Sonics outlook dims at Capitol
Gov. Gregoire said she sees no hope of keeping the Sonics in Seattle, but is encouraged about the city's chances of landing another NBA team.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Sonics rally todayWhere: Olympia, on the Capitol grounds between the Legislative Building and the Capitol dome.
When: 10-11 a.m. today.
Who: Organized by the fan group Save Our Sonics, to encourage the Legislature to act on the new proposal.
OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire said Friday she sees no hope of keeping the Sonics in Seattle, but is encouraged about the city's chances of landing another NBA team — and maybe holding on to the Sonics name.
Gregoire said she spoke this week with Sonics owner Clay Bennett, who is seeking to move the team to his hometown of Oklahoma City. Voters there Tuesday overwhelmingly approved $120 million in sales taxes to upgrade the Ford Center and build a new NBA practice facility.
"He made it very clear to me and not in a nasty way at all — in his words, unequivocally, 'Not for sale,' " Gregoire said, later adding,"At some point, we have to accept that."
The governor's comments came as pressure is once again building — perhaps in vain — for Gregoire and lawmakers to quickly pass legislation aimed at keeping the Sonics here.
A high-powered group of local investors — including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and wireless magnate John Stanton — this week made public their proposal to buy the team and cover half the cost of a $300 million KeyArena expansion. The group also includes Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and Seattle developer Matt Griffin.
Under their proposal, the state and city each would pick up $75 million of the renovation costs.
Mayor Greg Nickels and other Seattle leaders support the plan. But, as with other recent arena efforts, legislative leaders are balking.
Gregoire and legislative leaders were working Friday night on a letter to city and King County officials praising the new proposal, but informing them there is not enough time to take it up before the Legislature adjourns Thursday. Gregoire and lawmakers have said they are willing to work on a proposal that could be addressed next year.
Sonics' supporters plan a rally for 10 a.m. today at the Capitol. On Friday, Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, received a flood of calls urging them to approve the new proposal.
Gregoire said the big names behind the effort, and their willingness to commit so much money, "has dramatically changed the temperature in the Legislature."
But, she said, "If there's no opportunity for them to buy a team at this point, there's no point for the Legislature to do anything this session."
The developments Friday at the Capitol and the entire effort to try to buy a team that isn't for sale raise a number of questions. Here are some answers:
Q: Arena plans have been rejected in Olympia before. Didn't we go down this road last year?
A: Yes. Last year, legislators rejected Bennett's offer to pay $100 million toward a new $500 million arena in Renton.
This year, with the Legislature scheduled to adjourn Thursday, leaders say there's not enough time to approve the latest KeyArena financing proposal.
Gregoire said Friday she and lawmakers are considering other options, but wouldn't give details.
"What we're going to be able to do, if anything, this legislative session, is still an open question," Gregoire said. "I don't see us actually spending money."
Q: Does it matter for the politicians that this is an election year?
A: That cuts two ways. Lawmakers are very wary about voting on another public-funding package for a professional sports stadium. Some of the most controversial votes ever taken in Olympia were on the financing packages for Safeco and Qwest fields. On the flip side, some lawmakers might worry about being blamed for not having done more to keep the Sonics in Seattle.
Q: Wait a minute. Bennett keeps saying he isn't selling.
A: Bennett has repeatedly said the team isn't for sale.
Even though he said the same thing about the Storm when he purchased both teams for $350 million two years ago and eventually sold the WNBA squad to a group of local investors, the Sonics are different. In court documents, Bennett has said the ownership group has lost millions each year since buying the team.
The city of Seattle is suing to force the Sonics to play at KeyArena until the team's lease expires in 2010. If the city wins, that could put more pressure on Bennett to sell the Sonics to local buyers.
Q: What would Ballmer's group pay, and what would taxpayers pay?
A: First, Ballmer's group would need to buy a team — the Sonics or another NBA franchise — and the cost of that isn't known. But to expand KeyArena, the investment group is saying it would put in $150 million if another $150 million were raised.
The proposal calls for raising $75 million by temporarily extending car-rental and restaurant taxes. Those taxes, collected only in King County, are currently used to pay off the debt on Safeco Field. The remaining $75 million in public funds would come from the city of Seattle, through an admissions tax at KeyArena or other revenues generated by the building.
The tax money would be tapped only if Ballmer's group is able to buy the Sonics or another NBA team and agrees to a "legally binding commitment" to pay $150 million, according to the draft legislation.
Q: Didn't Seattle voters recently prohibit public funding for just this kind of venture?
A: Initiative 91, approved by Seattle voters two years ago, requires any arena subsidies for pro sports teams to turn a profit for the public. Chris Van Dyk, the anti-stadium activist behind I-91, said this week the Ballmer proposal could be a good deal for taxpayers.
Q: What's the NBA's role at this point?
A: The league's relocation committee will travel to Oklahoma City on March 25 to tour the Ford Center and meet with civic and business leaders. The NBA wants to assess whether that city can support a franchise full time.
The committee will present a recommendation on Bennett's bid to move the Sonics at the April 17-18 NBA Board of Governors meeting, and the other 29 owners will make a decision on the request.
Q: What's behind the talk of another NBA team for Seattle?
A: A long-range scenario could include the New Orleans Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies or Sacramento Kings. The Hornets can opt out of their arena lease if attendance figures are not met. Memphis owner Michael Heisley has tried for the past year, unsuccessfully, to sell the Grizzlies. The Kings have met with some resistance on building a new publicly/privately funded arena.
Q: Couldn't Seattle simply get an expansion team?
A: If and when the NBA expands, commissioner David Stern said new teams will be added in Europe. Still, this market has been home to a franchise for the past four decades, and it's rich with tradition, basketball fans and Fortune 500 corporations. The arena situation, however, might need to be resolved before any owner thinks seriously about moving a team here.
Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report. Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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