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: Won’t You Come Home, Bill Boeing?

Final Analysis: Won’t You Come Home, Bill Boeing?

How can we celebrate such a momentous birthday when the honoree doesn’t even live here?
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Elsewhere in this month's issue you’ll find congratulatory notes honoring The Boeing Company on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. Allow me to add my own felicitations.

I just wonder if we all might get a little more jazzed about this upcoming centennial — the actual date is July 15 — if Boeing were still an honest-to-goodness Seattle company.

Sure, it still employs nearly 80,000 people in the Puget Sound region and helps drives our economy. But the day 15 years ago when Boeing announced it was going to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago is the day it essentially placed thumb to nose and said, “Buh-bye. We’re bigger than Seattle.”

I remember thinking at the time, “This makes no sense.” It still doesn’t. It was a move calculated by a CEO more interested in expediency than in legacy. Former Boeing CEO Phil Condit said it wasn’t unusual for a big corporation to have its headquarters distant from its factories. “What we are doing is being done for the benefit of the corporation,” Condit told shareholders at the time. “We want to grow The Boeing Company. If headquarters is to do its job, it must stand separate from any one of the business units.”

Seriously? Boeing is hardly a conglomerate. Despite the acquisitions of recent years, Boeing is and always will be a maker of airplanes and other things that fly through air and space. Condit wanted Boeing to be another United Technologies or another Textron, but it was really more of a true conglomerate in the 1930s, when it operated airlines, engine makers, propeller companies and other enterprises before the feds put the kibosh on all that vertical integration.

Boeing has prospered — and has helped thousands of Puget Sound families prosper — for generations. To suggest that the company is better off by having its corporate headquarters 1,700 miles from its main factories and most of its employees is just silly. What’s more believable is that Boeing wants to isolate itself from the fallout as it continues to ship jobs from Washington to less union-friendly states like South Carolina and Oklahoma. Since November 2012, Boeing employment in Washington state has declined by more than 10 percent — around 8,600 jobs — despite spectacularly generous tax incentives extended by the state Legislature to persuade Boeing to keep production of the 777X airliner in state.

It’s this kind of “thank you” — and the decamping of the corporate HQ staff to Chicago — that rubs Seattle the wrong way. We should be jumping up and down, waving balloons and having parades in Boeing’s honor next month. But am I the only one who gets the feeling that Boeing is still doing business in Washington state because it simply doesn’t want to spend the stupid sums of money it would take to move its Renton and Everett operations to cheaper “right to work” states?

Condit changed the culture at Boeing, and, judging from the difficult launch of the 787 Dreamliner, it’s a culture change that didn’t take. I’m inclined to believe his predecessors from Bill Boeing on would never have moved the company headquarters to Chicago, and I’d be willing to bet that the people who run the commercial airline business here would rather have the 500 or so headquarters people back in Seattle where they belong.

Whether that ever happens depends on what Boeing’s future CEOs value more: being proud of Boeing’s remarkable history or being fearful that its remarkable history somehow diminishes its opportunities.

John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine