Endgame blame-game for the Sonics

As the team heads for the exits, it looks like everybody lost. In fact, Howard Schultz, the Oklahoma City gang, and Mayor Nickels may have all got exactly what they wanted (but dared not declare).
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Oklahoma basketball owner Clay Bennett's use of Seattle icon Lenny Wilkens in his supposed effort to keep the Sonics here didn't win Bennett any friends in town

As the team heads for the exits, it looks like everybody lost. In fact, Howard Schultz, the Oklahoma City gang, and Mayor Nickels may have all got exactly what they wanted (but dared not declare).

In basketball, there's a vivid term, "garbage time," to describe the end of a lopsided game where players get to make showboating shots. We've reached garbage time for the political game over the fate of the Sonics. Last week, the team's spokesman-owner Clay Bennett was blasting Seattle's business and political leadership for not coming to his rescue. Those cheap shots help Bennett make the case for pulling the plug on the Seattle franchise on October 31, his deadline. Mayor Greg Nickels returned the fire by refusing to meet with Bennett, saying he didn't even want to discuss an early exit from the Key Arena contract. The Mayor needed these easy baskets to make his case that he tried to keep the team, and was standing up to these Oklahoma slickers. Nobody was paying much attention to this grandstanding, and local fans have already mostly headed for the exits rather than take seriously this endgame blame-game. Besides, most of the action is taking place backstage, where little public information is available. From what I can tell from my sources, there still is a slight chance that the Sonics and the Storm will stay. Bellevue business leaders are said to be trying, yet again, to come up with a site that can work, and some are hoping Gov. Chris Gregoire (about the only local politician willing to take the heat and advocate for keeping the team) will try to knock together a deal. Those involved call it a very long shot. Meanwhile, Developer David Sabey has an intriguing property by Boeing Field, and an interest in building an arena there, but apparently he has not made any offers to join the ownership group. An extreme longshot is the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe property next to Emerald Downs racetrack, 25 miles south of Seattle. The one possibility that seems dead is keeping the team at Key Arena or anywhere inside Seattle. Neither the Howard Schultz group nor the Oklahoma City group had any success dealing with Seattle politicians or the state legislature in this scenario. In November, Seattle voters in a populist spasm passed an initiative pretty much precluding any tax money for pro-sports facilities in Seattle, and more outraged initiatives loom if any local politicians dare play footsie with the team owners. Any deal with "Seattle" stamped on it is a non-starter in Olympia, where the city is anything but popular and thought to be a political cave of winds. The Key Arena site has lots of constraints on expanding, especially with traffic getting so congested in South Lake Union. Nor is the City is eager to have a new arena built somewhere else in the region, as it would cripple Key Arena in economic competition. Chances of a Sonics' future anywhere at Seattle Center "have a very weak heartbeat," reports Center Director Robert Nellams. So the city government's position, while not stated so baldly, is "don't let the door hit you on the way out." At the heart of the problem are two factors. One is that the new owners' front man, Clay Bennett, especially after he effectively dismissed the beloved Lenny Wilkens, Sonics vice chairman, from the team, has made very few friends in town. His advocacy team is in shambles. Efforts to combine the sports arena with a new convention center, which the region actually could use, faltered because of the missing local partners and distrust. Bennett himself is clumsy, but he also may not be free to express his personal druthers. Bennett is far from the largest owner, and he represents some very rich and hardshell-conservative Oklahoma investors, such as Aubrey Ken McClendon, founder of Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest natural gas producers in the country. The Oklahoma City group may just want to get the Sonics to Oklahoma, even if it will lose a good deal of money in such a small market, because they can afford to carry on as local heroes. Bennett, who married into the wealth of media mogul Edward L. Gaylord, may not feel as comfortable with that much red ink. In turn, that may explain why he once seemed seriously interested in making the Sonics work in a new arena in Seattle's suburbs.) At any rate, Bennett's clunkiness has pretty much blown his chance of getting Seattle partners and serious public money for a new arena here. The other key factor is that Bennett's group paid $350 million, which most consider way too much money for the team. The high price extracted by Schultz and the former Seattle owners means that the Sonics really do need a sweet stadium deal, with lots of ancillary revenue, to justify the premium price. Not very likely in the Seattle political climate, and the high price scares off potential Seattle partners, who might come into the deal or buy the team from Bennett. It gets worse. The lofty purchase price makes a smaller-city market, like Kansas City or Oklahoma City, look dubious, even if the Sonics are an improving ballclub after drafting superstar Kevin Durant. Still worse, there may be at least two other teams in trouble in their small markets, New Orleans and Memphis. These teams distort the market by providing fire-sale purchase opportunities for other cities looking to nab an NBA franchise. No wonder Clay Bennett seems in a sour mood. He paid too much and is stuck with the Sonics. Seattle's last hope for retaining the Sonics rests on speculation that the NBA wouldn't allow the team to move, given the strong media market in Seattle and the growing interest in China and Asia by the basketball league. Take away the chance to move the team and Bennett might be forced to unload the Sonics, at a loss, on a Seattle group. Not likely. NBA commissioner David Stern has a lot of reasons to owe Bennett who, as a principal owner of the San Antonio Spurs, built a fine arena and franchise in that (quite small) city, and led the effort to give the New Orleans Hornets a temporary home in Oklahoma City, scoring political charity points for Stern. Of course, this spectacle of Seattle giving the Oklahomans a bum's rush may be what Bennett was trying to engineer all along, justifying his need to move the team to Oklahoma City. Similarly, the Howard Schultz group, eager to sell with such a high price in prospect, also may have scripted Mayor Nickels into being the grinch, giving the local group the needed political cover for their sale to out-of-towners. (I suspect the Schultz group decided to ask for a very generous public subsidy, knowing that if that failed they had a buyer on the hook.) The Mayor all along has acted as if he knew the political folly of making a generous offer to crybaby sports owners, and that his main goal was to prevent construction of a new arena, which would steal away rock shows from Key Arena, making the financial drain of Seattle Center even worse. All the other Seattle politicians, including Speaker Frank Chopp, ran for cover, fearful of the political consequences if they bailed out one more sports billionaire. And so, ironically enough, everybody (Schultz, Nickels, Bennett, and Nick Licata, who led the opposition from the City Council) got what he wanted, without ever admitting that's what he wanted. (That's a kind of hypocrisy four-bagger.) The second ironic twist would be if the Sonics do decamp, after which time and recriminations take their local toll, and a local group then assembles to buy one of the fire-sale teams and install them in a gleaming new Microsoft Sportsplex in the suburbs. Call it the Oklahoma detour. That would be the perfect ending to this cynical saga of political avoidance. We'd end up with a team that costs more, an arena that is even more vulgar, and everybody mad at everybody else. Clay Bennett would get the last laugh, albeit from the poorhouse.


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