Does last week’s Seattle City Council vote to approve renovation of Key Arena, or the NHL’s announcement Thursday that Seattle could apply for an expansion team for an expansion fee of $650 million, do anything to accelerate the return of the NBA to the Emerald City? Short answer: probably not. But it isn’t a step backward either.
We get it. It's going to take a while, and there are no guarantees.
It is always amusing (and sometimes feels a bit like people are talking down to us) when the powers that be work to temper expectations, just in case Sonics fans may be starting to get overly giddy or ahead of the process.
The reality is that a decade of obstacles, setbacks, and flat out heartbreak have taught us that this process will be neither fast nor easy. The majority of our long suffering fans understand the scope of the challenge and long ago transitioned to a "long game” understanding that opportunities to acquire a franchise are scarce and nothing is guaranteed.
With this in mind, I find myself encouraged by the "don't get ahead of yourself" commentary put forward last week by NBA.com's David Aldridge and the Oak View Group's Tim Leiweke.
"Any step toward a building actually being built in Seattle is a step toward the return of the NBA there. It’s a tiny one. But it’s better than nothing."
- David Aldridge, NBA.com
That may sound like a downer, but I’ll take it. Given the number of steps backwards we have endured, I'm happy to settle for small steps and incremental progress.
In this same article, Aldridge quotes multiple NBA owners acknowledging the difficulty of bringing a team back, but on an encouraging note, expressing a desire to eventually get it done.
“We haven’t discussed expansion. However, Seattle is a market that I believe the majority of owners would want to be in.”
- Anonymous NBA owner
"(a new Key Arena) will make it a viable destination if and when we do look at expansion,”
- 2nd anonymous NBA owner
How we get there is another story altogether. Art Thiel of SportsPressNW.com believes expansion is a long ways away, but in the words of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, “inevitable”.
But the animus between Seattle and the NBA won’t last forever. In fact, an NBA source with knowledge of the league’s current long-range thinking told me that at the end of the current $24 billion television rights agreement with ESPN and TNT following the 2024-25 season, NBA owners believe they will be ready to expand from 30 to 32 teams. - Art Thiel, SportsPressNW.com
If Theil's source is correct and the next opportunity for expansion is 2025, I honestly think most Sonics fans could handle waiting that out. If nothing else, optimism around the new building, a pro-Sonics mayor, and the arrival of the NHL will give NBA fans something to occupy our time, making the next several years much more fun than the last nine. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Oak View Group seem to understand that meaningful engagement of NBA fans and some type of "appeasement" are necessary for the success of the NHL launch. If nothing else, there should be a robust conversation around the concept of how and when the NBA returns. Even a small amount of discussion on the subject will be much more satisfying than the void of news we are currently living with. If expansion were to occur in 2025, there would also be the possibility of substantive news leading up to it. Perhaps as early as 2022, just two years after the NHL's arrival, we would start hearing rumblings and that would be a lot of fun.
Not everyone involved believes that expansion is likely to be the end solution. Many NBA sources have begun to speculate about franchise relocation from either Memphis or New Orleans, two cities which have struggled to generate the revenue necessary to be competitive.
“I don’t see expansion, A move is the only way.”
- 3rd Anonymous NBA owner
Rumors surrounding Memphis in particular have been rampant since minority team owners exercised a buy/sell option to potentially purchase a controlling interest in the franchise from current majority owner Robert Pera. With that transaction scheduled to move forward in the next 90 days or so, people will be paying close attention to the price paid for the franchise and commentary from whomever emerges with control of the franchise.
The Grizzlies lost almost $40 million last season before collecting revenue sharing, per confidential league financials obtained by ESPN.com. Playoff revenue and attendance matter. The murmurings about a potential move to Seattle will never stop, even with the team's arena lease and other protections locking them into Memphis through at least 2021.
Oak View Group's Tim Leiweke makes it clear that, while people in Seattle can work to establish conditions suitable for an NBA return, it is not anyone’s right or prerogative to demand or feel entitled to a franchise. Any plan to bring the NBA back to Seattle must begin and end in the NBA commissioner’s office.
“Here's the problem. You can't demand it, and you can't will it
This is really, really important.
It's not what we've been doing here, right? We've been trying to figure out other ways of doing it and it doesn't work that way. So from now on, what we're going to do is we're going to make them understand we're going to do everything we can to make it right for them. In the NHL and the NBA. And if they choose to come here, we would love to have them but we understand and respect that it is their decision to engage in that kind of conversation when they want to. Not when we want to. This is not our game. This is their game and we're going to play by their rules.”
“Whether its Seattle or it's Kansas City or its any other marketplace that ultimately would have an interest in a NBA team, the current conversations in the NBA do not include expansion and I follow the lead of the commissioner because he's the one that determines that.”
But he likes Seattle.”
- Tim Leiweke, OVG
Whether the NBA eventually chooses to come here via expansion, relocation, or not at all, Leiweke is clear that his plan is to pursue the NBA by demonstrating incremental progress and showcasing the region’s ability to support winter sports via the arrival of an NHL franchise.
“You guys need a fullback, right?
I'm not looking for a bolt of lightning and receiver going down the sideline with a let's score on the first play. That’s not going to happen. We need a fullback strategy on the NBA now. And the best thing we can do now with the NBA is when we get a chance to get a franchise in the other league, let's absolutely knock it out of the park, and if we do, then there going to appreciate that even more.
We need to be Earl Campbell. It’s going to be three or four yards at a time. It ain't sexy but it works.”
- Tim Leiweke, OVG
From there it is OVG’s intention to rely on their firmly established relationships and follow the lead of the NBA owners and Adam Silver.
We have 28 arenas in our alliance, I have 28 partners. We sell sponsorship for these partners, we create content for these partners, we share with them ideas and philosophies on security and counter terrorism with our company. We see them twice a year when we do our alliance retreats. These are people that I have grown up with. These are my friends, these are my associates and these are my partners, twenty eight of them. Guess what? the majority of owners in the NBA and in our arena alliance and so we're the majority of owners in the NHL, we are well connected, well respected, and focused. And they all know what we're doing in Seattle. Every one of them. And so ... first teams that's available, we're going to get. And then we'll go get the next one. But we’re going to have to be patient.
Again, while these statements are intended to be cautionary, I react to them with enthusiasm grounded in reality. To carry the football analogy further, we have literally been sacked on every play and are losing badly on safeties. I'll take 3-4 yard gains all day long and cheer as loud as I can each and every time one happens. In a football game there is a time when the buzzer sounds and you've lost. However, if I have learned anything from this experience it is that so long as we do not give up there is always the opportunity for an eventual comeback.
I do appreciate the messages from Tim, David and the anonymous NBA owners that we should prepare for a long and uncertain grind. If I could send a message back to them (and since TL indicated he reads this blog maybe we now have that chance) I would tell them this:
We get it. Our decade of experience has prepared us for the wait and the uncertainty. You guys take care of your business and we will focus on staying passionate.
I will gladly acknowledge their need to be deferential to the leagues and accept small or even "tiny" incremental progress, but hope that establishment powers can accept our need to get excited about those tiny steps, even if they take a decade to bear fruit. If we can't cheer when those small steps happen then we aren't fans anymore and we may as well just stop caring.
Seattle fans may not have grown up watching Earl Campbell, but we certainly remember another bruising back who started the game punishing defenses for a yard or 2 at a time until he wore them down and started getting big gains later in the game. I’m excited for OVG to take the Marshawn Lynch approach. Let’s grind it out for as long as this takes.