How to bring professional basketball back to Seattle: buy the Minnesota Orchestra

Laurence VittesThu 6th June 2013

A bold suggestion to improve the fortunes of an orchestra in need

When I read that Seattle entrepreneur Chris Hansen had recently been turned down in his $525m bid to buy Sacramento's professional basketball team, the Kings, and move them to Seattle, which has no professional basketball team of its own, I felt his pain.

My message to Chris and to Seattle: be patient and persevere. And don't feel bad about losing the Kings.

Los Angeles, for example, has thrived without a pro football team since losing both the Rams and the Raiders in 1985, in part because the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Walt Disney Concert Hall stepped into the entertainment breach.

No one is denying that Los Angeles would be better off with at least one pro football franchise, and certainly Seattle would be better off with a pro basketball team. And that’s just where buying the Minnesota Orchestra, whose season was ended and future seriously clouded by dissension and strike, and moving it to Seattle, comes in.

Buy the Minnesota Orchestra and move it to Seattle. You will get your basketball team.

Joining the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra would make your city a classical music colossus. Your two top-tier orchestras could now rotate between concerts at Benaroya Hall and an opera company running year round, with the Ring cycle as the annual summer long event alternating with a Broadway show based on the movie, Excalibur.

In order to highlight Seattle's new double-barrelled orchestral prowess, you could set up a national marketing association of collegially competitive orchestral leagues similar to those that run professional sports leagues – and develop similar kinds of revenue streams. You would be on the cover of Time magazine, and give interviews on the role of culture in the world today.

In addition to all this enormous fun, including jet-setting around the world to classical music’s 24/7 parties and festivals, your profits would be commensurate with getting in at the bottom floor of an entertainment industry sector about to explode.

In 1959, the professional football Buffalo Bills were sold for $25,000. In 2010, Forbes said they were worth more than $800m. You might get the Minnesota Orchestra for $25m.

Best of all, impressed by your accomplishments and the increased importance of Seattle on the world stage, the National Basketball Association would gift-wrap and personally deliver you the basketball team you desire.

I talked to the Detroit Symphony's music director Leonard Slatkin about whether the orchestral leagues idea was practical.

Creating an orchestral equivalent to the National Basketball Association would 'be fantastic', Slatkin told me from Carnegie Hall a few hours before leading his Detroit Symphony to a triumph in Charles Ives's complete symphonies at the Hall’s ‘Spring for Music’ series.

Slatkin thought that an ‘overhauled’, beefed-up version of the existing League of American Orchestras, which is funded currently at less than $8m annually, would be ideally situated to putting such a marketing package together.

Headquartered in New York City, the 800-orchestra strong League is dedicated to ‘helping orchestras meet the challenges of the 21st century’. Founded in 1942, the League offers a comprehensive range of support services for the classical music industry; it constitutes a vast national resource for instrumentalists, conductors, managers and administrators, corporate and private donors, board members, volunteers, and business partners.

If a sale is not consummated before the League's annual meetings, scheduled this year for June 18-20 in St Louis, the special session on ‘What orchestras will look like in 2023’, will allow interested unsigned parties to take notes and plan accordingly.

Slatkin told me a story about St Louis in the early 1940s that should inspire classical music entrepreneurs.

‘Times were tough, and the owner of the Busch brewery wanted to take over the St Louis Symphony and take it under his wing. But he insisted it be called the Busch Symphony Orchestra'. Slatkin sounded sad in a nostalgic way that the sale had not gone through.

Best laid plans

Of course, all of this could be true and buying the Minnesota Orchestra could get you that professional basketball team, but you could run into the same snag you ran into in Sacramento: Minneapolis might not want to sell.

After all, selling the Minnesota Orchestra would leave the Twin Cities with only the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to handle the demand for orchestral classical music; it would be hard for residents to say ‘Twin Cities’ with a straight face.

As for the Minnesota Orchestra, if they are forsaken both by their community and by Chris Hansen, the best card they might have left is to go independent, either by forming an entirely new orchestra of their own, or by asserting rights of eminent cultural domain, gaining joint ownership rights along with the community, and running it according to a radically different model.

There is even a way forward for Chris Hansen. The League of Orchestras is itself a not-for-profit organisation, and could therefore be targeted for takeover. As it is constituted and behaves now, the League does not consider itself similar in any way, shape or form to a professional sports league. Chris Hansen could change all that.

Laurence Vittes's picture

Laurence Vittes

Classical music journalist Laurence Vittes is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Strings, Audiophile Audition and Gramophone.

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