BY Art Thiel 07:38PM 02/16/2013

Thiel: Stern recalls Seattle history his own way

At the All-Star Game in Houston, Stern says Sacramento’s bid “plausible” and Seattle bid “strong,” and offers a snarky reminder of the dubious political support for the Sonics in ’06.

Sacramento’s pending counteroffer for the Kings seems “certainly plausible to me, but I don’t have a vote,” Commissioner David Stern said Saturday night, but had no plans to meet with Mayor Kevin Johnson at All-Star Game weekend in Houston, where he is conducting an informal campaign among owners to reject a franchise sale to Seattle arena developer Chris Hansen.

At his 37th and final NBA All-Star Game as an officer of the league — he’s retiring a year from now — Stern offered little fresh regarding the two-city pitch for the Kings, but did say, “I don’t believe it will come down to economics,” meaning, for example, a bid of $526 million from Sacramento topping the $525 million from Seattle. But that isn’t a point of discussion, he said, because “we don’t have the predicates yet” — meaning Johnson has yet to provide the counteroffer.

“It’s going to be a tough issue for the owners to decide,” Stern said, “depending on the mayor making good on his statement that he will make an offer.”

Stern was positive about the nature of the offer from Hansen and partner Steve Ballmer. Asked if there was anything more Seattle had to do to lure the NBA, Stern replied, “Not that I’m aware of.” He said they have provided “a great and strong application from a terrific city” with a “well-financed ownership group.”

Stern saved his sharpest remark for the Sonics’ political history in Seattle. Responding to a question about his description of Seattle as a “great city” and whether it was a great city five years ago when the NBA pulled out the Sonics, Stern turned patronizing.

After saying Seattle was a great city then and now, he said,  “I seem to remember, and correct me if I’m wrong, but there was $30o million-plus subsidy for the Mariners and $300 million-plus subsidy for the Seahawks,” he said. “But there was legislation that precluded that for the Sonics. Speaker (of the House of Representatives Frank) Chopp said we should get it from the players.

“History is being rewritten, so your question gives me an opportunity to set the record straight.”

Stern was referencing the 2006 vote in the city of Seattle passing Initiative 91, which mandated a small positive cash flow from pro teams leasing city facilities, specifically KeyArena. While Seattle’s NBA advocates often have focused on other people and issues that triggered the departure of the Sonics, Stern and NBA owners always took the 74 percent yes vote on I-91 as a resounding rejection of their business.

Nearly everything that happened after that vote became secondary; the NBA was ready to move. Also, Stern clearly never forgot his February 2006 trip to Olympia, where Chopp and other legislative leaders dismissed his visit and appeal for public funding.

But Saturday’s remarks also showed it is Stern who is rewriting history. While he is correct that the the Mariners’ stadium received public money from new taxes approved in 1995 by the state Legislature, and in 1997 voters statewide approved funding the Seahawks stadium with tax dollars, the Sonics were first to the public trough in 1993 when the city council approved $100 million in bonds to finance the remodel of the old Coliseum into KeyArena, which Stern then hailed as a premier venue.

Stern chooses to avoid that topic, as well as the fact that it was the NBA’s broken financial model that made KeyArena economically obsolete by the early 2000s. Unfortunately, Stern wasn’t asked about why he doesn’t remember the public funding in 1993, or the two lockouts of players required to fix the player compensation scale that made the NBA such an economic mess under his watch.

Stern seemed to dismiss another development in the Kings sale, a right of first refusal claimed by some Kings minority owners not part of the sale agreement between Hansen and the Maloof family, the majority owner: “I don’t feel it is a defining issue,” he said.

Stern was also asked whether there was a resolution to the bidding that would leave NBA fans in Seattle and Sacramento happy.

“I don’t see any scenario where both cities are happy,” he said, later saying that expansion is not in the NBA’s immediate future. He said expansion is seen by most owners right now as “neutral,” meaning that the one-time expansion fee paid by a new team to the league is balanced by the loss of shared revenue to the current 30 teams by taking on a new team.

Shortly after Stern’s press conference, Johnson spoke with reporters at the arena. He said he is spending his time in Houston lobbying  team owners that Sacramento has a “competitive advantage” over Seattle because of the deal tentatively approved by the city council last spring, which included a $255 million subsidy by the city to build a new arena downtown.

Although Hansen’s planned arena in SoDo received a go-ahead from city and county councils in October,  Johnson said, “Our deal was approved a year ago. We in our community don’t have lawsuits coming at us.”

The reference was to two lawsuits filed against Hansen’s plan for the arena location, one coming from the longshore union claiming negative impacts to the Port of Seattle, another from I-91 supporters who believe the deal doesn’t meet the law’s requirements.

