BY Art Thiel 06:27PM 10/16/2012

Thiel: How about an expansion team for Seattle?

Given even an optimistic timetable for the arena project, including the legal challenge, Chris Hansen discussed publicly for the first time the possibility of waiting for NBA expansion.

Now that eight months of throat-clearing have concluded, it is finally reasonable to speak of candidates to eventually fill the pro basketball void left by the human voids Howard Schultz and Clay Bennett.

1. Sacramento. 2. Milwaukee. 3. Charlotte.

Oh. One more. Expansion.

The last suggestion was uttered by Chris Hansen. In a conversation with editors and writers at Crosscut.com Tuesday, the day after his basketball/hockey arena project was buoyed by approving votes from the city and county council, Hansen answered the question of which with a what.

“There’s not a lot of teams ready to relocate or up for sale,” Hansen said. “There are processes underway now in the NBA, including revenue sharing and a luxury tax that can make small markets viable.

“In a few years, the league may consider expansion.”

Up until now, Hansen has stuck to the conventional wisdom that the NBA, 10 months removed from a lockout, is highly unlikely to consider expanding from its current 30 teams to the always preferable 32 (four eight-team divisions, ease of scheduling, etc.). But since a settlement with the players union on a new collective bargaining agreement, NBA commissioner David Stern has been talking about the prospects of every team being able to at least break even in three years.

I think we’re going to have about 10 teams losing money this year (2011-12),” Stern told Sports Business Daily. “The number is going to go down next year. The year after, every team will have, I think, the opportunity to break even or make some money. We’re trending in the right direction.

“Our revenue sharing doesn’t click in fully until the year after next. But it does start to increase starting this year. We’re seeing a leveling of the playing field through the tax system, together with revenue sharing, where it’s going to be all about management and not about money.”

Stern’s claim can be dismissed as cheerleading rhetoric, but if it’s one of his occasional moments of truth-telling — and after all, the lockout was about making the league profitable — it was seen as a blow to Hansen’s ability to secure a team: Why would a team go to the manipulations and hassles of moving if it was making money?

But now that the timeline of of the arena project has become clearer, the notion of a financially healthier NBA being able to expand creeps onto the far horizon.

Eight months since the plan was announced, the amended memorandum of understanding that was signed Tuesday afternoon by the principals includes an environmental impact study that is expected to take a year. And the MOU is virtually guaranteed by the longshoreman’s union to be challenged in court. If the MOU is overturned because it fails to consider alternative sites besides SoDo, the project will be delayed.

If a King County Superior Court judge sides with the city, county and Hansen that alternative sites are fairly considered, and the SoDo site is adopted, the timetable for the construction project is probably a three-year minimum, putting the earliest opening at October, 2016 — or after Stern’s timetable for universal break-even.

All this is speculative, of course, but the virtue of expansion is not. There will be no hijacking of another fan base, which has been, since the day in July 2008 the Sonics left, the most odious consequence of bringing back the NBA — doing dirty unto others as dirty was done unto you.

Hansen reiterated Tuesday that he is not going to be predatory.

“We’re not going to go around saying, ‘Please sell us your team,’ “he said. “We’re not going to pry a team away.”

Besides, except in the fairly unusual case of a team put up for auction (see Dodgers and Rangers), the costs to break a lease for an existing team — as Bennett did in Seattle, where he got away cheap for $45 million — will likely be more than an expansion fee. And then there’s all the PR ugliness of high-seas piracy (see “Sonicsgate.”)

Expansion is not an easy solution, because for scheduling purposes, a second city needs to enter in tandem. And the owners have to agree to take a thinner slice of the NBA’s future shared revenues; hence, the one-time expansion fee.

But expansion is cleaner. Stern and the owners are evangelical about spreading the NBA word, and would dearly love to have one of Hansen’s partners, Steve Ballmer, as a lodge brother.

And waiting for expansion avoids having to trick up Grandma, a k a KeyArena, for another go-round as a temp home for a hijacked team while the arena is completed. That would allow the city to re-purpose the building for something other than sports, which is the only sensible solution once the Hansen arena makes it even more anemic for sports.

