Oklahoma City approves lease for Sonics

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Three NBA owners were impressed enough with a presentation Tuesday to believe Oklahoma City should be the future home for the Seattle SuperSonics.

To make his relocation request a reality, Sonics owner Clay Bennett now needs to win over at least 13 more of his peers.

After a tour of the Ford Center and a presentation from city and state officials, NBA commissioner David Stern said Tuesday a subcommittee of three NBA owners would suggest approval of the SuperSonics’ move by the rest of the league.

“We made important progress today,” Bennett said. “A lot more to be done, but a very important step. I think it was a very successful day and we look forward to the next step.”

Gov. Brad Henry, Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops and numerous other representatives of the city, state and sports community came out to welcome Stern, New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz, Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon and Los Angeles Lakers vice president Jeanie Buss as Oklahoma City brought out fancy cars and hard facts to woo its first major-league sports franchise.

“It was a pretty full presentation and pretty much a tour de force on behalf of Oklahoma that I’d say impressed the members of the committee greatly,” Stern said.

While the relocation would mean a move to a much smaller market, Stern said he was encouraged by the amount of support from area leaders and fans, and the revenue potential the team would have in a downtown arena being remodeled with $121 million in public funds approved by voters earlier this month.

“I think Seattle is actually a terrific market. It just doesn’t have an NBA-ready arena of the future that’s been agreed to by all parties for many years,” Stern said. “It’s a very strong market that has in fact supported NBA basketball well over the years. When you come to a place like Oklahoma, you look for the single-team market as opposed to, for example, a market that has three or more professional sports leagues in it.”

Katz said he was impressed that 62 percent of city voters favored taxing themselves to fund the Ford Center improvements and by the coalition of support among leadership including representatives of Tulsa that the NBA considered a part of Oklahoma City’s broader market.

“This is wonderful for the league, wonderful for basketball, a strong wonderful ownership group that you have out here that can lead this thing,” Katz said.

“My hope is that we’ll find a settlement with Seattle that will give them the opportunity to have a replacement team. Seattle should have an NBA team, and I think David expressed that in the meetings. We all feel that way. My guess is you haven’t heard the end of the Seattle story.”

Katz, Simon and Buss will meet with the remaining four members of the relocation committee—San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, Miami Heat managing general partner Micky Arison, Chris Cohan of the Golden State Warriors and Ed Snider of the Philadelphia 76ers—likely by telephone and make a formal recommendation to the rest of the league’s owners.

All 30 owners will vote on the SuperSonics’ relocation request during an April 18 meeting, with a majority needed for approval. The Sonics also have a federal court case scheduled for June to determine whether they can break their lease with Seattle that runs through 2010.

On Tuesday morning, City Council members in Oklahoma City approved terms of a 15-year lease with the SuperSonics that would require the team to pay the city $1.6 million annually to use the Ford Center and another $409,000 per year to be able to resell the arena’s naming rights.

Former Oklahoma state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton voiced concerns to the council that the lease leaves the city in position to pay for any cost overruns on the Ford Center renovations and the construction of an approximately $24 million practice facility funded by the sales tax extension.

“It’s in black and white there that the city will pay for the cost overruns, and there could be tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns because they’ve given the team owners free rein to make any changes, whatever they want, during the entire construction period,” Stapleton said. “It’s just a blank check, that’s all it is.”

City Manager Jim Couch assured Stapleton that the lease would allow the city to make any cuts necessary to keep the project within its budget. Mayor Mick Cornett said it was the city’s intent to keep the renovations within whatever funds are raised by the sales tax extension.

“We have a very good history of building stuff on time and being financially responsible,” Cornett said. “I understand that this is going to take a very high level of scrutiny and we accept that and look forward to once again living up to what we said we would do.”


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