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Sonics in play

Once a decade it seems, Seattle is on the verge of losing a sports franchise. When I was going to school, it was the Mariners that seemed destined to sail off to Tampa. Of course, that was on the heels of a fellow named Bud Selig, who took advantage of an awkward birth, moving the expansion Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee after just one season, in 1970. In the 90s it was the Seahawks who attempted to slip south to Anaheim, and now it's the Sonics who have been shopping for what every American franchise covets: the best stadium subsidy.

To get the best deal though, you need a credible threat to leave. Done: the Sonics have been sold for $350m to an outfit that announced in February that it is dedicated to bringing NBA basketball to Oklahoma City. They've given Seattle 12 months to act on an improved stadium deal.

Seattle's lament is the consequence of being a mid-sized city with three big league teams to support (four if you count the WNBA's Storm, who drew over 11,000 to Key Arena last night). This stretches the dollar of local sports fans. Moreover, even the ability of politicians to divert spending towards stadiums is limited - witness Pittsburgh, a city of similarly modest size, pushed to the cliff of bankruptcy in part due to profligate spending on its sports teams. The Sonics, with apparently the worst lease in the NBA, are calling on a city that may have reached its limit.

I don't begrudge the Oklahoma City people (population 500,000) from wanting their own NBA team. And with the New Orleans Hornets in town for a second season, their chances seem pretty good, one way or the other. But as a fellow who spent four great years in Seattle (population 560,000), the extended soap opera that comes with the tussle over sports subsidies is wearing a little thin. Veteran Seattle columnist Steve Kelley is pointing the finger at Sonics' owner Howard Shultz, but the process in play is structural, not personal. From that point of view, the next NBA season could be the last in Seattle for many years to come.