To the surprise of most political observers — and the utter shock of local media, which tends for financial reasons to be heavily enamored with the prospect of new sports teams — on Monday, May 2, the Seattle City Council dealt what is likely a fatal blow to developer Chris Hansen's long-running plans to build a new basketball arena in SoDo. But for all the resulting headlines, the more interesting story happened immediately afterward.
The issue at stake was ostensibly whether to vacate (i.e. give to the developer) a section of Occidental Street, a key hurdle for the arena plan. Despite heavy opposition from the Port of Seattle, waterfront unions and the Mariners due to traffic concerns, most observers ahead of time expected the measure to pass. By the morning of the vote, reporters counted four votes in favor, two — Sally Bagshaw and Lisa Herbold — opposed, and three — Lorena Gonzalez, Kshama Sawant, and Debora Juarez — undecided. But when the vote came up, after a long and contentious hearing, all three undecided votes broke against and the measure failed, 5-4.
Both sides had compelling arguments.
On one hand, the local economic benefits of a sports franchise are dubious; sports teams don't actually create very many jobs for the money spent. The ones they do create are mostly part-time, seasonal and poorly compensated.
On the other hand, sports can also generate tremendous community-wide excitement and pride, as the hundreds of thousands who attended the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory parade in 2014 will attest.
Seattle is also by far the largest market in North America to have teams from only two of the four major men's pro leagues. And while all of those leagues have emphasized using public money for new stadiums and arenas in recent decades, the Hansen proposal, as such deals go, was about as good a deal in terms of the private share of financing as the city is likely to see.
Balanced against that were transportation and freight access concerns; a study claiming that KeyArena could be remodeled to meet current NBA standards for far less public money than the Hansen proposal; and the long memories and anger of people who locally voted down public money for both a new baseball and a new football stadium, only to see them built anyway. [Editor’s Note: The State Legislature approved a separate funding package for the construction of Safeco Field than the one rejected by voters, while King County voters actually approved construction of now-Centurylink Field in June 1997 with 51.1 percent in favor]
But most importantly, port jobs — well-paying union jobs, the most endangered of all types of job in Seattle — already exist. The franchises that would play in Hansen's arena don't. And from the moment Hansen first proposed his project in 2012, backers oversold the prospects of either an existing or new basketball or hockey team locating in Seattle. Such moves only happen once or twice a decade in either league, and other cities want those teams, too. An opposing council member called the choice one between prospective jobs and existing ones. It was the strongest win for grassroots labor activists in years.
But don't tell that to Sonics fans. And since, unfortunately, the vote happened to fall exactly along gender lines, with all of the male council members voting yes and all of the women opposed, what happened next was both predictable and appalling: an outpouring of explicitly misogynic hate directed at the five women on social media and in calls and mail to their offices. The blowback included numerous threats and lots of vulgarity, resulting in the bizarre spectacle of sports reporters and talk radio hosts begging their audiences not to be so abusive.
It's easy to write off that response as a few misguided sports fans playing to the worst stereotypes of their species. But our same city — good liberal politicians notwithstanding — has one of the worst gender pay imbalances in the country. And it's the same city that’s reveled in an unprecedented job boom fueled by the tech industry — also marred by scandals of public abuse, in that case directed toward female IT professionals who had criticized sexism in their industry.
Seattle is getting richer, whiter and more male at a remarkable clip. And the anecdotal evidence is starting to pile up that our demographic changes are rapidly resulting in a city more overtly hostile to the poor, people of color and women.
The Sonics may never return. It's already been eight years and the trademarks on the old Sonics team have lapsed. But the changes remaking Seattle are here to stay. And the outbursts of hate and intolerance following the arena vote may be a feature, not an outlier, in our new civic life.
GEOV PARRISH is co-founder of Eat the State!