It's part of the sports ownership playbook: When public dollars for shiny new stadiums are in doubt, break out the threats to skip town. This is how the Minnesota Vikings got their new stadium, and how the Pittsburgh Penguins got their new arena, and how—do I really need to list them all? If you're a sports fan, you already know that any time a local government is nearing a tight vote on cash for a team, alarmist stories are sure to appear, touting all the other cities said team could be playing in if the vote goes the wrong way.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, the vote couldn't be tighter: Last week, members of the Wisconsin legislature refused to vote for a state budget that included funding for a new Bucks arena, instead jettisoning the arena to its own bill. The $500 million arena plan now faces what could optimistically be called an uphill battle, with supporters telling reporters that the arena is not necessarily dead, never a positive sign. In response, Bucks president Peter Feigin brought out the big guns yesterday, telling a state legislative committee that if no arena deal is forthcoming promptly—"we can't wait months, even weeks"—then the team could move to "Las Vegas or Seattle."
If you're interested in the specific financial details of the Bucks arena plan, you can find them elsewhere. Suffice to say that it's pretty terrible for the public, which is on the hook for nearly 100% of the building's cost when tax breaks are included. Today's question is broader: When Feigin says the Bucks could move, is he serious? Or is he, in Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf's unforgettable words, just "creating leverage"?
The whole idea of the Bucks leaving—or threatening to leave—Milwaukee has been weird from the start, largely because of how the team's newish owners constructed their purchase of the franchise early last year. When billionaire financiers Wes Edens and Marc Lasry bought the team from billionaire department-store baron and former U.S. senator Herb Kohl for $550 million, the sale included a provision that if no new arena deal was in place by 2017—more about that deadline in a bit—the NBA itself could buy the team back for $575 million and move it elsewhere.
That little two-step neatly accomplished a couple of things. First, it created a hostage crisis: Give us a new arena to replace the 27-year-old Bradley Center, or we shoot this team. Secondly, it absolved Edens and Lasry from being seen as weasely carpetbaggers threatening to move the Bucks out of town if their demands aren't met—no, you see, it's those guys in the league office who'd be doing it, our hands are totally tied!
With Edens and Lasry's arena plan now in serious danger, it's time to throw everything at the wall that they can, which is why Feigin came out yesterday with his most direct threat yet, actually dropping names of cities where his bosses might move—er, that is, where the NBA might move the team. But could a move really be imminent?
We can start by dismissing Las Vegas, in all likelihood, for the same reasons it would make a lousy NHL expansion market: It's an even smaller TV market than Milwaukee, and its permanent population is mostly poor. Yes, it has a new arena going up (actually several), but it's unlikely that the NBA would be offered a lucrative enough arena lease to make the market's structural problems worth taking on.
Seattle is a different story. Chris Hansen, the guy who tried and failed to buy the Sacramento Kings two years ago, is still out there, willing to build a $500 million arena mostly with his own money and then spend as much as $625 million plus relocation fees for a team to play in it. That's probably crazy, even with the NBA's new cable riches, but it's the kind of crazy that would be Hansen's problem, not the league's, which would walk away with a cool $50 million profit plus whatever it could levy in relocation fees, plus get a shiny new arena to boot.
And, frankly, would that be so terrible if it happened? Seattle is a far larger market than Milwaukee—about double the size in Nielsen families—and only lost its previous team thanks to a previously failed arena shakedown and an owner who quickly sold his team to out-of-town interests. (If only former Sonics owner Howard Schultz had thought of the "get the NBA to sell your team for you" gambit, he might be able to show his face around Seattle today.) In place of a Milwaukee arena deal that would be sticking Wisconsin taxpayers with about $457 million in costs—a number that, contrary to what Gov. Scott Walker says, the public could never hope to earn back from basketball-related taxes—the sports world would have a new Seattle arena built largely with funds from its private owner.
If you're a Bucks fan cringing at those words—or just a sports fan uneasy with the notion of cities stealing other cities' teams to get revenge for their original teams being stolen—take a deep breath, for there are still a bunch of obstacles to clear before Bucks-to-Seattle could become a reality:
* Since Hansen made his $625 million offer for the Kings, his money man—Microsoft uber-billionaire Steve Ballmer—went and bought the Los Angeles Clippers for a probably crazy but maybe not $2 billion. Finding a deep-pocketed replacement, especially for a deal that would run well over $1 billion counting the arena, could be a challenge.
* Hansen didn't win any NBA friends when he secretly funded a petition drive to block the Kings' arena plans in Sacramento, hoping it might make them available for him to purchase and move to Seattle instead. It's the kind of thing the league might be willing to forgive if Hansen makes nice—and the NBA ends up desperate enough to stick it Wisconsin legislators—but one should never underestimate rich guys' capacity for spite.
* Leaving Milwaukee for a privately built arena in Seattle is bound to raise lots of uncomfortable questions, such as "Why can't you just build a new arena in Milwaukee with private money, then?" Not to mention other cities that may soon be asked to replace their shockingly almost 20-year-old arenas, a list that appears to now include Atlanta.
* If the Bucks move to Seattle, then the Hawks and other teams, can't threaten to do so when it's their turn to play the arena-demand game. (Why do you think the NFL doesn't have a team in Los Angeles?)
Finally, even if the NBA does consider Seattle an option, all signs are that it would never pull the trigger on a move before giving Wisconsin another final deadline or five in which to reach agreement on what would be, by any standard, an extremely lucrative deal for both the Bucks' owners and the league. In the Kings saga, remember, the NBA refused to sign off on the team leaving Sacramento for Seattle, even though the team's owners had announced the sale, and Sacramento's arena plan then wasn't any more finalized than Milwaukee's is now. Add in that the 2017 deadline was initially reported as only for getting arena plans finalized—as opposed to getting an actual arena open for games—and there's probably still some leeway, as much as Bucks execs may have reasons to pretend there's not.
In the meantime, Wisconsin legislators—and citizens deciding whether to threaten legislators with the ghost of George Petak's political career—are going to have to decide how much it's worth to avoid calling the NBA's bluff and seeing what happens. At the same time, though, the league will need to weigh how much it's willing to leave on the table in Milwaukee in order to punish recalcitrant lawmakers for not acceding promptly enough to its owners' demands. Leverage, after all, works both ways.