Why the Sonics Left, and the Kings are Staying


Aside from media and rabid Sonics fans in Seattle, probably very few people are actually familiar with all the details of how the Sonics move unfolded. Many are flabbergasted how, facing what seems to be a similar set of circumstances in Sacramento, the Kings appear to be staying.

How could everything have gone so wrong in a great city such as Seattle with such great basketball history and fantastic fan support, yet have worked out so well when the loss of the Kings seemed a forgone conclusion for the people of Sacramento?

Sit back and I'll try to explain...

To do so, we need to look at the events as they happened in Seattle to try to see what the key factors were in the move. All of these dates and details I got from watching the fan produced award winning documentary called Sonicsgate.

The following is in no way intended to be anything uncomplimentary to the Sonicsgate folks. Sonicsgate is understandably intended to be presented from a fan's point of view in a fashion that evokes sympathy for the fan in Seattle. The director is trying to relate the hows and whys of the fans emotional response to the moving of the Sonics, and thus chooses to present facts in an order that enhances the sense of frustration the fans felt. Below I have instead tried to put things in chronological order, and also tried to present things, not as a Sonics fan would necessarily see them, but as the NBA owners might see them.

I do this not because one way is better than the other, but simply because ultimately it is the NBA owners that are making the decisions here as to where the teams will play, so it is they who need to be convinced, regardless of whether one feels that is "right" or "fair." It is just the way things are.

So this is how I think the NBA would see the progression of things...

1962 Key Arena first opens.

1994-1995 Key Arena is renovated costing the City of Seattle $74.5M and the Sonics sign a 15 year lease.

1995 The State of Washington puts up $340M to build Mariners' Safeco Field.

1996 Paul Allen spends $13M on a state election and the public approves $430M for the Qwest Field stadium proposal for the Seahawks.

2001 Barry Ackerley sells the Sonics to Howard Schultz.

2002 Gary Payton holds out, when he is already the top paid guard in the league, so in 2003 Payton is traded for Ray Allen.

2004 Sonics owners Howard Schultz & Wally Walker complain that the now considered sub-NBA-standard Key Arena, as well as a non viable lease arrangement, is responsible for their 58 person ownership group not being able to keep up with player salaries and compete with other teams in the NBA.

2006 Seattle City Council President Nick Licata states in his opinion the local impact if the Sonics left would be near zero economically, and close to zero culturally. He apologizes a few months later but damage is done to the relationship between the city and Sonics ownership.

The City refuses to renegotiate a new lease.

February 23, 2006 Schultz lobbies the State Legislature in Olympia WA for $220M to renovate Key Arena to a standard that would allow the team to stop losing exorbitant amounts of money. David Stern is also in attendance representing the NBA. Schultz says the team has currently lost $60M in the 5 years he has owned the team and he cannot continue to lose that much. Sonics announcer Kevin Calabro admits Key Arena is in the bottom 5 of fan experience, even after it had been redone 10 years earlier, with the smallest NBA seating capacity.

Stern asks the State Legislature if they will offer the same type of financial considerations to the NBA for a new home in Seattle as was given on a state level to MLB and NFL? If not, the NBA will accept that answer, but then the NBA will have to act on it themselves.

April 2006 Wally Walker states that if it is not a realistic possibility that his requirements can be met, we (the City of Seattle and the Sonics owners) both need to move on.

Speaker Frank Chopp of the State Legislature indicates health care and education for children are greater needs than a new Sonics home.

Schultz offers $18 million up front and a new $30 million rent payment if they will agree to the renovation of Key Arena.

Seattle media says that the team is so badly put together by Wally Walker that the legislature doesn't care enough about the team to approve any new funds.

The State Legislature and City Council deny ANY funding to the Schultz group, so Schultz, feeling he cannot keep losing so much money, has no choice but to sell the team.

July 2006 The willing buyer he is able to find is Clay Bennett. Most Seattle fans rightly believe that ultimately Bennett would like to have an NBA team in Oklahoma City, but Bennett specifically states he will try for 12 months to get a new arena plan in order to keep team in town. Bennett has previously been a minority owner of the Spurs, so is well known to the league.

November 2006 Instead of indicating any new willingness to subsidize public sports, the citizens of Seattle pass I-91 which states all public investments in sports arenas must produce a return equal to a US treasury note.

February 2007 Bennett, knowing the state previously approved $340M and $430M for MLB and NFL respectively, goes before the State legislature asking for a public subsidy of $400M to help build a $500M arena in Renton, 25 miles SE of Seattle. It is unclear if he will cover the other $100M of the $500M. He gets nowhere with the Legislature.

April 2007 Bennett responds to one of his fellow owners, Tom Ward, in an email in a way that seems to imply he will now do everything he can to get the team to OKC (he has been in Seattle 3 months short of the 12 months he promised to try to make it work in Seattle with zero progress on a new arena, or even any progress towards a single dollar in subsidy from either the State or the City, and the passage of I-91 is actually backward progress.) Bennett later denies that he meant OKC when he said he would do everything possible, stating he meant he is still doing everything possible to stay in Seattle. Fans are understandably unmoved by his explanation.

