Seattle abused but not defeated in NBA pursuit

The NBA played Seattle as an option to win better terms from Sacramento. But this should be just the beginning of the city's efforts to win a basketball and hockey arena.

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The NBA played Seattle as an option to win better terms from Sacramento. But this should be just the beginning of the city's efforts to win a basketball and hockey arena.

Memo to Howard Schultz: It took the NBA and the city of Sacramento 13 years to strike a deal for a new arena. You quit on the project after four years.

Memo to Seattle fans of basketball: Don’t quit after a few weeks.

News Monday that the Kings apparently have an arena deal to stay in Sacramento may be discouraging to some who were hoping that the franchise might be snatched for the potential SoDo arena project proposed by millionaire hoops fanatic Chris Hansen.

But it was not surprising, for those playing close attention.

The NBA devoted an enormous effort to avoid moving the Kings.

“It’s hard to overstate how involved the NBA and David Stern were in this process,” Ryan Lillis, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee who was in Orlando, where negotiators worked for three days around the All-Star Game to make the deal, told KJR radio. “They’ve been up and down with Sacramento on building a new arena probably more than any other market anywhere. I think it helped that (former NBA All-Star) Kevin Johnson was the the mayor, and could get Stern to pick up his call.”

The fact that Stern likes to pinch Johnson’s cheek and say, “Wudgie-wudgie,” might have been nice for Sacramento. But it wasn’t the reason for the deal.

The excitement over Seattle’s arena prospects apparently obscured the truth here for many: The Kings had no better place to go.

Seattle? There’s no NBA-certified arena here. And if ground were broken tomorrow on a new palace, it would take two years minimum to open, meaning that the Kings owners — the Maloof family or their Seattle successors — would be stuck losing millions in a temp building with no way to  substantially improve the team until the new revenues arrived. Even if the Kings were available, the proposed arena location means a long, stiff argument in Seattle will precede the shovel. So figure three years.

Los Angeles? No way Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Clippers owner Donald Sterling were going to let the Kings crowd the Los Angeles market, even if Orange County had an arena ready. It only seemed a year ago as if the Kings were about to move there. As a master monopolist, Stern used Anaheim as leverage last May and granted the Kings an extra year, then added to his leverage by Hansen’s grand gesture this month in Seattle.

As Church Lady would say, “How conVEEEnient!”

Besides, a third team in LA doesn’t increase the NBA’s TV footprint, which is where the money is, not in gate receipts. Believe it or not, Sacramento is the nation’s 20th largest TV market, only eight behind Seattle.

Which gets us to reason 1A as to why the Kings will remain where they are: The new collective bargaining agreement that required a lockout to achieve. The most significant part of the deal with the union that cost the league 13 percent of its regular season schedules and millions of dollars on both sides was to get financial help to smaller market teams.

Trimming payrolls and increasing revenue sharing, as well as increased costs for exceeding the salary cap, are the main improvements that will allow for more of the competitive balance that helps the NFL and MLB become more profitable.

After going to all that trouble and expense to strengthen the weakest links, it would have been an even a bigger failure for the NBA to walk out on Sacramento after walking out on Seattle. It would have make a mockery of the lockout’s results (that could happen anyway, but the NBA isn’t eager to see failure happen in the first three months) .

The biggest differences between franchise situations in Seattle and Sacramento are that Schultz, the main local owner, lost interest in the fight for a new arena, and sold to out-of-towners who had the place (an expandable, fairly new arena), the means (billions in oil and gas revenues) and the desire (a no-horse town thrilled to be a one-horse town) to move the club regardless of the cost in travail and treasure.

Sacramento may have been near emotional collapse on their long-running arena issue, but Seattle had already spent more than $1 billion fix or create create an NBA arena (1995), a baseball park (1999), and a football/soccer stadium (2001). Then one dared ask for seconds? Never ask again why Seattle went all Yosemite Sam on the NBA.

As much as sports fans don’t want to hear it, there’s a significant element of the region’s population that would love to again slam the door so hard on pro sports that the hinges  shatter like safety glass. Go ask the University of Washington about that, after it tried to get public money to upgrade a public building on a public campus. The F-bombs still echo in Olympia.

Having said all of the foregoing about the civic and franchise histories of Sacramento and Seattle, that doesn’t mean there will never be the NBA or NHL teams here. As much as the smaller markets have been helped by the new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA did not bulletproof itself against the new, bigger-picture economic realities in some markets.

Each one has different building, lease, and economic conditions that may make it vulnerable to predation. Hansen’s commitment here seems genuine; his $290 million in private funding exerts a powerful gravitational pull. And even though he has put down a $20 million stake in the SoDo ground, that doesn’t necessarily make it the only place for an arena.

Reasons are many for both leagues to want to be here; so too for Seattle to try to make the arena happen. As long as no one picks at the scab of public funding (which is not the same as public participation), things heal and progress gets made.

Seattle has just been used by the NBA to get a deal for Sacramento. Since nobody died and no tax money was spent — the only dents were to media travel budgets chasing a thin story — it was, as is said often under the hoop: No harm, no foul. The Kings stay, so good for Kings fans. I just hope the city doesn’t need parking money to pay Johnson’s salary.

As has been mentioned before here, patience is required. Since things can change rapidly, it would be healthy to check one’s sporting heart at the door.

Follow Art Thiel on Twitter at @Art_Thiel


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