Money talks in favor of an NBA team in Seattle
by Art Thiel
Chris Hansen, left, with Mayor Mike McGinn during a press event. Credit: Office of the Mayor/Flickr
At a press conference Wednesday at the Filipino Community Center in south Seattle to announce his bid for re-election, Mayor Mike McGinn was wonderfully ironic in his ignorance about a rumor that had Chris Hansen buying the Kings for $500 million and moving the NBA team from Sacramento to Seattle for next season.
"I know as much about it as you do," he volunteered to a packed room before being asked. "If it's true, ain't it cool?"
The fact that McGinn was absent from the conversational loop was important. Sports fans and taxpayers should never want politicians out front on anything involving franchises. Because whenever a local pol is in the middle of the TV screen explaining something about sports, it usually means bad news.
Remember his predecessor, Greg Nickels? When last seen, he was explaining how wonderful it was that the city gave away the Sonics for $42 million from Clay Bennett to pay off the KeyArena mortgage. One had to possess a weapons-grade squint to see what Nickels was seeing.
How about a more contemporary comparison, such as Wednesday? Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who used to go jaw-to-jaw with Gary Payton when both played in the NBA, had set his jaw again, this time behind a podium on TV from the California capital. He told his constituencies that the town had not yet begun to fight, and that he would vigorously pursue local ownership to purchase the Kings and keep them out of Seattle.
Again, bad news. Another mayor in the game of sports-extortion poker was trying to win the pot with a pair of deuces.
Johnson's years-long battle to salvage for his hometown his former profession with the powers of his new profession was falling apart. I felt bad for him, because anyone in Seattle who cared about the Sonics in 2008 remembers the boot-to-the-gut feeling when the realization struck that hope was lost.
But sentiment does not change the game of musical chairs played by the monopoly operators of sports leagues. In the NBA of 30 chairs, it appears Sacramento, thanks to a wretched ownership, is No. 31, despite having sold out its season inventory of tickets in 19 of the franchise's 27-year tenure.
The fans there appear on verge of losing their team, which is little shock, given the treacheries, duplicitousness and disingenuousness of the brothers Maloof over the years. They have run a quality franchise into the ground, now last in the league in attendance.
For three years, the Kings have been the team most vulnerable to a relocation, and the obvious target for Hansen, the Seattle native and hedge-fund manager who is throwing an astonishing amount of effort and personal capital to restoring the NBA in Seattle. He is setting a standard for a commitment to getting business people in and government out of sports operations.
Yes, Hansen is asking the city for $200 million in loans as part of lease-purchase deal that will build a $500 million arena in SoDo, his preferred site, or somewhere else if the environmental-impact study now underway determines that the site is actually an interstellar wormhole that leads to the Crab Nebula, or something. But after he agreed to put his personal wealth as a guarantee for repayment in the first five years — something pro sports owners do as often as lowering stadium beer prices — he bought himself additional cred.
He also seems to be overpaying for the Kings. Yet the Washington Wizards sold for $550 million in 2010, the same year that the Golden State Warriors sold for $450 million. The Kings do offer one thing of high value — no arena lease. The Kings are year to year in the former Arco Arena, now called Sleep Country Arena, such a brutal title sponsor name that it isn't even worth a joke.
So if and when the deal goes through — nobody Wednesday was confirming anything other than Johnson saying he believes the franchise is finally for sale — there will be no courtroom ordeal such as Seattle endured in the summer of 2008.
Johnson's attempt to call for the rich-guy cavalry is unlikely to work, simply because besides the sale price, the prospective new owner will have to partner with the city to build a new arena downtown, a plan that the Maloofs agreed to in 2012 until they didn't, backing out in a maneuver that embarrassed and infuriated NBA commissioner David Stern.
It's always possible the Maloofs will back out of the Hansen deal, especially now that a competing offer may materialize, perhaps from California billionaire Ron Burkle, who has been a supporter in the past of keeping the Kings in Sacramento. But California's rolling urban fiscal crisis, coupled with the futility of seemingly perpetual franchise rescue, mitigates against a deal that Hansen, along with Stern favorite Steve Ballmer, can always top.
Meanwhile, back at the Filipino Community Center, McGinn blinked and smiled at the grand fortune of having the news of the potential sale break on the very day he announced for re-election in an already-crowded field of five, all of whom think he is vulnerable to the heave-ho. Asked whether the timing was intentional or coincidental, a Seattle elected official who wanted anonymity said, "Coincidence. Hansen didn't want this coming out with all the attention on the Seahawks. And he didn't want it to be more a part of a political campaign than it already was."
Unlike his predecessor, McGinn was dealt a royal flush instead of a pair of deuces.
"We set the stage for Chris Hansen to seek the franchise," McGinn said to a crowd of supporters, media and curiosity seekers that probably doubled in number once sale rumors hit the Twitterverse on Tuesday night. "My mother used to say sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."
Indeed, he was the lucky guy who was sitting behind the mayor's desk when Hansen walked in with big private money to restore a civic legacy. He put in some work, had the deal improved greatly by a city council who put a polite squeeze on Hansen for a bigger contribution, and now needs to do only what a good pol does best — smile and shake hands.
As is often the case, Mom was right.