Saturday, March 01, 2008

SuperSonic Flight

One of my favorite columnists, Bill Simmons, has been writing a lot about the impending demise of the Seattle SuperSonics. Simmons makes some excellent points about why this is an issue everyone, not just Sonics' fans should care about. In his own words:

"Here's why the Seattle situation should matter to everyone who cares about sports: After being part of the city for 41 years, the Sonics are being stolen away for dubious reasons while every NBA owner and executive allows it to happen, including David Stern, the guy who's supposed to be policing this stuff. 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. 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."

This is a great point. Watching a team pack up and leave is never fun: ask fans of the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Brooklyn Dodgers, Vancouver Grizzlies, Minnesota North Stars, Baltimore Colts, (original) San Jose Earthquakes or Winnipeg Jets, to name just a few. The connection with a franchise is an important part of fandom─the most important part for many. Players come and go, but the franchise is supposed to be consistent. Unfortunately, the business aspect of sport (which is the tail that wags the dog these days) means too many owners these days forget the consistent support their fans have provided through the years and adopt a "What have you done for me lately?" attitude.

This case is made particularly disturbing by the circumstances. As mentioned above, relocation always hurts: however, there are cases (see Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers) where things certainly don't seem to be working out in the current market. Those teams have their share of devoted fans, who would certainly be crushed if their team packed up and left: the problem is that they've only recently put down roots in their current communities and they can't seem to draw the numbers to stay viable over the long term. Thus, if they were to move, it would certainly be sad, but it's more understandable. In the Seattle case, the city has supported the team rabidly for 41 years, even though the on-court product has been less than stellar much of the time. They haven't been unreasonable, either: as was pointed out in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, local and state officials seem to be willing to consider using public funds to help with arena renovations, as long as it's a less stupid proposal than owner Clay Bennett's demand for the city to fund $300 million of a $500 million arena in suburban Renton (aside: putting your arena in the middle of nowhere is a terrible trend that too many teams are capitalizing on lately. See Senators, Ottawa, and Devils, New Jersey for further details).

Bennett as an owner raises more red flags than "Jumping Jim" Balsillie and his ill-advised season ticket deposits for the Hamilton Blackberries. He's from a city desperate for a team to fill their expensive arena, he appears to be a pure money-grubber unconcerned with the fans or the traditions of a great franchise, and his so-called arena "proposal" was so blatantly ridiculous that it was sure to be shot down, opening the door for the relocation to Oklahoma. He's been targeting teams for relocation for years, and only bought the Sonics after a failed attempt to gain control of the New Orleans Hornets. In fact, minority partner Aubrey McClendon made it clear to the Oklahoma City Journal-Record that the ownership group had never even considered keeping the team in Seattle. "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here," he said.

Yet, somehow, Bennett's attempt to loot, pillage and make off with a historic franchise has been overlooked by the powers-that-be. Congress is too busy talking about Jose Canseco's pool party and legislating drug testing to care, while NBA commissioner David Stern is a long-standing buddy of Bennett's, and has been pals with him for over fifteen years. Call me a cynic, but it seems minorly coincidental that the league isn't doing anything to stop this when the man who runs the league was the introductory speaker at Bennett's induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame a couple months ago, as Simmons's reader Elliott Smith points out. Conflict of interest, anyone?

There may still be hope. The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer are both reporting that several local groups are trying to intervene, buy the Sonics and keep them in a renovated Key Arena. It may be a long shot, but there's clearly the local support needed on the part of the fans: read Simmons's mailbag if you don't believe me. These fans are truly passionate and their stories are incredibly moving. It's for people like these that sports exist, and it's because of devoted fans like these that pro sports leagues succeed: the NBA should remember where it came from, and the fans who helped it acheive its current prominence.

What's worrying, though, is the idea that this might set a dangerous precedent. Are sports leagues willing to give up on some of their most storied and devoted fans to keep the prospect of almost-entirely funded public arenas alive? The Sonics' situation suggests they are, which is why this is an important for any sports fan. Simmons perhaps explains it best: "This isn't a case that you can say, 'You know, I kind of understand both sides here.' There is only one side. An NBA team is getting hijacked and there's no way of sugarcoating it, defending it or justifying it. Again, if it happens to the Sonics, it could happen to your team. That's why you should care."


  1. It's ridiculous ... that part of the U.S. (Okla. City/Omaha/Kansas City) should have a NBA or NHL team, but not through these means. They can wait for expansion or get a team that should be moved.

    What can be done, though. It's very similar to when the Baltimore Colts left for Indianapolis in 1984 ... the governor of Maryland almost had a bill passed to keep them before they were moved in the middle of the night.

  2. Yeah, it's not looking too hopeful at the moment, especially given the Bennett/Stern links: there's plenty of local groups that are interest in buying the Sonics, but Bennett won't even talk to them. I agree that Oklahoma deserves a team, especially given their support of New Orleans during the Katrina days, but Seattle isn't the one that should go. Simmons had an interesting idea I didn't mention earlier: have the Seattle group buy the Memphis Grizzlies (who are struggling to draw anyone) and swap franchises with Bennett. Unfortunately, it's not looking like that will work either due to Memphis' long-term lease. Hopefully, something will get done to save the NBA in Seattle, but I'm not too optimistic at the moment...