Monday, June 16, 2008

Sonics trial: Things about to get ugly in Seattle

Neate was kind enough to recruit me for this blog, but I haven't quite figured out why yet. Perhaps it's only to see if the entire blogosphere goes up in smoke when myself and Tyler start writing for the same site?
[Douglas Adams interlude]:
Barman: Did you say the end of the world is coming? Shouldn't we all lay down on the floor or put paper bags over our heads?
Ford: If you wish.
Barman: Will it help?
Ford: Not at all. [/Douglas Adams]

(Photo from

Anyway, I figured I'd write a preview post about what you'll see from me over the next couple of days. I'm out in the Vancouver area for the summer, and I've managed to wrangle a media pass to Day 1 of the Seattle Supersonics trial against the city of Seattle, which kicks off bright and early this morning. Thus, I'll be staggering out of bed at 4 a.m. and making the long, coffee-fueled run down to Seattle to see the fireworks. I'll have a report here on the situation late tomorrow night, and possibly some more in the next few days, depending on how things go down. You can view more about the case, including a complete list of significant documents filed and PDF copies of many of them, on the United States District Court page for the Western Washington district.

If you haven't been following the situation thus far, here's the CliffNotes version from the writing I've been doing on the matter. Basically, Oklahoma billionaire Clay Bennett bought the team from Starbucks' head honcho Howard Schultz back in 2006. The team was bleeding money due to its aging arena without a lot of corporate revenue and its lackluster on-court product. At the time, Schultz stipulated in the contract that Bennett must make "good-faith efforts" to keep the franchise in Seattle. Bennett claims he did this with a proposal to build a $500 million arena in suburban Renton, $300 million of which was to be publicly funded (a non-starter in a city where they're still upset about paying for Qwest and Safeco Fields, the new homes of the Seahawks and Mariners respectively). According to him, when that proposal fell through, he began making plans to relocate the team to Oklahoma City, a proposal that was approved 28-2 by the NBA in late April. An effort by a group of local investors, including Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, to secure the funding necessary for major KeyArena renovations fell through, and Bennett looked to have clear sailing.

However, things started to unravel when the city lawyers planning to sue the Sonics for breaking their lease at KeyArena found some incriminating e-mails between Bennett and his partners, suggesting that they'd been lying all along about trying to keep the team in Seattle (which many Sonics fans had suspected for a long time, particularly after co-owner Aubrey McClendon told the Oklahoma Journal-Record ). At the time, I wrote, "Who knows what other evil lurks in the heart of Bennett's computer?" Well, it turned out there was plenty more.

Former owner Howard Schultz decided he'd join the bevy of lawsuits with one aimed at reversing the sale based on claims of fraud and breach of contrac, and throw in a plan to try and get a judge to turn the team over to local ownership. As a result of the discovery process in his suit, plenty of other embarrasing e-mails turned up, including one suggesting that Bennett was contemplating a "sweet flip" before he even bought the team: if an arena deal materialized in Seattle, he'd sell the team and buy another one, which he could then move to Oklahoma City. According to ESPN's legal columnist, Lester Munson, the new e-mails give Schultz a pretty substantial case. There's also a third lawsuit, involving season-ticket holders suing Bennett for false promises. Still, the Schultz and season-ticket holder lawsuits will take a back seat for the moment, as it's the city's lawsuit that's on centre stage today. The

The timing is interesting, to say the least. For once, it probably wasn't helpful for the league that the Lakers-Celtics Finals were extended last night. There are now two dark clouds hanging over Commissioner Stern's dream matchup: the latest revelations that popped up in the Donaghy scandal and the whole Seattle fiasco, where the league is all set to abandon the 14th-largest media market in the States for the 45th-largest media market. If the Celtics had won yesterday, you might see a lot less on the Seattle case around the country, as the reporters would probably be returning to their regular towns as we speak. With the convenient access provided at the Finals, though, and today's off-day where everyone will be searching for story topics, it's a pretty safe bet that this might come up during a press conference or two.

In any case, the implications of this case go far beyond Seattle. It's not entirely about out-of-town owners, or lying, or lease disputes. The key issue in Seattle is if teams and leagues have a right to demand publicly-funded arenas, and if they can walk away at whim from a promising market steeped in tradition to move somewhere else where they're offered a sweetheart deal. It's if fans and history really mean anything to sports leagues any more, or if it really is all about the money. As ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote back in February, if Bennett and co. win, your own team might be the next to demand a new publicly-funded arena and take off if they don't get it:

"Here's why the Seattle situation should matter to everyone who cares about sports: After being part of the city for 41 years, the Sonics are being stolen away for dubious reasons while every NBA owner and executive allows it to happen, including David Stern, the guy who's supposed to be policing this stuff. I think it's reprehensible to watch someone hijack a franchise away from the people who cared about the team and loved it and nurtured it through the years. It belittles not just the good people of Seattle, but everyone who loves sports and believes it provides a unique and valuable connection for a city, a community, family members and friends."

