BY Art Thiel 04:44PM 07/18/2016

Thiel: NBA remains distant; Hansen needs NHL

Ten years ago, Howard Schultz sold the Sonics to Clay Bennett of Oklahoma City. An NBA return seems no closer. Chris Hansen’s only play may to help build a bridge to get to the NHL.

Howard Schultz on the day he bought the Sonics from Barry Ackerley on Jan. 11, 2001. / Dan Levine, Getty Images

Howard Schultz on the day, July 18, 2006, he sold the Sonics to Clay Bennett. /

The 10th anniversary Monday of the sale by Howard Schultz of the SuperSonics to Clay Bennett, who two years later moved the club to Oklahoma City, is one of those moments everyone in Seattle wants to wipe from their shoes. But to dismiss an understanding of the events before and after July 18, 2006, would be a mistake, because the episode informs what may come regarding the return of the NBA.

Recent news regarding financial progress toward building the Lander Street Bridge, a 20-year pursuit of the Port of Seattle for improving freight mobility, opens up the theoretical possibility of an improved climate for a revised submission of Chris Hansen’s Sodo arena proposal to the Seattle City Council.

The theory is that with $100 million in pledged commitments for the $140 million project, Hansen could be the stakeholder who closes the gap. For certain, if the arena project were granted the vacation of Occidental Avenue, Hansen would pay a market price of around $18 million to $20 million for the land, a fee earmarked by agreement for the Sodo Transportation Infrastructure Fund.

That fund, which requires $40 million, was mandated in the 2012 memorandum of understanding between Hansen and the city. If Hansen and others with vital interests in the Lander bridge contribute another $20 million, the project is funded. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, work could begin in spring 2018.

Again, in theory, investing in a bridge to a solution might inspire the port to drop its Sodo arena objections.

However, followers of this twisty saga know that the MOU expires in November 2017. That would mean Hansen and his private money dedicated to a public works project vanishes. Logic would dictate that as a condition of helping supply the decisive cash for Lander, Hansen would insist upon extending the MOU. He probably would seek five years.

The City Council, which May 2 voted 5-4 to reject the bid for the Occidental vacation, would have to decide to reconsider in light of rare private money for a project that would also improve public safety. If the council agrees to consider a vote on a revised proposal, it then must decide how much leash to grant Hansen’s seemingly fruitless pursuit of an NBA team.

Which gets us back to 2006. Or more precisely, Feb. 26, 2004. That’s when things went seriously haywire between Seattle and the NBA.

At the behest of Schultz, NBA Commissioner David Stern flew to Seattle and was driven to Olympia to make the case before the Legislature for state support of a $220 million proposal to upgrade KeyArena — even though the building was upgraded in 1995 for $100 million in a deal funded by the city.

In short, Stern and his league were told to drop dead by Frank Chopp, Speaker of the House from Seattle’s 43rd District, then and now.

“They (the NBA) ought to get their own financial house in order when their payroll is over $50 million for, what is it, 10 players?” Chopp told Stern at a public hearing. “I think that’s a little ridiculous. They need to get their own financial house in order and if they did, they wouldn’t have to ask for public help.”

To paraphrase the animated parliamentarian Foghorn Leghorn, that was the most unheard of thing Stern had ever heard of. In a Sportspress NW story from May 2013,  colleague Steve Rudman recounts Stern’s attitude.

“Stern felt like Chopp treated him and the NBA with disrespect,” one of the members in the Seattle entourage that day told me. “Stern was upset that he went all the way to Olympia only to get abused. We tried to tell David that Chopp treats everybody asking for money that way, but David took it personally, and he didn’t like it at all.”

By 2006, Stern, never one to forgive a slight, saw an opportunity for payback after the Schultz ownership group quietly put up the Sonics for sale. Bennett, a minority owner in the San Antonio Spurs, had done the NBA a big favor by hosting temporarily in his hometown Oklahoma City the New Orleans Hornets, orphaned by the 2005 ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Stern was disposed to look kindly upon Bennett’s ambitions in Seattle.

When Bennett bid a then-astonishing $350 million for the Sonics, which Schultz bought five years earlier from Barry Ackerley for $200 million, Stern was delighted to test his adversaries in Washington state.

They responded.

Three days after Bennett bought the Sonics, opponents of further public funding of sports venues, organized as Citizens for More Important Things and led by attorney Chris Van Dyk,  presented nearly 24,000 signatures for placing Initiative 91 on a citywide ballot. The proposal mandated for pro teams renting city venues such as the Key that the leases must include a small annual profit for the city, using a formula tied to the return on U.S. Treasury bills.