Johnson said one owner told him this weekend: “I didn’t realize you guys were that far ahead.”

Johnson wouldn’t identify the owners with whom he met, and said he isn’t scheduled to meet with Stern, although he would try to “run into him in the hall.”

Presuming Stern takes the charge, the impact might jar his memory about the timeline of events in Seattle that, to use the word made up by Roger Clemens, Stern apparently misremembers. But that would mean taking some responsibility, which will never be recalled as a hallmark of the leadership of David Stern.


  • Stern can suck it. We paid for Key to be upgraded, and it wasn’t enough. Then they broke the league. They should be begging to come back.

    • art thiel

      The sports leagues always win because they are monopoly operators in a market that always has one more needy city than available teams.

  • jafabian

    Sterno may think he has a point when he cites the subsidies approved for the Mariners and Seahawks but he fails to mentioned when the Seattle Center Coliseum was remodeled into Key Arena specifically up to NBA standards for that time and less than 10 years later was “outdated.” Really, for his annual state of the NBA address he should touch base on the economics of the NBA but he’ll never do that. However it’s well known that it isn’t good. At some point they’ll have a franchise fold.

    From the comments that KJ has made it almost sounds as though Sterno is avoiding him. Really there’s no reason to when Sterno has let it be known that the decision regarding the Kings is up to the owners and not him. IMO that’s only a half truth because they listen to him and he’ll have an opinion. And he’ll most likely say to approve the move unless KJ has a huge offer to put on the table.

    • art thiel

      J, did you read the column that made the first point about Seattle’s Key subsidy?

      As far as KJ, Stern is following a protocol that says he he shouldn’t meet with suitors of one bidder when the Seattle group was not invited. Don’t read much into that. But you’re right about his influence — owners hire commissioners to make choices for the

  • Jared S.

    Thanks for this. Chris Daniels is a good reporter, but it’s
    disappointing that he let Stern get away with his distortions.

    A couple questions:

    1) Was Stern really treated so badly when he went to
    Olympia? A lot of people seem to think that, but I’ve gone back and read some
    news reports of that visit, and the Seattle Times report says

    Thursday’s hearing provided the Sonics the most friendly reception yet
    from state lawmakers. No particularly skeptical questions were asked of Stern
    or Schultz

    The fact that Schultz’s plan didn’t get approved had nothing
    to do with Stern, I’ve always thought, and mostly because everyone wanted
    Howard and his group to contribute more to the construction costs (like the M’s
    and Seahawks did).

    2) I’m no fan at all of I-91, but I don’t understand why
    Stern and the owners were so offended by it. It limited how much public money
    from Seattle could be used for an arena, but there are some places—New York,
    Brooklyn, L.A., Chicago, Boston, Denver, Utah, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and
    now San Francisco—that have used almost all private money to build or renovate
    their arenas. It’s not as if there’s some standard contribution that’s expected
    from each city in order to keep a team. And ironically, while Seattle voters
    were approving I-91, Sacramento voters rejected a proposal for publicly-funding
    an arena by an 80% to 20% margin. Why didn’t that piss Stern off like I-91 did?

    • art thiel

      Regarding his treatment, I wasn’t in Olympia, but the way it was told to me was not that he was grilled — it was the opposite. Stern/Schultz was given perfunctory courtesy time with no intent to listen or support their arguments.

      You’re right, the Stern appearance had no influence on the outcome; the plan was DOA when it was hatched. But Stern did not get his, ahem, ring kissed, and never forgot it, especially after Chopp said stupid stuff merely for aggravation. You’re right, it was Howard’s lack of private investment that did in the Sonics.

      Regarding public investment, the examples you cite were the result of either choice or negotiations between the privates and publics. At the time of I-91, I don’t believe any municipality with pro sports had taken such legislative action, which the the NBA took as a sign of a hostile business environment. It may have been a bold stroke of public policy courage on Seattle’s part, but it cost a franchise that will require a billion dollars to bring back.

      A majority of Seattle voters probably still agree with it, but its impact affected an entire marketplace that had no vote. On the other hand, Chris Hansen got the I-91 message and crafted a plan that met its principles, however poorly written was the initiative.

      • NixBeeman

        Good point. On the other hand, the Sonics were gone with I-91 or not. Even without its passage, there was zero public support to spend a dime on another arena. The fact that it’ll cost a billion in some sucker’s dough to bring one back is a statement about the sucker, not the public. Also: the “entire marketplace” shouldn’t get a vote on spending public money unless it wants to put up some. Hanson is the one who chose to site an arena in a municipality where most of the taxpayers don’t want it.

