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Wednesday, May 12, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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City's Offer To Help Lure Wnba Doesn't Satisfy Sonic Owners

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

City officials and The Ackerley Group, which owns the NBA's SuperSonics, are having difficulty coming to terms on a deal that could help Seattle land a team in the Women's National Basketball Association when that league expands next month.

Mayor Paul Schell sent a letter to The Ackerley Group yesterday outlining changes the city is willing to make to KeyArena's lease to help offset the costs of starting up a WNBA team. WNBA teams are operated by the NBA teams in their cities.

The deal includes rent breaks and other financial perks. But the offer falls short of what Ackerley wants.

The Ackerley Group is asking for an unspecified number of additional days each year to use KeyArena for concerts and other events that would cross-promote the new basketball team.

But Schell said today that the proposal would have created management headaches and would have significantly reduced the $700,000 a year the city makes on concerts, ice shows and other KeyArena events.

"It would have had a significant impact on our management and our resources, and I wouldn't go that far," he said.

But an Ackerley official said that to land a WNBA franchise in Seattle, the team must show it can make money, and the ability to book and benefit from more events at KeyArena would help make a stronger proposal.

"We don't want control of the building, we already looked at that and it doesn't work for us right now," said John Dresel, president of Full House Sports and Entertainment, the Sonics' business arm.

WNBA President Val Ackerman has said the league will announce by June 1 the four cities that will receive expansion franchises in 2000.

The Seattle Reign, despite two years of losing records, proved to be one of the four profitable teams in the American Basketball League, according to former ABL CEO Gary Cavalli. The ABL began play in 1996 and disbanded last December. The Reign averaged 3,229 and 3,321 fans per season in its two full years of operation and was drawing 3,878 last season when the league went out of business.

When the ABL folded, it was a blow to its followers here. And in his letter to Ackerley, Schell gushed over the city's support for a new team.

"It is time to build on the strong legacy of the Seattle Reign and propel Seattle into a leadership position with regard to women in sports," he wrote. "What city can better host a WNBA team?"

But the tone does not reflect the deep tensions between the city and The Ackerley Group over financial losses stemming from this season's NBA labor lockout. The city lost nearly $3 million in revenue from KeyArena during the dispute, forcing officials to tap taxpayers to make up the shortfall.

The two sides are still battling over nearly $330,000 in unpaid rent from the canceled games, an issue that is now in arbitration.

The Sonics had been thinking of applying for a WNBA team even before the ABL went out of business, but stepped up the effort only in recent months.

The WNBA has 12 teams that are collectively owned by the 29 NBA franchises and operated by the NBA team in that city. For an NBA franchise to acquire a WNBA team requires a bid to the WNBA's eight-member operating committee, which then votes.

The Ackerley Group approached the city about a WNBA team on Monday with a list of proposed changes to the KeyArena lease.

The NBA has been interested in a Seattle franchise but was concerned that the Sonics didn't own or control KeyArena.

The city is offering Ackerley three of the four points the company wants. Rent for WNBA games would be reduced to $2,500 a game plus all direct costs for three years. Ackerley would keep all profits from concessions, merchandise and sponsorships for WNBA events. And the WNBA games would have priority scheduling during its summer season and playoffs.

But the two sides are still far apart on the question of managing KeyArena.

It is a particularly sensitive issue. City officials were furious when The Ackerley Group made public several weeks ago a proposal to cover the city's $74 million debt for KeyArena renovations and guarantee a profit in return for full management of the building.

But, Dresel said, the two sides couldn't come to an agreement. City officials were concerned about initial financial costs and about giving control of booking events to a private company.

J. Martin McOmber's phone message number is 206-515-5628. His e-mail address is: mmcomber@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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