The 'Big League City' argument for a new arena is bush league

There's only one good reason to consider a new NBA basketball-NHL hockey arena in Seattle. It's the passion, stupid.
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Big league city? Seattle always seems to feel it needs something else to have arrived as a major city.

There's only one good reason to consider a new NBA basketball-NHL hockey arena in Seattle. It's the passion, stupid.

The worst argument for bringing an NBA franchise back to Seattle is that it will make Seattle a big-league city once again. I haven't checked The Seattle Times' historical database on this, but my hunch is that argument has been made hundreds of times over the years: the original Sonics, the Pilots, the Seahawks, the Sounders, the Storm, the Mariners, the Lingerie League... .

Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer uses that rationale this week in writing about the city and county's new basketball/hockey arena financing plan. "It is a chance to transform Seattle from a city with major-league teams to a true major-league city," he writes. He goes on: "Do you want to continue to be the little sports city that couldn't?"

We complain about public subsidies for sports, even attempt to outlaw them, but they keep coming back. That's because our "big league" ambitions never die, nor our insecurity. Seattle is a city that still wants to grow up: high-rises and hoop dreams. Once we were told we'd be big-time if we just had basketball, baseball, and football. Now we have to have everything. The bar is always set just above whatever level of accomplishment we've achieved, like a mirage of big-leaguenss.

Sometimes I yearn for the days when one of Seattle's biggest sports stars was a chess player. And the public didn't have to fund the Last Exit on Brooklyn to spawn Yasser Seirawan.

Sports does not make a world-class city. And franchises are also fickle — traded like Monopoly properties. There's no stigma in stealing a franchise, in relocating. Americans have been pulling up stakes and moving to greener pastures here since the Oregon Trail reached Tumwater.

We make the mistake in thinking that businesses are somehow nailed down. Would that it were true, but it's not. If Boeing can move its HQ to Chicago and some assembly plants to South Carolina, then trying to attain a big league status by permanently holding onto teams seems rather silly. Sports franchises are more virtual than airplane manufacturers. Getting a pledge not to pull up stakes is a good idea, but nothing is guaranteed.

Also, having a team does not mean glory. The Pilots were an ignominious flop during their single season. The Mariners are mired in "rebuilding," having provided minimal thrills since '95. The Seahawks have had to resort to meaningless marketing slogans that promise attitude, not wins. One of my favorites, from the Mike Holmgren era: "It's Now Time." What the hell did that mean? Even better where some of the classic Mariner's ad lines: "The Mariners are Big League Stuff," and "The Mariners are Playing Hardball." It's good to under-promise when you under-deliver.

There are good things that come from pro sports. Entertainment, for sure. Local business for another: tourists, bar and restaurant business, tax revenues, over-paid athletes donating to charity. And where would the be without a Seagals slideshow?

All that said, the only reason to justify the investment is passion, fun. We want it because we want it, even if sports cannot commit to loving us back. Chris Hansen, a hedge-fund manager, is a local boy with a passion for basketball and a memory of growing up with the Sonics. He wants to bring the team back because he loves the idea. He's admitted he can make more more money doing his hedging. The proposed deal deserves tough scrutiny, but if this is truly about love, let's listen.

Seattle doesn't need the Sonics or hockey, it doesn't need another new arena. It certainly won't become big-league over night because the NBA is back in town, if that were to happen. But the city is better off when big dreams are undertaken and people put money where their passion is. Better a locally raised guy like Chris Hansen putting his money where his love is than carpetbaggers trying to strip mine local pockets, then move the franchise a la Ken Behring, a guy who had the Seahawks moving vans loaded for Orange County.

The notion that Seattle is a "can't do" city is false, a silly meme belied by the transformation of the last half-century, let alone the huge projects being undertaken today (tunnel, waterfront, floating bridge, light rail, trollies, etc.). Big cities do lots of stuff, they also fail to do lots of stuff. That's life. We don't need to build an arena to prove anything to anyone, we have the skyline to prove it.

Sports play to passion, they breed it; they are based on loyalty, hope, an embrace of possibility. That's usually all Seattle gets in return. But it doesn't mean the new arena's not worth doing, just that we need to do it for ourselves if we do it at all.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.