Why The Return Of The Seattle Sonics Feels So Close, Yet So Far

Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, sent shockwaves through league circles when he indicated a willingness to expand the league for the first time in nearly 20 years. Seen for the longest time as a pipedream for prospective cities, the recent pandemic (resulting in massive losses for the NBA) has brought fantasy to potential reality. A fat expansion fee seems appealing to all owners at the moment, with an eye on potentially awarding two new teams to cities for the combined windfall of 5-plus billion dollars. The incentive is finally there for the previously static owners to finally take expansion seriously.

The other bit of news leaking out of the league is that one of those two spots has already, in essence, been rewarded to Seattle. Seattleites have developed, deservingly so, a distrust with NBA leadership after former commissioner David Stern facilitated and pushed for Seattle’s previous team (the Sonics) to be relocated to Oklahoma City. National reporters such as Brian Windhorst and Bill Simmons have been discussing the move as a certainty, many in the 206 area code have remained skeptical. There is a lot that needs to go right for the deal to become solidified, including an actual announcement from the league that it is accepting bids, questions around a potential stadium being answered and who the ownership group would even be. 

Adam Silver has only mentioned that the league is open towards expansion but has said nothing about specific timelines regarding the beginning of an official process. He specifically has stated, “We’ve been putting a little bit more time into it [talking about expansion]than we were pre-pandemic. But certainly not to the point that expansion is on the front burner”. While this would seem to give off the vibe that the league is barely entertaining the idea, others would certainly point out that this change in rhetoric would indicate that things are much farther along than would seem on the surface. NBA insider Brian Windhorst has recently stated that he’s been asking Silver about the possibility of expansion over the past five years, but only recently has he “changed his answer” which has “frankly lit a bunch of fires”. The wheels have started turning and things could change fast, Windhorst has even speculated a possible $2.5 billion dollar price tag for a prospective team. To increase the speed of those wheels, the question of who can afford that price will have to be answered.

$2.5 billion is a hefty amount and even in a city of billionaires like Seattle there are few who could afford it. The most obvious name is Jeff Bezos, as his tech giant Amazon already sponsors the Climate Pledge Arena – the most likely site for a future team to play. While a lot of the articles linking his name to the expansion project seem speculative at best, he is at least adjacent enough to the league that it remains a possibility. Steve Ballmer would have been the perfect fit and was a leading name for when Seattle tried to relocate other teams in the league, but his purchase of the Clippers in 2014 makes him ineligible to own a second team. James Jannard (founder of Oakley) and Ken Fisher (founder of Fisher Investments) are two other Seattle based names that could afford sole ownership but is unlikely due to the high dollar amount compared to their net wealth. More likely is a group of people, maybe or maybe not including one of the names above, pulling resources to bridge that gap. This is a more difficult route, as anyone who is not a majority owner is forced to front a hefty bill with very little say in team operations. The fact that no groups are known already should be some cause for concern.

The one thing that didn’t look like a major concern would be where a Seattle expansion team would likely play, as the former Key Arena is now under renovation and will finish its metamorphosis into the Climate Pledge Arena soon. A dual-purpose stadium, Climate Pledge will be home to the Seattle Kraken this upcoming season but can convert the ice to a hardwood surface relatively easily. But, like everything else, questions have been raised by prominent NBA reporter Jackie MacMullen about the validity of the stadium, when she stated recently on the Bill Simmons’ Podcast that she has heard about “serious issues” about the stadium’s design. While she did not elaborate on those issues, the head of the Oak View Group (Tim Leiweke), the team that is funding the renovation, has denounced those reports. While Jackie MacMullan is the one person who has raised concerns, she is not known to speak out of turn. While there are other options, it is clear that the difficulty of this project is that nothing has yet been set in stone. Even a billion-dollar arena sitting in the heart of Seattle doesn’t seem like a sure thing on the surface.

In summation, the NBA has hinted at expansion with the city of Seattle at the top of its wish list. Considering how much the people of Seattle clearly want the return of the Sonics, there are still huge questions that are impeding what should be a slam dunk deal. Where’s the money coming from? Where are they going to play? Is the NBA going to find an alternative source of revenue that puts expansion talks on the back burner again? Buzz has already slowed now that we are hitting mid-January and the league is still very much focused on getting through a rocky Covid-plagued season. While it seems like Seattle is once again on the verge of watching live basketball, the logistical hurdles indicate that the reality of such a fantasy is still far afield.

About Evan Peper 30 Articles
Seattle born and raised. I wear my fandom on my sleeve, as I bleed Seahawks blue and green and am Sounders’ Til I Die. To fill the basketball-shaped hole in my heart from when the Sonics were taken away from the city of Seattle, I have adopted the Portland Trail Blazers and rep Rip City. I aim to bring an analytical view on the sports world and hope to impart a deeper understanding of the game to my readers.

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