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Steve Ballmer, David Stern talk prospects of NBA return to Seattle

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Clippers owner and former commissioner both offer thoughts on a Sonics return

NBA: JAN 08 Hawks at Clippers Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Two key figures in the Seattle SuperSonics saga spoke recently about the prospects of a return of the NBA to Seattle: Steve Ballmer and David Stern.

Hold your pitchforks, Green-and-Goldies.

Ballmer was in town last week, and while attending a Rotary Club of Seattle event, he spoke with Todd Bishop of GeekWire. Bishop asked the one-time Microsoft CEO, now owner of the L.A. Clippers, how he’d pitch the viability of Seattle as a market to his fellow owners should expansion be considered at some point.

“Number one, Seattle did a very good job of supporting a basketball team for a long time,” [Ballmer] said. “Number two, Seattle’s gotten much more affluent since the time the Sonics left and moved to Oklahoma City.”

Seattle is “the most affluent city in America” without an NBA team, he said. “There’s no question. This would be the best place to put, if there’s expansion, to put an new basketball team in the United States.”

He made a very strong point about the economics of the league and how appealing a market like Seattle is to owners. “There is no shortage of potential business support, fan support, high ticket prices,” he noted.

In comparing season ticket prices, Ballmer points out that Seattle would be closer to Los Angeles on the scale than it would be to a market like Memphis.

“There’s a franchise in Memphis — It’s a great thing to have a franchise in Memphis — it’s probably the poorest city where the NBA has a franchise. But a season ticket per game on the floor might cost $250 in Memphis, it might cost $3000 a game in L.A., just to give you a contrast. Seattle would be more towards L.A., I’m sure, than it would be towards Memphis.”

Part of the discussion of the growing affluence in the Emerald City centered on the impact of Amazon on the city and the region, as well as the overall tech boom in the area.

With the tech boom, the transforming landscape of Seattle, and the growing population, Ballmer also brought up one of the prevailing questions of Seattle’s current solution to redevelop KeyArena into a new arena at Seattle Center: traffic.

“There’s a lot of things that would make Seattle a great place. Having a great arena will be fundamental, an arena that is accessible,” Ballmer said. “One of the great queries I have is, with all the traffic around Amazon headquarters, how much more tricky would it be to get to KeyArena now than it was when I had season tickets to the Sonics for 20 years? I hope the answer is, ‘Somebody’s got it figured out,’ because otherwise, that is an issue.”

Traffic is a primary focus of both the Oak View Group, the investment group behind the proposed arena project, and the city. The public-private partnership view Seattle Center as vital to the growth of the city over the next few decades, and are working to find realistic solutions to address concerns.

Ballmer, of course, was a principal in two potential Sonics efforts, one to try to keep the team from moving to Oklahoma City in 2008, and the second as a partner with Chris Hansen to try to purchase the Sacramento Kings and relocate them to Seattle. A big part of the reason that attempt failed was that, in large part due to the Sonics exit, the NBA wanted to make sure every effort went into keeping teams from moving.

“[...] I mean, it’s part of the reason why I was happy to buy a team in L.A. I went to see the commissioner right after I retired, and he said, “Look, we’ve learned our lesson. We don’t want teams to move.” So if you want to buy a team, don’t expect to be able to buy it and move it to Seattle.”

An big architect of the successful effort to keep the Kings from fleeing Sacramento for the Pacific Northwest was none other than David Stern.

GeekWire’s Taylor Soper met with the former NBA commissioner at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, the ginormous annual trade show, in Las Vegas. Of course, he had to ask Stern his thoughts on the NBA making home again in Seattle.

“I do think that if they expand, or ever move a team, Seattle, my guess is, is first in line,” Stern said. “The big two at some point were Seattle and Las Vegas, but I don’t think there will be an NBA team in Las Vegas now because there’s NHL and WNBA and NFL. But Seattle is a good town. I think the NHL is going to go in there too. And that’s great. With Tim Leiweke planning to spend $600 million on Key Arena, that’s good for Seattle. But usually the first team in does very well.”

In the discussion, the point was reiterated the Ballmer has no intention of moving the Clippers north up I-5.

“Although a team in L.A. moving to Seattle, I have to say it’ll lose probably about half its value. So please don’t look at me to take the haircut even for our beloved city.”