BY Art Thiel 05:16PM 01/16/2018

Thiel: Ballmer hears nothing about NBA expansion

Steve Ballmer says he’s heard nothing about NBA expansion. But he’s also busy looking for a new arena for his Clippers. It won’t be Seattle. But his lease is up in 2024 and . . .

Steve Ballmer said Seattle is the most affluent city in America without an NBA  team. / Geekwire

Since Seattle has few links to the inner workings of the NBA, Steve Ballmer is about the only local guy who can offer a peek behind the curtain. The former Microsoft prime minister and ex-partner of arena developer Chris Hansen, whose Sodo project is in irons, is the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and the primary in-house advocate for Seattle’s return to the NBA.

Ballmer spoke last week to the Seattle Rotary, where he was interviewed by Todd Bishop of Geekwire. It was the first time we’ve heard from Ballmer since a memorandum of understanding between the city and Oak View Group was signed last month to renovate the Sonics’ old home, KeyArena, with $600 million in private money.

As part of the deal, CEO Tim Leiweke is in pursuit of an NHL franchise, for which he has  an ownership group and a preliminary OK from the league to apply for a franchise for a building he hopes can open in 2020.

No such commitment was forthcoming from the NBA for a team in Seattle, because, to no one’s surprise, the NBA isn’t yet interested in expanding. Most specifically, to Seattle, where hard feelings remain.

To use Ballmer’s expression:

“We blew it,” he told Rotarians. “I was working full-time at Microsoft (in 2008, when private-public efforts that he was part of failed to keep the Sonics). I figured somebody would step up, but I feel like I was part of blowing it. I feel like the city and county and state were part of blowing it, in terms of the arena. I thought existing ownership was part of blowing it in terms of what it did.”

He didn’t mention the NBA blowing it. Although he should have.

But it’s understandable that Ballmer and Seattle today get nothing out of truth-squadding Commissioner Adam Silver for misdeeds perpetrated by his predecessor, David Stern. The NBA is far less interested in accountability than it is in making money. So until Leiweke makes his unprecedented private-money commitment work, the NBA will issue nothing but banalities until well after the first lamp is lit for the Seattle Puckrakers, or whatever.

The NBA’s nose-holding regarding Seattle is why Ballmer quit on Hansen and jumped to buy the Clippers for $2 billion in 2014. He had a heads-up that the NBA, after making economically obsolete the 1995 publicly funded remodel of the old Coliseum, was upset with Seattle for not funding another public handout 10 years later.

Asked about any current expansion talk, Ballmer said, “I have no clue . . . I’ve never heard it discussed in the NBA, frankly.

“I mean, it’s part of the reason why I was happy to buy a team in LA.  I went to see the commissioner right after I retired (announced in August 2013), and he said, ‘Look, we’ve learned our lesson. We don’t want teams to move. So if you want to buy a team, don’t expect to be able to buy it and move it to Seattle.'”

That’s just about the first, albeit indirect, acknowledgement that Stern figured he did wrong in Seattle. But that admission and $5 will get you an ounce of bitter from Howard Schultz’s little coffee shop, and he’ll pocket $4.95 of it.

As Ballmer has said before, moving the Clippers out of Los Angeles is not an option.

“When I bought the Clippers I was 58 years old,” he said. “(In Seattle) it was, ‘Wait 13, 14, 15 years, to have a team in Seattle.’ It didn’t fit with my life plan. I wanted to get to getting. Although moving an LA team to Seattle, I have to say it’ll lose probably about half its value. So please don’t look at me to take the haircut even for our beloved city.”

Despite no prospects in the next several years, Ballmer made the obvious case for how things have changed locally since Seattle was hit in 2008 with the recession as well as the Sonics’ departure.

Ten years later he calls Seattle the “most affluent city in America” without an NBA team, owed to the tech boom he helped goose along. The new arena project had a milestone moment last month with the MOU, even if it all but deep-sixed the plans of his former partner.

