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September 22, 2014
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How (Not) to Use a Basketball City

The forecast this week in Seattle calls for rain.  And while the residual excitement from the Seahawks’ Super Bowl Victory still surely lingers enough to brighten Seattleites’ collective mood, as we progress further from the NFL season into the heart of basketball season, the outlook grows drearier.  For this 2013-14 NBA season is the fifth year Seattle is without their former SuperSonics.

In 2006, Sonics owner (and Starbucks chairman – because, Seattle) Howard Schultz sold the team to a group of Oklahoman investors, headed by businessman Clay Bennett.  Two years later the Sonics – renamed and relocated – began their inaugural season as the Oklahoma City Thunder (Quick tangent: singular sports mascot names are terrible.  Not only does it make it awkward to refer to an individual member of the team – as in “he is the best Thunder ever” versus “he is the best Knick, or Laker, or Celtic” – but also it causes massive grammatical confusion).

Since their Midwestern move, the Thunder have become one of the most exciting, explosive teams in the league, headlined by the already transcendent Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, neither older than 25 years old and still very much yet to reach their respective ceilings.  The twos All-Star have already led the team to an NBA Finals and have treated the Oklahoma capital to a nonstop highlight reel.

Tragically for the basketball fans of the Emerald City, their team wasn’t carted away due to lack of support.  From 2004 to 2007, the Sonics filled between 93 and 96 percent of the seats in KeyArena.  Seattle is the 14th largest television market in the United States, more than thirty rungs up the ladder from number 45, Oklahoma City.  And Seattle’s fans are nothing if not vivacious.  Just look at the energy they bring to the city’s other teamsNo, but seriously!  As welcoming a home Oklahoma City has been for the Thunder, one would think “The 12th Man” could have done just as good of a job as a “Sixth Man” come basketball season.

The true motivating reasons for the Sonics’ departure from the Northwest were political.  It was only after Schultz was unable to persuade the local government to commit $220 million in public funds for a remodeling of the Sonics’ KeyArena that he sold the team to Bennett.  It’s worth reminding that Schultz’s estimated net worth is $2 billion and that he would reap the rewards of

It was then Bennett and friends’ turn to try to get Seattle fork over taxpayer money for a new arena, the financial benefits of which would primarily flow into their own wallets rather than back to the residents.  When his proposal to use public funding for a new $500 million arena, Bennett packed up and shipped the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

And so the great sports city of Seattle remains, not an NBA city, but a bargaining chip for other NBA team owners and league officials.  In negotiations with local governments, team owners can pressure cities to public funding of new private arenas and the revenue they generate by pointing to team-thirsty Seattle and threatening the possibility of relocation.

Most recently Seattle was used as leverage against the city of Sacramento and the fans of the Sacramento Kings.  After nearly being sold and relocated to Seattle, a local group stepped in and bought the team for a record valuation of $535 million, promising to keep the Kings in Sacramento.  However, the new deal comes not without strings.  As part of the deal to keep the Kings in their California home, the City of Sacramento will pay $258 million of the estimated $448 million to build a new downtown arena.  Some – billionaire owners and the such – argue that cities see positive net returns from publicly funded arenas through increased stimulation of the local economy; the research says otherwise.

So, in summary, the city and fans of Seattle were used against the city and fans of Sacramento by the NBA and Kings owners in order to stack their profits with a taxpayer-funded stadium.

And this is actually how Seattle most benefits the league office and team owners.  Not as a vibrant home for basketball with a passionate fan base, but as leverage against cities hesitant to use taxpayer funds to pay for fancy, new arenas.  Owners can essentially say, “Pay for my arena or I’m taking the team to Seattle.”  Whether or not they mean it, the implication is strong enough to get cities to cave and pass the stadium construction bills to local residents.  Citizens of Milwaukee, it looks like your next in line.

Additionally, the amount of bargaining power a basketball-less Seattle gives NBA owners and league officials creates an incentive to keep the city without a team.  Maybe that’s why league owners voted down the near sale and relocation of the Kings to Seattle.  As much as a team in Seattle benefits the fans and residents of the city, a Seattle with no team benefits 30 other NBA team owners who – when the time comes – want a new stadium and don’t particularly want to open their own wallets to pay for it.

NBA fans don’t deserve to have their favorite teams used against them for exploitation of public resources and Seattle fans deserve better than to be used as a negotiating tool.  Seattle deserves an NBA team, yet – based on their actions – I’m not so sure the NBA league heads deserve Seattle.