Expansion would also allow basketball fans in Sacramento, Milwaukee and Charlotte to sleep with both eyes closed. KnowwhutImsayin’, Sonics fans?


YourThoughts

  • Jamo57

    I think you are on to something Art. I’m following the NHL and where it is headed relative to Seattle and I can see them expanding as well in a couple of years. They have already tried to restructure into 4 conferences but the union wouldn’t go along with it prior to the current CBA negotiations (why give up a bargainning chip for free?). Obviously 32 divides into 4 and 30 does not for both leagues.

    So who would be Seattle’s expansion partner? How about a Canadian team in both scenarios. Quebec City is already primed for the NHL, and if they beat Seattle for a distressed Sun Belt franchise (aka Phoenix), then Hamilton or a second team in Toronto are real possiblities. And for the NBA? I wouldn’t be surprised if they went back to Vancouver BC. Stern has mumbled regrets about how Vancouver was treated and the Aquilini family (owners of the Canucks) has already met with Stern for coffee to see if they might want to go out on a real date later on.

    As for resentment up north? I have read some really interesting stuff about how the new NBA team in VBC would target the Asian population in the region, a community that has grown tremendously and wasn’t leveraged well the last time a franchise was in the city.

    • art thiel

      You are correct, Jamo. Vancouver would be a likely partner. They have the gym and the quality ownership. The Aquilinis would find partners to own the NBA team in one entity, which is exactly what Hansen should do, in the fashion of Seahawks/Sounders.

  • Jamo57

    I think you are on to something Art. I’m following the NHL and where it is headed relative to Seattle and I can see them expanding as well in a couple of years. They have already tried to restructure into 4 conferences but the union wouldn’t go along with it prior to the current CBA negotiations (why give up a bargainning chip for free?). Obviously 32 divides into 4 and 30 does not for both leagues.

    So who would be Seattle’s expansion partner? How about a Canadian team in both scenarios. Quebec City is already primed for the NHL, and if they beat Seattle for a distressed Sun Belt franchise (aka Phoenix), then Hamilton or a second team in Toronto are real possiblities. And for the NBA? I wouldn’t be surprised if they went back to Vancouver BC. Stern has mumbled regrets about how Vancouver was treated and the Aquilini family (owners of the Canucks) has already met with Stern for coffee to see if they might want to go out on a real date later on.

    As for resentment up north? I have read some really interesting stuff about how the new NBA team in VBC would target the Asian population in the region, a community that has grown tremendously and wasn’t leveraged well the last time a franchise was in the city.

    • art thiel

      You are correct, Jamo. Vancouver would be a likely partner. They have the gym and the quality ownership. The Aquilinis would find partners to own the NBA team in one entity, which is exactly what Hansen should do, in the fashion of Seahawks/Sounders.

  • Stan

    Great points, great article. I do think expansion is a realistic possibility. This article makes it sound as if the NBA would need to expand by TWO teams if it expanded at all, “for scheduling purposes.” That’s simply not true — the NBA had an odd number of teams for at least 15 years until the Bobcats joined to bring the total to 30.

    • art thiel

      The NBA and other leagues have had odd numbers from time to time for various reasons. But none of them like it for competitive as well as scheduling reasons. For years, the Mariners have been part of baseball’s only four-team division, a distinct advantage for each team because it meant they had to be better than only three teams to make the playoffs. The fact that the Mariners took advantage so few times doesn’t change the fact that all AL West teams had an easier route. It’s why the Astros are moving in next year from the NL West.

  • Stan

    Great points, great article. I do think expansion is a realistic possibility. This article makes it sound as if the NBA would need to expand by TWO teams if it expanded at all, “for scheduling purposes.” That’s simply not true — the NBA had an odd number of teams for at least 15 years until the Bobcats joined to bring the total to 30.

