SEATTLE – Wally Walker wants to bring the Sonics back to Seattle.
The former president and general manager of the team has been part of Chris Hansen’s group trying to build a privately funded arena in the SoDo district since 2011.
His ties to the NBA and the Pacific Northwest run deep. He played for the Portland Trail Blazers and the SuperSonics before spending 12 years leading Seattle’s front office.
He says he’s open to other options to build an arena besides his group’s SoDo proposal, but he is not in favor of Oak View Group’s plan to renovate KeyArena.
Walker sat down recently with Q13 Sports Director Aaron Levine to explain his reasons. When discussing the SoDo and the Oak View proposal’s side by side, he said there’s no comparison.
“If the problem you’re solving for is, ‘What’s best for the taxpayers and what gives the best chance to attract an NBA team or teams including the NHL?’ Then you go to the best possible location with the best possible deal for your team or teams,” he said. “Which would be SoDo.”
It’s no surprise that Walker supports the SoDo proposal over that of Oak View’s. What may be surprising is how vehemently he opposes the KeyArena remodel.
Walker said his familiarity of the KeyArena site makes him uniquely qualified to understand the problems with it.
“I’ve been there over a thousand times,” he said. “I know that site, I love that site, I want it to succeed and flourish -- (but) it’s not set up for sports. So, do something else with that.”
Hansen’s group proposed renovating KeyArena into a smaller concert facility, something that would continue to make money for the city but not compete with the SoDo arena, Walker says.
But it’s not just the site he disagrees with, it’s also the specifics of the terms with the city. Walker says Oak View’s plan relies too heavily on public subsidies.
This is the main distinction he sees between the two proposals. While traffic and infrastructure issues are a concern to Walker with a renovated KeyArena, he says the financial terms would make it nearly impossible to bring in an NBA team.
“The NBA is going to be reluctant to be the third tenant in a building when OVG is getting a cut off the top and then whatever the hockey team negotiates also,” he said. “Even if there is escalators in the deal, an NBA team cannot get a competitive amount of revenue from that kind of deal.”
An NBA team will need more than a third of the building’s revenue to succeed, he says. Teams expect at least 50 percent of the revenue, Walker says, if not 100 percent.
“The problem you’re going to have,” he said, “is that an NBA team coming, after OVG takes their bite to pay off their investment, their building which is going to be substantial, the higher that number goes up the more money they're going to need to use to pay for the building and the less is going to be available to for the team or teams.”
This is an area in which Walker feels confident.
Walker insists, as Hansen has, that the restructuring of their proposal means the SoDo arena would be entirely privately funded. The sticking point on that has been the street vacation, which Walker says should not be considered a subsidy since the group is offering to pay $20 million for it.
That sticking point might grow if the City Council finalizes terms with Oak View. Walker contends that a stipulation in the MOU with Oak View could work as an exclusivity clause, making it difficult for the city to negotiate with other parties.
That brings Walker back to public money and the question of why the public should pay any money at all.
“Should any building be like that?” he asked. “Which houses a private enterprise for a private corporation or limited partnership, which OVG is, be publicly subsidized? That’s a philosophical debate that we can have.”
The argument over which arena deal is best for the city has reached a tipping point. With the council poised to adopt Oak View’s proposal, some have said it’s time for Hansen and Walker to accept defeat and move on.
Critics have even labeled the SoDo group as obstructionists, saying that at this point they are holding back Oak View from finding a team.
Walker insists that’s not the case.
“We’re 180 degrees from that,” he said. “In fact, if NHL fans want the NHL here as quickly as possible, let’s put a shovel in the ground. Let’s get the street vacation at SoDo. Let's put a shovel in the ground, let’s get the hockey team here and they can start playing at KeyArena next year.”
Walker says his main concern is the fans.
“The fans, particularly the season ticket holders, got to want to come 40-plus nights a year,” he said. “If they’re going to get stuck in traffic for an hour, hour-and-half leaving, get stuck in traffic going. The season ticket holders drift away.”
That’s something Walker says wouldn’t happen in SoDo.
He also stressed the connection he has with the NBA and disregarded rumors that the NBA will not work with Hansen’s group because of its dealings in Sacramento while trying to buy the Kings.
Walker said he’s talked with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and knows that’s not the case.
He says the SoDo group will continue to fight to bring the NBA back to Seattle regardless of what happens with the council.
“Until there’s an arena with an NBA team playing in that arena -- the Sonics -- we’re going to keep working,” he said.