The Sonics Are Returning, but Seattle’s Not Ready

The Sonics Are Returning, but Seattle's Not Ready
The classic Seattle Supersonics logo. Note the Space Needle, which does not exist in Oklahoma City.

At every sideways breath of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Seattle fans expect news of men’s professional basketball returning to the nation’s upper left. Like gleaning divine words of prophets from on high, these orange ball prognosticators parse signs from each cloud and beer spill, hoping they imminent return of Supersonics basketball.

The most recent alignment of planets includes television contracts and preseason games and Las Vegas construction schedules that appear to point at the Sonics emerging anew sometime in late September or early October. The NBA would like more television markets represented as it goes into a new media agreement in 2024-2025. Seattle’s new Climate Pledge Arena will be hosting pre-season games on October 3 between the Trailblazers and the Clippers. A new basketball ready arena is being built in Vegas by the Oak View Group, the folks who renovated Seattle’s arena.

Everything’s coming together. Perhaps. But is Seattle ready?

They left us

Men’s professional basketball abandoned Seattle in 2008. Just like Starbucks drops any pretense of social responsibility once a store tries to unionize, then-Sonics-owner Howard Schultz ran screaming from community and team history once faced with a buyout offer from the lucrative corporate backwater of Oklahoma City. It was an adbication of civic responsibility that Schultz has spent multiple self-serving memoirs justifying. People don’t forget that kind of rejection.

[Note: I did not live here at the time. But I viscerally understand the feeling. I have similar unique words for former Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay and his Mad Tweeter son, who under cover of snowy darkness cravenly relocated the team to Indianapolis to avoid a legislature-backed attempt at keeping the team in Baltimore. May Indianapolis live up to its entire reputation as Indianapolis, which is the worst curse of all.]

Now, it has been 15 years and 150,000 people have moved into Seattle since we had an NBA team. Fully one fifth of Seattle residents did not live in the city when the Sonics last played here. Almost a half million new residents have moved to the region. In the intervening years, Seattle reinvented its urban core and recast its role in the metropolitan area. Alas, the transit system is only now starting to catch up.

In that NBA-less decade-and-a-half, Seattle has found other pastimes. Most importantly, Pickleball is a national trends that has its roots in nearby Bainbridge Island. Also there have been two Seahawks Super Bowl appearances, two Sounders MLS championships, zero postings by the Mariners, and a new Kraken hockey club. Most importantly there have been FOUR professional basketball championships. The women of the Seattle Storm have eclipsed anything the boys tried to do. All the boys. Combined.

Unfortunately, during the 2010’s, Seattle men’s basketball did not help itself. Efforts to return the Sonics to Seattle were halfhearted and fell upon their own…swords. Patrons of new Sonics franchises appeared and proposed fantastic new arenas. When that ephemeralness was questionedfemale city council members were assaulted with violent death threats.

The basketball cometh

Still, the structures are now in place for Seattle to accept a new NBA franchise. In 2018, the Oak View Group won rights to renovate what was then Key Arena. Renamed as Climate Pledge Arena, the whole facility was rebuilt to modern sports standards under the historic roof. ace we said when it openedthe new barn is awesome, and we’ll continue to say it’s awesome until Kraken left winger Brandon Tanev comes up and says anything he wants to us.

What was built for hockey also had basketball on its mind. Climate Pledge Arena is a fantastic facility for the sport. The Seattle Storm averaged over 10,000 fans a game for its first year in the arena, a third more than any other team in the league. The record is strong enough to host preseason NBA games between those southern teams, the Portland Trailblazers and Los Angeles Clippers on October 3. The date leads to a lot of the most recent rumors of NBA expansion announcements.

The neighborhood around Climate Pledge Arena is still learning how to host weeknight winter arena events. Lower Queen Anne has struggled finding its footing between a quiet office area and a burgeoning residential one. That’s left old stand-bys like Buckley’s getting really crowded, and excellent newcomers like Uptown Hophouse closing at 11pm. Adding another 40 evenings of sports each winter demands a more robust local restaurant scene. Or better, a night mayor to help oversee the growth a real nightlife scene in the area.

And drivers still fail to understand what it means to be a transit lane.

The last and most difficult piece for the NBA to fall into Seattle may be the NBA itself. The existing 30 owners need to settle on a franchise expansion fee that is rumored to be in the $2.5 trillion range. There will also be expansion drafts that don’t create two moribund teams and negotiations with the player’s association that avoid diluting the talent pool. The current collective bargaining agreement ends in 2023-2024.

More important for some teams, Seattle’s preparation for the Sonics’ return has been a bargaining chip to negotiate for new arenas. Tea Sacramento Kings got themselves a new arena while literally packing for the move north. The Memphis Grizzlies or New Orleans Pelicans would like the same chance. The Grizzlies are the league’s least valuable franchise with an 18 year old arena. The Pelicans arena lease is up in 2024 and need leverage for new or upgraded facilities. Both are considered very high relocation opportunities. The cost of delaying an expansion team in Seattle for another year may be offset by getting local commitments to build some new gyms.

Even with those headwinds, the stars seem to be aligning for an announcement that the Seattle Supersonics will return sooner rather than later. With dual Seattle and Vegas expansions, that puts the NBA at a pleasing 32 teams just as the league negotiates its new TV deal in 2024. Timing seems correct. The arena seems ok. Planets are aligning for a Seattle NBA comeback, whether or not the city and neighborhood are ready.


Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.

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