Since Seattle has few links to the inner workings of the NBA, Steve Ballmer is about the only local guy who can offer a peek behind the curtain. The former Microsoft prime minister and ex-partner of arena developer Chris Hansen, whose Sodo project is in irons, is the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and the primary in-house advocate for Seattle’s return to the NBA.
Ballmer spoke last week to the Seattle Rotary, where he was interviewed by Todd Bishop of Geekwire. It was the first time we’ve heard from Ballmer since a memorandum of understanding between the city and Oak View Group was signed last month to renovate the Sonics’ old home, KeyArena, with $600 million in private money.
As part of the deal, CEO Tim Leiweke is in pursuit of an NHL franchise, for which he has an ownership group and a preliminary OK from the league to apply for a franchise for a building he hopes can open in 2020.
No such commitment was forthcoming from the NBA for a team in Seattle, because, to no one’s surprise, the NBA isn’t yet interested in expanding. Most specifically, to Seattle, where hard feelings remain.
To use Ballmer’s expression:
“We blew it,” he told Rotarians. “I was working full-time at Microsoft (in 2008, when private-public efforts that he was part of failed to keep the Sonics). I figured somebody would step up, but I feel like I was part of blowing it. I feel like the city and county and state were part of blowing it, in terms of the arena. I thought existing ownership was part of blowing it in terms of what it did.”
He didn’t mention the NBA blowing it. Although he should have.
But it’s understandable that Ballmer and Seattle today get nothing out of truth-squadding Commissioner Adam Silver for misdeeds perpetrated by his predecessor, David Stern. The NBA is far less interested in accountability than it is in making money. So until Leiweke makes his unprecedented private-money commitment work, the NBA will issue nothing but banalities until well after the first lamp is lit for the Seattle Puckrakers, or whatever.
The NBA’s nose-holding regarding Seattle is why Ballmer quit on Hansen and jumped to buy the Clippers for $2 billion in 2014. He had a heads-up that the NBA, after making economically obsolete the 1995 publicly funded remodel of the old Coliseum, was upset with Seattle for not funding another public handout 10 years later.
Asked about any current expansion talk, Ballmer said, “I have no clue . . . I’ve never heard it discussed in the NBA, frankly.
“I mean, it’s part of the reason why I was happy to buy a team in LA. I went to see the commissioner right after I retired (announced in August 2013), and he said, ‘Look, we’ve learned our lesson. We don’t want teams to move. So if you want to buy a team, don’t expect to be able to buy it and move it to Seattle.'”
That’s just about the first, albeit indirect, acknowledgement that Stern figured he did wrong in Seattle. But that admission and $5 will get you an ounce of bitter from Howard Schultz’s little coffee shop, and he’ll pocket $4.95 of it.
As Ballmer has said before, moving the Clippers out of Los Angeles is not an option.
“When I bought the Clippers I was 58 years old,” he said. “(In Seattle) it was, ‘Wait 13, 14, 15 years, to have a team in Seattle.’ It didn’t fit with my life plan. I wanted to get to getting. Although moving an LA team to Seattle, I have to say it’ll lose probably about half its value. So please don’t look at me to take the haircut even for our beloved city.”
Despite no prospects in the next several years, Ballmer made the obvious case for how things have changed locally since Seattle was hit in 2008 with the recession as well as the Sonics’ departure.
Ten years later he calls Seattle the “most affluent city in America” without an NBA team, owed to the tech boom he helped goose along. The new arena project had a milestone moment last month with the MOU, even if it all but deep-sixed the plans of his former partner.
But Ballmer didn’t cheerlead for Leiweke’s project. Unprompted, the longtime Sonics season ticket holder echoed the biggest problem for making a go of it again at Seattle Center.
“One of the great queries I have,” he said, “is with all the traffic around Amazon headquarters, how much more tricky would it be to get to KeyArena now than it was when I had season tickets to the Sonics for 20 years?
“I hope the answer is, ‘Everybody’s got it figured out,’ because otherwise, that is an issue.”
Ballmer may have a similar problem in his future with the Clippers. He’s exploring whether to move out of the Staples Center he shares with the NBA Lakers and NHL Kings and build his own arena, perhaps in Inglewood near the NFL home for the Rams/Chargers under construction.
The Clippers’ lease is up in 2024, which is no longer that far away. He’s already discovered the biggest environmental issue in LA is traffic, just as with Seattle.
“It isn’t the owls,” he said.
Ballmer wants his own building, as the Golden State Warriors are getting in San Francisco, a $1 billion, privately funded arena on the waterfront in 2019. A basketball-first building is what Hansen sought for the return of the Sonics. He argued in the run-up to Oak View’s MOU deal that a potential NBA owner would not want to be the third party in KeyArena after concerts and hockey.
Oddly enough, the point was underscored a bit by none other than Stern. He was a guest at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Geekwire reporter Taylor Soper asked him about Seattle’s chances for an NBA team.
“I do think that if they expand, or ever move a team, Seattle, my guess is, is first in line,” Stern said. “The big two at some point were Seattle and Las Vegas, but I don’t think there will be an NBA team in Las Vegas now because there’s NHL and WNBA and NFL.
“But Seattle is a good town. I think the NHL is going to go in there too. And that’s great. With Tim Leiweke planning to spend $600 million on Key Arena, that’s good for Seattle. But usually the first team in does very well.”
Left unsaid was how the second team does.
But it is exactly why the NHL wanted to be the first winter sport in any new building. Without a modern local history to compete with the Sonics’ legacy in Seattle, the NHL efforts to create a substantial market might have been doomed.
If the NBA looks to expand at the end of its current TV contracts, that would be after the 2024-25 season. What irony — that also corresponds to the potential free agency of the Clippers.
But as Ballmer said, he doesn’t want to take a devaluation haircut to move his franchise to Seattle. Unless, of course, the marketplace changes to make Seattle nearly as valuable as LA.
Ballmer didn’t say anything about down the road using his adopted home town’s new arena and its vacancy, along with its monorail and drone transportation solutions, to extort a better deal for a new arena from the governments in his newer adopted home town. But it’s early.
Imagine Seattle getting played again, this time not by Okies but by its own billionaire hoops freak. It’s why we love the NBA.