Basics Issue #9 (May 2008)
It was 1967 when the Seattle SuperSonics made their NBA debut in the rainy west coast U.S. city. Over the years NBA greats like Lenny Wilkins, Jack Sikma, Xavier McDaniels and of course the famous 1990’s duo of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp would become synonymous with the Sonics franchise. Forty-one years and a championship later they have become a part of the pop culture of Seattle, a recreational outlet for generations of Seattle working people who have supported the team emotionally and of course, economically.
While many of the people of Seattle have embraced the Sonics over the years, it’s a loyalty that wasn’t to be returned by NBA Commissioner David Stern and the Sonic’s private ownership groups. With the Sonics now due to be moved out of Seattle either this coming season or within the next two years at the latest (pending court disputes), a whole generation of fans is discovering that what they thought was an entertaining escape from the grind of daily life is yet another opportunity for the rich to get richer, or punish the world trying.
The basic problem is the corporate model of most professional sports franchises that predominates in North America. It’s a model whereby private owners expect to have their private profits subsidized through public tax money. If the city councillors or other local politicians (rightfully) refuse such a ridiculous but all too common arrangement, the owners threaten to move the team elsewhere, and every now and then that threat is carried out as a collective punishment on a city that stands its ground protecting public funds.
This is the situation Seattle fans have found themselves in. The recent chapter started in 2001 when the Sonics were purchased by Howard Schultz, the billionaire magnate of the Starbucks empire and infamous supporter of Israel’s racist militarism. Despite tax payers forking over $100 million for a new arena in 1995, Schultz held the city of Seattle hostage to a demand for a new $220 million renovation that he felt the public should again pay. When this was refused, NBA commissioner David Stern began making noises about moving the team (despite it being one of the NBA’s most successful franchises) out of Seattle.
It was a threat he shamefully intended to make good on. In 2006 the NBA approved the sale of the Sonics to an Oklahoma City based business group headed by Clay Bennett, a personal friend of David Stern’s. Despite empty public statements about making a good faith effort to keep the team in Seattle, the ransom was now raised to a new $500 million arena (again to be paid for publicly, but to be privately owned and to price out many of the working class fans). With this absurd demand also refused (the fact is the whole franchise itself had only been purchased for $350 million), Stern and Bennett then pushed through NBA approval to move the franchise to Oklahoma in order to send a message to sports fans throughout North America: if you refuse to publicly-subsidize the private profits of these team owners, your team could be next. Of course, the one reply they aren’t expecting in return, is perhaps the one ordinary working sports fans should most consider: it’s time to stop getting screwed and demand affordable cultural entertainment through not-for-profit publicly-owned teams, like the Green Bay Packers and Saskatchewan Roughriders. ∗