A Team Held For Ransom: The Tale of the Seattle Supersonics
The modern climate of professional sports ownership exists as a realm in which capitalization and maximizing revenues has become the pinnacle of achievement. This is the case for the vast majority of American businesses. However, there is a sensitive caveat to this reality when the world of sports is involved. Indeed, every professional sports franchise carries the weight of not only its business, but also its geographical culture and fan base. Such is the case with the sale and relocation of the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics in 2008, when the team moved to Oklahoma City, thereby deserting an entire region both physically and emotionally. In the years since the Sonics became the Thunder, there’s been a large degree of speculation coming from both sides of the argument. On one hand, there are those with limited access to facts surrounding the events that took place preceding the relocation agreement. Such individuals might claim that Seattle didn’t value the Sonics, or that there wasn’t much effort to keep them in Seattle. In reality, the shadiness that manifested itself on an organization-wide level during the early and mid-2000s is the true explanation for why the Supersonics abandoned ship. By examining the business decisions by the Sonics’ ownership, as well as several statements made by NBA commissioner David Stern and many City of Seattle officials, it’s quite clear that the Sonics’ move to Oklahoma City was out of the fans’ control during the entire process. Several years of poor ownership led to a series of irresponsible decisions, which ultimately resulted in an exploitation and betrayal of the Supersonics fan base, rendering any attempt to keep the team in Seattle utterly impossible. This is the story of how the Supersonics were stolen from Seattle.
The demise of the Supersonics began in the early 2000s, when Howard Schultz bought the team from Barry Ackerley. Prior to the transaction, the team was showing signs of fatigue and was falling from its former glory of the mid-‘90s. As revenues slowly declined, Sonics’ owner Barry Ackerley decided to sell the franchise to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on January 11th, 2001. “One of our biggest considerations was that the Sonics stay in Seattle,” Ackerley stated in a press conference. “We are leaving the team and fans in good hands.” Schultz was, and still is, one of the most powerful corporate figures in the city of Seattle. Having built his coffee empire in the 1980s, Schultz was as much of a public figure as many of the star athletes. However, Schultz’ business prowess proved to be his Achilles heel when trying to run a professional sports team. Schultz viewed his ownership of the team in the same manner that he viewed his coffee business. In 2005, Schultz said about his ownership of the Supersonics, “Since my experience has been based on 25 years of building and leading a company [Starbucks], I’ll stick with what I know.” Because of his inability to remove himself from the operations of the team, several Sonics players developed soured perceptions of Schultz. There were questions surrounding his resolve to see the team succeed, and criticisms of his childish antics as he essentially became disinterested with his now struggling NBA franchise. Frank Hughes, a columnist for ESPN, compared Schultz to Jude Law’s character in the film “A Talented Mr. Ripley,” stating:
That, in a nutshell, is Howard Schultz, an entrepreneur whose romantic attention was focused exclusively on his basketball team for about a year. Then things didn’t quite go the way he envisioned, he got bored and discouraged, and he decided that he wanted out (regardless of the impact on people’s lives).
Schultz, who was initially quite invested in seeing the Supersonics succeed, quickly began to tally his losses in the public relations sphere. When it became clear that the Sonics were approaching an inevitable rebuilding phase, Schultz diverted his attention from the team’s struggles and instead made it his goal to maximize the revenues he could accumulate.
The most critical area of concern for the Supersonics’ fate was the condition of their home facility, Key Arena. Formerly known as the Seattle Center Coliseum, Key Arena was opened in 1962 for the World’s Fair. It became the Supersonics’ home in 1967, and was rebuilt in 1994 to increase its capacity and improve its modernity. There was national praise for the ingenuity of the reconstruction. An article from the Washington Post in 1995 described the arena’s commendable funding strategy by using team revenues, as opposed to public tax dollars:
And the arena was a bargain. Worth well over $130 million, only about $74 million remains to be paid off— and all of it will be covered by arena revenues, the Sonics and the city proudly note.
