Once again, a local professional sports team’s threats to move the franchise are resulting in lawmakers flouting their own rules (and, oh, yeah, the desires of a vast majority of their constituents) in order to throw public money at a project which will primarily serve to benefit team owners. And once again, local TV, radio, and newspapers are breathlessly fawning over the proposal, without bothering to note that said media outlets have a tremendous financial interest in the success of the proposal. So sliced bread has nothing on this latest unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to Save “Our” Sonics.
It’s not the fault of the Sonics’ current owners, of course, that we’ve been down this road so many times now, with Safeco Field, Qwest Field, Key Arena, and the Bank of America Arena (which is at least owned by a public entity, UW, and whose renovation was mostly paid for by private donors). The financings of Safeco and Qwest in particular were ugly affairs in which the clear will of local voters was defied by politicians in order to accommodate team owners. So you’ll forgive folks a bit of “here-we-go-again” knee-jerk hatred for yet another fleecing, again joyously celebrated by willfully tone-deaf local media.
I actually think the proposal on the table now from four local billionaires to renovate Key Arena with $150 million of their own money, matched by $75 million each from the city and state, is about as good a proposal (and therefore about as reasonable a compromise) as one could hope for, given that the economics of modern pro sports now rely on the public to build teams’ playpens, and there’s always another sucker (in this case, Oklahoma City; previously, the Mariners were heading to Tampa Bay, the Seahawks to Southern California) willing to pay the price. In any other circumstances, this deal would work.
But there’ always a context, and this is a specific proposal, not an abstraction. As such, there are still three major problems we’re not hearing about from our sycophantic local media.
First is that the proposal’s success relies on current Sonics owner Clay Bennett selling the team to our local guys. Bennett has been telling anyone and everyone, consistently since day one, that he has no interest in selling the team. So the whole exercise is unlikely to result in “saving” the Sonics. Moreover, NBA commissioner David Stern, who has a lot to say about the matter, has warned that if the Sonics leave, Seattle won’t get another team.
The proposal is set up to meet the restrictions of (overwhelmingly voter-approved) I-91, which requires that the city at least break even on any arena improvement deal. So the public’s $150 million is to go to overall improvements to the arena, things that will also help with concerts, exhibitions, and the like, while the private $150 million is supposedly the only part dedicated wholly to pro basketball amenities like locker rooms and luxury suites. But that’s a game, of course; this is all about the Sonics. Nobody’s demanding $150 million in improvements so that the public can enjoy rock concerts in greater comfort. Given that, what we’re talking about is an extremely expensive public investment in appeasing a team that’s likely to move anyway. That’s one minor problem.
The second is that even if this were an ideal proposal (i.e., one with a chance of accomplishing its stated goal), the process is awful. By coming to the state legislature for $75 million six working days before the end of the session, boosters are essentially asking lawmakers to ignore all legal procedures and drop all state business in the remaining week in order to consider a very local problem: the “blight” that results if Key Arena were to lose 41 basketball games a year (some of which would be replaced by concerts that now can’t be booked). To use the appropriate analogy, it’s as if a coach whose team is losing badly midway through the fourth quarter suddenly insisted on throwing out the results, starting the score at 0-0, and if his team is still losing at the end of the game, continuing to play (a special session) until they win.
Each legislative session, a couple thousand bills are proposed, most of which fail — not because they’re bad bills, but because the session’s limited time forces politicians to prioritize. The Sonics proposal wants to skip the committee approvals, the public hearings, the deadlines, all the normal hoops bills must jump through, for what in the greater scheme of things is a pretty low state priority.
Lastly, there’s the local $75 million, which Mayor Greg Nickels has already generously pledged. Aside from the fact that it’s supposed to be the city council, not the mayor, who makes city spending decisions, isn’t this the same Greg Nickels who not a month ago wasn’t paying assistance to dislocated renters because there was no money for it? And now he’s magically found $75 million for a bunch of wealthy Oklahoma businessmen, for a proposal whose local economic benefits would be negligible even if it were successful in saving the team? Which it probably won’t be?
There’s a word for this whole process. And it’s not “generous.”