Despite its confusing wording, the measure made the city ballot in November 2007, and won by a stunning  74.1 percent plurality. A few days later at a press conference in Phoenix, Stern was asked about the Sonics’ increasingly perilous situation. He made it clear he received the voters’ message.

“That merely means,” said Stern caustically, “that there is no way city money would ever be used on an arena project.

“If the team moves, there’s not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision. There’s no way the league would ever return to the city.”

Nine months later, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels decided, in exchange for $45 million from Bennett, to stop the city’s lawsuit that demanded the Sonics stay through the 2010 end of the lease.

The Sonics were gone. And Stern so far has been correct on his threat.

The city law produced by Initiative 91 remains on the books and is unique in the American sports marketplace. To NBA bosses, the law reflects a clear Seattle voter disdain for  practices common (e.g., sweetheart leases) in other markets.

Hansen’s claim in his business plan that seeks up to $200 million in construction loans for the proposed arena says it satisfies the law’s requirements. Opponents disagree.

What is known is Stern is retired, and his successor, Adam Silver, hasn’t necessarily inherited Stern’s petty vindictiveness toward Seattle. But Silver also said multiple times there’s no reason or plan for the NBA to expand in the foreseeable. One of his bosses, Clippers owner and former Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer, confirmed it at a conference in Seattle last week.

“(Expansion) is just not likely to happen,” said Ballmer, a former partner in Hansen’s arena bid before buying the Clippers in 2014 for $2 billion. “There has been no discussion about expansion since I have been involved with the league. So, I don’t think that will happen. The league has really moved to favor teams staying in their current markets.

“You’d have to find a team that’s at the end of their (arena) lease, where it looks hard to build an arena and where they’ve tried really hard to build an arena. And you’d have to show that an arena can get built in Seattle. Because unlike most other cities that build an arena before they have a team, I don’t think an arena is going to get built here before a team comes here unless it gets done in the context of hockey.”

So the 10-year anniversary of the Sonics sale brings us to future events. Given its clear aversion to a) expansion, b) relocation and c) the voters and electeds of Seattle, the NBA for Hansen seems at the moment a beyond-Steph-Curry-range long shot.

Which doesn’t mean allowing him the opportunity is a bad idea. Because if he’s going to go to the trouble of re-submitting a proposal for Sodo that helps pay for the Lander Street Bridge and includes a deadline extension, the rewrite of the MOU should also include the NHL, for which expansion/relocation are not at all far-fetched.

To build for NHL first, Hansen made it clear he needs a partner group emotionally invested in hockey and financially capable of investing in his arena plan. As far as is known, no such entity has reached out, at least in part because Hansen has no NHL deal with Seattle.

If Hansen can help the city build one bridge, the city should be open to him building another bridge to a sport that would embrace Seattle, not exploit it.



  • Tom G.

    One problem with this idea though. I’m not sure Chris Hansen wants to get on the phone and call NHL owners.

    IMO that’s probably why you have the Victor Coleman and Ray Bartoszek-types sniffing around the area, but NOT consummating deals with Chris.

    I’m not saying Chris should pay for an NHL-only arena by himself up front, but I do think he needs to make the first phone calls among other things.

  • Tom G.

    Sounds great in theory, but is Chris Hansen willing to make the first phone call to the NHL and possible investors?

    Because ultimately it’s HIS MOU, HIS dirt and HIS arena design with the jet turbine roof, green seats and “Sonic Rings”. So Chris likely needs to acknowledge “I need the NHL in my building to make this work” and so far he hasn’t really done that.

    Instead you have your Victor Coleman, Ray Bartoszek and Bellevue-types sniffing around the area, but not doing deals with Chris.

    • art thiel

      As I mentioned above, Hansen doesn’t need to call anyone once he has the master use permit. The tricky part is getting as a partner one who will pay half a bill for the expansion fee AND go halfsies on the arena construction.

      • Tom G.

        I see what you’re saying, but my worry is if there’s no NBA team readily available and no NHL partner readily available for Hansen because he has no MUP, then what? Could the City Council keep punting on the issue if they wanted to?

        It almost turns into a “chicken and egg” question at that point because as much as people want to dwell on the Port and the bonding money, I think the “lack of team” problem is by far the biggest issue Hansen has right now.

