Seattle Shouldn’t Be an NBA Expansion Pawn

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) — It’s been little more that two weeks since Seattle celebrated its Seahawks’ first Super Bowl football championship win and the city’s first major sports championship since 1979 with a parade, but that hasn’t stopped certain elements of the sports world from raining on it.
With the confetti scarcely swept off the streets, Seattle got a fresh layer of dark clouds and new deluge of bad tidings from the National Basketball Association this week — because of course it did.


The Seahawks’ parade could have doubled as a going-away party for longtime NBA Commissioner David Stern, who stepped down at the beginning of this month. Stern had not only signed off on the Seattle SuperSonics move to Oklahoma City in 2008, but last year played an instrumental role in blocking the sale of the Sacramento Kings to an ownership group that would have moved them to Seattle. With Stern gone, it was believed that new commissioner Adam Silver would be more amenable to giving Seattle an expansion team and bringing back the Sonics.
Not quite.
As Silver recently revealed to ESPN, the NBA is not only not planning on expanding right now, but seems to have every intention of bringing Sonics fans’ worst nightmare to life. As Sonics fans learned during the proposed Sacramento Kings deal — which ended with a Sacramento-based group buying the team with promises of massive public subsidies for a new stadium — Seattle is now the league’s bad cop to its benevolent owners. NBA front offices don’t want to move their teams because a city won’t mortgage its fortune on a new arena: They have to because Seattle’s has the money in place and appreciates a franchise more.
In other words, they have leverage and aren’t about to let it go. Fans in the National Football League have seen what an empty major market in Los Angeles can do and have watched owners in Minnesota and Buffalo use it to pry hundreds of millions in stadium dollars out of the hands of taxpayers. St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke may be using a similar tactic by purchasing acreage in Inglewood, Calif., just as his team hit a stalemate with its host city over stadium improvements.
Seattle already scared Sacramento into jump-starting its arena rebuilding project, and now it looks as if it’s going to do the same for Milwaukee. Seattle hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer offered $420 million for 72% of the Kings and agreed to a $115 million relocation, $200 million to repay bonds issued for a new arena and $80 million to buy land in south Seattle for the new building. Keep that roughly $800 million figure in mind when considering that Commissioner Silver just told the owners of the Milwaukee Bucks in September that their home at the Bradley Center wasn’t good enough to host an NBA franchise.
In December, Bucks owner Herb Kohl said he wanted to sell a portion of the team to investors who wouldn’t move it, but insists he’d need some publicly funded upgrades to make that happen. Milwaukee, meanwhile, has the Bucks locked into a lease until 2017 and has no designs on letting them go early. City government doesn’t think much of Kohl’s and Silver’s begging, and gave the Bucks just $175,000 in parking revenue to spruce up the joint.
The Bucks have had exactly two winning seasons in the last 10 years and have been ushered out of the playoffs in the first round four times during that span. Since the season began in October, the team has struggled to reach 10 wins and went 1-14 in the month of January. We’re sure that Kohl and Silver will remind Milwaukee that the Sonics faced similar struggles before Oklahoma City owners snatched them away and that they should pony up something shy of the $800 million that Seattle is willing to spend unless they want a similar fate for their Bucks.
But what if Seattle doesn’t want to play the bad guy, you ask? Well, it could be a long wait and an expensive proposition for new owners. Silver and his owners know they have Seattle on the hook to spend at least $800 million, but what if the league could squeeze them for more? The league is angling for a sweet new television deal in 2016, and Silver can always lean on the diluting the talent pool argument while staving off expansion. In truth, however, the owners just want a bigger cut for themselves.
“I just think the price of the expansion fee has to be so high that the NBA owners think, ‘OK, we’re crazy not to do it.’ What that number is, I don’t know. But I’m open to it,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told ESPN earlier this year. “It just depends on the price. When you sit in the board of governors meeting, you give a price, and each NBA owner calculates his share. You balance it to what you’re giving up in TV and shared revenue, and you say: ‘OK, it’s worth it.’ Then you say you got to do it.”