When ‘the Key’ re-opened for the 1995 season opener, NBA commissioner David Stern was in attendance to witness the newly renovated facility in action. Stern, ironically, had nothing but great things to say about Key Arena. In a sideline interview with ESPN reporter Mitch Levy, Stern stated on a nationally televised broadcast:
“They got a beautiful building. It’s intimate, the sight lines are great, the decorations are terrific. I think Seattle should be very proud of what’s going on here tonight.”
The league’s favorability of Key Arena, however, would take a turn in the early ‘00s. Several teams from the four major American sports leagues were getting new, state-of-the-art facilities with upscale restaurants and spacious pavilions for ticket-holders. This was true in Seattle as well. In the late ‘90s, the Kingdome, a large domed stadium a half-mile south of downtown, shared by the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners, was quickly becoming obsolete. Both teams threatened to relocate if they weren’t given new, separate and modern facilities. The City of Seattle implemented a public-bond tax program to fund the Safeco Field and Qwest Field projects for the Mariners and Seahawks, respectively. Safeco Field cost the public approximately $340 million in taxes, while the Mariners paid $126 million. Qwest Field (now known as CenturyLink Field) cost the public $300 million, while owner Paul Allen paid $130 million. Both facilities were built and ready for use by 2001. Safeco and Qwest were huge successes due to their luxurious amenities, providing a unique viewing experience for fans. Unfortunately, the funding programs of the new downtown facilities spelled trouble for the Supersonics in the mid-2000s. Howard Schultz, having realized the team was struggling to draw crowds, decided that the best way for the Sonics to improve revenues was to build a new facility. Schultz believed that his corporate background would be enough to win a similar deal to the Mariners’ and Seahawks’, but the City had different plans. Seattle’s citizens were unhappy with the amount of public support that the Safeco and Qwest projects required. The city legislature passed Initiative-91 in 2006, which required that any publicly subsidized professional sports venues within the city of Seattle were to provide equal or greater returns to the public. When Schultz, accompanied by team president Wally Walker, approached the city council with the proposition of a $220 million publicly funded sports facility in 2005, the council emphatically declined. It became clear that the NBA had vested interest in the issue when commissioner David Stern, who only ten years prior had publicly praised Key Arena, expressed his concerns for the state of the venue. The Associated Press reported in February of 2006:
NBA commissioner David Stern asked Washington state lawmakers Thursday for tax money to renovate the Seattle Supersonics’ arena, saying there could be consequences if the state doesn’t act. “A substantial amount has been done for the baseball and football teams. I’m here personally to find out whether the same is being considered fairly for the NBA,” Stern said at a legislative hearing, flanked by principal owner Howard Schultz and team president Wally Walker.
Schultz and his ownership group became incensed that they were unable to formulate a deal with the city and state legislatures in 2006. After his attempt failed, Schultz threatened to sell or relocate the franchise. When Schultz believed he had exhausted all his options, he engaged in a transaction that was, for all intents and purposes, the proverbial death sentence of the Supersonics’ tenure in Seattle.
In July of 2006, Howard Schultz sold the Seattle Supersonics to Professional Basketball Club, L.L.C. PBC was an organization owned by Clayton Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, two Oklahoma City businessmen who made their fortunes in the oil industry. The Seattle Times reported the details of the sale:
Following through on their threats, Schultz and 57 other owners sold the Sonics — which they bought for $200 million in 2001 — and the Storm to a group of Oklahoma City investors. Sale price: $350 million. The deal was announced three months after council members scoffed at Schultz’s $18.3 million pledge for KeyArena renovations. Schultz said his ownership group never got “the kind of respect” it deserved from city officials.
The decision by Schultz to sell the franchise to Clay Bennett was, in essence, the first major red flag to the city of Seattle that the Supersonics may be on their way out. The problem in 2006 was the fact that very few people regarded Schultz’ threats as serious. To make matters even bleaker, Clay Bennett’s background raised concern for Seattleites. Bennett had played a large role in hosting the New Orleans Hornets in 2005, when they temporarily played in Oklahoma City during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It was also known that Bennett and David Stern had a close business relationship, and had discussed a potential league expansion to Oklahoma City in the early 2000s. In a 2008 excerpt from the New York Times, the Hornets’ owner George Shinn sheds light on the relationship between Bennett and Stern that he experienced prior to the team’s tenure in Oklahoma City:
“I was getting calls from around the country, Vegas and on and on, and David threw out Oklahoma City,” Shinn says. “And I said: ‘David, I don’t think I want to go there. I’ve never even been there, and it doesn’t sound like — do they even have an arena?’ But David’s got a way of recommending that sort of pushes you.”
