Clay Bennett Didn't Exactly Give Up that Sonic Legacy

It has been widely reported that the City of Seattle gets to keep all the Sonics name, history, banners, colors, and all that.

Not exactly.

The name, colors, and the uniforms, they're safe.

But the other stuff? That's trickier.

The evidence suggests the Oklahoma City TBDs are hanging onto a fair amount of Sonic history.

Percy Allen of the Seattle Times reports:

Bennett retains the rights to the Sonics' name, history and colors but doesn't intend to use them, saying he "will return them to the team if a team returns to Seattle in the term."

Bennett said at a news conference in Oklahoma City that the original team banners and 1979 championship trophy will stay in Seattle, but "we will create duplicate banners and championship trophy that we believe will be assets we want to have."

Let's look at the actual agreement between the City and Clay Bennett's Professional Basketball Club.

It all comes down to paragraph six of the current version -- there is still a more final version of the agreement to come. It starts out just like you'd expect, but the last eight words of this sentence fuzz everything up.

Seattle Sonics/Supersonics Team Name(s). History. Memorabilia. Colors. Intellectual Property Rights. PBC agrees that it will not use the "Seattle Sonics/Supersonics" team name or any logos, symbols, designs, trade dress (including, but not limited to, team colors) or other indicia associated with the Seattle Sonics/Supersonics (the "Intellectual Property") for purposes of identifying its NBA team in game competition, marketing, promotional or other similar purposes following relocation of the team to Oklahoma City, other than as permitted in this paragraph 6.

That paragraph is followed by the many instances in which there are exceptions, which I will attempt to put into plain English.

Intellectual Property
First of all, Seattle can keep all their intellectual property (the logo, name and the like, but apparently not the banners, retired numbers, and team history) without any strings attached, if they do several difficult things:

  • A "new team" must move to a renovated KeyArena.

  • Howard Schultz's lawsuit has to be gone.

  • What we now call the Sonics must be ensconced in Oklahoma City.

  • The NBA has to approve all of the above.

If all that happens, the next sentence makes clear, the new owners in Seattle can have all the intellectual property rights.

Until then, the team in Oklahoma keeps them, and presumably any revenue that comes from them.

When it comes to the team's history, the real fight arrives only if Seattle gets an expansion team. Otherwise, the new team will presumably come with their own history. (Unspecified, by my reading of the document, is what happens if an owner like Steve Ballmer wants to move a team here and re-make them as the Sonics, complete with the Sonics' history.)

In the event Seattle gets an expansion team, that team will have "shared history" with the team in Seattle. According to this document, if an expansion team is playing in KeyArena with the next five years, then both teams (the Oklahoma TBDs and the New Seattle Sonics) will be able to use the Sonics statistics, player histories, and franchise records, etc.

Can you imagine being the people at Basketball-Reference.com trying to deal with that? I would hope that, for simplicity, that history would be attached to one club and not the other. Meanwhile, in 2019 when the TBDs win a title, will that be their first or second title in franchise history? And if the New Sonics win the following year, is their first title? Second? Or, after a couple of beers, and too much thinking about shared history, third?

Or, to look at it another way, can you imagine staring at a replica banner hanging in the arena in Oklahoma City, and feeling pride about that title Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson and company won in 1979?

Banners, Retired Numbers, Trophies etc.
What about those banners, retired numbers, championship trophies, and the like, anyway?

Those still belong to the Oklahoma City-bound Professional Basketball Club, but the originals will stay in Seattle, at a museum. (Although they will be available for periodic display in Oklahoma City.) Oklahoma City can display replicas.

The agreement says that if and when there is a new owner in Seattle, then the Oklahoma City owners will hand over the banners, trophies, retired jerseys and the like, "provided that such owner acknowledges that the memorabilia relates to a 'shared history' between Professional Basketball Club and the team and that PBC retains the right to create and display duplicate copies of such memorabilia."

For me, as a basketball fan, I don't care much about the stuff. But I know those banners and retired jerseys are potent symbols for a lot of people. As writer Sherman Alexie e-mailed this morning: "I can live with the Sonics leaving town; I can live with never having pro basketball in my city again. Heck, I've only enjoyed positive experiences in my visits to Oklahoma City. But I cannot live with the thought that the Oklahoma City guys can hang retired Sonics jerseys in their rafters if they so choose. I would only hope that Bennett and the gang are not cruel enough to do that; and if they are, I can only that the players with those retired jerseys publicly protest it."