But Ballmer didn’t cheerlead for Leiweke’s project. Unprompted, the longtime Sonics season ticket holder echoed the biggest problem for making a go of it again at Seattle Center.

“One of the great queries I have,” he said, “is with all the traffic around Amazon headquarters, how much more tricky would it be to get to KeyArena now than it was when I had season tickets to the Sonics for 20 years?

“I hope the answer is, ‘Everybody’s got it figured out,’ because otherwise, that is an issue.”

Ballmer may have a similar problem in his future with the Clippers. He’s exploring whether to move out of the Staples Center he shares with the NBA Lakers and NHL Kings and build his own arena, perhaps in Inglewood near the NFL home for the Rams/Chargers under construction.

The Clippers’ lease is up in 2024, which is no longer that far away. He’s already discovered the biggest environmental issue in LA is traffic, just as with Seattle.

“It isn’t the owls,” he said.

Ballmer wants his own building, as the Golden State Warriors are getting in San Francisco, a $1 billion, privately funded arena on the waterfront in 2019. A basketball-first building is what Hansen sought for the return of the Sonics. He argued in the run-up to Oak View’s MOU deal that a potential NBA owner would not want to be the third party in KeyArena after concerts and hockey.

Oddly enough, the point was underscored a bit by none other than Stern. He was a guest at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Geekwire reporter Taylor Soper asked him about Seattle’s chances for an NBA team.

“I do think that if they expand, or ever move a team, Seattle, my guess is, is first in line,” Stern said. “The big two at some point were Seattle and Las Vegas, but I don’t think there will be an NBA team in Las Vegas now because there’s NHL and WNBA and NFL.

“But Seattle is a good town. I think the NHL is going to go in there too. And that’s great. With Tim Leiweke planning to spend $600 million on Key Arena, that’s good for Seattle. But usually the first team in does very well.”

Left unsaid was how the second team does.

But it is exactly why the NHL wanted to be the first winter sport in any new building. Without a modern local history to compete with the Sonics’ legacy in Seattle, the NHL efforts to create a substantial market might have been doomed.

If the NBA looks to expand at the end of its current TV contracts, that would be after the 2024-25 season. What irony — that also corresponds to the potential free agency of the Clippers.

But as Ballmer said, he doesn’t want to take a devaluation haircut to move his franchise to Seattle. Unless, of course, the marketplace changes to make Seattle nearly as valuable as LA.

Ballmer didn’t say anything about down the road using his adopted home town’s new arena and its vacancy, along with its monorail and drone transportation solutions, to extort a better deal for a new arena from the governments in his newer adopted home town. But it’s early.

Imagine Seattle getting played again, this time not by Okies but by its own billionaire hoops freak. It’s why we love the NBA.


  • Chris Alexander

    2024 is still a long time from now and if Ballmer runs into issues getting his own arena down there then maybe his position will change in regards to that haircut. Or maybe a local by the name of Bezos will simply buy the team from him. Who knows. Not really concerned at this point. I hope the Sonics return at some point but I’m not holding my breath. And I doubt Ballmer is either.

    • art thiel

      The return of the Sonics is at least seven years away, so yes. But does it not seem like a few days ago when Kevin Durant wore a Sonics uniform?

      • Chris Alexander

        Yeah … it does. We had Durant and had just drafted Westbrook. Sigh.

      • Husky73

        Just wondering…wouldn’t Seattle be a target for a G League (or D League) franchise? I am surprised no one has considered that.

        • art thiel

          It’s rare that minor league ball in a major league town survives. Possible, but I know fans of the WHL are worried about two teams.

  • Kirkland

    I always wondered why the Clippers didn’t consider moving to Anaheim instead of the Staples Center. Instead of being the third banana in their building, they’d have claimed their own sizable turf in a megalopolis, the way the Cubs and White Sox have the North and South Sides of Chicago staked out. And Orange County has plenty of wealthy fans and a certain mouse with a lot of sponsorship dollars.

