Let the NBA Back in Seattle, But Not Who You Think

The case for the Clippers to leave Los Angeles for Seattle

 by Dylan Ackerman

In the last couple of weeks, like many Americans, I find myself intrigued with happenings in the NBA. Unlike most people following basketball, however, my interested has nothing to do with anything happening on the court. I am not completely sure how – perhaps my love of Starbucks, perhaps my desire to see Macklemore get a team back, or perhaps my general nostalgia for the west coast – but I find the possible move of an NBA franchise back to Seattle extremely enticing.

As a result, I was as interested as anyone with the decision by the NBA owners against the proposal to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle. Obviously for fans in Seattle, the decision is a blow to the head. Personally, I actually see the recent decision as an opportunity to propose an idea I had in high school. After I looked at the numbers more closely, I realized what I once thought was a crazy idea can actually work, so here it goes.

The Kings are not the team that should move to Seattle. Instead, I propose a different franchise moves to all-too-long basketball-less Key Arena. What team?

The Los Angeles Clippers.

Now I know at first the thought seems ridiculous. The idea of a team leaving Los Angeles alone seems stupid, especially when the alternative moves a team out of Sacramento, a city one tenth LA’s size and with no other major sports franchises. But I promise, give the numbers a chance, and you’ll why shipping Chris Paul and crew north is the best move for the Clippers, for Seattle, and even for the NBA. Let’s put the puzzle pieces together.

Puzzle Piece Number One: Seattle Basketball

When the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 they were the 28th most valuable team in the NBA. They had a payroll of just over 36 million, without major financial trouble, but also without much recent success on the court. Five years later, they’ve jumped to the number 12 most valuable team, and with superstar Kevin Durant leading the way are a formidable force and title contender.

Why does the team that left Seattle matter? For starters, we see why the city is a tad angry, and why they want a new team so badly. When the Sonics announced the move, I remember friends from Seattle reacting to the news with exclamations of “Oklahoma F%&*ing City?!” only to see a cherished franchise thrive in a new city. People attack LeBron for leaving Cleveland when he did, but the entire franchise leaving hurts a bit more. Looking back and realizing they took the 19-year-old Durant with them, Seattle fans can only shake their heads and ponder what could have been.

If the Clippers come to Seattle, the city not only gets a basketball team, but a contender as well. If they are willing to take the somewhat hapless Kings, even with what is sure to be a high draft choice this June, they should obviously welcome a good team with open arms. As hungry as Seattle fans are for basketball, they are probably the easiest group to convince, and getting the Clippers would be Christmas come early.

The first major roadblock for Seattle would be the city’s ability to support them the Clippers. Compared to that of the team that left Seattle in 2008, the current Clippers’ payroll is almost double, at about $70 million compared to $36 million. The Clippers payroll is also more than $15 million above that of the Kings, the originally proposed move. Even if fans are excited for a new team, if the move doesn’t make financial sense it obviously can’t happen. So does it?

Looking at other teams’ payroll and revenue figures around the NBA, the answer appears to be yes. The Clippers current revenue (about $108 million annually) is behind that of the Spurs ($135M), the Thunder ($127M), the Trailblazers ($117M), and the Cavaliers ($128M), all team that play in markets smaller than Seattle. In addition, in the case of the Cavs and Blazers, the market is not only smaller, but the teams are not as good as the Clippers. Seattle only needs revenue figures at or greater than current numbers for the current Clippers team, something that seems at least plausible given these figures, especially considering (one can at least assume) fan interest will be high.

The other consideration in revenue is not only the media market size, but also the capacity of the stadium, as teams need to sell tickets as major revenue source. The Key Arena, the proposed interim home of an NBA team, is slightly smaller than the Staples Center, where the Clippers currently play. It is also a few thousands seats behind Portland’s Rose Garden and Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. This may be the best arguments against the move, but misses a few key points. The first is that a few thousand seats would not likely cripple the teams finances given revenue from media coverage. The second, and most important fact, is that part of the proposal to move the Kings was to build a new arena. The Key Arena was never proposed as a permanent home of an NBA franchise, so its capacity is significantly less relevant. If investors are willing to build a house for the Kings, they would almost certainly extend the same offer to the Clippers, who are at least worth spending the money on.

