Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sonics: A last chance to save a historic franchise

Note: this is another piece on the Sonics that was originally earmarked for my Journal blog, but got pulled from there due to an upcoming column on the same issue. Thought I'd put it up here: this situation deserves all the coverage I can give it, in my mind.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer finds himself in an unusual position this week. Instead of the usual vilification and curses that accompany mentions of his company, he’s now seen as a potential saviour—at least in Seattle. As the Associated Press reported Thursday, Ballmer and three other local businessmen—Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, Seattle developer Matt Griffin and wireless magnate John Stanton—have agreed to put up $150 million towards a $300-million renovation of Seattle’s Key Arena, the home of the NBA’s SuperSonics. The rest of the cost would be publicly funded. The cash would go towards adding new restaurants, stores and club space. The money’s desperately needed: owner Clay Bennett has repeatedly threatened to relocate the team to Oklahoma City, and is set to do so if the league approves the move at a meeting next month.

This is the perfect chance to check Bennett’s sincerity. When he bought the franchise, he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer he would keep it in town if a suitable arena was found. Co-owner Aubrey McClendon later told the Oklahoma Journal-Record what many had suspected all along: the group had no intentions of ever staying in Seattle. "But we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here,” he said. Bennett tried to distance himself from the comments, and the league fined McClendon, but a poorly kept secret wasn’t even a secret anymore. Throughout this process, Bennett has been holding a gun to the city’s head to try and force them to build him a new arena or upgrade the existing one. It has now been shown there are local interests willing to contribute the money Bennett won’t. It’s clear he doesn’t particularly want to keep the team in town, but it would be only reasonable for him to sell to a local group willing to put up this kind of cash. Ballmer and his partners have the deep pockets to pay any reasonable price Bennett asks for. If he turns down this offer, it becomes particularly obvious that he was out to move from the start.

Ballmer, Griffin, Sinegal and Stanton are proving to be local heroes in the best sense of the word. As Griffin told the Post-Intelligencer, none of them particularly wanted to buy a team in the typical manner of millionaire playboys. "These are people with other jobs and lives to lead,” Griffin said. "Being a Sonics owner isn't their objective in life. But knowing we have to save the team and fix Seattle Center is important to them." They saw a need to step up and save their city’s beloved team, and they admirably filled the void. The other great advantage of having Ballmer at the helm is it would further enhance the team’s biggest rivalry—the I-5 duel with the Portland Trailblazers, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who left the company after clashes with Ballmer and Bill Gates.

There’s a time crunch, though. As a story in yesterday’s Seattle Times pointed out, only half of the public money is coming from the city, which has already stepped on board: mayor Greg Nickels is a strong advocate for keeping the franchise in Seattle. The rest would come from the state legislature, via the extension of a King County-only car rental and restaurant tax that’s currently used to pay off the debt on Safeco Field, the recently built home of the Seattle Mariners baseball franchise. This seems like a reasonable proposal, and according to the Post-Intelligencer’s Chris McGann, the legislature and Washington governor Chris Gregoire are far more favourable towards it than they have been towards the previous solutions advocated, largely driven by the massive up-front commitment from Ballmer and company. Unfortunately, the legislature’s slated to adjourn next Thursday, and it seems unlikely a bill could be passed that quickly. Gregoire hasn’t ruled out the possibility of addressing the issue this session, but it will likely take substantial public pressure to cut through the normal bureaucratic red tape. Fans rallied at the state capital Saturday to draw attention to their team’s plight: hopefully, this will get the legislature to act quickly. As the Times' Steve Kelley wrote, unified action is desperately needed. "Now, let's see some action from the legislature," he wrote. "Let's find out who the lawmakers with courage and creativity are. Let's find the politicians who aren't willing to take the easy way out by telling us their "shot clock" has expired." Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like that's too likely at the moment.

There’s yet another villain in the mix—NBA commissioner David Stern, the Emperor Palpatine to Bennett’s Darth Vader, cleverly manipulating events from behind the scenes. Stern’s ties to Bennett run deep, and he served as the presenter at Bennett’s introduction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in November. As Post-Intelligencer columnist Jim Moore rightly pointed out about the Bennett-Stern collusion, “I'm not sure what this reeks of, but it reeks of something.”

Stern has other evil motives at work as well: he would surely hate to see a city refuse to pick up the majority of a tab for a not-really-needed new arena or renovation, as that would set a dangerous precedent for professional sports. Taxpayers are supposed to not only fling their wallets open for team tickets, merchandise and overpriced beer, but also throw money at billionaire owners to buy them new arenas free of charge. As ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons pointed out, this is a ludicrous idea that, if fulfilled, means any team’s owner could pack up and leave if he didn’t get the arena deal he was looking for. “Why should citizens spend tax money paying for a new arena just to make a billionaire wealthier than he already is?” Simmons wrote. “If the precedent is set here—‘Pay for my new arena or I'm leaving’—then really, the same thing could eventually happen to your favorite NBA team.”

The Seattle situation is important for anyone who has ever felt a connection to their local team. Fans in Seattle have been there for 41 years, through the glory days and the dark times. They deserve more than having their team pack up and walk away in the dead of the night. Simmons captured this brilliantly in his column. “I think it's reprehensible to watch someone hijack a franchise away from the people who cared about the team and loved it and nurtured it through the years,” he wrote. “It belittles not just the good people of Seattle, but everyone who loves sports and believes it provides a unique and valuable connection for a city, a community, family members and friends.” I couldn’t agree more.

Things are looking dim for the Sonics, but there’s still a chance they can be saved. Ballmer’s gone from a role in everyone’s favorite evil empire to an unlikely leader of a small band of rebels who won’t accept the unilateral seizure of their team. Stern’s boldly making pronouncements about the inevitability of victory for the dark side, but the fight isn’t over yet. "It's apparent to all who are watching that the Sonics are heading out of Seattle," Stern told the Associated Press during his annual all-star weekend press conference Feb.16. "I accept that inevitability at this point. There is no miracle here." That’s the thing with miracles, though: they tend to show up when you’re not looking for them, especially after someone has just declared their invulnerability. All plans this dastardly inevitably have a fatal weakness—here’s hoping Ballmer and company can find it before it’s too late.


  1. Maybe there's hope yet!

  2. Yeah, I'm hoping so... it would be really unfortunate to see two NBA teams leave the Pacific Northwest in just over ten years. The legislature's stalling at the moment, though, so I'm not sure if they'll be able to get it done in time... then again, the NBA's likely salivating over having someone with Ballmer's pockets as an owner.