Moving the NFL’s Rams back to Los Angeles gives Sonics fans hope that the NBA eventually may return to Seattle, but it also shows how fickle pro owners can be.
Inside sports business
Football fans in St. Louis got a taste last week of what Sonics supporters here know too well: team history being wiped off the map.
Then again, the Rams moving to Los Angeles marked the second time since 1988 the NFL deserted the Gateway City. So perhaps their city taught ours about having a team’s legacy rendered a footnote.
No matter, professional sports owners have a history of abandonment. Yet regardless of the hardships cited when leaving, history also shows pro sports usually return.
Even worse, once-spurned cities and fans welcome teams back with open arms.
Most Read Sports Stories
- With Kenneth Walker III battling injury, who will start at running back for Seahawks in Week 14?
- Husky football transfer portal tracker: The latest on UW's roster moves
- Here's what's next for Mariners as they return from winter meetings without Mitch Haniger
- Texas coach Steve Sarkisian recalls 'a special time, special place' at Washington prior to reunion at the Alamo Bowl
- Geno Smith on his unlikely journey: 'My tough times would be a dream to someone else'
This year alone, the Rams are returning to Los Angeles and the San Diego Chargers might join them. Quebec City pleads for NHL expansion 21 years after losing the Nordiques, while Sonics fans pray the NBA returns here.
Since the mid-1990s, the NFL returned to Cleveland and Baltimore, while Winnipeg, Colorado and Minnesota got the NHL back.
Whenever teams relocate, we hear nonsense about how “it’s just business.’’
Except pro sports aren’t like actual businesses.
Yeah, Boeing uses relocation threats to get government freebies, but at least it builds airplanes — something we actually need.
Pro sports are mere entertainment, the NFL another long-running TV series. You never saw “Happy Days” or “Seinfeld” holding cities hostage.
We laud sports owners as risk-taking capitalists. But pro sports have devolved largely into state-sponsored entities sustained by handouts.
Owners depend on fans being more passionate than regular consumers and willing to tolerate bad products longer.
Nary an owner alive spends more than his yearly revenue intake, despite teams often getting the public to pay for a stadium and other infrastructure generating that income.
The No. 1 reason teams threaten relocation is so governments build them new venues. Teams want freebie stadiums that maximize corporate suites and premium box seating, subsidized via 50 percent tax write-offs on tickets.
And those cable-television deals now doubling franchise values? They’re all courtesy of hands-off government policies allowing networks to keep bundling sports channels into basic packages, essentially forcing non-sports fans to pay for stuff they don’t even watch.
The NFL’s annual take from ESPN alone is $1.9 billion. ESPN pays it by charging cable TV companies $6 monthly per subscriber, whether they like sports or not.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke gets to evenly split that TV pie with fellow owners. Yet you won’t hear about that when he complains St. Louis hampered his revenue-generating ability.
Nor about the $280 million stadium St. Louis built Kroenke for free as a 30 percent Rams owner in 1995.
Forbes says Kroenke is worth $7.7 billion. If he felt some extra money would help the Rams, he could have dug into his own pockets.
He’ll spend some of that $7.7 billion on his $1.86 billion “private” stadium venture in Los Angeles. But that’s less of his relative net worth than an average American commits toward a new home.
Also, his biggest revenue target will be those tax-subsidized corporate tickets.
Michael Rapkoch, who owns a Texas-based sports valuation firm, says Kroenke will likely model his stadium after that built by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. AT&T Stadium derives revenue primarily from tickets and sponsorships as well as hosting additional events.
“I think that’s going to be the upside,’’ Rapkoch said. “The non-football events, the tickets and the sponsorships. It’s going to be a fantastic stadium with tickets, club seats and luxury suites that cater to the crowd in L.A.’’
Rapkoch recalls trying to rent a suite at AT&T Stadium for a client. Money was no object, but Rapkoch came up empty.
“My (stadium) contact said, ‘We’d love to sell it, but we’ve got nothing,’ ’’ Rapkoch said. “That’s where there’s real money, if you do it right. And if you can do it beyond eight (NFL) games per year.’’
Kroenke’s mixed-use development could also receive $100 million from local governments for land-preparation costs and $8 million annually to reimburse for event costs.
Remember, Kroenke isn’t cutting any billion-dollar checks here. His project is heavily financed, so even smaller subsidies help annual carrying costs.
He isn’t risking everything on some grand vision for public good. He’s just another relocating owner smelling bigger money elsewhere.
That’s worth remembering as Seattle clamors to be the next spurned locale to welcome teams back.
At least we aren’t building free arenas. But we do spend a lot of time fretting about whether our arena-project specifics will satisfy the NBA, barely eight years after it ditched us.
Even worse, we worry about where the NHL wants our arena built; as if it has leverage or history here and wouldn’t be the No. 4 or 5 sport in town.
All of this would be so sad if pro sports didn’t make us so happy. That’s why we take the punishment and keep begging for more.
And it’s why our society treats sports differently from other businesses. We tolerate subsidized stadiums, exorbitant ticket prices and sky-high TV bills in the name of cheering on Sunday.
All we ask is that teams stick around. But even then, some can’t avoid wandering.
So when owners like Kroenke wander, we should call it what it is.
It isn’t “business reality” or a grander vision. Just self-indulgent greed perpetrated against passionate fans and compliant politicians who simply can’t help themselves.