Clock is ticking on Sonics bombshell

The press conference announcing the sale of the Sonics and Storm last week was incongruous on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start.

To being with, the press conference was held, ironically enough, on the teams' practice court near the Seattle Center. But there were also basketball sneakers, tied with floating balloons, that were placed on top of standup tables-as if the bombshell news was something to celebrate. There were a couple of coffee urns, too, which were notable because they didn't feature Starbucks logos.

There were tubs full of lukewarm bottles of pop and water as well, which was fitting because lukewarm was about the best way to describe the general reaction to Howard Schultz's attempt to paint a happy face on the whole situation.

To point out what a swell hometown guy he is, for instance, Schultz claimed he even turned down other offers for more money because, he said, the unnamed buyers would have moved the two basketball teams out of town.

Unlike Oklahoma City's Clayton Bennett and his Professional Basketball Club investment group, which likely will wait at least a year before bailing. And hey, it's just a coincidence that Oklahoma City's Ford Arena will be vacant right around then as the Hornets move back to New Orleans.

You gotta feel sorry for Schultz, though. The poor billionaire's teams have been losing money for years, and I doubt the $90 million profit his investment group made with the $350 million sale is much consolation.

It's not his fault the team lost money, either. It's that pesky KeyArena, which is sadly obsolete and nowhere near big enough. Funny, the number of seats wasn't a problem a decade ago when the city sold bonds to pay for a $73.4 million renovation.

In fact, it was heralded as one of those win-win deals because money from the Key would pay off the debt and also make a pretty penny for the Seattle Center.

The latter aspect was a big selling point at the time. Former Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson even went so far as to describe the sports venue as "the economic engine" that runs the Center.

Now that engine has thrown a rod, and the effects of the breakdown will ripple out into the city and especially into Lower Queen Anne, where bars like Floyd's Place make a huge amount of money off Sonics and Storm fans, according to part owner Tom Griffith. And think of all the money that will be lost at all the parking lots owned by both the Seattle Center and private companies.

But it's not Schultz's fault that the teams might leave. It's really because state and local officials have been obstinate and won't come up with money for a new $220 million renovation at the Key, he groused.

Most people in Seattle don't think the ownership group should get such an enormous handout of public money, according to a recent poll. But Schultz did have to field a question about why he didn't respond to several offers Team Nickels made down at City Hall.

"I'm not going to comment on what I believe are important private discussions," Schultz intoned with a pained expression. Mayor Greg Nickels was far less reticent at a press conference he held later the same day. Depending on who got what cut of which revenues, the city has offered to spend anywhere from $50 million to almost $200 million on the arena.

It's unknown why such apparently sweetheart deals were unacceptable to Schultz and his group. Schultz said state and city politicos just didn't take the owners of the home teams seriously after the threat of leaving came up.

He said he thinks Bennett and his pals will have better luck, but Schultz added a caveat. "It's up to local and state officials to meet them half-way," he warned.

Bennett repeatedly said that it wasn't his intention to move the two basketball teams to Oklahoma, "so long, of course, as we are able to negotiate an attractive successor venue and lease arrangement," the man also said as he read from a prepared statement.

Call it stadium envy. Other cities have paid through the nose to put up sports venues that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, so why can't Seattle? Oh, wait, we have those two hugely expensive stadiums downtown for football and baseball.

Judging from the media coverage that came out of the press conference, no one seriously believes the Sonics and Storm will be around much longer. That's going to put the Seattle Center in a world of hurt as the city tries to come up with new uses for a white elephant, hockey team notwithstanding.

The basketball loss will also be a low blow to Seattle's image of itself as a world-class city, but maybe that image was never true to begin with. It's hard to say, but the crocodile tears at the press conference were certainly a nice touch, though.

Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]