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Friday, May 17, 2013
The view from Seattle

By Kevin Pelton

SEATTLE -- There was a small victory for Seattle basketball fans (including me) Wednesday night. The town's resident NBA team, whatever opponent is playing the Oklahoma City Thunder (in this case the Memphis Grizzlies), knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs.

But that was barely consolation for the day's crushing news. When the NBA's Board of Governors voted down the proposal by a group of local businessmen to buy the Sacramento Kings and move them to Seattle as the Sonics, it ensured Seattle will be without NBA basketball for at least a sixth season -- with no guarantees that will change any time soon.

The issue isn't with the Kings staying in Sacramento. Kings fans did nothing to deserve losing their team, and the local government and a new California-based ownership group stepped up to meet every challenge set forth by the NBA over the past four months. Just five years after we went through our own painful relocation, few fans in Seattle relished the thought of putting another city through the same thing.

No matter how much NBA commissioner David Stern tried to emphasize that Wednesday's vote was about what Sacramento did instead of what Seattle failed to do, here in the Emerald City it was hard to interpret the rejection of the move as anything but a rejection of Seattle. Stern said Sacramento was the winner in this scenario, and therefore we must be the losers.

What really hurt was the NBA's unwillingness to seriously consider expansion as a win-win solution to the Sacramento-Seattle conundrum. From start to finish, Stern and his successor Adam Silver were clear that expansion was a remote possibility until the NBA has finished negotiating its next TV deal. (The current one, with ESPN and Turner Sports, expires at the end of the 2015-16 season.)

The steadfast opposition to expansion is perplexing given the unique strength of the offer made by the prospective Seattle ownership group led by Chris Hansen. Between their increased $625 million valuation of the Kings and an unprecedented $115 million relocation fee, the group indicated a willingness to pay $740 million for an NBA franchise in Seattle -- nearly $25 million for each of the other 30 owners and more than double the $300 million fee the last time the league expanded, to Charlotte in 2004.

Under the current TV deal, worth $930 million per year to the league, the difference to other teams between slicing the pie 30 ways and 31 ways is $1 million per year. While that figure is expected to jump under the next contract, even if we make the optimistic assumption that the NBA's rights will double in value every seven-year contract, it would take 25 years of TV money to offset the net present value to owners of awarding Seattle an expansion team. How long is that in professional sports terms? Of the league's 30 teams today, just six have enjoyed continuous ownership for the last 25 years.

That analysis assumes there's no benefit to TV negotiations in adding a team in the country's No. 12 market. In theory, the NBA should be better off demographically whenever it can add a market better than the current league average. As for other concerns about expansion -- talent dilution, an odd number of teams, etc. -- I direct you to Tom Ziller's epic takedown.

As the NHL has demonstrated, expanding too rapidly is dangerous. But on average, the NBA has added a team every four and a half years since the merger with the ABA (eight in 36 years). Both the MLB and NFL have averaged a new team every six years or so in a similar span (six since 1977 in MLB; six since 1976 in the NFL). By those standards, the NBA is actually overdue for expansion at nine years and counting. The NFL landed at 32 teams and MLB 30; going to 31 would put the NBA right in the middle.

Surely, part of the league's thinking is that by the time the next TV contract is wrapped up there may be more clarity about troubled franchises elsewhere. The Milwaukee Bucks, whose lease runs through 2017, are likely to eventually move if they're unable to replace or renovate the BMO Harris Bradley Center, and other teams could look elsewhere if attendance fails to improve over the next few seasons.

The problem with this logic is that the clock is already ticking on Seattle's plan for a new arena. The memorandum of understanding signed last fall by Hansen's group, the city and King County expires in 2017. Between now and then, the same forces that opposed the deal last summer will be reinvigorated by this opening. While Sonics fans were still grieving Wednesday afternoon, the longshore union that has filed litigation against the arena site called on local politicians to reconsider the plan. This fall's mayoral election could sharply change the political landscape.

Fighting off the anti-arena forces once again will require Sonics fans to maintain the passion they have shown since Hansen began pursuing a deal to bring the team back. That's going to be difficult to do on the strength of vague assurances that the NBA would like to return to Seattle. Hope can go only so far. At some point, fans will need the league to reciprocate some of the love they have shown for the Sonics. On Wednesday, that was nowhere to be found.