Owner’s stunt led Warriors to carry Golden State name
The Warriors moving back to their original Bay Area home brings up a touchy question: Will they be the San Francisco Warriors, or continue to rep the ambiguous Golden State?
Which begs another question: How did they become the Golden State Warriors in the first place?
The answer, in short, is that it appeared to be part of a bluff. Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli unveiled the name in 1971 while he was negotiating with the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and was threatening to split the team between Oakland and San Diego. By the time the Warriors signed a lease to play in Oakland full time, it was likely too late — or Mieuli was too cheap — to change the Golden State jerseys.
The history of “Golden State” is hard to grasp in 2017, when the Warriors are a multibillion-dollar organization, in the fastest rising pro sport, employing two of the most popular athletes (if not human
But in 1971, the Warriors were barely afloat. Since 1962, when the team arrived in San Francisco from Philadelphia, every year had been a fight to keep the team from folding. The Chronicle reported that the team lost money in all but one year in the team’s first decade in the Bay Area.
From 1962 to 1971, the team shuttled between three ill-fitting arenas in or near San Francisco; the Warriors were so low on the sports hierarchy that they sometimes practiced in high school gyms. Mieuli’s lobbying for a basketball arena in the Yerba Buena Gardens area — he also pitched one on the waterfront — seemed dashed for good in 1971 when the city pulled a bond measure to fund the center off the ballot.
“Despite Mieuli’s super-provincialism — the uniforms with the insignia, ‘The City,’ and the cable cars moving up to the stars,” Chronicle Sports Editor Art Rosenbaum wrote in 1971, “pro basketball has been a box office flop in San Francisco.”
In fact, the Warriors in 1970-71 had the lowest gate in the league, averaging just $12,500 in ticket sales per game. (No doubt someone sold a single Oracle Arena seat for that much during the 2016 NBA championship.) The Warriors were outdrawn by the expansion of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Diego Rockets, whose $14,000 average was enough to force the team’s move to Houston that year.
In other words, the situation could not be more dire for the Warriors, and The Chronicle reported that investors were breathing down Mieuli’s neck to make a big change or sell the team. So the former advertising man did what he did best: He came up with a marketing stunt and played the media.
The “Golden State Warriors” name change was broken by the San Diego Evening Tribune on July 17, 1971, and caught the San Francisco media by surprise. The Chronicle ran out to confirm that Mieuli’s trimaran yacht (named “The City,” naturally) was still anchored in San Francisco and hadn’t moved south.
A few days later, Mieuli, remaining uncharacteristically quiet, leaked the new Warriors logo — with the frontier “Golden State” lettering that Rick Barry would wear during the team’s 1975 NBA championship.
“The Warriors, a pro basketball team that used to be from San Francisco and wore an emblem with the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle, now will play in Oakland and San Diego and have an emblem with the map of California in the middle,” The Chronicle reported.
During the first week of August, the good news was announced: The Warriors had reached a favorable lease for the Oakland Coliseum Arena, whose executives were no doubt panicking about losing 20 days of potential rent and concession shares to another city. After a game of (San Diego) chicken, the Warriors were Oakland’s team — even if the city’s name never made it on the jersey.
“Some cynics, recognizing Warrior owner Franklin Mieuli as a head-spinning promoter, find it strange that after all the pap and publicity, the Warriors never really left home,” Rosenbaum wrote. “Was it just another Mieuli stunt to publicize the Warrior move to Oakland while making the San Francisco fans understand ‘The Situation’?”
Almost certainly. Subsequent articles in The Chronicle suggested that San Diego had not been as viable as Mieuli made it seem.
But Mieuli had once again saved the team, which made slow but steady progress at the box office in its new home. Signs of disrespect were still apparent — the Golden State Warriors were bumped by the Ice Follies at their home arena, and had to play two 1975 NBA Finals games at the Cow Palace in Daly City.
But the crowds continued to grow, on the way to gaining a reputation for the best fans in the NBA. And by the time Barry hoisted the NBA Championship trophy over his head in 1975, with Mieuli by his side, it became clear the Warriors — San Francisco, Golden State or otherwise — would not be going anywhere.
S.F. Warriors President Franklin Mieuli (center) introduces head coach George Lee (left) and assistant coach Al Attles.
Rick Barry, who later would help the Warriors win their first championship, at the Palace of Fine Arts.