        Because if there was a team (or the strong likelihood of a team) Hansen could present, I’d think the public support for the SODO arena would swell like it did in ’12 and the pressure on the City Council to vacate Occidental would also increase exponentially.

  • Buggy White

    “Animated parliamentarian Foghorn Leghorn”! I love your way with words, Art!

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    • art thiel

      Good to know you’re out there, Bugs.

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  • David Flock

    Here is something to dwell on. Ballmer who was a minority partner in the Sonics could have bought the Sonics probably for less than the crooks from Okie city paid .Then he turns around and buys the Clippers for five times what the crooks from Okie city paid.Of course one of the Okie crooks met his maker on the wrong side of a bridge abutment.So now Ballmer has paid the highest price ever for a NBA franchise which well always be like the Little Sisters of the Poor to the Lakers in LA.

    • ron

      No one in Seattle (or any where else in the world) wanted to take howard schultz’ place in 2006. As one of the Nordstroms said in a june 2012 interview in the seatte times, there was no clear path to success for local ownership of the team at that time. For what it is worth, the same Nordstrom voted against the sale of the team.

      Anyone buying the sonics in 2006 would have had to 1) be willing to pay for the franchise; 2) willing to lose over $15 million a year until the state and local governments got together on a plan to remodel/ replace key arena; and then 3) willing to kick in at least $100 million towards the cost of the remodel/replacement. I can see why no one signed up for that.

      • art thiel

        Ballmer on oh-six was in no position own a team while running Microsoft. Once he retired, he indulged himself.

        Regarding arena building, the NBA more recently has been doing a public private split with tax dollars. The most Schultz offered was $18M. And that was less than 10 years after Sonics ownership had been to the public trough for funding the Key remodel. Schultz was woefully inadequate with the private contribution.

        • ron

          No question Schultz was unwilling to pony up his share of an arena upgrade. I think Schultz underestimated his ability to tolerate many of the negative aspects of owning a NBA franchise.

          Having said that, was Schultz right in his judgment that owning a NBA franchise in Seattle in 2006 would be a losing proposition? In 2008 Ballmer offered to pay half of the cost of an arena upgrade, plus cost over-runs. His plan got nowhere. Hansen’s plan calls for
          private funding for over half of the cost of the arena, provides money for road improvements, and uses municipal bonds instead of direct subsidies. His street vacation still got rejected.

          Getting public funding in any form for an arena upgrade is tough sledding in Seattle. That may also accurately represent the will of the majority of Seattle voters. Furthermore, they may be on the side of the angels in that regard.

  • MrPrimeMinister

    Have two pictures in this piece ever summed up better what went down 10 years ago? In regards to the NHL–I think I know what icing is. What I don’t get is a player can skate up and all out body slam a player at full speed into the glass and cause all assortment of injury, busted heads, cracked shoulders, etc . . and it’s play on boys. But then a player literally could tap another player with his stick and gets two minutes in the box. There is much about the sport I don’t get and so I would probably not be a member of the ticket buying public for NHL in Seattle.

    • Mikeq

      Well, I know this isn’t really an NHL rule discussion thread, but a body on body hit causes pain to the hittee and the hitter, so the hitter has to be mindful of that (and hit according to the rules, for example, not leaving his feet to deliver the hit). Using your stick causes the hitter no harm and is akin to using a weapon on the ice. Therefore the discrepancy you pointed out. Hockey is a great sport, but not everyone enjoys it.

      • ron

        Excellent explanation, Mikeq. Furthermore, the NHL is way ahead of other pro sports on this matter. They understand the dangers of hitting another player with a weapon in a way that the NFL (with regards to leading with the top of the helmet to make contact) and even MLB (with regards to throwing at hitters) do not. The NHL does not care what your intent was when you used a weapon in a dangerous way, they call the penalty regardless of intent.

        • art thiel

          Fair points, but the uninterrupted fist fight remains a blatant appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    • art thiel

      Darn. And you’re a prime minister too.

      • MrPrimeMinister

        Wrong country. But my broader point was that I believe that pro hockey will be an extremely difficult sell in this region.

  • jafabian

    Though Silver may not carry the prejudices that Sterno has I question if he carries his agenda. At times he will say he has remorse on Seattle losing the Sonics and say that Seattle is always being mentioned as a possibility if the league were to ever expand but then will turn around and say that the league has no interest in expansion. That alienates the Seattle market when he does that and contributes to the NBA’s poor showing when it comes to TV and radio ratings in Washington state.

