In the gloom of a stormy Dallas afternoon last week, in which the NBA announced it won’t be coming back to Seattle next season, came one ray of light — an apparent softening of the league’s stance on expansion.
And in that might rest the best hope for the NBA returning to Seattle anytime soon.
That assumes, of course, that Chris Hansen intends to keep pursuing an NBA team after losing out on his chance to buy and relocate the Sacramento Kings. And that Seattle will be a more attractive city than others who might bid for an expansion team.
Hansen has said nothing publicly since Wednesday’s meeting to rule on the Kings, other than a statement in which he indicated he intends to go forward with his plan of bringing the NBA back to Seattle. In earlier interviews, Hansen has said he knew it might take a few attempts to accomplish that goal.
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“I’m willing to be very patient, as measured in years,” he said in March 2012.
That patience might serve him well if Seattle is to successfully navigate the road to expansion.
At the least, though, that road appears more open than it did a month ago.
NBA Commissioner David Stern essentially ruled out expansion as an option as recently as the NBA Board of Governors meeting in New York on April 19.
“If the question is: Was there any discussion of expansion? The answer is no,” Stern said then.
But Wednesday, Stern and deputy Commissioner Adam Silver — who will replace Stern on Feb. 1 when he retires — acknowledged expansion had been discussed during meetings that ultimately decided the Kings would remain in Sacramento.
“I think there was a generalized talk that it would be good in the future just to consider that issue, but awaiting the next television renegotiation, which is virtually upon us,” Stern said. “Especially in terms of the year or so, or what have you, that it was best to await that event.”
The TV contracts to which Stern referred are the national deals the league has with ESPN/ABC and TNT. Those expire at the end of the 2015-16 season.
However, it was reported recently the NBA has begun informal negotiations on its next contracts.
The hope in Seattle would be that as the NBA has those discussions, it will ask the networks to consider what the impact would be of adding a team, potentially paving the way for the league to consider expansion before the new contracts take effect.
A market with appeal
Because NBA teams split national TV revenue, one reason against expansion is that adding a team dilutes the pie.
Stern made exactly that argument during his annual state-of-the-league news conference at the All-Star Game in February in Houston.
“There’s a large group of owners who believe that expansion is an economic matter, is a neutral thing,” Stern said then. “At least the way we’ve done it to date, you get a lot of money in, and in return for that you cut the new team in for a large and growing source of revenue from national TV, national licensing, and all things international and digital.”
Seattle is the 12th-largest TV market, and maybe the league and networks would find the value of adding a team in Seattle would offset splitting the revenue with one more team.
Silver seemed to throw a little silver lining Seattle’s way on that topic with his comments Wednesday, especially when he referred to Seattle’s support of the NBA.
“The league continues to enjoy strong support in the Seattle market,” he said. “We have strong support for our telecast, our national telecast in Seattle, and expansion was discussed at least as a possibility down the road. We want to wait and see what happens in our next national television negotiation.”
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Another factor sources said might have helped change the NBA’s tone on expansion is the impression Chris Hansen left on the other league owners during his presentations the past few months.
Hansen made an aggressive play for the Kings, ultimately offering a valuation of $625 million — $175 million more than the previous high paid for a team (the Golden State Warriors in 2010).
Hansen also helped assemble a plan for an arena that would have been among the best in the NBA.
“My sense is Seattle made such an impressive showing that the NBA — which has resisted expansion for years — will view expansion more favorably,” said Michael McCann, a sports-law expert and an on-air legal analyst for NBA-TV. “I believe the league will study expansion over the next year.”
Some Sonics fans might have hoped the NBA could have settled the issue last week, allowing the Kings to stay while awarding an expansion team to Seattle.
McCann, though, notes the NBA tends to stick to precedent when it comes to weighty matters.
McCann said he thought one reason for reluctance to award expansion now is “there would not have been a bidding process among potential cities for NBA teams. … the league and Stern value process.”
That process, of course, would be open to any city, and Seattle and the Hansen group would have to win over the league yet again.
McCann, though, says “Seattle would be the clear front-runner for an expansion team.”
The city’s agreement with Hansen doesn’t expire until 2017, and environmental study of the Sodo arena site continues, with a report expected later this year. Construction on an arena, though, wouldn’t begin until Hansen secures a team.
Other cities he said might bid for an expansion team include Vancouver, B.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; St. Louis; Pittsburgh; and Las Vegas.
None, though, currently has the combination of an ownership group aggressively seeking a team — assuming Hansen keeps his group together — and an arena or agreement for an arena plan.
Nor do any of those cities have Seattle’s history of 41 years of successfully hosting an NBA team.
And it’s possible none would be able to pay the kind of expansion fee Hansen could offer. Hansen was willing to pay $406.25 million (based on a 65 percent share of the team) for the Kings.
The last time the NBA expanded was in 2002, when Charlotte paid $300 million to get a new team that essentially replaced the Hornets, which left for New Orleans.
That expansion-fee money goes straight to the other owners, an amount that might help offset any worries about diluting the TV and merchandising pie by one more team.
Silver in February mentioned the worry about lessening the player-talent pool by adding one more team. Stern, though, shrugged that off, and it’s hard to assess how serious of a role that would play.
If the NBA does consider expansion in the coming years, it will be with Silver playing the lead role as he takes over for Stern.
That, too, could help Seattle.
Where many think Stern has held a grudge against Seattle since the uneven reception he received from state politicians when lobbying for a new arena before the Sonics left in 2008, Silver might look at the situation with a fresh set of eyes.
McCann says returning the NBA to Seattle “would be a positive first move” for Silver.
Comments Silver made Wednesday gave Sonics fans something to hold on to for hope.
“We’ve never wavered in our desire to return to the Seattle market at some point,” Silver said. “We’re very appreciative of the fans in Seattle, and we’ve regretted having to leave the market the last time, and we fully expect we’ll return there one day.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta