In the end, pragmatic politics won out in an effort to avoid winning the battle but losing the war.
Just hours before Judge Marsha Pechman was to issue her ruling regarding the Sonics’ fulfilling the remaining two years of their lease, the City of Seattle and the Sonics basketball team reached a settlement.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels negotiated an agreement that gets the city $45 million, as well as $30 million more if the city does not get a replacement team in five years, the Sonics name, green and gold colors, and the challenge of convincing the state Legislature to approve a funding package for Key Arena to national basketball standards in hopes of getting a new team.
Team owner Clay Bennett gets to leave immediately for Oklahoma City and take his team with him.
The stakes in this game were big. That a settlement was reached was not a surprise — the surprise was that it took so long. Most observers thought it would be completed prior to the beginning of the trial, not after its conclusion.
The key to the deal is getting NBA Commissioner David Stern’s future cooperation in landing another team either through expansion, which is unlikely, or the transfer of another team from another city. Sound familiar?
Had Nickels and the city held out and won the trial, they faced not only two years of wrangling with Bennett to try and force him to sell to local ownership, but also the anger of Stern, who would likely ensure there was no team in Seattle for decades. Had they lost the lawsuit, they would still have gotten some payoff on the arena but probably not as much, and Stern would still be mad.
The big winner is Clay Bennett, who is the new hero in Oklahoma. The NBA and Stern are also winners as they can now use a remodeled Key Arena to blackmail the fans in Memphis, Sacramento and New Orleans into supporting new or enhanced arenas or face the prospect of their team moving to Seattle.
In the short term, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is a loser, as the sports talk shows are filled with angry fans bent on political retaliation next year when Nickels must run for re-election. On Nickels’ side is the fact that most Seattle voters probably don’t care that much about the issue, already having voted to oppose pro-sports subsidies. Secondly, if Nickels convinces the Legislature in January to approve a funding package, his stock will go up at a good time. Also, Nickels’ two possible opponents, council member Richard Conlin and former council member Peter Steinbruck, don’t appear to be major threats at this moment.
Lastly, in politics, 18 months is a long time. So Nickels could come out of this in pretty good shape. If the Legislature says no to the arena fix-up, then he may have some problems.
In next year’s Seattle city council races, former Sonics player James Donaldson has already announced he is running, probably against Nick Licata. But Gov. Christine Gregoire is up for election this year and will likely be the best barometer of the public’s mood and reaction.
Dino Rossi and his supporters have been criticizing Gregoire and the Democratic Legislature for months for not getting a Sonics funding package approved last legislative session. That rhetoric will now go up several decibels with the team leaving. Had the Legislature approved a package, Rossi would have attacked it as a Seattle bail-out that was too expensive. Rossi held a winning hand either way, and it would have played very well in almost every part of the state outside the Seattle city limits. So Rossi is a short-term winner.
Gregoire is the short-term loser, but she is still the governor, and the Democrats still control Olympia. So the likely scenario is the governor and the Democratic leadership cut a deal on a funding package before the November election, then if Gregoire is still governor, they pass it in January. If Rossi is Governor, the Democratic Legislature might change its tune.
The biggest loser in all of this is a Rossi ally, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. During the trial, it was disclosed that Gorton leaked confidential NBA information from a meeting he attended on behalf of the city after signing an agreement not to do so. Rossi will have to be very careful how Gorton is used in the race, as his credibility is now somewhat tarnished.
As to the state Legislature, the only legislator who pushed hard for the Sonics arena is State Sen. Margarita Prentice (D-Renton), and while her opponent is using the issue against her, she will probably win anyway.
At this point, the issue doesn’t appear likely to have much impact on other races, so does the voting public really care one way or the other? Watch the Gregoire-Rossi race to find out.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.