Monday, December 8, 2008

Sonics Move: A Curse to the NBA

A Sonics Move would be Unfair to Seattle and Detrimental to the NBA

In July of 2006, Howard Schultz announced he was selling the Seattle Supersonics to an Oklahoma City-based investment group led by billionaire Clay Bennett. Like children losing a no-good father only to get a no-good step father, Sonics fans across the Pacific Northwest were struck by the deal.

The deal came just five years after Schultz, the current chairman of Starbucks, bought the basketball team in 2001. He claims that the NBA franchise suffered yearly losses of around $12 million during his tenure. However since Bennett agreed to pay $150 million more than Schultz originally bought the team for, Schultz’ investment seems to have delivered. Although, for a business man, it’s only natural for Schultz to accept Bennett’s offer of $350 million, the deal disappoints Seattle fans. The fans emotionally invested in the team and believed Schultz when he claimed in 2001 that he was purchasing the team in an effort to save basketball in Seattle.

Upon acquisition of the Sonics, Bennett stated that his hopes were to keep the franchise in Seattle, but his true intentions were blatantly apparent to even the average fan: Oklahoma! It’s obvious that Bennett is intent on developing Oklahoma City. He was instrumental in temporarily bringing the New Orleans Hornets to Oklahoma City following Katrina during the 2005-2006 season, and the attendance the Hornets received gave him the sweet taste of financial honey to be reaped by bringing an NBA team to an area that lacks a major sport franchise. It came as no shock when Bennett formally informed the NBA, this November 2nd, just a season after his purchase, that he intends to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City. I was more blown away by the ending of that cheesy romance my girlfriend made me watch last Saturday. Who would have thought love would find a way in the end?

But the real barb is that some believe Bennett bought the Sonics at such an extravagant price in order to increase the financial losses so as to facilitate the move. Bennett claims that during his first ear as owner the franchise lost $17 million. As a result, Bennett proposed to Seattle a plan to construct a new $500 million arena, of which the city would be required to cover $300 million. Without such an arena, Bennett stated that he would be forced to relocate the team. Such an unrealistic proposal was of course just another tool of Bennett’s to move the Sonics. Seattle residents had already suffered a decade’s worth of raised taxes to provide for two other expensive sport facilities (Safeco Field for the MLB franchise Seattle Mariners and Qwest Field for the NFL franchise Seattle Seahawks). Additionally, the current home of the Sonics, the Key Arena, was renovated in 1995 for $100 million. Another burden of $300 million on Seattle residents is really out of the question, and Bennett surely knew this.

NBA owners ultimately have a right to move their team wherever they feel they can acquire the largest profit, as professional sports is a business not a game. But even business should have some code of honor. Bennett should not have even purchased the Sonics if he had no intent of keeping the team in Seattle. The city has supported the franchise for 40 years, which should entitle the city to more than just a year’s worth of discussion to provide $300 million. This is especially true when Bennett has only owned the team for a year, and has yet to attempt to make improvements from within the organization. The team has not been very competitive over the majority of the past decade, thanks in large part to poor roster transactions (i.e. Jim Mcilvaine and his $34 million for three points a game). Couldn’t the franchise’s losses be due to this rather than an ill-equipped stadium? Ultimately, Bennett’s treatment of Seattle residents has been unfair and deceiving. If he is unwilling to make an effort to keep the Sonics in Seattle, he should sell the franchise to somebody who will.

Bennett doesn’t need to apply trial and error to learn his move to Oklahoma City is not a sure-fire success. In 1995, after years of unsuccessful seasons, the Seattle Mariners (Seattle’s baseball franchise) were all but assured to move to Tampa Bay. One amazing season later (in which the Mariners reached the American League Champion Series) fan support grew, revenue increased, and the franchise was saved. Tampa Bay was instead forced to develop an expansion MLB team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, whom have yet to enjoy a winning season. The team’s average attendance has ranked near the bottom in the MLB in each of their 10 years of existence. The financial success of a team depends less on the team’s location as on its competitive success. That being said however, when a team’s competitive edge is dulled, the only thing that will stick with it is the support of long-time fans, fans whose fervor spans generations.

Finally, losing basketball in Seattle would be a detriment to the NBA. Basketball is clearly one of the world’s fastest growing sports, as evident in last week’s game between the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks. The game was viewed by nearly 300 million viewers (an NBA record), largely because Chinese fan’s eagerly watched their country’s two biggest stars, Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian, compete. Seattle is a gateway to the Pacific with strong trade relations with Asia. The Seattle Mariners are even owned by the Japanese videogame franchise Nintendo - why do you think Mariner fans have the choice of unagi instead of hot dogs at home games? If the NBA wants to maximize its profits internationally, it should not permit the move of the Seattle SuperSonics.