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NBA expansion returning Sonics to Seattle? Not anytime soon

Michael Cage looks on

1988: Michael Cage #44 of the Seattle Supersonics looks on during a game in the 1988-1989 NBA season. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

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It was 10 years ago that the Seattle Supersonics were no more, moving to Oklahoma City and becoming the Thunder. The why still stings in Seattle. It’s been 10 painful years for the loyal sports fans of Seattle — I was there this summer and you can still buy Sonics gear plenty of places.

Friday night the Warriors and Kings will play in Seattle, an NBA preseason game. It has sparked memories of the green and yellow jerseys and Shawn Kemp thunderous dunks.

It’s also sparked a big question: When will an NBA expand and return to Seattle?

Not anytime soon, unfortunately for Seattle fans. That’s despite the large and wealthy market, and the recent approval by the city to upgrade Key Arena to modern standards (where an NHL expansion team is slated to move in). When I’ve asked about the topic in recent years, the reaction from league officials has largely been “there’s not much of an appetite for expansion among the owners” (and remember it takes a two-thirds vote from them to okay expansion). Brian Windhorst was even more concrete in an article for ESPN.

The NBA doesn’t have expansion anywhere on its timeline, and Seattle’s arena developments weren’t discussed for a moment at the fall board of governors meeting two weeks ago, league sources said. Some prospective ownership groups that have met with NBA officials have been told expansion may not happen until 2025 at the earliest, when a new TV deal can be negotiated, sources said.

Beyond that, the complexities of the so-called New Arena at Seattle Center, the building’s working title, may make it challenging for Seattle to compete for a team if and when the time comes. The situation could even require Seattle to have a second new arena with the NBA team as the main tenant if the city wants to outbid other markets to attract a team, multiple ownership sources told ESPN.

That’s seven years at the very least, and probably longer than that, before expansion is any kind of reality. By then, the broadcast landscape will have shifted even more — it’s moving fast to streaming services now — and what that new broadcast deal will look like, and how much money will be involved, are unknowns. Which is to say, 2025 is no lock for expansion, if it happens at all.

It is possible that before then an NBA team from a smaller market with a short lease will go up for sale, be purchased and moved into a building in Seattle (Key Arena or a new one). That almost happened with the Sacramento Kings (it was now Commissioner Adam Silver who fought hard to find a local owner and get a new arena built in Sacramento to keep the team in California.) However, right now there is no team that fits the criteria, no teams likely to be on the move. (There are a lot of eyes on the New Orleans Pelicans since the passing of owner Tom Benson, his wife Gayle now runs the team and the NFL’s Saints. She has said she has no plans to sell the Pelicans, but that could change. They have a lease at the Smoothie King Center that runs through 2024.)

All of this is not great news for hoops-starved Seattle fans. There is a desire in the NBA’s league office to see a team back in Seattle... someday. But it’s going to be many years before anything starts to take real shape.