Dressed in a dark suit and sporting a wide smile, Tim Leiweke — the former AEG exec and longtime L.A. sports power player — pressed pen to paper and delivered a message Seattle fans have been craving. “Ten years ago, you had your heart ripped out,” Leiweke said. “We’re going to get you a team.”
Uh-huh. A team. That could mean anything, right? Like hockey. The NHL is reportedly interested in bringing an expansion franchise to Seattle, and the $600-plus million that Leiweke — now the CEO of the Oak View Group — is investing in the refurbishing of KeyArena would make the Pacific Northwest appealing. The WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds draw well. The Everett Silvertips — Go Tips! — do, too. It’s a good fit.
But it’s not the team. Seattle fans have been smarting since Clay Bennett uprooted the Sonics in 2008 and took off for Oklahoma City. Back then, Seattle was a solid NBA market with an outdated arena. Since then, there has been one near miss — hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen’s failed attempt to pull the Kings out of Sacramento — and the fleeting possibility in recent years that the Pelicans or Bucks could have been pried loose.
Seattle wants the Sonics back. And the chances of that happening have never been higher. Last summer, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told The Players Tribune that Seattle would be on the short list for an expansion franchise. “I don’t want to put a precise timeline on it,” Silver said. “But it’s inevitable at some point we’ll start looking at growth of franchises. That’s always been the case in this league, and Seattle will no doubt be on a short list of cities we’ll look at.”
Relocation is possible, too. The Grizzlies are owned by a Silicon Valley billionaire who is bleeding money in Memphis. The Pelicans routinely rank in the bottom third of the NBA in attendance and are — at best — a fringe playoff contender. While former NBA commissioner David Stern was often stubbornly opposed to relocation, several high-ranking team officials told Yahoo Sports they believe Silver will take a more pragmatic approach.
“I think Adam wants the NBA to be in the best, most viable markets,” said one high-ranking team executive familiar with the league’s thinking. “He’s not looking to move anybody. But David was totally against [relocation]. Adam, I don’t think, is quite as rigid.”
(This is where we point out that both Memphis and New Orleans have passionate, engaged fans — just not enough of them. And you can’t expect team owners to swallow losses — the Grizzlies lost $40 million last season (offset by $32 million in revenue sharing, per ESPN), while the Pelicans were one of 14 teams that lost on pure net income — when a vibrant NBA market is available.)
Leiweke — who was flanked at Wednesday’s signing of a memorandum of understanding underneath the Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion by newly minted mayor Jenny Durkan, who wore, unsubtly, a Sonics T-shirt underneath her jacket — is a realist. He’s not expecting a team to commit to Seattle, nor is he anticipating the NBA expanding anytime soon. Two cities are needed for expansion — the league is still iffy on Las Vegas, though Mexico City is gaining some momentum, league sources told Yahoo Sports — and Silver isn’t ready to water down the game just yet.
“I’ve been through this,” Leiweke told reporters. “I’ve seen teams ripped out of communities. It’s not a pretty thing to go through. I feel the pain, and we’ve been dealing with Sonics Rising and the Sonic community, and we understand. Lots of people have preferences about the NHL compared to the NBA. Whichever one comes first, if we do a great job with them, the other one will come.”
Indeed. In the pursuit of another NBA team, Leiweke could be Seattle’s best asset. He’s widely respected by NBA officials, with a solid reputation. And he’s patient. Leiweke has vowed that the arena renovation will be far more than a facelift. The unique features of KeyArena will remain — the roof and the glass fronts — but everything else will change. He will tackle the brutal traffic issues the arena has faced in the past and establish it as a premier concert venue along the way. Leiweke has built 18 arenas and stadiums in his career, and by 2020 he expects to add another.
Nearly 10 years have passed since the Sonics skipped town, and memories of the forest green jerseys have faded. Just four players from the last Seattle team remain in the NBA. The city won’t get a team back anytime soon, but for the first time in years there is hope that one day it will.