        • art thiel

          I-91 had the effect, four months after Bennett bought the team, of foreclosing on the kind of help that Kevin Johnson had from the NBA office to keep the Maloofs from moving the first time. It was a drop-dead msg from Seattle to the NBA.

          Remember at that time Bennett was playing the Seattle arena game. Hindsight shows it was a ruse, but Ballmer and friends put up a bunch of private $ as late as spring of ’08 to fix up KeyArena.

          Understood that non-Seattleites didn’t have a nickel in the game, but my point was the lopsided vote wasn’t necessarily how the entire marketplace felt about a Sonics subsidy.

          And indeed, it is Hansen who is taking the risk. Making his controversial choice of site could be his undoing, or at least delaying his ambitions.

  • NixBeeman

    A “good reporter” would have smacked the lob thrown by Stern all the way out of Houston. Daniels was given a direct opportunity to refresh everyone’s memory about the Key publicly financed remodel when Stern, after spewing his revisionist history of local arena politics, looked at him and asked: “Is there anything that I’m missing here?”

    At which point Daniels mumbled, “You’re about there.” Susannah Frame, he is not.

    • art thiel

      Chris does an excellent job, but few have ever won a spontaneous argument with Stern. He’s a seventh-degree black belt manipulator. Wish I had been there.

  • PokeyPuffy

    @ Nix, agree Daniels had a chance to engage a bit deeper and didn’t. Being a reporter is a tough job because you have to ask difficult questions of powerful people, and yet stay in their good favor so that you’re allowed to ask more questions in the future. Daniels backed down from his strong start and did not respond to Stern’s return volley. failed.

    • art thiel

      I just think Stern answered the question in a way that caught Chris unprepared. It’s classic Stern, offering self-deprecation, then an answer that isn’t wrong but is incomplete and misleading. I disagree with his handling of the entire Sonics fiasco, but anyone who thinks he is merely being a dope or a meanie or worse seriously misreads the man.

  • notaboomer

    the nba is a freaking waste of time. when spectator sports go all cable and price out the average jolene, they become irrelevant. the nfl, despite its many flaws, is the only league that hasn’t turned its back on the working stiff. cable tv contracts suck. comcast blows.

    • art thiel

      Nota, if your attitude on TV contracts goes viral, pro sports/big time college sports will wheeze to an untimely expiry.

  • Effzee

    Never forget:

    “Studying under Dick Bavetta for 13 years was like pursuing a graduate degree in advanced game manipulation. He knew how to marshal the tempo and tone of a game better than any referee in the league, by far. He also knew how to take subtle — and not so subtle — cues from the NBA front office and extend a playoff series or, worse yet, change the complexion of that series.” – Tim Donaghy

    “Donaghy’s release date has recently been in question due to concerns about his medical condition. Donaghy was injured during an assault in November of 2008. During the assault, another inmate claiming ties to the New York mob beat Donaghy with a heavy object. Donaghy suffered severe knee and leg injuries that will require surgery.”

    • art thiel

      So whaddaya saying here, effzee? You didn’t like the outcome of Game 7 Seattle vs. Phoenix in ’93? Shocked, I tell you . . .

  • RadioGuy

    I am anything but a fan of David Stern, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a refutation of his comments.
    The fact of the matter is that (while there was indeed a $100 miilion renovation of KeyArena in the 90’s) I-91 was passed AFTER the public paid for upwards of a billion dollars towards stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks. I seem to recall the numbers being in the neighborhood of $450 million for Safeco Field and $400 million for Seahawks Stadium. I’m willing to be corrected on those figures, but I don’t think I’m far off. I haven’t forgotten that Stern himself praised KeyArena when it was reopened, but the NBA’s economics had changed in the years between the renovation and when the Sonics moved.
    Also, I recall that the lone politician to pick up the cause of a new arena for the Sonics was Margarita Prentice, who brokered a deal that would’ve put the facility in Renton if state funding became available. Neither Governor Gregoire nor the Legislature did a thing on behalf of the team or the league in bringing this about and the arena died. We know what happened next.

    The Sonics should never have moved out of Seattle, but Gregoire, Chopp and Nickels also should never have tried calling a bluff on a master poker player like Stern, especially when it was pretty clear even then to anyone who knew what Bennett was about that the team was OKC-bound if something WASN’T done. I don’t like it more that anyone else, but it was what it was.

    • Jared S.

      Bennett’s Renton plan was (deliberately) terrible. It was in a poor location and would have been the most expensive arena ever built. It required $400-500 million of public money and Bennett’s group was unwilling to cover the cost overruns.