    IIRC, at the initial vote for the Kings move to Seattle it passed but Sterno had Hansen and Ballmer leave the owner’s meeting room and gave an impassioned plea to keep the Kings in Sacramento. A second vote of 22-8 kept the Kings in Sacramento. (Usually the owner’s are in unison in their votes so really, 22-8 isn’t that bad the second time around) Also Hansen has inquired about the Bucks and Hawks availability and both times those inquiries have been rebuffed. I had hope for the Hawks since they’ve moved 4x in the history of their franchise and are consistently at the bottom half of the league for attendance but even there the NBA is committed to making things work in Atlanta. Someone should ask Silver why the NBA has that stance now but didn’t in 2008. Right now I’m thinking Seattle’s best chances lie with Silver’s eventual successor who will have a fresher perspective on things.

    I’m not sure just how hard Hansen is looking for an NHL partner. I get the impression he isn’t actively looking which puzzles me when he says he’d do anything to bring the NBA back. (I guess he has his limits) I’m confident there’s someone or a group of people in BC who’d love to be a part of an NHL franchise in Seattle. As of 2014 there were 25 billionaires listed as living in BC. Hansen needs to at least find someone who can broker a partnership between them and him. With even Kevin Calabro jumping over to the Evil Empire (Portland….) as well as Ballmer bailing on Hansen’s group I just don’t see the NBA returning at least in the next 10 years. It took 25 for the NBA to return to New Orleans and they’ve yet to return to San Diego, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Kansas City.

    • art thiel

      Silver, as all commissioners, plays to both sides of controversy to minimize conflict.

      As the column pointed out, Stern had a chance to pay back Seattle’s scorn by opening the door to Bennett and OKC. But that’s been the last relocation Silver wants to see because is a symbol of a failing business model. Bad form.

      Hansen doesn’t need to recruit Canadian billionaires. They’ll come to him. They don’t want to be bloodied in a civic fight until Hansen actually has something, like a master use permit.

      • jafabian

        I’m surprised that Hansen hasn’t cut his losses by now. He could be in his 60s before the NBA comes here.

        • ron

          That scenario only works out if the judge enforces the specific performance clause in the lease. Given the way the trial went, that seems like a 50/50 proposition at best. It is just as likely the judge would have ordered a financial settlement without specific performance. That settlement might not have been as good as the one Nickels negotiated.

          In fairness to Nickels, he came up with the $75 million needed for the Ballmer plan from the city of Seattle. Ballmer’s plan got Chopp blocked at Olympia.

          As for Chopp, his opposition to the Ballmer plan did not cost him either his seat in the legislature or his spot as Speaker of the House. Is it possible, or even durned likely, Chopp was doing his job and representing the will of the voters?

          • jafabian

            Nickels legacy has always been that he didn’t have the best relationship with Olympia, with more than just the Sonics issue. The city of Cleveland wrote the book on how to handle this very situation when they let the Browns move to Baltimore despite their lease but only if the NFL replaced them with a new franchise and they got to keep their history. The Thunder currently list Lenny Wilkens, Dick Snyder, Slick Watts, Jack Sikma, Ray Allen et al as former Thunder players. That’s maddening to me and shows in part how the entire scenario was mishandled. Nickels always seemed to be treading water during his negotiations with Clay. Sure Chopp was doing his job but there’s a better way to handle it. He should have been more positive, the way Adam Silver never closes the door on Seattle but in reality there’s a snowball’s chance in hell in the NBA returning. That’s how Chopp should have handled Sterno.

          • ron

            the voters in Cleveland passed financing for a new stadium in Cleveland the day after modell announced his intention to relocate. doing things the Cleveland way was not an option in 2008, as there was no viable plan to upgrade key arena in place. I do believe that was what ballmer/walker/gorton were shooting for with the ballmer plan.

            Would it ease your pain to know that on thunder broadcasts, the
            local announcers refer to thunder records as those occurring since 2008?……that there are no retired numbers of former sonics players hanging from Chesapeake arena, along with no nba title banner?….that the trophy from the sonics championship is not on display at the arena in okc?

            While I am sure there are websites and official league record books where the names of sonics players are listed as thunder players, for fairly obvious reasons, the current owner does not, on a day to day basis, like to remind folks of the team’s history before July 2008.