In any case, the trial should offer some good fireworks. It's highly unusual for a case like this based on a lease agreement to actually go to trial: most are settled for large sums of money before they ever pass the courtroom doors. That's not going to happen in this case, though: the city's resolved that no amount of money will compensate them for losing the team without at least the promise of a replacement franchise. As the Associated Press reports, "When Mayor Greg Nickels is asked how much money it would take for him to consider a settlement with the NBA, he just laughs."

There is some history on the city's side, as further detailed in the AP story above: when Cleveland owner Art Modell tried to move the Browns to Baltimore, a couple of key rulings forced the Browns to play out their three-year lease in Cleveland and then only allowed them to leave on the condition that the team colours and history would stay behind and the league would offer a replacement team. The stakes are high: if the city loses this first case, the Sonics can relocate as soon as they want, possibly even in time for this coming season. A loss here would also make victory in the other two lawsuits much more difficult, as a considerable amount of the evidence and arguments will overlap. If the city wins, however, not only do they keep the team for at least two more years, providing the necessary time to find funding for an arena solution, but they also offer plenty of momentum and ammunition to Schultz's bid to nullify the sale and return the Sonics to local ownership.

As Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer wrote Sunday, the accusations that have been flying back and forth for months and the highly-publicized nature of the case means this trial is probably going to get ugly.

"On Monday, a brawl worthy of Don King promotion and Larry Merchant commentary will commence, a nasty, brutal tussle that figures to leave both sides looking inhuman and incompetent," he wrote. "To the victor goes the right to house the Sonics. If the city wins, Seattle's oldest pro sports franchise sticks around for at least two more years. If the Raiders win, they'll have the team in Oklahoma before sunup. The court contains a gavel instead of a basketball now. This is the most contentious relocation attempt since Art Modell moved the old Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson really should've based "There Will Be Blood" on this scrum. It's as unpredictable and unhealthy as it gets."

In any case, it should be a fascinating day in court. The rally on the courthouse steps after the day's proceedings wrap up, organized by the fans from Save Our Sonics who have done so much to unite the opposition to this move, should also be highly interesting. Former Sonics Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel are scheduled to speak at 4:30 p.m., and other Sonics legends may show up as well. If they get a good turnout, that could really help draw some national attention to this case. I'll weigh in with more from the day late tonight when I get home.


Dennis Prouse said...

I am delighted that the City of Seattle is coming together to fight the good fight against these pirates. (The e-mail describing the "flip" possibility will be devastating in court.) The Oklahoma City group were just a little too arrogant, a little too brash, and a little too overt. If they lose round one, as I expect they will, I imagine they will abandon ship and sell the team back to Schultz.

New reality said...

Are you kidding??
They better be paying Schultz to take it back..with a 25 per cent return...and then the payout to the season ticket holders will begin..
You won't have seen this much money change hands since Bill 'the Geek' Gates put his hands into Apple computers...

Tyler King said...

The only people who should be finding this situation surprising are those who have no perspective of sports history over the past 30 years. More than 30, even - it all started with the Dodgers and the Giants leaving New York, and the trend will always be for a team to hold a city hostage for an impossibly high public investment, meaning that they either get a new city or a shiny new stadium with plenty of luxury boxes. Or both.

And thanks to Al Davis, the teams generally win. Nothing's ever going to be solved until the US government finally legislates on franchise removal.

sager said...

Don't lose sight of the fact there is an important legal precedent hanging in the balance.

The southern and southwestern U.S. states are gaining more economic and political power. Those are states which often have a lot of rich people who like to show it off since they live in a state where a lot of people are poor, so you'll see burgs such as Oklahoma City bending over backwards to attract a big-league team.

Seattle has to draw a line in the sand for all the northern cities who are vulnerable. No one is surprised at all it's come to this -- this is their best, last chance to get some closure. Bennett either gets his way or has to lose during a lame-duck season or two in Seattle. Or he could pull a Robert Irsay and pack the moving vans at midnight.

Mike said...

I wonder what would have happened had Jim Balsillie received support from the NHL rather than resistance...I get the feeling this same sort of thing would go down but with far less backlash, allowing for a Balsillie and League win.

This is a pretty important issue in terms of the public funding of sports franchises, however I tend to agree with Tyler franchises have already been holding cities hostage in the past, and will likely continue to do so in the future as well.

Dennis Prouse said...

It is worth noting that Ken Behring, former owner of the Seahawks, actually transferred the team's operations down to Anaheim in 1996, only to be forced by both the League and by public outrage to sell to Paul Allen in 1997.

It is rather amusing to see Seattle portrayed as a northern rustbelt city. It is actually very prosperous, and will likely continue to be for some time. Per capita income is higher than it is in Oklahoma City, and the metro area is much larger, meaning local radio and TV money would be much better in Seattle. The only difference, of course, is that OC is willing to give them an arena to play in for virtually nothing.

sager said...

To clarify, I'm not calling Seattle a northern rustbelt city. That comment spoke more to what the local politicans are willing to do to have a NBA, NHL or major-league baseball team. A place such as Oklahoma City, Orlando or Jacksonville is going to bend over backwards. Seattle's priorities are much different.