    As for us, when a large chunk of the sports fans reacts to the Key Arena MOU and NHL chance not with positivity, but with anger, something’s really wrong. Except for those who want hockey at all costs, without regard to traffic or other sports, the mood seems to range from lukewarm to hostility about the Key rebuild. We’ll see what kind of bridge-building Leiwicke has planned for basketball fans and the rest … or if he even intends to.

    • art thiel

      The skepticism comes from a strong belief that Seattle Center for big events is a traffic nightmare only getting worse with growth, especially after $260M invested in Mercer didn’t improve things. Leiweke is counting a lot on the new 99 tunnel but I can’t foresee a big improvement without exits downtown and no mass transit beyond buses for many years.

      The other big aspect is that Hansen had the better location and the better relationship with fans. But he certainly can’t command the money or the connections that Leiweke can.

      • Kirkland

        Another problem with the tunnel: Because it’ll likely be tolled, a lot of people will flood the side streets to avoid paying the toll. That won’t do traffic any favors.

  • StephenBody

    ““One of the great queries I have,” he said, “is with all the traffic around Amazon headquarters, how much more tricky would it be to get to KeyArena now than it was when I had season tickets to the Sonics for 20 years?”

    That’s still the over-riding issue and what did Leiweke have to say about it, in a radio interview? “Trust us.” That’s IT. What he didn’t say was the truth: there is NO solution to the density problem that hamstrings any plans to put an NBA/NHL arena into Lower Queen Anne. This is a problem that has no realistic solution and it will make its effect known from the first night the arena is open. What it’s going to do is make the arena into a clubhouse for a core of uber-affluent downtown residents and that’s it. And the owners – and this incredibly mulish, fixated, jackass-stubborn city council – had better just hope that there are enough of those to make a go of the place because MOST of us outside the downtown core CANNOT devote eight or nine hours of our days to getting in and out of that mess.

    • art thiel

      The scenario that seems to be building for 2020 and beyond is a high-priced theater for 17,000 wealthies who live within walking distance or a short ride-share away. I have a hard time seeing the many East Siders who can afford the $250 tickets taking the time to commute, much less folks from Snoho or Pierce counties.

      • Ken S.

        How nice – for them! I won’t be making plans to attend even one game. The Center area has some of the worse traffic in Seattle – and that’s saying a lot.

  • jafabian

    The question shouldn’t be about the traffic around Amazon. The question should be how to get that traffic to go to Key Arena. Better too much traffic than none at all, especially with Amazon when their customer base is largely over the Internet. Maybe between Ballmer, Paul Allen, Phoenix Suns president and former Sonics ball boy/team executive Rick Welts and Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban who supported the Sonics staying in Seattle they can convince the league to return a franchise to Seattle. Especially the West teams if it could mean less travel for them.

    • art thiel

      Customers aren’t shopping at an Amazon store. It’s the 20,000 workers going to and from their workplaces that’s choking Mercer and the Center, plus all the new residential units on lower QA and SLU.

      The city spent $260M to upgrade Mercer to 2005 needs. Missed by more than a decade.

  • 1coolguy

    Having been a Sonic season ticket holder for many years, I hold Schultz as bad hombre #1 in the Seattle Sports Hall of Shame – he is a charter member, even ahead of Ken Behring. But Ballmer is in the same HOS, as he could have bought the Sonics then for a relative pittance, and if it would have conflicted with the lousy job he did at Microsoft, MS would have been much better off dumping him anyway (See “Microsoft Nokia”, Ballmer’s $8 BILLION mistake).
    Then he STUNS the world with dropping $2 BILLION on the Clippers and every article essentially called him a fool, when it was valued at about $1.2b. The guy is a nut job.

    • DB

      Remember when Howard bought the team and told us all that he had taken over a ‘public trust’? We so agree, 1CG! You won’t see me in a Starbucks.

      • Ken S.

        or me

    • art thiel

      When the Sonics were sold in 2006, and when they needed rescue in 2008, Ballmer wasn’t ready to be an NBA owner. If you didn’t like his MS stewardship then, imagine if he were distracted by cheering Kevin Durant.

