Friday, November 09, 2007

David Stern sends a very nasty note to the City of Seattle

Thursday was a very busy day for National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern. The man who has led the NBA since 1984 began his day in Phoenix announcing Phoenix would host the 2009 NBA All-Star Game. Stern then boarded a plane and headed for Oklahoma City where Stern presented Seattle Sonics owner Clay Bennett one of the eight Oklahoma natives who were inducted into the Okalahoma Hall of Fame (not only sports figures).

Bennett remains embroiled in a battle to move the Sonics from Seattle to Oklahoma City, a skirmish Stern took to a new level Thursday morning – making it clear while he may be have been in Oklahoma City last night, he likely won’t be seen anywhere near the City of Seattle anytime in the future.

"I'd love to find a way to keep the team there," Stern said at the 2009 Phoenix All-Star Game press conference announcement, "because if the team moves, there's not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision, and that would be too bad."

Stern is someone who rarely forgets and his remarks which came at the end of the Phoenix press conference might have been at least in part in reaction to a remark by State of Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp made last February when funding for a new arena in the Seattle suburb of Renton was proposed.

"They ought to get their own financial house in order when their payroll is over $50 million for, what is it, 10 players? I think that's a little ridiculous," Chopp said at the time. "They need to get their own financial house in order and if they did, they wouldn't have to ask for public help."

Those weren’t comments Stern forgot.

"To have the speaker of the house say well, they just spend too much money on salaries anyway, so we need it for other things," Stern said, casts aspersions on the whole league's operations. "We get the message. Hopefully, maybe cooler heads will prevail."

Stern’s tough stance coming on the day he appeared in Oklahoma City only adds fuel to the debate regarding the Sonics future in the Pacific Northwest. Last Friday Sonics owner Clay Bennett announced he was filing the necessary paperwork to relocate the franchise to Oklahoma City.

“On behalf of the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics and Seattle Storm, I am disappointed that our efforts over the last fifteen months to foster the development of a new multi-purpose arena in the Greater Seattle area were not successful. From the beginning, it has been my absolute hope and expectation that we would be able to secure the necessary governmental commitments to build a successor venue to KeyArena. Even though our proposal for a new state-of-the-art multi-purpose facility to be built in Renton was thoughtfully developed by a world-class team, was financially reasonable and was realistically attainable, we were unable to persuade the Washington Legislature to vote on our bill. The region is still in need of a modern building, not just for the Sonics and Storm, but also for the broad commercial and quality of life benefits such facilities provide.

“We now understand and respect that there is very limited public support for such a public investment. As we stated on July 18, 2006, and have stated on many occasions thereafter, KeyArena is not a viable modern venue for the NBA and if a successor facility is not identified by October 31, 2007, we would evaluate our options, which would include relocation. Given the clear lack of public, political, and business support for a new multi-purpose arena, plus the enactment of Initiative 91 as a City of Seattle ordinance following a public vote authorized by the Seattle City Council itself, and the significant operating losses the businesses are now incurring, we have no option but to commence the NBA relocation process.”

Stern’s diatrade on the Sonics future in Seattle again at least likely in part promoted by comments Chopp made last February, followed the Sonics putting the following arena plan before the Washington State Legislature nine months ago

Senate Bill 5986 would have extended several taxes paying off existing sports stadiums to fund a new arena, arts groups and stadium maintenance.

Sales taxes: A 0.017 percent sales tax for Safeco Field debt would be extended by 17 years, to 2029, and a separate 0.016 percent sales tax for Qwest Field debt would be extended by eight years, to 2029. $227 million

Restaurant tax: A 0.5 percent tax on restaurant meals and drinks to pay off Safeco Field debt would remain until 2015, three years longer than previously projected. $75 million

Car rental taxes: A 2 percent car-rental tax for Safeco Field debt would be extended until 2015. Another 0.75 percent car-rental tax for Kingdome debt also would continue. $40 million

Hotel/motel tax: After the Qwest Field debt is paid off in 2021, a 2 percent tax on hotel- and motel-room rentals would be split between the new arena and arts groups. $81 million

Total financed: $423 million.

On Monday, April 16, 2007 Washington State politicians faced two choices – commit political suicide and give into Bennett’s blackmail or reject Clay Bennett’s demands. Sports welfare isn’t what it once was – Bennett’s demands were soundly rejected.

Even before Stern’s Thursday morning comments Seattle Post Intelligencer columnist Jim Moore made it clear in Thursday’s paper he didn’t understand what Stern was doing in Oklahoma City Thursday night.

“Thursday night in Oklahoma City, Bennett, the Sonics' majority owner, will be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame with seven others, including minority owner Aubrey McClendon.

“Here's the biggest kicker -- NBA commissioner David Stern will be Bennett's "presenter."

“I'm not sure what this reeks of, but it reeks of something. I'm not a Stern fan anyway, never have been, not since he spoke to me once at a Sonics function.

