A game plan for the Sonics, as time runs out

It began with a conversation last summer between former Sen. Slade Gorton and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. What emerges is a story of civic altruism and shrewd politics. Even so, after all the delays, the local team is playing a very weak hand.
Crosscut archive image.

The Gang of Four, plus the savior senator. (click to enlarge)

It began with a conversation last summer between former Sen. Slade Gorton and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. What emerges is a story of civic altruism and shrewd politics. Even so, after all the delays, the local team is playing a very weak hand.

Politicians, fans, and business interests who want to keep the SuperSonics in Seattle (or at least avoid being blamed for losing them) finally got their ducks lined up Thursday afternoon, March 6. At what could be called a power press conference, Mayor Greg Nickels trotted out money (the billionaire owners group), political clout (especially former Sen. Slade Gorton), and a plausible public case for renovating KeyArena.

Take that, National Basketball Association! (Except nobody was talking to them.) Take that, Legislature! (Though House Speaker Frank Chopp passed word that it's too late in this session to consider the matter.) Take that, foes of spending money on pro sports! (Except that Chris Van Dyk, chief scourge, was being wily with remarks along the lines of the devil being in the details.)

As political orchestration, it was impressive, and Mayor Nickels deserves credit for (belatedly) leading the charge. But the whole episode resembles a poker player with a poor hand who has somehow stayed in the game and suddenly drawn an ace as the very last card. Now what do you do?

Anyhow, let's review the bidding, especially now that some of the backstage details have started coming out.

To nobody's real surprise, there has been a lot of wheeling and dealing among the moguls, the law firms, and the politicians who are on the spot. Last summer, Gorton, the man who twice saved Major League Baseball for Seattle and now a lawyer with K&L Gates, began trying to interest a group in saving the team. They are Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO and the 43rd-richest man in the world by Forbes' count, and John Stanton, Western Wireless founder, Gorton friend, and possible future Republican candidate for governor. Ballmer loves basketball and was interested, but he had two problems: He's way too busy to do much diligence, and once his name appeared, the price for the team might go way up (Ballmer's worth $15 billion).

Ballmer, according to Gorton, said that a Ballmer friend, consummate developer and deal-maker Matt Griffin, should be the person to examine the prospects and lead the effort. Griffin says he got a call from Ballmer last October or November, and he proceded to look over old plans for renovating KeyArena, to add Costco CEO Jim Sinegal to make it a Gang of Four, and to start working with the mayor's office. Gorton, meanwhile, became the lawyer in the city's lawsuit against the Oklahoma City group that now owns the Sonics, trying to make them abide by the terms of the KeyArena lease, which expires in 2010. (The real purpose of the lawsuit, of course, is to bleed the Oklahoma City group, force embarrassing revelations, and otherwise hammer them into selling to the Ballmer Boys.)

Originally, the prospective owners talked about a $75 million contribution toward the $300 million renovation of the Key, but on Feb. 14, they doubled the amount to $150 million. Happy Valentine's Day! And that's the moment when the city team informed legislative leaders that they now had serious owners with mighty deep pockets (not the usual story for Seattle sports team owners) and public cover to enable the assorted politicians to dare to (gasp!) put money yet again into a pro-sports facility. Naturally, the public was not to be informed of all this until this week's power press conference.

If all this seems rather too altruistic to be believed, you might be right. Griffin told me that the group never looked at any alternative venues, since they just want to do what's right for Seattle Center. They didn't hire their own architect to revise the plans first done in 2003-04, when Seattle Center was trying to work out a renovation deal with then-Sonics owner Howard Schultz and which the Oklahoma group rejected out of hand. Griffin says the owners "don't really expect ever to get back the $150 million" for improvements but consider that a kind of civic gift, as if to a museum. (They do want a modest return on buying the team, for which the Okies paid $350 million.) It would appear that most of the money is Ballmer's, as was hinted by Griffin's remark that the ownership shares reflect the various partners' net worth.

