Ball Don't Lie

Seattle City Council votes in favor of new arena deal

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Sonics fans troll the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2011 NBA Playoffs (Doug Pensinger/ Getty).

Since the SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City after the 2007-08, the city of Seattle has tried desperately to get a new NBA team. It's a basketball-mad city that's produced many players in today's NBA — Jason Terry, Brandon Roy, and Jamal Crawford, to name just three — and they loved the Sonics with real passion. However, it takes a long time to navigate the legal and political aspects of bringing in a new franchise, and much of the last four years have spent investigating various avenues.

On Monday, proponents of a new team saw a major victory when the Seattle City Council voted in favor of a proposed arena deal. The Associated Press reports:

Council members voted 6-2 to approve investor Chris Hansen's plan for a $490 million arena near the Seahawks and Mariners stadiums south of downtown. The plan calls for $200 million in public investment, and Hansen has personally guaranteed to cover the city's debt if the arena's finances don't work out. The arena could also house an NHL team.

Changes in the plan still must be approved by the King County Council, and it must pass an environmental review. But Hansen says city approval allows him to shop for a team that would replace the SuperSonics.

Lynn Thompson of The Seattle Times has more details from the scene:

"This is about a can-do spirit looking to the future and grabbing an opportunity that has been presented to the city," said Councilmember Tim Burgess.

The vote was 6-2, with Councilmembers Richard Conlin and Nick Licata voting no. Conlin said the taxes generated by private business should go to public needs, not a private enterprise such as a for-profit sports arena. Licata said he didn't want to support huge public subsidies for a private business that doesn't provide measurable public benefit.

The complex financial agreement now goes to the King County Council for ratification. County Councilmember Bob Ferguson said:  "Basketball and hockey fans in our region reason have reason to cheer today, with the Seattle City Council approving a revised MOU (memorandum of understanding), but the final buzzer hasn't sounded yet. In order to move forward with the proposed arena, all three parties — City, County, and private investors — must reach a final unified agreement."

Licata's concept of "measurable public benefit" is open to debate, but there are nonetheless many happy people in the greater Seattle area after this vote. While Oklahoma City has proven to be a great home for the Sonics-turned-Thunder, the NBA is worse off without a team in Seattle. A return would be great news, as well as a chance for David Stern and Co. to pay penance for the way they handled a messy situation in '07. With Hansen, a Seattle native and very wealthy venture capitalist, they have an ideal owner that the NBA would love to have on its Board of Governors.

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However, this is only one step in a long process. In addition to the environmental impact report, Seattle must also finish its study of the effect that a new arena would have on parking and traffic in the Sodo neighborhood. The Port of Seattle currently opposes the project and will continue to do so until the contents of that report are known. Given their current position, and the fact that the report itself could take as long as a year to complete, public opinion could shift over time. This is anything but a sure thing.

Plus, Seattle can't get an NBA team until one becomes available. Expansion seems unlikely, and finding a preexisting team willing to move, such as the Sacramento Kings, introduces a host of ethical questions related to the city's own loss of the Sonics. After that experience, could the city really do the same to another NBA town that identifies strongly with its team? And if they would, what does that say about the worthiness of the cause?

This situation is quite complicated and far from finished. This vote is important, but it only clarifies a portion of the picture.

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