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Phoenix Suns owner reportedly threatens to move team to Seattle or Las Vegas

Robert Sarver, shown in 2015, took over the Suns in 2004. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Suns have been Phoenix’s longest tenured major professional sports team, but they may not be there much longer. Team owner Robert Sarver reportedly is threatening to relocate the Suns to Seattle or Las Vegas, ahead of a municipal council vote on $230 million in upgrades to the their arena.

The Arizona Republic’s Laurie Roberts reported Wednesday that an unidentified council member said to her, “Sarver’s talking about moving. He basically told me the team will go [if they don’t get a renovated arena]. Vegas and Seattle were the two he talked about.”

Phoenix City Manger Ed Zuercher told Roberts that he didn’t “consider it a threat,” but rather a reflection of Suns officials' discussions of “what their options are.” Zuercher added of Sarver, “Robert has never has threatened me. He’s mentioned that there are other cities that are looking for NBA teams.”

Seattle has been without an NBA franchise since the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 and became the Thunder. The NHL recently awarded Seattle an expansion team, which will start play in the 2020-21 season, two years after the league did the same for Las Vegas, whose Golden Knights made a stunning inaugural-season run to the Stanley Cup finals this year.

The Golden Knights were the first major professional sports team to call Las Vegas home, but they will soon be joined by the NFL’s Raiders, who are set to move there from Oakland before the 2020 season. The hockey team plays at T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2016; Seattle’s city council last week approved a $700 million renovation of its 52-year-old Key Arena, with some members expressing confidence that the project would soon lead to the return of the NBA.

The Suns' facility, Talking Stick Resort Arena, opened in 1992 as America West Arena. It underwent renovations in 2003. That year also saw the building’s NHL tenants, the Arizona Coyotes, moved to Gila River Arena, in nearby Glendale, Ariz.

The cost of the proposed project in Phoenix would reportedly be split, with the city paying $150 million and Sarver’s team spending $80 million and also committing to build a new practice facility in the area. According to the Arizona Republic, the 40-year lease the Suns signed in 1992 includes an opt-out clause after 30 years, if the arena is “considered obsolete.”

Phoenix’s city council was set to vote Wednesday on the deal, which could keep the Suns in place until at least 2037, but decided on a postponement when it became apparent that there might not be enough yes votes. A new vote could take place in late January, with the intervening period being used to solicit community feedback on the project.

A Phoenix-based public relations firm recently claimed that a poll it conducted with a local data analysis and political consulting firm showed that only 20 percent of area voters were in favor of the deal, which would also commit the city to an additional $25 million in maintenance funding, with 66 percent opposed.

“When I listen to residents of District 5, I never hear from them about the need to renovate Talking Stick Arena,” council member Vania Guevara wrote Monday, adding, “Beyond just bad optics, it’s bad policy to ask residents to pay more for the basics while simultaneously funding a renovation for a team estimated to be worth nearly $1.3 billion.”

A businessman who made his fortune in banking and real estate development before becoming the Suns' principal owner in 2004, Sarver is widely disliked by the team’s fan base. Since he took over, the Suns have gone from one of the NBA’s more consistently successful franchises to a perennial cellar-dweller marked by questionable personnel moves.

The city’s interim mayor, Thelda Williams, expressed support for the deal. “I am committed to approving an agreement that will continue our partnership and foster the positive economic impact that having the Suns downtown has had for Phoenix,” she told the Phoenix New Times. “I’ve heard from many constituents who have expressed support to keep the Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena to maintain the economic viability of the region.”

“We very much look forward to publicly discussing the many ways in which Talking Stick Resort Arena benefits downtown Phoenix and our community at large, and answering any questions the council and their constituents may have about the arena and the proposed renovation,” Suns President and CEO Jason Rowley said in a statement. “Our priority remains being in downtown Phoenix long term, and we’re excited about the opportunity that lies ahead.”

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