Full Court Press: The Cautionary Tale From Seattle

News 9 traveled to Seattle, ahead of the OKC arena vote, to learn more about the drawbacks of losing an NBA team to another city.

Thursday, December 7th 2023, 7:05 pm

By: News 9, Karl Torp

The city is putting on a full-court press for voters to keep OKC a big-league city with a proposed nearly 100% publicly-funded arena, but opponents say the price is too high.

News 9 went to Seattle, where fans told us they learned the hard way-- no matter the price, there's always a buyer.

At first, a Seattle Kraken game feels like a pep rally. But inside the state-of-the-art Climate Pledge Arena, the pageantry is all pro. It's year three for the NHL's Seattle Kraken, but in this sea of Seattle pride are the sorrows even a mythological monster can't sink. "It hurts," said Seattle sports fan Brian Harmon. "Every time I come here it's like salt in it. We've got to get them back."

Had this arena come decades sooner, this would still be home of the Seattle Supersonics. This would be their 56th year. If the sonics departure in 2008 for Oklahoma City is an open wound, it still gets bandaged in green and gold. "People are so surprised to hear it, but our most popular team across all pro teams is Seattle Supersonics," says Jake Smidt, general manager of Simply Seattle apparel. "We sell more Sonics stuff than probably our next top two teams combined, just because of how passionate the city is for basketball."

Dave Softy Mahler is a drive-time host for KJR Sports Radio in Seattle. He says for a sports fan, losing the NBA and losing Sonic basketball was like losing a part of your soul. "There's a connection sometimes for the NBA player, especially for the star NBA player, that doesn't exist for baseball and football," Mahler said. "For Sonics fans, it's like you wake up and they should be there. It's a terrible, terrible feeling."

The documentary "Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team" details how Seattle's other pro teams helped turn the Sonic boom into a bust. "Both the Mariners and the Seahawks came to the ballot box needing new stadiums partially funded by tax revenue," said 'Sonicsgate' producer Adam Brown.

Those public dollar deals got done. But Stadium fatigue was rampant when the Sonics wanted out of Key Arena. Seattleites passed an initiative with more than 70% of the vote that made it next to impossible to spend taxpayer money on a new arena. "It was clear when that passed by such a large majority that the old model of getting an arena funded was not going to work,"

Sonics owner Howard Shultz pleaded with Washington state legislators for a deal that never came, leading to Oklahoma's first and only major sports team-- the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt calls the series of events a 'miracle,' he's the architect behind the new $900 million arena proposal-- a price justified by keeping an NBA team in a market of our size through 2050. $50 million would come from the Thunder, and the remaining $850 million would come from a six-year extension of a one-cent sales tax. "We are in no position to drive a hard bargain. We can try to drive a hard bargain, but we will fail," said Mayor Holt, who added that a new arena would also lead to more revenue streams from bigger concerts, restaurants, and retail.

"We have the smallest arena the cheapest area and the 42nd largest market- there is no future for an NBA team that is offering that. The main issue with this is that it's the worst deal in the NBA in the last decade. Taxpayers are on the hook for 95% and we just think it's a real bad deal for Oklahoma City."

But Nick Singer with 'Oklahoma Progress' disagrees, arguing Thunder owners should be paying more, if not the entire cost, for their arena. "That's the trend in the NBA," said Singer. 

San Francisco is home to a 100% privately funded arena, while arenas in Los Angeles and Philadelphia are also being built without public dollars.

Milwaukee's Fiserv Forum opened in 2018 for $524 million--with the Bucks paying $174, while the Sacramento Kings paid more than half of their $534 million Golden 1 arena in 2016. "It's a bad deal and we need a better one."

Singer argues the Thunder owner's deep roots in Oklahoma will keep the team here if the proposal is voted down. "They have no intention of leaving."

Mayor Holt says that's how Oklahoma City got an NBA Team in the first place.

A new arena was eventually built in Seattle-- the $1.15 billion privately-funded Climate Pledge arena-- but the sting of losing the Sonics still burns. "The Thunder being eliminated from the playoffs ...is like a holiday here," Harmon says, adding, "Everyone celebrates it no matter what religion you are. If you can find a private buyer to pay for the arena, then great...but good luck," said Harmon. "If you enjoy all these civic assets that bring you all this community pride, you can't mess this up because the minute you say 'no,' somebody steps in and says 'yes,' and we know that better than you, trust me."


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