    • art thiel

      The NBA and other leagues have had odd numbers from time to time for various reasons. But none of them like it for competitive as well as scheduling reasons. For years, the Mariners have been part of baseball’s only four-team division, a distinct advantage for each team because it meant they had to be better than only three teams to make the playoffs. The fact that the Mariners took advantage so few times doesn’t change the fact that all AL West teams had an easier route. It’s why the Astros are moving in next year from the NL West.

  • jafabian

    I’d be surprised if the NHL allows a Canadian team to leave it’s host city for a US one. That country is fanatical about its hockey. Always has been always will. To transplant a Canadian team in favor of a US city would be biting the hand that feeds them. I can see the Islanders moving to Seattle because they’ve never received any solid support there. The question is can they wait until the Hansen Arena is completed?
    If an NBA team moves in I would prefer a new name rather than calling them Sonics but that won’t happen. However the Sonics are gone and in OKC and they aren’t coming back. Dick Snyder, Slick Watts, DJ, X-Man, Glove, Reign Man and Ray are all gone. Why not start with something fresh? Fact of the matter is, they were named after a failed Boeing project that was cancelled due to rising costs and a lack of a clear market which in hindsight almost makes their name appropriate. Is that really the kind of name that should be attached to a franchise trying to become a winner? By naming itself after something that failed?
    All the going ons with the franchise since Howard Schultz acquired the club have made for a bad taste in the mouth for the NBA product. If it’s a new arena, make the start completely new.

    • CaptainGroovy

      If it’s not the Sonics, I’m not interested. If the team were named something else I could see us responding much the way Charlotte has to the Bobcats, had the right thing been done, and the Hornets name and colors left with the city, I see them doing much better at the turnstile. And just so you know, Snyder, Slick, DJ, X-Man, Glove, Reign Man, Ray, and all the rest are still right here in Seattle, in the hearts of every Sonics fan, and they never left. If a teams come via expansion, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Sonics.

  • jafabian

    I’d be surprised if the NHL allows a Canadian team to leave it’s host city for a US one. That country is fanatical about its hockey. Always has been always will. To transplant a Canadian team in favor of a US city would be biting the hand that feeds them. I can see the Islanders moving to Seattle because they’ve never received any solid support there. The question is can they wait until the Hansen Arena is completed?
    If an NBA team moves in I would prefer a new name rather than calling them Sonics but that won’t happen. However the Sonics are gone and in OKC and they aren’t coming back. Dick Snyder, Slick Watts, DJ, X-Man, Glove, Reign Man and Ray are all gone. Why not start with something fresh? Fact of the matter is, they were named after a failed Boeing project that was cancelled due to rising costs and a lack of a clear market which in hindsight almost makes their name appropriate. Is that really the kind of name that should be attached to a franchise trying to become a winner? By naming itself after something that failed?
    All the going ons with the franchise since Howard Schultz acquired the club have made for a bad taste in the mouth for the NBA product. If it’s a new arena, make the start completely new.

    • CaptainGroovy

      If it’s not the Sonics, I’m not interested. If the team were named something else I could see us responding much the way Charlotte has to the Bobcats, had the right thing been done, and the Hornets name and colors left with the city, I see them doing much better at the turnstile. And just so you know, Snyder, Slick, DJ, X-Man, Glove, Reign Man, Ray, and all the rest are still right here in Seattle, in the hearts of every Sonics fan, and they never left. If a teams come via expansion, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Sonics.

  • Bobscrat

    Seattle is more valuable to the NBA without a team, but with an arena in the queue. That’s why I think the NBA will not be overly anxious to place any team here in the near future, expansion or otherwise. The only way this would be expedited is if Chris Hanson puts A LOT of money on the table, since that’s the only thing David Stern will respond to. I hope I’m wrong, but I just sense that this will be strung out for a loooooong time.

    • art thiel

      Bob, I’ve had the same view for some time. Awhile back I wrote that an empty Seattle is to the NBA what an empty LA is to the NFL — an extortion tool to get teams what they need from their cities.

