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Mayor Jenny Durkan is a sports fan who prioritizes bringing the Sonics back

It’s not just lip service. She means it.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan reveals a Sonics shirt as she prepares to sign the KeyArena MOU
Grant Hindsley, SeattlePI.COM

Anyone who listened to his speech following the Seahawks’ 2014 Super Bowl victory could tell that our last elected mayor was not a fan of professional sports. So awkward and out of place was his delivery that, as I sat there in the frigid cold at CenturyLink Field, I kept waiting for him to congratulate Russell Wilson on a home run or mispronounce Pete Carroll’s name.

Nonetheless, despite having almost no personal interest, he showed up to give the speech because he understood the value of an audience that large. As he candidly told me a year later while attending a Seattle Storm game, “I’m the mayor. It’s my job to cheer for whatever crowd I’m put in front of.”

In defense of elected officials everywhere, I do believe that it is important that civic leaders represent the diversity of the constituencies that elected them. Regardless of their own personal interest, they must, on occasion, develop enthusiasm for projects, policies, and events that may not personally be at the top of their priority list but have value for a more passionate segment of the population.

As a Sonics fan, I know all too well how it feels when a politician fails to put up even a pretense of interest because I remember when then-Council member Nick Licata, a huge proponent of the arts, culture, and communities of color, declared that basketball had “No cultural value…zero”. These comments, for which Licata later apologized, were broadcast nationally and caused significant damage to the city’s relationship with the NBA at a critical moment in Sonics history.

So if I had to choose between a politician like Licata faking interest in sports or dismissing them out of hand, it is clear that a portion of the politicians’ job is to publicly support activities which their constituencies value, even if the public sometimes has difficulty in determining the authenticity or motivation behind their support

This type of ambiguity is not going to be an issue for newly elected Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who took some time to sit down with Sonics Rising in order to clear up any confusion about her authenticity and explain her motivation in supporting the return of the Sonics. (The comments below have been edited slightly for order and clarity. Complete, unedited audio of the interview is attached.)

Our mayor is a big time Seattle Sports fan who grew up watching the Sonics and playing the game of basketball. She is known by members of her staff to follow sports closely, often listening to game broadcasts or talking about local teams with her staff while traveling between appointments. In addition to being a fan of the game, she has made the NBA’s return, along with the successful launch of an expansion NHL franchise, a priority for her administration.

People do tend to portray (professional sports) as something that’s superfluous or silly. It’s not. II grew up here. I grew up loving the Sonics, and can remember in the 70s when we had the huge Boeing layoff. I was bicycling around neighborhoods with the cul-de-sac where suddenly my friends used to live and they were just empty houses. Ironically, the reason we lost so much was because they canceled the contract for the Supersonic jet, which we had models in our ... In our grade school growing up there’s a model of what the jet was going to look like. But we kept the Supersonics. And that was just such a part of our civic pride and it was an outlet for fun. And it inspired kids in every part of this community. It was important.

I think that they help build a great city. It gives every kid in every part of this town something to believe in and hope on. That sounds corny, but I think it’s true. I also think you see the amount of philanthropy that can flow into a town or with the involvement the players can have in schools and in mentoring programs. You see it with the Sonics. You’ve seen a lot of those Seahawk players, for example, go in. The Michael Bennett Foundation and others. They’ve done great work here, and I think they do everything from inspire the kids, hold the clinics, to actually investing in the community. I think sports are a great thing.

Having professional sports teams kind of knit together different parts of the fabric of the city.

Durkan arrived at City Hall at an opportune moment with circumstances that would make any incoming mayor a sports fan. In her first week alone, she signed a council approved MOU for arena development and announced an NHL expansion opportunity that will generate great enthusiasm during her first term in office. That opportunity however was not without controversy and many skeptical Sonics fans have levied accusations of “jumping on the bandwagon” to support a Seattle Center Arena proposal negotiated by a previous administration and council that the fans do not trust. To address those concerns, I asked Mayor Durkan whether she would have participated in an proposal she felt lowered our chances of bringing the Sonics back as well as her thoughts on the Oak View Group as a partner in this effort.

