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The not-so-Great Northwest

Sonics, Blazers struggling on court — and financially

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It wasn't too long ago that the Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers were among the best franchises in the National Basketball Association. Both were title contenders whose tickets were tough to come by due to incredible demand.

But times have sure changed. Now the two clubs located in America's Great Northwest have the worst two records in the Western Conference.

And that's not the worst of it.

Despite being headed by two of the wealthiest, best-known owners in the NBA, the Sonics and Blazers are both pleading poverty, battling over who has the worst arena agreement and threatening to leave their respective cities if things don't go their way.

The Sonics' principal owner is Howard Schultz, who made his fortune as the owner of Starbucks Coffee. The Blazers are owned by one of the wealthiest men in the world, Paul Allen, who, along with Bill Gates, founded Microsoft.

But last week it was nearly comical the way both owners tried to make owning an NBA team look like such a hardship. Schultz was able to get the association's biggest gun — NBA commissioner David Stern — to help his cause. Stern said, "Seattle has what is the least competitive lease in the league, which is a decided economic disadvantage" during last week's All-Star Weekend.

Stern then took it to another level on Thursday. He and Schultz asked Washington state lawmakers for tax money to renovate the SuperSonics' arena, saying there could be consequences if the state doesn't act.

"A substantial amount has been done for the baseball and football teams. I'm here personally to find out whether the same is being considered fairly for the NBA," Stern said at a legislative hearing, flanked by Schultz and team president Wally Walker, according to the Associated Press report.

"If not, that's a decision we can accept. But then we'll have to act on it ourselves," Stern said.

The Sonics say they have lost about $60 million in the past five years and blame a revenue-sharing lease with the city of Seattle.

Schultz has threatened to move or sell the team if state lawmakers don't approve a sales-tax package to pay for a new or renovated arena.

Executives with the Sonics and the WNBA's Storm estimate the price tag at more than $200 million. The teams' lease with the city is scheduled to expire in 2010, and team executives say time could run out if action isn't taken soon.

Sonics officials have identified two options for staying: a full renovation of Key Arena, or a new venue elsewhere — possibly to the east, in the suburb of Bellevue.

Most of the money for a Key Arena upgrade or replacement would come from current King County taxes imposed on hotels, rental cars and restaurants.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels have backed the proposal.

Taxpayers covered the costs of a $74 million arena makeover in 1994, but Sonics officials say that the luxury boxes — the primary source of revenue for most sports facilities — are subpar. At 368,000 square feet, Key Arena is about half the size of an average NBA venue.

There has been resistance to the plan in the Legislature and in Seattle, where taxpayers already have helped build new stadiums for baseball's Mariners and the NFL's Seahawks.

Chris Van Dyk, chairman of a group called Citizens for More Important Things, said the Sonics' financial woes owe more to their multimillion-dollar payroll than any problem with the Key Arena lease.

He called the existing arena "a powerful symbol of waste and lack of accountable government."

Trail Blazers' brass, meanwhile, take exception to Stern calling the Seattle arena deal the worst in the league. They think the worst deal is in Portland.

Allen, a billionaire from his Microsoft days, made his team's revenue forecast public for the first time late Thursday, estimating he will lose $100 million over the next three years.

And the man who runs Allen's privately held investment firm, Vulcan Capital, says the "brutal facts" are that the team cannot keep losing money any more.

Without some kind of "public-private partnership," Lance Conn told The Associated Press, "no businessperson can sustain losses of that kind."

Even though Allen is a billionaire, he has lost more than $12 billion in bad investments over the past decade — including $600 million he has poured into the Blazers and their arena since 1988 without realizing a dime of profit.

Of course, big payrolls for players are one of the major problems, but the teams are stuck with them in an intensely competitive market for top talent.

Conn told AP in an interview that "all options are on the table" for the Trail Blazers because "the economic model is broken."

"It's time to confront the brutal facts," Conn said, adding that Allen would not wait for long.

"Time is of the essence," Conn said. "We need to see immediate improvements from some sort of structural fix."

That "structural fix" includes more revenue from the Rose Garden Arena, the home of the Blazers once owned by Allen before the company that ran it — Oregon Arena Corp. — declared bankruptcy and forced Allen to sell it.

But Conn said the Blazers have a lease in Portland that is far worse than Seattle's.

He said the Blazers receive no revenue for suites, clubs, courtside seats, game concessions or parking at the Rose Garden.

The Sonics, by comparison, receive 40 percent of the revenue for suites, 60 percent for clubs, and 100 percent for courtside seats, game concessions and parking at the Key Arena in Seattle.

And, Conn said, Schultz is asking the Washington Legislature to come up with $200 million to remodel Key Arena or help build a new home for the Seattle team.

A spokesman for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said the governor met with Vulcan and Blazers representatives two weeks ago, but there was no discussion about a public bailout.

What will happen to the Sonics and Blazers? Who knows. But in a region notorious for its annual rainfall, the current state of their basketball teams gives residents another reason to be depressed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-mail: lojo@desnews.com