SEATTLE – With the sale of the Seattle SuperSonics all but finalized, and with the very real prospect of the National Basketball Association team moving elsewhere, city and state officials are taking the next step of figuring out what to do.
And, in some instances, who to blame for what went wrong.
For the last two years, Sonics majority owner Howard Schultz and minority owner and team president/CEO Wally Walker have led a campaign to get the team either a new arena or a reconstructed KeyArena with a new lease. With negotiations going slowly, the Schultz-led ownership group opted to sell the team and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm to an out-of-town group led by Oklahoma City businessman Clayton I. Bennett.
Announcement of the approximately $350 million sale was made on Tuesday, immediately raising the possibility of the team becoming the Oklahoma City Sonics sometime after the 2006-07 NBA season.
Though there was talk of the Sonics relocating to either Bellevue or Renton in recent months, the primary discussions focused on keeping the team at the Seattle Center, where it has been for 38 of its 39 seasons – first at the Seattle Center Coliseum and then at KeyArena on the same site, with a one-year interim stay at the Tacoma Dome during construction of KeyArena.
According to Marty McComber, a spokesman for Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, the city made three proposals to the team in recent months. Two would have required monetary contributions from the Sonics as well as approval from the public in a vote. A third and more modest option would have required neither.
The first option would have resulted in a $198 million reconstruction of KeyArena, with the team contributing $49 million. The second would have been a $149 million project, with the team kicking in $37 million.
The third option would have been free for the Sonics, with the $50 million cost being covered by existing revenue streams.
“We’ve been working with Sonics closely over the last year,” McComber said. “We’ve been working with them to try to find a way of moving forward and keeping the Sonics in Seattle Center in a way that will benefit the center and Seattle, and still meet the financial needs of the team.”
Nickels told The Associated Press: “I don’t think I can drink any more Starbucks coffee than I do,” a reference to Schultz, the Starbucks founder and chairman.
Asked about these options during a Tuesday press conference, Schultz instead criticized the mayor’s office for leaking the information.
“I always believed that when you are negotiating in good faith and you’re behind closed doors, you respect the process of confidentiality,” he said. “I think for the mayor’s office to release anything after we had made our announcement is just unfortunate. But I’m not going to comment on what I believe to be important, private negotiations that were done.”
State representative Dave Schmidt, R-Mill Creek, was strongly critical of the city’s role in negotiations. Schmidt, who was involved in the process several years ago that led to Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, and more recently in talks with Sonics officials, said “the city of Seattle has the monkey on their back” for not getting a deal done for the NBA team.
The city wanted to keep the Sonics at the Seattle Center, even though there was “an excellent opportunity to build a new facility in Bellevue,” Schmidt said. The team was willing to move across Lake Washington and there was support from Bellevue business and political leaders, but “the city of Seattle didn’t want to budge,” he said.
“As long as they are in it, they do things politically in contrast to what is right for a good operation where we can keep the team here but not have owners that are constantly bleeding money,” Schmidt said, adding, “The city of Seattle has been playing hardball on this situation for such a long time and I think it’s their loss and now it’s a loss for all of us in the Puget Sound area if the team leaves.”
In a statement, Washington governor Christine Gregoire said she was “disappointed that the ownership of the Sonics and Storm will no longer be local,” but added that she was “encouraged that the new owners want to stay in the state.”
“We worked in good faith with the Sonics and their current owners, and we intend to do the same with the new owners,” McComber said. “Mr. Bennett said that he will make every effort to work with us to find a way to keep the Sonics in Seattle, and we’re going to move forward on the assumption that that is accurate.”