Puzzle Piece Number Two: The Clippers

So if this proposal looks good for Seattle, how does it look for the Clippers?

Though the Clippers would leave the second largest city and media market in the country, my proposal is actually in their best interest as well. Leaving Southern California for Washington State gives the Clippers their own city, and may even boost revenue figures by lowering competition for coverage and fans.

The Clippers are a good team, and in a few years they could be a great team, and someday soon, they could very possibly be NBA champions. Yet even if that happens, they will be second place in their own city.

This may sound harsh, but as someone who lived in Los Angeles for nineteen years, I can promise that it is true. The Lakers have and always will be the city’s team. Part of this is history, as the Lakers manage to contend much more frequently than the Staples Center’s other inhabitants. Looking to the roof and seeing the Lakers sixteen Championship banners next to the Clippers zero sends a powerful message, even with the latter’s recent promise. It would take incredible success by the Clippers along with a decade or likely more of failure by the Lakers to significantly alter this balance. The season that just ended provides a near perfect case in point.

Despite loading up last summer in an attempt at another dream team, the Lakers season was never good. Not once did they make headlines as potential playoff threat, and they limped into the playoffs in the number seven spot. When they did fans were ecstatic over a feat that would have been considered failure at the beginning of the season. The Clippers by contrast, were a solid playoff team the entire season, but the only times I opened my browser and saw them on the front page of the LA Times was when they beat the Lakers. In the first season ever where Lob City swept Showtime, the Clippers still could not carve out their own identity. The comparisons are constant between the teams, and even in a season where the Clippers were clearly superior, Los Angeles remains Lakers’ territory.

The Clippers deserve a city and a fan base that they can call their own, which simply will not happen (at least in my lifetime) as long as they compete with the Lakers. Even if the Purple and Gold fail to bounce back from this season or to rebuild for a few years and during this fallow era the Clippers manage to hoist the O’Brien Trophy, long-term loyalties won’t sway. At best, the Clippers could control the city for a season or two, but I cannot image such a shift being more than fleeting, as one season of competitive basketball for the Lakers would push the Clippers back to number two.

The greatest advantage the Clippers have in LA is the massive media market the city offers, but I have to question the benefits of this market when the other local team dominates it so thoroughly. The greatest argument for staying may be that with a good up and coming franchise, the Clippers are only beginning to tap into all the city can give them financially. To an extent that is true, the turnaround just since the Chris Paul trade has been incredible in terms of the team’s value as well as their revenue, but the turnaround also aids my earlier point. Even with this huge turnaround the Clippers are not pulling the revenue one would expect given the size of their hometown. They are a big market team with small to medium market revenue, which can and should change.

Lastly, if the Clippers really worry about leaving Hollywood behind, history indicates it may be a good idea. In football, the Rams and Raiders both left LA in the early 1990s, and both had successful season in their new hometowns. The Rams analogy is particularly poignant, as the team left for a market significantly smaller then Seattle, and within five years had successfully built “the greatest show on turf”, beating the Titans in the Superbowl. Someone may argue that revenue sharing in the NFL had as much to do with this as anything but to believe a revenue sharing scheme is the only cause is a mistaken. Revenue sharing matters, but so does the ability to put together a viable product, which the Clippers have done. As the Rams did on the football field in the 1990s, the Clippers can do on the court now, and leaving LA will only help them.

 Piece 3: Convincing the NBA

So if it works for the team in question and the city in question, all that’s left is convincing the rest of the NBA. For the Kings deal, many people pointed out how the NBA stood to gain significantly, but what about the Clippers proposal? Partially due to many of the factors that make it a good move for the team and the city, the proposal move supports the interests of the NBA as well.

