Seattle hoops sale: Give-and-go?
Seattle Times staff reporters
KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
BILL WAUGH / THE OKLAHOMAN, 2005
BRYAN TERRY / THE OKLAHOMAN
Tale of two arenas
Year opened: 1995
Cost: $104 million (includes some subsequent improvements)
Ownership: public, city of Seattle
Size: 368,000 square feet
Source: city of Seattle
Year opened: 2002
Cost: $87.7 million
Ownership: public, city of Oklahoma City
Size: 581,000 square feet
Source: Ford Center
When Howard Schultz was introduced as the Sonics' new owner in 2001, he pledged to put the team among the league's elite.
When Clay Bennett was introduced Tuesday as the next new owner, the question was whether he intended to put the Sonics in Oklahoma City.
Over the course of the past year, Bennett repeatedly touted Oklahoma City as a city ready to be home to an NBA franchise. He spent much of Tuesday insisting he did not plan to make the Sonics that new team in town.
"Certainly, ultimately we hope for basketball in Oklahoma City, but it's unrelated to this transaction," Bennett said. "We are committing to a 12-month process in which we will act in good faith and give our best effort to develop a successful facility. And that's what we're committed to."
The new owners of the Sonics are to Oklahoma what the old owners of the Sonics were to Seattle: civic-minded millionaires.
Bennett leads an investment company that owns the tallest building in Oklahoma City. Another member of the group is president of the city's biggest bank. Two others co-founded a billion-dollar oil and gas firm.
With the exception of Bennett, none of the new owners had much experience with pro sports. But several of the new owners "caught the NBA" bug when they became so-called "Pioneers" — big-dollar backers — of the relocated New Orleans Hornets franchise, said Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
"They've tasted the sugar, and it's exciting them," Williams said.
Bennett, who served on the board of the San Antonio Spurs in the 1990s, was key in rallying Oklahoma City's business community to welcome the Hornets, who needed a temporary home after Hurricane Katrina.
The Hornets' attendance skyrocketed last year in Oklahoma, and Bennett saw the success as proof of the city's viability.
"We believe we are a major-league market, and now we believe we have proven it, and we want to stay a major-league market," Bennett told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in February.
His ownership group discussed buying a minority stake in the displaced Hornets, but the deal fell through when it became clear the team's majority owner intended to return to New Orleans.
G. Edward Evans, one of the new Sonics owners, led the failed discussions with the Hornets. Evans said the group met earlier this year and decided Bennett would pursue buying the Hornets while Evans looked into the Sonics.
"We made it very clear from the beginning that we're very interested in committing to the NBA, not necessarily a particular city," said Evans, who also led another group that made an unsuccessful bid to buy the Washington Nationals baseball team. "And frankly, I can't think of a better situation than to be sitting in Seattle with a brand new venue in this market."
The new Sonics owners are considered business titans in Oklahoma.
"Your franchise could not be in more capable hands," said Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City.
In addition to Bennett, the group includes G. Jeffrey Records, CEO of the city's largest bank, MidFirst; Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward, co-founders of Chesapeake Energy Corporation; and Evans, chairman of Syniverse, a telecommunications company based in Florida.
McClendon and Ward started the oil and gas exploratory firm in 1989. Chesapeake has benefited from soaring energy prices, its stock price doubling in 2005.
Chesapeake had $4.67 billion in revenue last year; McClendon took home $17,955,100, according to financial reports.
McClendon has become a big-name philanthropist in Oklahoma City. Last week, he and his wife, Katie, gave $1 million to build a new Boys and Girls Club there.
Records' MidFirst Bank is one of the largest privately held banks in the nation, with $9.5 billion in assets.
"If you are in the philanthropic world, you know these names because they're big hitters," said Gary Marrs, an Oklahoma City councilman.
Rumors of possible franchise purchases drifted around Oklahoma's City Hall for months, but the Sonics deal was completed so quickly that Mayor Cornett said he learned only a few days ago that this rumor was serious.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Gov. Christine Gregoire didn't learn of it until Tuesday morning. After a news conference Tuesday in Seattle, Evans acknowledged public skepticism of the new group's desire to keep the Sonics here.
"It doesn't matter what we say here," Evans said. "It's what our actions are. So we've got to step up and get it done, and we understand that."
His group must try to do in 12 months what Schultz's group could not in more than two years: get a better home for the Sonics.
If the negotiations sour, the Sonics would be warmly embraced in Oklahoma, said Willa Johnson, an Oklahoma City councilwoman.
The 19,599-seat Ford Center, which opened in 2002, was built with public money for the intention of getting an NBA or NHL franchise.
It has no debt, which helped the city ink a special deal with the Hornets last year in which the team was guaranteed to make $30 million.
Johnson said she would expect the Sonics — should they relocate — to receive a similar deal.
"I would certainly hope that our citizens would always have a nationally franchised team to enjoy," she said. "Why not the Sonics?"
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company