Sonics’ fans have endured many peaks and valleys since the team left Seattle in 2008. Most of the action occurred in 2012 and 2013, starting with news coming out of left field that an unknown hedge fund manager named Chris Hansen had been developing a viable plan for a new arena in the SODO neighborhood.
Next, to the shock of anyone who understands the Seattle political landscape, the Seattle city council and King County council came to an agreement with Hansen on an arena plan. Both councils entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with Hansen for a joint private/public partnership funding plan (albeit more accurately an extremely friendly public plan) for the arena. Note that while the new arena contemplates both basketball and hockey, the MOU requires the purchase of an NBA team before any public funding kicks in.
What followed next seemed too good to be true, and it turned out that it was – Hansen entered into a purchase agreement for the Sacramento Kings, with the intent of moving the team up to Seattle and rebranding them as the Sonics. What foiled the plan was Seattle arch nemesis David Stern stalling and buying time for Kevin Johnson and the Sacramento community to finalize a new arena deal, with Stern galvanizing the NBA owners to reject the Maloof-Hansen purchase agreement. The new Sacramento arena remains under construction now, and as we sit here seven years following the departure of the Sonics from Seattle, the NBA’s return to the city appears to be on the horizon, but further out than desired by Sonics Nation.
The Current Landscape
First, let’s take a closer look at the status of the MOU. As initially negotiated between Chris Hansen and both councils, the MOU expires in 2017. Also critical, at this very moment the Seattle arena plan is undergoing an environmental review, one that has continued to take longer than expected. The environmental review was initially scheduled to be completed sometime in 2014, but now the target date for completion has pushed well into 2015. The delay has frustrated many folks, including Seattle mayor Ed Murray, who has asked for more transparency regarding the process.
Next, let’s examine what the NBA has told Seattle hopefuls regarding the NBA’s return to Seattle (besides the word “No!”). With respect to relocation, the only candidate to move in the near term is the Milwaukee Bucks, who per the terms of the recent purchase agreement for the team, must have a new arena up and running by 2017. If the team fails to have a new arena operating in Milwaukee by that time, then the NBA may exercise a purchase option to buy back the team from the current owners. While the financing has not been sorted out yet in Milwaukee and a new arena remains far from a done deal, Seattle would be wise to heed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s advice that the Bucks are unlikely to relocate. With a credible threat for Milwaukee to lose its team, the parties will likely work out a deal sometime before the deadline and the team will stay put. In any event, Seattle would be foolish to rely on relocation happening in the near future.
Assuming relocation does not happen, then Seattle’s only other option for a new team is via expansion. This happens to be the preferred choice of Sonics’ fans, as they do not want to put another community through what they went through (but like any other jilted fan base, would certainly not turn down relocation if that’s the only option for the Sonics’ return). Sonics’ message boards have been speculating regarding the timing for NBA expansion ever since the team left, with much of the speculation running towards the optimistic side. However, at this point in time, we have enough information to reach a critically important understanding of the NBA’s position regarding expansion.
Adam Silver spoke with Seattle mayor Ed Murray roughly a month ago, and Silver also has spoken with various members of the Seattle media over the past year (including Chris Daniels and Geoff Baker), and the message has been consistent: the NBA will look at expansion down the road, but no expansion will occur over the next few years. Further, according to Seattle native and former NBA player Eldridge Recasner, he spoke with Silver over the 2015 All-Star weekend and Silver mentioned a 4-5 year timeline for NBA expansion. This again is highly consistent with the message that the NBA has been sending regarding Seattle time and time again: the NBA will be back, but down the road. Because this message is critical to the Seattle NBA plan, it bears repeating one more time: THE SONICS WILL BE BACK, BUT NOT IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS.
What Seattle Must Do Next
Now that we have hopefully hammered home the NBA’s message to Sonics’ hopefuls, what Seattle must accomplish cannot be more clear. What is that, you ask? Drumroll, please…
Seattle must find a way to build the new arena with hockey as the first tenant, with the NBA to follow.
With the MOU expiring in 2017, Adam Silver making it crystal clear that NBA expansion won’t happen by then, and with the NHL frothing at the mouth to put a team in Seattle NOW, Seattle and the Sonics’ movement must find a way to get an arena built with hockey coming first.
