Robert Sarver

Over the next few weeks and months the cities of Phoenix and Seattle will shape sports history, as well as signal that the end has come for sports owners who essentially extort money from metropolitan areas by using the threat of relocation. Phoenix Suns’ owner Robert Sarver initially told the world a couple of weeks ago that if the city didn’t build a new arena for the Suns he would move them to either Las Vegas or Seattle when the current arena lease expired.

But once it became clear there was very little public support or enthusiasm for a new arena, Sarver reversed field. Now he wants the city council to approve a 15-year, $230 million renovation project to upgrade Talking Stick Resort Arena. Initially, Sarver felt he had plenty of leverage, in part because the hockey team has also been threatening to move, and also because the Suns were Phoenix’s first pro team  and has a long history of fan support.

Still, the council didn’t immediately move to approve the renovation project. Instead, rather than take a vote during the last meeting before the holidays, they postponed it till Jan. 23, 2019. The vote will come after five scheduled public hearings that will both give Sarver his chance to sell fans on the idea and provide opponents the opportunity to say why it’s a bad idea. 

Now, Sarver has changed his tune. “I’m a strong proponent, as evidenced by the term sheet I signed last week, that we should renovate the Talking Stick Resort Arena and once again restore it to a world class facility,” Sarver said last week on a Twitter post on the official Phoenix Suns team account. “The Phoenix Suns are not leaving Phoenix,” he added. “I’m 100 percent committed and have been for the last four years to find a solution to keep them in downtown Phoenix where they belong.”

That about face resulted from a barrage of negative response from fans, who pointed out that not only was this year’s team off to a horrendous 5-24 start, but there hasn’t exactly been a lot of effort or money poured into improving them over the past few years. So for once a city stood up and told an owner if you want to move, go ahead, but we’re not going to be panicked into appropriating a lot of funds for something that is far down the line in terms of city necessities.

Compare that with what is happening in Seattle, where the City Council did approve plans for a $700 million renovation of Key Arena in September as part of their successful bid for an NHL expansion franchise. The big difference is this renovation will be PRIVATELY FUNDED. “This is just a great deal for the city..This is world class,” Seattle City Council President Bruce Harnell told USA Today. “This is a legacy project.” It’s also one that’s not coming at the expense of schools, police and fire departments, infrastructure or any of many other budgetary priorities far more important than providing a place for a sports team.

Oakland is losing two sports franchises in the next few years, with the Raiders going to Las Vegas, and the Warriors back to San Francisco. But no one in Oakland has stood up and said let’s appropriate millions of city dollars to keep these teams. Owners in all four major pro team sports are making enormous amounts of money. Between the national and local TV contracts they get more than enough to pay player salaries. Add the different ancillary income streams from parking, jersey sales, luxury suites, renting out arenas for special events and concerts (most owners pocket anywhere from half to three-fourths of that revenue), and there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t build their own arenas or pay for the renovation of existing ones.

Fortunately the events in Phoenix and Seattle are indicators of a future in which city councils and leadership put their budget emphasis on things that are critical first, and if there’s money left over then it can be spent on fun and games items.