Do not be fooled by the computer-animated trickery and the nonstop promotional assault--"Toy Story" is actually the code name for Disney's systematic assimilation of a wall-to-wall professional sports empire headquartered in Orange County.
One year, it's a bunch of hockey players.
The next, a baseball team.
Every year a new toy. And which shall it be in 1996?
Football or basketball?
The Cardinals, if this week's rumor is to be given any credence, or the Clippers?
I know what you're thinking and, no, there is no third choice at the moment.
We are talking about two of the more hopeless outfits in their respective sports--Dave Krieg or Malik Sealy, you can toss a coin--so the decision ultimately comes down to the two sports.
If you have to lose, would you rather do it courtside at The Pond or in the View Level at Anaheim Stadium?
Orange County has spoken and all Disney needs to do is tabulate the numbers:
Clippers' average attendance at The Pond, '94-95 season--17,821.
Basketball is what the people want, even if the Clippers' idea of the game only occasionally resembles the Houston Rockets' interpretation. No matter, it's close enough, and it's new enough, and it's the only way presently available to bring Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and David Robinson inside county limits.
The Rams brought Jerry Rice and Steve Young to Anaheim every autumn, but eventually, the 400-yard passing days and 35-10 routs all began to look the same. The Rams were so bad for so long that they soured the entire area on football, poisoning the well with so much toxin that an annual August football game pitting two of the nation's top collegiate teams was forced to relocate in Michigan due to lack of interest.
That one was known as the "Disneyland Pigskin Classic," before Disney pulled its financial backing after five installments. Once burned, Disney was reluctant to bail out the Freedom Bowl with a desperately needed title sponsorship, so the Freedom Bowl was placed "on hiatus" for one year or five years or to infinity and beyond.
Rightly or not, Orange County now carries the won't-support-football label. Not the outdoor version, anyway. Basketball has no such stigma here. In fact, the NBA's take is that Anaheim is to pro basketball what Nashville is to pro football--and the NBA means that in the best possible way.
David Stern has seen the Clippers' attendance figures--8,000 at the Sports Arena, 17,000 at The Pond. So has Clipper owner Donald Sterling, but unlike Sterling, Stern prefers the 17,000 to the 8,000. Or so Sterling would have us believe. Sterling delights in his image as the Town Loon--you know, the one owner who "doesn't care" if he wins or loses, makes money or takes a bath, sells out or plays inside an echo chamber. Sterling fosters this image with great care, too, hosting yearly "Yea, We Made The Lottery" parties and vetoing trades that could possibly improve his team's record.
This annoys Disney, which would like to make Sterling rich beyond his wildest dreams and take this problem off Sterling's hands and move it to The Pond on a permanent basis. But such overtures only encourage Sterling. Don't you see--he's "crazy." He won't move to Orange County, he won't sell to Disney, he won't improve his team. Therefore, he must be (nudge, nudge) \o7 stark raving mad.\f7
Sterling keeps himself amused, but Stern, finally, seems to be tiring of the act. Recently, Stern was asked about future plans for expansion and he said a couple teams were targeted to be added by the year 2000. Mexico City figures to get one bid, but Stern mentioned Anaheim as a leading candidate for the other.
(St. Louis was another, and wouldn't that be fun, arm-wrestling again over another pro franchise?)
Stern's subliminal message to Sterling: If you don't put an NBA team in the Orange County market, one way or another, I'll do it for you. Lakers to the left of you, Disney to the right, enjoy the squeeze play.
Disney would like to buy into the Clippers the way it bought into the Angels--a little chunk now and presumably the rest some time during our lifetime. And why the NBA ahead of the NFL?
From Disney's perspective, there is no contest.
* Home dates: NBA has 41; NFL has eight.
* Payroll: NBA has 12 player salaries; NFL has 53.
* Facility: The Pond is a people magnet, a draw in itself; Anaheim Stadium will have be refurbished or replaced before an NFL team will even glance in this direction.
* Potential for upward mobility: One player is all it takes to turn around a basketball team. Not so in football. Look what Shaquille O'Neal did for the Magic. Look what Scott Mitchell did for the Lions.
* Potential for geographic mobility: In December 1993, the Clippers signed a three-year lease with the Sports Arena, but that lease features an escape clause at the end of each year. In the NFL, all franchise moves, planned or on the docket, have been placed on hold, pending the outcome of litigation in Cleveland to stop the Browns' move.
The NBA is Disney's kind of league. Look at the cartoons that pass for uniforms in Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle and Houston--or as floor designs in Charlotte and Atlanta. Look at Dennis Rodman. The entire league is one long animated feature.
Orange County has seen its professional sports future, and it is basketball.
With or without the Clippers.