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Save our Sonics

This isn't so much a college issue, but I have a microphone, and you don't.  So you will listen to every damn word I have to say!

I realize that this may seem idealist, but every movement starts with ideas.  Help me spread them.  After all, what have we got to lose?

Obviously, we are all sports fans here.  We come in various degrees, from the die-hards to the casual fans.  And we all have a tremendous investment in our teams.  Sure, there is the monetary investment--tickets, merchandise, etc.  But even greater than our financial investment is our emotional investment.  It is completely irrational, but our teams become a vital part of our identity.  They mean more to us than our possessions.  For many of us, they mean more than our jobs.  And for a few misguided souls, even their families.  We are overcome with joy at the thought of winning a championship.  Losing on Saturday will sour the whole weekend.  Losing a big game may have you in tears.  No, not everyone is this level of sports fan--but many millions are.  As much as where we are from, we as a country define ourselves by what team we follow.

For many of us, sports largely shape our childhood, which forms the foundations of our identity.  When I think of my best childhood memories, I have the memories of family vacations and holidays, but right there with them are Ken Griffey, Jr. carrying the Mariners on his back to beat the Yankees in the playoffs, Kenny Wheaton's interception, and the minor league baseball games that made me fall in love with sports in the first place.  Our connection with game we have no bearing on and players we don't know is completely irrational--yet I (and many of you) probably spend more time in a year engaged in sports related activities then we do performing our jobs.  I would never put sports in front of my family.  But there also is no denying that our team affiliations make life much more of an emotional roller coaster than they would otherwise be.

I write this because the games that we love, the have become a part of us, are at a crossroads.  We have reached a critical point where the greed of the people running our sports leagues--who have preyed on this emotional attachment for their own financial benefit for years--are threatening to bring the whole thing to a collapse.  "You're silly, Dave," you're saying.  "Our leagues are more popular than they have ever been."  But spectacular collapses are rarely built in a day.  Some fans might be skeptical of my warning.  Surely, owners are likely too smug to heed it.  But you don't bite the hands that feed you.  And if professional sports owners and executives want to ensure that they'll continue to be the preferred pastime in our country, there is only one thing they can do.

Save our Sonics.

Now, understand that I am not a Sonics fan.  I am a Portland Trail Blazers fan when it comes to professional basketball.  And I am hardly saying that if the Sonics do indeed move to Oklahoma City that professional sports will collapse as a result.  But this has to be ground zero for our fight.  If we are to reclaim our teams and our games, we have to draw our line in the ground right now.  Seattleites are fighting, and we must stand with them.

It is us who have made the team owners rich

Now, some may say that this is simply the market playing itself out.  The teams are moving to where there is more demand.  However, this is clearly a case of market failure.

Lets look at the case of the Los Angeles Rams (who were originally pilfered from Cleveland) as an example.  Certainly, the market does not dictate that it is the best course of action to move from the second biggest market in the country to the 22nd.  That's less TVs to market to.  Less butts to put into seats.  Oh, and there are substantial relocation fees to pay ($29 million in the case of the Rams).  The market does not dictate that you leave a fifty-year brand name in a bigger market to start over again in a smaller market.  And this is where the market fails.  It just doesn't make economic sense.

The government is supposed to be hands off the market.  But people are so scared that their team is going to leave, or so anxious to get their hands on a team of their own, that they instruct their government leaders to build giant facilities for these businesses.  With the decline in the American manufacturing sector, we have seen the stench of public welfare move into other industries as well, but professional sports pioneered it.  I know that I have supported Oregon's quest to get a new arena based on taxpayer bonds, but the University of Oregon is a publicly owned entity, so it is the public's job to take care of it, plus, we also have the guarantee that the University will never leave.  With pro sports teams, all you get is a lease.  And there is no guarantee that will be kept to.  Oh, and simply building a stadium is not enough.

