The Seattle Supersonics Are No More; The Tampa Bay Rays May Live Forever; The Charlotte Bobcats Must Pay Attention

Two major sports stories performed an alternately tragic and hopeful pas de deux today. First, the city of Seattle settled with the owners of the Supersonics, paving the way for the team to move to Oklahoma City immediately. The Seattle sports scene will never be the same, and neither will the NBA.

From my vantage point, the slimiest part of all this was David Stern advancing the notion that Key Arena is not up to standards. True, the lease terms were tough on the organization, but the arena is hardly a hovel. It was renovated 14 years ago, on the city's dime, but the team and the league insisted it was obsolete a mere decade after the renovation. To the league's dismay, more and more outside observers recognize that major league teams and leagues operate on the assumption that municipalities are obligated to provide facilities that maximize profits, at little to no cost for the teams, and that it's ultimately a net negative for said municipalities to keep subsidizing big business to that extent.

Translated for the NBA: We know you're screwing taxpayers in a way lots of other businesses wouldn't be able to screw us, but we still like basketball enough that we'll look past it to a point. Where that point is changes constantly, as more and more people come to understand the folly of sports arena public financing.

I saw a game at Key Arena on December 31, 2006. While it wasn't brand new, it certainly didn't feel like a dump the way Candlestick Park has felt for at least a decade, or Network Associates Coliseum has felt for the past few years, for both baseball and football. I think the baseball/football equivalent would be Angel Stadium. It is not optimized for maximum revenue the way other arenas are, but it can't be anywhere near poor enough a venue to warrant writing it off as an unacceptable home for an NBA franchise.

(Warning: golf analogy!) I expect franchise owners to play it where it lies. Use all the rules at your disposal. Ask for relief from temporary obstructions. All anyone wants is an honorable game. Thus, you've got to expect an objection when you pick up your ball and toss it elsewhere.

The hell of it all is that just like all but perhaps two or three NBA franchises, the Sonics were destined to struggle with revenue when the team sucked, and that won't change in OKC. It's a lesson Bob Johnson, the Bobcats owner, doesn't seem to understand.

The formula is simple: Win, and the hometown fans show up. Lose, and they're less likely to spend their money on that particular entertainment option. Until the Sonics started winning again, they weren't going to do well at the box office. Of course, the Bobcats have a brand new arena (financed with public funds and with the sweetheart lease of all sweetheart leases), yet they've struggled and they're going to struggle with revenue and flagging attendance until they put together a team talented and exciting enough for more than the hardcorest of hardcore to spend their money on seeing them.

Lest you think I'm simply blowing smoke out my ass, the Tampa Bay Rays are demonstrating this principle in spades. They just swept the Boston Red Sox. They've got the best record in the American League.

According to Bud Selig and David Stern's stated world views, they should be DOA, business-wise. They play in a hockey arena. They were inept for almost a decade. But then they revamped management, bringing in intelligent people who instantly demonstrated they had the first, second, third, and google plex clues and knew what they were doing. It took two and a half seasons to start winning. It's taking one transition season, this season, to get the word out and convince the locals to try visiting the park. The tipping point is coming. Just the other day, they hosted the Astros--not a team with tons of transplant fans in the Tampa area--and drew almost 30,000.

As long as the Rays keep winning, year after year, it'll be easier to sell Tampa/St. Pete on helping finance a new ballpark, and, more important, more people will want to spend their money on going to Rays games, putting their eyeballs in position for advertisers to bombard them.

Seattle's a great sports market, with lots of millionaires and few other sports markets in the general area to siphon off fans. OKC might be really good to its basketball team. Charlotte has proven it can be a strong NBA burg. None of that matters if the team sucks, and David Stern's implicit rejection of that truth forces every NBA fan to wonder if his or her team will stick around when they inevitably hit a rough stretch and lose for a few seasons in a row.

(UPDATE 9:10AM -- My friend, Zach, a Seattle native, weighs in.)

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