Isn’t it time to do right by Seattle?
It’s been eight years since the Sonics and the city of Seattle announced a settlement of a lawsuit filed to keep the team in Washington state for the final two years of its lease. The settlement paid the city $45 million; in exchange, the Sonics were allowed to immediately move to Oklahoma City, with no promise of a replacement team for Seattle. At the time, it was viewed as Seattle’s best chance to ultimately get another team.
It’s time to make that happen.
The NBA does not need to expand. It would probably not be the smartest or best decision to make. But there are no teams at present that could make anything approaching a credible case that they need to relocate. The only chance Seattle has in the foreseeable future for a team is if the league expands. It’s time for the NBA to right a terrible wrong and put pro basketball back in the Emerald City, where it successfully lasted for more than four decades until 2008.
There is recent precedent. The NBA approved the move of the Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans in 2002, after the team’s owners all but gave up on the city — despite the franchise having led the league in attendance in its first seven seasons of existence. But just two years later, Charlotte was granted an expansion franchise, with Bob Johnson becoming the first majority African-American owner in the four major pro U.S. sports leagues.
Then, the league was in much more dire shape than now. It was just starting the throes of the post-Michael Jordan era. Commissioner David Stern would institute the dress code in 2005. TV ratings for The Finals — when the Los Angeles Lakers weren’t playing — were low. Yet the NBA did the right thing and rewarded a city that had been among its most loyal.
Seattle was a strong NBA market for many years, going crazy for the Sonics of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, which reached The Finals in 1996. From 1995-99, the Sonics basically sold out Key Arena, and they never averaged less than 14,300 fans from 1991-2007, their next-to-last season in town. The city and surrounding area has a rich tradition of producing NBA talent, including current players Isaiah Thomas, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, Marvin Williams, Spencer Hawes, Rodney Stuckey and Aaron Brooks.
“Seattle is a far better market than at least 10 NBA cities,” said a very high ranking executive of one of the league’s 29 teams last week.
(I leave to others smarter than me whether a second city should join Seattle. A 31-team, unbalanced league would not be impossible to schedule, but 32 would be easier. With Las Vegas getting an expansion NHL team, that city would certainly vault to the top of any potential expansion “sister” to Seattle, though other cities like Louisville continue to line up their ducks in a row.)
Seattle has a prospective owner in hedge fund billionaire Chris Hansen, who was the preferred choice of the Kings’ previous owners, the Maloof Family. In 2011, Hansen had the support of local and regional governments in Washington state to help construct a new arena in town –on the condition that the NBA formally award one to the city.
Hansen has laid low since the proposed sale of the Kings to him fell through, though he bought even more land in Seattle near the existing property he already owns, and where he planned to build a new arena for the basketball team.
Owners would likely prefer a move of an existing team than expanding. But the usual barometer for whether a team would be looking to leave its existing city — the condition of their existing arena — is not an issue for anyone any more. The Kings are comfortably settling in to their state-of-the-art Golden 1 Center, which may anchor a new, burgeoning downtown Sacramento. The Milwaukee Bucks are starting construction on their new arena in Milwaukee, likely now to open for the 2018-19 season. And Golden State’s plans continue apace to build a new arena in San Francisco to replace Oracle Arena, currently the NBA’s oldest building (1966).
For Seattle, the only realistic choice is expansion.
The reasons for not expanding now are varied, and logical. There’s no reason for owners to split an exploding financial pie further. The NBA is in a boom period, with market size not nearly as important as it used to be. The league does not need to have a team in Seattle, the country’s 14th largest TV market. (The success of the Thunder in Oklahoma City, ironically — and, sadly for Seattle — only magnifies the point.)
The on-court product certainly does not need to be watered down more with two more really bad teams in the league, which will dilute existing talent further. Several teams already are bolstered financially by the league’s enhanced revenue sharing program; why add two more potential mouths to feed?
“We are 30 partners right now,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last spring at the South by Southwest conference. “Thirty teams. Each of those teams own 1/30th of all the global opportunities of the NBA. So the issue becomes, if you expand, do you want to sell one of those interests off to a new group of partners? One reason to do it of course, is that if its additive. And no doubt, Seattle is a great market. At the moment, like for me as successful as the league is right now, we (are) not in the position, putting even aside profitability, where all 30 teams are must-see experiences. That’s not a secret.”
But the league is in prime financial condition across the board. TV ratings aren’t optimal during the regular season, but the league’s mega-teams, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, are on so much that the impact isn’t as pronounced as it could be. And The Finals numbers between the Warriors and Cavaliers were the highest since 1998.
