city planners kick around ideas.

Any new arena is likely to cost anywhere from $20 million to $60 million, (by comparison, the big club’s new home, Chase Center in San Francisco, cost about $1.4 billion).

From the city’s perspective, the new arena will almost certainly have to be constructed within the context of providing more housing. Better acoustics (sound at KP is awful) would make the new place a promising venue for big-name touring acts. A functioning kitchen (KP has no kitchen) could introduce a vibrant new foodie appeal to catching a game (I mean, have you tried the Gilroy garlic fries at the Giants’ ballpark?).

But beyond the possibility, and perhaps necessity, of a new arena, there is one question still unanswered: Is Santa Cruz really a good sports town?

But beyond the possibility, and perhaps necessity, of a new arena, there is one question still unanswered: Is Santa Cruz really a good sports town? The team logged many sellout dates, especially in the early years. But the KP Arena’s capacity, a little more than 2,500, is one of the smallest in the G League, and some of those “sellouts” involved giveaway tickets.

The SC Warriors also enjoyed the best possible circumstances in the 2010s: a honeymoon period that any new franchise experiences when bedazzled fans first discover the joys of fandom, the parent club developing into a NBA powerhouse led by a once-in-a-generation talent in Curry, and the brothers of the Splash Brothers in uniform in Santa Cruz.

But longtime Golden State fans also know that this golden age is not normal. Before Steph Curry, the Dubs wandered for years in a desert of NBA mediocrity or worse (remember the Sprewell years?). One day, this team will fall to earth, and the novelty of seeing live professional hoops will fade. How will Santa Cruz respond then?

The Sea Dubs have maximized the gameday vibe at KP Arena.
(Via Warriors)

Anyone who has ever been to a Sea Dubs game at KP can tell you that the energy is often downright electrifying. There’s a wonderful family vibe to the scene. Kids can be gobsmacked by the intensity of the play and the spectacle of the show. Credit the Warriors with creating a constant-motion sense of entertainment, even during timeouts.

Roughly half of the seating is bleachers, which are not good for the human body, particularly the aging human body. But generally, in a town as small as Santa Cruz, the likelihood you’ll share a high five or a friendly greeting with a neighbor or old acquaintance is strong. That electricity also spills outside the arena into the streets. You can pick up the vibe of a Warriors game just about anywhere downtown.

Still, minor-league teams have marketing issues that big-league teams simply do not have and the Warriors are not immune to those challenges. The quality of play is, by definition, not the same. Rosters in the G League are in a constant state of flux, so fan attachments to star players — and the jersey and ticket sales that result from such attachments — are essentially a non-factor. Seasons-long legacy loyalty sustains many big-league clubs, but that kind of fan allegiance is difficult to attain when franchises are constantly being shuffled, as they are in the minors.

Let’s say the Sea Dubs get their glittery new arena. Once the new-car smell is gone and the big-league Dubs are bad and/or boring again, will Santa Cruz fans step up to support the team out of a pure love of competition and civic pride? This is a city that, for decades, has had a tough time even establishing a thriving sports bar.

Santa Cruz Warriors President Chris Murphy watches his team play basketball.

We tend to like participatory sports over the spectator kind, and wild, unpredictable loner activities like surfing over regimented, militaristic ones like football. In a town that has been dominated by a left-progressive mindset, sports is still a dirty word in some people’s minds, a particularly lurid symbol of capitalist grotesquery — did we mention the league is named after Gatorade? — and a big, loud, meaningless distraction from the business of changing the world.

Obviously, there’s a strong subset of people who love sports, who like to chill out in the bleachers at Harvey West at a ballgame, who still get excited when Harbor meets Santa Cruz High on the football field. This has been the fan base that the Warriors have been masterful in attracting. But is that demographic enough to show up on a Wednesday night in February when the team is 12 games under .500?

Of course, whenever that new arena opens — it will take some time to build — it will presumably be after much of the development on lower Pacific Avenue is finished, and downtown Santa Cruz will have a new look for a new era. To the degree that the Warriors are successful in attracting fans in that new environment, it will likely be a significant indicator that Santa Cruz is changing into some new thing.

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Locals freaked out about the San Jose-ification of the city will have new ammunition for their dark visions. Maybe then is when the Warriors will launch their rebrand and reemerge as the Santa Cruz Frisbee Dogs with tie-dye uniforms (when you name your league after a sports drink, no prediction is too outlandish).

The alternative future is that the city and the team can’t come to terms, that resistance builds and an energetic group of anti-arena activists gets the signatures necessary to put the arena on the ballot and the vitriol generated makes us all nostalgic for the good old days of Measure D. Maybe the Golden State Warriors decide it’s better to find some other place in the Golden State to move to, and Santa Cruz joins Bismarck on the list of cities jilted by the Gatorade League.

I’d hate to see that day come. The Sea Dubs are still a golden ticket, and Santa Cruzans would be wise to support any reasonable proposal for a new arena.

I’m surprised that I got this far in this column without a basketball analogy, so here goes: The future of the Santa Cruz Warriors is a ball still up in the air. Whether it swishes or clanks off the rim is impossible to tell at this point. Let’s hope that shot goes in, because if it doesn’t, there will be plenty of cities and towns in position for the rebound.

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