Arena Madness

 
 

Remember when Clay Bennett made all sorts of promises to Seattle after he bought the SuperSonics from Howard Schultz in 2006? Bennett actually said he had no intention of moving Seattle’s basketball team to Oklahoma City. We all know he was fibbing because Oklahoma City had opened a brand-spanking-new arena in 2002 with the express intent of wooing an NBA franchise to the Big Friendly.

Ironic nickname, huh? OKC, which trademarked “Big Friendly” the year before the Sonics moved there, was Snidely Whiplash to Seattle’s Nell Fenwick in 2008. It played the scheming villain while Seattle was the hapless victim tied to the railroad track. Clay Bennett drove the train.

Guess who’s waxing up the moustache now.

That’s right. In the truly insane world of pro sports, which actually encourages cities to descend to the level of drunken looters after a Stanley Cup riot, Seattle is now prepared to wrest a professional basketball team from Sacramento and maybe a professional hockey team from Phoenix.

It’s all legal and above board, of course. Because this is what cities do in the name of achieving—or recapturing—status. Reminds me of when the Seattle Mariners were threatening to move to Florida and the publisher of the newspaper where I worked was worried that Seattle wouldn’t be “world class” without a baseball team. A colleague reminded him that Paris seemed to be doing just fine without one.

A local sports columnist recently asserted that Seattle shouldn’t feel guilty about stealing another city’s team, and his logic was priceless. “We didn’t invent this game,” he wrote. “We’re just left to choose whether we want to engage and play.” This same columnist will soon be lecturing in organizational ethics at a university near you.

It’s true that we can choose not to do the neener-neener dance at the Sacramento Kings’ going-away party, but we all know they’ll eventually be going somewhere. Having started out in Cincinnati before moving to Kansas City/Omaha and then Sacramento, it’s in their DNA. So why not bring them to Seattle? We even have a white knight ready to build a new arena that allegedly won’t cost the city more than $200 in the way of shakedown, I mean, good faith money.

Big-time sports teams are feathers in a city’s cap—until they’re not. They’re often badly run by rich people who have no sense of how out of whack the business model is. The owners recoup their investments only when they sell the franchises to other delusional people whose egos are in need of deep-tissue massage. When the new owners deduce that they were sold “damaged goods,” they insist that their hosts add a few amenities to their playpens or they’ll take their basketballs/baseballs/footballs and go play someplace where they’re wanted.

A new basketball team or hockey team will not appreciably change Seattle, although I guarantee you there’s an economist somewhere ready to spout impressive statistics on the economic benefit of another pro sports team. (Full disclosure: I work next door to the site of the proposed new arena in SoDo, one of the great dining wastelands of Seattle, and I would love to see some economic benefit here. But do we really need a new arena to accomplish it?)

Teams come and teams go and, remarkably, cities survive the ebb and flow. What’s ultimately not survivable is the ratcheting up of the gamesmanship required to beat out another hapless city for the dubious honor of hosting a team. It would be so much cooler to continue being known as the city that called the NBA’s bluff and said, “We’re not playing your bankrupt game,” than to act like a desperate teenager who can’t get a date for the prom.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

How a certain local airline could strike a blow for fairer treatment of college athletes.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Here’s a thought: While Alaska Air Group spends $2.6 billion swallowing up Virgin America, it should wield some of its new clout — Alaska will soon be the nation’s fifth-largest air carrier — on becoming the college athlete’s best friend.
 
Alaska already showers upon the University of Washington nearly $5 million a year for naming rights to the football field at Husky Stadium and the basketball court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It also has sponsorship arrangements with athletic programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. It even paints some of its airplanes in the colors of 11 Western universities, including the UW.
 
On the weekend that news of Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America broke, the UW women’s basketball team was completing its improbable and exhilarating run to the Final Four of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. It occurred to me that there’s an opportunity here for Alaska CEO Brad Tilden to start lobbying the NCAA on behalf of student-athletes everywhere, but particularly in Alaska Airlines’ own backyard.
 
Alaska’s Husky Stadium agreement — 10 years, $41 million — already earmarks half of the money for scholarships and “student-athlete welfare.” Last year, for the first time, the NCAA started allowing Division I schools to pay athletes a stipend for incidental living expenses — things like late-night snacks, student fees, incidental travel — that aren’t covered by athletic scholarships for tuition, room and board. 
 
The UW’s annual stipend for athletes is $3,085, or roughly $11.40 a day during a nine-month academic year. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for a couple of cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake when the dining halls are closed.
 
Alaska’s naming-rights money goes into the pot that helps provide those stipends, which the NCAA instituted as a means of closing the gap between what an athletic scholarship provides — tuition, room, board, books and fees — and the “real” cost of attending college.
 
The problem is that this “cost of attendance” stipend has made a  playing field that’s not level even less fair. Some schools pay stipends of more than $5,000, which is totally permissible under the NCAA guidelines. So if you’re a poor kid being recruited by several universities, which school would you choose — the one offering no stipend, the one offering $3,000 or the one offering $5,000?
 
This is where a corporate CEO has the opportunity to say to the NCAA, “We are a major employer who believes in treating its workers equitably. As a huge supporter of our local university’s athletics program, we think it’s time you paid your athletes a little bit more than cheeseburger money — and paid them fairly acros the board.”
 
It doesn’t have to be a quid-pro-quo situation, as in “pay these athletes or we’ll take our sponsorship money elsewhere.” But airlines have become adept at squeezing travelers for every last dime via baggage fees, boarding fees, legroom fees, beverage fees and the like. I imagine an airline executive could be pretty persuasive suggesting the NCAA assess itself a “fairness fee” and pay student-athletes a decent wage from its enormous piggy bank.
 
The NCAA can still call it a stipend if it wants. Regardless, it should finally admit that scholarships are meant to provide an education but don’t begin to acknowledge that an athlete’s contribution to an institution’s bottom line — not to mention its reputation in the media and its perception by the public — deserves considerably more than free tuition. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.