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A SuperSonic Problem For The NBA

Under the skillful stewardship of Commissioner David Stern, the National Basketball Association has been a well-oiled publicity machine for the past 30 years, deftly sidestepping the pitfalls that often waylaid other professional sports leagues.

Drug testing? The NBA solved that conundrum years ago.

Race relations? No league promoted African Americans as willingly and seamlessly as professional basketball.

Marketing? The league that introduced America to Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal certainly has no trouble convincing the public to pay attention.

That glossy image became tarnished in the past few years, though, as referee scandals, run-ins with the law (both on and off the court), and rapidly declining television ratings threatened to relegate the league to its 1970s levels: the third helping on the American sporting dinner plate behind baseball and football.

The 2007-08 season, however, was expected to redirect the wayward NBA ship and return the league to its halcyon days of the 1980s and 1990s. A dedication to higher-scoring offenses and a fresh crop of superstars paid off as the league bathed in the glow of sportswriters’ adulation all season long. Nothing, it seemed, could get in the way of the NBA’s renaissance.

Nothing, that is, except the most acrimonious franchise relocation since the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore.

The Seattle SuperSonics have resided in the Emerald City for more than four decades and, while never the most successful franchise, the Sonics have nevertheless experienced their fair share of joyful moments. A World Championship in 1979, attendance records, and a host of legendary players have shaped the Sonics into an integral part of the Seattle landscape, and - seemingly - a cornerstone of the NBA.

That stability changed with the sale of the Sonics to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in 2001. Schultz inherited a reasonably successful mid-market franchise with a recently renovated facility, KeyArena, paid for by the citizens of Seattle.

Unfortunately, Schultz’ winning touch in the coffee world failed to translate to basketball success; and as the team’s success on the court dried up, so did its revenue. The caffeine wizard attempted to secure a more favorable lease from the city of Seattle, but none was forthcoming.

With cash calls on his fellow investors increasing, in 2006 Schultz decided to unload the franchise to a group from Oklahoma City, led by Clayton Bennett. The group promised to keep the team in Seattle, but the existing situation quickly went from bad to worse.

Not surprisingly, a war of words developed between the skeptical Sonics fans and the new owners. And as might be expected, the new owners put forth minimal efforts to keep the team in Seattle, culminating with a $500 million proposal for a new facility in suburban Seattle; a proposal containing no contributions from Bennett’s group.

Unfortunately for David Stern and the NBA, what had been a local story exploded into a national one in early April, when long-lost emails surfaced indicating that Bennett and his fellow owners had discussed moving the team almost from the introductory press conference.

In the cavalcade of “he said, she said” exchanges between the city, the fans, the owners, and the league, one fact was abundantly clear: the NBA is as interested in playing another game in Seattle as it is in going back to peach baskets and short shorts. To that end, the league’s Board of Governors, composed of 30 owners, voted 28-2 on April 18 to approve the relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City.

Likewise, the city, led by Mayor Greg Nickels, has planted its feet in the paint, daring the league to try a layup. A court date in June will resolve whether the team must fulfill the remaining two years of its lease at KeyArena before it departs, or if a cash settlement is sufficient.

Sadly, the losers in all of this are the fans. Not just Seattle fans, either, but fans of every team. The NBA’s faulty economic system has placed a number of franchises in jeopardy, especially those not located in the hotbeds of Los Angeles, New York or Boston.

But rather than remedy the problems it faces, the league instead turns to municipalities to bail it out. It is disgraceful that an arena renovated less than a decade ago is already, in the words of the commissioner, “the worst facility in the NBA.” Can the league truly expect beleaguered American cities to continue to fund its flawed system, when the edifices they construct have an expiry date closer to a loaf of bread than a single family home?

That remains to be seen, and a Federal Court will make its decision this June on whether the city of Seattle will succeed in its battle against the NBA.

The battle in the court of public opinion? That is one the league must deal with immediately.

Peter Nussbaum lives in Seattle and is a contributor to the fan blog SuperSonicSoul.

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