Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Sonics owner acknowledges making mistakes in Seattle
SEATTLE -- SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett testified Wednesday that he made mistakes in dealing with the city of Seattle after he bought the team in 2006.
"We bought this team with grand visions for success," he said. "Did we do everything right, and did we understand everything there was to understand? Certainly not."
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Bennett began his second day on the witness stand in a federal trial over the Sonics' lease at KeyArena under friendly questioning from team attorney Brad Keller, and didn't specify his mistakes.
He finished shortly before noon and was replaced on the stand by Sonics president Danny Barth, who discussed the team's finances, charitable work and the difficulty of running the business when it's unclear where the Sonics will play next year. He said 23 of 125 employees have quit in the last six months.
Bennett suggested he misunderstood the region's political climate. But he also testified he simply wasn't willing to commit to the things his local advisers told him would be necessary to win government support for a new arena and keep the Sonics in town: make an out-of-pocket contribution toward the construction, and agree to cover cost overruns.
The 48-year-old Oklahoma tycoon, who received calls of "Liar!" when he entered federal court Monday, also said he's regretted his failure "to integrate more completely with the people" of Seattle -- it's to the point "I can't go to games."
"I'm not real popular," he said.
Some fans seated in the rear of the courtroom chuckled.
He said that if U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman forces the team to honor the final two years of the KeyArena lease, it would cost the Sonics $60 million and make it tough to attract good players and coaches to improve from a franchise-worst record of 20-62 last season. The league's most talented players probably wouldn't be interested in moving to Seattle for just two years, he said.
He also extolled the virtues of Oklahoma City's Ford Center, where, he said, the team could make $17 million over the next two years. He cited the "wildly enthusiastic" support for the NBA there when the Hornets relocated temporarily from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
New courtside suites, exclusive lounge areas just off the court that Bennett said are becoming the trend in the newest NBA arenas, are expected to be installed in the Ford Center by the 2009-10 season. He said that is just the type of high-end amenity that KeyArena lacks.
Bennett is trying to move Seattle's oldest professional sports franchise to his hometown of Oklahoma City.
In the non-jury trial, the city is asking Pechman to force the Sonics to honor their lease, which includes a clause that either side may "specifically enforce" the terms. Seattle lawyers say Bennett's a sophisticated businessman who knew what he was getting into when he bought the team, can absorb the losses without difficulty, and should not now be allowed to plead hardship in breaking the lease.
Bennett has acknowledged that when he bought the team he was aware of all of the problems with KeyArena -- including its size, lack of high-end suites, poor layout for concessions and a lease that requires sharing revenue with the city.
If Pechman allows the team to relocate, a separate trial would be held to determine how much the team must pay in damages.
In a post-court news conference Wednesday, Seattle lawyer Paul Lawrence disputed Bennett's insistence that the team would lose $60 million in Seattle over the next two years. He pointed to the Boston Celtics, who won the NBA title this week after having the worst record last season.
"If the team has a turnaround like the Boston Celtics ... I assure you they're going to make money," Lawrence said.
Bennett continued to insist he was a "man possessed" to keep the Sonics in Seattle -- despite e-mails that show he and co-owners discussed relocating soon after buying the team. He cited his efforts to have a new arena built in the Seattle suburbs.
"I believed in the bottom of my heart that we would succeed. And I am personally disappointed that we did not," he testified.
As part of the purchase, Bennett agreed to make "good-faith best efforts" to keep the Sonics in Seattle.
The city argues that Bennett's demand for a new $500 million arena -- presented late in the 2007 legislative session -- was so unreasonable as to have been designed to fail. The team offered $100 million from future revenue, such as ticket surcharges and parking fees, but nothing out-of-pocket.
In e-mails to his lobbyists, advisers and others, Bennett said any Sonics' contribution would be "nominal" or "negligible," and suggested the amount could be offset by a credit for the team's ongoing financial losses.
Lawrence repeatedly asked Bennett about e-mails to and from his co-owners, seeking to establish that they were bent on relocating from the moment they bought the Sonics. In one memo to his ownership group, Bennett wrote: "In the context of our 'good faith best efforts' commitment and working with our lawyers and communications consultant ... We will consider a renovation of KeyArena."
"You never made that effort, did you?" Lawrence asked.
"I never considered a renovation of KeyArena," Bennett responded.