It was clear in 2005 that Bennett and Stern were uncomfortably close with one another, which undoubtedly contributed to Bennett’s ability to purchase and relocate the Supersonics. After the Hornets returned to New Orleans for the 2006 season, Bennett became hell-bent on acquiring an NBA team as a permanent tenant for Oklahoma City’s Ford Center. In a statement to the press in February of 2006, Bennett said of acquiring a team for OKC:
“We are acutely interested and very focused on bringing a team to Oklahoma City. It’s a tricky spot to be in because you don’t want to overstep your boundaries … but the Sonics, yes, are a possibility and a team that would do well not just here, but I’m sure anywhere that they played. If the Hornets go back to New Orleans, I expect we’ll get a franchise. There haven’t been any promises made, but there’s been a lot of congratulations offered to us.”
In light of Bennett’s background and publicly expressed desire for an NBA team in Oklahoma City, it became fairly obvious to all parties, including the fans, that the new ownership group had no real intentions of keeping the Supersonics in Seattle. Howard Schultz had engaged in a cowardly business transaction out of spite for the city council, which left the team in the hands of someone with both personal interest, and David Stern’s support, in relocating the franchise. The fans, having been stabbed in the back, felt as though they were watching the team slip through their fingers. When Schultz sold the team to Bennett, there was little that the fan base could tangibly do to prevent an ultimate relocation decision.
Bennett may have had his sights set on Oklahoma City from the day he purchased the Supersonics, but there were still significant hurdles for him to clear. For one, Bennett signed a contract upon purchasing the Supersonics that included a “Good Faith” clause, which required that Bennett were to make a sincere effort to keep the team in Seattle before considering relocation options. Bennett manipulated this clause with disturbing ease. In August of 2006, just one month after purchasing the team, Bennett’s ownership partner Aubrey McClendon made a statement to an Oklahoma City news outlet, stating “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here.” At this point McClendon had verbally broken the good faith clause, yet was given a mere slap on the wrist in the form of a $250,000 fine by the NBA. Later in 2006, Bennett made a laughable arena proposal to keep true to the good faith clause, which included a ludicrous $500 million in public tax dollars. The city and state legislatures, in keeping consistent with Initiative-91, rejected the proposal by reasoning that a $500 million public subsidy for an arena would not provide equal or greater returns to the public. This outrageous proposal was enough for Bennett to claim he had remained true to his contract of purchase, and marred the Supersonics’ future to be somewhere other than Seattle.
Despite claims by both the league and the ownership group that the city of Seattle didn’t value the Supersonics, there was significant public backlash against the ominous developments. “Save Our Sonics,” an organization that actively made efforts to keep the Sonics in Seattle, directly targeted David Stern as the perpetrator for the Sonics’ imminent relocation. In 2007, the Seattle Times reported that the group had been handing out flyers at Key Arena with Stern’s phone number printed blatantly, encouraging fans to call the commissioner.
As the Sonics tipped off their 41st season, about five volunteers circled KeyArena’s exterior and concourse handing out the commissioner’s number (it’s 212-407-8300, by the way), asking people to let Stern know they want to keep the team for another 41 seasons.
Fans of the team held numerous rallies and protests in front of Key Arena during the 2007-2008 Supersonics regular season. Unfortunately, as seen throughout the entire decade, the fans had very minimal power to affect the league and ownership’s intentions. In September of 2007, Clay Bennett told the press that if a new arena weren’t a possibility, he would take the case to the NBA’s relocation committee to work his way out of the Supersonics’ lease in Seattle. Additionally, Bennett made a palpable effort to limit local media coverage of the team during the ’07-’08 season, which thoroughly detached the team from the fans. In April of 2008, the Seattle Times released an email transaction from 2007 between Bennett, McClendon, and Tom Ward:
“Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?” Ward wrote. Bennett replied: “I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!” Ward: “That’s the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year.” McClendon: “Me too, thanks Clay!”
