Seattle Sonics: Public Financing of Private Bigotry?

Jon Perr

With the stories of Paul Allen's bid to repurchase the Rose Garden Arena and Mayor Tom Potter's courtside seats there, the Portland Trail Blazers have been in the news a lot lately, and not just on the sports page. But now it's the team to the north, the Seattle Sonics, at the center of a controversy.

In Seattle, the already fierce debate about public financing for a new basketball arena for the NBA's Sonics is about to get a lot hotter. As The Stranger first reported yesterday, Sonics co-owners Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward contributed $1.1 million to fund the anti-same-sex marriage campaign of radical crusader Gary Bauer.

The revelations come at a delicate time for Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and the Democratic-controlled state legislature. They are currently considering the team's proposal for $300 million in public financing for a $500 million arena complex to be built in nearby Renton on Boeing property. Governor Gregoire has been mildly supportive of the Sonics' ownership team proposal to replace the outdated Key Arena in Seattle and thus avert a threatened franchise move to Oklahoma City.

But with this week's revelations, Oklahoma City might be a more hospitable climate for Ward and McClendon, two of the team's co-owners along with Clay Bennett. While Washington Democrats have solidly supported the rights of the state's gay citizens, McClendon and Ward contributed $625,000 and $475,000 to Bauer's Americans United to Preserve Marriage for the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, amounts constituting almost the entirety of the $1.3 million his group spent.

Bauer ran for President in 2000 and has been at the forefront of the religious right's fight against civil rights and marriage equality for gay Americans. Bauer has also been a fixture at conservative events such as Justice Sunday and the so-called Values Voters Summit. The latter right-wing hate-fest included Bishop Wellington Boone proclaiming "I want the gays mad at me," attacks on "faggots" and "sissies," and one speaker's declaration that " the gay rights movement was inspired from the pit of hell itself." Bauer himself vociferously opposes same-sex marriage and protections against workplace discrimination and hiring, while encouraging gay Americans to "get out of a destructive lifestyle."

Faced with a public relations fiasco, Sonics spokesman Jim Kneeland claimed that the ownership's links to Bauer hardly ally the team with the recent homophobic comments of retired NBA star Tim Hardaway:

"People are entitled to have their views, they are not views that I happen to agree with...but they are not trying to impose them on anyone out here. I won't argue that some of the owners may have more conservative political views than the norm out here; one of the things that they agreed to when they bought the team is that they would leave their politics at the state line. They have done that. They were not involved in the election cycle out here last year and have no intention of doing so."

The government and voters of Washington state, of course, will ultimately have to make that judgment. While public financing of sports stadiums rarely can be justified economic grounds alone, the expenses are often worth bearing for community building and civic pride.

But in King County, Washington, the questions will be: Whose pride? At whose expense?

UPDATE:  AJ rightly notes that it was Josh Feit at The Stranger, and not editor Dan Savage, who apparently broke this story here and here. The correction is reflected above.

Comments

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    The views of the co-owners of the Sonics are irrelevant with regard to whether or not they should get taxpayer dollars to help them pay for a new arena -- they should not get any subsidy simply because it's bad policy for a number of reasons, mostly for being an anti-free enterprise policy.

    It's hard to get out of this public-private partnership garbage in the sports industry -- it should never have started in the first place. But once someone got the idea it grew to what we have now and may be impossible to get back in the bottle.

    Rather than always blame owners, which much of the left does, people need to start questioning more of this government corporate welfare garbage and be prepared to lose a team or two from their area. Local government elites feel important by having pro sports teams around so they are very willing to hand out money, a fact that sports team owner take advantage of, and who can blame them when they see all kinds of development subsidies around in the cities?

    ALl sports team owners should pay for their own arenas and stadiums, period. If the result is smaller, less posh stadiums and arenas, the so be it. I have noted that when faced with the loss of a team both the quasi free enterprise people and the alleged corporate welfare haters cave and support| the usual scam. But what else can one expect when the progressive argument -- that "if the private sector can't do it then the government must" -- has caused any principles on this issue to be worthless.

