Should the SuperSonics leave Seattle for good?


Andrew Bucholtz
Andrew Bucholtz

There’s a lot of gloom among Seattle SuperSonics fans these days, after out-of-town owner Clay Bennett rode in on his high horse with a ridiculous list of demands that was sure to be turned down, paving the way for him to walk off with a historic franchise slung over his saddle.

If this was a Western, there would be no question about the colour of Bennett’s hat. He rode into town looking for a franchise to rustle from the beginning, making only a cursory offer that he would keep the team if the city gave him a free arena in the Seattle suburbs. The city, quite rightly, told him where to get off. He interpreted that as carte blanche to relocate the franchise to his hometown of Oklahoma City. Despite repeated offers from local businessmen to purchase the team and keep it in town, Bennett has maintained it isn’t for sale.

His co-owner Aubrey McClendon even told the Oklahoma City Journal-Record that relocating was in the cards all along.

“We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here,” he said.

Uglier still is the looming spectre of NBA commissioner David Stern pulling strings behind the scenes. Stern hasn’t lifted a finger to save one of the NBA’s storied franchises in an important market. Cynics might say this is because of his close relationship to Bennett: they’ve been friends for years, and Stern served as the presenter at Bennett’s introduction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in November.

Fortunately, a Clint Eastwood-esque hero has arrived to save the day. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has emerged with a group of local investors as unlikely eleventh-hour heroes. Ballmer’s group has agreed to pay half the cost to renovate Key Arena if they’re able to acquire the franchise, with the remaining cost to be split between the city and the state. Unfortunately, the state is dragging its heels, reducing the chances of a successful outcome. All sides are rushing towards a possible climactic standoff, with the NBA governors set to vote on the relocation proposal April 17.

The real issue at hand is what the Sonics’ relocation would mean for other professional teams. Seattle fans have invested their dollars and their time in this franchise for 41 years, through great peaks like the 1979 NBA championship, as well as the more prevalent bleak valleys. They continue to support the team, one of the league’s worst for the last several years. If that kind of loyalty can be overlooked for the sake of dollars, what team will be the next to fall?

As ESPN’s Bill Simmons pointed out, this situation encapsulates the best and worst of sports.

“It’s about the infantile and ignoble joy that causes people to drown out the PA announcer before Game Three of the ’96 Finals,” he wrote. “It’s also about naiveté, for better and worse, and it’s about greed and ego above everything else.” It will be interesting to see what will win the struggle between greed and fandom. Hopefully Ballmer and his group can win the standoff, send Bennett scurrying back to Oklahoma and leave Stern facedown in one of his prized bagfuls of gold. Otherwise, the bad and the ugly will triumph in Seattle.

–Andrew Bucholtz

The reality that the Seattle SuperSonics will almost certainly move to Oklahoma City is a sad one, but it’s slowly setting in.

The writing’s been on the wall ever since new owner Clay Bennett bought the team from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in July 2006. Schultz, having lost $60 million in five years, remained adamant that a city and state-funded renovation of Key Arena, built in 1962, would have to occur in order for Seattle to remain a viable basketball market.

Schultz sold the team to Bennett to put pressure on the city to give the Sonics the necessary funding to bring Key Arena up to par. The city hasn’t budged, and it appears Bennett’s ready to exercise his right to do what he wishes with the team once its arena lease expires.

When Key Arena was remodeled in 1995, it was already below average NBA standards. The building only holds 17,000 fans, well below arenas being built at that time that could hold 21,500, and it’s hundreds of thousands of square feet smaller than its counterparts in Memphis, Portland, Charlotte and Denver.

The arena lease with the city is even more of a hindrance. Bennett has focused on trying to buy the city out on the lease, which extends until 2010, but so far the city has refused.

Most teams in the NBA control their own arenas—this is one of their biggest sources of profit. The Sonics don’t, and this contributes greatly to their annual losses. The Sonics receive 40 per cent of the money from every luxury box, while most teams receive 100 per cent.

Schultz has been chastised for abandoning his team, but he did what any smart businessman would do: he looked at his peers raking in the cash from controlling their own arenas and realized the governments of Seattle and Washington were unwilling to meet his demands halfway.

As the Sonics approach their dying hour, fans have finally begun to cry out to save the team. But where were these fans when Schultz sold the team? Why weren’t these fans lobbying for better treatment from the city when it really mattered?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that fans in Seattle haven’t been passionate enough to demonstrate to the NBA they deserve to keep the money-losing franchise.

“If they want them to stay, they want them to stay. And if they don’t, they don’t. It wasn’t like it was a big uproar and that’s the thing. You can play politics all you want but it wasn’t like people were screaming and that’s a shame.”

The bottom line is that all efforts to save the Sonics have come too half-heartedly and too late. Bennett bought the team with obvious intentions to move it to his hometown.

Schultz, Bennett and NBA Commissioner David Stern have all repeatedly said the city of Seattle will need to change its stance on the negotiation of a new lease, but it remains unwilling to do so. Even with a new local ownership group attempting to step in, the city won’t pony up the dough to satisfy all of its long-suffering, loyal fans.

The team’s fate will soon be appropriately summarized by adjusting the familiar words offered at the end of each Frasier episode:

Good night, Seattle. The Sonics have left the building.

–Mike Woods

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