By: Ben Pawlak
Oct. 25, 2022
Photo Credit: Associated Press
On Oct. 12, the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers played a preseason basketball game in… Seattle, Washington.
The court was adorned with the trademark green and white of the SuperSonics, the NBA team which called Seattle home from 1967 to 2008 before being relocated to Oklahoma to become the Oklahoma City Thunder. The majority of the sellout crowd at Climate Pledge Arena (home of the NHL’s Seattle Kraken) sported Sonics apparel. Clippers owner and Seattle native, Steve Ballmer, gave a rousing pregame speech declaring that Seattle is a basketball city which deserves a professional basketball team of its own.
Privately, the NBA has been monitoring the market viability of Seattle for a few years now at the request of league commissioner Adam Silver. This preseason game is the latest signal that professional basketball could be returning to Washington’s most populous city in the near future. For this reason, it’s worth looking into the way relocation typically works in the NBA.
The relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2008 was a textbook example of the immense power that owners of sports franchises hold over their regional governments. At the time, the owner of the team was Starbucks chairman emeritus, Howard Schultz. Schultz went to the Washington state government and asked for roughly $500 million in funding to update KeyArena (the team’s stadium), threatening to sell the team if his demands were not met. Sure enough, Schultz sold the team in 2006 to an investment group led by Clay Bennett, a businessman from Oklahoma City. Two years later, it was clear that the funding for a stadium upgrade still wasn’t going to be provided, and on April 18, 2008, the NBA’s owners officially approved the relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in a 28-2 vote.
With the loss of the Sonics, the city of Seattle had lost a beloved element of their regional identity and a primary source of revenue all at once. Ultimately, the city’s government was essentially powerless to do anything to prevent the team’s relocation, marking only one example in a long line of NBA relocations which played out in a similar fashion.
In the last two decades alone, the NBA has seen four relocations. The Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis in 2001, the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans in 2002 (and were renamed the Pelicans in 2012), the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder in 2008, and the New Jersey Nets moved to Brooklyn in 2012. Case in point, the regional landscape of the NBA is volatile, and small market teams are at a constant risk of being relocated by their owners for greener financial pastures. In fact, according to Sports Illustrated, the NBA is interested in bringing a team to the massive market of Las Vegas, a move which would likely come in tandem with the return of professional basketball to Seattle. In similar fashion to the preseason game at Climate Pledge Arena, the Los Angeles Lakers played a preseason game against the Phoenix Suns at T-Mobile Arena (home of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights) on Oct. 5, 2022.
Taking market size, team value, and fan interest all into account, the three most likely candidates for relocation to Seattle or Las Vegas are the Sacramento Kings, the Utah Jazz, and the San Antonio Spurs. As a result, to combat a potential relocation of the San Antonio Spurs, Tony Gonzales, U.S. representative for Texas’s 23rd congressional district, has taken preemptive legal action. Gonzales has filed legislation in the House of Representatives to stop the San Antonio Spurs from being able to relocate, and has aptly named his bill the Strengthening Public Undertakings for Retaining Sports Act (SPURS Act for short). His bill would allow professional sports teams to relocate without the approval of the regional government if, and only if, the franchise meets at least one of three strict criteria:
The owner buys out the remaining cost of the lease on the arena in full
The franchise loses money for five straight years
Experts deem the arena inadequate for professional play
Furthermore, if a franchise is to relocate, the team’s owner would be need to meet all of the following requirements:
Give a written notification of their intent to relocate at least a year in advance
Repay their tax breaks in full
Be held subject to any and all lawsuits brought forward by the local government
Gonzales argues that his bill should become law because the Spurs are a critical part of San Antonio’s identity and local economy, but the potential impact of his legislation transcends his regional interest. If the SPURS Act is passed into federal law, it would drastically alter the power balance between owners of sports franchises and their regional governments (state and city) across the country. In theory, owners of professional teams would no longer have the ability to strong-arm their local governments into relocating. However, Gonzales and those who support his proposal are in a race against time, as the NBA wants to bring professional basketball to the enticing markets of Seattle and Las Vegas sooner rather than later.