    Bob Tiernan

  • Garrett (unverified)
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    I really think everyone might get a little too PC when you start thinking about who what where so and so who owns a SPORTS team is giving money too. I think being a basketball/baseball team owner isn't exactly a profitable enterprise these days anyway unless your team is wildly successful or has a deep tradition. Look at the Blazers. I don't think that not buying a ticket is going to hurt someone that owns a sports team's pocket book all that much.

    Why shouldn't govts. help pay for a stadium? I've heard every argument either way. Seems like an investment for the community in the end. Sure the taxpayers pony up a little bit of money up front but eventually the stadium pays for itself with the extra taxes and levies you can put on stadium related things. Pretend we had a baseball team here. How many times a year do you or people you know travel to Seattle to go see the Mariners? I do it 2-3 times a season. Each trip costs me a minimum of $100 I just spent in Washington rather than in Oregon. We also get a big stadium to host other events which bring in even more revenue for the city or state.

  • BlueNote (unverified)
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    My thoughts, in no particular order:

    1. Good to hear that we have solved Oregon's problems and can now give advice to Washington.

    2. Praising or condemning a sports-business franchise based upon the political leanings of its individual investors is absurd. Do you choose a muffler shop based upon the political contributions of the 20% co-owner?

    3. The author of this article is critical of the Seattle NBA franchise seeking a public subsidy, but he is silent regarding the intense pressure on the WA legislature to subsidize a NASCAR track in either Bremerton, WA or perhaps in Tenino, WA (south of Olympia). Given the choice, I would much rather have a publicly subsidized NBA stadium in Seattle than use public money to build a place where a bunch of obnoxious white trash Republican Crackers can get drunk, waive Confederate flags and watch loud cars drive in a circle.

    And yes, I do know that NASCAR is "America's Sport".

  • Jon (unverified)
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    BlueNote et al,

    Just to clarify:

    1. I do not a priori oppose public funding of professional sports venues. I believe that sports franchises bring a host of non-economic benefits to a metropolitan area that aren't easily quantified. It's hard to put a price tag on the community pride, civic unity and informal social capital that pro teams can provide. For those reasons, I often support putting public $$ behind private franchises. Just ask the people of Cleveland about the role of the NFL's Browns in their community.

    2. I agree with BlueNote that business owners of any ilk have the right to express their views and finance political causes of their choice, right or left. As with any aspect of their "brand," those actions do have consequences with their "customers." And while applying litmus tests from either the left or right can quickly be taken too far, they are factors team ownership needs to expect to contend with.

    3. My main point above was merely to highlight that a very contentious issue of public financing of a private sports franchise was about to become a lot more contentious. The residents and political leaders of Washington state will have to weigh all these considerations when they decide the fate of the Sonics.

    As for NASCAR, I didn't focus on it, as the heated issue of the owners political contributions wasn't relevant. But it would seem that a NASCAR track would need to have better economic fundamentals, as the intangible community benefits of "team support" seem to be missing.

  • Lee (unverified)
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    Perr's comment that stadiums "expenses are often worth bearing for community building and civic pride" is patently false. Ask Pittsburg that is getting its first major building after twenty years, ask Washington DC, the list goes on. Plus there are numerous economic studies that totally disproves Perr's comment. More false "hype", just like Convention Centers and their hotels.

  • Jon (unverified)
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    Lee,

    You seem to have missed my point. I complete agree with you that public investments in sports stadiums often do NOT payoff from a strictly ROI perspective. Note the full sentence from my piece from which you excerpted your quote:

    "While public financing of sports stadiums rarely can be justified economic grounds alone, the expenses are often worth bearing for community building and civic pride."

    As my comment above explains, many cities will still support the investments on non-economic grounds, including such estorica as "esthetics" and "being a big league city." People in San Francisco probably feel pretty good about Pac Bell Park or San Jose about its arena, given the transformative impact those venues had on their respective cities. Again, the example of Cleveland, where the team, the city and the league all helped finance Cleveland Browns stadium, shows the impact of a pro franchise as a community rallying point.

