Why Chris Hansen's Bid for an NBA Team Sent the Wrong Message

A case of coming up empty.

By all accounts, Chris Hansen’s attempt to bring an NBA team back to Seattle was above board, transparent and honorable. As far as we can tell, his behavior was the polar opposite of that displayed by the mendacious marauder Clay Bennett, who purchased the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006 and moved them to Oklahoma City two years later.

Pretty much everybody in Seattle thought Bennett was a despicable toad for hijacking a beloved basketball team from its devoted fan base. Pretty much everybody in Seattle thinks Hansen is a prince for wanting to do the same thing.

The difference, of course, lies in the victim/victor analysis. Seattle was the victim in Bennett’s purloining of the Sonics, while it would be the victor if Hansen manages to bring the Sonics back, either from Sacramento or some other benighted NBA burg.

In the arena of business ethics, what Bennett did and what Hansen hopes to do are churlish, craven transactions born of ego and avarice. Never mind the stated desire to “gift” their chosen communities with an NBA franchise. Ripping the beating heart out of other communities may merit a pass in some quarters because of the ugly reality of sports team relocation, but it’s still the equivalent of a moneybags tycoon buying a big company and abandoning thousands of employees and customers so he can move the whole operation to a city he likes better.

And yet most columnists, pundits and media observers in Seattle thought Hansen was a good guy for trying to right a perceived wrong, even if he wronged another community in the process.

In a recent article in Assets Digital, an online publication of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Peter Guber, a partner in the group that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers last year for $2.1 billion, asserts: “Fans think they own their team. They think they make a difference in the outcome of the game.” In the same article, Jeff Moorad, a former players’ agent who became a co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and later the San Diego Padres says: “The obligation of ownership creates more of a public trust feeling than running any other business. The ownership group has the responsibility for the long-term viability of the franchise.”

Still, when an ownership group decides it’s time to sell, the “fan ownership” and “public trust” arguments are about as persuasive as Brendan Ryan’s batting average. Owners never put fan engagement and the public trust above the desire to cash out. Just ask Howard Schultz. Or the Maloofs of Sacramento. When they want out, they only want out. Lame protestations to the contrary, they don’t particularly care what the new owners’ intentions are.

The idea that Hansen has been a white knight riding to Seattle’s rescue obscures the fact that what he did with his repeated inducements and his upping of the ante in a bid to win the hearts and minds of the NBA team owners is a form of bullying that is perfectly acceptable in most of the sports world and a lot of the business world. Bullies get their way by relying on their greatest asset, be it physical size, intellectual superiority or stupendous wealth.

I’m one of very few Seattleites who were rooting for Sacramento in this soap opera, simply because that city seemed to be the underdog. Meanwhile, Hansen’s proposal to build a new arena in Seattle is apparently on hold until there is some new indication that we will be getting an NBA team, either through expansion or some other city’s inability to play the NBA extortion game.Too bad. Empty arenas are great reminders of what might have been.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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