Whitman Sports Blog: Return of the NBA to Seattle?

Pamela London

The National Basketball Association is coming back to Seattle.

At least the optimist in me, and hundreds of other Seattleites, thinks it looks that way.

Ever since that fateful day in July of 2006 when Howard Schultz –– yes, that is Howard Schultz of Starbucks –– sold the SuperSonics and Storm to Clay Bennett, there has been an emptiness in the city of Seattle that nothing has quite been able to fill. For four long years since the Sonics left, the hallways of KeyArena have echoed with the sounds of shrill whistles, coaches barking instructions and cheers for Gary “The Glove” Payton’s smooth crossover.

And now that Christopher Hansen, the Seattle boy and mystery millionaire, has emerged out of the doldrums of memorable seasons’ past to finally and realistically bring the possibility of the NBA returning, you’ll have to excuse the city of Seattle for getting a little excited.

The loss

Seattle’s holiday present came a little early in 1966, when the NBA chose the Emerald City as the location for its newest expansion team. The city quickly fell in love with the Sonics and it did not take long for the team to reciprocate that love with the franchise’s first and only NBA title in 1978-79.

The women took center stage 20 years later as Seattle was once again home to an expansion team, this time with the WNBA. The Storm took only three years to make their first postseason appearance and in 2004 brought the city its second professional basketball title.

A passionate fan base, thriving market and superstars on the court like Ray Allen and Lauren Jackson made it seem as though basketball had settled in Seattle and was not going anywhere soon. Little did anyone know that a bomb was about to drop, bringing a surprise that nobody wanted: Schultz was selling the Sonics and Storm to Clayton Bennett of Oklahoma City.

Schultz officially announced the sale of the Sonics and Storm to Bennett and his ownership group on July 18, 2006. The $350 million deal came with Bennett’s pledge for a “good-faith” effort to keep the teams in Seattle.

“I’m going to take [Bennett and his group] at their word that they want to stay and we’ll work with them,” said then-mayor Greg Nickels. “We think they’ll play in the Seattle Center until 2010.”

In a letter to Schultz written on the day of the sale, Bennett wrote, “We do not believe that KeyArena is designed to support the requirements of a viable NBA franchise, and thus achieving a modern successor venue and lease arrangement will be critical to the future success of the teams…[It is not the group’s] intention to relocate.”

Rumors swirled on the media circuits for several months: why would an Oklahoma City ownership group want to buy two Seattle teams? Why did Schultz not sell to local ownership? Does Bennett want to move the teams, seeing as how popular the New Orleans Hornets were in Oklahoma City after they were forced to play a season there following Hurricane Katrina?

Those rumors began to clarify in August of 2007, when Aubrey McClendon, a part-owner in Bennett’s group, let slip to an Oklahoma newspaper that “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hope to come here.” McClendon was fined $250,000 by the NBA for his comment, but for Seattle fans the price was much higher because it confirmed their fears that they were losing their team.

A month later, the city filed a lawsuit to keep the Sonics in Seattle until their KeyArena lease expired in 2010. The lawsuit did not amount to anything significant, other than demonstrating the city’s desperation to keep its teams.

Bennett demonstrated how focused he was on the NBA side of the deal when he released the Storm from the potential move to Oklahoma. On Jan. 8, 2008, Force 10 Hoops, LLC –– a small ownership group made up of four dedicated season-ticket holders that came together to save the Storm –– bought the Storm from Bennett and declared that they would stay in Seattle. A small victory of Storm fans, but perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Sonics fans. If Bennett didn’t want the Storm, it was probably because the market in Oklahoma City was not as viable for the WNBA as it was for the NBA.

On April 18, 2008, the NBA approved Bennett’s request to relocate the Sonics.

A month and a half later, Bennett and the Sonics bought out the final two years of their contract with KeyArena for $45 million, packed up their bags and left for Oklahoma City.

The dark ages

For four years, Seattle sports fans watched helplessly as the newly renamed Oklahoma City Thunder took their place in NBA history.

Kevin Durant, the one-time Sonic and future all-star, grew into one of the NBA’s great young players but he did it wearing a blue jersey, instead of a gold and green one. Kevin Calabro, the voice of the Sonics for years until their move, took on several other Seattle sports endeavors and even spent one year (2009) as the play-by-play man for the Seattle Sounders. Coaches moved on to other opportunities and forty years of Seattle basketball history sat in KeyArena collecting dust.

Around the city, Sonics fans grieved the loss of their team and continued to hope that one day their team would return.

The proposal

Until late 2011, Christopher Hansen was not a household name in the state of Washington. The young millionaire who grew up in the Rainier Valley now lives in San Francisco and did not appear on my radar until he sent a letter to the city of Seattle stating that he had a potential plan to bring the NBA back.

Once Hansen pulled himself out of the woodwork, he was immediately thrust into the spotlight. Someone who could bring the NBA home became an overnight hero in Seattle and last week he finally presented his proposal to the city.

Hansen’s proposal calls for the construction of a new $500 million arena that would be home to both NBA and NHL teams (he did not address the arena as a potential home for the WNBA, as well). Financing the arena will be split: Hansen and other private investment will pay $290 million, while the city’s portion will be capped at $200 million. Any more money will come from taxes and revenue generated by the new facility and rent from the teams playing in it. Hansen and his group will also be responsible for the purchase of an NBA franchise and finding a partner NHL franchise.

Now that the proposal has been made, it will go before a review board with King County executive Dow Constantine, which also includes community leaders and former Sonic player and coach Lenny Wilkens. The hope is to complete the review within a month.

