A small arena, a slumping economy, a sale to far-off investors. And last week, a vote that sealed the deal.
The game-ending buzzer has all but sounded on efforts to keep the Sonics and Storm in Seattle. “There is really nothing left to negotiate with Seattle,” a team spokesman said last week after Seattle voters came out 3-to-1 for Initiative 91, which would restrict public subsidies for pro-sports teams. Looking back, I-91 was only the final play in the political game that apparently will end in the teams’ departure to the suburbs or Oklahoma.
1. KeyArena: Good deal turns bad
When the City Council and the Sonics agreed in 1994 to build KeyArena, the plan was celebrated as a win-win: The city floated construction bonds and got a cut of luxury-suite sales to pay off the debt. No public subsidy required.
But soon, KeyArena was dwarfed by larger, more lucrative NBA arenas. Today, KeyArena is the NBA’s smallest venue and a money loser.
2. The Kingdome falls apart
On July 19, 1994, as the Mariners warmed up for a game, ceiling tiles at the Kingdome came crashing down. It was the beginning of the end for the Dome, and for Seattle’s frugal approach to its professional sports teams. The Seahawks and Mariners soon demanded that taxpayers build them new stadiums — or they would take their balls and play elsewhere.
The deals the teams received for Qwest and Safeco fields put the Sonics to shame — and the new glut of luxury suites made KeyArena’s suites a harder sell. Sonics owners wondered if they should have held out for a better deal: “Did we have days as an organization where we felt kind of stupid? Yes,” former owner Bill Ackerley later recalled.
3. The Mariners poison the well
Local politicians still hear the complaint: “We voted against the Mariners stadium and they built it anyway.” That’s an oversimplification, but in 1995 King County voters did narrowly reject a sales-tax increase to pay for a baseball stadium. Lawmakers scrambled to come up with a different tax package and slapped an “emergency” tag on it to prevent a second public vote.
The controversy launched the career of stadium critics such as Chris Van Dyk, who authored I-91.
4. Team goes bad — economy, too
The Sonics were flying high in the 1990s, packing the Key and thrilling the city. But in 1998, the NBA locked out the players and scrapped 32 of the Sonics’ games. The Sonics turned mediocre and missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. They never really recovered. A regional recession followed in 2001, compounding the Sonics’ financial problems.
Meanwhile, the team’s payroll doubled and a new national television contract brought in $6 million to $10 million a year less than Sonics owners anticipated. The owners later said they lost $65 million in five years.
5. Howard Schultz knows coffee, not politics
Schultz, then the Sonics’ chief owner, got off to a bad start with lawmakers. Without consulting the City Council, team honchos and Mayor Greg Nickels approached Olympia in 2004 to pitch a $220 million subsidy plan for KeyArena.
The Sonics’ lobbying was seen as feeble and arrogant. “Both the Mariners and Seahawks worked extremely hard to get what they got,” said state Sen. Dave Schmidt, R-Mill Creek, who helped push stadiums for both. “He [Schultz] is just sitting back there saying, ‘Give it to me or else.’ “
The Sonics’ subsidy bill never got out of committee.
6. Vitaly Potapenko: the sieve from Kiev
In Game 6 of a 2005 playoff series against San Antonio, Potapenko, a backup center, forgot to guard Spurs star Tim Duncan. With 0.5 seconds left, Duncan banked in a short shot and ended the Sonics’ surprising late-season run. Potapenko’s lapse dashed the Sonics’ hopes for a repeat of the 1995 Mariners’ magic that helped them get a new ballpark. The team’s record since that night: 39 wins, 51 losses.
7. Nick Licata belittles the Sonics
An outspoken opponent of subsidies for sports teams, the ever-quotable Licata was elected Seattle City Council president in January 2006, giving him a platform to bash the Sonics’ arena plans.
Licata, who wouldn’t know a pick-and-roll from a California roll, told Sports Illustrated the team had “close to zero” value to Seattle. Licata later apologized for his “foolish remark” but misspelled the names of Schultz and new owner Clayton Bennett in his letter of contrition.
8. Council stands firm
Normally more than willing to spend taxpayer money, the City Council didn’t roll over for the Sonics, even after Schultz said he’d sell if he didn’t get his way on a KeyArena deal. The council insisted any subsidy had to be approved by voters.
9. Local owners cash out
Following through on their threats, Schultz and 57 other owners sold the Sonics — which they bought for $200 million in 2001 — and the Storm to a group of Oklahoma City investors. Sale price: $350 million.
The deal was announced three months after council members scoffed at Schultz’s $18.3 million pledge for KeyArena renovations. Schultz said his ownership group never got “the kind of respect” it deserved from city officials.
To much skepticism, the new owners insisted they wanted the Sonics and Storm to stay in the region.
10. Nobody fights I-91
SEIU, an aggressive service-workers union, helped Bainbridge Island activist Van Dyk collect signatures to get I-91 on the ballot. And with polls showing three of four Seattle voters against a subsidy for the Sonics, Nickels and other political leaders did not campaign against the ballot measure. Even the new owners didn’t spend a dime fighting I-91 — a sign, many believe, that the owners want to get out of town when their KeyArena lease expires in 2010.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com