After Mayor Ed Murray’s scandal-driven resignation Tuesday, it is reasonable to ask, given its history here, why the NBA would want to come back to a building owned by this city.
Gathered Tuesday morning at a small plaza at the north end of KeyArena next to radio station KEXP, media members and other interested parties awaited a press conference by the Seattle mayor’s office and Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke to discuss details of the draft memorandum of understanding they signed to create a grand concert hall/hockey arena/monument to Ed Murray at the Seattle Center.
Murray’s spokesman, Benton Strong, walked over to a group of reporters wondering why things were running late.
“Press conference has been canceled,” he said. Startled, we all thought he was joking. Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times asked why.
“Look at your paper,” he said.
The headline popped up on all our phones: “Mayor Ed Murray’s cousin: He sexually abused me, too.”
Cameras came down. Chairs folded up. People walked away.
He hoped his accidental but colossal potential save of the dowager of lower Queen Anne would create an alternative legacy to a sex scandal. Instead, it becomes unforgettable because of its ironic coincidence.
The resignation also puts a spotlight on another little secret that has been part of the arena saga since the Sonics were hijacked to Oklahoma City, one no one wants to acknowledge.
The NBA really doesn’t want one of its franchises to have anything to do with outfits as goofy as Seattle’s municipal government and Washington’s state government.
The NBA will officially deny such bias, and Leiweke, who has worked in the front offices of the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, will insist that the NBA is eager to come to such a robust marketplace, once an arena is up and running.
Leiweke may be right, but it may happen only after everyone in the NBA who remembers the sequence of events under the Sonics ownerships of Barry Ackerley, Howard Schultz and Clay Bennett, is dead.
The NBA was so burned by the collective experience in Seattle, including the award-winning documentary film Sonicsgate that exposed its duplicity, that if one were to step into the owners’ Louis Vuitton alligator shoes for a moment, it would be possible to see their point, without necessarily accepting it.
No matter how tricked out is the new building, and no matter what kind of firewall Leiweke erects to keep government out of the entertainment business, the arena will still be the only venue in the NBA/NHL that is in a public park, which is its own department of city government. And everyone who uses the park, or lives or works around it, will perpetually demand a say in its fate.
It is probably the biggest vulnerability of Leiweke’s stupendous offer, and the biggest virtue of Chris Hansen’s project in Sodo, also privately funded — and privately owned. All it will cost the city is permissions.
The NBA’s spidey sense recalls all the legal fights, ruthless castigations and relentless refusals to spend public money on one of its playpens. The subsequent shudder tells it to stay away from the old public house in Seattle that had no good ways in or out.
To Leiweke’s inevitable, “But . . . but,” the league can say, “You just partnered with a guy accused of perverse acts that forced him from office. What the hell do you know, Tim?”
Besides that, should the NBA down the road decide to forgive and forget the sordid history in Seattle, it will be the third priority in the building behind the LiveNation concert schedule (the promotions company is a partner in the building remodel) and the NHL team that is proposed to be ready for occupancy for the October 2020 opening.
NBA teams are used to controlling all or most revenue streams of the buildings they occupy. But as the MOU explains, all revenues in the new building will be dedicated to OVG and the city.
It’s easy to not care what NBA/NHL owners claim to want, but it is also easy for prospective franchise owners to go elsewhere to avoid a bad deal. Since the NBA has claimed it has no plans to expand, and no franchise appears vulnerable to relocation, the issue of suitability for the NBA in the OVG building is a distant consideration.
But it was a primary consideration for Hansen, who has spent six years and $125 million in property purchases to bring back the Sonics.
Hansen has his own problems. He doesn’t have a team to activate the sequence in his MOU that could vacate Occidental Avenue South and begin construction. And until he gets that, he likely won’t get a financial partner to be the majority owner of the team (BTW, the NBA Houston Rockets were sold last week to a local buyer for $2.2 billion, or $200 million more than Hansen’s old partner, Steve Ballmer, paid for the Los Angeles Clippers. The price of entry grows steeper).
Apparently what Hansen most lacks is a dated civic asset to remodel, thus galvanizing electeds and city employees alike to embrace the OVG proposal. The irony here is that the city is solving for a problem it never knew it had — the lack of a premium concert venue of 15,000-plus seats.
The OVG project can’t even solve for the transportation problems it will create around the Center, for the simple reason that they aren’t solvable, only made tolerable at best. Yes, things will change with the 2019 opening of the new Highway 99 tunnel, but with the loss of the old highway’s exits into downtown, no one can truly say the changes will be for the better for Center users.
Regarding the more current consideration of the exit of Murray from the arena project, the practical impact seems likely to be minimal. The mayor’s office and OVG have signed the MOU, whose fate rests with the City Council. Since he was a lame duck leaving at his term’s end Dec. 31, he had no political leverage to influence the council.
Most of his directors, including Brian Surratt of the Office of Economic Development and the real driver of the arena agenda, probably have done well enough to warrant retention.
All Murray will have is his legacy, which by any accounting is strange.
He has said repeatedly his goal with the arena was to help dispel stereotypes by being the first openly gay mayor to bring sports to his city. Yet he was driven from office by allegations of sex with minors.
I can imagine only one response from the NBA to the latest arena news from Seattle: Eye rolls, forehead slaps and crickets.