Sunday, July 30, 2006

NBA in Okc - Yes or No?

Of course, no one knows whether Oklahoma City will come to get an NBA team, be it the Hornets, the SuperSonics, or anyone else. But, sports columnists like to guess. Here's a couple of takes this past week. The links are: Doyle article and Whshynski article, but the articles are below for your side-by-side reading pleasure.

No Way!
... says Gregg Doyel

Yes, Way!
... says Greg Wyshynski
Oklahoma City Sonics? Hornets? Not gonna happen
July 27, 2006
By Gregg Doyel
CBS National Columnist

NBA groupie Oklahoma City will get its heart broken by the SuperSonics and Hornets, and the only people who don't know it are those who live in Oklahoma City.

At the moment Oklahoma City looks good for an NBA franchise by 2008, whether it's the Hornets, who adopted OKC as a second home after Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, or the Sonics, who were purchased last week by an OKC group.

Well, looks deceive. So do professional franchises and owners and leagues, all of whom use one city against another. In this scenario OKC is the city that's going to get used. With history for bifocals, you can see Oklahoma City's depressing destiny from a long way off. The innocent folks of OKC? They can't see anything. They're too close to the situation, too involved, blinded by lust.

Charlotte knows that lust. So do Tampa Bay and Washington, D.C.

Oklahoma City boosters will tell you they're different than jilted cities of the past. That they're close, so close, to getting an NBA team. The Hornets look good, considering New Orleans didn't support the team before the hurricane and can't support it now, and considering OKC fans bought more than 10,000 season tickets when the Hornets hastily moved there this past season. The Sonics look even better, considering their new ownership is led by an OKC businessman, Clay Bennett, who has been trying for years to bring home a major sports franchise.

One way or another, the NBA is coming to Oklahoma City. That's what OKC boosters believe. Last week Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel wrote, "OKC suddenly has two quarterhorses in the derby, and its permanent NBA chances never have been better. Hornets or Sonics, one or the other, almost surely will be Ford Center tenants beyond next season."

Given what you know about the situation in New Orleans and the ownership in Seattle, that sounds reasonable. Almost surely the NBA is coming to Oklahoma City.

It took T.B. more than 20 years to field a team the AL East can use as a whipping post.
Then again ... when it comes to a city's pursuit of a sports franchise, "almost surely" will almost always get your heart broken.

Look at Tampa Bay. Yes, Tampa Bay got its Major League Baseball team, but don't forget the torture it endured before winning the expansion Devil Rays.

When Tampa Bay investors agreed to buy the Minnesota Twins in 1984, commissioner Bowie Kuhn nixed the deal. In 1985, Tampa Bay investors agreed to buy the Oakland A's for $37 million; Oakland backed out of the deal. In 1987, Tampa Bay went after the Twins again, agreeing to buy the team for $65 million. That deal crumbled during further negotiations. In 1988, the Chicago White Sox came so close to moving to Tampa Bay that team employees were polled to see who would move South with the team. Although 60 percent said they'd move, the White Sox stayed put.

There's more.

Along the way, St. Petersburg built a $130 million stadium to turn its annual MLB flirtation into marriage, with 22,000 season tickets spoken for. In 1991, baseball rewarded Tampa Bay diligence by giving an expansion franchise to ... Miami. In 1992, St. Pete tried to buy the Seattle Mariners, but the Marlins helped throttle that by citing their need for in-state exclusivity. Later in 1992, San Francisco owner Bob Lurie agreed to sell the Giants to a Tampa Bay group, but NL owners veoted the deal.

This could be you, Oklahoma City.

You also could be Washington, D.C., which lost its MLB franchise in 1971 and spent 34 years trying to get one back. In 1973, a D.C. group agreed to buy the San Diego Padres, even choosing Frank Robinson (strange but true) as the team's next manager, but had to give the franchise back after failing to close the deal in three weeks. In 1976, baseball expanded not to the nation's capital, but to Toronto and Seattle. In 1991, with Washington, D.C., again on the list, baseball grew to Miami and Denver.

Baseball is back in RFK Stadium -- after a 34-year hiatus.

In February 1995, Major League Baseball described Washington, D.C., as "a very viable candidate for expansion." Two weeks later MLB awarded teams to Tampa Bay and Phoenix. Later that year, a Washington, D.C., group agreed to buy the Houston Astros for roughly $150 million, only to have commissioner Bud Selig squash the deal.

If you're NBA groupie Oklahoma City, you're comforted that Tampa did finally get its expansion team, and Washington, D.C., did finally get the Expos. But compare those cities to OKC. No comparison, know what I mean? The sunny Tampa Bay market beats the crap out of dusty OKC. Washington, D.C., is one of the leading cities in the world, while Oklahoma City is one of the leading cities in Oklahoma.

So what'll get between NBA groupie Oklahoma City and its NBA team? No clue, but it'll be something. The Hornets and Sonics have several years left on current leases, which give their cities time on arena and infrastructure issues. The NBA could decide not to let either franchise leave its internationally known city for OKC, which would be the smallest, least diverse market in the league. Boll weevils could destroy downtown OKC.

This is not a painless process. Charlotte knows. Charlotte has been linked to almost every small-market franchise in baseball, with Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson once glumly predicting the Twins would become the Charlotte Twins. Didn't happen. Charlotte got so abused by baseball that earlier this year, when the Marlins announced plans to explore other cities and mentioned Charlotte, Charlotte basically said not to bother.

Charlotte has read this book, many times, and knows how the story ends. Could someone please send the book to Oklahoma City? Oklahoma City only knows what NBA owners are telling it.

Which means Oklahoma City doesn't know anything.

Ed. Note: Emphasis supplied by me.

The Jester's Quart:
Seattle's Sonic Bust

By Greg Wyshynski
Friday, July 28, 2006

It's as stereotypical as rain-soaked months and flannel shirts tied around the waistbands of jean shorts, but the fact remains that the good people of Seattle consume an absurd amount of coffee.

Coffee bars, coffee shops, coffee in the hotel lobby, coffee at the gas station - and all of it good. I'm not even sure they sell instant coffee at the supermarket; it'd be like stacking cans of Chef Boyardee in Sicily. There are even these bizarre little huts in strip mall parking lots that sell grab-and-go espresso. Until I visited the city recently, I had no idea how much coffee there actually was in Seattle. I haven't seen this many beans in one place since I went to Lilith Fair with my ex-wife.

Seriously, coffee in Seattle is as prevalent as crack here in D.C., if crack were made of guns.

Coffee comes in different styles, different concentrations. Take, for example, the news that the Seattle Supersonics have been sold to an ownership group headed by Clay Bennett, who is president of the Oklahoma City-based investment firm Dorchester Capital. The espresso - quick, blunt and effective - version of the story is "SONICS SOLD, WILL MOVE TO OKC IN 2 YEARS." The latte version of the story, however, is a drink of a different texture:


The crux of this crisis for Sonics fans is KeyArena, a rusty '62 Chevy that was given a fresh coat of paint in 1995. Howard Schultz, the venerable Starbucks chairman-turned-Sonics owner who just stabbed his hometown franchise in the back for $350 million, claimed the arena needed $200 million in upgrades in order for the debt of that previous renovation to be eased and for the Sonics to eradicate some of their annual loses. "Upgrades" of course meaning the kind of high-price amenities that will lure new-money techies into luxury boxes while the plebeians fight over $7 hot dogs.

There's no question the Sonics get killed on their lease, having to split suite and concession revenue with the city. Schultz claims his ownership group has lost more than $60 million since purchasing the Sonics and the WNBA's Seattle Storm for $200 million in 2001. But what he really lost was the bet he made with the city: that Seattle taxpayers would pony up for arena renovations like they did for a new baseball stadium and a new football stadium. That keeping the Sonics in Seattle was as vital to the community as securing the future of the Seahawks and Mariners. It was a major miscalculation, further intensified by a change in political climate. You know you're fighting an uphill battle when the president of your city council tells Sports Illustrated that the Sonics' cultural value was "close to zero."

But what drove the Sonics to Oklahoma City ownership might actually keep them from moving to OKC. The scenario is clear, if a bit danced around, by the new owners: settle on a new lease with a renovated arena in 12 months, or the team relocates to cowboy country. Bennett and his group are businessmen. If the city antes up a sweet deal that knocks down debt and increases team revenues, there's a chance the Bennett group might take it, especially if the New Orleans Hornets somehow end up permanently staying in OKC (not likely, but more on that later). Even if the owners turn down a sweetheart deal, the NBA could step in and reject relocating the 39-year-old franchise (again, not likely, but possible).

Oh, and forget this whiff of a column by Gregg Doyel of CBS Sportsline, arguing that Oklahoma City is just a bargaining chip in an arena negotiation. He uses arcane examples from Tampa Bay's and D.C.'s frustrating history of near-misses with MLB franchises but completely misses the undeniable differences here: that the Sonics have actually been sold to a local owner from Oklahoma City, and that OKC has proven - unlike Tampa Bay when it headhunted any ball club that would fit its boondoggle stadium - that it can enthusiastically support an NBA franchise.


This is no bargaining ploy: the Sonics should work on their lassoing skills because they're headed to the ranch, son.

I've been told Clay Bennett is a man of his word, which is pretty easy when your words sound like this: "We intend to honor the lease. We just need to work through that as part of a global solution to the overall effort."
A quick spin of the Okie decoder ring, and that's translated as "just be happy we're not taking the Space Needle with us."

Oklahoma City is going to have an NBA franchise in two years, and it's either going to be the Seattle Supersonics or the New Orleans Hornets. The former is a slam dunk: owned locally, stuck in an antiquated arena with an unfavorable lease and a hostile political environment. The latter is a bit trickier: the Hornets have already been embraced by Okies, will play part of their home schedule there next year, and weren't exactly "Les Mis" when it came to moving tickets at the box office in the Big Easy. David Stern has said they'll return to New Orleans because he has to say things like that when Hornets fans are still rebuilding their Katrina-ravaged lives. But tragedies pass and institutional guilt subsides...or am I the only one waiting for the New York Super Bowl Tagliabue spoke about post-9/11?

There is another scenario, however: the Sonics go to OKC, and the Hornets relocate to KC for the 2008-09 season. Kansas City's Sprint Center is scheduled to open in Fall 2007. Like the arena in Oklahoma City, it's part of a multi-million dollar revitalization campaign that's missing just one thing: a team of its own. If the NBA decides the local owners should be able to lay claim on OKC, and New Orleans is deemed unsuitable for the transient Hornets, Kansas City could be an NBA city following the NBA's all-star swan song in New Orleans in 2008.

These two Midwestern cities are the epicenter of the next great pro sports revolution. They are starving for teams like California and Florida were 15 years ago, and are willing to make concessions and guarantees other cities aren't willing to make to land them. They're the ugly girls who have to put out to land a prom date. (Of course, when you're talking about the Sonics and Hornets, maybe it's the captain of the bowling team rather than the football team.)

A quick aside: The above scenario just underlines what you, dear readers, have known for years, which is that Gary Bettman is a jackass. Could have had Oklahoma City in the late-90's, opted for Columbus (yawn) instead. Could have Sidney Crosby in Kansas City, but will allow a bunch of blue-haired slot addicts to bail out the Penguins in Pittsburgh. I fully expect that within 10 years, the NBA will be selling out in OKC and KC while Bettman's giving a lecture about the "cost certainty" needed to keep the Seattle Panthers afloat...


I was only in Seattle for a few days, and I'm not about to draw conclusions about a population based on that visit. But I did find Shane Day's letter to the Seattle Times on Sunday interesting in the context of this debate:

"I always think it's interesting how people in Seattle have negative attitudes toward basketball, which is dominated by black players and appeals more to the black community, while we look kindly on the Mariners and Seahawks, which draw more of a white audience. Yet another example of institutional racism, don't you think? [City Council President] Nick Licata should think about that."

Like I said, I'll let that comment stand, only to add that there are three professional teams in Seattle: two with brand new stadiums, and one headed for Oklahoma City.


What's clear about the Sonics is that they are the third team in that three-team town. Seahawks gear is everywhere, from the racks in tourist clothing stores to the backs of local fans. Mariners baseball is treated with a reverence and fervor I didn't anticipate, until I thought about all of those hours logged watching the Griffey teams and the Ichiro teams. There's a generation that grew up with this franchise, and a generation behind that one that still supports it.

Then there are the Sonics. I didn't see a single person walking around in a Seattle jersey while I was there, and it was about 90 degrees outside. I didn't even see one at the NBA Experience fair held last weekend in the shadow of the Space Needle - save for the prop jersey the NBA provided to the carnival barker/DJ at the event. Another telltale signal: the bars don't have Sonics signs in their windows, next to the neon ones for football and baseball.

"Fan Enthusiasm" is a tricky factor in determining whether it's time for a franchise to move on because so much of it has to do with management and on-court success. The team drew over 17,000 fans a game from 1995-99, with an NBA Finals appearance sandwiched in there. From 2000-04, the team couldn't crack an average of 15,700 because it stunk like week-old Seattle salmon. But for close to 40 years, Seattle has been a basketball town, or at least a town with basketball.

Oklahoma City has been one for one season, and a partial one at that. When the Sonics move - OK, for the sake of those poor caffeinated souls in the Northwest, IF THEY MOVE - there will be years of prosperity and years where there are more bulls at the rodeo than fans at the arena.

Basketball's a lot like coffee that way: a good cup is addictive, but enough bad ones and you'll break the habit.

Just ask the Sonics.

Columnist Greg Wyshynski is the Senior Editor for SportsFan Magazine in Washington DC, and the Senior Sports Editor for The Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia.

Despite Doyle's obvious personal dislike for Oklahoma (else, why the cheap shots), maybe he is right? Maybe not. What will happen? We'll all just have to wait and read about it in the funny papers!


Anonymous said...

And your response 2 years later?

Doug Dawg said...

That's a good one!

If you read my blog much, you already know my response! If not, go to my Year 2 In Review article posted over the past 3 days and you will find lots of links, plus a video, that tell my side of the story quite well. Suffice it to say in this comment, it turns out that Gregg Doyel was badly misinformed!

Doug Dawg said...

Well, I guess that I should have added, using Doyel's own closing line where he said, "Which means Oklahoma City doesn't know anything." I'd substitute, "Gregg Doyel" for "Oklahoma City," of course!