It's all a plot: The Sonics and Storm will stay in Seattle

The worse things look, the better the chances of a hairbreadth rescue for the team. Here's how the play is diagrammed.
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A possible constituency with influence: Seattle Storm fans. (WNBA)

The worse things look, the better the chances of a hairbreadth rescue for the team. Here's how the play is diagrammed.

Stories about pro sports teams, when they get into that give-me-a-new-arena-or-we're-outta-here mode, follow a predictable media trajectory, rather like the stages of grief. Denial, anger (where we are now, with the Seattle SuperSonics), resignation, catharsis. Sports writers must love it, since there's so much melodrama to sustain the story for years, so much civic pride to stoke, so many hairbreadth moments. Even better, the real story is taking place in backrooms to which no reporter has access. That helps breed conspiracy theories to keep the story going years after it's "over." The hot development in the past week was one sentence uttered by Aubrey McClendon, the mega-rich natural gas mogul who is one of the four main owners of the Oklahoma City group that bought the Sonics and the Storm from Howard Schultz's group last year. "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here." Puffing out the Seattle civic chests, all our sportswriters had an a-ha! moment. The Oklahoma City group has been lying all along, when they said they wanted to make it work in Seattle before having to give up and move to another city. I was kind of hoping Seattle was no longer the kind of place that had to get its jollies by shoving around puny places like Oklahoma City, but apparently we're not, or at least the papers haven't outgrown that temptation. A calmer interpretation would let us see that the Oklahoma City group is obviously split, and one of the owners decided to try to disrupt all this talk about staying in Seattle (or maybe selling) by making his dissidenting view public. And if the Okies are falling apart, it's an opportunity for Seattle to save the team. Here's how it could happen. First, the Oklahoma City group, led by Clay Bennett, has to realize that they can neither make it work in Seattle, a city whose political culture they don't begin to understand, nor can they get the team to Oklahoma City. So they decide to sell the team to a new Seattle group, at a loss, but at least a loss that is less than what they would lose by bleeding away in Seattle for three more years. The group is then rewarded for this sale by being able to buy either the Memphis Grizzlies (formerly of Vancouver) or the New Orleans Hornets (formerly of Charlotte), since neither is doing well in their small towns and can be purchased for maybe $150 million less than the $350 million cost of the Sonics. Good-guy local owners take over the Sonics and look like geniuses, compared to the Okies, who in turn look like local heroes. In this narrative, you can begin to see some sense in two other developments this week. One was the NBA announcing a fine for McClendon of $250,000 for shooting off his mouth. (No free speech in the NBA club, in case you were naive enough to think that.) That stiff fine was because the NBA was embarrassed by the way an owner went off script but also as a warning of the kind of money the NBA was going to demand if the team was ever moved to Oklahoma City. Nearly every NBA club owner would hate the idea of losing a major market's television revenues and attendance for such a tiny market. (The Oklahoma City metropolitan region population is 1,172,000, ranking 45th, while Seattle's is 3,263,000, ranking 15th). Solving a problem in New Orleans, whose population is now under 200,000, is one thing, but taking a team out of Seattle is another. So the NBA is applying the pressure. Second was a story that the Seattle City Council was considering passing a law to bar the Sonics from buying their way out of their lease at KeyArena, which runs to September 2010. Populist grandstanding against wealthy team owners? Of course. But it is also another way of saying to the Oklahoma City folks: How much pain do you want to take? Ditto for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' refusal to talk with ownership leader Bennett. The problem with my narrative is this: How precisely are you going to get a new arena built in the Seattle area? Seattle politicians not only don't want to appear to do any favors for crybaby billionaire owners. They don't want the Sonics to stay and build a fancy new arena and rock and roll palace in the suburbs that will be a financial death sentence to KeyArena and all who work there. Awkwardly, keeping the Sonics in "Seattle" means stiffing the city of Seattle. Next problem is state House Speaker Frank Chopp, who doesn't want any of his Democrats to have to take a dangerous vote for a new arena, which would anger a very loud group of voters even if it scored points with sports fans. So who's left standing? Chris Gregoire, of course, and the governor has a potentially tight re-election campaign in 2008. It's not just basketball fans who are putting the pressure on the governor. It's the business establishment, which understands how important pro sports are in spreading Seattle's image around the world. In Japan, for instance, the Ichiro-led Mariners are televised every game, all over the country. When Japanese businessmen come calling, perhaps to buy some Boeing planes and work other deals, they get a little dugout moment. Now, imagine this same scenario in China with the Sonics having a Chinese star, playing games in China, and offering some nice little courtside moments. As one leading Seattle businessman put it to me, "Worldwide news about Seattle is usually only bad news, like WTO riots. But nearly every day there's a Seattle story that is positive, and that's coverage of one of our teams." One can imagine some tough conversations, along these lines: So, governor. How serious are you about maintaining our global competitiveness? How willing are you to take some political heat to solve a difficult problem like siting a new arena? Would you, as a woman, be OK with losing the Storm, which begins a playoff bid tonight? Or are you the kind who punts, as you did with the Alaskan Way Viaduct? And what might your likely 2008 challenger, Dino Rossi, have to offer? And Speaker Chopp, how good would your Democratic majority be if you lose the governorship? So the catharsis phase could fit right in with the election cycle. It's a very complicated play being diagrammed for the many players. Oklahoma's group has to cry uncle. The NBA has to provide the face-saving consolation team for Oklahoma City. A Seattle area group has to step forward, with leaders that inspire trust. A good site, almost certainly not in the city of Seattle, has to be found. Some politicians have to summon the courage to provide the public subsidy, which can't be egregious and will probably include a payoff to Seattle or Seattle Center. Gregoire has to feel she's in a close election. The outcry over losing the Storm has to sweep through women voters. The Sonics have to start winning, so the public cares about them again. As I say, these things are never easy. But they sure make a good storyline.


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