SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan recently spoke with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and left feeling "pretty optimistic" about the prospects of a return of the Seattle Sonics.
Durkan told KING 5 she spoke with Silver via phone just before Christmas after the commissioner let it slip that the league was re-examining expansion prospects and that Seattle was at the top of the list.
Durkan acknowledged, in the interview with KING 5, that she has maintained regular contact with Silver and has recently attended NBA games with him.
"I've met him on a number of occasions,” Durkan said. “I actually was a guest of his at some games in New Orleans when I was down there for conference. Number one, the commissioner never gets ahead of the owners. And number two, if you want a city that wants a team, don't get ahead of either of them. But it is very good news for the city of Seattle that they are thinking of an expansion team. And I was honest with him. He knows Seattle wants to be at the front of the line. We're where the team should be. But we will be respecting them as they move forward to their ownership because the (owners), you know, has to approve it."
She continued, "I think it's real. But I think again, the commissioner is going to, you know, consult the ownership, and the ownership for the first time itself is being very public that they think it is probably a good idea for basketball. Part of that is the COVID economics. Part of it is the economics of sports. But look, there's no city that I think is better positioned to be successful. We're going to have the best arena in the country. I'm not just saying that when people walk in that building, they will be amazed. We are a city that even with COVID, when we come out of COVID, we have so much upside here."
It's no secret that the NBA has been hemorrhaging millions of dollars since the start of the pandemic, forced to play in fan-free venues and everything that goes along with it. Silver has long suggested expansion was not on the horizon and not being discussed.
That's why his change in tone in December raised eyebrows and was seen as a message. An expansion fee worth perhaps billions of dollars would be split among league owners and not shared with players, thus providing an economic infusion for struggling franchises.
Durkan says she believes expansion could be on the table sooner than people think.
"I think he's not going to get ahead of the (owners),” Durkan said. “They've got to make the decision there first. I think that him saying it publicly means that they are very seriously considering it, and if you look at how sports moves, I don't think it's going to be a long multiyear process. I think it can be a shorter process than that, but it might be, you know, more than one year. I think first you got to get the ownership group in line. And they've got to decide what an expansion team price could look like. And how they choose the cities that goes to. As we know, there's also teams that are underperforming in the NBA, so they have to look at the economics in those cities and make sure that the teams they have are competitive. So they've got to look top to bottom as they're coming out of COVID and went through a very different season than they had before."
Durkan's conversation is the surest sign yet that momentum is building once again for a SuperSonics return.
The franchise left Seattle in 2008 after a lengthy and protracted fight between then-Mayor Greg Nickels, owner Clay Bennett and late NBA Commissioner David Stern. Bennett bought the team from Howard Schultz, who was once highly visible in his adopted hometown and has become persona non grata in the city ever since.
Schultz, Bennett and Stern all complained about then-KeyArena, and Nickels agreed for the city to take a buyout on the day a federal judge was set to rule on the terms of the franchise's lease, which allowed the franchise to move to Oklahoma City. The Sonics had been a part of Seattle for 41 years before that.
But the arena is no longer an issue. The over $1 billion Climate Pledge Arena at Seattle Center is scheduled to open by late summer and host the NHL expansion Seattle Kraken, and WNBA's Seattle Storm. Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke, whose firm won the right to build the privately financed building, says it has been built with an NBA team in mind.
In a conversation on Thursday, Leiweke said his company spent an added $50 million worth of changes to the arena's original design to include an NBA tenant, but "we are following Adam. We don't want to get ahead of the commissioner, but they know of Seattle's desire to get into the league."
He pointed out that he believes NBA owners, which include Seattle-area residents Steve Ballmer and Jody Allen, are aware of the region's history.
"This isn't a new market,” Leiweke said. “This is a marketplace that has led the league in attendance."
He continued, "Guys like (Dallas Mavericks Owner) Mark Cuban know the marketplace, players like (former Sonic) Kevin Durant know the marketplace."
So, exactly who could have the financial wherewithal to pay a reported $2.5 billion NBA expansion fee?
Kraken Majority Owner David Bonderman, a University of Washington grad, is a Boston Celtics minority owner. He has made it clear that he is willing to take a financial position with a local NBA franchise as well.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos could speed up the process and makes sense for many reasons. In fact, he could shoot a three-pointer of a deal spanning sports, business and politics that the city has never seen.
Bezos' company has already secured naming rights for the new arena and instead agreed to the "Climate Pledge" moniker, which falls in line with their corporate initiative.
But it is clear that Amazon also wants to up its streaming game and acquire league rights packages. Amazon has aired a handful of NFL games and recently struck a deal with Seattle's Sounders FC. The NBA will be looking for a cash infusion with its upcoming rights deal. Its current deal runs through the 2024-2025 season. Bezos could easily front a majority of the expansion fee and gain entry into the exclusive club of NBA ownership at a time when the league considers its next broadcasting move.
If he also was to show any interest in bringing back the Sonics to an arena that could be nicknamed "The Green House," he would also gain some local political capital. Such an announcement, in say the spring, could come at a time when his local political thorn Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant could potentially face a recall effort. Call it a "Reverse Schultz" tactic.
However, he has never indicated a willingness or interest in being an NBA owner. Yet, it explains why his name was immediately linked to chatter about a new franchise the moment Silver softened his tone.
"The ownership group is there; that's not the issue," said OVG's Leiweke on Thursday, as he was in the middle of planning for the April groundbreaking of the Kraken's American Hockey League franchise arena in Palm Springs, California.
He said Bonderman is "the greatest asset we have. He's part of (the NBA). He's respected. Do not underestimate the opinion of him and his relationships within the league." Yet, he said, "There will be other partners."
Leiweke also went on to say that the expansion Kraken, with his brother Tod Leiweke at the helm, are set up to serve as a dual operating group. Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke once ran Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, which included the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers. He was also in Vancouver in the 1990’s when Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment controlled the NBA’s Grizzlies and NHL’s Canucks. Tim Leiweke says other examples include New York's Madison Square Garden Company and Toronto's Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the latter of which he ran before starting OVG.
Durkan, who is a longtime Storm season ticket holder and major sports fan, has long said she wants to be the mayor who brings hockey and the NBA back to Seattle. An expansion announcement in Durkan's last year in office would fulfill that goal.
Durkan says she's had a handful of conversations with prospective owners over time and would only say that Leiweke's group is best positioned to bring a team to Seattle.
"I think that, you know, the ownership group of the Kraken has the best connections,” Durkan said. “Tim Leiweke, he has been involved in a number of those organizations. They built this arena, so it's basketball NBA ready. So, I don't think that the right ownership group will necessarily be the obstacle. I think that getting the owners to the place where they're willing to do it, making a price that is one that's market reasonable is going to be the real challenge."
The mayor says she also believes after talking with the commissioner that Silver knows the city is perfectly aligned to host a NBA franchise, again.
"I think it was a very positive conversation,” Durkan said. “I think he has said publicly that Seattle is at the top of the list. Look, if there's basketball karma, we'll get the Sonics. If there's economics involved, we'll get the Sonics. If there's just smart, what's the best city in America, we'll get the Sonics. So, I'm pretty optimistic."