Yes, the other aspect of this is the NHL, as the league has its eyes on expansion (despite any denials you hear from league commissioner Gary Bettman). The NHL conveniently has two fewer teams in the Western Conference than in the Eastern Conference, so naturally the league wants to add two western teams. By many accounts, Seattle remains the NHL’s top choice, and only the absence of a new building keeps the league from awarding a team to Seattle now. Las Vegas has the early track on the other team, with a ticket drive underway there now.
But the NHL won’t wait forever for Seattle to get its act together. And if Seattle remains in arena purgatory, what will the NHL do? Well, Seattle needs only look 170 miles down the road, where sits a state of the art arena and a rabid, underserved sports fan base in Portland. Do not discount the possibility of Portland walking away with an expansion team if Seattle can’t solve its arena issue in the near term. The phrase “timing is everything” applies to many walks of life, and an arena solution in Seattle certainly qualifies.
A few additional developments need to be mentioned here. First off, as Chris Daniels of King5 TV in Seattle reported in August 2014, Chris Hansen has reached an agreement with Victor Coleman, one of a handful of parties seeking to bring the NHL to Seattle, on a non-binding agreement with respect to Coleman’s contribution to the arena project. So, headway has been made between the likely Sonics’ owner and a prospective NHL owner. But, at least from what has been reported, this agreement relates only to the MOU under its current terms (meaning under the NBA first scenario). Second, as Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times reported, over the last month there have been rumblings of arena plans in the Seattle suburbs of Bellevue and Tukwila. Details remain scarce as to any funding plans and how far advanced those plans are, but nevertheless there has been work done on those fronts.
Having looked at the landscape, the most logical route would be for the MOU to be re-opened to accommodate a hockey first scenario. Such a process could be quite difficult, as the following would be required: a) Chris Hansen to change course regarding his desired NBA first approach and agree to the idea, b) the city and county councils would need to agree to the idea, which would lead to renegotiations and potentially more heartache, and c) the key ingredient, a potential hockey owner who agrees to bring significant money to the table to dedicate towards the arena. Whether that man is Victor Coleman or another potential owner remains to be seen, but recalibrating the MOU to accommodate a hockey first scenario can be done. With Ed Murray recently warming to the idea, with NHL team values increasing significantly over the last two years (long story short, for an MOU with NHL first scenario, the team value provides collateral comfort to the councils) and with an NHL team ready to be had, the momentum exists for the parties to revisit the MOU and rework it to allow for the NHL to arrive in Seattle prior to the NBA.
As for Chris Hansen agreeing to an NHL first scenario, he should consider that a state of the art NBA arena already being in existence will hasten the NBA’s desire to return a team to Seattle. And the NBA will not be at 30 teams forever; at some point, expansion will come, and with a new arena, Seattle will undoubtedly be first in line. To borrow a line from Field of Dreams, “build it and they will come.”
On the flip side, not reworking the MOU to provide a hockey first scenario could cause Hansen to lose out on the NBA altogether, especially if one of the suburb arena plans gains steam and becomes a reality, as well as the distinct possibility that the MOU expires and an extension cannot be agreed upon. Also, two new arenas will not be built in the Seattle area, so whichever party gets one built first will have the inside track for the NBA when it comes to Seattle.
As for the city of Seattle, it faces a similar risk in that an arena attracting up to 200 events a year could go to another city, and Seattle will lose that revenue. As a region, the worst case scenario could lead to no NHL because of a lack of new building, whereby the MOU also expires and the parties fall back to square one, without professional winter sports in Seattle. Yes, this is the doomsday scenario, but it certainly remains possible. The best and smartest way to avoid this is for the various interested parties to come together and revamp the MOU, with the prospective NHL owner agreeing to add additional dollars to give all parties comfort to accommodate an NHL first proposal. As they say, money talks, and additional money will get the MOU reworked. A reworked, hockey first MOU will get Seattle the grant of an NHL expansion franchise within the next year, an NBA franchise over the next 5-6 years and the city of Seattle a beautiful, luxurious new arena that can serve as a major asset for the community for years to come.