07 March 2008

A tale of two arenas

In Seattle, a rich tradition of pro basketball is close to an end. The SuperSonics, who have been in Seattle for over 40 years, have threatened to leave the last few years unless a new arena or an upgraded KeyArena surfaces with better lease terms.

The previous Seattle Center Coliseum held only 14,448, which today would be considered a paltry figure but wasn't so small when it was originally built (today's arenas typically seat 17-19,000). Stories about the leaky roof abounded. The venue lacked any "modern" amenities or upscale luxuries. Yet it was unique, intimate, and serviceable for its time.

When the new KeyArena was unveiled as a redone Seattle Center Coliseum, it was much heralded. Instead of building from scratch, the floor was dug 35 feet deeper and a new seating configuration arose, making it far more basketball-specific than it was previously. A level containing 57 luxury suites was sandwiched between the new upper and lower levels. Club seats were added. Fans had visions of a burgeoning dynasty as they watched Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp lead their Sonics to the NBA finals in 1996. Most importantly, the deal was believed to be fiscally responsible as the debt on the renovation was expected to be serviced by team revenue sources and naming rights, not taxes.

Unfortunately, even with the renovation KeyArena was behind other newer venues. The New Arena in Oakland, formerly the Oakland Coliseum Arena, one-upped KeyArena. The New Arena was renovated with a similar philosophy: keep the shell, dig down a few stories, make it more basketball-specific. Out of its renovation the capacity shot up from 15,025 to 20,000+. Two new levels of suites were added, as were thousands of club seats and additional concourses.

Inside the arena, the new Warriors didn't quite deliver in their new digs. Mired in their post Nelson/Webber malaise, the team didn't become competitive until nearly a decade later. Unlike KeyArena, there was no immediate naming rights sponsor to help defray some of the $121 million renovation cost. By the turn of the millenium, it appeared as though the W's were stuck. Stuck with a bad team, with a bad lease, in an empty arena. High rental rates had many acts look south to San Jose Arena.

All of this makes it even more amazing that in 2008, the Warriors are remarkably successful. The team is arguably the most exciting in the league. The arena, now dubbed Oracle Arena or "The Oracle," is now considered one of the loudest and most boisterous in the league. While there haven't been any threats to move the team in the last decade, it's clear that the future couldn't be anymore solid for the franchise than it is now.

In Seattle, apathy and disaffection are at an all-time high. The Sonics, lottery-bound again, are a proverbial dead franchise walking as the front office focuses entirely on youth and rebuilding. The new owner from Oklahoma City thinly disguised his desires to move the team to his hometown, where a new facility and fanbase awaited. Efforts by NBA commish David Stern to bully, er, broker a deal failed. Stern proclaimed that a new franchise would not come to Seattle in the wake of the Sonics' departure. Worst of all, the responsible renovation deal became a good deed that did not go unpunished, as both the Mariners and Seahawks ended up with palatial new stadia funded largely by massive amounts of public funds.

This week, an ultra-rich Seattle group headed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Costco CEO Jim Sinegal pitched a proposal to buy the one-step-out-the-door Sonics and pay for further expansion for KeyArena. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City voters approved $121 million in renovations for the five-year old Ford Center. Owners are expected to vote on the move in late April. Come 2011, the Seattle SuperSonics may be no more.