Civic Cocktail: A pattern of uncertainty in Seattle sports franchises

Seattle has a history of not knowing what how its sports sagas will end. Could the arena be the latest in the string?
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Seattle City Council members Mike O'Brien (left), Sally Clark, and Tim Burgess discuss a letter to Chris Hansen.

Seattle has a history of not knowing what how its sports sagas will end. Could the arena be the latest in the string?

Migawd. Do we have a perverse time with pro sports in Seattle, or what?

In 1970, trucks bearing the Seattle Pilots baseball equipment left spring training in Arizona and, instead of heading due north, went northeast and relocated the team to Milwaukee. The state sued the American League, won, and received in 1977 the expansion Seattle Mariners as a settlement.

In 1992, the Mariners were all but moved to Tampa until a Japanese billionaire came out of nowhere to buy the club to keep it in Seattle. The American League tried to stop it, was accused of xenophobia and racism by Seattle and the nation, and relented. Guy still hasn't seen his first Mariners game in person.

In 1996, trucks carried the Seahawks franchise to Los Angeles, where the team attempted to relocate without having a place to relocate. The NFL ordered the team back to Seattle.

In 2006, the Sonics were abruptly sold to out-of-towners because the arena that was updated 11 years earlier with $100 million in public money was declared economically obsolete. In order to get a $45 million settlement, the city dropped a winnable lawsuit that would have kept the team two more years. Five years later, the city is loaning $200 million to build a new arena for an NBA team that, coupled with the franchise purchase, will have a public-private cost of more than $1 billion. And it may not be sufficient.

Shake your heads, sports fans. Hard and often.

This history is offered as a partial explainer to my readers in Seattle, who accuse me of traitorous reporting, and to newer readers in Sacramento, who've said I'm a boosterish homer. I wish I was one or the other, because staying in the middle is a lot harder. But some things become clear:

Pro sports is a dumbfounding, exasperating, nearly lawless industry, loaded with more charlatans, narcissists, miscreants, outlaws, wastrels and weasels than your average House of Representatives. Not everybody fits the dubious portrait, but the outsider rarely knows which is which, because there is no program or scorecard for the real game of pro sports. A game that takes place behind closed doors, not in open stadiums and arenas.

For sports fans used to investing two or three hours in a contest and getting a result, the secrecy, process and deceit of franchise manipulations are epic aggravations. Yet fans riven with emotion about getting/keeping an NBA team crave any information that tells them what they want to hear.

As it stands now, the public knows some things about the fate of the Kings franchise, but can conclude nothing about the outcome because so few facts have been disclosed. The game is still being played. Seattle's history with its franchises was provided above because the common thread is that most of what was believed at the time turned out to be wrong.

Most people in Seattle believed the Pilots could not be yanked after a year. They were wrong.

Most people in Seattle believed that the Mariners would never find a buyer to keep the team here. They were wrong.

Most people in Seattle believed that when the trucks pulled out of Kirkland, the Seahawks were gone. They were wrong.

Most people in Seattle believed that 41 years of history, tradition and excitement around the Sonics, not to mention $100 million, were worth something to the NBA. They were wrong.

So much for conventional wisdom in pro sports.

Today, Seattle fans want to believe that Chris Hansen, who seems genuinely to be the antithesis of the stereotypical sports mogul described above, has done enough of the right things to get an arena built and a team purchased.

Just as eager are the sports fans in Sacramento, whose mayor, Kevin Johnson, has spent the last three All-Star Game weekends lobbying NBA owners to keep the Kings in his town. As indefatigable as Hansen is, so is Johnson, who helped assemble a counter-offer to the NBA Friday that included wealthy investors as capable of the big buy-in as Steve Ballmer and the Nordstroms in Seattle.

In January, shortly after the Hansen purchase agreement was announced, NBA commissioner David Stern met for two hours in his office with Ron Burkle, an owner of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins. Burkle was identified Thursday as the arena developer in Sacramento. Stern would appear to be taking him seriously.

Over the last decade I have learned to be skeptical about whatever Stern says regarding the business of his franchises, because his remarks are designed to manipulate, deflect or obscure the public's understanding. As an example, at the All-Star Game, he was asked a question about Seattle's support for pro sports, and he replied that the Seahawks and Mariners were given public subsidies, but there was none for the Sonics. He deliberately ignored the $100 million in 1993 that paid for the renovation that became KeyArena.

That's the kind of prevarication that makes him so untrustworthy. But he did answer another question in an intriguing way, when he was asked whether both cities can be made happy.

"I don't see any scenario where both cities are happy," he said. What he inferred, and another answered supported, is that expansion is not under consideration.

But if we follow the pattern of Stern's deliberate manipulations, the remark means he's lying. Therefore the opposite is true.

Makes perfect sense. Why would Stern publicly suggest expansion is possible now, which could lessen the urgency felt by one or both cities? The competition between Seattle and Sacramento will drive up the value of the Kings franchise — and by definition the value of every franchise in the league — as well as improve the quality and the financing of their respective arena projects. As long as both investor parties see the same bad outcome in failure, they will work to do Stern's bidding.

If, in six weeks, when the NBA owners vote on whether to relocate the Kings, the bids are roughly equal but neither arena plan is assured, a more distinct possibility is that owners choose the best one for the moment and promise expansion to the other.

If asked, Stern will simply say, "I changed my mind." And once again, the conventional wisdom in Seattle sports will have been foiled.

If you go: Join Crosscut, City Club and the Seattle Channel Wednesday, March 6 at 5:30 p.m at Tom Douglas' Palace Ballroom for an audience-driven conversation about public education, the proposed SODO arena and other issues facing the Northwest. The event is sold out, but you can add your name to our waiting list here. 


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