The Sonic Boom Heard As Far Away as Oklahoma City
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Afew years down the road, will there be any basketball teams left in the Pacific Northwest?
The Grizzlies ditched Vancouver for Memphis three years ago, Portland is knee-deep in debt, and now it appears Seattle may be packing its bags as well. The Sonics announced yesterday they (and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm) were sold for $350 million to a group from Oklahoma City led by businessman Clayton Bennett.
The words “Oklahoma City” immediately set off lightning bolts around the Northwest. The midwestern town has zoomed to the top of the list of promising relocation locales in the wake of its overwhelming support for the temporarily transplanted New Orleans Hornets this season.
“It is not our intention to move or relocate the teams,” Bennett said at a press conference yesterday. But nobody quite believes him since it contradicts everything he’s said and done for the past few years in Oklahoma City.
And if anybody is interested in relocating, it would be the Sonics. Seattle has what commissioner David Stern described as the least competitive arena lease in basketball. The Sonics have been one of the league’s more fiscally responsible teams in recent years, but even so, they claim to have lost $60 million over the past three years.
This has led to the predictable fight for a new arena, a battle that plays out in cities across the nation. Basically, the local team threatens to move unless the city pays for a new building, gives the team a huge chunk of the revenues from its operation, and generally subsidizes the club at taxpayers’ expense. Amazingly, enough cities have bit on this bait that it’s become fairly standard practice for tense negotiations to produce a “public/private partnership” (i.e., a subsidized arena) for the team’s new home.
If any team had a right to complain about its building, it was the Sonics.Seattle’s KeyArena was allegedly refurbished in the mid-1990s, but it seemed outdated from the day it reopened and now borders on anachronistic.When you walk in you half expect to see a cage around the court and the nets tied shut.
Unfortunately for the Sonics, Seattle just built two brand-spanking new buildings for its other two pro sports teams and is getting a bit weary of this game. The Mariners (Safeco Field) and Seahawks (Qwest Field) now play in state-ofthe-art facilities, but lawmakers have had trouble justifying a third large expense in so short a time span.
So the odds on relocation were increasing even before the sale announcement. Now it seems all but certain. Oklahoma City already has a big-league facility in the Ford Center, eliminating the need to haggle with politicians for a new building, and it’s one of the country’s largest markets without a major league sports team.
In addition — and there’s really no way to put this kindly — a relocated Sonics team would surely benefit from the glaring lack of entertainment options in that part of the country. The NBA has tended to do very well in Western cities without another pro team — think Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Sacramento, or (until recently) Portland. Oklahoma City would be another one, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be just as successful.
Meanwhile, the announcement has important implications for at least two other NBA teams. The first is the Hornets, who had to play in Oklahoma City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and will be staying there again this season. Stern has consistently reiterated the league’s commitment to returning to New Orleans and appears to be using his considerable leverage behind the scenes to force Hornets owner George Shinn to stay in the Big Easy if possible.
The fact that the Oklahoma City group — the same gentlemen, for the most part, who pushed for the Hornets to come north a year ago — has now turned its attention to the Sonics is the clearest indication yet that the Hornets are in Louisiana for the long haul. If the Oklahomans thought there was a decent chance the Hornets would stick around, they probably wouldn’t have taken an interest in the Sonics.
The other team this could affect, in a roundabout way, is Portland. Should the Sonics depart Seattle, one has to wonder if Microsoft billionaire and Seattle resident Paul Allen would pull stakes in the Rose City and head three hours north. The Blazers are losing money and Allen has been contemplating a sale for months, but this could be the impetus he needs to stay in the game. Of course, relocating wouldn’t be easy — the Blazers’ arena agreement with the city is very restrictive on this point — but if anyone has the bucks to pull it off, it’s Allen.
For now, though, all eyes are on the Sonics. Their lease at KeyArena doesn’t expire until 2010, so the city could conceivably stick to its guns and force the team to play out the next four years before moving. But reports yesterday suggested the city is losing as much money as the Sonics are at KeyArena, and thus might be amenable to a buyout.
The other wild card here is Stern.He’s notoriously opposed to the idea of franchise relocation in general, which is one reason he’s probably nudging Shinn back to New Orleans (Shinn had already moved the Hornets from Charlotte after a similar arena battle). But he’d already personally invested himself in the Seattle negotiations, and thus it seems more likely that he gave a wink and a nod to the Oklahoma City group as a reward for hosting the Hornets.
As a result, it seems that sooner or later Tornado Alley will have it’s first permanent major pro sports team (and no, USFL fans, the Outlaws don’t count). It may in 2007,or it may be in 2010,but the one thing that’s perfectly clear from all this is that the Sonics aren’t going to be sleeping in Seattle much longer.
Mr. Hollinger is the author of the 2005-06 Pro Basketball Forecast. He can be reached at email@example.com.