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Arena Official Cautious About Sonics' Interest

February 04, 1989|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The president of San Diego Entertainment, Inc., the firm operating the San Diego Sports Arena, said Friday that he has had "long discussions" with representatives of the Seattle SuperSonics about the possibility of their bidding to acquire ownership of the company and the lease to the 22-year-old arena.

"Ackerley Communications (Inc., which owns the SuperSonics as well as radio and television stations) is a large and substantial company," arena operator Vin Ciruzzi said. "The people running it are of the highest integrity.

"But as far as them bringing the SuperSonics here, I have learned not to overreact. When teams have had problems in their own buildings, and we've approached those teams, they've wound up negotiating better deals with those cities. We've ended up with nothing."

Ciruzzi confirmed that during his four years as president he had conducted "serious" talks with two National Basketball Assn. teams and that both had appeared interested in moving to San Diego. He declined to name the teams but said both "used" the city to work out a sweetheart deal back home.

He said he feared the same situation might be repeating itself with the SuperSonics, who have been at odds with authorities in Seattle over getting a better place to play. Barry Ackerley, the team's owner, spent $5 million to buy land near the Seattle Kingdome but was thwarted by the King County government in his attempt to build an arena.

"We've said publicly that we're not going to stay in the (14,200-seat) Seattle Coliseum as it currently exists," said Bob Whitsitt, president of the SuperSonics. "The roof leaks, we don't get to practice on the day of the game, and there isn't enough power in the building.

"We'd like to stay in Seattle. It's our goal, what we've been working toward. If we can't get a better place up here . . . Well, I hate to speculate. That leads to stories I don't want to answer questions on. We want to see if we can work out something with the city."

Even if they do, Whitsitt said that Ackerley is intrigued with San Diego as the possible home of a National Hockey League expansion franchise.

Eric Rubin, general counsel to Ackerley Communications, Inc., was in San Diego Wednesday and Thursday to investigate the arena and its lease, which has 26 years remaining.

"We can't totally answer whether we'll bid on San Diego (arena lease) or not," Whitsitt said. "We haven't seen the reports on the arena yet. The answer is qualified by what we found out down there. If we develop something in Seattle--and we were ready to spend $50 million before they shot us down--we could be in the arena business here and in San Diego as well. It's no different than buying radio stations in Seattle and Portland. Once you get in a particular business, you try to expand, to enhance the company portfolio."

Whitsitt said the SuperSonics were not using San Diego as a threat to sweeten their lot in Seattle.

"In one phone call, I could get a market (other than San Diego) to offer us a gold mine to go there," he said. "We wanted to look at the building to see if it made sense from an investment standpoint. We have until Monday (the deadline set by the local accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand) to see if we'll bid."

Rubin said Thursday that it was "not out of the realm of possibility" for the SuperSonics to move to San Diego and use the Sports Arena as the steppingstone to a new arena--and more lucrative market--here. He said that Barry Ackerley maintains a second home in Borrego Springs and values the long-term potential of San Diego as a major market.

Ciruzzi said he had met with Rubin several times to weigh the pros and cons of a potential bid by Ackerley, which Rubin estimated would be in the neighborhood of $13 million. Rubin said Ackerley would decide on Sunday whether or not to bid.

"Eric Rubin has talked to everybody in town," Ciruzzi said. "He's really done his homework. He's done his own demographics. Look, San Diego is ready for a team. The demographics have changed dramatically even since the Clippers left (in 1984). People from the outside, such as those from Seattle, are coming in and confirming that. It's gratifying to have them confirm what we already knew."

Ciruzzi said he was hopeful of San Diego obtaining an NHL expansion team. NBA expansion anytime soon is unlikely. The league added teams this season in Miami and Charlotte, N.C., and will have teams in Minneapolis and Orlando, Fla., next season. He said professional basketball would have to appear here in the form of a transplanted franchise.

Gary Meagher, a spokesman for the National Hockey League, said from his office in Montreal that San Diego's chances for an expansion team were good--as were those of Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle and Hamilton, Ontario. He said sold-out exhibition games in the Sports Arena had helped.

What hurts the city's chances, he said, is the size of the Sports Arena (capacity: 13,000). Boston (14,451) and Minneapolis (14,989) occupy the league's smallest arenas. Meagher said no official timetable had been worked out for NHL expansion. Dallas, which also had good attendance at recent NHL exhibitions, has an arena that seats more than 17,000.

David Courtney, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, said the Kings favor expansion into West Coast markets. The Kings' nearest rival is the Vancouver Canucks, which makes traveling expensive and complicated.

"We've always stated it would be a great benefit to us to have another West Coast team," Courtney said.

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