No. And we were very frank about that. We had a very frank conversation on the give and take, and what it looked like going down the road, and whether there could still be a competitive offer put in by the Hansen group for SoDo. I think the best chance we have of moving forward is if OVG does what they’ve said they’re going to do and that is to be as committed to getting NBA as they can be. And of course they’ve got a track record there. Bonderman, he’s an owner now. Leiweke’s worked with the NBA. But we’re going to keep pushing ahead.

It’s a step forward because we know we will have a world class arena and one that would be capable of having basketball. And I’ve had conversations with the principals, both Leiweke and Bonderman, to say that as we negotiate the further deals I’m going to be very focused to make sure that those lease arrangements are something that make it more likely that we have basketball. Not less likely.

It’s not so much if you build it they will come. But they won’t come if it’s not there. And we will have a world class arena and one that meets NBA standards, which is ... You have to have that if you’re going to get a team. And so I think that we have a very good vehicle to get the team, and to make sure that we don’t just have hockey, we have basketball.

I think, when you’re looking at long-term business partners or people who work with the city, the first thing you look at is their track record. Because people can say a lot of things, but what have they ever done? They both have track records in NHL and in the NBA. They’ve delivered so far in their promises on the NHL. We’re moving forward. Then NHL’s voted to give us a team, preliminarily, if we get the tickets in place. So they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. And that tells me that’s what you’ve got to believe is it’s not just words it’s actions. So we’re going to continue to look at their actions, but I look forward to working with them. They’ve been a great partner so far.

Nonetheless, as has been widely reported, Mayor Durkan has not ruled out the re-emergence of Chris Hansen’s Sodo arena proposal as a vehicle to bring the NBA back if the Oak View Group fails to attract a franchise. Prior to our discussion she met with investor Wally Walker and other members of Hansen’s team to discuss the possibility of a second arena hosting basketball:

I told them the second arena’s not foreclosed yet.

I think ... you look at the political realities, it’s unlikely. But they can continue to put pressure on. And I think that having pressure from both groups makes it more likely that we will get an NBA franchise.

Durkan credits the resilience of our fan movement and strength of the Seattle market for attracting two competing ownership groups, earning an NHL expansion franchise, and increasing our odds of eventually bringing the NBA back to the Pacific Northwest.

We may be a tired fan base, but that only means we’re going to be stronger. So I think the fans keep the pressure on, I really believe that Sonic fans are one of the reasons why we’re going to have a hockey team. They put the pressure on the city to keep moving forward on having some kind of an arena here in Seattle. But for the fans, I’m not sure that would’ve happened. And so the fact that we have two competing factions trying to build arenas, that’s because they believe there’s a strong fan base here. They believe it’s economically viable. So the fans have got to keep talking, have got to keep hoping, have got to keep pushing…

(Fans can continue to play a role) by supporting the arena. And every time you’re talking about the arena and saying we’re going to build it not just for hockey but for basketball. The NBA is watching. They are very smart. It’s going to be probably unlikely that they have an expansion team any time soon, and if they do there’ll probably be two of them. Likely, one in Mexico City and one somewhere in the US. It makes sense that it’s Seattle…

I think we can continue to talk to all parties and the NBA about how important it is for them to get a team here. We think there should be an NBA team in Seattle. We think it’s really sad that there isn’t one, and we look forward to working with them and keeping pressure on to rectify that problem.

We’re one of the fastest growing economic cities in the country. We’re a city that has some of the best companies in the world. If you look at Seattle at any metric you would expect it to have an NBA team. We want to have an NBA team. I think we can get one.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is not faking it. She is a longtime, avid Seattle sports fan who is committed to the issue. I also want to express my appreciation for the passionate Sonics fans on her staff who have ensured me that this administration will continue to be active in their fan outreach and take a visible leadership role in our effort to attract the NBA.

I encourage all fans to take a few minutes to listen to our complete interview and look forward to additional conversations with the mayor in the future.