I don’t think he’s a forgotten man — that would be like forgetting there’s a pit bull at the end of your dog-walking leash — but if I had to guess who or what would be most important in getting an NBA team to Seattle sooner than later, it would be Steve Ballmer.
Far as is known, newly minted civic hero Chris Hansen has not said he aspires to be the majority owner of the team that would be the primary occupant of the proposed $500 million arena, to which he has committed $290 million. That can always change, of course, but the man would seem to have a full day of work as the managing partner of a project that will be a shade less laborious than digging the Panama Canal.
I say that after reviewing how things go around here with regarding the calendar and building our little ballyards:
Kingdome: County bond issue approved by voters in 1968; opened in 1976.
Pro baseball stadium: Retractable-roof stadium project approved by the Legislature in October, 1995; opened in July 1999.
Pro football stadium: Voters approved statewide ballot measure in July, 1997; opened in July 2002.
Important note regarding the baseball stadium: Because the Mariners owners demanded a fast-track schedule, the building was completed in 27 months, considered the shortest time to completion in the modern era of stadium construction. But because of almost constant change orders by ownership, the project cost ballooned to $512 million, at the time the most expensive ballpark ever built. Ownership reluctantly agreed to cover the cost overruns from $382 million, and to this day have not forgotten it.
What this little glimpse back provides is the fact that unless a gun is put to the heads of the builders, and the owners agree to cover the change orders, it takes a long time to build world class sports buildings from scratch.
And this project is, at the moment, on spec, just like the Kingdome: No guarantees about tenants. The Kingdome took eight years. The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, took 10.
The point here is that Hansen is going to need a lot of help. And as far as I can tell, the trigger event is poaching an NBA team from another city. Even though Mayor Mike McGinn and others said Thursday it would require poaching an NHL team as well, the concurrent acquisitions are so unlikely as to be out of the question.
So if it’s starts with the NBA, who better to enlist to drive the poach coach than Ballmer?
NBA commissioner David Stern practically handed him the keys to the bus. In a brief interview with the Seattle Times Steve Kelley, he said, “I don’t want to put the whammy on him, but (Ballmer) would be a hell of an owner.”
Ballmer and Stern became acquainted during Ballmer’s ill-fated attempt in 2008 to keep the Sonics in Seattle when he and a group agreed to put $150 million into a $300 million renovation of KeyArena. Stern didn’t want the deal, which ultimately fell apart on the Seattle end, but he certainly wanted Ballmer as part of his cartel of buccaneers.
Who wouldn’t want Ballmer on their side ( . . . waiting for Apple shareholders to quit snickering . . . )? Besides his money and power, Ballmer’s take-no-prisoners attitude is perfect for the unpleasantness of ripping the sporting heart out of another market. He’d make Clay Bennett look like CP3O.
Ballmer hasn’t offered his thoughts publicly about the arena proposal, probably for the same reason that Hansen was not present for the mayor’s announcement: For appearance’s sake in the NBA, it would be unseemly if the owner/predator made himself known this early. For two reasons: The project might fail, and even if it proceeds, no owner wants to take arrows from the vulnerable constituency, in this case Sacramento.
As politicians, the mayor and King County Executive Dow Constantine are paid to be punching bags, village idiots and loathsome varmints so that the guys with money don’t have to be. It’s unlikely we’ll see Hansen again in public for awhile.
Once Sacramento figures it out, as I suspect it will, and once the New Orleans Hornets get new local owners, the list of vulnerable franchises shrinks quickly. Obviously, things can change almost as fast. But until Ballmer, or a guy like him, waves large bills under the nose of a sniveling owner, as Bennett did to Howard Schultz, the arena project is in for an early stall.
In the unlikely event Sacramento stumbles, then the Seattle guys pull on the ski masks and grab the ropes. If not, the sound of fingers drumming will echo throughout Sodo.