Asked what he knew of NBA commissioner-elect Adam Silver, Chris Hansen said, “He’s a rational, sensible guy.” If true, whew. That puts him well ahead of his predecessor, David “I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City” Stern, for whom vindictiveness is a life force.
Yes, I know: Hansen encouraged his Seattle audience listening on KJR radio Tuesday to get over the anger they felt toward Stern and the NBA for rejecting his bid to buy the Sacramento Kings and make them the Sonics. That’s fine. Good of Hansen to help with the group therapy, and better that Hansen himself take the high road. He has no choice, really.
But the issue is not anger. The issue is fair dealing. Seattle was never going to get a fair deal from Stern. He said so Nov. 8 2007, in Phoenix when he said of the the Clay Bennett-owned Sonics: “If the team moves, there’s not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision. There’s no way the league would ever return to the city.”
Well, the Sonics left, and so far Stern has been right. But his tyranny ends next Feb. 1, when Silver takes over. Only then will there be a chance to see if Silver is, as Hansen believes, rational and sensible, ushering in a different kind of leadership.
By Feb. 1, other things will have changed too, regarding Seattle’s chances for another pro basketball team.
The proposed arena’s environmental impact statement will have been released, and opponents of the SoDo location will likely be months into their lawsuits. The NBA will be several months into a negotiation with its network partners, and will be close to a new deal well before the current contracts’ expiration after the 2015-16 season. And most of the NBA’s money-losing teams will be a year closer to break-even as the effects of the 2012 collective bargaining agreement take hold.
The upshot is the chances — should Hansen prevail with the EIS — will have increased to have an expansion team granted to Seattle, while the chances of a relocating a team will be reduced to near zero.
For Seattle, an outcome of expansion will be much better than had Hansen and partner Steve Ballmer succeeded in poaching the Kings. Yes, gratification for Sonics fans will have been delayed, but the ugliness recently visited upon the two sports markets and the NBA will not have to be revisited, and Seattle can engage with a fresh team without blood on its hands.
Hansen’s interview with KJR revealed he really didn’t have the ruthlessness to be predatory — his word — in extracting the Kings. Ballmer probably didn’t blink, but Hansen confessed that the conflict between the cities “made me sick to my stomach,” and caused him to ask himself, “How did I get myself in this position?”
In hindsight, an unpleasant fight was a guaranteed minimum, and a bad outcome was virtually forecasted six years in advance by Stern. Hansen and Ballmer didn’t see it coming.
From the moment the Sonics left in July 2008, the central question about the return of the NBA was: Did Seattle have the chops to poach a team like Oklahoma City’s Clay Bennett? Remember, the NBA at the time was financially faltering and would have been wiser to contract than expand.
Disregarding Bennett’s two dissembling years as owner in Seattle, he and Hansen had the same ultimate agenda: To take a team from another market. The hard-core Sonics fans didn’t care, but if one can judge civic attitude from a public vote, hard-core fans are in the minority. The I-91 vote in November 2006, which required a pro sports team leasing KeyArena to return a small profit, won by a citywide plurality of 74-26.
That vote offers a clue that there’s a majority of people in town who didn’t care about, or actively opposed, the Sonics and/or pro sports. That’s certainly how Stern took it. It’s how Hansen took it too, because he created an arena deal that put the risk heavily on the private side instead of the public side. Hansen knew he had to win over the don’t-cares, and their electeds, with a good deal for taxpayers.
For the don’t-cares who couldn’t avoid news of the daily drama of the Seattle-Sacramento fight, the pursuit of the Kings produced a contemptible visual: Billionaires throwing their own ridiculous sums and some tax money, as well as civic disparagements, at each other in a fight over a luxury item, an argle-bargle that looked even sillier in an economy that remains in the dumpster for many.
In short, the episode didn’t win over any of the undecideds.
It’s hard to fault Hansen’s business strategy; the Kings were the only available established team. There wouldn’t be a better chance in the foreseeable, nor was expansion on the agenda of league coming out of a nasty lockout. The unintended consequences proved tawdry.
But the outcome at least provided something Hansen could use: Time.
Asked about expansion vs. relocation Tuesday, Hansen said, “I don’t want to estimate that. We’ll know more in a year which direction has a higher degree of likelihood. In a new TV contract (a proposed inclusion of Seattle in the NBA) would add value.
“But I wasn’t in the room (at the owners meeting) for any discussion of expansion. You’re better off asking an owner.”
Regarding relocation, time will change nothing regarding the league’s reluctance to engage in it, and the CBA has made the need to move less attractive. Regarding expansion, time gives the owners a chance to calculate the pending TV riches in relation to sharing them with a 31st (and perhaps 32nd) partner paying a $600 million or more entry fee — the new threshold Hansen established in his desperation.
It’s possible that in a year or two or three, when the NBA says it will expand, Silver could induce other cities to bid, again introducing competition. But the prize will be for something new, not pre-owned by people disinclined to surrender a one-of-a-kind object of passion.
Any such competition is unlikely to induce in a worldly hedge fund manager a stomach ache.