There was a time when the National Basketball Association wanted Seattle more than Seattle wanted the National Basketball Association.
In the late 1960s, the older basketball league was facing competition from the fledgling — and much more fun — American Basketball Association. The NBA wanted to mark territory with its own franchises and expand its footprint beyond the northeast and California.
Seattle didn’t court the league, it didn’t have to find potential owners, it didn’t have to promise to build an arena and it didn’t have to fly the mayor and county executive across the country to kneel at the league’s altar.
In his new book on the founding of the Seattle Pilots baseball franchise, Bill Mullins notes that the Seattle SuperSonics just sort of appeared.
“Quietly, TV writer Don Richman and stockbroker Dick Vertleib, both from California, plotted it out and worked with the league,” Mullins wrote in “Becoming Big League.” That pair sold San Diego Chargers football team owner Gene Klein and Los Angeles businessman Sam Schulman on owning the team. The whole idea was only casually mentioned in Seattle during a visit from an NBA owner in the spring of 1966.
“After that, there was no news until the mid-December announcement that Seattle had a team,” Mullins wrote.
Starting in 1967, that team would play in a building left over from the Seattle World’s Fair, rechristened the Coliseum.
The league wanted a top-20 media market like Seattle bad enough to take an arena as is and be happy with crowds averaging about 7,000 a game. Competition meant it had to be that way or else a major market would fall into the hands of the rival league.
Such competition ended when the two leagues merged in 1976 and the NBA joined its football and baseball cousins as a cartel. From then on, cities with big-league dreams had to come to the NBA and the NBA could make demands.
Only that reality makes it logical for the NBA to abandon the nation’s 13th-largest media market (Seattle-Tacoma) in return for putting a team in the 49th (Oklahoma City).
That is the atmosphere in which it holds meetings – as it did Wednesday – in which two cities with large fan bases, half-billion-dollar arenas and billionaire owners try to outbeg the other for admittance to the club.
Someone — probably more than one someone – will use the term “private enterprise” to describe all this. But what private enterprise can demand that taxpayers build or subsidize its factories?
What private enterprise would see a lucrative market unserved by any competitor and leave it unserved and unexploited? What private enterprise can limit the supply of its product with the cooperation of the government and have little fear that a competitor can enter the market?
A real business would see Sacramento and Seattle, with all of the infrastructure, all of the financing, all of the intangibles, and plead with both to be in the league. It would keep the Kings in California’s capital and create an expansion franchise in Seattle. Then, to keep the league at even numbers, it would seek an additional untapped market – perhaps Anaheim, where the Kings were headed just a year ago.
But it won’t.
Instead, it will pit the two cities against one another, cash the winner’s check and leave the other disappointed but still hopeful. Because in a socialist system like American professional sports, where supply is artificially limited, where tax dollars are exploited and where revenues are shared, there must always be a market left untapped.
If every market were adequately served, then owners in current league cities couldn’t make unreasonable demands of taxpayers and fans and expect them to be met. To have credibility, the threat of moving the team relies on always having a place to move it to.
So the real decision being made this month in New York City isn’t so much whether Seattle or Sacramento will get the Kings. For NBA owners, the more important decision will be which city will be left behind — which city will serve as the go-to threat whenever they need to blackmail their current hometowns.
Peter Callaghan can be reached at email@example.com