Why Basketball In Seattle Is Doomed

(Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)
(Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)

The Milwaukee Bucks were sold to two hedge fund billionaires for $550 million on Wednesday largely because of their willingness to keep the team in Milwaukee and build a new arena. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the new owners will invest $100 million in a new arena, and the current owner will also give $100 million.

All this caused great consternation in Seattle where Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer have been trying to bring back an NBA franchise to a city with a rich basketball history and an avid fan base. They have a solid plan for Seattle’s new arena, and open wallets that can outbid almost anyone else for a team. Grantland’s Bill Simmons wrote, “even though [Ballmer and Hansen] were willing to go higher than anyone else, they dropped out because Herb Kohl wouldn’t sell them the franchise unless they agreed to keep it in Milwaukee.”

In the past two years, four teams were on the market. The New Orleans Pelicans (or Hornets at the time of the sale), Sacramento Kings and now the Milwaukee Bucks were sold to people that confirmed that they would keep those teams in their respective cities. The Minnesota Timberwolves were taken off of the market after receiving much-needed money for a $95-million renovation to their arena, the Target Center.

Tom Benson bought the New Orleans Hornets for $338 million in 2012, but that figure seems quite low after the prices for the two subsequent franchise sales were announced. Vivek Ranadive bought the Kings for $534 million, which was still $16 million less than that of the Bucks’ purchase, the team that Forbes named the least valuable franchise in the NBA.

Why have the prices skyrocketed for NBA franchises, especially since the Kings and Bucks are two of the most downtrodden ones? Well, the threat of Hansen and Ballmer buying and relocating a team has scared owners and fan bases to make sure that they keep theirs. They don’t want to have to go through what Seattle did six years ago.

Key Arena, home of the Seattle Supersonics, went through a $75 million renovation in 1995. Nine years later, then-commissioner David Stern ruled that the arena was unfit compared to others in the league. Seattle taxpayers also had to fund $517 million for Safeco Field for the Mariners and $400 million for CenturyLink Field for the Seahawks earlier in the decade. So when Howard Schultz sold the team to Clay Bennett, and Bennett asked for $250 million for another renovation, Seattle residents balked. Supersonics fans also didn’t think the franchise would be relocated, as Bennett assured the team would stay in Seattle and they were already there for 41 years.

After withstanding court battles and protests, Bennett moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008. The process left a bad taste around the league, and a black eye on Stern’s resume.

Now, after that debacle, why would Adam Silver allow a similar process to happen to get a team back into Seattle so early into his tenure as commissioner? With the sales of the past three NBA franchises all contingent on them not being relocated, it seems that he won’t.

That’s why the only plausible way I see Seattle obtaining an NBA franchise is through expansion. The best chance of this happening is when the league’s new television rights deal goes into effect in the 2016-17 season, since owners would have more money in their pockets and might be amenable to adding two teams to their revenue sharing pool. Then, it would take at least another two years for a new arena to be constructed before the team is ready to play.

That said, expansion is unlikely even though Silver is a proactive commissioner. Why change a product that’s clearly working, and upset owners by adding teams that would take away money from them? It’s depressing that Seattle lost the Supersonics, and even more depressing handicapping the dire odds of the city getting another NBA team.

Related: Why Bucks Sold for Way More Bucks Than They Were Worth

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