Beyond Golf — 19 February 2012 by Bob Sherwin
Seattle taking chance on Kings, NHL

One individual in San Francisco has had dramatic impact on a multitude of sports fans and cities up and down the West Coast.

Chris Hansen, a Bay Area hedge-fund manager, announced a tentative agreement last week that could be viewed, depending on your perspective, as thrilling or threatening, altruistic or self-serving.

He announced that he is offering to build a privately funded 18,000-seat arena in downtown Seattle with the hope of attracting both an NBA and a NHL team. It’s a gift that only a governing body of fools would reject, which is always a possibility given the city’s dare-to-be-mediocre legislators.

The news has excited Pacific Northwest sports fans still mourning the departure of the Sonics, rustled out of town five years ago by Oklahoma City cowpoke Clay Bennett, with the tacit approval of duplicitous NBA Commissioner David Stern.

However, the news reverberates in plenty of other cities trying to hold onto or grab onto a sports franchise. Sacramento is the focal point as the NBA Kings, owned by the casino moguls Maloof Brothers (Palms in Las Vegas) are threatening to depart unless they see movement toward a new arena. The city has until March 1 to come up with a financing plan or the Maloofs could bolt.

Seattle would not necessarily be the first choice. The Maloofs nearly committed to Anaheim last year. Anaheim officials already have agreed to bond measures to upgrade the Honda Center in anticipation of a garnered NBA prize. That would also give the L.A. market three teams. The Lakers and Clippers will raise some objections with the league.

The New Orleans Hornets could be a particularly good option since the franchise is owned by the NBA and is quite depleted of talent and fan interest. The Memphis Grizzlies – formerly located in Vancouver (hence the nickname) – is another team with wanderlust.

Then there’s the folks in Phoenix who wonder if Seattle will be the next destination for their hockey team, the Coyotes. This team is also league-owned and has the NHL’s lowest attendance figures. The New York Islanders is a long-shot candidate to change addresses as the Nassau Coliseum is outdated and inadequate.

One of the stipulations for Hansen to begin construction on a new arena is that there needs to be an ironclad commitment from a team in both leagues. Hansen, who grew up in Seattle and shares the city’s sorrow of losing the Sonics, has offered to raise $500 million toward the arena and a NBA team. The city would be required to provide $200 million in bonds to help finance the project but they supposedly would be paid off by revenues from the arena.

The proposed site is in the ‘Sodo’ district south of downtown near both Safeco Field and Century Link Stadium (pictured).

There will be the usual hand-wringing by legislators and anti-sport skeptics who can’t believe the taxpayers are off the hook. But if the people want it, they’ll get the message. It’ll get done if two teams agree to move. That’s not a concern.

There also is the strange self-hate from the self-righteous Northwesterners over whether it would be morally defensible for Seattle to steal another city’s franchise in the same calculated and furtive manner that the cowpoke did. Sacramento has sent letters from lawyers to Seattle officials warning them to back off.

That’s all eyewash. No other city cared when the Sonics ended their 41-year association with Seattle to allow greasy oil interests to steal the franchise and put it in the
middle of nothing. It comes down to the first city to build an arena. Do it and we will steal.

My focus is more on what the city will get for its thievery. Just like buying a car, a house or starting a business, you need choices and an evaluation of the market. Just because the Kings and Coyotes want to come here doesn’t mean we want them. It doesn’t mean it’s feasible for Seattle, which was down to just two major sports teams five years ago – Mariners and Seahawks – to suddenly have five, adding the MSL’s Sounders along with the NHL and NBA again. Does this market have enough discretionary dollars to be stretched that far?

In addition, the city really has only one newspaper, the Seattle Times, and I has been in a 10-year decline, shedding reporters instead of adding them. Both teams need the daily attention for support. It’s uncertain how that can be accommodated.

What’s the deal with hockey?

To begin, no matter how you look at it, Seattle is not a hockey town. Despite begin 100 miles from the Canadian border, the city never had an NHL team. The Seattle Metropolitans, which won what evolved as the Stanley Cup in 1917 (95 years ago), was part of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. That folded in 1924 and there has been no real groundswell for hockey to return.

The city does have some minor-league affection for hockey from the Ironmen to the Totems to the current Thunderbirds in the Western Hockey Association., essentially single-A level. But it’s a giant leap to suggest that this is a hockey market, although its proximity to Vancouver does offer a potential rivalry.

