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Tuesday, July 18, 2006 - Page updated at 05:28 PM


New owners say Sonics will stay in Seattle

Seattle Times staff reporter

Howard Schultz, former Sonics owner, sat side-by-side with Clayton Bennett, Sonics owner as of this morning, at a news conference to announce the sale of the Sonics and Storm this afternoon.

They were flanked by the Sonics' and Storm's respective championship trophies and joined by their repeated desires to keep both teams in Seattle. They mentioned this over and over again until it became the theme. They want to keep the Sonics and Storm in Seattle. Key word: Want.

The fine print: Only the next 12 months are guaranteed in the $350 million deal. In the interim, the new ownership group needs to do what the former ownership group could not — negotiate a better venue and lease agreement at KeyArena or another local venue.

Which adds up to what president and CEO Wally Walker called "the biggest year in the history of the Seattle SuperSonics."

"At that time," said Bennett, chairman of Dorchester Capital and the head of the Oklahoma City-based investment group, "we have an opportunity, contractually, to evaluate our position."

In a news conference this afternoon, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels called the sale "disappointing" because it ended local ownership. But Nickels said he expected the new owners would honor a KeyArena lease which called for the teams to play there through 2010, if not beyond that.

"I'm going to take them at their word that they want to stay and we'll work with them ," Nickels said. "We think they will play in the Seattle Center until 2010.

The new owners would receive the same offers as given to the ownership during many negotiating sessions, Nickels said. "We're disappointed that rather than follow through on those offers, they sold the team to an out-of-town interest," Nickels said.

The transaction is expected to close by the end of October — pending NBA approval — but the Sonics turned their ownership reins over this afternoon at the news conference that was festive in decoration (green and gold balloons) and skeptical in nature.

Schultz said he turned down higher bids, as in multiple, to buy the teams because he and the rest of The Basketball Club of Seattle believed those ownership groups were interested in moving the Sonics and Storm. He also said the owners would have accepted a lower bid from a local buyer.

Schultz also said that he believes the new ownership group, Professional Basketball Club LLC, has a better chance to succeed in negotiations with local government — "inherent issues with local and state officials," he said — than his ownership group. He called the interests of the Oklahoma City group "genuine."

When pressed at what he meant by better chance, Schultz said, "In the last two years, it has become very obvious that despite all our individual and collective efforts, we were not able to get to a solution. I honestly believe this group wants to stay in Seattle. Moving the team is not their intent."

The Oklahoma City group still wants to bring an NBA team to Oklahoma City, Bennett added, when asked to address the skepticism from the Seattle fan base. But he said that "transaction" was "unrelated" to this transaction. And he reiterated that his group made a commitment to Seattle for the next 12 months.

The New Orleans Hornets played in Oklahoma City last season, and will play there again next season. But the NBA hopes the Hornets will return to New Orleans for 2007-08.

Bennett encouraged fans in Oklahoma City to continue to support the Hornets, and added, "As it relates to the Sonics, we're very clear. We're going to go through the process. Hopefully, it will come out successful."

Walker said that the Seattle market is the only market for the Sonics and the Storm, not just the best one. But he also knows the difficulty the current ownership has had in attempting to negotiate a new lease. "It won't be easy," Walker said. "We've learned that through our own experience. Is it possible? It is possible."

Bennett said his group has a lot of groundwork to do, effective immediately. He said he wanted to first learn the history between both teams and the city of Seattle, then beginning discussions for a new arena and lease.

That will be the hang-up. In a letter to Schultz dated today, Bennett wrote: "We do not believe that KeyArena is designed to support the requirements of a viable NBA franchise, and thus achieving a modern successor venue and lease arrangement will be critical to the future success of the teams." The letter also reiterates that it is not the group's "intention to relocate."

The deal came together after Oklahoma caught the "NBA bug" watching the Hornets play last year, said Tom Price, a spokesman for Chesapeake Energy. The team relocated there after Hurricane Katrina.

"We love Seattle," Price said. "To come to Seattle more frequently would not be a bad thing. Obviously, the people of Oklahoma City really fell in love with NBA basketball. The people of Seattle have to make a decision about how important NBA basketball is to them. We're excited about owning an NBA franchise. Anybody that has been a longtime NBA fan, they know they've got a great tradition in Seattle. There's a lot of people in Oklahoma that would be excited to have this team in Oklahoma City as well."

"Here's our stance: We need to continue to support the Hornets with everything we've got," said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. "The Hornets' ultimate home will depend more on the city of New Orleans' ability to support the franchise. Once New Orleans can, this franchise should go back." Cornett, a former television sports broadcaster, said he first met new Sonics owner Bennett in the mid-1990s.

Bennett was an influential local businessman who had previously been on the board of directors for the Spurs when they were owned by his wife's family, the Gaylords. Bennett tried to attract an NHL franchise to Oklahoma City in the mid-1990s, said Cornett.

News of the sale followed two fruitless years of efforts by Sonics owners to reach a deal with politicians in Olympia and Seattle on a publicly-financed expansion of KeyArena.

The team wanted state lawmakers to extend hotel, car rental and restaurant taxes now dedicated to paying off the debt on Safeco Field and Qwest Field. But their proposal never received a vote in Olympia, in part because Seattle Mayor Nickels and the City Council could not agree on what to offer the team.

The Basketball Club of Seattle claimed to have lost $60 million since purchasing the team in 2001. Owners blamed their lease deal, which required the team to split luxury suite and concession revenue with the city.

Team owners also had begun talks with Bellevue and Renton about possibly building a new basketball arena, but no specific plan emerged.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and Nickels were both told of the sale this morning shortly before it was made public, their offices said.

State Sen. Margarita Prentice, one of the Sonics' biggest allies in Olympia, said she was disappointed.

"It isn't surprising, considering the hostility expressed from many elements, especially the Seattle City Council," said Prentice, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee. "I don't blame the Sonics for finally pulling the plug. How many signals do you have to get?"

She said the sale would be particularly bad news if the team is moved.

"Think about the loss of jobs. The rich people who own the team will always be wealthy, but I've been concerned about the people with all those union jobs," she said. "People always lose sight of that when they're talking about player salaries and the rich owners."

But opponents of the publicly funded KeyArena expansion sought by the Sonics said the news did not change their minds. Opinion polls showed the Sonics cause to be unpopular in the city of Seattle, and an initiative campaign was already under way to block any arena subsidy for the team.

Chris van Dyk, cofounder of Citizens for More Important Things, said the group will continue to campaign for Initiative 91, which seeks to restrict tax subsidies for the Sonics at KeyArena.

"We had difficulty collecting signatures from some people because our initiative did not require the Sonics to leave town," said Van Dyk.

"We don't want them to leave. We think it's a very sad day for the city of Seattle. However it underscores that this is a private business. They can go anywhere they want in the United States."

Seattle City Council President Nick Licata said the city should focus on making sure KeyArena remains a viable part of Seattle Center — with or without the Sonics.

"If they do leave the state, the KeyArena I think has a great future ahead of it as a multipurpose entertainment facility and we need to focus on making that happen," Licata said.

The Sonics presented Bennett with a No. 1 Sonics jersey and an orange-and-white striped WNBA basketball at the news conference. Schultz also ran through the Sonics' history, expressing both pride and regret.

"While there is much to be proud of, there is also great disappointment," he said. "We were forced to face the uncomfortable reality that our group would not be successful."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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