The dream of the '90s is alive in Seattle.
No, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and the other stars of the SuperSonics team that was the pride of Seattle two decades ago aren't coming back to the Emerald City. But the NBA is on track to return, and along with it, the city's beloved basketball franchise.
The league confirmed Monday a much-rumored sale of the Sacramento Kings by their owners, the Maloof brothers, to a Seattle-based investor group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer. Various news outlets reported that Hansen and Ballmer's group will pay about $340 million for a 65 percent controlling stake in the struggling franchise, valued at $525 million.
It's a bit of redemption for Seattle sports fans who harbor resentment towards Clayton Bennett, the former SuperSonics owner who moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008. When he bought the team in 2006, Bennett publicly asserted his intention to keep the Sonics in Seattle. Later reports suggested he had long intended to move the team to his hometown. Various lawsuits were filed in an attempt to block the move, but to no avail.
Five years later, the team's contentious, litigious sale still leaves a bitter taste in many a Seattleite's mouth.
The Sonics' comeback awaits approval by the NBA Board of Governors, but some are already celebrating the return of professional basketball, and the economic bump that may come with it.
"Pinch me," wrote Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley. "Go ahead. Smack me upside the head and remind me this is real."
"What's the rule on number of exclamation points allowed in a column?" He later added.
The boon is more than just cultural. Hansen has pledged to spend up to $15 million to improve KeyArena, the Sonics' old stadium, according to the Seattle Times. The team will return to play at the venue for at least two years while a new $490 million complex is constructed in Seattle's Sodo neighborhood.
Hansen has said the city's investment in the KeyArena upgrades will be "very little," but the Sonics' new home will be built with $200 million in public money to be repaid through revenue generated by the facility, according to the Seattle Times. Not everyone is thrilled with the plan, though. A group called Citizens for More Important Things has sued the city in an effort to block the stadium's construction, which it says could leave taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars.
Seattle's dockworkers union has also opposed the construction of the stadium, saying it would drive away shipping business and create a traffic nightmare.
Others question whether or not investing public funds in pro sports teams actually pays off.
"Take whatever number the sports promoter says, take it and move the decimal one place to the left," Victor Matheson, an economist at College of the Holy Cross, told The Atlantic in a September 2012 article, "and that's a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact."
If approved, pro basketball's return to Seattle could be good for the NBA as a whole. The league's revenue-sharing model distributes finances from large-market, high-profit teams to small-market teams, which often struggle to sell tickets. When a team moves upwards from a small market to a larger one – as is the case with the Sacramento-Seattle transfer – the rising tide presumably lifts all boats.
"While fellow owners tend to rubber-stamp the transfer of franchises from one city to another," writes Ian Thomsen in Sports Illustrated, "they'll actually be happy in this case because the move to Seattle reverses a negative trend in which teams have failed to move on to appreciably larger markets -- from Charlotte to New Orleans, from Vancouver to Memphis and from Seattle to Oklahoma City."
But it’s a tough blow for Sacramento, a small-market city that is unlikely to house an NBA team again.
In an open letter to the Kings owners on SBNation.com, Tom Ziller vociferously expressed the emotional and financial attachment many cities have to their professional sports teams:
"[N]ot content only to take our team, our money and our hearts with you out the door, you have actively prevented us from working to fix our downtown and guarantee our pro sports future."