The Seattle SuperSonics have died. The team bequeathed one NBA championship title and several YouTube videos of Shawn Kemp dunks to their Starbucks-addicted fans. They are survived by the Seattle Storm, a WNBA franchise whose popularity ranks somewhere between venereal disease and drought.
And now, the autopsy is going to be ugly.
Like many small-city franchises, the Sonics have not turned a profit in the last few years. Owners cited what they believed to be an unfavorable lease of KeyArena to the team by the city of Seattle. After the city refused to release the Sonics from their lease or renovate or replace KeyArena, the team was sold to a consortium of Oklahoma City businessmen led by Clay Bennett — who immediately threatened to relocate the team if the city did not replace the stadium.
Seattle fans saw the writing on the wall early on. Oklahoma City had hosted the Katrina-displaced New Orleans Hornets and proved they could sell out an NBA arena in recent years. The municipal mandarins set aside over 121 million greenbacks to renovate the Ford Center.
It didn’t help that at the same time Bennett and NBA commissioner David Stern were reassuring Seattle fans they were doing “everything” they could to keep the team in their home, new co-owner Aubrey McClendon blurted out the truth: “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here [Oklahoma City].”
Worse: red ink had nothing to do with it. “We know it’s a little more difficult financially here in Oklahoma City,” McClendon continued, “but we think it’s great for the community and if we could break even we’d be thrilled.”
A SAVVY CORRESPONDENT pointed out to sportswriter Bill Simmons that the Sonics are moving from a city with a population of 3.2 million people to one with a population of 1.2 million. Combined with other franchise relocations in the past decade, the NBA has shrunk the population it reaches by 5.3 million.
It turns out that NBA owners are an odd group — many are uninterested in profit, or use their franchises as loss-leaders. The Maloof Brothers seem to have acquired the Sacramento Kings in order to impress women at their casino in Las Vegas. Mark Cuban, the bartender cum billionaire, made the Dallas Mavericks his personal hobby.
The consortium of Oklahoma City businessmen didn’t see a cash-cow in the team itself. Rather they saw themselves entertaining their clients in luxury boxes in the Ford Center. And they saw in their future a long series of articles touting the revitalized arena as the capstone in urban development plans. With visions like that, it’s hard to blame them.
And yet, we’ve seen this all before. Sports franchise in second-tier media market tires of luxury-box deprived arena, owners hold taxpayers hostage for new one, city responds that it can hardly pay for schools and teachers let alone subsidize a billion dollar industry. Team leaves.
MERELY SAYING TO Sonics fans, “it’s just business,” will not suffice. Sports franchises are more than the sum of their assets, contracts, and the price of a hot dog. Sports are not entertainment in the way that movies or television are.
Sports franchises help form the identity of a city. Spectators share in the glory of their team, and participate in their achievements vicariously.
In this case, the Sonics gave their fans, and their city memories of Lenny Wilkens, Archie Clark, Detlef Schrempff, the I-5 rivalry with Portland, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, “Jesus Shuttlesworth” and the promise of Kevin Durant.
Recognizing this, a group of local businessmen is trying to bring the Sonics back from the dead. But commissioner Stern has poured cold water on this effort (“There is no miracle here”) and the Oklahoma businessmen seem utterly determined to keep the team.
Worse, they refuse to take The Storm with them.