Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has a unique perspective on Seattle’s chances of bringing back the NBA, as the owner of the L.A. Clippers and a key player in past efforts to retain the Sonics and then land a new team. He has made it clear from the beginning that he will not move the Clippers to Seattle. However, when it comes time for NBA expansion, he will be in a position to make the case for Seattle to the rest of the league.
So what will be Ballmer’s pitch? I asked him that question last week at a Rotary Club of Seattle event. His answer and the subsequent discussion shed light on how Amazon and the city’s tech boom could factor into the outcome — in both positive and negative ways.
“Number one, Seattle did a very good job of supporting a basketball team for a long time,” he said. “Number two, Seattle’s gotten much more affluent since the time the Sonics left and moved to Oklahoma City.”
Seattle is “the most affluent city in America” without an NBA team, he said. “There’s no question.”
That rise in affluence is tied directly to the tech boom in the city. But the resulting traffic in and around Amazon could also be a challenge for the KeyArena renovation plan, which has won the support of city leaders.
“There’s a lot of things that would make Seattle a great place. Having a great arena will be fundamental, an arena that is accessible,” Ballmer said. “One of the great queries I have is, with all the traffic around Amazon headquarters, how much more tricky would it be to get to KeyArena now than it was when I had season tickets to the Sonics for 20 years? I hope the answer is, ‘Somebody’s got it figured out,’ because otherwise, that is an issue.”
Tim Leiweke, whose Oak View Group is leading the KeyArena renovation efforts, has acknowledged the traffic challenges but said he’s optimistic about the impact of technology and infrastructure improvements, as well as changes in commuting habits as more people are able to walk to the location from Amazon and other sites.
Ballmer has worked on past NBA initiatives in Seattle with Chris Hansen, the leader of the competing proposal to put an arena in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. The proximity of that location to major freeways could make a SoDo arena more accessible to people coming from the Eastside and other parts of the region, as Ballmer did when he he was a Sonics season ticket holder.
Here’s more from my exchange with Ballmer about the NBA in Seattle.
Todd Bishop: How long until the NBA returns?
Steve Ballmer: I have no clue. I mean, it’s part of the reason why I was happy to buy a team in L.A. I went to see the commissioner right after I retired, and he said, “Look, we’ve learned our lesson. We don’t want teams to move.” So if you want to buy a team, don’t expect to be able to buy it and move it to Seattle.”
Todd Bishop: I love the timing of that. After it moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City, they decided they were no longer going to have teams move. Isn’t that great?
Steve Ballmer: Well, it’s two things. One, it’s unfortunate for Seattle, obviously. But two, it should be a call to Seattle civic leaders that we blew it. We blew it. … I was working full-time at Microsoft, and I figured somebody would step up, but I feel like I was part of blowing it. I feel like the city and county and state were part of blowing it in terms of the arena. I thought existing ownership was part of blowing it in terms of what it did. …
You have to say our community didn’t do what it needed to do. And you can see it because now that we don’t have the team, our community looks like it might step up, but it is just not that easy. Teams don’t sell very often. Expansion, I’ve never heard discussed in the NBA, frankly. I can’t predict … When I bought the Clippers I was 58 years old, and it was, “Wait 13, 14, 15 years, whatever to have a team in Seattle.” It didn’t fit with my life plan. I wanted to get to getting. Although a team in L.A. moving to Seattle, I have to say it’ll lose probably about half its value. So please don’t look at me to take the haircut even for our beloved city.
As it happens, GeekWire’s Taylor Soper last week bumped into David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, at CES in Las Vegas, and asked him about the chances of the NBA returning to Seattle anytime soon. Stern deferred to current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on that question, but also added his perspective.
“I do think that if they expand, or ever move a team, Seattle, my guess is, is first in line,” Stern said. “The big two at some point were Seattle and Las Vegas, but I don’t think there will be an NBA team in Las Vegas now because there’s NHL and WNBA and NFL. But Seattle is a good town. I think the NHL is going to go in there too. And that’s great. With Tim Leiweke planning to spend $600 million on Key Arena, that’s good for Seattle. But usually the first team in does very well.”
Watch the video of Ballmer at Rotary above, and see the stories below for his comments on other topics during the event and in a subsequent one-on-one interview with GeekWire.