In this case, what helps the Clippers (more revenue) helps the entire league as well. If the team isn’t capitalizing on the benefits of a large market, neither is the league. The opportunity to open up a new market without leaving an old one is rare in sports, but the NBA has one such opportunity with this proposal.

In the age where every major sports league has some sort of revenue sharing system, the entire league benefits from opening up a new market. In the proposed move, the NBA is able to open up Seattle with the presence of a franchise there while seeing minimal losses in Los Angeles. The Lakers will continue to dominate their market, and could expect to only continue to build off their current $197 Million in annual revenue. The Clippers currently pull $108 million annually, a figure that could increase if they no longer compete with the Lakers, even if the market itself is smaller. This does seem plausible, especially given my earlier comparison of Clippers revenue to that of the Spurs, Thunder, the Trailblazers, and the Cavaliers. All currently have higher revenue than the Clippers while playing in smaller markets than Seattle.

The NBA benefits from opening up a new market. At present the LA and Seattle markets together bring $305 million but entirely from Los Angeles. There is $305 in revenue from LA and $0 from Seattle. If the Clippers move to Seattle, it is reasonable to assume they will continue to pull at least $108 million. Looking at the revenue of worse teams in smaller markets (Cavaliers, Trailblazers, etc) I am willing to assume that the current Clippers team playing in Seattle would make significantly more revenue than they currently due under the Lakers’ shadow in Los Angeles.  It is also more than reasonable to assume that Lakers’ revenue figures will continue at their present numbers, if not rise as well as fans who used to watch the Clippers will switch to the Lakers for their basketball. Given these considerations, it is generally reasonable to predict that total revenue as far as the league is concerned will increase if the Clippers move to Seattle. At worst, revenue figures will not fall. In the worst case the league gets $108 million in Seattle and $197M in Los Angeles, but it is very plausible that both these figure will rise.

 Putting the Puzzle in Motion

So if the numbers work for everyone, what will it take to put this idea in motion? If everyone wins, why hasn’t this been discussed, much less acted on, already?

Well, perhaps the biggest difference between the Kings and the Clippers is also the most important: one team is up for sale and the other is not. Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers for more than three decades, sticking with them through all of the awful years to earn the title of longest tenured NBA owner. It seems unlikely that he will want to finally cut ties with them now, which means that he has to decide to move the team.

But again, the move may be in his best interest as well. His team and the NBA both benefit, so as the owner of the that team he certainly sits to benefit as well. While he may not want to sell the team outright, he may be able to attract some of the investors interested in the Kings to the Clippers in order to finance the move and improve the situation of his team. Obviously, these investors sit to benefit from the move. The only aspect where they are worse off with the Clippers as opposed to the Kings would be complete control, but considering that the Clippers have more demonstrated success, having a good investment in an already well run team may be worth ceding or sharing some control.

Unfortunately, this idea is not one I expect to see implemented any time soon, although I do often wonder why Los Angeles has two teams while Seattle has none and why the Clippers do not try to leave. The recent attention brought to Seattle and the NBA may provide the best chance for this proposal. If I were Donald Sterling or the team of Seattle investors, I for one would look to move the Clippers north. Maybe, just maybe, they will realize it’s a good idea and do just that.

Dylan Ackerman took this small break from sabremetrics to weigh in on the Seattle Basketball drama. Until researching this article, he didn’t know the name of the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One comment

  1. CPR

    If citizens of Seattle/Tacoma metro area want a NBA team so bad, why don’t they look at doing what Green Bay WI did to get their Packers team. Its publicly owned. Or approach Mr. Gates to match $ for $ to public ownership. (Wouldn’t that be something to see, Mr. Allen’s Trail Blazers vs. Mr. Gate’s and friends Clippers)

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