Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I love Starbucks

The shocking, sad saga to save the Seattle SuperSonics (OK, that's too many S words) has crossed from the standard story where an out-of-town villain comes in to steal a team, and has now entered the incredibly bizarre. Personally, I thought I'd seen it all when Jim Balsillie tried to buy the Nashville Predators and Gary Bettman said no, forcing Craig Leipold to hold on to the team.

But this is even stranger. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks and former owner of the SuperSonics, the man who sold the team to current owner Clayton Bennett of Oklahoma City, announced today that based on a breach of contract, he wants his team back.

I could be wrong, but I think this is a first for a pro sports team's sale. There have been situations where a group bought a team with intent of relocation, and the commissioner or other owners stepped in and stopped them, examples being the Predators and the San Francisco Giants' blocked move to Tampa Bay in 1992. There have been situations where an owner has announced a move and has been stopped in another way, such as Ken Behring's attempt to move the Seattle Seahawks to Anaheim in 1996, when lawyers discovered the move was blocked for another decade. But I do not think a team has ever been sold, approved by the commissioner (who is either an idiot or a lying piece of scum) and then the old owner decides he wants back in.

The way I see this? Good for Howard Schultz. He's finally showing some civic responsibility. Now, he could be doing this for his own skin, and probably is to prevent a boycott of Starbucks. But does that matter? Someone is finally stepping in to try do prevent Bennett and David Stern's betrayal of Seattle, and at this point, it doesn't matter why, it just matters that it's happening.

The question now, can this work? That depends on who you ask. Some believe that there's no way to prove that Bennett violated the contract by acting in bad faith and buying the team solely to move it to Oklahoma City. David Stern doesn't believe that it happened that way, although to be honest, Bennett could probably tell Stern the sky is minty green with purple clouds and Stern would then proceed to tell every reporter that it's true. The Seattle Times recently published a series of e-mails from Bennett to his co-owners that claim that there was never a desire to keep the team in Seattle. Stern has blamed the co-owners entirely so far. Good piece of reporting by the Times. If you're reading this, Cathy Henkel, (yeah, right), I'd love to work for you some day. (Editor's note: Dream on.)

But if it can be proven, then it gets interesting. Will a verbal agreement be enough? Is that all that Schultz has, or did he actually think to get it as part of the contract? If it's in the contract, the chances of Schultz winning the suit and going from fellow villain to respected citizen in Seattle go up dramatically. If he wins the suit, Bennett loses his team, and Oklahoma City loses its chance at the NBA. Plus, OKC might never get a team, because what owner would sell to Bennett after this scandal? The biggest loser if Schultz wins? Stern, who would be seen as a complete fool and a backstabber by everyone, not just in Seattle. Stern's put all his eggs in one basket, and now he could lose everything if a judge doesn't see it his and Bennett's way.

Personally, I don't think this is as big a longshot as is thought by some people. True, Schultz is looking at a large backlash in Seattle, where Starbucks is based and makes a good chunk of profit. True, Starbucks has 338 stores in a 15-mile radius of Seattle. True, the SuperSonics have fans throughout the state of Washington.

But Starbucks is now a global phenomenon. Schultz might not lose as much business if he does nothing as he could if he loses the suit in fees, because there are 48 states that don't care about the SuperSonics (Oklahoma excluded) and 43 countries. That's still a lot of business. So Schultz either is desperate for a good public image, or he really thinks he can win. Billionaires are not stupid.

I hope Oklahoma City does get a team, someday. But it shouldn't be Seattle's team. The SuperSonics haven't done a thing wrong. They deserve to remain in the Emerald City. To be honest, I can't remember a time when I wanted Starbucks this much.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Kenny G.

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