Seattle politicians should curb their arena enthusiasm


The proposed arena in Seattle's Sodo neighborhood.

There’s something about pro sports that makes us gluttons for punishment. And no, I am not just talking about the annual abuse dished out to Seattle Mariners fans who are over-charged for a chronically under-performing team.

The Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker has done a great public service by doggedly tracking down evidence that the city — we don’t know exactly who — effectively suppressed a study that contradicted the findings of the SoDo Arena Environmental Impact Statement about whether Key Arena could be adapted to suit an NBA and/or an NHL franchise. The city’s EIS said it wasn’t viable, another public study contradicted those findings, and the city chose not to acknowledge that difference of opinion in the EIS. They seemed to hope those inconvenient findings would simply disappear, which they did for nearly six months.

The city is not a neutral party in the SoDo arena plan. It is a partner with SoDo arena backer Chris Hansen whose dream is to bring “the Sonics back” and build an entertainment district in SoDo. There’s a signed agreement, legal obligations, a decision to loan bonding capacity. The city council is currently considering whether to vacate a chunk of Occidental Avenue for the project.

The suppression of the Key Arena study is a reminder of how politics and sports franchises seem to breed bad behavior. Think of the outrage that accompanied the votes regarding the decision to build Safeco Field and the Seahawks’ stadium. Politicians went to the mat for wealthy owners.

Remember that the voters rejected a new baseball stadium, but one was built anyway.  The Seahawks wanted a similar deal and Paul Allen was literally allowed to pay the costs for putting on a public vote. He paid for a statewide election in what was deemed an emergency situation. The Kingdome was demolished before it was even paid for.

Politicians seem to be quicker to respond to “homeless” sports franchises than to real homeless individuals. Perhaps the folks in the encampments of Seattle should declare themselves a professional sports franchise to get a quick resolution to their problems.

The backlash that resulted from the previous two stadiums created the somewhat awkward agreement the city is now involved with — and will likely produce a major lawsuit if it is ever activated. Seattleites overwhelming voted to limit city subsidies for sports franchises and the Hansen deal is an attempt to work around that and limit taxpayer exposure. Still, it is not entirely a private affair — the city’s participation in financing and cooperation on development is essential to the current plan and whether it passes legal muster will probably be tested in court. But Baker’s reporting asks us to consider another question: What kind of off-the-books cooperation from the city is expected?

We know that desperation for a franchise has led to bad behavior on Hansen’s part — and bad behavior often seems endemic to the sports business. In trying to steal Sacramento’s basketball team for Seattle, the San Francisco millionaire broke California campaign contribution laws, for which he was fined $50,000 in 2013. What does that suggest about Seattle’s sports business partner? Is it any wonder that the city decided somewhere in the chain of command to sit on an inconvenient truth about Key Arena’s potential as a sports venue? Doesn’t this alone raise warning flags about the city’s future behavior in trying to implement the SoDo arena plan?

I get the allure of pro sports. I love the Seahawks, and am a long-suffering Mariner fan who remembers the glory of Ken Griffey and ’95.  Hell, I remember the glory of opening day for the Pilots in ’69. I used to attend Sonics games at the Dome and the Key. I know teams can bring value to the city.

But we really do have to think hard about the costs. Moving ahead on SoDo, hard skepticism is required, and a full exploration of the options ought to be encouraged, not suppressed. The cost of a new arena shouldn’t include our ethics.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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