Lets take the case of my beloved baseball team, the Mariners.  When Safeco Field was built to the tune of $517 million, the Mariners, whom the facility was built for, chipped in $100 million.  However, $40 million of their $100 million was paid for by naming rights.  On could argue that since the Mariners don't own Safeco Field, were the naming rights ever really theirs to sale?  It didn't matter.  Unless you wanted the M's to move to Tampa Bay, those were the terms that would be agreed to.  Its also worth noting that the M's get all parking, concessions and advertising revenue, and even keep all rents from other events.  In exchange for all this, the M's give the Stadium Authority--the actual owners of the stadium--$700,000 a year in rent.

Of course, all this came before the lease on the Kingdome was up.  And, while the Kingdome was definitely an ugly facility, it was a functional facility that could still be in use today and spared taxpayers hundreds of millions.  Owners would argue that they couldn't make a profit there without luxury boxes and restaurants.  However, if owners are having trouble making profits shouldn't they be asking if the market can really support the salaries that they are giving players rather then strong-arming fans who are making them rich in the first place?

The Sonics case is even more curious than that of the Mariners.  The fans have supported the team for 42 years.  Less than 15 years ago, the taxpayers of Seattle built what NBA commissioner David Stern called at the time a "state of the art arena".  They made it about ten years through their lease before they were already demanding another one.  Ten years.  Is that the current lifespan on sports facilities?  Oh, and nobody argues that Key Arena is a great basketball arena.  It even has luxury boxes.  But it doesn't have restaurants and square footage for stores.  When the hell did basketball become about restaurants and stores?

Not to mention the team was bought under fraudulent pretences by a maverick owner with hell-bent intentions to move the team regardless.  And there is reasonable evidence to suggest that the Commish, who is not aging gracefully (see the bungled moves of the Charlotte Hornets and Vancouver Grizzlies--both of whom were doing dramatically better in the cities they moved from), was in cahoots with his good buddy to get him a team in OKC at any cost.

And speaking of markets, would the market dictate that you move a team from Seattle, a major TV markets with tons of money and lots of millionaires, to a mid-sized city such as Oklahoma City?  Moving from Vancouver to Memphis was bungled; this could be a disaster.

Oh, and I sympathize with OKC.  I have always wanted Portland to have an MLB team.  But not like this.  I want our own expansion team that we can embrace as our own.  Not someone else's pilfered heritage.

Why is congress investigating steroids, but not this?  I know that threats of stripping some antitrust exemptions would be a good place to start.

Now, we have allowed this to happen.  But it is time to fight back.

Owners may own the teams legally, but we have earned them.  Our time, our money, our emotions have given us a stake in the team.  We are the team's soul.  And say what you want about legal obligations, but owners have a moral obligation to the cities that have supported them and made them rich.  You may own the deed to the Sonics, but Seattle owns their soul.  And while you may have the legal right, you don't have the moral right to take that away from them.

Now, Seattle is putting up a hell of a fight.  The city is not going to let them out of their lease.  The city is suing the team.  The fans are suing the team.  The former owner is suing the new owners for fraud.  All the while, local ownership groups have formed and plans for a new facility are in place.  The NBA is looking bad, and they are running out of excuses.

And we should all support them.  Maybe there doesn't seem like there is a lot we can do.  But we can continue to make this an issue.  We can devote our blog space to it.  We can write our papers.  And let our voices be heard.  Pro owners have forgotten whom they work for--who writes their checks--and it is time to remind them.  After all, this could be your team in the not too distant future.  Buffalo Bills.  Florida Marlins.  Tampa Bay Rays.  If you're not there now, who will be there to fight for you?  Even those of you who think you are safe--how long until your team wants a new building again?

The owners also need to beware.  They take for granted that we will always be there.  But, if the NBA leaves Seattle, why should Seattle care about the NBA anymore?  Why should Vancouver care?  Or San Diego?  Or Buffalo? Or the other cities that the NBA has abandoned?  Some of these cities hold out hopes for another franchise.  But that franchise could just be flipped again.  People will catch on.  And they will realize its not worth the heartache.  It won't happen just yet.  But the seeds are being sown.  After all, moving the Grizzlies after six years is one thing.  Moving a team after 42 is something different altogether.  If the Sonics--42 years in Seattle playing in a 12-year old building--aren't safe, who is?

We may be small, but we are many.

Save our sports.  Save our memories.

Save our Sonics.