Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Seattle Sonics Moved; What Happened Then?

If you're interested in sports meta-issues, here's another question: does it really matter, ratings-wise, which teams are in the World Series or Super Bowl?

In 2008 the Seattle SuperSonics professional basketball team moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. The reason, more or less, was the stadium: newer stadiums have more ways to part fans with money (i.e., space for selling expensive food and beer, plus branded merchandise), which is why professional sports organizations' demands to the cities they're in usually revolve around getting new stadiums. To do this they often demand (and get) tax money; a pretty ballsy demand from a private organization. The way the teams get their way with government is their unstated threat that, if they leave, there will be backlash from fans against the mayor and other government officials for the loss of jobs from the area where the team played, as well as the emotional impact of losing the franchise.

That's the fear the team ownerships play off anyway. So when the Supersonics left Seattle, what happened?

There's a whole documentary about this, Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team, embedded below. First, there was a referendum passed that essentially disallowed any taxpayer supported stadium* with 70% voter approval. That wide of a margin is amazing in itself; and in fact around the country any time these kinds of discussions have happened in the open, taxpayer opinion has been similarly negative. And this makes sense, because it's been proven, by economists, in impartial peer-reviewed journals, that sports stadiums do not help their local economies. Of course, they do help the franchise owners, but it's not taxpayers' job or desire to line the owners' pockets. Literature fans will recognize writer Sherman Alexie in the documentary but his and others' argument that capitalism always ends up redistributing taxpayer dollars to the wealthy is transparently irrelevant ("but everybody else does it!"); most taxpayers don't mind as much if that wealthy person is going to be creating jobs, and again: professional sports arenas do not create jobs.

So when cities do cave in to professional sports groups and give them our tax money, why? Are they just delusional about the job-creation prospects? Or is there backroom corruption? That's possible of course, but what's certain is that voters react irrationally when things happen to their favorite teams and players (remember LeBron James leaving Cleveland? Holy sheesh). In this case, Mayor Greg Nickels was defeated seeking a third term, and this was at least partly blamed on the Sonics' leaving. You can imagine the NBA distributing a copy of the story of Nickels' unsuccessful run directly to the mayors' offices of every NBA-hosting city in the U.S. The Supersonics weren't even that popular as sports franchises go.

So what's the point of all this? Lots of us, sports fans and otherwise, recognize that it's not the taxpayers' jobs to keep the Chargers or Niners or whoever in our town. When a local team tries to shake us down for a new stadium - and it's when, and not if - that's when the taxpayers (and the mayor as our representative) have to send a clear signal not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out. We have to remember that the sports teams are private organizations that are playing hardball with our cities trying to make money, and when they leave, it's to make more money, and they don't care that they're going to ruin childhoods. And most importantly, we have to remember, when the next election rolls around, that the mayor stood up for our interest. Otherwise we can't complain when the mayor spends our tax money on facilities for private businesses that only enrich the owners, and not the rest of us.

*To be clear, what the referendum said was that any taxpayer investment had to produce positive returns, which is basically the same as disallowing it, and is certainly how the average voter thought about it.

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