Sonics Employee Leaks Details of Employee Meeting with Clay Bennett

Over the weekend, several different TrueHoop readers sent me a link to the same article, by Erik D. Williams and Frank Hughes in the News Tribune.

It's an article based on information supplied by an anonymous Sonic employee who was part of meetings last week with team chairman Clay Bennett, who represents the Oklahoma City-based group that bought the Sonics and Storm last year.

In the meeting, Bennett reportedly outlined some things Oklahoma City was prepared to do to entice the Sonics to move. That would reportedly include paying a long list of expensive things: legal fees associated with breaking the arena lease, settlement costs to the lease holders, moving expenses for Sonic employees, relocation fees due the NBA, a renovation of the existing arena in Oklahoma City, and eventually a new arena there too.

(If this is really the city's offer to the Sonics, wow. That's a lot of money! None of those things are cheap and these days arenas are $500 million or more. Meanwhile, an article published just last Friday says 16 of Oklahoma City's schools are failing to meet basic federal education standards.)

Williams and Hughes explain the circumstances of the discussions, and Bennett's reaction to the leaked information:

Bennett's comments Wednesday were in response to a Sonics employee asking what a community such as Oklahoma City has done to prove to Bennett that it wants the Sonics, the source said.

"He lit up like a Christmas tree," the source said of Bennett's reaction to the employee's question. "He got real happy and he started spouting off these things."

Bennett told The News Tribune that his comments were a hypothetical response.

"The context of my response was after being asked the question how could Oklahoma City possibly be a competitive market to Seattle," Bennett said. "And my answer is because Oklahoma City is a medium marketplace that highly values the opportunity to obtain an NBA franchise, not unlike any community or any state would value the pursuit of any other highly additive economic development opportunity, such as the value of a manufacturing plant or corporate headquarters.

"The response was an attempt to provide some clarity as why it is so important that Seattle respond and recognize at once that the team is at risk. Without a successor venue at KeyArena, and without a modern facility, the team cannot remain economically viable in this marketplace.

"Our deal has never changed. On July 18, 2006, we outlined very clearly what needs to happen in order to keep the team economically viable and in the marketplace, and we are continuing in the pursuit of that objective."

Minutes before the employee's question, the source said, Bennett was adamant that he had not spoken in depth with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a close ally, or any other city officials because he was focused on what he was trying to do in Seattle. The source said the team's approximately 100 employees met with Bennett in four groups to allow for a more intimate setting for frank questions to be asked about the status of the organization.

I don't know where the Sonics belong. Maybe Seattle ultimately sees this team as worth it and maybe it doesn't. But I feel Sonic fans are at least owed an honest attempt to keep the team -- not a process that has long smelled it like it might have been on rails out of town. Getting a good arena deal is a complicated process that takes multiple willing partners.

It's like building a house. If the guy who pours the foundation doesn't show up, and all your framers, roofers, electricians, plumbers, and sheetrockers etc. are all standing around doing nothing, do you really have proof that you can't get it done? Or do you have proof that you need the foundation guy to try harder or get replaced?

I also don't like cities competing against each other to hand ever-larger piles of tax payer dollars to very wealthy people. I'm not an economist, but no one can convince me this is not true: if, over time (as stadiums are replaced, I suppose) every city in America were to be total tightwads ... that is, make steep cuts in taxpayer support for such projects, it would not put the NBA out of business. It would shift the marketplace around. Owners would essentially have to have deep pockets to make that transition. Many would trim payroll on and off the court.

But, eventually, wouldn't more and more owners look at that next free agent and offer half as much? Wouldn't fewer and fewer players get max contracts? Wouldn't the average salary for a starting power forward linger somewhere around $5 million instead of where it is now around $10 million? Would any of that be dreadful -- especially if it came along with lower taxes and/or more money for bridges and schools and the like?

Players create the value -- I have no trouble with them getting a FAT piece of the cake. I'm just saying, when the cake is this rich, do we have to (losing myself entirely now in this cooking analogy) bake it with so much taxpayer butter? Let the wealthy owners and the wealthy players bear a little more of the burden.

That doesn't happen now because every time a city plays hardball, like Seattle is doing now, there's some other city somewhere with stars in its eyes, willing to overpay for the right to have a team. Taxpayers across North America are competing with each other to fund stadiums. The buyers in this market would be well served to just calm down, and bid a little lower.

Also, let's not end this discussion without noting the ongoing and spectacular manner in which Clay Bennett's ownership group is thoroughly embittering practically everyone who is not in Oklahoma City. (It's so thorough, you have to wonder if it's some kind of strategy.) Consider some of the comments emailed to me (these are representative samples from the emails I got from Sonic fans) since this article came out:

  • "It amazes me that the NBA would allow another city to literally assist an ownership group steal a team and bring it to their market. I understand that creating a building or whatnot is sort of similar, but to offer to pay all the other fees associated seems a bit crazy ... especially since Clay Bennett says this was all 'hypothetical' and that 'he has never had substantive talks with the mayor.'"

  • "Read this and tell me these guys aren't scum bags ripping us off at every corner."

Also, look at the many comments in response to this story on the SonicsCentral website, for instance this one from "Jimmy":

Now it is painfully clear that it is a fantasy to think that we can just make relocating the team so expensive for Clay that he decides to keep the team in Seattle or sell it to local owners. Oklahoma City is willing to foot ALL and ANY expenses incurred for relocating the team. The ONLY way the team stays is if Stern recommends to the NBA board (the team owners) that the relocation request be denied and the owners concur. If that happens, then perhaps an exasperated Clay will sell the Sonics to locals and try to buy another team to take to OKC. The key now is to prove to Stern that there are viable options emerging for a remodeled Key Arena or a new arena in Seattle area so that he recommends against the relocation. Otherwise it just comes down to a fight over the lease, which best case scenario drags out the inevitable for a couple years. Billionaires tend to win lawsuits.