Bruce Schoenfeld's New York Times Magazine article yesterday, headlined Where the Thunder Comes Dribbling Down the Plain, describes the transformation of NBA's Seattle SuperSonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the latter city's embrace and support of the team.
The lessons for Brooklyn, I think, are mixed. Unlike some other medium and large cities, where existing major league teams suck up attention and media coverage, Brooklyn's in a big enough market to support a team, should the Nets ultimately move here.
Brooklyn is more like?
However, the Atlantic Yards saga suggests that New York behaved more like Oklahoma City than Seattle, offering political support, lobbying, and public funds to attract the team and built the arena, while in Seattle voters approved a measure, proposed by a group called Citizens for More Important Things, that ensured that any public money toward a new arena would have to generate legitimate financial returns.
Yes, the credit crisis may upend the Atlantic Yards plans, but in December 2003, when the project was announced in the midst of a booming real estate market, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz appeared almost abjectly grateful, saying:
Y’know, it wasn’t that many years ago that no one wanted to invest a dime in our borough. We should be celebrating it, and that’s how I feel, most enthusiastically.
The small market
Yet given the way professional basketball has evolved, the Sonics’ move may have been inevitable. As I spent time in both Seattle and Oklahoma City, it became evident that the intense passions on both sides — Oklahoma City has been as feverish about the team’s arrival as Seattle was about its departure — were obscuring a larger issue facing the N.B.A. It may be that a midsize market like Seattle, with its big-league baseball and football teams and a wealth of recreational and entertainment options, has outgrown professional basketball, or at least the desire to fight terribly hard to keep it. A more appropriate home for a franchise these days seems to be a smaller city on the rise, with maybe a million to a million and a half people, plenty of money, local and regional art museums and a few ambitious restaurants but not too much else for its population to do, and an excess of civic pride ready to be harnessed. A place, in other words, exactly like Oklahoma City.
It would make the city major league:
Economically speaking, the Thunder will cause barely a ripple in Oklahoma City, where two energy companies with combined annual revenues approaching $20 billion, Devon and Chesapeake, are headquartered. [But] “It will enhance public perception of the entire state,” gushed Brad Henry, Oklahoma’s governor, when we spoke. “We’ll be on SportsCenter every night.”
Almost unanimously, it seems, Oklahoma City’s establishment — businessmen and columnists, Democrats and Republicans — believes that the N.B.A.’s presence will validate a community that seemed hopelessly downtrodden only a short time ago.
While NBA Commissioner David Sterm is adamant that franchises remain in the largest cities, he acknowledges that small markets--e.g., Sacramento, San Antonio--without competing teams can be very successful. Schoenfeld follows up:
Like Oklahoma City, Seattle once craved the status that comes with a big-league designation. In 1967, it secured an expansion franchise to play in a five-year-old arena that had been upgraded with taxpayer money to attract a team, a situation almost precisely analogous to Oklahoma City with its Ford Center. Seattle was different then, pre-Starbucks, pre-Nirvana, on the fringe and without the Seahawks or the Mariners.
...As in every market on the continent with franchises in multiple leagues, Seattle’s football and baseball teams have been its priority. The Sonics, tradition-rich as they were, ran a distant third, and the civic and corporate resources needed to support big-league sports may not have extended that deep. In Oklahoma City, by contrast, the team will have almost no competition for the sports-entertainment dollar beyond college programs, and residents are hungry for a team. “The voters in Oklahoma City passed $126 million in improvements to the arena,” says Gavin Maloof, whose family owns the N.B.A.’s Sacramento Kings. “That shows me they really want the team.”
Asking the people
In New York, needless to say, support for the proposed Nets arena was never put to a vote. The most recent poll, from Crain's, shows respondents supporting the project, not the arena, though I contend the poll design influenced the response.
When New York residents were polled by the New York Times in 2004 and 2005, however, they expressed opposition to an arena that required eminent domain and required hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds.