Fifteen years after moving Sonics, now it’s the Thunder asking for publicly funded arena


SEATTLE —If you haven’t heard what’s going on in Oklahoma City these days, it might make you chuckle, in a “now it’s your turn, chumps” kind of way.

Or wince, because anything concerning the franchise formerly known as the Sonics elicits an involuntary wince.

The OKC Thunder ownership group that absconded with Seattle’s NBA franchise 15 years ago is trying to convince voters to support funding for a nearly $1 billion arena — one they claim is necessary to provide the revenue streams required to compete.

I’ll now pause for the irony, schadenfreude and déjà vu to pour over you.

There haven’t been any overt threats by Thunder owner Clay Bennett and his partners to leave town if the voters don’t approve the ballot measure Dec. 12.

I mean, irony doesn’t come that thick.

But that’s certainly the implication of the comments by Mayor David Holt as related in an article posted by Oklahoma City’s NBC affiliate, KFOR, headlined: “OKC Mayor confident Thunder team would leave if new arena vote doesn’t pass.”

Holt is an avid supporter and architect of the proposal for a temporary one-cent sales tax to fund a $900 million (minimum) arena. The Thunder agreed to chip in $50 million, which is far below what teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks ($174 million) and Sacramento Kings ($284 million) contributed to their recent publicly funded arenas.

Said Holt: “Our long-term lease with this NBA team expired earlier this year. We are in a short-term deal just to come up with a plan for a new arena. … On Tuesday we came to an agreement conditional on this vote that the Thunder will stay beyond 2050. So that’s exciting, but we’ve got to build a new arena to accomplish that.”

The debates being waged in Oklahoma over the wisdom of coughing over the dough while other pressing issues exist in the city is painfully familiar. Seattle, of course, never could nail down the funding for either a KeyArena upgrade or a new arena, prompting Howard Schultz to sell to Bennett, prompting, well, you know.

Check out this quote in The Oklahoman; it’s by a spokesman for a group called “Oklahoma Progress Now,” but turn the clock back and it easily could be Seattle’s own “Citizens For More Important Things,” circa 2002-08.

“Our arena is going to be 95% on the back of taxpayers. We’re in a city that has a tremendous amount of needs. We are often asked to delay things, to delay services that we desperately need, and we just feel that that’s an unfair bargain.”

I’m quite sure that right about now, a bunch of you are thinking, perhaps screaming, “Heck, we’ll take them back in a heartbeat, if it falls apart in OKC.”

Seattle, after all, (finally) has a brand spanking new arena, state of the art, earmarked for the Kraken and Storm but designed with the NBA’s return in mind. Seattle once again displayed its fervor for the NBA this week when it packed Climate Pledge Arena for a Clippers-Jazz preseason game, with the usual array of local celebrities on hand.

Influential NBA writer Bill Simmons, speaking on his podcast in July, broached that very idea, noting how the Thunder has one of the best assemblages of young, burgeoning talent in the league:

I hate to start (expletive), but you know, OKC did steal a team from somebody else. This is the smallest market in the league. They have the smallest arena in the league … Google ‘Oklahoma City Thunder arena lease.’ Go Google all that stuff. It’s been a story there for a couple of years. They want the taxpayers to pay for a new stadium. They want to keep the team and the lease I think was up this year. They did a little three-year short lease extension.

But I just wonder — again, I hate starting (expletive) — but I just wonder, you had the Bucks being valued at $3.5 billion (and) you have Phoenix at $4 billion. What happens to this team when they have all these young assets?

Like if I’m in Seattle, and I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to get an expansion team anytime soon, because you know, I still think Seattle and Vegas are gonna be the expansion teams if/when it happens, but what if you get a little (anxious) in Seattle? You look at that OKC team with the assets they built, you have the lineage of they played in Seattle once upon a time anyway.

… What does Clay Bennett do if Seattle just offers him like $5 billion for the team. ‘We’ll take it, here’s $5 billion.’ What does the NBA do? And what happens if OKC wants to do it? What is the value of that team in a small market vs. a big market? And what if somebody just says (expletive) it and overpays?

I’d say all that is a fanciful idea. My hunch is that when all the hue and cry ends, the ballot measure passes, and the Thunder remain in OKC for the foreseeable future. Proponents are selling the idea that the Thunder’s arrival made Oklahoma City a major league city, fueling an economic boom, and that it would be foolhardy to risk that. Holt put it this way: “There are 18 metropolitan statistical areas larger than Oklahoma City that don’t have an NBA team, and several of them have existing or planned arenas that dwarf ours.”

I have a feeling that message will resonate and win the day. But don’t despair. I’ve never felt more confident that the return of the NBA to Seattle will happen in the not-too-distant future, via expansion. The league’s completion of a new media- and digital-rights deal, expected by the middle of 2024, appears to be the final hurdle for it to move forward. Seattle has too much NBA history, too many well-connected folks in the Kraken and Oak View Group’s front office, too valuable a market and too enticing of an arena for it not to happen here.

In the meantime, you can enjoy watching Clay Bennett squirm.