The Seattle Sonics’ Fate Is in the Hands of the Oligarchs
Jan 10 2013
Photo courtesy Jeremy Repanich
As usual, it’s the rich guys who decide things.
Yesterday, rumors began circulating that the Sacramento Kings basketball team was about to be sold to a group of investors from Seattle. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported it first on his Twitter feed, and Woj is almost always right about these things. My first reaction, as a sports fan who grew up in Seattle, was to type “SONICS!!!! ADLJLDASJAEWOIJ AODS q fsdjad” into the nearest blank text box on my laptop screen. Other Seattle fans I know responded similarly, taking to social media to express either childlike expressions of joy or more cautious statements like, “I’m not celebrating until it’s official, but fingers crossed…” (After a few decades of on- and off-field disappointment, Seattle sports fans, like abused animals, are nothing if not cautious.) As usual, the doubters and cynics were right—a few hours later it looked like that deal fell through because the Maloof brothers, who own the team, rejected it. As I type this, it’s still not clear what’s going on with the negotiations, and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson has vowed to fight to keep the Kings.
The prospect of the Sonics “returning” already has a bunch of us Seattleites remembering the glory days of the Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp teams of the 90s, which went something like this:
Not that the new Sonics team, if it comes into existence, will have anything to do with those guys. Jerry Seinfeld’s old line about how sports fans root for clothes is essentially true—if the Kings moved the 600 miles north to Seattle and put on the old yellow and green jerseys, they’d have different owners, players, coaches, and, in a couple years, a different arena than the Sonics of my youth. The only thing that will be the same is the name and the uniforms—but of course, I don’t care that it’s just laundry. When it comes to my hometown teams, I put blinders on. All I had room for in my head when I first heard the news was, The Sonics could be back soon! The world is more fuzzy and dreamlike and wonderful than I give it credit for!
If I take off the blinders, however, the Kings’ potential move to Seattle looks less and less like a bunch of cute puppies dunking a basketball on an adorably-sized hoop under a rainbow while everybody gets blowjobs. As usual in sports, whenever you turn your head to look away from the action on the field/court/pitch, you find yourself surrounded by ugliness.
To begin with, Seattle’s gain would be Sacramento’s loss. The Kings have been in that city for 27 years, and if they leave, fans there will be without a major professional franchise. Maybe you could say that Sacramento isn’t a big or important enough town to have an NBA team, or that the people there can always root for the Warriors, but that would be a pretty shitty thing to say to people who are justifiably bummed about losing something they love.
Then there’s the reminder that no matter how passionately we feel about the teams that tied strings around our hearts when we were kids, we don’t have a say in making sure they stay in our towns, or even in whether they exist. The guys who run sports are rich, and they’re not like you or me.
The would-be sellers, the brothers Maloof, are essentially paper sacks full of casino chips and broken bottles of cologne awkwardly stuffed into $10,000 suits. They bought the Kings back in 1998 with their family’s money, and the team saw a run of success in the Chris Webber years, but then, as Kings blogger Tom Ziller has recounted, everything went to shit. The Maloofs tried to get Sacramento to pay for a new arena using taxes, the city turned them down, the team started to lose and couldn’t stop, and for the past few years the Maloofs have been openly trying to move the Kings to a place that would give them the cash and tax breaks Sacramento wouldn’t—courting and then screwing over towns like Virginia Beach in the process like the callous, dishonest frat-boy greedheads they are. The Maloofs have acquired a reputation for not only being nasty pieces of work who pull out of deals at the last second, but being dumb as a box of broken toasters as well. Their non-basketball businesses have been hemorrhaging money, which has led them to the point where they’re thinking about selling the Kings, their favorite plaything, but apparently they’re too moronic or disorganized to even do that without making a mess.
On the other side of the bargaining table sits Chris Hansen, the hedge fund billionaire who seems, so far, to be exactly the kind of owner a fan wants. Instead of Maloofishly demanding public financing of a privately-owned arena, he’s guaranteeing the loans the city will need to take out to build a new NBA facility himself. When the arena deal was finalized, he bought everyone a beer at a local sports bar. I like to imagine, while drawing hearts around his name in my spiral notebook, that Hansen is the kind of multimillionaire who buys an NBA team because it seems like a fun thing to own and because he loves basketball, not because he thinks sports ownership is a way to become even richer. (Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, sold the old Sonics to the Oklahoma City businessmen who would move the team because he was bitter over losing money on the franchise every year—I don’t think that’ll happen with Hansen.)
But if I’m wrong about Hansen, or if the Maloofs don’t sell out of stupidity or fickleness or even civic loyalty (ha!), it’s not like I can do anything about it. Being in this weird limbo state of maybe-I-have-an-NBA-team-maybe-I-don’t just underscores the fact that though teams are associated with cities and provide some of the most non-ironic moments of civic pride you’ll find today, they aren’t the property of the communities that are so devoted to them. “Your” team isn’t really yours. Professional sports franchises are the playthings of the very, very rich, and unless you own shares in the Green Bay Packers (the only fan-owned team in American sports), you don’t get a say in what happens. Maybe your owner will run an efficient, stable franchise and stay out of the public eye, like whoever owns the San Antonio Spurs. Or maybe you’ll get stuck with buffoonish chuckleheads like the Maloofs, or an incompetent meddler like the Washington Redskins’ Dan Snyder or a cheapskate racist pile of poison like the LA Clippers’ Donald Sterling.
As fans, we’re clearly at the mercy of our teams—a championship run can give us weeks of emotional highs, while a string of losing seasons will leave us beaten-down and numb. Just as clearly, we’re at the mercy of the plutocrats who are capable of taking away our teams for any number of reasons, or for no reason at all. All we can hope is that our team’s plutocrats are benevolent ones. If anyone from Sacramento is reading this, I hope that when the Maloofs sell the team or move it away—almost a foregone conclusion at this point—you wind up with a better team with a better owner. Hoping is all we can do.
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