Bennett calls remaining in Seattle 'a losing proposition'

SEATTLE -- Clay Bennett wants his Seattle SuperSonics to play in Oklahoma City next season because it's his hometown. That, and about 80 million other reasons.

The Sonics owner says his team would make almost $20 million if it played in Oklahoma City during the next two years. He suggests the team will lose more than $60 million -- about 20 percent of what he paid for it -- if it stays in Seattle for two more "lame duck" seasons.

That was among the revelations from Bennett's testimony in a 13-hour, 373-page deposition obtained by The Associated Press late Friday night. The deposition was given in advance of the June 16 trial of the city of Seattle's lawsuit, which seeks to have the team play out the remainder of its KeyArena lease.

Bennett is expected to testify in the trial before U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman.

The 48-year-old Oklahoma businessman was videotaped and appeared in court transcripts to have remained composed throughout the persistent, often repetitive questioning April 23 in Oklahoma City by Paul Lawrence, an attorney representing Seattle. Lawrence and Bradley Keller, a lawyer for Bennett's Professional Basketball Club LLC, traded accusations and barbs throughout the testy day.

Testimony revealed the Sonics lost $23 million in 2004 and $29 million in 2005, when they were owned by Starbucks Corp. chairman Howard Schultz and 57 other Seattle-area investors.

Bennett and his co-owners paid $350 million for the team in July 2006. He said his Sonics lost $32 million in the 2007-08 season amid fan apathy, anger and the worst record (20-62) in the franchise's 41-year history in Seattle.

Based on that, Bennett testified the team would lose $60.9 million-$64.9 million if Pechman rules in favor of Seattle and demands that the team play in KeyArena for the final two years of its lease that ends after the 2009-10 season.

"I would think so," Bennett said. "Couldn't get much worse than this year."

Bennett, whose family is one of Oklahoma's richest, said he could bear those losses without any undue financial hardship -- though hours later he added, "It's certainly no fun losing a lot of money."

Bennett estimated that if Pechman ruled in favor of the Sonics and allowed them to move to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season as the league has already approved, the Sonics would make $18.8 million in the those same two seasons.

Bennett also estimated that the Sonics-related economic activity in Oklahoma City would be $171 million annually, and the team would generate $11 million in annual tax revenue there, including from the team's payroll.

Given that, he said keeping the Sonics in Seattle "is a losing proposition on all sides."

Much of the day included Bennett again asserting he didn't consider moving the team to Oklahoma until after his efforts for a new arena in Seattle failed.

Bennett testified he thinks he should be allowed to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City now "because in my view it's already been determined that the team will leave following the 2010 season," as determined by the NBA owners' 28-2 vote in April approving the team's relocation.

Bennett revealed that he was competing with Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of the software company Oracle Corp., and his investment group based in San Jose, Calif., as the finalists to buy the team from Schultz.

Bennett's purchase of the team included a "side letter" agreement with Schultz over making a good-faith effort to find a new arena in the Seattle arena in the 12 months following approval of the sale in October 2006. Schultz is suing Bennett, alleging a breach in that agreement. That case is separate from the city's litigation against the Sonics.

Lawrence kept pressing Bennett over what he meant in an e-mail written to his partners two days before the sale of the Sonics. It stated that if a new arena deal was reached to keep the Sonics in Seattle, Bennett's group, the Professional Basketball Club, could just sell the team in a "sweet flip," and still leave the ownership group "in good shape for something in OKC."

Bennett explained in his deposition: "We fully expected to get a building built ... we felt that clearly we would have enhanced the value of our franchise, so it would make sense to sell it at a flip and make money at that point. ... We would have brought value to the league by being successful in Seattle (and) once again would have shown or brought goodwill to Oklahoma City.

"It would have kept Oklahoma City in a favorable position."