August 12, 2007 A co-owner of the Sonics, Aubrey McClendon says, "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle." They HOPED it would come to OKC. Bennett strongly denies this publicly. McClendon is fined by NBA.

August 18, 2007 Stern sends an email to Bennett which indicates Stern is still taking Bennett at his word when Bennett says he is still trying to keep the team in Seattle and doesn't agree with what McClendon says. Stern says he empathizes with the difficulty Bennett is facing trying to find financial support in Seattle and Washington, and finds it hard to see a happy ending in Seattle (based on the legislature's unwillingness to subsidize ANY money, even if they wouldn't agree to the Renton stadium proposal.)

September 21, 2007 14 months after Bennett said he would try to keep the team in Seattle for 12 months, Bennett files for arbitration to break the Key Arena lease saying Key is not a viable NBA arena for a team to be successful even if it were renovated.

November 2, 2007 Bennett files for relocation of the Sonics to OKC.

Frank Chopp says the Sonics owners can pay for it themselves if they want a new arena.

Stern says if he was an owner and the Speaker of the House, Mayor and city council all told him what was just told Bennett, that they will not even attempt to get a bill out for public financing, he would have to think seriously about moving.

March 6, 2008 Mayor Nickels says a potential group headed by Steve Ballmer has agreed to put $150M into Key Arena and the City will put in $75M if the state legislature will agree to another $75M in public investment. Nickels proposes that they can present this $300M offer to the NBA BOG as an alternative offer before a relocation vote. The legislature, headed by Frank Chopp, declines.

April 8, 2008 Nickels says they will be unable to present the $300M offer to the BOG as the state will not put up the public money requirement of the proposal.

Stern makes a public statement in which he makes it crystal clear that the economics of the NBA require public financial support. He states, "The economics of team ownership at the present time, except in very unusual circumstances, requires some kind of public assistance. We had successful votes in San Antonio, Houston, OKC and Orlando. Usually there is support rather than opposition from city leaders."

April 15, 2008 The City and State Legislature, who refused to give any public subsidy to NBA, at least agree to combine to write a letter asking the NBA to prevent the team from moving.

April 18, 2008 The NBA BOG votes 28-2 to allow relocation.

In a press conference following the vote, Seattle reporter Chris Daniels queries Stern about the $300M proposal to which Stern rightly says "there is no proposal" because the public wouldn't put in their $150M portion, thus no proposal. Daniels then asks, if there had been a real $300M proposal, would it matter? Stern replies with his, "I'm not going to talk about how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin" because there is NO PROPOSAL and the legislature has made it rock solid clear, in the minds of the BOG, that there will NEVER be a proposal that includes any state money. Stern relates that the NBA feels the legislative body has decided on a "scorched earth" policy of zero public assistance.

After the relocation vote, Mayor Nickels announces that he will take the NBA to federal court to bar the Sonics from relocating and make them adhere to the two remaining years of their lease. He says he believes during those two years they will find a way to work out the finances of keeping the team permanently.

April 22 2008 Former Sonics owner Schultz sues to force Bennett to sell the team back to a Seattle owner claiming leaked emails prove Bennett never intended to keep team in Seattle.

June 2008 The trial begins. Mayor Nickels admits he doesn't attend Sonics games, and that he himself had said the lease was economically dysfunctional for the team admitting a team could not be successful long term under the current lease. He also admits that both the city and team are losing money under the current system. Nickels also says he wasn't actually working to make a sale to the Ballmer group happen, as he had said he was doing in his deposition. He admits by keeping the Sonics in a dysfunctional arena he hopes during those two years "something might happen" which will allow the Sonics to stay.

Clay Bennett admits he only wanted Oklahoma City based investors, and never considered Key Arena to be viable (which to this day in 2013 is a sentiment shared by NBA owners.) He argues that his commitment to stay in Seattle was still genuine in April 2007, which is believed by nobody in Seattle.

Bennett's lawyer Keller makes the argument that the city was colluding with the Ballmer group to force Bennett to sell the team by bleeding them dry over the two years they would be forced to stay if the lease is upheld. He presents a "Poisoned Well" argument stating Ballmer, Gorton and Walker have a carefully crafted plan to make it untenable for Bennett to remain an owner, making him lose money and embarrassing him over the two years. Wally Walker argues he just wants the team to stay, period.

Keller argues the lease should be broken because the landlord is trying to enforce it for an improper purpose when both sides are admitting that the lease is no longer financially functional.

An hour before the verdict is to be read, Bennett and Nickels call simultaneous press conferences in which they announced a settlement. The lease will be terminated for a settlement package of up to $75M for Seattle paid by Bennett. $45M is to be paid immediately and $30M in 2013 if the NBA has not approved a team to play in Seattle. To get the $30M, however, the legislature also has to reverse it's no public money stance by 2009.

The legislature fails to do this (and has continued to fail), so eventually the extra $30M payment is void.