      Also, it’s not fair to say Nickels didn’t do anything to try and keep the team here. He was on board with the Ballmer group’s plan to buy back the Sonics and help renovate Key Arena a second time, but the legislature wanted to put it off, and Stern dismissed it as a publicity stunt, saying that a renovated Key Arena wouldn’t be good enough—never mind that that had been what Schultz wanted prior, or that magically, after the city agreed to let Bennett out of the lease, Stern suddenly changed his tune about the proposed Key Arena renovation being acceptable again. Or that Oklahoma City was only asked for $100 million in arena renovations in order to lure the Sonics (which they weren’t even able to pay for in full).

      You can just as easily accuse Schultz, Stern, and Bennett from being unwilling to meet the politicians halfway as you can argue for the vice-versa. It’s hard to get any kind of arena deal done with people who are negotiating in such bad faith.

      • art thiel

        You’re right, Jared; Bennett’s plan was a ruse, but after 1-91 Stern had him go into stall mode to get closer to the 2010 end of the lease. Bennett knew he was headed for a court fight which at its worst outcome, would force him to stay to 2010. But he needed to play a couple of seasons here. By going through the motions and stripping the team, he would establish his argument of market failure.

    • art thiel

      Having politicians trying to save the franchise as a last act is like trying to win the pot with a pair of deuces.

      As far as I-91, yes, it was a repudiation of pro sports based in part on the Seahawks/Mariners deals, but Stern never wants to acknowledge that the NBA was the first pig at the trough, and his broken CBA was the root cause of KeyArena being rendered economically obsolete so soon.

      More important, the end of the motor vehicle excise tax via 1-695 in ’98 was when the tap turned off in Olympia. Neither the fb or bb stadiums would have been built if the ask had been after the purpose of 1-695 was implemented by legislators (even though the ballot measure was judged unconstitutional). The sequence of events is important to remember before blaming the pols for non-support of pro sports. No way was any elected risking his or her political capital for sports after that. Prentice was nearly by herself, desperate to trick out Renton for economic purproses.

      • In the ’90s, when Safeco and now-CenturyLink were up for vote, the local and national economies were far better, and public subsidies for stadiums were more palatable because there was more cash for governments to spend. Remember, though, those decisions were hardly mandates. The CLink passed by a whisker, and Safeco got pushed through by the Legislature after the public voted no, which still galls many voters. That, plus the bad ’00s economy and incredulity at a decade-old building being “outdated”, helped pave the way for I-91.

        Speaking of, I wonder how the I-91 vote would have gone if it had been extended to all of King County. I recall reading that most Sonics season ticket holders lived in the suburbs, and I’m sure they would have been more pro-arena.

        • art thiel

          All true, Kirkland. Enoughannoying things happened regarding pro sports that made many voters say yes to 91. Regarding a wider vote in the county, as another poster here mentioned, the Key is a city-owned facility and funded only by city voters. So the ‘burbs could not have had a say, unless it was merely an advisory ballot.

  • Jared S.

    It’s also so bizarro and insidious that Stern points out all the money that Seattle had given to the Mariners and Seahawks as part of his effort to paint the local pols as unreasonably obstinate. One could (and should) look at that situation and determine, well, maybe the NBA was the problem, not Seattle—even if the situation wasn’t the Sonics coming back in the mid-2000s asking for seconds, which they were. And I don’t think the concept of stadium fatigue should be difficult to understand. Yet somehow Stern is able to convince people that it was Seattle, not the NBA, who was unreasonable, even with all the public financing spent here on pro sports stadiums over the decades. It makes me boil over.

  • Pixeldawg13

    Art, this has ambiguity:”Sacramento’s pending counteroffer for the Kings seems “certainly
    plausible to me, but I don’t have a vote,” Commissioner David Stern said
    Saturday night, but had no plans to meet with Mayor Kevin Johnson at
    All-Star Game weekend in Houston, where he is conducting an informal
    campaign among owners to reject a franchise sale to Seattle arena
    developer Chris Hansen.”

    Which of Stern/Johnson is referred to by “he is conducting…”? It SHOULD, by the rules of grammar, refer to Stern, but I suspect it doesn’t.

    • art thiel

      The pronoun “he” references the last person named in the previous clause, which in this case is Johnson. But I also see how you could have thought it was Stern. Thank you, Dr. Grammar. Good you found something worthwhile in the column.

  • Local Sports Fan

    Great article Art. Stern definitely believes his own revisionist version of events. I would say that history is written by the victors but I don’t want to give Stern that much credit. He can paint as rosy a picture of events in 2005 as he wants but the truth is we gave him what he wanted on the first go and when we told him no, he left and took his toys with him like a spoiled child. I would have loved to hear his response if Daniels had asked that follow up question.