Considering the playoffs just started, there has been an awful lot of off-the-court news in the National Basketball Association this week. Buried beneath stories that Jason Collins came out as gay — the first man in the four major team sports to do so publicly while still playing — was the news that the Sacramento Kings won’t be moving to Seattle, which had seemed like a done deal just a month ago.
But the Kings are now almost assuredly staying put, thanks to a last-minute plan secured by Mayor Kevin Johnson that will put $250 million in taxpayer financing toward a new arena that helped the NBA’s Relocation Committee decide to reject a potential sale to a group of Seattle investors. The arena is the key piece of a deal that played everyone, as Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky summed up nicely:
Arenas are the endgame. They multiply the value of a franchise, provide outside revenue streams, and send the potential future sale price of a team through the roof. It’s not cynical to assume that these past three years of pitting city vs. city, with heartbreak the consolation prize, was done solely to pressure Sacramento into propping up the value of the Kings with a new arena.
So what of Seattle, where a new arena—with $200 million from bonds—is almost a done deal? The league may have decided that the threat of relocation is, in the short-term, more useful than following through. Much like the NFL with Los Angeles, Seattle can serve as the NBA’s bogeyman, to be trotted out any time a city needs a scare to keep its NBA owner happy.
That’s pretty much it. The Kings wanted a new arena and it didn’t really matter whether it was financed by taxpayers in Sacramento, Seattle, or Virginia Beach. Not only did they get that new arena, they got it in a way that will only make it easier for other teams to wrangle new arenas out of taxpayers in the future, since Seattle will remain a point of leverage for any owner who wants taxpayers to foot the bill for new digs that will only enhance the value of the team he owns. Give the owner a new arena, or he’ll pick up and move to a city that will.
The NBA wants to go back to Seattle, but what it wants more is to use the city as a bargaining chip in future arena negotiations. Seattle remains its most viable market opportunity, and since it’s running out of attractive markets owners can pit against their current cities, it doesn’t want to add another franchise to get there or anywhere else. But when a team does end up in the Emerald City, another city — Louisville, Virginia Beach, Kansas City, or somewhere else — with a shiny new arena or plans to build one will become the destination du jour of every owner who needs a little leverage. And until owners run out of cities to pit against each other (they won’t any time soon precisely because they refuse to expand), or until taxpayers and elected officials realize that they’re only getting played by handing over huge sums of money to subsidize and enrich a handful of wealthy people, this endless game of arena chicken will continue on. Taxpayers are guaranteed losers every time.