As the echoes of basketballs dribbling on the court synchronized, there were a million other tasks going on behind the scenes at the Kaiser Permanente Arena. The marketing team was overseeing ticket sales, the tech team was checking lights and setting cameras, operators were timing the shot clocks, and staff were passing out birthday hats amongst themselves and attendees.
There was a big milestone going on. It was the Santa Cruz Warriors’ 10th birthday.
“It’s a very welcoming culture, obviously, just from the outside looking in, you can just see how it’s all hands on deck,” said Jelani Townsell, Santa Cruz Warriors Manager of Partnerships.
While fans enter the arena, white tin lunch boxes with a blue “10” are passed around as music blasts and both teams warm up. The warm-up clock winds down, reaching zero as the lights dim. The national anthem is sung by none other than 11-time Grammy Award winner Tony Lindsay, and a video featuring the entire team hypes the crowd to stand up until the first points are scored by the Seadubs, a longtime tradition.
With a powerhouse franchise like the Santa Cruz Warriors, it’s not just the players that define the team.
“We all see each other more than we see our families, we all carpool… Everyone here is like a family at this point,” said Zach Owens, SC Warriors Senior Account Executive.
Two blocks away at the Warriors office downtown, the business and marketing teams start their day a bit later, focusing on day-to-day operations such as making phone calls to sell tickets, selling merchandise, and making game day a positive fan experience.
“[The most underappreciated people are] probably the people who get the tickets out there to our fans…I think we got some of the best PR teams, [they] work hard for us,” said Warriors Guard Eli Pemberton, who has been with the team for three years.
Gabriel Gonzalez, a season ticket holder of the Warriors and longtime resident of Santa Cruz County, has been able to see one of his favorite teams grow for the past decade.
“I’ve been a fan since the beginning. It’s really great to be able to support a local team,” Gonzalez said.
Members of the community in the crowd like Gonzalez were vocal about their excitement for the team as they packed the arena for the home game against the Salt Lake City Stars. There was extra excitement in the air as the Warriors remain just outside the playoffs in their conference.
Fans sit on the edge of their seats as the Warriors are down four points moments before halftime.
The small stadium, which holds 2,505 spectators, creates a more intimate experience for fans, with most basketball stadiums typically holding tens of thousands of guests. This limited space leaves more room for people to fully immerse themselves in the game.
“It’s cool to see a gym of only 2,500; seeing people of all ages going crazy for a T-shirt toss or just bouncing up and down,” said Dylan Connolly, Ticket Sales Account Executive. “It really makes my time here feel like I’m making a difference and I’m bringing a cool experience to others.”
During halftime, the local dance group, Dancenter, performed. As the music ends and the students scatter, the Warriors hype squad comes out, indulging the crowd in cheers and handing out tiny basketballs for children to throw in buckets on the court.
Animations on the Jumbotron show the score pass and promote merchandise for the 10th anniversary. For graphic designer Vincent Irao, his work being on the big screen is a larger-than-life feeling.
“[Working with the Santa Cruz Warriors] has allowed me to be myself,” Irao said. “Everyone has a voice and want[s] people to have fun.”
As the shot clock indicates that halftime is over, people make their way back to their seats while music blasts. The game starts back up, with the Warriors and Stars tied in the first five minutes. Photographers sit in their designated seats courtside and continue to capture action shots of the game.
“I think this is going to be one of the most memorable [days] being my birthday and being our mascot’s birthday on the same day,” photographer Winfield White explained, proudly wearing his birthday hat. “I think it would be a pretty fun experience.”
As the game comes to a close, fans were ultimately let down despite a rousing back and forth game. Sitting just one game out of a playoff spot, the Warriors will need all the support they can get from Surf City to get back on track.
For the team’s Account Executive Alicia Spencer, fans are like family, dependable through wins and losses.
“They’re passionate,” Spencer said. “Sticking by their team no matter what. I like that.”
Nico Santiago contributed additional reporting.