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Seattle arena PR campaign, opposition intensifying

Lindsay Lowe

The revelation of big local backers. A huge fan rally. A high-profile meeting with the commissioner of the NBA. It all happened this week as supporters of the Seattle arena proposal get ready for key city and county committee hearings next week.

The opposition is heating up as well.

Timing is everything

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says there's a good reason the past week has been chock-full of news about the arena project.

“This is a very carefully orchestrated PR campaign to put pressure on the King County Council and the City of Seattle because they’re both deliberating on the arena project and, at the same time, the old Sonics – the Thunder – are in the NBA Finals this week. The angst could not be more intense in Seattle among sports fans who care about this because their 41-year passion is being thrown back in their face, mocked by the Thunder’s presence in the league’s championship series.”

One big piece of news this week was the revelation of local backers Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Peter and Erik Nordstrom.  Art says Ballmer was no surprise. He's a longtime basketball fan who was involved in a failed bid to renovate KeyArena to keep the Sonics in 2008.

The Nordstroms aren't a surprise either. Peter Nordstrom, vice-president of the Seattle-based department store chain and president of merchandising, was part of the Sonics ownership group under previous owner Howard Schultz and voted against the sale of the franchise to Clay Bennett.

Seattle's options narrowed

Things have changed in the NBA landscape about available teams to potentially come to Seattle. Two previously vulnerable teams  - the New Orleans Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies - were both recently sold.

Art says NBA franchises are now considered reasonable purchases for those who can afford it because of a new collective bargaining agreement, which took a lockout to get and was only resolved in December. He says the new deal has made it plausible for NBA Commissioner David Stern to say with a straight face that "in two or three years, all of you will break even."

That's something that couldn't be said over the last decade and was part of the problem for sustaining the Sonics in Seattle. Art says the only team that appears to be a possible relocation option for Seattle right now is the Sacramento Kings.

Why McGinn went to New York

Lead arena investor Chris Hansen was reportedly unaware of Mayor Mike McGinn's meeting with David Stern this week in New York. Art says the mayor had a good reason for calling on the commissioner at this time.

“If I were the mayor and I put all my political capital on the table – or at least a lot of it – on this arena project, I’d want to know one thing: is Chris Hansen going to be able to find a team to fill that arena? David Stern is not going to tell him yes or no, but he’s got to give McGinn a reading on the landscape. And if McGinn doesn’t ask that question, he’s even more foolish than I thought he was. So, I really do think that this was McGinn’s attempt to find out what the risk factors were and what the likelihood was of Sacramento or someone else that he’s not familiar with becoming a potential relocation for Seattle. If I’m the mayor I’d sure want to know how much risk I’m taking here and am I going to sit here for three or four years waiting for a team to become available. He needs to know that.”

Ball in the councils' court

All of the news about the proposed arena this week is in anticipation of key meetings next week. Chris Hansen will address committees from the King County and city councils that are scrutinizing the plan.

Both groups have hired independent bodies to investigate the proposal. Art says votes are expected in August on whether to accept the agreement, postpone it or, he says, maybe even put it up for a public vote.

Opposition revving up

A group of businesses, including the Port of Seattle and the Mariners, have objected to the location, claiming the increased congestion of a third sports building will hurt businesses and change the character of the mostly industrial neighborhood.

Art says the opposition is gathering more data and more voices of dissent. He says the future of the SoDo neighborhood is at stake. If a third arena is built, it opens the floodgates to redevelopment of the area similar to what's happening in South Lake Union.

Art says the politicians need to hear the Port's concerns.

You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest.

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.