Ther’s a long article over at Deadspin by Jeremy Repanich, a low-level employeee of the Seattle Sonics before their move to Oklahoma City. And it includes some illuminating, if unsurprising, observations on the reasons why the owner of Seattle’s oldest pro sports team decided to demand a new arena just 12 years after the complete reconstruction of his old one:
When a team can make the same amount of money selling two courtside seats as they can selling an entire section of the upper bowl, they’ll target their sales strategies accordingly. Getting the affluent to your games means pampering them the minute they walk through the doors. At Safeco and CenturyLink fields, the Mariners and Seahawks do just that; they’re gleaming palaces of conspicuous consumption that ensure that fans paying top dollar are given a premium experience with food, drinks, and seatside service delivered efficiently and comfortably. The Sonics couldn’t do that. KeyArena had some low-budget exclusive hangouts, but nothing compared to the city’s other stadiums. So when Sonics execs saw the Seahawks reaping all the attention and getting fat off a stadium financed in part by public money, they didn’t feel happy—they were jealous.
Jealousy, though, isn’t much of a campaign strategy, as Repanich started to learn once the angry calls from fans started pouring in. (With no talking points provided by team management, he resorted to telling callers that the Sonics “needed a new arena to be competitive in the league” — an argument he apparently grabbed out of thin air.) He then describes a staff meeting led by team president Wally Walker:
He went through a litany of minor reasons why the team needed a new arena: higher capacity, bigger arena footprint, more room for high-end concessions, more places for premium seat holders, a.k.a. the super rich, the people who could afford a pair of courtside season tickets for $70,000. These were the justifications he offered us to explain why we were asking for a heaping pile of taxpayer dollars. After Walker’s spiel, a member of the sales staff asked the fateful question: “Wally, what will this arena upgrade do for Joe Sixpack—the regular fan?”
After an uncomfortable few seconds, Walker said, “Well, nothing.” The wind went out of me. It was as if he’d punched me in the stomach. Walker tried to backtrack, but the damage had been done. The battle for hearts and minds had ended before it’d even begun.
The whole article is a great read, and is especially recommended for anyone interested in what it feels like to work for an organization that is trying to sell tickets to the very fans that it plans to abandon the minute it can. If there’s an odd note, it’s that Repanich seems to reserve most of his ire for Walker and Howard Schultz, less for demanding a new arena and selling the team to out-of-towners when they couldn’t get one than for being inept about the way they went about it. “I didn’t see how we’d get an arena deal led by men who couldn’t conceive of it as anything but a rich man’s boondoggle, perpetrated on behalf of other rich people,” Repanich writes. Howard Schultz, it seems, was worse than an envy-driven, greedy carpetbagger; he was a lousy liar.