Well, now what?
With the Seattle SuperSonics headed to Oklahoma City, local business and political leaders turn their attention toward solving the main problem that hampered efforts to keep the team here:
Financing an arena that meets the NBA’s needs.
A month before National Basketball Association owners voted in April to approve the team’s application to relocate to Oklahoma City, a group of local businessmen proposed paying for half of a $300 million renovation of KeyArena, along with securing the purchase of the Sonics or another basketball team to play at the remodeled facility.
Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, wireless magnate John Stanton, Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and Seattle developer Matt Griffin committed $150 million to the proposal, with the city contributing another $75 million.
But the group needed the Legislature to commit another $75 million in King County taxes on bars, restaurants and rental cars to make the project work.
However, lawmakers in Olympia, pointing to the lateness of the proposal, balked at funding and said they’d consider it next year.
The inaction by the Legislature was the fourth failure in successive efforts to secure public funding for a new NBA arena.
Both Sonics Chairman Clay Bennett and NBA Commissioner David Stern used that failure as a sign that the Sonics weren’t wanted in Seattle.
Now Balmer and his group will have to overcome that same hurdle to have a chance to bring an NBA team back to Seattle.
“Our interest in solving these issues is still the same,” Griffin, a spokesman for the group, said Wednesday. “That we get a funding package to build a financially viable arena – that’s the key step. And that’s about all I worked on since October.”
Part of the settlement between the city and the Sonics is the NBA’s written acknowledgment that a remodeled KeyArena would be acceptable, although the league wants a say in the design and construction of any facility.
Bennett said he never intended to pursue a KeyArena renovation because the arena would have to be twice its current size to make room for such revenue-producing amenities as restaurants, club seats and more suites.
The arena was built in 1962 and remodeled in 1994-95.
Overcoming a chilly relationship between Stern and Seattle city officials is another hurdle for the city.
The two sides engaged in a war of words through the media during the tense negotiations between Bennett and the city. And now the city finds itself with the task of having to smooth over that relationship since it needs Stern’s help to secure a new NBA team for its proposed remodeled facility.
“I’ve said this before – don’t demonize Commissioner Stern,” said King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, who played a role in helping to bring Bennett and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels to the table to broker Wednesday’s settlement. “You can disagree with him, but today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s ally. Clearly now if you are going to have an NBA franchise in this region, it’s going to come through Commissioner Stern’s office. There were some incredibly harsh words said by Seattle city officials about the ethics of Commissioner Stern, not to defend the commissioner’s actions.
“But it’s going to be a real challenge,” von Reichbauer added. “If you make personal attacks on any commissioner, let alone Commissioner Stern, and expect him to deal in the same even-handed, professional way, it’s expecting a lot. The city is certainly not in a position of strength in dealing with the commissioner.”
Von Reichbauer said the city could have received a better deal if it had negotiated with the Sonics ownership group before the city’s lawsuit went to trial. Part of the most damaging testimony presented in the Sonics’ defense at the trial centered on allegations of a “poisoned well” plan to force the team into losing money so that the ownership group would sell.
One of the purported leaders of the implementation of the plan was former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who also represented the city as an attorney for the high-powered law firm K&L Gates.
“It sure points out who the city thought was going to win the case,” von Reichbauer said. “If anybody wondered about the impact of Slade Gorton’s activities, all they have to do is look at this settlement.”
Landing an NBA team could prove the toughest task. The NBA doesn’t have plans to expand in the near future. However, two teams are navigating through unstable futures in cash-strapped markets.
As recently as April, Memphis, Tenn., Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley said his team was for sale. He turned down a $300 million offer by two potential owners from Memphis. The Grizzles are losing money and have one of the worst attendance figures in the league.
The FedExForum, where the Grizzlies play, also has a termination clause that doesn’t drop below $100 million until 2012.
The New Orleans Hornets, owned by George Shinn, also are struggling in a market weakened by Hurricane Katrina. However, the Hornets saw an upswing in attendance after the team reached the second round of the NBA Western Conference this past season, and are now on track to reach an attendance clause that would extend the team’s lease agreement until 2014. Shinn is trying to renegotiate a long-term lease for New Orleans Arena with the state of Louisiana.
Griffin said his group hasn’t looked into the purchase of other teams.
Meanwhile, an investment group that’s working on plans to build a privately financed facility in the Seattle area to host NBA and National Hockey League games is moving forward.
“If they’re (Sonics) going, then we’ve just increased the timing of it by another two years, and that’s a good thing for us, quite frankly,” said Dave Bean, who is part of the B2 investment group that includes former Sonics player Fred Brown. “It creates a greater sense of urgency for all the parties involved.”
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437