NBA Commissioner Adam Silver last week opened the door a bit on expansion. It is in the city’s best interest to give the Sodo project a fresh look, free of old assumptions.
Tim Leiweke has based a fair part of his pitch to remodel KeyArena on the notion that his many years spent in the drawing rooms of the NBA and NHL overlords have accorded him privileged wisdom when it comes understanding the mysteries of these titans of commerce and sports.
The CEO of Oak View Group has assured outgoing Mayor Ed Murray, his staff, city council and the Seattle public that a top-shelf concert venue is the Key’s immediate future, supplemented first by an NHL team, and then . . . maybe sometime . . . whenever . . . an NBA franchise.
The fact that the return of the Sonics has fallen to third priority in the Key scheme is of no small annoyance to pro basketball followers. But it does correspond to the official propaganda issued by the NBA since 2013, when Chris Hansen’s attempted relocation of the Kings from Sacramento to Seattle was thwarted by devious David Stern.
The then-NBA commissioner didn’t want the league to go back to Seattle (and the state) where its elected meanies failed to genuflect and grovel in his direction, as has been customary in other municipalities when he arrived in his sedan chair borne by minions. Nor did Stern want a second black eye from another relocation fight so soon after his 2008 failure in Seattle. Then there was the unseemly matter of committing the perfidy in his final year as commish.
After he won the fight, Stern retired, the NBA solved its remaining arena issues and also gained windfall profits from new broadcast, cable and streaming deals, reducing any desire to expand to two more teams that would slice thinner the luscious pie. So expansion was out of the question too.
Until last week.
In a video interview with Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who is getting a head start on a post-hoops broadcast career, Adam Silver, Stern’s successor, finally said the obvious — yes, the NBA will expand, and Seattle is short-listed.
“I don’t want to put a precise timeline on it, but it’s inevitable at some point we’ll start looking at growth of franchises,” said Silver in the interview posted on The Players’ Tribune. “That’s always been the case in this league. I think it’s just a question of when the right time is to seriously start thinking about expansion.
“Seattle will, no doubt, be on a short list of cities we’ll look at.”
That’s the first time in his tenure Silver has said anything but “no” to expansion. He even conjured up a false argument about maintaining the status quo so he could knock down the contention in order to make himself look smarter about expansion.
“Think about the state we’re in the league right now,” he said. “Amazing to me, coming off these Finals, we have some fans saying, ‘There’s only one good team in the league.’ And I’m thinking, if people really believe that, even though we have 450 of the best players in the world and 450 players can only form one really good team, it probably doesn’t make sense to expand in terms of dilution of talent.
“I don’t really believe that, and I think these things correct themselves.”
Silver again stated the obvious: The three-year success of the Golden State Warriors is an outlier, subject to expiration upon the spraining of an ankle by Steph Curry. So there is now neither a financial nor a qualitative reason not to expand in the next few years.
Leiweke likely will say that Silver’s remarks conform to what he’s been saying: The NBA will expand, and the remodeled Key, with $564 million in renovations from his company’s funds, will be ready when it does.
But what that contention fails to describe is Silver’s motivation. His job is drive up the price of scarce objects, expansion franchises, that are provided only by the NBA’s monopoly operations. As part of the strategy, Silver tells an audience what he thinks it most wants to hear, not to fit a Leiweke strategy.
For all the obvious reasons, the Portland marketplace would love to see the return of Seattle. Frankly, so would everyone else in the NBA. As we all know, what’s holding Seattle back is the lack of a suitable arena.
The rival for Leiweke’s project at Seattle Center is Hansen’s project in Sodo, which has always been NBA-first. It is a superior location, several years ahead of the infant Key project and would be a greater contributor to city revenues, according to this study by the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy.
But the Sodo arena needs two key elements: The vacation of a city street and the commitment of a whale partner for Hansen, who is on record as saying he likely can’t afford to build the arena and be the majority owner of a NBA team (thanks largely to his former Sodo partner, Steve Ballmer, whose $2 billion purchase of the Clippers changed the American pro sports financial world).
If the street vacation were granted by the city council to Hansen, a possibility to be considered this fall, he would be in position to gain the second requirement, a big-time partner. Until the project is green-lighted, any super-wealthy investor will stay clear of the political fight. As with the rest of life, timing is everything.
For purposes of discussion only, not any insider knowledge, let’s say that partner is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Just a guess here, but Silver would happily board one of Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets to Seattle to offer an expansion franchise to Bezos and Hansen.
The point is that despite what Murray and council members have been told by Leiweke and others, the NBA’s positions on expansion, as well as Hansen’s potential ownership group, are variable, not fixed by past circumstances.
Dismissing or voting down Hansen’s opportunity for a street vacation would be a severe miscalculation, if for no other reason than there is no guarantee that Leiweke and the city will agree on a memorandum of understanding by Murray’s non-binding December deadline, ahead of the end of his term. Murray’s political and legal troubles should have no bearing on the outcome of the arena debate.
None of foregoing changes the merits or demerits of OVG’s proposal regarding the physical remodel, its finances or its community integration. Those are separate analyses. But Sodo needs to be considered on a parallel track, free of mythology.
A hearing on the Hansen bid, free of its earlier request for public bonds, is in the city’s best interests.
One of those interests includes the potential purchase price of Occidental Avenue, a $20 million-plus windfall for an alley that the city could apply to the Lander Street Bridge, a project for which the Port of Seattle has yearned for nearly two decades to mitigate its freight-mobility problems.
Another civic interest is that Sodo is in the only direction downtown Seattle can grow horizontally. City planners are unlikely to find a more cooperative development partner than Seattle native Hansen, who controls almost 13 acres of Seattle’s future.
Since Hansen began his pursuit in 2011, Seattle has changed. The mayor’s office has changed — three times. The NBA has changed. Hansen’s proposal has changed. Seattle Center’s options have changed.
All may change again.
As long as this damned project has taken, now is no time to rush ahead with old assumptions.