My feeling also is that hockey is no longer a ‘major’ sport. It’s not on the level of the baseball, the NFL or even NBA. The sport’s national TV contract is pathetic. The biggest attraction is a one-day outdoor game around the new year. Hockey is a fun game to watch in person but it’s a terrible TV sport. You can’t see the one thing – the puck – that all the players have their eyes on.

Who are the players? Guaranteed that 99 percent of Seattle residents couldn’t name one percent of NHL players. Most are from another country, Canada. Few, if any, are from the Northwest. Where’s the closest college hockey power to Seattle? Duluth? Boston College? There’s no buzz over player trades, signings or releases. Apathy rules, which is the absolute worse characteristic for any sport.

There also are too many teams in too many places that shouldn’t have a team, Tampa, Nashville, Phoenix, Carolina, Dallas. Really? It’s a regional game, fitting naturally in Canada, the East Coast and parts of the Midwest.

The fact that the Coyotes are league-owned is actually a benefit. If an owner can be found – and this Chicago-based businessman Don Levin guy seems to be interested – the cost should be relatively low. That might allow him to put some money into free agents that could transform the franchise quicker than usual.

Bottom line, what any city wants is for the sports teams to succeed. Hockey Night in Seattle? Not so sure. You would hope that these owners certainly are either smarter than the rest of us or know something we don’t know.

Not the Kings court

Here are some raw numbers that the NBA doesn’t want you to share with your friends.

    • Since 1984 when Stern took over as commissioner – now 28 years – only eight different teams have one the league championship, with Dallas being the latest last season.
    • Since the first championship series in 1947, either the Lakers or the Celtics have won the title 33 times (50.8 percent)
    • Since that first championship, either the Lakers or Celtics have been one of the finalists 59 times (out of 130 chances, 45.4 percent)
    • There are 16 current teams that have never won the NBA title (53.3 percent). Seven others have won it just once, including the 1978-79 Sonics.

 

The point is to show the ultimate futility of lifetime NBA fans in most cities. If the goal is to win a championship – and it better be – than there’s whole generation of dissatisfied basketball fans around the country.

Now there’s talk of the Kings, a franchise that has never reached the NBA finals or even conference finals, has been to the generous-format NBA playoffs just 10 times in its 26 seasons and currently has a 10-21 record. It’s either a Trojan horse or a dead horse.

Teams lose fans because they are perennially bad. Franchises move or threaten to because they are perennially bad. Losing begets losing.

Unless it reads Celtics or Lakers across the chest, your chances of winning the title is remote. Poor Cleveland after losing LeBron. The Cavs had a perfect storm when he was there. They may not reach the NBA finals again for another 50 years. Seriously.

The small-market San Antonio Spurs won four titles with smart player acquisitions but primarily because they were in position to draft Tim Duncan to play alongside David Robinson.

Oklahoma City – of all teams – could win the NBA title this season only because the general manager ransacked the Sonics when they were in Seattle. GM Sam Presti, under the tacit approval of the deceptive cowpoke, traded away every quality player he could that would yield low draft choices. The team then used those choices to take Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, among others.

That’s an extraordinary circumstance no other NBA team would dare explore but since the team was destined to move, what did it matter how the team played in Seattle.

That’s why the Kings are on a much longer road to an NBA title – perhaps even a dead end – than just about any team in the league. The Kings do not have a lot of talent to build around. They are not bad enough to get a top five pick in the draft. And last year they hurt themselves further. They traded Omri Casspi to Cleveland for J.J. Hickson, who has not been an impact player. The Kings still owe the Cavs a future first-round draft pick, to be determined by where the Kings finish.

That’s why the target should be the New Orleans Hornets. Their roster is worse than the Kings but with the right moves they can get better much quicker. The Hornet, as bad as they are, likely will get the first or second draft selection this year. They also have Minnesota’s first-round pick, by way of the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade.

That’s two picks among the draft’s top dozen. That doesn’t hurt. That’s not unlike how OKC built a contender. With all the Hornets youth, it’s not going to be a quick turnaround so they will have  another low selection again in 2013.

All the money issues, easements, threats and posturing have yet to be played out. It’s going to happen because any struggling franchise would love to be in a new arena in 12th largest TV market. The larger concern should be getting a team with the quickest turnaround.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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