The inimitable Don Walker had an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel over the weekend that is ostensibly about how if the Bucks don’t have a new arena in place by October 2017, the NBA can buy back the team and move it elsewhere. We’ve known about that buyback clause since April, though — Walker’s story moves up the deadline by a month, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s insignificant.
No, the real news here is the introduction of one of the first new sports venue strategies in the last 20 years: the ghost threat.
Some quick backstory: Sports team owners go into stadium and arena battles with a quandary, which is that their best leverage is to threaten that the team will move without subsidies for a new building, but at the same time outright threatening to move the team is not the best way to win friends among the politicians and voters who you’re asking for money. One way around this is to proclaim something along the lines of, “The last thing we want is for this team to leave town.” (In the book Field of Schemes, we dubbed this the non-threat threat, though if we’d had hotlinks available we might have gone with the paratrooper gambit.) Another is to have league officials make the threat on your behalf, because that’s what league officials are for.
Walker’s story, though, breaks new ground by having the threat levied not by a mock-hesitant owner or the NBA commissioner, but by someone who won’t even give their name:
“The date is in the provision as part of the sale agreement,” [a source familiar with the Bucks lease deal] said. “It’s written as such. When you get to the point where (a new arena) is not going to happen, (moving) will have to be discussed at that point.”
There is no shortage of cities waiting to become one of 30 with an NBA franchise: Las Vegas, Kansas City, Louisville and Seattle have been mentioned as suitors, even new markets in Canada. And there seems to be no shortage of wealthy people willing to secure a franchise; Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion for the Los Angeles Clippers.
“[Bucks owners] Marc [Lasry] and Wes [Edens] have no intention of moving the team whatsoever,” said the source. “But they understand that a new arena is a significant necessity for the ongoing success of the franchise, which is to have a state-of-the-art facility that rivals their counterparts.”
This is precisely the kind of use of unnamed sources — to allow the source to put across his or her message in the media without actually having to be accountable for it — that has led to widespread criticism of the overuse of anonymity in the U.S. media. In fact, Walker’s article arguably violates the Journal-Sentinel’s own ethics policy, which states:
Except in unusual circumstances, we should allow anonymity only when the source has a legitimate fear of suffering harm or reprisals if identified. We should not allow anonymous sources to make personal attacks; criticisms of character should be stated on the record. We will characterize anonymous sources as completely as possible so that readers can make judgments about their authority, expertise or bias.
Clearly someone putting forth the NBA company line doesn’t have a “legitimate fear” of reprisal if it’s a league source, though “unusual circumstances” is a pretty big loophole. Likewise, saying “a source close to the deal” isn’t much of a complete characterization, since there’s no way for readers to tell whether this is someone with the Bucks, the league, the city of Milwaukee, or what.
Walker’s article, sadly, isn’t that unusual — the use of unnamed sources is widespread, even in places where it’s not necessary. But allowing an unnamed source to levy a move threat, without having to put on the record who’s making the threat, is new to the sports venue game.
Meanwhile, neither Walker nor anyone else in the Milwaukee media has investigated the question that’s been hanging out there since spring: Did Lasry and Edens (and former Bucks owner Herb Kohl) conspire with the NBA to insert that buyback clause into the lease, to give them better leverage in gaining subsidies for a new arena? It would take more actual investigation than making a phone call and saying, “Sure, I’ll print what you say without putting your name in the paper,” but it’s kind of what we have newspapers for, you know?