Earlier in the week, the NBA announced that the league was purchasing the New Orleans Hornets franchise from George Shinn—who had owned the team since their first days in Charlotte. Speculation of a relocation began almost immediately.
The Hornets are approximately $83 million in debt and have some of the lowest attendance figures in the NBA despite the presence of superstar Chris Paul. Attendance is so poor that it threatens to trigger a relocation clause in the team's lease with the New Orleans Arena.
Seattle was one of the first cities to come up as a potential destination, and for good reason.
The city supported the Sonics for 40 years, were regarded as one of the NBA's most passionate fan bases (that is, before the well was poisoned), and is regarded as one of the country's most international cities and a prime jumping-off point to the NBA's desired markets in Asia.
Seattle also has a ready-made NBA owner in Steve Ballmer, the current CEO of Microsoft, who tried to purchase the Sonics in 2008 in order to keep them in town.
On the other hand, I speak for a lot of Sonics fans (we never really went away) when I say this: We want no part in yet another messy relocation.
To refresh your memory, the Sonics were sold by Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz to Clay Bennett, a businessman from Oklahoma City whose (already dubious) support for keeping the franchise in Seattle hinged on the city building a new venue to replace Key Arena, a facility that was heavily remodeled in 1994 but fell into an inescapable debt as a result of the 1999 NBA lockout.
Seattle, which had already publicly financed Safeco and Qwest Fields in addition to remodeling Key Arena, balked at yet another publicly-funded sports venue, sending the franchise (and fan base) into a miserable tailspin, causing the team to move to Oklahoma City following the 2008 season.
To add insult to injury, the city lost out on the honor of watching Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and company blossom in Seattle uniforms.
Understandably, the good people of Seattle are more than a little weary of jumping back into bed with a league that so thoughtlessly cast the city aside. There is also little to no support for a publicly-financed arena, though residents could probably be talked into letting the land go cheap for a venue that is financed privately.
It is also a poor time for the city to get back into the NBA business, as the league is almost certain to engage in another labor war that will likely result in a strike or a lockout. Considering the fact that the Sonics' financial problems were a direct result of the last strike, getting back in now would be repeating the same mistake all over again.
Most importantly, however, is that Sonics fans remember exactly what it feels like to have a beloved team taken away from them, and the last thing the city wants to do is do this to another city.
It's been said that New Orleans doesn't care enough about the Hornets to support the franchise, but that's a blanket statement that leads to a road I would prefer not to go down.
With all of that said, I would still encourage Ballmer to pursue ownership of the Hornets with the intention of moving the team to Seattle, on two conditions:
1. Build a new arena (or remodel Key) with very limited public funds.
2. Give New Orleans a chance to keep their team.
Announce the purchase of the Hornets with the intention of moving to Seattle; however, give the franchise a year to find somebody who will purchase the franchise for the amount Ballmer paid—under the condition that the new owner keeps the franchise in New Orleans for at least the next 10 years. If a local owner cannot be found in a year's time, the team gets to move to Seattle.
Should the Hornets move to Seattle, they become the new Sonics and adopt the team's colors, logos and history. Longtime fans will return, and Seattle will once again be one of the NBA's most important markets.
While fans will still be disappointed at losing out on Durant, Paul is a more-than-worthy substitute.
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