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Friday, February 17, 2012
Rumblings in Seattle

By Henry Abbott

By their nature, sports attract people who like things that are visceral, quick and exciting. So things always feel weird when those same fans are asked to follow the slowly bouncing ball of public/private construction finance. So, what is happening in Seattle? Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus (who: disclaimer, has worked for the Sonics) helps to explain:

On an otherwise dreary February day, Seattle's NBA fans were extended an overdue ray of hope Thursday, when Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine held a joint press conference to announce their receipt of a proposal from a group led by hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen to build a basketball and hockey arena in the Sodo area.

Really, the event at City Hall was as much a rally as it was a press conference. The public was invited to attend, and die-hard fans got their Sonics gear out of the closet and filled the room. They applauded the references to the 1979 championship team, to Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens and especially when McGinn declared that the deal "could mean that the Seattle SuperSonics will play once again in our city."

Within the Seattle sports community, there has been a buzz since the Seattle Times first broke word of the possibility of a new arena. It built steadily through the Times' reporting that Hansen's group had secured land in the area just south of Safeco Field and Century Link Field, and was negotiating with the Mayor's office. On Thursday, that buzz reached crescendo.

On the radio, DJs cut to break by asking listeners whether they were more excited about the prospect of the Sonics returning or getting an NHL team. At the University of Washington men's basketball team's win over Arizona State Thursday night, some of the loudest ovations were saved for when the big screen showed two girls in Sonics gear, as well as former Husky and Sonic Detlef Schrempf

The greatest myth of the Sonics' move to Oklahoma City was that it had anything to do with fan support in the Emerald City. The widespread success of the documentary Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team has helped correct that mistaken assumption. If there was any lingering question about what the Sonics meant to Seattle, it should be erased by the continued passion of fans nearly four years since the last NBA game at KeyArena.

Instead, the issue has always been about KeyArena's shortcomings as an NBA venue. It's been exactly a decade since then-owner Howard Schultz first began agitating for an upgrade, and in that span not one plan has enjoyed this kind of government support. In crafting terms of the proposal with Hansen, a Seattle native who now lives in the Bay Area, McGinn and Constantine have come to believe the deal will benefit the city and county. Now it's up to a 10-person Arena Advisory Panel with Wilkens as one of the co-chairs to vet the proposal and report back their findings within a month.

On the surface, it is evident that Hansen's offer dramatically supercedes past proposals to renovate KeyArena or build a new arena in the Seattle area. It calls for Hansen's group to invest $290 million in private money in the arena, which would be the third-largest private contribution of any arena in the NBA after Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. The remainder of the funds would come from taxes and rent generated by the arena and would not redirect any current government spending. The proposal meets both the rule and the spirit of I-91, the initiative Seattle voters passed requiring public funding of pro sports facilities to return the city profit on par with a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond.

Still, Constantine cautioned by way of analogy that the proposal was far from reaching Game Seven of the NBA finals. Instead, he argued, Thursday was more like game one of the preseason. The city and county must assuage concerns about traffic in the area and ensure that they are properly protected by provisions calling for the investment group to bear the cost of overruns.

There's also the matter of finding tenants, one that Constantine and McGinn said is solely the responsibility of Hansen's group. As part of the proposal, no shovel will hit the ground until a team is secured, keeping both sides from making a bad investment.

The inevitable process of relocating an NBA team would be bittersweet for Seattleites who understand the pain such a move can cause. If Sacramento is able to complete the process of funding its own new arena within the next few weeks, it's unclear how soon any other teams might consider relocation. Still, should a team reach the point where moving is the only option, Seattle's history of supporting the Sonics and the prospect of a sparkling new arena would make the city an attractive destination.

For now, such concerns lie in the future. No matter how restrained McGinn and Constantine were in their optimism, Thursday was a day for Seattle's NBA fans to dream of a new incarnation of the Sonics making memories and competing for championships. For the first time since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, those dreams have a chance to become reality.