The leaked emails were nothing short of a slap-in-the-face to Sonics fans. If the new owners of the team had blatant intentions to move the franchise from the very beginning, how were the local fans of the team going to take action in any kind of meaningful way? Again, it’s clear that there was essentially nothing the fans could do to prevent relocation.
In March of 2008, Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer made a commendable offer to the city and state legislatures, offering an arena proposal that would only include $150 million in public tax dollars, with the other $150 million coming directly out of Balmer’s pocket. Protestors gathered in front of the Capitol in Olympia, demanding that there be a vote on the proposal. Frank Chopp, Washington State’s Speaker of the House, who had historically been adamant about his disdain for any form of public subsidization of professional sports facilities, declared that there would be no vote on Balmer’s proposal. This all but sealed the Sonics’ fate.
In a final, albeit fruitless attempt to keep the Sonics from relocating, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who had previously been silent on the issue, decided that he wouldn’t mind being reelected to office in the coming election year. Therefore, in order to earn the public’s favorability, Nickels decided to sue Clay Bennett in late-2007 for violating the Supersonics’ lease. The hearing would be scheduled for June of 2008. There was a storm of questions surrounding Nickels’ sincerity, considering that he hadn’t expressed any opinion on the matter until 2007. Prior to the 2008 hearing, Bennett had predictably won the vote at the NBA’s relocation council, with a tally of 29-1 in favor of moving the franchise to Oklahoma City (Mark Cuban was the only owner who voted against relocation). If Greg Nickels were to lose the 2008 lawsuit, the team would move to Oklahoma City for the ’08-’09 season and would stay there indefinitely. Nickels’ only line of defense in the case was the fact that the Supersonics’ lease in Seattle didn’t expire until 2010. Despite Nickels’ efforts, Bennett’s attorneys were steadfast in their arguments against him. They claimed that the Sonics’ lease had become economically dysfunctional and that there was no solution other than to relocate the franchise. Bennett’s witnesses testified that the Sonics didn’t promote economic activity for the city. From an outsider’s perspective, Bennett’s group made quick work of Nickels during the hearings in 2008. Although it became painfully clear that the lawsuit was futile, the people of Seattle still had hope that their city would fight to the end. In what was one of the most gutless acts in the entire process, Greg Nickels announced prior to the conclusion of the hearings that the city had accepted a severance package from Clay Bennett for a meager $75 million, in which the Sonics were to move to Oklahoma City immediately, whereupon they would be renamed the “Thunder.”
Bennett announced that the settlement calls for a payment of $45 million immediately, and would include another $30 million paid to Seattle in 2013 if the state legislature in Washington authorizes at least $75 million in public funding to renovate KeyArena by the end of 2009 and Seattle doesn’t obtain an NBA franchise of its own within the next five years.
In a mere stroke of a pen, a 41-year legacy of tradition and culture was usurped from Seattle for a 75 million dollar check. The Sonics were gone, and the fans had literally nothing to show for it.
The downfall of the Seattle Supersonics was a nightmare for the city of Seattle and the team’s fan base. Throughout the entire process of business transactions and league influence, there was an unjustifiable lack of power from the fans of the team. This brings forth an important question in the world of sports. If the fans provide the revenues and culture associated with a professional franchise, how can it be fair to disregard them entirely when making decisions to increase profits? It is a crime against society that loyal fan bases, often with a rich tradition that weaves inseparably into the history of the city, is completely extorted and exploited to the extent of powerlessness in these transactions. The Supersonics departed Seattle on July 2nd, 2008. Since then, there has been an enormous upheaval of public disappointment regarding this tragedy. Aside from the occasional “I’m sorry” from national media, there has been nothing done to correct this injustice. Learning from the case of the Supersonics, there needs to be a critical dialogue about the commercialization of sports, and the corruption that can manifest from it. Are enormous profits worth the alienation of entire regions? In 2008, Seattle’s population of one million was defeated. The victor, per usual, was money.
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Sonicsgate. Directed by Jason Reid. Performed by Clay Bennett and Howard Schultz. Bellevue, WA. October 9, 2009.
“Stadium Facts.” CenturyLink Field. Accessed May 06, 2017.