Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Arena Issue

I haven't spoken much about this issue here. I am not certain whether my avoidance of the topic is due my entering a state of denial that Seattle could lose the Storm (not to mention the Sonics) or simply that I believe that all the interactions between the city and The Basketball Club of Seattle (the group that owns both the Seattle Storm and the Seattle Sonics) have been pure politics and that everything will work out in the end. It was reported in all the local papers today that we are reaching a decision point by the end of April, 2006.

On April 17th, the Storm/Sonics organization sent a letter to Mayor Nickels and City Council member David Della (he heads the Parks, Education, Libraries and Labor committee) with copies to the full Seattle City Council. The letter outlines the Storm/Sonics position on the arena renovation, their desire to stay in Seattle and outlines their intended contribution and desired terms. It also states that the content of the letter is not an opening to expected negotiations but closer to a Best And Final Offer. It leaves open room for some negotiation but clearly states that if the city does not intend to come somewhere close to their terms they would like a clear "No" from the council now.

On the same day Mayor Nickels sent a letter to Governor Gregoire that outlines the principles the city intends to use in discussions with the Storm/Sonics organization. It indicates a required vote by the public for approval, use of "visitor" taxes throughout all of King County, "significant" investment by the Storm/Sonics, inclusion of provisions for other arts and "heritage" programs, and states that the new lease must match the length of the intended debt. It also positions that the State should NOT fund any arena options outside Seattle that would compete with Key Arena should the Storm/Sonics choose to leave.

The only sticking point I see between the two letters is the "significant" investment indicated in the Mayor's letter. An amount is not indicated in the Mayor's letter but it is already the biggest point of contention. The Storm/Sonics want $220 million in renovations and intend to contribute $18.3 million in initial costs and cover all cost overruns. While this 8% contribution is clearly small given the Storm/Sonics intent to claim full ownership of all operating profits from basketball and non-basketball events, the Storm/Sonics claim that they have already contributed $21 million towards previous improvements and generated $77.6 million in revenue to pay off the existing debt. They also point out that while the city charges admission taxes on basketball tickets, those tax revenues were diverted to other projects and not utilized by the city to cover existing arena debt. Council President Nick Licata, who has been the most vocal opponent of the Storm/Sonics' plans, was quoted in the Seattle PI today saying, "I don't see how we can work out a compromise." He wants a less costly renovation and a higher Storm/Sonics contribution. Licata is "working" on his own lease proposal and David Della is preparing his committee to vote on a resolution for the Mayor to start negotiations with the Storm/Sonics. Since neither of these proposals have been made public it is difficult to compare them or even comment on them.

I don't buy into the Storm/Sonics claims that the previous $21 million in capital investment and $77.6 million in generated revenue should exempt them from paying more than their proposed 8% of costs. I think they should contribute more, and if they need to do so by raising ticket prices than I, as a season ticket holder to both the Storm and the Sonics, am ready to pay the higher price.

I don't have enough data, nor frankly, enough interest to understand all of the issues at stake for both the City and the Storm/Sonics. I can't comprehend that these two professional organizations would truly be unable to find a satisfactory solution that keeps the Storm and the Sonics here in Seattle. I don't want Seattle to be the next Charlotte. The city and the NBA ownership could not work together. The Hornets moved to New Orleans where they were already unhappy prior to the destruction of 2006's hurricanes. New owners kept the Sting in Charlotte. However, within a few years of the Hornet's exit the city built the new arena the Hornet's had requested and new ownership brought in the expansion Bobcats to play in that new arena. That shouldn't happen here in Seattle, not because we are better or smarter than Charlotte, but because we should be able to learn from their example.

Seattle is a basketball town. The NBA has a number of players from the state of Washington playing on its rosters. Gonzaga and the University of Washington have two of the top men's basketball programs in the NCAA. This past season both the men's and women's teams from UW made it to the NCAA tournament. The Sonics are Seattle's oldest professional sports franchise. The Sonics and the Storm are the only professional teams to bring championships to this city. Basketball is part of the tradition and culture of this city. The season ticket holder that sits behind me for Sonics games has been a season ticket holder since 1967. I think all of these points support the idea that the city should be working to keep the Sonics and the Storm here in Seattle.

I don't think the city should just bow down to the demands of the Storm/Sonics, but I think they need to start actively working together with the Storm/Sonics to find that solution which I know in my heart must be there. I am biased. I love the sport. I love the teams. Seattle made my list of possible new homes ten years ago SOLELY on the fact that the Sonics played here. Visiting the city and experience the beauty of the region, the vibrance of the culture and the diversity of the population made it the top choice for me, but basketball made me look at the city in the first place.

I want both sides to work things out. I don't actually care how they get there as long as they do so and do so soon. I want to raise my children in this city, and I want to share my love of basketball at all levels with them, here, in this city. I urge all fans of basketball in King County to contact the Mayor, the City Council, and the Governor and voice your support for keeping the Storm and the Sonics here in Seattle.

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