      Having said that, the NBA can have the empty vessel of Seattle for four years. At some point, Hansen’s arena will be ready and Stern’s successor will move to expand because there will be more money to be made with Seattle and 32 teams than there will be in extorting cities.

  • Bobscrat

    Seattle is more valuable to the NBA without a team, but with an arena in the queue. That’s why I think the NBA will not be overly anxious to place any team here in the near future, expansion or otherwise. The only way this would be expedited is if Chris Hanson puts A LOT of money on the table, since that’s the only thing David Stern will respond to. I hope I’m wrong, but I just sense that this will be strung out for a loooooong time.

    • art thiel

      Bob, I’ve had the same view for some time. Awhile back I wrote that an empty Seattle is to the NBA what an empty LA is to the NFL — an extortion tool to get teams what they need from their cities.

      Having said that, the NBA can have the empty vessel of Seattle for four years. At some point, Hansen’s arena will be ready and Stern’s successor will move to expand because there will be more money to be made with Seattle and 32 teams than there will be in extorting cities.

  • Alan Kehle

    ” and would dearly love to have one of Hansen’s partners, Steve Ballmer, as a lodge brother. ”

    Art, why do you think so?

    • art thiel

      He’s one of the richest, most influential men in the world. Stern likes rich, influential men on his side.

  • Alan Kehle

    ” and would dearly love to have one of Hansen’s partners, Steve Ballmer, as a lodge brother. ”

    Art, why do you think so?

    • art thiel

      He’s one of the richest, most influential men in the world. Stern likes rich, influential men on his side.

  • Jim Paxson

    Please not through expansion–the NBA, while I love and watch it every year, would be sooo much more fun and watchable if there were, say, 24-26 teams–less dilution of talent, etc….no offense to, say, Milwaukee and the fine fans there, but how does a city of such meager size really help the NBA? And, do Milwaukeeans even really care all that much (they have the Packers not far away, plus the Brewers, and then there’s the ever-popular Wiscosin football, albeit in Madison)? One of the many perplexing things about Stern is his seemingly strong desire to keep a team in Nawlins—really, Nawlins? Tiny city, and a city that loves the Sants 1st, LSU Tigers 2nd, LSU Tigers offseason 3rd, high school football 4th, and then maybe the Hornets…

  • Jim Paxson

    Please not through expansion–the NBA, while I love and watch it every year, would be sooo much more fun and watchable if there were, say, 24-26 teams–less dilution of talent, etc….no offense to, say, Milwaukee and the fine fans there, but how does a city of such meager size really help the NBA? And, do Milwaukeeans even really care all that much (they have the Packers not far away, plus the Brewers, and then there’s the ever-popular Wiscosin football, albeit in Madison)? One of the many perplexing things about Stern is his seemingly strong desire to keep a team in Nawlins—really, Nawlins? Tiny city, and a city that loves the Sants 1st, LSU Tigers 2nd, LSU Tigers offseason 3rd, high school football 4th, and then maybe the Hornets…

  • Dusty

    If a team is up for sale, it’s not being “hijacked”. And if a team is not economicly viable in such a city, its not being “hijacked”. The Sonics fit neither catagory, and in fact were “hijacked”. Come on Art, these are two totaly different situations. If a city can’t or won’t support their team, we (Seattle) will. Thats not being “hijacked”.

  • Dusty

    If a team is up for sale, it’s not being “hijacked”. And if a team is not economicly viable in such a city, its not being “hijacked”. The Sonics fit neither catagory, and in fact were “hijacked”. Come on Art, these are two totaly different situations. If a city can’t or won’t support their team, we (Seattle) will. Thats not being “hijacked”.

  • billbird2111

    All this is speculative, of course, but the virtue of expansion is not. There will be no hijacking of another fan base, which has been, since the day in July 2008 the Sonics left, the most odious consequence of bringing back the NBA — doing dirty unto others as dirty was done unto you.

    Hansen reiterated Tuesday that he is not going to be predatory.

    “We’re not going to go around saying, ‘Please sell us your team,’ “he said. “We’re not going to pry a team away.