How Seattle outgrew the Sonics

Professional basketball has become a business whose only cure is megabucks, and Seattle has become too big a place to want to keep in that game. That adds a special poignancy to watching the Sonics lose, and watching the city lose the team to Oklahoma Ciy or Renton.
Professional basketball has become a business whose only cure is megabucks, and Seattle has become too big a place to want to keep in that game. That adds a special poignancy to watching the Sonics lose, and watching the city lose the team to Oklahoma Ciy or Renton.

Yes, there's a team called the SuperSonics, named after a plane that never got built. In its 40th year, they play five on a side, that game. They're a goodish bad team. They play in KeyArena, an excellent place to play, and crowds announced around 14,000 go see them. They have one of sports' best announcers, Kevin Calabro, calling faster and more accurately than guys on national television. The Sonics are good enough to stay close in most games, bad enough to falter when a superior opponent drops the hammer. Their coach, Bob Hill, says his leading player, Ray Allen, is close to a perfect human being, but his ankles aren't, and he's out until next year, and so is the team. When the players fail, they insist the coaches gave them the right game plan. So there's a poignancy when they lose that some better teams, watching whom is like watching paint dry, cannot match. But if I say a word about them to almost anyone I know, heads turn away at least as quickly if I say I go to church. The Sonics, the team, is not news. But the franchise is, sort of. Last fall the local owners, headed by Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, failed in their semi-serious attempt to get the city to put up enough money to renovate KeyArena, which had been redone to NBA specifications a decade ago, to provide enough corporate money to pay the players. So, pleading poverty the whole way, they sold the team and ended up with a tidy profit on their investment in the neighborhood of 30 percent, as they knew they would. The buyers are from Oklahoma City, about 30 places lower than Seattle on the list of large markets. But why would they buy if they didn't want to take the team away? They have an arena with a few thousand more seats than the Key. They had gotten nice crowds when they welcomed the New Orleans Hornets as refugees from Hurricane Katrina. There had been no outcry when Schultz got no real response from the city about redoing the Key, and memories in town are long enough to cite the skullbuggery that preceded the building of the Mariners' Safeco and the Seahawks' Qwest. Clay Bennett, the chief new owner, has insisted he'd love to keep the team here, but only if he can get help in building an arena less than half as large as Safeco, and at the same price. It's an ugly game indeed, this constant cry for creation of new places to play professional sports that will pay players and gain corporate sponsorships. NBA commissioner David Stern has promoted all this because he knows the league has fallen off since the heyday of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, and you can't manufacture such players as you can money. What one needs, say the commissioner and the new owners, is an arena that's also suites that can bring in $10,000 a night, a shopping mall, venues for shows and concerts, and more. Seattle says no. Bellevue says no. Renton says yes, but Renton is to King County as Oklahoma City is to large markets, and it's just hard to take them seriously since suburbs such as Landover, Md., and Richfield, Ohio, have proven themselves to be strictly short-term successes when it comes to new arenas. Gov. Chris Gregoire has spoken as if favorably to providing help from the state, but that seems mostly knee-jerk in her rivalry with Mayor Greg Nickels about the Viaduct, and action in this term of the Legislature has been sluggish at best. Clay Bennett is between a rock and a hard place. Seattle has said it's just too big to be "big league" on NBA terms. We don't need another new arena that badly, since we're now Citizens for More Important Things (heaven help us), and we know that L.A. gets along fine without pro football and New York won't roll over and rebuild Yankee Stadium on the owners' terms. Seattle's the rock. The hard place is Oklahoma City, which is nowhere near as big league as Green Bay. So we might end up with the Kansas City Sonics. The fact is that every professional sports franchise created since World War II has been a proposition based on a team's succeeding, getting to the playoffs, winning divisions and championships. All the leagues have doubled their size and more, and when the novelty wore off in these new towns and teams weren't winners, megabucks have been the only solution. No one imagines moving the franchises of the Indians, or the Eagles, or the Canadiens, or the Celtics; moving the Lakers to a land with no lakes was perhaps the last good one. Maybe now only the megamarkets can afford stability; the rest are fragile and vulnerable from the start. Of the three KeyArena teams, the Sonics are doing least well. The WNBA Storm and the WHL Thunderbirds might stay, but neither could provide enough revenue to keep the Key going, and the Thunderbirds are eyeing Kent. It seems a shame, losing the Sonics and the Key, but it may reveal once again that the only team Seattle will see through the thin as well as the thick is the University of Washington Huskies football team.


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