    That's something no convention center or hotel can provide.

  • (Show?)

    >a NASCAR track would need to have better economic fundamentals, as the intangible community benefits of "team support" seem to be missing.

    Not only that, but a NASCAR track is less useful for non-auto-racing related purposes, and almost by definition will be sited in a place inaccessible to transit. Properly designed (and with appropriate lease protections for the government that supported it), a basketball /hockey arena (or a baseball or football stadium) can be a significant asset to a community and can attract high-profile conferences and conventions, with their associated hotel and restaurant spending.

    Garrett is correct up to a point. Most sports franchises do not show an operating profit. However, many are part of conglomerated enterprises that might include TV/radio rightsholders (paying less than arm's length market value) or other entities that are soaking up some of the cash flow that might more accurately be attributed to the team operations. The real profit play in franchise ownership has always been the expectation that at resale time the franchise value will have increased significantly.

    Here is a somewhat cynical but worthwhile look at the economics of Major League Baseball, from a few years ago.

  • aj (unverified)
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    Clarification: That was Josh Feit who first reported it at the Stranger, not Dan Savage (Dan's the editor, Josh the news editor). Feit's still chasing it down, too...

  • Jon (unverified)
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    AJ,

    Thank you for the catch. I added an update to the post to reflect your correction.

    Jon

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)
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    Bob T. is absolutely right (for once).

    The question the citizens of Seattle must ask themselves is this: Is the continued existence of a professional basketball team in Seattle worth several hundred million dollars? If yes, then pay for it. If not, then don't. And, as many sports fans can attest, a team's "worth" is more than just any alleged generation of economic benefits.

    The question would be even more difficult for Portlanders should the Blazers start following through on their threats from last season (especially if Seattle becomes a non-NBA city - Paul Allen might be further tempted). At least Seattle would still have professional football and baseball. We would have no MAJOR (answer to Timber and Lumberjax fans) professional sports team in town.

    Finally, I would note that the second largest media and population market in the U.S. does not have a professional football team, and Los Angeles has not ended as we know it.

  • Steve (unverified)
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    "While public financing of sports stadiums rarely can be justified economic grounds alone, the expenses are often worth bearing for community building and civic pride."

    Uh, excuse me, what about good schools and adequate public safety for community building and civic pride?

    Amaaaaaaaaaazing how we can dig up $500M to build a new playground for millionaire ballplyers and billionaire owners, yet we keep raising tuition and schools get lousier. This is just another example of politicos going for the exciting big splash projects to get votes while the boring, but necessary things get ignored. The same thing happens in Portland with the tram and PGE Park amongst others. And don't blame the Repblicans for this.

    I like sports, but this reeks.

  • Awake (unverified)
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    "Do you choose a muffler shop based upon the political contributions of the 20% co-owner?"

    Absolutely, and you're a fool ... er, I mean "good American consumer" ... if you don't.

    In our economy and political culture, dollars mean more than votes. Those who believe otherwise are either hopelessly naive, or paid P.R. flacks who live in fear of the day the average American consumer begins watching and caring where their dollars go.

    Vote with your dollars. We are what we buy.

  • Answer (unverified)
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    "We would have no MAJOR (answer to Timber and Lumberjax fans) professional sports team in town."

    And that in itself would be a mark of distinction (1) in perfect keeping with Portland's culture, and (2) which would perhaps actually attract some attention worth having.

    Give Portland a Nanotech or Biomedical Research facility, and we'll get excited. Talk to us about the Blazers and Paul Allen, and we'll scan for the exit (as in "buh-bye, Paul, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out").

    The Blazers. Who cares? I mean, really ... who? If I could even name any of the players (which I can't) I'd be embarassed to admit it in public. And, if I see one Portland elected official spend one more dime on Paul Allen and his holdup gang, there will be HELL to pay on election day.