"Don't you own a tie?" he said in a tone of voice that suggested any idiot would know this was a formal affair, and I fell woefully short of the fashion standard set by his arrogant highness.

“I wanted to tell him, "Why, yes, I do, sir, and I wish I'd brought it so I could wrap it around your neck," but I didn't.

“You don't know pompous until you've met David Stern, who talks condescendingly to the media and always sounds like he thinks he's smarter than you. Which is true, but it bugs the hell out of me nonetheless.

“In his next public appearance, Stern will be introduced to a sellout crowd of 1,530 at the Cox Convention Center and talk glowingly of Bennett. That's fine, because where he's from, Bennett deserves this honor for many good deeds done.

“In contrast to his portrayal as a Sonics thief here, Bennett is an admired civic-minded businessman and philanthropist in Oklahoma City. It must be weird for him to go from hated to hailed in the span of a 3 1/2-hour flight. If he had been introduced at Wednesday night's Sonics game against Memphis, he would have been booed. Thursday night they'll clap and cheer and give him a standing ovation.

“Whatever the reception, Stern should not be in Oklahoma City. I'm sure he thinks no one should read anything into his appearance on Bennett's behalf, but they will anyway. It will look like Stern stands firmly behind Bennett and, sorry Seattle, but it's your own damn fault if the team goes away. I don't know if it's a conflict of interest -- it just doesn't look right.”

“I'd like to see Stern speaking on Seattle's behalf and saying that he'll do everything he can to make sure the team stays here, given the 40-year legacy of this proud franchise. That he hasn't done that, and even seems resigned to the team's fate, is surprising.

Moore claimed he tried to reach Stern Wednesday before his Thursday column went to print “but he was unavailable, probably picking out a tie for Thursday night's gala.”

The optics of Stern’s appearance Thursday night coupled with his biting comments earlier in the day and to send a chilling message to Steven Pyeatt, the co-founder of the Save Our Sonics and Storm, a Seattle based group hoping to do what they can to Save the Sonics. Last Friday after Bennett announced he was filing the necessary paperwork to relocate the Sonics Pyeatt spoke with ESPN.com’s Henry Abbott.

"Clay Bennett is like the guy robbing the convenience store," says Pyeatt. "He has to convince the clerk that he has a real gun, it is loaded, and he's willing to use it. Otherwise, he's not going to get any money out of register. This is just one more step in that process."

"People have been talking like this is crunch time," he explains, "but I don't even think this game has reached halftime yet. The way I describe it is that we have a lot of hand grenades in the bucket. And we keep lobbing them at Clay Bennett, and he keeps throwing them out the window. But eventually, one of them is going to blow up in his face."

In a time when the future of the Sonics hangs in the balance it’s interesting too note the Save our Sonics website hasn’t been updated since Bennett made his announcement last Friday. The media clipping section of the site hasn’t been updated since October 31 and doesn’t include any of the recent coverage from The Daily Oklahoman.

Thursday evening speaking in Oklahoma City, Stern somewhat tempered his remarks from earlier in the day, at least suggesting he might be prepared to help Save the Sonics.

"We've had a team in Seattle for over 40 years, it's been a great city and I think it seems almost tragic that as a matter of timing that people in power turned against the team at a time which will turn out to have been a time to really go in the other direction," Stern said.

"Without Oklahoma City in the equation one way or the other, I would like very much to have seen a relationship that was so strong in Seattle and the SuperSonics continue free of sort of the antipathy and downright hostility that has been exhibited."

It remains to be seen what David Stern’s intentions where Thursday. Clearly the sports industries senior commissioner (now in his 23rd year at the helm of the NBA) rarely if ever misspeaks. David Stern is a pro’s pro. At the same time, its clear David Stern is sending a message to the City of Seattle – if you’re serious about saving your N BA team you had better start doing something about it and it had better be in the immediate future.

Did David Stern speak out of turn, did he say anything wrong – absolutely not, and he was right in everything he said. There doesn’t appear to be any support in the State of Washington or in the City of Seattle to find a solution that will work for Bennett and for taxpayers. Is Clay Bennett putting a gun to the head of Washington State and Seattle taxpayers – yes, but that doesn’t preclude those elected to office from stepping up and working on finding a plan that can work for everyone.

Remember taxpayers paid most of the costs associated with both Qwest Field (the home of Seattle Seahawks) and Safeco Field (the home of the Seattle Mariners). Bennett has to be wondering how Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen one of the world’s richest men managed to get a $300 million stadium built with $100 million of Allen’s money. And Bennett knows full well the $517 million Safeco Field was built with $75 million coming from the Mariners owners.

Bennett and Stern have to be wondering just how much does the region really care about the Sonics and the N BA. Unless there is a change of heart in the not too distant future David Stern is right – the NBA will be gone from Seattle in three years and yes it might never come back again.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN.com, The Daily Oklahoman and the Associated Press

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