The Phoenix city council indeed put off a vote on spending $168 million on arena renovations for the Suns yesterday, and it was indeed because they didn’t have the votes to pass it, after swing-vote councilmember Michael Nowakowski issued a statement that “I must hold true to the value I place on making sure people are informed and heard.”
Then an unnamed councilmember told Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts that Suns owner Robert Sarver had said a thing, and this was the thing he said:
“Sarver’s talking about moving,” the council member told me. “He basically told me the team will go (if they don’t get a renovated arena). Vegas and Seattle were the two he talked about.”
Sports team owners seldom make threats like this explicitly in public, because they are the nuclear option: Once you’ve set off a move threat, you may have encouraged fans to panic about the possibility of losing their team, but you have also encouraged them to want to run you out of town on a rail, so there’s no going back. So it’s not surprising that Sarver made this threat in private to a councilmember, and wouldn’t even be surprising to hear that the councilmember leaked it with Sarver’s approval (though given Roberts’ opposition to the arena deal, it’s also possible this was an arena subsidy opponent leaking her the news, in a can you believe this guy? way).
Regardless, the unspecific threat relayed by an unnamed source — which arguably runs afoul of the Society of Professional Journalists’ rule to always question anonymous sources’ motives, but anyway — had the expected reaction, especially since it went as far as to mention actual cities the Suns might depart for. News outlets in Seattle and Las Vegas immediately sprang into action to report on the potential arrival of an NBA team, and then the aggregators got involved, and soon it was all anybody could talk about: I was already interviewed for one article about it, and I’m going on Orlando’s 740AM The Game’s “The Beat of Sports” at 10:15 Eastern this morning to talk about the Suns’ potential move (among other things).
The two city names that Sarver allegedly dropped are understandable enough: Seattle is jonesing for an NBA team to replace the Sonics now that they have an arena renovation underway, and Las Vegas has recently acquired NHL and NFL teams and is only 300 miles away from Phoenix, which is close in Southwestern terms. Beyond that, though, they’re pretty different: Seattle is almost exactly the same size TV market as Phoenix, whereas Vegas is less than half as big, so Sarver would be crazy to leave Phoenix for Nevada. With Seattle, it all depends on whether he’d earn more in revenue at KeyArena than he does at Talking Stick Arena — which is unlikely given that he’d be the second pro sports tenant at a venue run by an arena operator that’s going to need to keep revenues to pay off its $850 million renovation cost, but not outright impossible.
Mostly, though, this is clearly a threat intended to throw a scare into city councilmembers that they better cough up the dough or else this could be the last they’ll ever see of their NBA team, see? It’s not clear yet how effective that threat will be, given the overwhelming public opposition to the deal and the fact that the Suns’ 4-24 record means fans might welcome sending the team as far away as possible. But it’s shifted the debate from “Why should the public spend $168 million to profit a rich sports owner?” to “Where could the team move if we don’t?”, and in that, it’s certainly done its job.