  • Answer (unverified)
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    p.s. anyone reading my responses who thinks something along the lines of "yeah, but what about the NASCAR and Gresham vote" needs to be a LOT more worried about the "I'm under 40, use the internet daily, and am being screwed out of my future by public debt" vote.

    Give Paul Allen and his holdup gang one thin dime and there will be HELL to pay on election day.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Urban Planning Overlord:

    The question the citizens of Seattle must ask themselves is this: Is the continued existence of a professional basketball team in Seattle worth several hundred million dollars? If yes, then pay for it.

    Bob T:

    I would never agree with the latter point at all. Period.

    Does anyone think that professional sports will disappear if owners stop getting taxpayer dollars (i.e. when our elitist local politicians rediscover free market sports and get off the ego trip of having a sports team to brag about). If owners have to pay for their own stadiums and arenas, like Safeway pays for their own buildings etc, we may see smaller stadiums and arenas (seating-wise, and aesthetic-wise), smaller salaries and the like, but so what? We're never going to run out of people who will play a sport for money, even at 10 percent of what they are getting now. Besides, with TV and radio ads being a major source of revenue now the large stadium isn't needed (and never was needed, in my opinion).

    Problem I see is that when a bluff is called and an owner starts to leave a city, even the so-called progressives cave and make a deal. Yeah, having a sports team and stadium is part of New Urbanism now. Cities have to have their entertainment, even if subsidized.

    Bob Tiernan

  • Robert Harris (unverified)
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    Sports teams could easily pay for their own arenas, but instead they chose to pay athletes multimillion dollar salaries.

    The Sonics payroll is about 57 million per year. If they got a 30 year bond at 5.7% their monthly PI would be about 2.3 million, or about 28 million per year. And, if the City wanted, and were able, to use their bonding ability to assist in these bonds, maybe the interest rate could go down a point or so and the PI would even be less.

    But lets assume the PI is 28 mil/year.

    All these sports teams have to do is to redirect their income from salaries to building their own plant. Sure, Ray Allen would only make 8 million per year and Luke Ridenour would only maake 3.25 million. But it seems that if the players makes that kind of a living, its a good investment for them.

    So the problem is not and never has been the ability of these teams to pay for their own offices. Its the fact that they've used our love of sports to blackmail voters and flatter the politicians into paying to build their offices for them. What a deal.

    The solution....? I don't know, but perhaps federal legislation either prohibiting public funding of sports stadiums, or penalizing the cities that do subsidize by cutting federal development grants dollar for dollar.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Robert Harris:

    So the problem is not and never has been the ability of these teams to pay for their own offices. Its the fact that they've used our love of sports to blackmail voters and flatter the politicians into paying to build their offices for them. What a deal.

    Bob T:

    That's somewhat misleading, and an example of giving politicians a pass and making them "victims". Progressives always want to blame the businessman.

    Let's look at this. Once a local government subsidized or built and outright owned a stadium or arena used by a local pro-sports team, that genie was out of the bottle. Other team owners noticed that, and city leaders saw that keeping a team, even through corporate welfare, was good in order to boost the "image" (the vision thing, you know) of the city.

    I hear the excuse, even from so-called anti-corporate welfare people, that "if we don't do this, some other city will get the team". That's what I mean. When the bluff is called, even many progressives (so-called) cave. That's what happens when these anti-free enterprise people are wedded to that crap like "If the government won't do it, nobody can". Nonsense -- team owners can pay for their own stadiums. Trick is to make sure we don't elect city leaders who agree. Instead we get jerks like Sten who are corporate welfare advocates despite the progressive myth about him. Randy Leonard wants to subsidize a stadium for sure.

    I'm willing to say "No" to all of these thing, even the convention center scams ("We need a bigger one because we're 'losing' conventions to other cities") which just go through a cycle (those other cities expanded theirs when ours got bigger I guess).

    The "anchor" hotel is another scam. One could have been built years ago, to be expanded as nusiness increased, but the city said "No, we want it to be huge from the get-go", and it didn't get built as the almost-owner had his permit denied. Then the city leaders said, "Look, the market isn't working - we must subsidize". And the idiots believe them.

