KAPALKO: Unfair request takes NBA from Seattle to O.K. City

Jamie Kapalko

The recent decision by Seattle SuperSonics’ owners to move the team to Oklahoma City is a wonderful example of the values that the NBA strives to uphold.

Seattle taxpayers refused to pay $500 million for a new arena, as requested by majority owner Clay Bennett and his associates. The Sonics have called Seattle home for all of their 41 years, developing a strong and devoted fan base. In 1994, the city paid $74.5 million (to the team’s $21 million) to renovate their home court, KeyArena. Despite winning only 20 games this season, fans still filled the arena to 78 percent capacity.

Loyalty and devotion are all well and good, but Seattle was obviously not dedicated enough to show its love in a way that actually means something – money.

Nevermind that the $500 million would have been nearly as much as the public contribution to Qwest Field (for the Seahawks) and Safeco Field (for the Mariners) combined. Nevermind that the proposed new arena would not have even been in Seattle. Nevermind that Bennett’s request came in a dismal economic time for the entire country. The people of Seattle just didn’t love their SuperSonics enough to keep them.

Oklahoma City, though, is ready to express its eagerness for a professional team with its wallet. This is a city that’s improved itself greatly over the past decade. In the 1990s, it was one of three places in the world with declining health rates; the other two were the former Soviet republics, dragging themselves out of the rubble of the fall of Communism, and sub-Saharan Africa, suffering from the AIDS pandemic.

But since the ’90s, the city has undergone a massive rebuilding process, with new entertainment options, increased housing availability and building renovations. Sure, tax dollars could go to education, since Oklahoma ranks 47th in expenditures per student and has one of the highest dropout rates in the country. They could pay for necessary health or road improvements.

But they want a pro sports team, and they’re ready to pay $121.6 million plus tax incentives to prove it. Those who voted for the bill have high hopes for the money the team and the arena will generate in the city, despite overwhelming evidence from economists that this does not happen.

Ninety percent of people drawn to pro sporting events are local residents; they spend their leisure money in the city no matter what. The new jobs created are usually part-time and low-paying. But this research is just a bunch of numbers manipulated by some grumpy academic who doesn’t understand sports. The politicians and team owners say the opposite, and they’re the ones who really know what they’re talking about.

Bennett is under fire for his dealings. Some say he planned to take the Sonics to Oklahoma City from the day he signed the papers to buy the team. But he made a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle. His single offer requiring a modest half-billion dollars was surely as generous as it could have been. He certainly can’t be faulted for needing a brand-new arena instead of another renovation to the KeyArena. Where’s the fun in that?

And certainly he and his associates could not have been expected to put more of the team’s money on the table. The new arena would have primarily benefited the city, not the team, except for all of the revenue.

Money talks, but it doesn’t pay.

The city would have benefited in the important ways – the intangible ones. Pony up the tax money, and you won’t get better roads, housing for the poor or more spending on education. You won’t gain anything economically. But a shiny new building does wonders for civic pride and prestige, doesn’t it? And that’s what really matters.

So poor Bennett had no choice. Without proof of Seattle’s devotion to its team, he had to give up. So he looked for another home for his team, and his eyes settled innocently on Oklahoma City.

Coincidentally, the group that owns the Sonics, the one that Bennett chairs, is made up of – gee whiz! – Oklahoma businessmen called the “Oklahoma City-Based Professional Basketball Club LLC.” Funny how that worked out.

Some people are throwing around words like “extortion.” But extortion is unlawfully coercing money out of someone with threats or intimidation. This isn’t extortion – it’s not unlawful. It just sets a new standard for potential teams.

Bennett looks for a profit and lies about it, and the NBA short-sightedly tries to generate extra revenue instead of showing loyalty to one of its fan bases. Oklahoma City falls prey to the myth of the pro sports miracle and pumps money into something that will never love it back.

And Seattle? Seattle chooses not to put sports at the top if its list for public spending and thinks its money could be better spent elsewhere. Shame on you, Seattle, for having your priorities straight.

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Jamie Kapalko is a junior English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]