Seattle at Odds with NBA Team on Arena Upgrade

The owners of the Seattle SuperSonics say they'll have to move the team away from Seattle unless their arena is expanded and remodeled. The team's threat to leave didn't push voters to support the funding. A ballot initiative last week bans public subsidies for pro-teams unless the subsidies generate "profits" for the city.

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Voters in Seattle last week voted overwhelmingly to bar the city from spending money on arenas or stadiums unless the deal makes a profit for Seattle. The vote is a rebuff to the local pro basketball franchise, the Seattle SuperSonics, which is asking for an arena upgrade paid for by taxpayers.

But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, voters won't necessarily get the final say.

Unidentified Man (Public Address Announcer): Good evening and welcome to KeyArena at Seattle Center.

MARTIN KASTE: The Sonics play in a pretty iconic spot, an arena built for the 1962 World's Fair just down the block from the Space Needle. It was remodeled to the Sonics' own specifications in 1994. But now the team wants another upgrade, or it may leave.

On his way in to see a game last night, lifelong fan Jason Perry(ph) said there's no way the team can go.

Mr. JASON PERRY (Sonics Fan): They're the Seattle Sonics. It won't sound any - Seattle SuperSonics. You say that with any other beginning besides Seattle, it just doesn't make sense.

KASTE: But on this point Perry may be in the minority.

Mr. CHRIS VAN DYKE (Citizens for More Important Things): Seattle is going to do wonderfully well, in our opinion, without them.

KASTE: Chris Van Dyke runs a group called Citizens for More Important Things. It organized the ballot initiative to curb public spending on sports facilities. He says the prospect of the team's departure leaves the city cold.

Mr. VAN DYKE: It's a little bit like divorce. You're the one who says I'm leaving, not me. I'm still sitting here in my easy chair, okay?

KASTE: But while Van Dyke rebels in the voters' recent disdain for the NBA's pressure tactics, it's probably too soon for him to declare victory.

Mr. TOM MONTGOMERY (Fiscal Accountability for New Stadiums): Watch your back is what I'd say.

KASTE: Tom Montgomery is the Chris Van Dyke of Minnesota. Montgomery used to run a similar group called FANS - Fiscal Accountability for New Stadiums. For years, he and other activist groups successfully fought off a taxpayer-funded stadium for the Twins baseball team.

It made Minnesota a model for anti-stadium activists around the country. But he says after winning all those battles, the activists eventually lost the war.

Mr. MONTGOMERY: It's hard to maintain the level of indignation and outrage necessary. Ultimately they kind of wore people down and figured out an end-run around the voters.

KASTE: The Twins got their stadium deal this past spring after more than a decade of lobbying. Andrew Zimbalist is one of the country's foremost experts on the economics of pro sports. He says in the long run, anti-subsidy movements usually run out of steam.

Professor ANDREW ZIMBALIST (Smith College): One of the things that you see, perhaps with some more frequency today, is individual cities and electorates are standing up and saying that we're going to impose certain conditions on a stadium deal.

But the fundamental facts, you know, still exist, which is that the sports leagues are monopolies and more cities want to have the sports teams, and there are teams available.

Unidentified Man: Your Seattle Super...

KASTE: And the Sonics, it would seem, are not too worried. Team officials would not speak on tape. But spokesman Jim Kneeland says the recent anti-subsidy vote did not, as he puts it, change the landscape.

The team didn't put up an ad campaign against the vote, and even as local papers print dire headlines about the team's imminent departure, Kneeland predicts that the team isn't going anywhere, or at least that it's not going very far.

Nearby cities are not bound by the Seattle vote, and Kneeland points out that most of the team's season ticket holders are from the suburbs anyway.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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