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Originally published May 31, 2014 at 6:52 PM | Page modified June 2, 2014 at 6:01 PM

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Ballmer drops bomb on Seattle

The critics were right. Steve Ballmer’s NBA money bomb clearly shows no public money was needed to build an arena in Seattle in the first place.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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To “Ballmer”: To act boldly with great enthusiasm, without regard for politics, economics or common sense.

Seattle, we just got Ballmered.

Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer has many talents, but he’s never been known for carefully weighing the potential fallout of his brash statements or aggressive actions.

Remember, this is the guy who when the U.S. Department of Justice headed by Attorney General Janet Reno was pressing Microsoft to change some of its business practices, responded with this bit of diplomacy: “To heck with Janet Reno!”

So while it was vintage Ballmer that he dropped out of Seattle’s quest for an NBA team and instead bought the Los Angeles Clippers for an astronomical $2 billion, I bet the ripple effects of this atomic money bomb on Seattle politics will be profound.

Remember that public-private partnership for an NBA arena down in Sodo, for which Ballmer was to be the big private money? It’s said to be forging ahead, as if nothing seismic had just happened.

Except now, how can the Seattle City Council possibly remain committed to the idea this arena needs public money to be built?

The project backers have been adamant they need $200 million in bonds from the government as a way to get the upfront capital to both build the arena and buy a team.

Chris Hansen, the arena’s main private backer, has a page at the project’s website, sonicsarena.com, devoted to this appeal called “Why is Public Financing Needed for the SoDo Arena?”

It reads: “Given the significant financial risks the investor group is shouldering and the amount of equity financing required for the team and Arena (well over $300 million), the investor group believes that the public contribution requested is required to make the project financially viable.”

Well that sounds like baloney in retrospect, doesn’t it?

For the amount Ballmer just paid for the Clippers, he could have built a new Sodo basketball arena all by himself, plus built the Safeco Field baseball stadium, plus built the CenturyLink football stadium and still had more than $600 million left over for buying a team.

I have been favorable to Hansen’s arena since it was proposed because I like basketball and because it’s a far better deal for the public than any past stadium around here.

But clearly the ground has shifted — both the political ground and the crazed Ballmerian economics of pro sports.

As one of my favorite commentators on pro sports financing, Neil deMause of Field of Schemes, writes: “The leading theory for what the hell just happened is what you might call billionaire glut: Thanks to the U.S. economy’s increasing propensity for concentrating all its wealth in a tiny number of people, there are a heck of a lot more rich guys like Ballmer in the market for sports teams these days, and not an appreciably larger number of sports teams for sale. That imbalance of supply and demand drives prices through the roof, with would-be hoops magnates bidding each other into oblivion in order to find something to buy with their money.”

These are the same issues that dominate Seattle politics these days — wealth inequality, corporate subsidization and the power imbalances in society. Since the city and county first backed the Sodo arena plan, a lot has changed. We gave Boeing the biggest state tax breaks in U.S. history, and the company thanked us by laying off thousands of engineers. We elected a socialist. Addressing wealth inequality became the driving cause of local politicians.

Now we find that when it comes to sports the problem isn’t raising capital. It’s a billionaire glut!

The city of Seattle, which is slated to put a hundred-plus million in bonds into the arena, has not given final approval to that plan. What they passed two years ago was an agreement to do the studies while Hansen and his group pursued a team. But many council members have told me that their “yes” votes back then do not mean they’re necessarily going to be “yes” votes for a final go-ahead.

I bet Ballmer’s money bomb just unwittingly blew up the already shaky political support for this project.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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