Wednesday, July 02, 2008

On the Ground: Seth Kolloen

Photo: Seth Kolloen, the executive editor of Sports Northwest Magazine and founder and sole proprietor of Enjoy The Enjoyment. [Photo from Enjoy The Enjoyment].

One of the rules of journalism in general is that you get a better story if you're at the event instead of writing about it from afar. That's why large papers have bureaus all over the world, and also why they have beat reporters travel with teams instead of watching the games on TV and writing about them from home. I've found this to be true with my own writing at the Journal: when I've taken road trips with teams, I can usually come up with something much more interesting than if I just phone the coach afterwards and ask questions based on the game summary.

As with any rule, this has exceptions: Will Leitch made a very nice career out of not going to events over at Deadspin, and I'm sure his successors A.J. and Rick will keep that trend largely alive. It's quite possible to do great things without personal coverage, but still, on the whole, I think there's a fair bit to be said for being there in person. That's why I decided to get up at 3 a.m. and make the long drive down to to Seattle the other week for the opening day of the Sonics trial and the rally that followed: I could have just written my column from afar, but I think I got a much better understanding of the issues around the proposed relocation from spending a day studying it up close and personal.

Unfortunately, the demands of regular work meant I had to follow the rest of the trial from B.C., but I was still able to keep up with it, thanks to the excellent coverage from local media sources like the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Still, I'm sure I would have been able to cover it even better if I had the time to be there all week.

However, there is another alternative to get a better sense of these situations: talking to those who are there. In this particular case, most of the local media types there probably have a far better understanding of the details than myself, as they've been there as the situation's developed. In general, though, talking with other journalists can reveal a lot more about a situation than just what they can fit in their stories or pieces: I know from my own experience in the media that much of the best stuff often gets cut due to space, angle or other concerns. Ever wonder why so many print journalists get invited onto radio or TV shows to discuss specific issues (not just in sports, but in every type of media coverage)? I'd venture that the primary reason isn't usually because of their looks or the sound of their voice: it's because it's their job to be well-informed, and thus, they often have interesting things to say.

That's why I'm kicking off a new and hopefully recurring feature on this blog, entitled "On the Ground." I'm hoping to run it whenever there's a city-specific issue I'm writing about to compare local perspectives with my own detached one. The idea is to get in touch with local types (usually from some form of the media, but not always) who have detailed knowledge of what's going on, grill them with a bunch of questions and post the questions and answers here. If you're interested in being featured in this segment in the future, drop me a line .

We'll start things off with the Sonics trial. Judge Marsha Pechman is set to hand down her verdict later this afternoon, so to lead up to that, I present the first series of "On the Ground" interviews with Seattle types, all of whom I asked the same set of questions. First up: Seth Kolloen, of the excellent Sports Northwest Magazine and Enjoy the Enjoyment. My questions and his unedited answers are below. There's a lot of great stuff from him in there.

Q: What's the mood like in Seattle? Do people still feel there's a chance to keep the franchise, or are they resigned to losing it?

A: Casual fans pretty much assume the team is gone. There's a small cadre of dedicated fans, led by the amazingly effective Brian Robinson and Steven Pyeatt at Our Sonics, who are closely following the case and holding out hope that one of these court cases will prove out.

Q: Do you think the rallies and popular expressions of support will make any difference in the end?

A: Depends on what you mean by "the end." The rallies definitely forced local politicians to try to hold the team to their lease--the last thing politicians want is a highly organized, motivated, angry group against them. Save Our Sonics threatened to disrupt our incumbent governor's reelection kickoff, so she met with them the day before to get on their good side. So if the city wins the court case, and the team stays for two more years, it will have been the fans who did that...if that forces Bennett to sell, you can thank the fans. But, more than likely, whether the Sonics stay hinges on Howard Schultz' seeming longshot case to force the team to stay, and the outcome there won't have anything to do with the fans.

Q: What do you think was the city's strongest argument or piece of evidence presented during the trial?

A: For their case, it's simply the language of the lease. The lease clearly spells out that "specific performance" is required--meaning that the team isn't supposed to be able to get out of the lease with any kind of cash settlement.

Q: What do you think was PBC's strongest argument or piece of evidence presented during the trial?

A: That the city was involved in a plan to undermine their own tenant and force them to sell, now being called the "poisoned well" argument. It was sort of an odd situation where both sides' testimony was completely full of shit: You had PBC saying "Why would we ever talk about moving the team to Oklahoma City? What a crazy notion!" (b.s), and the city saying "Try to undermine PBC and force them to sell? What an awful idea!" (also b.s.). If the judge rules that the city and the PBC have an irreparably damaged relationship, she may let the team out of the lease.

Q: Is there anything you think the city could have done better during the process leading up to the trial? If so, what? What about during this trial?

A: They could've been a little more discreet with their plans to try to force the PBC to sell, but considering how fast the situation was moving, that's almost hoping for too much. If the city and lawyers and consultants had only met face to face, with no notes or something, they never could've gotten anything done. During the trial--much was made of the judge being tough on the city, but I think if you're a judge deciding a case in which your own city is a party, you almost have to err on the side of skepticism, if only to make the decision more likely to stand up on appeal.

Q: If Judge Pechman rules in favour of PBC buying its way out of the lease, do you think there is still any hope for keeping the team (i.e. appeal, the Schultz lawsuit, or something else), or will that mean they're definitely gone?

A: If the city loses, I think the team is gone. The city would have to seek an injunction to keep the team here, but, more importantly, they'd have to put up a bond to pay for any losses the team incurred while staying here during the appeal--estimated in the tens of millions. I think at that point, non-basketball-fans would say, "hey, wait--why are we paying for this again?" And if the team moved, the remedy hoped for in Schultz' case, to "unwind the sale", would be more undoable. Plus the Schultz case is going in front of the same judge--if she ruled for PBC here, it's hard to imagine her ruling against PBC in an even more difficult to prove case.

Q: If the city is allowed to enforce the "specific performance" clause, do you see the Sonics remaining here any longer than 2010?

A: Possibly--if Schultz wins his case, and/or if the NBA don't want the black eye of a lame duck team, and they and the city work something out.

Q: If the team leaves, do you see Seattle ever getting another NBA franchise? If so, what timeframe do you think is likely?

A: Maybe, but I think it would be a disaster--at least at the start, just like Charlotte has been. The NBA's percieved heartlessness here has turned off so many fans, I think they'll be leaguesona non grata for at least ten years. And for the youngsters, you've got the resurgent Trailblazers right down the road, who not only have Nate "Mr. Sonic" McMillan as coach, but local boy (Garfield High, my alma mater, what what!) and University of Washington star Brandon Roy as their star player.

Thanks again to Seth for taking the time to do this. Here's his bio paragraph, written specially at my request:

For Seth Kolloen, executive editor of Sports Northwest magazine and founder and sole proprietor of, a Sonics game at the Kingdome was the very first pro sporting event he saw live. During the 1996 Sonics/Bulls finals, he convinced the managers of the chain drug store where he worked to set up a portable TV near the checkout counter so he could watch the games.

Hope you enjoyed this new segment: be sure to post suggestions or thoughts on it in the comments, or e-mail them to me directly. More of these to follow later today!

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