          • ron

            Cleveland had more leverage with the NFL than Seattle had with the NBA. One day after Modell announced the relocation to Baltimore, the voters in Cleveland approved a stadium replacement plan. Seattle had no such plan and no such leverage.
            If it helps at all, my understanding is the Thunder team announcers only refer to things that happened since 2008 as Thunder records. I do not believe the jerseys of retired Sonics players hang from the rafters in OKC, nor does a Sonics championship banner. The NBA trophy won in Seattle is also not on display at the arena in OKC.
            While I am certain that in official league record books and on websites that Sonics players get lumped in with Thunder players, for fairly obvious reasons Bennett does not, on a day to day basis want to remind anyone of the franchise’s history before July 18, 2008.

    • ron

      Is the difference between what happened in Sacramento and what happened in Seattle that the folks in Sacramento actually came up with a viable arena upgrade plan? In 2008 if the Ballmer plan to remodel Key Arena had gotten traction, I doubt the NBA would have allowed relocation to OKC……

      or maybe they would have. it’s also possible that the public reaction to the relocation of the sonics has changed the NBA’s thinking toward franchise relocation. Currently, as long as a city is making an effort to solve their arena problem, the NBA will help the team stay in that city. That will be the case until….. well, it isn’t, and could change at a moment’s notice.

      • MarkS

        Stern was pretty adamant in 2008 that the Key Arena remodel was not good enough.

        • ron

          Excellent point. Still, would the NBA have faced court battles by allowing a team to relocate even though the city had approved an arena upgrade? Seems like somewhat similar circumstances led to MLB granting the expansion Mariners to Seattle.
          I will guess with you which way the owners would have voted. Even in 2008 the other owners (and Stern) would have liked the idea of having Steve Ballmer in their group. Were they really going to give Ballmer the middle finger over his choice of site for the arena upgrade?
          It would have required 16 owners to block relocation. I see that as too close to call, but I could be wrong. Sadly, we will never know, as the folks in Olympia never even brought Ballmer’s plan up for consideration.

        • art thiel

          Not in ninety five, when he said it was state of the art.

        • jafabian

          YouTube shows Sterno saying otherwise only 11 years prior.

          • MarkS

            I’ve seen that before. Such is the reason why many locally were reluctant to build a new arena.

            Still Stern, Schultz and others came out ahead in the end. The fans were the ones who were burned.

            When Schultz first bought the Sonics he told a story of how upset his father was when the Dodgers moved to Brooklyn. Five years later it seems he forgot that lesson.

      • jafabian

        Key Arena, formerly the Seattle Center Coliseum, has been remodeled twice now for the NBA. The City of Seattle is most likely done with meeting the League’s demands.

        • art thiel

          The problem is the NBA’s business model. That’s why Chopp and so many others were pissed about NBA/Schultz showing up with their hands out less than a decade after the Key remodel. The building didn’t just suddenly get decrepit.

      • art thiel

        Ultimately, a new local ownership group came through with private money to supplement the public offering, but only after being extorted by the Seattle vacancy. I think the NBA would have preferred to stay in Seattle, but not without a serious Key upgrade. Even then, the NBA wanted a new arena.

  • 1coolguy

    These pictures of Howard, the New York carpetbagger, send shivers up my spine.
    The best thing he can do for himself and his family is move back to New York. He is no Seattleite.

    • art thiel

      Ah, but the biz-mag crowd loves Howard. Thinks he’s a visionary. But they never seem to quote anyone who’s worked closely under his charge.

  • bnwpnw

    The contempt is mutual. The NBA’s conduct was appalling and the league that willingly remade itself around Stern’s (and now Silver’s) ego can take a long walk off Pier 62, now and forever. Meanwhile Seattle seems to be doing just fine without the NBA, and the Seahawks, Sounders, Mariners and Storm provide ample avenues for your sports dollar. The NBA was an abusive partner, and it’s sad to watch the dwindling cohort that keeps begging it to return. Show some self respect and move on.

    • art thiel

      Many objective observers found the league’s actions in Seattle foul play, Even Stern has grudgingly admitted “we” could have done better.

      And I do appreciate the point of view that some fans will not grovel before the NBA monopoly.

  • DJ

    Thanks for the words that sum up my position as well.
    I used to be angry with Chow, but in retrospect, I thank him for standing up to the NBA when the status quo would be grasping at Stern’s pant legs…..I can’t get over the coup that he, Bennett, and WALLY WALKER (my belief – Shultz is guilty of going along with it) pulled on us when in ’95 Stern lauded the Coliseum redo. Support the other sports franchises and count our blessings…..make the NBA wish they’d never left.

  • DJ

    DJ’s comment WRT bnwpnw’s post….