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.

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

City regulations may be well meaning, but small businesses are feeling put upon.
David Lee founded FareStart in Seattle to train chefs because he believed the homeless would benefit from “the dignity of preparing food as a vocation.” He launched Field Roast, a producer of vegan “meats,” because he considers the mass industrialization of animals as “a blight on our culture.” He has nurtured a caring culture at his SoDo production facility, remodeling the space so production workers have plenty of space and natural light.
So when Seattle passed a paid-sick-leave law mandating a set number of paid days for sick leave, Lee accepted it. But the results have been disappointing.
“For the first time,” he says, “I have employees lying to me. A medical appointment becomes a paid day off.”
The city’s $15 minimum-wage mandate was another challenge.
“It hurts businesses like ours that compete on a national level against companies in places like Arkansas that pay $7 [an hour],” says Lee. But, wanting to do the right thing, this summer Lee boosted the wages of his employees to $15 an hour four years before he was required to do so under the law.
Seattle can be proud that its $15 minimum-wage law has led the way in driving up wages across the country. And because it is being implemented over seven years and at a time when the local economy is strong, there have been relatively few negative impacts (page 20). Similarly, while there may be widespread abuse of sick leave, there is evidence that the ability of workers to take the time off helps prevent the spread of the flu and other harmful viruses.
But each new layer of regulation is an added burden on business. Now the city is adding yet more regulations — one set that will require businesses to set schedules for employees two weeks in advance and yet another that requires landlords to choose tenants in the order applications are submitted. What’s next? 
A requirement that companies hire employees in the order that they applied?
While each regulation may have some logic to it, the cumulative effect is to make it harder for businesses to fulfill their important role as job creators. The rules can be particularly hard on small businesses without the resources to hire staff to deal with the complications regulations create.
Regulations also create bureaucracy. The Seattle Times reported that to enforce a law requiring landlords to select tenants in the order in which they replied, the city would hire two employees at a cost of $200,000 and launch sting operations. Really?
Meanwhile, the city isn’t enforcing basic sanitation laws to prevent the homeless from leaving excrement on city sidewalks. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience came close to shutting down because an illegal encampment just a block away included “tents serving as drug galleries” that made it unsafe for the museum’s employees and visitors. The problem contributed to the shutting down of the nearby House of Hong restaurant and resulted in negative reviews for the museum on websites like Trip Advisor during the important summer tourist season.
It will be interesting to see if the city’s new director of homelessness, appointed in August at an annual salary of $137,500, can address this expanding problem.
“Clearly, what is happening is that government is forcing business to take on the social imperative,” Lee says.
The altruistic entrepreneur accepts that, up to a point. But the city needs to spend more time attending to basic services. And it has to stop pretending it can solve the world’s problems on the backs of small businesses.
Executive Editor