After the proposal goes through the review board, the city and county must grant approval. Once the county and city approve, teams must be found.

“There will be no arena unless there is an agreement to get a team here to occupy that arena over a very long term,” said Constantine at the Feb. 16 press conference announcing Hansen’s proposal (quoted in the Seattle Times by AP writer Tim Booth, 2/16/12).

City officials have indicated that any projections (financial, geographic) are being made for having both an NBA and an NHL team in the new arena.

Hansen has already purchased a plot of land just south of Safeco Field in downtown Seattle. If and when the new arena is built, Seattle would have three multi-million dollar sports facilities (CenturyLink Field, Safeco and the new arena) housing potentially six professional sports teams (NFL, MLS, MLB, NBA, NHL and WNBA) all within a five-block stretch of the city.

“I am confident this proposal will be looked on favorably by both leagues [NBA and NHL] and sincerely believe that together we can accomplish the goal of securing NBA and NHL franchises for our community,” said Hansen in his written proposal.

A bright future?

Now that Seattle has its proposal, it is time for the man of the hour to step up and follow through. If Hansen is able to pull his proposal all the way through city decisions, he still needs to find teams to fill his new arena and address questions of the viability of adding two more professional sports franchises to the Seattle sports market.

There are no public records thus far of contact between mayor Mike McGinn’s office and the NBA or NHL, but McGinn did personally put in a call to the NBA president David Stern soon after the proposal. His message to the president who let the Sonics leave: “We’re serious here.”

Hansen has already spoken with Stern about the possibility of bringing the NBA back with the condition of a new arena. Stern firmly stated that he was in support of the NBA in Seattle, but a team would have to relocate to make that a reality.

McGinn has made it clear that the pressure is all on Hansen’s shoulders: it is Hansen’s responsibility to find teams and negotiate with the leagues. “I’m not going into the prediction business on this one,” said McGinn.

Despite McGinn’s preliminary support of the proposal, not all Seattleites appear to be on board. In a recent King 5 poll, 80 percent of 500 Seattle adults surveyed opposed the use of taxpayer money for the new arena. Only 30 percent were “very enthusiastic” or “somewhat enthusiastic” about having an NBA team while 43 percent were “not very enthusiastic” or “not at all enthusiastic.” Somewhat ironically, 49 percent said they have no reservations about taking an NBA team from another city, even though that it what happened to them four years ago.

Another one of the major concerns is the city’s viability to take on two more major professional sports franchises. With both the NBA and the NHL, the city would be home to six professional sports franchises plus the University of Washington athletics program. Can the city support so many large fan bases, even if some of them overlap?

“I think even more importantly [than saturation of the fan bases is] also corporate saturation,” said David Carter (a member of the Sports Business Group) to The Seattle Times. “In terms of a financing-the-deal perspective, those two teams really help that a lot.”

Does Seattle have room for two more impactful franchises? One positive already is that the NBA and NHL teams would share an arena, presumably with the Storm as well, which would maximize the new arena’s revenue (i.e. total ticket sales, number of days occupied, concession sales).

There will inevitably be overlap between the two and potentially three teams occupying the new arena. The NBA season runs from November to June, the NHL from September to April and the WNBA from June to October. Seattle does have experience dealing with the overlap issue: the Sounders and Seahawks both play at CenturyLink Field and their seasons overlap from September to November. The solution thus far has been to overload the Sounders’ schedule with home games in the front half of the season so that more dates are available for the eight NFL home games in the fall. For example, in 2012 the Sounders will play 12 of their 17 home games before the start of the NFL regular season.

Yet another concern is the viability of the NHL franchise itself. History has proven Seattle embraces the NBA and many people will undoubtedly support the team if a franchise were to relocate. But will the NHL be as successful? Like aforementioned problems, there is certainly potential for a positive outcome.

Seattle has not had an NHL team since 1924. Currently, the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League are the city’s only hockey team. If the NHL were to return to return to Seattle, the hope is that the city would step up and be a viable NHL market. It has been so long since the NHL has been in the Pacific Northwest that questions inevitable arise about whether or not the franchise would garner enough interest to produce revenue, both for the arena and the Seattle sports market.

It remains to be seen if this would be the case, yet there are hints that the NHL could work out positively: when the Vancouver Canucks made their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 (falling in seven games to the Boston Bruins), Seattle was quite supportive of its neighbors to the north. Not only did fans make the trek up I-5 to see the games in person or on the streets, but also the Seattle media market jumped on the bandwagon. KJR 950 AM, Seattle’s sports talk radio station, broadcast Canucks’ entire season on its airways and sent its radio hosts to Vancouver during the Finals. The Seattle Times sent its own reporters and columnists across the border to cover the event.

So is interest in the NHL there? Certainly. Will that interest translate to a team actually being in Seattle? That is definitely still up in the air.

“Save our Sonics” to “Bring our Sonics home”

For four long years the city has waited for its NBA team to come home. The NHL has been absent even longer. Seattle sports fans have waited somewhat patiently for the moment to come when they can put on their old-school “Downtown Freddie” Brown jerseys and cheer on the Sonics. That moment may be coming soon.

Pulling this proposal through all the hoops it has to jump will take a strong collaborative effort from Hansen’s group, the NBA, the NHL and the city of Seattle.

Is Seattle up to the task? Nobody can be sure, but we’re about to find out.

Quotes, statistics and dates from The Seattle Times and its archives.