Last week, Howard Schultz threw in the legal towel on his lawsuit trying to recover the Sonics from Oklahoma City. Thanks, Howard. Had he capitulated earlier, when the City was working out its deal with the Oklahoma City purchasers, there would have been leverage, maybe earning a firmer pledge from the NBA about a future expansion. This way, Schultz and Seattle got nothing in return for dropping the suit.
"The timing could have been better," notes King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who was closely involved in the settlement negotiations, which earned the City $45 million. He describes Schultz as "the anaconda in the chandelier," a looming presence overhead who was going to come down and get involved at some time, but few knew when. Others working to keep the Sonics in Seattle expressed similar frustration at the elusive coffee king.
Even so, the City strategy came fairly close to saving the team. Had the Legislature come up with its $75 million portion of the $300 million package to revamp KeyArena, the NBA would have found it politically hard to vote to approve moving the team to Oklahoma City. But House Speaker Frank Chopp, who took an early and unshakable dislike for Clay Bennett, leader of the Oklahoma group, would not budge. (Chopp felt he was being used by Bennett, who only wanted to move the team and needed local politicians to blame.) Gov. Chris Gregoire would not overrule the powerful speaker, and so the deal died.
It might have worked, even without the state portion. According to some research by the House at the end of the last session, the City of Seattle might have upped a square footage B&O tax or taken a portion of the $18 million a year yield it already expects from the new tax, and it could do so without a vote. A second option is to bond against the Real Estate Excise Tax, which is currently slumping but has been surging in recent years, as the real estate market has gone up and up. A third idea would be to turn over virtually all the operations and revenues from KeyArena to the ball club, inducing them to put more than the pledged $150 million into the renovation. All three would have drawn a lot of political heat, and Mayor Greg Nickels was already pretty far out there on the volatile issue.
Now that the Sonics, soon to be named the Thunder, are decamped to Oklahoma City, what are the chances of getting a new team in Seattle? With Schultz dropping his suit, the chances probably go up a bit, as the NBA owners were mighty displeased at having their e-mails examined by lawyers. The City probably won't get money out of the hard-pressed Legislature, so KeyArena is dimming as a site. But with the NBA fixated on expanding to China, West Coast cities such as Seattle and Las Vegas (where the gaming magnates would buy corporate suites to entertain high rollers) might stand a chance as future expansion cities.
Or not. John Christison, the president of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center and a former manager of a sports arena in Florida, thinks that the NBA is now more interested in one-sport cities such as Oklahoma City and Portland, where the competition is less, and in China. Christison thinks the NBA has a problem in sports-rich cities such as Seattle, since professional basketball has become a marketing mismatch. It has a hip, urban product but with tickets that only an older, well-heeled crowd can afford.
Will Seattle continue to pine away for a team, keeping KeyArena in semi-readiness, or decide to move on? The politics favor the former course, since a decision to live without basketball would anger the fans and other economic interests such as restaurants and bars. Better to pretend.