Foul: Seattle’s NBA Hopes Dashed As Ex-Mayor Green Lights $660M Arena Deal

The sad saga of the Seattle Supersonics continued Tuesday, with the city’s embattled mayor announcing a $660 million formal agreement with the Oak View Group to renovate KeyArena, the very site the at the crux of the Sonics’ stunning exit to Oklahoma City.

Well there was an announcement about the agreement; the event to announce the agreement was immediately cancelled after new allegations about Mayor Ed Murray — this time accused of molesting his cousin in the 1970s — surfaced. More on that later.

Seattle was home to the SuperSoinics — known simply as the “Sonics” — from 1967 until 2008, but the team ostensibly left in 2006, when majority owner Howard Shultz (CEO of a little company called Starbucks) sold the team to a group of Oklahoma City businessmen after a pious attempt to stick the City of Seattle and the taxpayers of Washington state with a $500 million tab to rebuild KeyArena failed.

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Why Howard Shultz, a billionaire who made his bones in Seattle, sold the team to a bunch of guys with oil money from Oklahoma, when the minority ownership group, comprised of local businessmen with tech money and a vested interest in keeping the team in Seattle, offered to pay his full asking price, is unclear. It was a Benedict Arnold move; everyone literate knew that Professional Basketball Club LLC (the Oklahoma oil boys, led by Clay Bennett) would move the team to Oklahoma City as fast as they could, which is exactly what happened.

The only NBA owners who voted against relocation were Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen of the Portland Trailblazers and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

NBA Commissioner David Stern (the same guy who unilaterally stopped Chris Paul from going to the Lakers) teed up the whole thing for Bennett from the get-go. Stern’s active involvement was crucial for the coup to take place, but why he would want to move the NBA out of Seattle and into Oklahoma City (where would you rather live?) is another head-scratcher.

Perhaps a personal vendetta against Seattle or the misguided belief that it’s better to dominate a small market (how many other professional sports teams from Oklahoma can you name?) than to “compete” against the NFL and MLB. In any case, Stern wanted the NBA out of Seattle and he used his power as Commissioner to make sure that happened (the year after they drafted a skinny kid named Kevin Durant, no less).

Since the Sonics left in ’08, Seattle has been growing like bamboo. Once a quaint-ish city nestled in the top left corner of America, it’s become San Francisco North, with tech money raining down on the city like a Costa Rican thunderstorm.

Amazon is the chief rainmaker, with tens of thousands of employees working in the heart of the city, though most can’t afford to live there. All the recent investment hasn’t come without a price, though. The quirky, single-family homes have been demolished, replaced by ubiquitous mixed-use apartment buildings; retail on the bottom floor, residential above.

I-5, the city’s only North-South thoroughfare, has become impassable during daylight hours. The area’s aging infrastructure creaks and groans under the weight its swelling population, which brings this history lesson full circle. One of the chief complaints about KeyArena was its inaccessibility. Despite being downtown adjacent, it was impossible to get to. And that was pre-Amazon, who’s been building in South Lake Union like it’s Minecraft for the past ten years.

The traffic nightmare created by Sonics games at KeyArena was the ammunition Howard Schultz used to ask local governments to pony up half a billion dollars for a new basketball arena. Of course they told him where he could stick that request, but that was all he, or rather Clay Bennett, needed to get the plan in motion. Once the city/state refused to build a new arena, Bennett & Co. notified the NBA that they were moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

Which brings us to present day, when Mayor Ed Murray and the Oak View Group announced a plan to pump over $600 million into a new venue where KeyArena currently stands. There’s money earmarked for traffic mitigation but it doesn’t matter. That area, given the layout of the city and its explosive growth of late, is simply impassable. And that’s on a weekday. On game day, God forbid the NBA does return to the city? Get outta here. You won’t even be able to walk there, let alone drive.

