Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and wireless magnate John Stanton are among the local investors behind an effort to buy the Sonics and cover half the cost of a $300 million KeyArena expansion to try to keep the team in Seattle, sources confirmed Wednesday.
Neither Stanton nor Ballmer could be reached for comment Wednesday night. The other members of the investment group, Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and Seattle developer Matt Griffin, have previously disclosed their own involvement.
Seattle leaders are pushing the offer of private cash as a "game changer" that ought to sway state legislators to pass an arena package to keep the Sonics from moving to team owner Clay Bennett's hometown of Oklahoma City.
The proposed 50-50 split beats anything put on the table by Sonics owners. Even some usual critics of taxpayer subsidies for pro sports — including anti-stadium activist Chris Van Dyk and Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata — say it could be a good deal.
But Bennett has repeatedly said the Sonics aren't for sale. And the effort to push a bill through the Legislature in the waning days of the session may share the fate of similar proposals over the past three years that showed up late and fell flat.
"They do the same thing every year. They come in at the last minute," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. "I don't see it happening."
Lobbyists for the city circulated draft legislation Wednesday that would authorize taxpayer money for the KeyArena project. Under the proposal, the investors who hope to buy the Sonics or another NBA team would contribute $150 million in cash, with the remaining $150 million to be covered by public funds.
"It's late. It's very last minute, all the parties acknowledge that," said Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, referring to the Legislature's scheduled adjournment next week. But if lawmakers pass up this chance, Ceis said, "the offer won't necessarily be there next year."
The possible involvement of Ballmer and Stanton has been the subject of much speculation, but their roles have been kept secret even from many of the lawmakers in Olympia being asked to approve the tax package. Stanton, who founded Western Wireless, was a part-owner of the team under the previous ownership group, led by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
Ceis declined to comment Wednesday on whether Ballmer or Stanton were involved.
The proposal calls for raising $75 million by temporarily extending car-rental and restaurant taxes. Those taxes, collected only in King County, are currently used to pay off the debt on Safeco Field. The remaining $75 million in public funds would come from the city of Seattle, through an admissions tax at KeyArena or other revenues generated by the building.
The tax money would be tapped only if Ballmer's group is able to buy the Sonics or another NBA team and agrees to a "legally binding commitment" to pay $150 million, according to the draft legislation.
Griffin, who would not discuss the identities of other investors, said they all believe the team is a crucial part of Seattle's quality of life.
"Our friends believe that having good professional sports teams is important to a community just like great universities, operas and theaters," Griffin said. "Nobody goes to all of them, but they're the attributes that allow you to attract the best elements to a town."
The latest effort comes as the Sonics appear to be getting closer to a move to Oklahoma City.
Voters there Tuesday overwhelmingly approved $120 million in taxes for an arena upgrade and practice facility aimed at luring the Sonics.
Bennett is fighting the city in court to get out of the KeyArena lease before 2010.
Next month, NBA owners will meet to decide whether to approve Bennett's request to move the team.
Even if a competing arena plan is approved in Olympia, Ceis acknowledged there is no guarantee that Bennett would sell the team back to local owners. Bennett and a group of Oklahoma businessmen purchased the Sonics and Storm in 2006 for $350 million from Schultz's group. The Storm was sold in January to a group of Seattle-area owners for $10 million.
Ceis said without a viable arena plan here, the NBA won't consider another bid by a local ownership group to buy the Sonics or bring another franchise here as a replacement.
"There is a window here that this ownership group sees. A decision by the NBA will be made in the next couple months," Ceis said. "They believe now strategically is the right time."
Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, who sponsored a previous Sonics arena-tax proposal, said backers are trying to dodge pitfalls of previous bills.
"They're definitely more savvy. They're definitely going at it with a lessons-learned approach," Pettigrew said.
In addition to the offer of private money, backers of the latest plan have quietly briefed critics of past arena plans to try to win their endorsement.
Licata, the Seattle city councilmember who drew the ire of Sonics fans a couple of years ago when he told Sports Illustrated the team's departure would have little impact on Seattle, said the latest proposal is headed in the right direction.
"Their intentions are good if they're looking to keep public contributions to a minimum and then maximizing private contributions, which is more than anybody else has mentioned," Licata said.
In 2006, Schultz's ownership group offered $18 million toward a proposed $220 million KeyArena expansion. Bennett last year offered $100 million toward a $500 million arena he wanted to build in Renton.
Van Dyk, the anti-stadium activist, said he thinks the latest proposal could be a good deal for taxpayers.
Van Dyk said he's been briefed on the plan and thinks it would meet the requirements of Initiative 91, approved by Seattle voters two years ago. The measure requires any arena subsidies for pro sports teams to turn a profit for the public.
Van Dyk suggested the arena plan may not even require a public vote.
"If it meets the terms of I-91, as far as I'm concerned, the public has already had its say-so," Van Dyk said.
But another powerful critic of pro sports subsidies, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), is withholding judgment.
"We continue to be highly skeptical of any plan which takes scarce public resources and uses them primarily for the benefit of a for-profit, private sports team," said David Rolfe, president of SEIU Local 775.
But Rolfe said his union could come around if the proposal is broadened to include public benefits such as low-income housing or health care.