Support coalesces in Seattle for luring an NBA team

02/23/2012 12:00 AM

02/23/2012 11:14 AM

SEATTLE – This city, once abandoned by the NBA, wants back in the game. And the Sacramento Kings are a "front and center" prospect.

Less than four years after the SuperSonics franchise bolted for Oklahoma City, leaving the Seattle fan base stunned and angry, a San Francisco hedge fund manager has stepped forward with plans for a new arena. First, though, he has to secure a team.

There are two obvious candidates for relocation at the moment: the Kings and the New Orleans Hornets, which is owned by the NBA. But on Wednesday, NBA Commissioner David Stern said in an NBA TV interview that he hopes to seal a deal by March 1 to sell the Hornets to a new owner who will keep the team in New Orleans. So the attention of Seattle politicians and columnists alike has settled squarely on Sacramento.

"There's a belief that Sacramento will either save its team or that team will move. That puts it front and center," said Brian Robinson, president of Arena Solution, a grass-roots group working to get an arena built in Seattle.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has made a point of distancing his city's effort from Sacramento's attempt to build an arena and prevent the Kings from leaving. But members of the Seattle City Council and others involved in the arena effort say they're watching to see if Sacramento succeeds.

"You'd be dumb not to be paying attention," City Council President Sally Clark said in her office this week.

Seattle is known for politeness, and Clark admits to being "guarded" when discussing the city's quest with people from Sacramento. "Seattle has gone through the experience of losing a team," she said. "I didn't like being the city where vultures are circling."

Christopher Hansen, a Seattle native who now lives in San Francisco, is the private investor behind the city's effort. While no formal negotiations have taken place between Hansen and the NBA over securing a franchise, those talks would likely begin if the City Council moves forward with the plan in a few weeks.

Seattle's mayor has appointed a panel to vet Hansen's proposal and report its findings to the City Council and King County Council in mid-March.

The proposal calls for a $500 million facility to be built in an industrial neighborhood south of downtown, bordering stadiums that house major league baseball's Mariners and the National Football League's Seahawks.

Hansen has proposed kicking in $290 million from a group of unnamed investors – a sum that would rank as one of the largest private investments in a sports facility in American history.

In addition, Hansen would need to acquire a team, which could cost as much as $350 million more.

Hansen is asking the city and county to issue $200 million in bonds to help fund the project. Those bonds would be paid back through taxes generated by the arena and rental payments by the facility's tenants.

The financier has made no public appearances in Seattle, granting only one 50-minute interview to the Seattle Times last week. The newspaper has described him as a "mystery man."

A Seattle public relations firm hired by Hansen would not say whether he is interested in buying the Kings.

The mayor's office also would not discuss the Kings, and said it has left negotiations with the NBA to Hansen. Approached in a Seattle City Hall elevator this week by a Bee reporter, the mayor refused to talk and quickly walked away when the doors opened.

A few minutes later, at his State of the City address, McGinn described the evolving arena project as a massive investment in his city that would avoid new taxes.

"I look forward to the day we can stand up together and say to the NBA: This is a good deal for Seattle and we are ready for the Sonics to return," he said.

But, he cautioned, "If no teams come, no arena will be built."

A poll conducted this week by Seattle TV station King 5 found that roughly half of those surveyed have "no reservations" about taking another city's NBA team.

Steve Kelley, a sports columnist for the Seattle Times, told a local sports radio show there was a "70-30" chance the Kings would be playing in Seattle this fall. This despite the Kings' owners insistence that the team is not for sale.

Councilman Nick Licata, an opponent of past stadium deals in Seattle, said he is concerned excitement over the latest plan could cloud the city's judgment.

"If Sacramento does not approve something, there will be tremendous pressure on this council to make a deal happen, whether we have the numbers or not," he said.

The Sonics left Seattle in 2008 after the team was sold to an Oklahoma-based ownership group. Several attempts to replace the team's home, KeyArena, failed, opening the door to the franchise's departure after more than 40 years. The team – now called the Oklahoma City Thunder – has become one of the league's most successful franchises.

For the three years after the Sonics left, the idea of bringing the NBA back to town was rarely discussed by city officials. Fans held lingering bitterness toward the league and the city's former mayor.

That began to change last year, when a group of business and community leaders joined with former players and Sonics fans to create Arena Solution. The catalyst, Robinson said, was the Thunder's deep run into the NBA playoffs last season. The Thunder is led by Kevin Durant, who was drafted when the team was in Seattle.

While Arena Solution has no direct ties to Hansen, the group has worked to change public sentiment about building an arena.

So how does the Sonics fan base feel about taking another city's team?

"We don't write the rules; it's going to be disappointing," Robinson said. "There's nobody who is going to feel good about it."

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