In October 1995, the city of Seattle opened a new NBA basketball arena that immediately drew accolades for intimate design elements and dynamic sight lines. But just a dozen years later, Sonics owner Clay Bennett claims KeyArena is no longer an economically viable NBA facility and that no amount of renovations could alter that reality.
Bennett intends to relocate the team next year barring some unforeseen final-hour deal to build an entirely new arena with public funds. Seattle fired back last month with a lawsuit aimed at forcing the Sonics organization to honor its KeyArena lease agreement through 2010.
Such sports-facility spats are nothing new for Seattle or most other markets with professional franchises. With demand for teams greater than supply, cities must compete to keep their hometown heroes home.
Taxpayers in the Puget Sound area have already picked up the tab for the construction of professional football and baseball stadiums within the last decade. Seattle's hard-line stance against replacing a 12-year-old basketball facility with public money demonstrates admirable fiscal restraint. But cities willing to take such stands often pay with the loss of a team.
In 1997, Houston mayor Bob Lanier refused to devote tax dollars to a new NFL stadium, prompting the Oilers to move to Nashville, where city officials pledged $144 million toward a new facility. In 2002, when politicians and voters in Charlotte refused to build a new NBA arena, the Hornets relocated to an existing building in New Orleans. In recent years, only San Francisco has succeeded in standing up to a professional team and winning: The Giants privately financed $255 million in the late 1990s to build AT&T Park.
Typically, fears of economic repercussions or diminished city status drive local politicians to cave to professional sports teams' demands for tax subsidies. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh agreed to fund a new $290 million hockey arena to keep the Penguins in town-a generous deal forced by competing bids from other cities.
Such public subsidies are not new; taxpayers began funding sports stadiums in the 1920s. But the frequency with which owners now demand new buildings and the resistance to playing in multipurpose facilities have increased dramatically in recent years. According to data from Rutgers professor and sports-stadium researcher Judith Grant Long, 72 professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey stadiums went up between 1990 and 2005, a number roughly equal to the 73 facilities built over the previous five decades. What's more, only one multipurpose building went up between 2000 and 2005 compared to 13 such facilities in the 10 years before.
Critics of public funding for these stadiums question why taxpayers should finance playgrounds for millionaires. With some individual player contracts climbing higher than $100 million, professional sports teams easily generate enough revenue to build their own facilities. Of course, why would they with a host of cities so eager to foot the bill?
Busch Stadium: St. Louis Cardinals, MLB; 2006; cost: $356 million (12 percent public)
Jobing.com Arena: Phoenix Coyotes, NHL; 2004; cost: $170 million (100 percent public)
Great American Ball Park: Cincinnati Reds, MLB; 2003; cost: $344 million (91 percent public)
New Lambeau Field: Green Bay Packers, NFL; 2003; cost: $295 million (58 percent public)
AT&T Center : San Antonio Spurs, NBA; 2002; cost: $175 million (84 percent public)
Gillette Stadium: New England Patriots, NFL; 2002; cost: $430 million (17 percent public)
PETCO Park : San Diego Padres, MLB; 2002; cost: $411 million (72 percent public)
Reliant Stadium: Houston Texans, NFL; 2002; cost: $402 million (81 percent public)
Source: Judith Grant Long