Yes, they’re going to bleed Seattle as much as they can. The fact is the NBA isn’t exactly a pillar of financial stability. A third of the NBA’s teams has changed ownership since 2010. The league will point to its international appeal and growing worldly ventures including NBA China, but four of its teams — the Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers — failed to turn a profit last season. Three others — the Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats — all posted profits of less than $9 million compared to top-tier teams that easily triple or quadruple that take.
If those owners can’t get a few extra bucks out of their own markets, they’d have no problem taking them from Seattle. Whether or not Seattle should put a little extra salmon on each of their plates is another matter.
Seattle’s King County still owes more than $50 million on the Kingdome, which was demolished in 2000, and won’t have it paid off until 2016. The city ended up paying 71% for the $422 million cost of the Seahawks’ new home at CenturyLink Field and is still paying that off as well. It spent $384 million building Safeco Field for the Mariners baseball team in 1997 and paid sales and car-rental taxes through 2011 just to pay it off. The only reason Seattle isn’t still paying debt on KeyArena that would have outlasted the Sonics’ lease there by five years is because it received a settlement covering those costs at the time of the Sonics’ move.
In the absence of baseball stadium debt, some of that Safeco tax money has since been shifted toward funding the arts in Seattle. Without the Sonics at KeyArena, the main attractions at the neighboring Seattle Center — beyond the Space Needle — have been Paul Allen’s EMP music museum and the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition hall that opened in 2012 and features the works of Tacoma glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
Why that brief non sequitur, you ask? Because it shows what the city is capable of when it doesn’t have the burden of a team’s building hanging over its head. In two years, the Kingdome will be off the books and the city will have that off of its shoulders as well. Why allow the NBA to put your city in a situation where its only intention is to charge the highest price possible for something it already took away? Moreover, why funnel away more tax dollars from a city that already has the costs of waterfront development, transportation improvements and underestimated bridge repairs to deal with? (P.S. The 520 bridge toll is awful and the whispers about tolling I-90 are even worse.)
While writing about his time with the failed Seattle Pilots baseball club during their one season in 1969, Ball Four author Jim Bouton noted that the team’s Sicks Stadium was an absolute mess and ill-suited to a team that had to deal with rain for much of its season. Still, he came away with the idea that the city’s reluctance to just throw money at a building or franchise displayed a great sense of priorities:
I enjoyed living in the Great Northwest for most of a season, and I’m sad that Seattle didn’t get to keep its franchise. A city that seems to care more for its art museums than its ballpark can’t be all bad.
It’s one of the most-referenced quotes about Seattle sports and it remains true to this day. Seattle is a city teeming with culture and surrounded by natural wonders in all directions. It’s a town where the Mariners being awful only lets everybody enjoy some rare sun, bike the Burke-Gilman trail, hike Mount Rainier and take ferries out to the islands or the Olympic Peninsula. It doesn’t need professional sports, but when teams like the Seahawks and Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders treat it right it embraces them with equal fervor.
Seattle shouldn’t have to beg for its Sonics back and definitely shouldn’t have to steal them. If the city should have learned anything from the Kings debacle, it’s that the NBA doesn’t have its interests in mind. The league needs its playing chip more than Super Bowl champion Seattle needs it. It is still the largest television market without an NBA franchise and the only Top 20 Nielsen market without one. The league wants perfect, modern buildings that generate maximum revenue for owners while leaving a minimal return for host cities.
It’s why the Sonics moved from the No. 13 market in the country to the 41st: Because the NBA wants its cut from towns it can walk all over. It wants to convince cities that a franchise makes them world class and elevates their profile. It wants cities that are going to bend over backwards for it and tell it that the NBA is the best thing that ever happened to them.
In Seattle, that’s not even close. We know Sonics fans are still hurting and that every time Kevin Durant appears on SportsCenter or the Thunder are mentioned as NBA title contenders, it twists the knife a little bit. In an ideal world, that would be Seattle’s Durant bringing Seattle a little bit of glory. But it isn’t, and Seattle has a lot more going for it than an NBA franchise that didn’t want it anymore.
It has its first title since the Sonics’ NBA Championship in 1979, but it also has its identity, priorities and money. It shouldn’t ever let the NBA deprive it of that in the name of leverage again.