Sacramento may be out, but from New Orleans to Memphis, other NBA teams have issues that could help Seattle land a team.
Nothing has ever really come all that quickly or easily for Seattle’s major pro sports teams.
So why should landing another NBA franchise be any different?
The news Tuesday that Sacramento’s City Council had approved a plan to build a new arena in that city that could keep the NBA Kings there appears to have all but shot down the best and most immediate option for getting a new team here.
“An NBA team returning to Seattle is a lot further away than it was,” said Paul Swangard, the managing director at the University of Oregon’s Sports Marketing Center, who attended the recent NBA All-Star Game and gauged the temperature of the league’s financial health.
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“And that’s just a reality based on the success of the overall NBA business right now, the health of most markets and a dwindling number of viable relocation candidates.”
Chris Hansen, the San Francisco hedge fund manager whose $290 million pledge is at the heart of Seattle’s new plan to build an arena in the Sodo District, has indicated that his efforts will continue even if Sacramento is off the board.
And observers say that even with Sacramento appearing in good shape to keep the Kings, it’s a situation worth watching until ground is broken on the arena there.
Neil deMause, editor of the website Field of Schemes, which tracks arena and relocation issues, says Hansen should keep Sacramento “on speed dial. … so much is up in the air there about the financing. No one really knows if the parking revenues (slated to account for up to $250 million of the cost of Sacramento’s arena) are going to come through. There are a lot of moving pieces and even with (council approval) of the term sheet, the whole thing could still fall apart.”
But Hansen has preached patience and says it’s a misperception that his plan is tied to Sacramento.
“There are lot of teams out there struggling, and I think our job is not just to focus on which team,” Hansen told The Seattle Times last week. “I’ll leave that to other people to speculate which is the ideal to move here and why and when that will come up.”
If Sacramento doesn’t work out, the question then becomes where Seattle looks next for a team, especially since NBA commissioner David Stern insists that expansion is not an option.
Both Swangard and deMause say the obvious answer is New Orleans. The Hornets are currently owned by the NBA and struggling both on the floor and at the gate.
“Every relocation question needs to start with them,” Swangard said.
There’s just one problem for Seattle — Stern really wants to keep the team in New Orleans, due in part to a feeling of not wanting to let the team walk and add to the woes the city has experienced since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Stern said at the All-Star Game there are two groups of buyers lined up that will keep the team in New Orleans, though nothing is official yet in terms of a sale.
“I don’t think anything is going to happen any time soon there (in terms of the team moving),” deMause said. “Because I think the NBA is going to try to hold out for a New Orleans owner.”
The Hornets also have a lease with the city that runs through 2014 that would complicate a departure, though Swangard agrees the biggest factor is simply Stern’s desire to keep the team there.
“It’s a challenging market just from the economics of it,” Swangard said. “But from the commissioner’s point of view, (he’s) trying to make a commitment to the region long term and not trying to abandon a market that has certainly been taking its knocks.”
Swangard said that other than Sacramento and New Orleans, he did not hear buzz at the All-Star Game about any other teams being realistic candidates for immediate relocation.
That’s due in part, he said, to the new collective-bargaining agreement that included a revenue-sharing component that favored small-market teams.
“I was struck by the conversation in Orlando around just how happy most of the teams are,” he said. “I think there is a stability to the business that comes with that labor peace with a formula that seems to place some form of sustainable health in front of those teams that were ‘at-risk’ in the past and at the lower end of the league. That list of (at-risk) teams is just not that long anymore, which is good for the overall business. But certainly for a city looking for a team, that’s not the environment you are sort of hoping to find a viable candidate.”
Revenue-sharing could work in Seattle’s favor, however, because the team would tap into a larger market and would likely contribute to the NBA pool that other owners would benefit from.
“So, if we have an arena, they’ll want to be here,” Hansen said. “That’s always been my philosophy on this. Then you’re just down to timing.”
Memphis has often been cited as a possible candidate for relocation down the road as the Grizzlies continue to struggle to fill seats despite fielding a young, winning team. Memphis owner Michael Heisley tried to sell the team in 2006, and also now is part of a group putting in a bid to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers, causing some to wonder about his longterm commitment to the Grizzlies.
However, he has said he would only sell to a group that would keep the team in Memphis, and the team has a restrictive lease with the city that would include anyone wanting to move the team to pay off bonds that paid for the construction of the FedEx Forum.
Some have also questioned the longterm viability of the Charlotte Bobcats, who are among the worst teams in the league and also struggling to fill seats. But the team is owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan, a North Carolina native who is unlikely to want to have as his legacy that he let the local pro franchise leave.
The Atlanta Hawks were also for sale last summer, but also come with a lease making it difficult to move any time soon (specifically, a $75 million early termination penalty).
Both Swangard and deMause say a team not often mentioned in relocation discussions that may be more tenuous than any aside from Sacramento and New Orleans is the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks are operating on a year-to-year lease in the 24-year-old Bradley Center and are owned by 77-yard-old Sen. Herb Kohl. Kohl recently announced his retirement from politics and said he will devote more time to the Bucks; specifically, attempting to get a new arena built.
“That stands as one of those markets that without a sizable increase in local support and with an aging facility and an aging owner that it has the characteristics one would look for in saying that’s a team ripe for ownership change and quite possibly location change,” Swangard said.
Kohl, though, has also said he will not sell to anyone who would move the team (he nixed a possible sale to Jordan a few years ago knowing Jordan would move the team to Charlotte). Kohl also was one of the owners who fought hardest for revenue sharing and has said he sees the Bucks’ future as much more viable now in Milwaukee than it was previously — the team will get roughly $10 million more a year from the new CBA.
Moves are rare
Swangard says Seattle’s timing in trying to lure a new NBA team simply may be bad.
“If I were a betting man, I would have bet six months ago on (Sacramento) absolutely moving, versus what it appears now, which is a long-term stay in Sacramento,” he said.
“Inside the NBA family, there’s a strong affinity for having Seattle back in the mix for the long term. It’s really just a question of there are just not that many teams that are in a situation now where they are actively seeking a new location.”
And deMause notes that while the pain of a relocation in Seattle remains fresh, the reality is that only four NBA franchises have moved since 1985.
“It’s hard because teams just don’t move all that much,” he said. “When they do move it’s because they are in completely dire straits in the city they are in, or because they are offered some sort of sweetheart deal. Or as happened with the Sonics, a guy buys them who just wants to move them to his hometown.
“I think it’s going to be a long, drawn-out process. I would not be surprised to see Seattle get a team in five to eight years, maybe. But I would be surprised to see it happen more quickly than that.”
Hansen continues to preach patience and maintains that Seattle will eventually see the return of NBA basketball.
“I think if we have a plan in place to build an arena in a city like Seattle, it’s inevitable,” he said. “We might debate whether it’s one year, two years, three years, four years, but it’s inevitable that we’ll get a team back here.
“I think my plan is more predicated on: Seattle is a great city. The NBA wants to be here — it’s just a fact. The other owners want to be here. With media people and maybe politicians and fans, I think there’s a certain amount of ‘everybody wants what they want right now.’ That’s kind of the society and culture that we live in, but I’m a very patient person.”
And, as Hansen and Seattle basketball fans watch and wait, that patience may come in handy.
Seattle Times staff columnist Jerry Brewer contributed to this article. Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta