Thiel: How about an expansion team for Seattle?


by Art Thiel


Posted on October 18, 2012 at 1:30 AM

Now that eight months of throat-clearing have concluded, it is finally reasonable to speak of candidates to eventually fill the pro basketball void left by the human voids Howard Schultz and Clay Bennett.

1. Sacramento. 2. Milwaukee. 3. Charlotte.

Oh. One more. Expansion.

The last suggestion was uttered by Chris Hansen. In a conversation with editors and writers at Tuesday, the day after his basketball/hockey arena project was buoyed by approving votes from the city and county council, Hansen answered the question of which with a what.

"There's not a lot of teams ready to relocate or up for sale," Hansen said. "There are processes underway now in the NBA, including revenue sharing and a luxury tax that can make small markets viable.

"In a few years, the league may consider expansion."

Up until now, Hansen has stuck to the conventional wisdom that the NBA, 10 months removed from a lockout, is highly unlikely to consider expanding from its current 30 teams to the always preferable 32 (four eight-team divisions, ease of scheduling, etc.). But since a settlement with the players union on a new collective bargaining agreement, NBA commissioner David Stern has been talking about the prospects of every team being able to at least break even in three years.

I think we're going to have about 10 teams losing money this year (2011-12)," Stern told Sports Business Daily. "The number is going to go down next year. The year after, every team will have, I think, the opportunity to break even or make some money. We're trending in the right direction.

"Our revenue sharing doesn't click in fully until the year after next. But it does start to increase starting this year. We're seeing a leveling of the playing field through the tax system, together with revenue sharing, where it's going to be all about management and not about money."

Stern's claim can be dismissed as cheerleading rhetoric, but if it's one of his occasional moments of truth-telling -- and after all, the lockout was about making the league profitable -- it was seen as a blow to Hansen's ability to secure a team: Why would a team go to the manipulations and hassles of moving if it was making money?

But now that the timeline of of the arena project has become clearer, the notion of a financially healthier NBA being able to expand creeps onto the far horizon.

Eight months since the plan was announced, the amended memorandum of understanding that was signed Tuesday afternoon by the principals includes an environmental impact study that is expected to take a year. And the MOU is virtually guaranteed by the longshoreman's union to be challenged in court. If the MOU is overturned because it fails to consider alternative sites besides SoDo, the project will be delayed.

If a King County Superior Court judge sides with the city, county and Hansen that alternative sites are fairly considered, and the SoDo site is adopted, the timetable for the construction project is probably a three-year minimum, putting the earliest opening at October, 2016 -- or after Stern's timetable for universal break-even.

All this is speculative, of course, but the virtue of expansion is not. There will be no hijacking of another fan base, which has been, since the day in July 2008 the Sonics left, the most odious consequence of bringing back the NBA -- doing dirty unto others as dirty was done unto you.

Hansen reiterated Tuesday that he is not going to be predatory.

"We're not going to go around saying, 'Please sell us your team,' "he said. "We're not going to pry a team away."

Besides, except in the fairly unusual case of a team put up for auction (see Dodgers and Rangers), the costs to break a lease for an existing team -- as Bennett did in Seattle, where he got away cheap for $45 million -- will likely be more than an expansion fee. And then there's all the PR ugliness of high-seas piracy (see "Sonicsgate.")

Expansion is not an easy solution, because for scheduling purposes, a second city needs to enter in tandem. And the owners have to agree to take a thinner slice of the NBA's future shared revenues; hence, the one-time expansion fee.

But expansion is cleaner. Stern and the owners are evangelical about spreading the NBA word, and would dearly love to have one of Hansen's partners, Steve Ballmer, as a lodge brother.

And waiting for expansion avoids having to trick up Grandma, a k a KeyArena, for another go-round as a temp home for a hijacked team while the arena is completed. That would allow the city to re-purpose the building for something other than sports, which is the only sensible solution once the Hansen arena makes it even more anemic for sports.

Expansion would also allow basketball fans in Sacramento, Milwaukee and Charlotte to sleep with both eyes closed. KnowwhutImsayin', Sonics fans?

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