To all in Seattle it seems clear: Nickels has sold out the fans. Nickels states he has agreed to a settlement that is the best deal they could have hoped for from the NBA even had they made the Sonics stay and negotiate for the two years. He argues that, even had they won the court case and forced the Sonics to stay for two years, the NBA would have NEVER let ANY team be in Seattle after those two years.

In hindsight, fans believe that had they won the court case instead of settling, Bennett would have sold the team to local investors out of necessity when the economy took a dump, causing McClendon to lose a couple billion dollars. Basically they acknowledge they think the "poisoned well" plan would have worked to keep the team.

Shortly after the settlement between the City of Seattle and Bennett is announced, Schultz drops his suit against Bennett claiming 1) even if he won there was not enough time to find a local owner willing to step in and buy the team in a timely manner and 2) the City of Seattle no longer wished him to press on as they felt a confrontational attitude with the NBA was no longer advantageous in future efforts to regain a team.

Sonics fans come away claiming everyone from, Schultz, Licata, Chopp, Nickels, Bennett and Stern are scumbags.

So what can a Sacramento Kings fan take from all of that?

The Citizens of Seattle who were actual Sonics fans rocked and showed unwavering support for their team, but it wasn't enough.

Schutz and Stern tried to get a state public subsidy for an amount MUCH less than had already been given by the state for MLB and NFL arenas. Had this been agreed to, or even negotiated on, the Sonics would still be in Seattle.

The City of Seattle never officially offered a new subsidy either, but they had put $74.5M previously into a renovation of Key Arena, even though the $7.4M a year for 10 years it worked out to for the renovation apparently was only able to keep the arena viable for 10 years.

Everyone in Seattle should have known from the beginning that Bennett's greatest desire was to have a team in OKC.

With that said, Bennett said from the beginning that he would only try to make things work in Seattle for 12 months and after that he would have to look at relocating.

Whether fans, media or public leaders felt Bennett's Renton arena plan was a valid plan or not, the truth of the matter is that NO alternative funding plan was ever consummated to counter Bennett's proposal, and in fact a new law was passed by a super majority of citizens stating they wished to make it even harder to publicly support professional sports arenas.

Bennett did wait over 12 months before trying to break the Key Arena lease in order to move the team.

There was no public support for subsidies nor city nor state leader support during the entire process.

Stern, from day one, made no bones about it that a subsidy would be necessary if the team were to remain in Seattle. To claim Stern somehow lied or misled about this is disingenuous. One may not agree that a new arena was actually necessary, but one can't say Stern didn't make himself clear on what the NBA's priority was on the subject.

Which leads us finally to what Sacramento did right.

As soon as the Maloofs made it clear that the team was actually for sale:

1)The Citizens of Sacramento who were actual Kings fans rocked and showed unwavering support for their team, but it wasn't enough.

2) Sacramento's Mayor made it clear he would do ANYTHING to keep the Kings in town.

3) The CA State legislature made it clear that they would support efforts to streamline keeping the Kings in town.

4) Sacramento City, encouraged by a strong grassroots presence, attracted multiple viable owners willing to pay substantial money to not only buy the team at a previously unheard of price to keep the team in town, but put $1 billion in total money into a combined arena plan and development around the arena and in the city.

5) Sacramento City agreed to provide a substantial public subsidy, not just a loan, to partner with the new ownership group.

In fact, not only did the mayor, citizens and City of Sacramento come up with all of this after the Maloofs indicated they were willing to sell, but they came up with a similar NBA approved plan BEFORE the Maloofs were willing to sell two years previously!

Where Seattle leaders believed they shouldn't have to do anything to keep their team, Sacramento leaders went above and beyond to meet every desire of the NBA.

And with the recent revelation by the Miami heat owner that keeping a team in their city is always the first desire of the NBA as long as the other needs are met, it is clear now why Sacramento, it appears, will keep their team while Seattle could not.

Disclosure: I am a Sacramento Kings fan foremost so if this seems slanted to you, it probably and unapologetically is so. As always, I reserve the right to fix any errors you kindly point out in the comments. ;) In this article I specifically used Sonicsgate as a source because, even though I may or may not agree with each opinion on various facts, I wanted to show support for them and the fans in Seattle, and get beyond the discourteous banter that has been going on between fan groups. I thank Sonicsgate for their great resource. Watch it and support them at

Dave Lack was the longtime webmaster of the Bleacher Mob and Kingsfanclub websites way-back-when before real life became too hectic.

You can follow him on Twitter at @davelack

Other Fanposts by Dave Lack:

Layman's Guide to Anti-Trust Law as it applies to the Kings

Does Kings' future hinge on NBA's willingness to admit a mistake?

SAC or SEA, the choice that benefits ALL owners more

Why ROFO may actually now mean Kings ballgame

Sacramento Kings were making more money than the Seattle Sonics? Yup!

The Most Interesting Man in Sacramento...Suddenly

You think the NBA doesn't care about Sacramento? You are wrong!

"Vetting" the character of the potential Kings Owners

Sacramento Kings - Back to Yesterday Nostalgic Video

(This is a FanPost from a member of the Sactown Royalty community. The views expressed come from the member, and not Sactown Royalty staff.)