Another test of credulity comes over the timing. According to Griffin and Gorton, all this took a lot of time while the diligence, such as it was, was being done. That's why the Legislature got the proposal at the last minute. Maybe. Another theory would be that all the potential opponents were first being privately talked to and negotiated into compliance, so that the grand scheme could be sprung on the Legislature with just a week to go and no time for hearings or its own due diligence. Previous, though weaker, proposals have often been introduced at the last minute, trying to stampede the Legislature, without success.

"It's a great window of opportunity," is the way the mayor and the ex-senator put it, warning that it won't be open next year. Tell the NBA just before their April 17 vote on allowing the Sonics to move to Oklahoma City, hoping they block the move for now. Strengthen your court case by showing the falsity of the Okies' claim that the city virtually showed them the door and paid for the moving vans. And get the public to sign on amid the euphoria of home-team owners coming to the rescue (details to follow).

It really amounts to asking the Legislature to act in a flash, since the prospective ownership team wasn't able to do its work on time. Might work, though, for this is a well-crafted strategy with plenty of positive public relations (and a chance to earn the gratitude of Microsoft and Costco). Maybe the greatest political finesse was in avoiding a public vote, using the argument that the Seattle public already voted on the terms of any arena deal when it passed Van Dyk's Initiative 91 by 74 percent, restricting the public investment to a modest sum that can earn a decent "return." Van Dyk seems flattered by this argument, though one can certainly imagine other hotheads demanding a public vote, even if the city's tax contribution is only $75 million. And of course, it's county money, and county residents didn't vote.

As for Speaker Chopp's characteristic wet blanket ("absolutely no chance of us considering it this legislative session," said House Democratic caucus spokesman Rep. Jeff Morris of Anacortes), that may just be Chopp's usual way of playing a bargaining chip. Find a way to build more low-income housing, as the Service Employees Internation Union suggested, and Chopp's troops may find a way to build an arena.

That said, it's still a pretty weak poker hand. The Ballmer Boys still don't own a team, and by suing Clay Bennett and the Oklahoma group, Seattle doesn't exactly make friends with Bennett or the NBA. Mayor Nickels is not the most popular and trusted politician in the eyes of Gov. Chris Gregoire (supportive but not much help), Speaker Chopp, the crucial but currently moon-beamy King County Executive Ron Sims (who has to pass on the state-authorized but county-collected visitor taxes in the deal), and the famously jittery Seattle City Council.

The plan "may offer a way out of the current stalemate," said City Council President Richard Conlin, in the past a reliable foe of the mayor. The plan "would not be rejected out of hand" by the County Council," said County Council member Larry Phillips. Note the caution. The politicians know that there could be some real fights over who covers any cost overruns (a huge battle with the Mariners), exactly which visitor taxes are tapped (leaving less for other pet projects), and how the money is split from all the new concessions, parking, and new, smaller music venues.

Two final observations on this fascinating, high-stakes story. One person not at the power press conference was Virginia Anderson, the former director of Seattle Center who both put together the Arena fix-up plans now being dusted off and probably is the person most responsible, from years of tireless advocacy, for the willingness of these wealthy owners to think that they are really saving Seattle Center by saving the Sonics at the Key. Ironically, Anderson and the mayor didn't get along well, and she left in frustration, with her Sonics scheme in seeming ruins.

The other curious aspect is social class. These stories often resemble two mighty stags butting antlers over ownership and turf. Very often the aspiring sports owners are car dealers or other working class tycoons who long for the role of civic savior. Cast in this part for this story is Dave Sabey, the boy from Burien who dreamed of putting together Ballmer and others to put the team into gritty Tukwila, his home turf. The Okies were also self-made and rustic.

Instead, old money and Seattle's establishment won out. Griffin, fresh from his coup of marrying the Seattle Art Museum with Washing Mutual's new headquarters, is the town's best dealmaker, and there he was standing with his new friend, Slade Gorton, representing Republicanism and the accumulated power of one of the town's top law-and-lobbying firms, the former Preston Gates Ellis. True, the money of Microsoft, Costco, and Western Wireless is a bit nouveau, but it is certainly the pride and joy of the Seattle world brand. In the end, all the talk about doing the right thing for Seattle Center (if it really is, which I somehow doubt) was appropriate. This was one last hurrah for the World's Fair generation.

I wasn't sure they had one more victory in them.


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