In 1992, the Phoenix Suns committed to a 40-year lease to Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix but included a caveat in the agreement that allowed the Suns to opt out of the deal if the arena is considered obsolete 30 years into the deal.
Recently, the Phoenix City Council delayed a vote on a proposed $230 million proposal for renovations to the arena following backlash from the community. Soon after, reports surfaced that Suns owner Robert Sarver has threatened to move the team from Phoenix to either Las Vegas or Seattle because of the delay. Sarver soon tried to squash these rumors, but the fact that the Suns were considering a move has struck a chord with the Phoenix community.
This is nothing new in the NBA, as the threat of moving a team to Seattle is a common bargaining chip for team owners.
In 2013, the Sacramento Kings were moments away from being sold to a Seattle-based ownership group before Vivek Ranadivé stepped in to keep the Kings in Sacramento. This all started because the NBA deemed Sleep Train Arena unfit for an NBA team. Ranadivé, Anschutz Entertainment Group and the city of Sacramento were able to agree on the $391 million Golden 1 Center and would keep the Kings in Sacramento permanently.
Soon after, the same thing happened to the Milwaukee Bucks with then-commissioner David Stern demanding the team replace the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center – with the threat of moving to Seattle looming. Thankfully, the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin were able to work with the Bucks to help fund the construction of the Fiserv Forum, keeping the team in Milwaukee for at least the next 30 years.
So in all likelihood Sarver will get his wish for the Suns to either play in a freshly renovated Talking Stick Resort Arena or a brand new arena in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Phoenix, a city that is so desperate for funds that it sold off its state capitol building, will more than likely force its taxpayers to foot the bill for an owner that is worth half a billion and his demands.
It is a shame but that is just how the business of professional sports work. This is because there is a very real fear for when a city calls a team’s bluff. It happens all the time in the NFL. The Colts moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis. The Browns moving from Cleveland to Baltimore. Recently, the Raiders moving from Oakland to Las Vegas. It even happens in the NBA, too.
The most infamous, and recent, example of this is when Seattle itself had its own NBA franchise ripped away from them. The Supersonics were synonymous with Seattle sports, they won an NBA Championship in 1979 and consistently had great attendance from fans. Then, Clay Bennett bought the team and moved the Supersonics to Oklahoma City, rebranding them as the Thunder. Ever since then the city of Seattle and Sonics fans have been pining for an opportunity to have an NBA team to root for again.
But if it involved taking another team, like the Suns, to make that happen would it be worth it for Seattle? Would it be worth it to do to Suns fans, who have suffered plenty lately, what Clay Bennett did to them? What happened to Sonics fans is tough, just ask any fanbase that lost their team to relocation. But to snatch a franchise from another fanbase and actively root for them would make Seattle fans no better than the fans in Oklahoma City that adopted their old team.
Because of this, the NBA needs to stop using Seattle as their personal bludgeon. They need to stop threatening small market teams, like Sacramento, Milwaukee or Phoenix, to force their cities to bend over backward just to keep their team from leaving. It is not fair to the team’s city and most of all the fans, the consumer of the NBA’s product.
Instead, the NBA should likely consider an expansion. They can take a page directly out of the NHL’s book and bring in two franchises, both in Seattle and Las Vegas over the next decade and eliminate the threat of relocation. Las Vegas already has a premier arena in the T-Mobile Arena, and with the success of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, it would be logical for the NBA to bring a franchise to Sin City. Seattle recently announced a $700 million renovation of KeyArena, the Supersonics old home, that would be ready in time to host an NHL team by the start of the 2021-22 season.
If the NBA were to do this, there would naturally be some conference realignment as well. Both the proposed Seattle and Las Vegas expansion teams would naturally join the Western Conference, forcing an already established Western team to join the Eastern Conference. The two most logical candidates would be either the New Orleans Pelicans and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Pelicans could easily join the East’s Southeast Division, as the majority of those teams are already closer than their Western Conference foes. For the Timberwolves, the most likely destination would be the Central Division. It would require a little finesse but the NBA could make it happen logistically if they elected to expand.
In the end, the most ideal scenario for the NBA would be to follow the route of expansion instead of relocation. The city of Seattle deserves a franchise, but not at the expanse of another NBA fanbase. Recently it has been the Suns, but nothing is stopping it from being another team down the line. The NBA, along with team owners, need to stop bending host cities over the barrel and use Seattle as the threat to get what they want. Instead, these multi-million dollar owners should find ways to privately finance their new arena projects, and find something more reasonable with their local governments. If this were to happen, then the city of Seattle would no longer be a threat but instead a refuge for the future of the NBA.