Sonics’ Owner Taking a Look at Sports Arena

Times Staff Writer

The owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, one of the more successful franchises in the National Basketball Assn., might bid to acquire the lease to the San Diego Sports Arena, a high-ranking official with the team’s parent company said Thursday.

Eric Rubin, general counsel to Ackerley Communications, Inc., came to San Diego this week to check the arena and its long-term lease as an acquisition for the Ackerley communications conglomerate, which is based in Washington, D.C.

Rubin said it was “not out of the realm of possibility” that the SuperSonics would move to San Diego, largely because the franchise has had “horrendous” arena problems in Seattle, despite a perennial winning record and numerous playoff appearances. At the moment, the SuperSonics are tied for second in the NBA’s Pacific Division.

Rubin said that Barry Ackerley, who maintains a second home in San Diego County (Borrego Springs) might consider the Sports Arena as a home for a National Hockey League expansion franchise, which he’s interested in acquiring.


“We are interested in the potential of San Diego for a sports franchise,” Rubin said Thursday. “Possibly for hockey, but certainly as an alternative to where we are with the SuperSonics. Things just haven’t worked out for the Sonics, arena-wise.

“If the city (of Seattle) doesn’t get it together, we may have to look around. It’s unclear what’s going to happen up there. If nothing works out, there’s no way the Sonics can stay.”

Rubin said the SuperSonics had hoped to move to a new arena in nearby Bellevue, Wash., but that deal fell through, as did a proposed arena near the Kingdome in downtown Seattle. The latter setback was particularly jarring to Ackerley, Rubin said, because the company lost $5 million on a land purchase for a building that will never be built. The plan was quashed by the government of King County, Wash.

The SuperSonics play in the Seattle Coliseum, a 14,200-seat arena controlled by the city.


Rubin said Ackerley perceives San Diego as a “major media market” and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country--a “boom” market.

Rubin called its potential unlimited.

“You have no winter sports here,” he said, “and it is a major market. You should have and could have two winter sports teams. You certainly have the market for both. We’re not interested in what happened here in the past (with failed NBA franchises). We see only the future . . . the potential.”

Rubin called San Diego one of the country’s most fastest-growing cable TV markets, which he said made it attractive as an NHL expansion city.


Rubin estimated that the winning bid for control of San Diego Entertainment, Inc.--which holds the arena lease, with 26 years remaining--would be about $13 million. Graymont Limited, a Canadian-based firm, owns controlling shares in San Diego Entertainment, Inc. The City of San Diego owns the Sports Arena and the land on which it sits.

Rubin said Ackerley Communications expressed interest to Graymont last summer but was turned away; a few months later, Graymont contacted them, and negotiations began.

Bruce Blakley, a spokesman for Coopers & Lybrand, the accounting firm handling the sale, did not dispute Rubin’s estimate of $13 million as a winning bid, saying only that a bid by Ackerley would be “outstanding.”

“If they could put it together, that would be great,” Blakley said. “I can’t comment on any other hurdles they would have in moving the team here; I just don’t know what they’d be. If they’re serious about bringing hockey here, that would be great, too. We feel San Diego would really turn out for a hockey team.”


Rubin said the SuperSonics would like to stay in Seattle if long-standing arena woes can be resolved, but that they’re increasingly disenchanted with the city. Unlike many other NBA teams, “we do not control our environment,” he said, meaning they have no more power than that of any other tenant in the Seattle Coliseum. The Sports Arena could give them that leverage, which he said is needed because of escalating player salaries.

“Costs have gotten so out of control, you’ve got to be able to control the rest of your costs,” Rubin said.

He said that Ackerley Communications, which has owned the SuperSonics for 4 years, was pursuing three agendas in San Diego:

--It wants to investigate San Diego Entertainment, Inc., simply as an investment. Ackerley owns six television stations, including the ABC affiliate in Bakersfield, and five radio stations, including AM-FM stations in Seattle, Portland and Boston.


--It values the potential of San Diego as a fallback or safety net because of the SuperSonics’ troubles in Seattle.

--It values the attractiveness of San Diego as a target city for NHL expansion.

“We’re not completely sure we’ll bid on the Sports Arena lease,” Rubin said. “We’ll decide that on Sunday. We have to ask ourselves what the value of the lease would be, absent a hockey or basketball team. It doesn’t help that San Diego State is building its own arena and moving out. The building wouldn’t be worth much simply as a place to host the Moscow Circus.”

Rubin said that if the SuperSonics did move to San Diego, they would want the Sports Arena only as a temporary home. The lease does not expire until 2015; Rubin wondered if the building would even last that long.


“Nobody moves franchises because they’re wild about 22-year-old buildings,” he said.