No doubt someone will claim to have been surprised that Professional Basketball Club, LLC, based in Oklahoma City and as of mid-2006 owners of the Seattle SuperSonics, might actually have been contemplating relocating the team to somewhere nearer its home base. (From 210 Park Avenue, chairman Clay Bennett's office at Dorchester Capital, to the Ford Center, 100 West Reno, is a distance of maybe 2000 feet, not counting the elevators.) To that someone, I offer the following news: "Rosebud" was a sled.

This does not, I hasten to add, mean that the Sonics will be loading up the moving van at the end of this season, or even next season: the team is still bound to Seattle's KeyArena until the current lease expires in 2010, and PBC's effort to get this matter in front of an arbitration panel failed miserably once a judge noticed that according to the agreement, the term of the lease was not subject to arbitration. Still, as promised, Bennett has announced that he plans to file for relocation of the team, and while it's probably not a good idea for the NBA to approve such a thing while litigation is going on, the likelihood that the league will turn down the move, should the legal matters be cleared away, is vanishingly small.

Which leads to the obvious question: what weapons can the city of Seattle bring to the fight? It's hard to say. The biggest argument, beyond the lease itself, is economic: the Seattle market is more than twice the size of Oklahoma City's, even though their central cities are about even, and inasmuch as player-compensation rules under the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement are related to overall league revenues, which presumably would take a percentage point or two hit with the reduction in the Sonics' market size, it's conceivable that some owners might raise objections. PBC could mention that the New Orleans Hornets, during the two seasons they played in Oklahoma City, raked in more cash than they ever did at home Hornets owner George Shinn will admit as much if you press him but New Orleans was no bigger a market than Oklahoma City (it's now quite a bit smaller) and nowhere near the size of Seattle.

But if nothing else, history seems to be on Seattle's side: both the city's baseball and football teams were at one time in similar positions, and both sports, you'll note, are still in Seattle. The Pilots, born in 1969, were purchased the following year by not-yet-Commissioner Bud Selig and moved to Milwaukee; the city of Seattle, King County, and the state of Washington sued the American League, charging breach of contract. The lawsuit dragged on for six years, at which time the AL cut a deal with the plaintiffs: drop the suit and we'll give you the next expansion team. Came the spring of 1977, and the Mariners were playing in the Kingdome.

In 1996, Seahawks owner Ken Behring, citing safety concerns at the Kingdome, announced plans to move the team to the NFL-deprived city of Los Angeles. This argument might have flown had Behring not brought up the matter of earthquakes, which indeed are a threat in the Puget Sound area but which would hardly be avoided by relocating to southern California. Eventually Behring sold out to Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who made the purchase contingent on the eventual construction of a new stadium, which was subsequently built on the old Kingdome site.

Either one of these scenarios, or some combination thereof, could be facing Clay Bennett and PBC. For what it's worth, which is absolutely nothing, this is the way I think things will play out:

  1. NBA Commissioner David Stern, hot to expand internationally but faced with enormous travel expenses if he does, comes up with a plan for an only slightly-larger NBA, with 32 teams instead of 30, the thirty-first team outside the US, and the thirty-second in Oklahoma City.

  2. Stern prevails upon PBC to sell the Sonics and take on the Oklahoma City franchise.

  3. The Sonics remain right where they are, and Slade Gordon, who was instrumental in the Pilots lawsuit and who will no doubt be part of any upcoming Sonics litigation, gets to carve another notch.

Or we could just wait for the Grizzlies or the Bucks or, yes, the Hornets to move.

The Vent

  7 November 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill