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Bill Walton, Dave Twardzik, Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross and…

When I was 11 I had the 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers team photo taped to my bedroom door. If I had that photo still I could have checked it to recall the fifth starter of that world championship team. Instead, I hit Wikipedia and learned the other starting guard was (drum roll, please)… Lionel Hollins.

Hearing Chris Hansen describe how he felt when the Sonics won the title in ’79 took me back to staying up too late for the broadcasts, crouching on my knees in front of the television with the volume down far enough my sister and parents wouldn’t hear it. I don’t remember specific plays from the championship games, but I do remember the celebration on the court afterwards. I remember Dave Twardzik saying something about how unbelievable winning was, how he thought he’d by then he’d be taking a lunchbox to work and punching a clock.

Some are immune, but the drama and elation of sports are powerful for most of us. Some of us have rules about which sports we’ll follow. Our dog walker, for instance, banished the NFL from her television after Michael Vick’s conviction. My eighth-grade teacher said she followed only collegiate basketball. The pro’s didn’t demonstrate enough good decision-making or gratitude by her measure.  Plenty of my circle say, “But we already have a pro basketball team.”

The idea of a new basketball and hockey arena in Seattle won’t be embraced by all.  I’ve heard from more than a few people strongly in favor of a new arena and I’ve heard from a few raising concerns.  Whether you love the idea or think we need another sports venue like a hole in the head, I hope you want Councilmembers to give the proposal released last Friday a fair shake. It’s what I intend to do.

The basics: Mr. Hansen (with the help of so-far-unnamed allies) has purchased the SODO Stadium District land necessary and would buy an NBA team when one becomes available (another group would need to purchase and move in a hockey team). Mr. Hansen would chip in $290 million and the City and County would under-write arena construction with a total of $200 million via councilmanic bonds. That debt would be paid back over time via rent payments and taxes and fees “captured” from the site and arena operations (city property taxes, city business and occupation taxes, city lease excise taxes, city sales tax, and city admissions tax). The team owners would operate the new arena and enjoy profits off the activities inside. The NBA team would have a no-relocate requirement for the 30-year term of the bonds. If revenues in any month don’t meet the debt payment amount, the owners would write a check for the difference. At the end of the 30 years, the city and county would own the land and the arena.

Since we (the people of Seattle) are being asked to go in on building the new arena to the tune of $150 million, we (the people jilted by a pro basketball team once before) need to be cautious and do our homework. The proposal released last Friday took more than seven months to build.  We’ll need a little time to unpack it and ensure it’s not just feasible, but a good step for the city.  How long we have to do that fair review depends on what happens elsewhere in the NBA. I take Mr. Hansen at his word when he says his motivation is not to “take” another city’s team, rather his goal is to return an NBA team to Seattle. That means he has to be opportunistic, prepared and patient.

I’ll have many questions, among them:

  • How will the City of Seattle avoid a replay of the Sonics’ painful, expensive exit?

OK, maybe that’s too broad. Breaking that down a bit:

  • How will we ensure that the city’s General Fund is shielded from responsibility for the arena debt?
  • Can the NBA truly guarantee a no-relocate clause?
  • How do we measure the economic impact of a new arena? How many permanent new jobs will be created and at what wage levels? How many new “heads in beds” for the hotels?
  • How will the addition of a third venue in the Stadium District impact traffic? Specifically, what might a third venue mean for Port-related and other industrial traffic?
  • How would use of our debt capacity for a new arena affect our debt limit? How might using City-issued debt for the arena affect our ability to debt-finance other major projects?
  • How do we account for impacts to Key Arena operations?
  • Are we a big enough market to support two more major teams? How does the size of our market affect projections for corporate suite sales, advertising and sponsorships?  All of these affect team business success and the ability of team ownership to fulfill debt payment back-up obligations.

Watch for review of the proposal to get under way in the Council’s Government Performance and Finance Committee in the near future.

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