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Seattle's tax battle gave Oklahoma City a shot at NBA title

I'm not a basketball fan, but I know the professional game shares something with all other major league sports: Rich team owners want taxpayers to pay not only for overpriced tickets, parking and merchandise, but also for team facilities.

That "request" by the former Seattle SuperSonics four years ago led to the National Basketball Association team moving to Oklahoma City.

Last_Seattle_SuperSonics_Game_2008_Wikimedia CommonsBack in 2008, the NBA franchise now known as the Oklahoma City Thunder was based in the city that also brought us grunge rock, Starbucks and nearby Microsoft.

That also was the last Seattle season for the Sonics, which had been there for 41 years, bringing home the NBA championship in 1979.

But that trophy is in storage and Thunder players, including Nick Collison and Kevin Durant who actually played on a Seattle roundball court, are looking for more NBA hardware in their new state.

Taxing transition: And taxes are why the Thunder nee Sonics will face the Miami Heat in this year's NBA finals.

"They were a beloved team in a basketball town," writes Dave Zirin in The Nation. "Then the people of Seattle committed an unpardonable offense in the eyes of David Stern. They loved their team but refused to pay for a new taxpayer funded $300 million arena."

That's right. Seattle residents decided that they wanted their tax dollars to go for public programs and not to primarily benefit a wealthy NBA team owner. KeyArena, they said, was just fine.

Older arenas might be just fine for fiscally conservative fans, but not for owners looking for new digs with higher-dollar corporate suites and all the other expensive accouterments that add to teams' and their owners' bottom lines.

So team owner Howard Schultz, who also is founder of the now globally ubiquitous (and hand-over-fist moneymaking) Starbucks coffee chain, followed through on his threat to take away the team.

With the NBA's blessing -- of course all the other ultra-wealthy team owners had to support this tough stand in case their fans dared to say "no" to spending taxpayer money for their private benefit -- Schultz sold the Sonics.

And the new owners, Oklahoma City–based billionaires Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, took their new toy to the Sooner State's capital.

There, writes Zirin, "rivers of corporate welfare awaited an NBA franchise, Stern, Bennett and McClendon had found their Shangri-La."

If the Thunder can hold off Heat stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James, whose departure from Cleveland also it at the top of the fan hate measuring stick, then the NBA and the relocated franchise will feel justified in their tax-induced moves.

That's why even though I won't watch any of the games, I will be rooting for Miami.

Sports tax battle continues: Meanwhile, the fight over tax dollars for sports teams continues in Seattle.

Public officials and a San Francisco hedge-fund manager who grew up in Seattle are touting a public-private partnership they say will follow a law that's supposed to keep taxpayers from subsidizing pro sports teams.

It also, they promise, could get the city another NBA franchise as well as a major league hockey team.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn says the proposal wouldn't violate Initiative 91, the 2006 ballot measure intended to keep taxpayers from subsidizing investments in pro sports teams.

McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine point out that the $500 million sports arena would be publicly owned.

Chris Hansen, the prospective owner of a relocated NBA team (hello, Sacramento) and NHL club, would raise $290 million from private investors. Another $200 million would come from 30-year bonds backed by rent paid by the sports team as well as revenue generated from events and from property, sales and admission taxes.

If (when) there are revenue gaps, the teams would be obligated to make up the difference in rent hikes.

Some groups are opposing the new arena plan. Will this partnership satisfy Seattle basketball fans who wouldn't pony up four years ago? Are there enough NHL fans there to help the proposal pass?

Or are sports fans in the Pacific Northwest so hungry for pro sports that they'll say OK this time whatever the tax cost?

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Any government throwing that sort of money at any enterprise should demand either (1) partial ownership of the enterprise or (2) a clawback provision that requires at least partial repayment if the enterprise leaves town. Any private business would demand nothing less.

R. Klug

I understand you don't like pro basketball, which is no different on the money scale of things than any of the pro sports. They all forgot about pride and honor long ago. Just like business, its only money that matters. But when it comes to rooting for a team here, I would hve to differ with you. Number one for the fact that Miami was all about spending the multi-millions to win a championship long before OKC was. Personally, I would like to see some of the wind taken out of the sails of the big-city folks by the young guys from the smaller market. Its nice to see a market like OKC be able to support it, however they are doing it, mainly for the fans sake. They are supporting their team for sure. I appreciate your details on the background of how the move happened. It does surprise me a bit that the larger metro area didn't support it even though they were going to have to shell out a few more bucks on their tax bills. The economy seems to do pretty well up there. A heck of a lot more big-paying jobs than OKC has, for sure.

Melissa Lande

Kay- What an incredibly astute piece of reporting.

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