So why, if the goal is to get another NBA team in the city, would the mayor green-light this Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that was announced today? Deeper down the rabbit hole we go. Ed Murray, an openly gay man, who, until this year, had been a popular and effective mayor in Seattle, has faced a slew of recent accusations that he molested boys in the 1970s and 1980s. The merits of those accusations remain unknown, but more people keep popping out of the woodwork pointing the finger at Murray. Today, the same day this deal was to be announced, it was his cousin. Aaaand Ed Murray is no longer mayor of Seattle. He’s resigned since the start of this paragraph.

His final act as mayor was to sign the MOU, a prerequisite for the City Council to vote on things like building new sports arenas. Ed Murray’s alleged sex crimes aside, there are more crimes here.

Chris Hansen, a Seattle native turned Silicon Valley hedge-fund manager, has been working tirelessly to bring the NBA back to Seattle since 2011. He’s got the resources, the business acumen, and the support of the community behind him.

When it looked for all the world as if the Sacramento Kings were headed to Seattle, Sacramento’s then-mayor, Kevin Johnson, who happens to be a four-time NBA All-Star, stepped in, used all his NBA connections, and mortgaged the city to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Enjoy those annual $22 million dollar debt payments for the next 30-plus years, Kings fans/Sacramento residents.

Kevin Johnson isn’t the only unusual obstacle that’s kept Hansen from brining a professional basketball team back to Seattle. An NBA team returning to the Emerald City is contingent on a new arena being built. Chris Hansen came to the City of Seattle with a 100% privately financed plan (that’s $0 taxpayer dollars) to build an arena in Seattle’s SoDo region, where the Seahawks and Mariners play in their respective stadiums down the street from one another, only to be rebuffed by the Seattle area’s two stakeholders with veto power: the Port of Seattle and the Seattle City Council.

The Port of Seattle successfully vetoed (by colluding with the mayor and City Council) Hansen’s proposed arena by arguing that a third stadium in South Downtown would make it impossible to do Port-related business because there would be more traffic on a street the Port uses three times a week. Seriously, that was their argument. And it worked.

With Hansen’s proposed arena blocked by the Port of Seattle playing “inside baseball” with the City Council, other people have seen the opportunity that Seattle presents. There’s too much money in the city to not have an NBA or NHL team.

Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trailblazers (and the Seahawks, and the Sounders), can’t buy another NBA team because he already has one. Steve Balmer, another Microsoft guy, worth a paltry $33 billion, got tired of waiting for the city to get its act together and bought the L.A. Clippers to satiate his basketball cravings. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, is too busy saving the planet by giving away gobs of money to worry about basketball; Jeff Bezos of Amazon has amassed a fortune of $84 billion on paper but he’s more into rocket ships (Blue Origin) than basketball.

Enter the Oak View Group, a partnership between sports baron Tim Leiweke and music mogul Irving Azoff. With Seattle’s marquee billionaires (James Jannard, Oakley sunglasses, where ya at? Gabe Newell, founder of Valve, bust out that pocketbook. Nordstroms, not mad at you; you stepped up as part of the Sonics’ minority ownership group) sidelined and well-intentioned Chris Hansen facing overt hostility at every regulatory turn, Oak View Group decided to throw their hat in the ring.

And unlike Chris Hansen, Leiweke and Azoff know how to grease some palms. More than a few ex-government officials have found themselves in OVG’s employ, and OVG has the tacit support of the Port of Seattle because their arena plan and Hansen’s are mutually exclusive. And today, lo and behold, a plan that’s objectively worse in every way than Chris Hansen’s, got the blessing of Mayor Ed Murray hours before he resigned.

 

An NHL team may well one day inhabit the arena that the Oak View Group got the OK to build today, which is great for the city. It’s never had an NHL team, and its residents would (will) welcome one with open arms. But not at the expense of getting an NBA team back.

For 41 years, Seattle was a great basketball town. Sure, maybe a little out of the way if you’re coming from the East Coast, but everyone remembers the Sonics fondly. Only through Howard Shultz’s bizarre treachery and David Stern’s desire to see the NBA anywhere not called Seattle was the city robbed of its team.

Now, it’s through more shady, back-door dealings that the city suffers another setback towards getting an NBA team back, this time courtesy of Ed Murray and the Port of Seattle.