    Bob Tiernan

  • Scott (unverified)
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    Garret,

    To answer your question, I've been to one Mariner baseball game in the past 5 years.

    I do watch almost all of them on TV though, in the comfort of my own home.

    I've also been to just two Blazer games in the past five years. Once again, 2/3rds of their games are on TV.

    While we have broken families trying to stay off of the streets, wouldn't a better public investment be supporting the many non-profits rather than making a stadium subsidy payment to one of the worlds 10 richest men?

    There are only so many tax dollars available, it all depends how you spend them.

    If you try and change too much in taxes, people find ways to shelter their income, or simply move out of the geographic area of taxation.

  • BlueNote (unverified)
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    Joe and Jimbo love attending sporting events in a tax subsidized stadium, having a few brewskis, and lusting after the well-endowed cheerleaders (oops, "dancers"). But if you ask them about a tax subsidy for health care or food subsidies for the indigent or working poor, you will likely get a ballistic tirade about high tax rates, welfare cheats, etc.

    So, until we have a substantial majority of progressive voters and a very small minority of "Joe and Jimbos", I am not hopeful that this issue will be intelligently resolved.

    Meanwhile, have you checked out the "racks" on the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly World Wrestling Federation)) ring announcer "girls"? Now there is a sport that deserves a public subsidy! Rose Garden, what are you waiting for?!!!

    (for our moron viewers, the last paragraph was sarcasm)

  • urban planning overlord (unverified)
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    Bob T.: Unfortunately, if Seattle doesn't succumb to blackmail the Sonics will leave.

    It's a race to the bottom between cities and sports teams in this nation. As long as just a few cities are willing to pay the blackmail, the sports teams will use the tactic. Only when virtually every city in the U.S. refuses to succumb will your vision become reality.

    And, unfortunately, there are still a lot of cities in this country willing to pay the blackmail. And my "Los Angeles and the NFL" example shows how powerful the blackmail is - it overcomes even the obvious advantage for the NFL as a whole to have a team in the second largest market in the U.S.

    So my question, and choice, for Seattle voters still stands.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Urban Planning Overlord:

    Bob T[,] Unfortunately, if Seattle doesn't succumb to blackmail the Sonics will leave.

    Bob T:

    My answer to that, for any city, any team, is "so what". I'm as interested in seeing tax dollars given to someone to build a muffler shop as I am in seeing sports welfare. It's not my concern whether i exists or not, so they can't get my money, or yours. Yes, I'll protect yours, too.

    Urban Planning Overlord

    It's a race to the bottom between cities and sports teams in this nation. As long as just a few cities are willing to pay the blackmail, the sports teams will use the tactic. Only when virtually every city in the U.S. refuses to succumb will your vision become reality.

    Bob T:

    I'm willing to start right here. Are you? Are progressives? Or will they buy into that garbage that "it's good for the local economy" ? That's what we've gotten with this New Deal "managed economy".

    Urban Planning Overlord

    And, unfortunately, there are still a lot of cities in this country willing to pay the blackmail.

    Bob T:

    Again, if it's blackmail then it's blackmail that local government idiots and voters, with their distrust of free enterprise, created and apparently are wedded to as much as the owners have been. Don't give me this "the poor cities are being blackmailed" junk. The losers are those good voters who oppose this scat and still get their money taken away, even by drek like Sten.

    Urban Planning Overlord:

    And my "Los Angeles and the NFL" example shows how powerful the blackmail is - it overcomes even the obvious advantage for the NFL as a whole to have a team in the second largest market in the U.S.

    Bob T:

    San Franciscoi voters said "Nyet" to the new baseball stadium, which then got mostly funded privately. That's a big improvement. And again, do you really think pro sports will disappear?

    Oh, if we vote "no" in Portland, the local elites will take our money anyway, like they did with North-South light rail (which is why they don't allow votes anymore on light rail).

    <h2>Bob Tiernan</h2>

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