A new collective bargaining agreement, ensuring no interruption of games for most of the length of the new nine-year TV deal, is imminent, and will likely keep the split of Basketball Related Income at or near existing levels, ensuring those magical two words that make owners weep –cost certainty. But players are enjoying the bonanza of last summer’s spike in the salary cap, which has almost doubled in the last three years. Franchises have never been more valuable; Forbes estimated this year that for the first time, the average value of every NBA team was in excess of $1 billion.
You could make an argument based on geography, on making things easier for the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz by adding another team closer to them. But this isn’t about scheduling. It’s about doing what’s right. Things got very bad between the city and the league toward the end, and there was a lot of bile and bad feeling generated on both sides. But that has to stop.
Please don’t make this an anti-Sacramento issue. It isn’t. The story of how Sacramento and northern California rallied to save the Kings from moving is a great one, one of which the Kings and their fans should justly be proud. It was organic and desperate and wonderful, bringing together local and regional players who put their differences aside and worked together, and it was successful.
It also had the then-commissioner of the NBA on its side.
Stern didn’t want the Kings to move. Neither did most of the owners. So they didn’t. Stern recruited Vivek Ranadive to buy the team from the Maloofs, and the Kings stayed, in large part, because owners didn’t want to punish fans who had been incredibly loyal and supportive of a subpar product for a long, long time.
It’s not a bad thing to have a powerful person on your side. Sac shouldn’t apologize for it.
But Seattle shouldn’t keep being punished, either.
… AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER
We are still talking about practice. From Nick Gloumakoff:
Maybe this is the first year I’ve really paid attention, but the preseason seems awfully long. I’ve seen games on ESPN and TNT this preseason and I don’t understand why. These could be real games that people actually want to watch. I understand there’s been a pushback in the past about shortening the preseason and starting the regular season earlier, but I don’t actually know what the argument is. They could easily do two “Exhibition” games for each team with geographically close teams prior to the season openers and then start the season two weeks earlier and eliminate some back to backs. The preseason seems like a good way to get players injured for no reason and bunch up the season so again there’s more chances for injuries. What is the argument for keeping things the way they are?
Trust me, Nick: we and ESPN always do exhibition games. But I agree with you that there are way too many of them, and I hope among the reforms Adam Silver will continue to push will be shortening the preseason. The only reason it’s as long as it is right now is money: the league wants to get as many teams abroad as possible to prime the pump in those markets (merchandizing, TV rights, etc.); teams stateside want to sell multiple exhibition game tickets to their season ticket holders as part of their packages. I know what coaches need; they tell me, every year: four preseason games would be more than enough for them to get ready for the season.
Here’s a couple of ideas that I think would make sense for everyone. 1) Use an NFL preseason idea and have scrimmages and practices between teams rather than actual games. Do it geographically so that costs will be minimized. For instance, have a joint scrimmage with the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat (and Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets, if they want) in, say, Jacksonville. It brings the league to a non-NBA city; it gives the players a chance to work out against someone other than their teammates and it provides a little buzz and pop for a couple of days where none would normally be. 2) When teams do play preseason games, and coaches, understandably, want to rest their star players, those players still should come to the arena, and be available for 30-45 minutes before tipoff to sign autographs and take pictures with fans up on the concourse or similar areas of the building. (This should also be the case during the regular season, especially if a team is making its only appearance of the year in that city/arena.)
Chowder’s coming to a boil. From John Todd:
We all know that the Cavs are the head of the class in the East, with what looks like the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics or Indiana Pacers moving into that second spot. Al Horford was a great offseason acquisition for us, but Danny [Ainge] and the rest of Boston knows it’s going to take more than that to get over the hump. We’ve been involved in trade rumors with literally every single player that’s remotely available, which is always the case with teams in our situation and with our assets. But say there’s a hypothetical situation we do swing an in-season trade, who do you think is the most realistic candidate?
I understand the idea you’re pushing, John. But it’s just not realistic. Next year’s Draft is loaded, and the first thing any team trying to make a deal with Boston will ask for is that unprotected 2017 first the Celtics will get from the Brooklyn Nets next year. And, Boston will say no. So the chances of a blockbuster deal this year are quite slim. Danny Ainge is playing the long game here, as he should; if there’s a chance he can get Markelle Fultz or Harry Giles or whomever is there when the Nets pick, he’s gonna wait on that. If the Nets somehow pick out of the top three or four? Then I could see the Celtics get hyper-aggressive — but even then, they don’t need to make a deal; they can clear more than enough cap space to go after a Blake Griffin or a Gordon Hayward.
Send your questions, comments, and … I’ll just pick my ball up for next week’s Morning Tip to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!
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Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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