BILLIONAIRE Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion bid to buy the Los Angeles Clippers NBA franchise is a another window on America’s 21st century Gilded Age.
The former Microsoft chief executive apparently has both the spare cash and the requisite grasp of reality to recognize that Seattle’s pursuit of a new sports arena and teams to fill it is, at best, improbable.
Two years ago, Sodo arena promoter Chris Hansen announced Ballmer would be part of the investment group that was looking to return an NBA team, and the beloved Sonics name, to a publicly subsidized venue. And maybe a hockey team. The volume of Balmer’s money now in play suggests there never was any need for the City of Seattle to take on $200 million in debt to consider building a stadium the partnership group could have built itself with cash on hand.
In the past 24 months, Hansen tried and failed to steal a team from Sacramento. His arena campaign was slowed, appropriately, by environmental reviews, and recognition of consequences for the Port of Seattle and nearby industrial employment.
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Meanwhile, the Seattle City Council is still presumably in play for something approaching $200 million in bond funds to help Hansen cover arena costs. The number is written in pencil because it keeps changing.
Ah, the allure of municipal bonds. The implication is that it is magic money defrayed by other income. As if the bond capacity could not be used elsewhere, or the identified arena income might not cover the overhead.
So as the Seattle City Council deals with the reality of minimum-wage incomes, it is also poised to ask voters for extra support for parks, transit and pre-K education. This is a matter of focus, to actually pay for city services instead of for debt-service on millionaire or billionaire team owners’ arena dreams.
Yet, the city still has the capacity and urgency to help bankroll a professional sports venue that most people could not afford to attend?
Ballmer looked around and concluded the 18 million people in the Greater Los Angeles Area might be able to support the Clippers. Think of the broadcast rights alone.
The Seattle City Council has a lot on its plate, and it is not a gilded municipal platter.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).