Culture clash in the arena(s)

Sonics proposed area
Sonics proposed arena, ground view/Professional Basketball Club LLC

The Renton arena, or most any Seattle Sonics arena proposal, seems to have just sunk from dead on arrival to – six feet under? The only missing component of the last rites was the emotional, and now Seattle has that. Which means, about half a year hence, Oklahoma City seems likely to get its basketball team.

This grows out of the purchase of the Sonics a while back from a group of Seattle investors by the Professional Basketball Club, LLC, whose participants (another group of investors) hail mostly from Oklahoma City. The purchase terms said that the group had to make an effort to keep the team in Seattle through October of this year. The group said that a key to this would include construction of a massive new arena (the picked site is in Renton, and drawings of the proposed arena were released Monday). And they said most of the cost would have to be underwritten by taxpayers.

Which was probably a lost cause to begin with. (The cultural origins of this tale being, after all, Southern.) Not the idea of professional basketball in Seattle, of course – in a metro area of three million (bigger than OKC) it’s a logical thing. Nor the idea of a new arena, either. But we are after all talking about an entertainment enterprise being operated by a private company which is asking for a massive taxpayer handout – way beyond simple cooperation – instead of operating within the free market system. Oklahomans ought to understand the difficulty of that.

Washington legislators (who, admittedly, didn’t shine in their handling of the comparable NASCAR debate) seemed to catch the point early on. They were being asked for $300 million in taxpayer funds (or maybe more – some details remain unclear) for what in effect would be the subsidy of a private enterprise.

Legislators who had in mind other places for the money – public services, for example – were cool to the idea. So, polling seems to indicate, is the public.

So that was probably what. Before the news about the investors in the Professional Basketball Club hit, and made it even more so.

The core of it in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece today: “The millionaires who’ve turned to this state’s left-leaning Legislature to authorize a $300 million tax subsidy for a new basketball arena have been playing right-wing politics. Two members of the new Sonics ownership group are heavyweight financiers of a national political group dedicated to banning gay marriage. Together, co-owners Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon donated more than $1.1 million to Americans United to Preserve Marriage, a conservative Christian group that opposes gay marriage.”

There is, of course, no direct connection between those political donations and the arena proposal, a point arena backers were quick to make.

The point is that it doesn’t make a lot of people in the immediate Seattle area feel much better about the biggest beneficiaries of the largesse they’re being asked to hand over. Rather, it does in a reverse way what state House members Frank Chopp and Larry Seaquist did in the last few days in running down a famous NASCAR driver (Richard Petty) and NASCAR fans: Drove a wedge between the dominant culture in Seattle and that of the South. This is, in other words, heavy cultural politics.

And for the moment it may play well enough in Seattle. But the whole deal may leave a sour taste in the mouths of all those people who would like to see professional basketball and NASCAR in the Seattle area. If they reflect on all the circumstances, those people may find enough blame to go around, cross-culturally.

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