WASHINGTON'S LEADING BUSINESS MAGAZINE

Arena Madness

Can anyone stop the insanity of supposedly mature cities behaving like adolescents in pursuit of professional sports franchises?
John Levesque

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.

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