NBA owners approved the Seattle SuperSonics’ move to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season Friday, provided the team can settle its lawsuit with the city.
The Sonics could begin playing in owner Clay Bennett’s hometown as early as next season if they can get out of the remaining two years of their lease at KeyArena.
Owners voted 28-2 in favor of the move, with Dallas and Portland voting against. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has previously expressed concerns about the market size, and commissioner David Stern said the Trail Blazers, owned by Paul Allen, didn’t say why they voted the way they did.
“The vote further confirms that Oklahoma is in the big leagues and can compete with anyone,” Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry said in a statement.
The Sonics, who have been in Seattle since the start of the 1967-68 season, will be the first NBA team to change cities since the New Orleans Hornets moved from Charlotte for the 2002-03 season. Stern said although owners understand the move from a larger market to a much smaller one, they “focused on the likelihood of success in Oklahoma City.”
Seattle has filed suit trying to force the Sonics to remain in the city until the lease expires in 2010, while Bennett wants to buy out the remainder. The city already has rejected Bennett’s $26 million to settle the lease dispute. A trial is set to begin in federal court June 16.
At a news conference Friday, Bennett would not say how much he was willing to offer the city but said he wants a reasonable settlement.
“Step one, I am hopeful we can re-establish communication and some sort of platform to have a meaningful, principled conversation,” Bennett said. “Certainly, we’re nowhere near that today.”
It may stay that way.
When asked during a press conference later Friday afternoon in Seattle if he was expecting a new, richer offer from Bennett to buy out the lease, Mayor Greg Nickels said, “I don’t really care.
“We’re going to go into court in June,” Nickels said. “We are going to protect the interests of the people of Seattle.”
Stern, who encouraged Bennett to make the offer to the city in February, said the league is prepared to play out the remaining two seasons in Seattle. However, he cautioned that would mean a possible loss of $30 million a year for a team playing in front of reduced attendance.
The city’s hope is to keep the Sonics in town for what would appear to be two lame-duck seasons, to buy time for a group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to find an arena solution and eventually purchase the team from Bennett to keep it in town.
Ballmer’s group already has proposed paying for half of a $300 million expansion of KeyArena, with the other half coming from the city and from county tax revenues.
“We know the longer they are in Seattle, the better the chance they will stay,” Nickels said Thursday of the Sonics.
“I think if we had a group the caliber of one led by Steve Ballmer and we had an arena pot with $300 million available in it, the NBA would have a hard time abandoning a city that’s always had pro basketball — at least for the last 41 years,” he said.
“I think the Ballmer group stepping forward was a game changer for us,” Nickels said.
Stern dismissed that idea, saying there was no viable KeyArena plan available. He also wouldn’t speculate on a possible return to Seattle in the future if the league expanded or if another team moved.
He cited the “scorched Earth policy” of Nickels and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who is representing Seattle in its defense of the KeyArena lease issue, as being an impediment to any chance of the city getting a replacement team, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“I think Sen. Gorton and the mayor are determined to exact whatever pound of flesh is possible, and they will, and then the team will leave whenever the court determines,” the newspaper quoted Stern as saying. “And that will be it, period. We’re always open to discussions. We’ve had many behind closed doors with certain components of the community in an ongoing attempt to see if we could have this team stay, all with the encouragement of Clay Bennett on behalf of the Sonics. It just wasn’t to be.”
Bennett is also facing a class-action lawsuit brought by season-ticket holders who say they were duped into buying tickets under the premise the Sonics wouldn’t leave.
And this week former team owner Howard Schultz announced plans to sue to get the team back, saying Bennett did not make a good-faith effort to secure a new arena deal as he promised when he bought the team in 2006.
That idea came from e-mails between Bennett and his ownership partners released recently as part of the city’s lawsuit, which appeared to show they planned to move the team to their hometown all along. Stern said owners didn’t buy that, saying that none “questioned the good faith of Clay Bennett.”
Henry said the Sonics will provide an economic boost to Oklahoma by “elevating our national profile and enhancing the quality of life here.”
“When we work to attract and retain high-paying jobs and top industries, the NBA label is one more thing we can point to as we market our state to the rest of world. Make no mistake, this is a big, big win for Oklahoma.”
Not so for Washington state.
“This is a sad day for basketball fans across Washington state,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said. “The Sonics have a proud, storied 41-year history in Seattle. As a sports fan, I am very disappointed with today’s action by the National Basketball Association owners.”
“It really doesn’t feel like it’s over here yet,” Sonics forward Nick Collison, who owns a home up the hill from KeyArena, said before the vote was taken. “There’s still a lot of things to do.”
The potential move of the Sonics was not the only item on the board’s agenda. Owners also voted to increase the revenue sharing pool from $40 million to $49 million, and sources told ESPN.com’s Chris Sheridan that the league’s competition committee will take up the issue of whether to change the current playoff format when it meets during the annual pre-draft camp in Orlando.
One source said there was not a groundswell of support for changing the playoff format. However, the owners feel it is time to start taking a closer look at alternate formats that would include Eastern Conference teams playing Western Conference teams in all rounds of the playoffs. If the competition committee decides to make a recommendation, it would be presented to the league’s board of governors at its next meeting in late October.