      • 1coolguy

        Considering the stock was a dog, incredibly, during Ballmer’s “reign”, his being distracted as a Sonic owner may have allowed someone competent to run MS, giving all credit to King Steven, of course.

  • Ken S.

    The NBA in Seattle is a wet dream. Ain’t gonna happen if the only place to play is a gussied-upped Arena. Instead of mitigating traffic problems they are as bad as ever. Don’t expect fans from outside the city to park n ride – aka the pull-a-part. Nobody wants to come back to a car vandalized or worse – stolen.


    Asked about any current expansion talk, Ballmer said, “I have no clue . . . I’ve never heard it discussed in the NBA, frankly.

    “I mean, it’s part of the reason why I was happy to buy a team in
    LA. I went to see the commissioner right after I retired (announced in
    August 2013), and he said, ‘Look, we’ve learned our lesson. We don’t
    want teams to move. So if you want to buy a team, don’t expect to be
    able to buy it and move it to Seattle.’”

    “We’ve learned our lesson…” HA!!! – the NBA/Stern learned nothing. Learning from your mistakes (and it was huge IMO) is only half the lesson – the other half is going back and making things right. Its called karma. Since Stern could not do that short of relocating a team in Seattle he simply refused to answer basic questions – acting as if ‘it’ never happened. So Stern is gone (good) but the NBA still has problems.


    That’s just about the first, albeit indirect, acknowledgement that
    Stern figured he did wrong in Seattle. But that admission and $5 will
    get you an ounce of bitter from Howard Schultz’s little coffee shop, and
    he’ll pocket $4.95 of it

    I haven’t bought a Starbucks ANYTHING since Schultz (idiot!) sold off the team that the OKC oil boys were all in at keeping the Sonics in Seattle. How’d that work out Howard? I was hoping all of Seattle would boycott your stores. Too bad they haven’t – but I suppose that’s a measure of just how much support Seattle at large has towards sports. Besides that – Starbucks coffee is over roasted. Try Seattle’s Best in the red foil bag. I like #5. Good strong coffee.

    • art thiel

      What the NBA has learned is that some markets won’t tolerate civic extortion. That’s why the new buildings in SEA and SF are funded privately. The difference is the one in SF is all basketball. The one in SEA will have the NBA as the third entrant, behind concerts and NHL. How will that work for the NBA owner?

      Your boycott of Starbucks is noble, but I think Howard has moved on without you.

  • Husky73

    I don’t miss today’s NBA one whit. It is ugly basketball, and the league is populated by a large number of jerks…on and off the court. The NHL (if/when it arrives) will be the fifth ticket in town behind the Seahawks, Huskies, Mariners and Sounders. I don’t see 18,000 people battling the Mercer Mess to pay $200 a seat to watch hockey….unless the seats and suites are corporate buyouts. The NHL in Seattle will be a novelty success its first couple of years. After that……

    • art thiel

      It’s a fair question about the NHL, but keep in mind that Seattle has changed dramatically in affluence and demographics. You may not like it, but there are many newbies in this market who don’t know our sports history, and will be amused by large men on skates hitting each other.

  • tor5

    I said good riddance to the NBA when Stern came here to lecture, threaten, and demean the city for not writing him a fat check. I feel bad for local hoops fans; I was once one myself (hugely!). But I can’t even think about it now without disgust and fury. But I’ll be reasonable: If Stern and Silver come to town, prostate themselves in the Seattle mud, and tearfully beg forgiveness, I MIGHT consider an NBA return. Oh, and those Oakie con men would all have to go to prison too.

    • art thiel

      If that’s what you call reasonable, I never want to be on your bad side.

      But I get the NBA turnoff. Anyone who paid attention from 2006-08 (as well as the Schultz whinings before that) is permanently stained by the NBA. How much tolerance for the stain you have, well, that’s up to the individual.

  • Allfan

    Geez, I know I’m late to the game on this thread (been on the road) but, Art, you crushed this one.